Readers' Submissions

Thai Thoughts And Anecdotes Part 171

  • Written by Dana
  • April 7th, 2007
  • 16 min read


China Hotel Guide
• Radisson SAS Hotel Beijing
• Renaissance Beijing Hotel
• Reward International Hotel
• Rghcm Garden Hotel


I'M LISTENING THAILAND

"Look deep into Nature and then you will understand everything better." — Albert Einstein

But you gotta look. Luckily, in the last twenty years a new kind of nature observer and biologist has come to the fore in the part of the tropics that has big canopy jungle and big canopy forest. In the beginning these new nature observers were climbing ropes to get to the tops of the trees and the canopy. There they could discover, and explore, and gather data but the imprint was small and the conclusions suspect. Finally inflatable canopy floors that can span a tree or several trees were developed and used and featured in nature magazines. Then followed canopy cranes, and canopy walkways, and 'canopy tour systems' (salesman alert). Data collection became more interesting and reliable. Why all the technology and the effort to get into the tops of big canopy tall tropical trees? Because it was discovered that there was unknown rich and diverse life going on high up off the jungle and forest floor. Heart beating and chlorophyll processing living things and the lives of living things that we had been missing out on. A world unto itself of value and interest that we knew nothing about.

For a couple of decades prior to this discovery hipster westerners who knew how to spell environmental, and who had backpacks with airline stickers from the Third World, and who used the word ecosystem when engaged in foreplay with hairy legged French researchers thought they knew everything. We were at one with the world. We had seen the earth from outer space, and learned to eat macrobiotic kelp, and chained ourselves to giant soon-to-be-harvested trees in the American northwest. Then the surprise–the rich and diverse and unknown things and 'things-doing-things' world of the forest and jungle canopy. It was like opening a Pandora's Box for the smarti-pants crowd and soon words like biodiversity, and biosphere, and interstices (of air and foliage), and microclimate were all the rage. But they were just the precursor to the standard madness that follows discovery and the subsequent knife fight for money, and attention, and grants.

No longer were National Geographic articles just using phrases like canopy ecology, and rooftop ecosystems, and new discoveries in the sky: now we were treated to verbal splurges like–

–interdisciplinary research groups are now coalescing to approach canopy questions from different spatial scales . . .

–forest canopy ecologists and computer scientists received a mathematical modalities planning grant . . .

–manage, analyze, and disseminate shared data pertaining to complex ecological questions regarding multiple disciplines and a wide range of spatial scales . . .

Hey, is it me or do these tree top nerds talk a lot? I think basically they are just up there looking around but if I said that I would probably be beaten to death with their survey clipboards. Bless these guys and gals: we got treated to new words and new word combinations. Things like:

–above ground adventitious roots (I knew that)
–accidental epiphyte (I think I got a girl pregnant once 'cause of this)
–crotch ecosystem (I know a Pattaya mamasan who has a powder for this)
–'often have adaptations for desiccation resistance such as gelatinous slime' — (me too)
–and the ever popular–allochthonous nutrient sources (Bangkok Soi 5 Foodland at 10:00 p.m.)

Can you play the extrapolation game? Ok, take the following paraphrase quote and cover the globe with it–

'The national bibliography on tropical biology database includes more than 17,000 references to theses, dissertations, monographs, journals, congresses, etc just about Costa Rica.' Poor Costa Rica. When does research become a tawdry kind of asexual voyeurism?

I don't know about you but as soon as I hear words like computer scientist, and spatial, and modality, and research grant I know I have been left behind. Too much smart talk. I know my limits. I'm not smart but I am curious; and I just want to know if green leaved and beating heart living things way up there in the blistering hot Thai treetops are happy. Happy living lives that do not include humans. Sometimes I wish I could do that. Live a happy life in a treetop that did not include humans. No more mamasans, and no more tortured pantomimes with boardwalk cruisers, and no more racing to make an appointment with a Thai woman who has to be reminded what my name is. Just the sun on my face, and my legs wrapped around a branch, and my heart slowly pumping without urgency or false hope or disappointment or fear.

Years ago I was sick in Thailand with my typical visitor's illness and I was laid low at the Right Spot Hotel in South Pattaya off Walking Street down past Soi 16. I wasn't good for much except sitting in a chair under the big huge tree in the cul-de-sac car park in front of the bungalows. I would drag one big heavy chair out into the car park next to the tree for sitting, and drag another big heavy chair out for the pile of magazines, and hotel lobby brochures, and Beach road condominium sales seminar handouts, and the wonderful Pattaya Mail newspaper, and an old Bangkok Post, and a bunch of those Thai novels from the Royal Garden Palms bookstore that take the edge off illness. Mornings sitting for hours under the tree. Nothing is worse than being sick on vacation. The sense of lost time, and lost money, and lost opportunity, and self-pity grinds you like a tourist seed in a porcelain mortar and pestle: but sipping a morning mimosa and reading my latest Royal Palm Gardens Thai-farang novel acquisition– Killing Plato by Jake Needham–was fun. But if you are not so sick that you need to be bedridden, eventually you get restless and down goes the book. Down goes the book and back goes my head.

I close my sun warmed eyes and listen to the birds in the tree. A huge tall dense tree. Later on in the day the self same morning sun companion would give me the shade I needed to come down at the end of the day in my sick state. I grew fond of the tree and used to think about its life and the lives of the birds and others things that called the tree home. I thought it might be fun to do a survey of the tree and its parasitic and connected life forms. All of the world of Thailand that we know nothing about.

I have been coming to Thailand for many years but like most tourists, or maybe even expats, I know nothing about the flora and the fauna of Thailand. If you look at a map of the world and find Thailand it is immediately obvious that it is a tropical country. But surrounded by streets and music and cars and all of the other bric-a-brac of civilization it is easy to forget that Thailand is a tropical country full of life. Life that was here before we came on the scene and will most probably be here in Thailand long after we have left the scene. Birds for example are now considered modern manifestations of the dinosaur era and have a background that goes back hundreds of millions of years. No wonder they take no notice of farangs and teeruks and techno music and baht busses and all of the other irrelevant silliness of modern life and modern people. Same same for the geckos, and the snakes, and insects, and the creepy crawlies that scare the heck out of you in the rural outhouse. And the undramatic creepers, and vines, and roadside weeds, and unimpressive little flowers, and thorny barky shrubs, and plants, and trees are also members of the ‘hundreds of millions of years' family. I kinda wish I knew about this stuff. I feel as if a whole important part of Thailand is slipping through my fingers.

When I first came to Thailand a long time ago I expected to see tropical wonder, and tropical diversity, and tropical fun. I expected to see great flocks of beautiful birds, and see screeching leaping monkeys, and clouds of insects, and all of the other natural wonders of the tropical forest and tropical environment. I saw nothing. The animals have all been killed for food and it seems as if everything else has just scrammed or is hiding in the day from small village boys with slingshots. The tropical woodlands, and pasturelands, and jungles that I saw were weirdly quiet, and boring, and seemingly bereft of life. In the subsequent years I was to find disappointingly that I had not been wrong. A tremendous amount of the natural order of things in Thailand has been wiped out.

Now if you want to be knowledgeable about the flora (plants) and the fauna (animals) of Thailand you have to master modern concepts like what the words endangered and extinct mean. Gone are the tigers, and the bears, and the crocodiles, and many monkeys, and many fish, and many birds, and the rhinoceros. Gone are pelt animals, and parrots, and ornamental fish, and orchids, and cacti, and corals. Gone, or endangered, or just about impossible to find or to see are squirrel monkeys, and marmosets, and hornbills, and pigeons. When is the last time you or anyone else saw the peacock-like features of the forest pheasant crested Fireback? Try and find the straw-headed bulbul and the cranes. When is the last time you or any one else saw a vulnerable green peafowl, or catfish in numbers, or branching breaking numbers of perching birds? Where are the flowers? Where are the pollinators? Where are the buffalo in herds, and the tapir, and the dugongs, and the wild cattle, and the antelope, and the deer, and the wild hogs and boars, and the leopards? That's right leopards. How about the binturongs and the smaller civets, and many different kinds of tortoises, and turtles, and shell animals. Dugongs and rhinoceri? Hey, it's all a part of the equation. The equation of life as it used to be in Thailand.

You have to wonder what an elephant is thinking begging on the streets of Bangkok when his memory includes things like gibbons, and monitor lizards, and otters, and other reptiles and mammals and primates he has not seen or heard from in years, or decades, or generations. As a tourist feeding him 20 baht of bananas you are probably just enjoying the moment. But for the elephant his moments and memories may be laced with descriptions of his life and his environment that make it sound like a hopeless cancer ward. Words like dead, and dying, and missing, and extinct, and endangered, and polluted fill his head and his heart with the despair of the survivor. Elephants often look sad to me. Maybe I am not wrong. Maybe they are sad. They miss their jungle and forest and natural friends. They miss Siam, and they miss before Siam, and they miss the before the before.

But still it is a tropical country and there is abundant life still. I wish I was more knowledgeable about it and by being more knowledgeable about it more a part of it. I feel as if there is a whole important part of Thailand there to be appreciated that I am simply not making a connection with. There are currently 916 species of birds in Thailand and I can not name one. How about you? Personally, I am a little tired of the fact that I can repeat details regarding girls and bars; but I can not name one bird of the Kingdom, or two trees of the Kingdom, or three flowers of the Kingdom.

Thailand has 96 national parks, and 100 wildlife sanctuaries, and 65 forest parks. I have never been to one of them and it is popular on Thai-farang websites for expats and tourists to say that they will never visit these natural oases that make up 13 percent of the country as long as the Kingdom practices double pricing. This ethical stand pales a little next to the fact that we are losing an opportunity to get to know Thailand, or to look into a kaleidoscope time machine and witness a little of what Siam was all about. Just an opinion.

The largest national park, Kaeng Krachan, has 250 bird species including the grey peacock and the great hornbill. I could not identify these birds if they strolled into my living room and took the TV remote out of my hands. Doi Inthanon has 364 bird species. Etc. Knowledgeable Thai-centric nature enthusiasts could point out similar things about fish and corals and reptiles and insects and mammals. Many expats and tourists are quick to play the 'culturally sensitive' card in their criticisms of others. But if you can not name one bird, or two trees, or three flowers maybe you should just be quiet. Thailand has 15,000 plant species and the Thai pharmaceutical handbook of the School of Traditional Medicine Association mentions 92 kinds of flowers which are medicinal. Can you name one flower other than an orchid? I can't.

No wonder foreigners are treated in a trivial way by Thais. We treat the country in a trivial way. I am now in my second decade visiting the Kingdom on a regular basis and I know nothing about the natural part of the world that the Thais live in. I don't know anything about rubber tree cultivating. I can't look at a rice field and tell how long until harvest. I am clueless about tapioca growing. It is embarrassing. How about you? Can you tell the difference between poisonous and non-poisonous snakes? How about cobras and kraits–do you know which is which? Is the old lady handing you betel nut to chew, or some other part of the natural world to eat? Can you look in your shoe in the morning and make an accurate judgment about how dangerous the animal is that is looking back at you?

I sometimes wonder if all of the birds, and the insects, and the plants, and flowers, and vines, and other life forms that inhabited that big tall huge tree in the car park at the Right Spot hotel in Pattaya knew more about me than I knew about them. After all, I am not so complicated. Just a lonely sick farang chaffing, and coughing, and wondering when I will be well enough and strong enough to go back to the boardwalk and put my arms around Fa. But the life forms in the tree that are singing, and chirping, and crawling, and breeding and warming up in the sun have tropical lives and ancestor backgrounds that are interesting and of much longer ancestry than mine. Maybe they were looking down at me and summing up my simple life with accuracy and compassion. Who knows?

Years ago I went to Doi Inthanon to visit, amongst other things; Thailand's Highest Elevation (dumb tourist trap) <I actually thought the area was quite nicely doneStick>. Redeeming the day and the experience was a little roadside museum of Thailand's (specific to the area) nature notables. It was kind of wearying and bleak. The kind of experience where you have to remind yourself that even though you are on vacation not every moment is going to be a party. A lot of the exhibits were pictures and descriptions of mammals and birds and bits of nature that are now extinct. Thailand is dying. It is not my intention here and now to get into the whys and wherefores of this situation but just to note that Thailand is dying. The flora and fauna are dying, the water is dying, the fields are being poisoned with modern fertilizers–and then there is the industrial and auto and other forms of pollution combined with an uncaring populace that thinks nothing of despoilment and littering. Western foods of refined sugar and triglyceride fats are polluting the Thais, and hypertension is now one of the biggest medical problems. Thailand is dying and it is slipping through my fingers faster than I can play catch up. I am simply too late to know Siam. It has been replaced by Thailand; and that new geographical/cultural idea is one of entropy and chaos and diminishment. Sad.

But I do have dreams of spending more time under the big huge tall tree in the car park in front of the bungalows at the Right Spot hotel down past Soi 16 at the end of Walking Street in South Pattaya. I know I will get sick in Thailand again. Thailand makes me ill and the whole vacation experience is laced with sickness and the terror of sickness. The next time I am sick in Thailand I am once again going to check into the Right Spot hotel and recover by sitting in a chair in the sun under the tree. Only this time I am going to take binoculars and hopefully round up some knowledgeable expat to come on down in the mornings and help me identify things. Who knows–maybe getting sick in Thailand is Thailand's way of saying ‘pay attention to me'.

THAILAND: "Pay attention to my plants and pay attention to my animals and stop just thinking of the country as a playground for boys and girls."

Works for me. I'm listening Thailand. Maybe that is why I get sick every time I come to Thailand. Maybe it will make me a better listener. Maybe a higher power has chosen me to become a listener. I don't know . . .

ME: "Now, what is this brochure in the sick person's pile of stuff to read? Mom Tri's Boathouse in Phuket. A boutique hotel and fancy restaurant on Kata beach. A place for rich people. Wow, this place looks great. Beautiful beach and clean water, classy restaurant, white table cloths, sophisticated ambiance, and a background of lovely trees. Probably lots of beating hearts and chlorophyll lives for me to learn about and pay attention to in the landscaped grounds and beyond. Thailand from the hotel and restaurant to the beach, and maybe some left over Siam from the trees in back of the resort to the interior.

Hey, maybe instead of camping out in the car park here at The Right Spot Hotel in Pattaya next time I fall ill; I will stumble on down to Phuket and check into Mom Tri's Boathouse. Find some local expat to help me identify the flora and fauna–chirpers and fliers and growers that individually and communally have memories that go back millions of years. Birds and flowers and insects and all the rest that have connections to this place that are so timeless, and so natural, and so without pretence and bravado that they make a mockery of our human lives. The real Thailand. I wonder if this Jake Needham dude who wrote this novel Killing Plato knows anything about the real Thailand. <I can assure you he understands things better than mostStick> Maybe I'll email him to meet me on the terrace of the restaurant by the sea and we can share some morning mimosas of champagne and orange juice."

Oh well, the sun is up and it is now 'center-of-the-sun' hot. All of the morning chirpers and screechers and grunters and tweeters have gone quiet. Later on in the late afternoon they will start up again–and I'll be sitting in the chair with my head back and my ears pointed skyward.

I'm listening Thailand.

Stickman's thoughts:

Maybe when you eventually retire and make the big move to Thailand you can start up "Dana's Bird Watching Tours"? I just don't know whether Pattaya's board walk or Kaeng Krachan National Park would be more appropriate.