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Amber Paulen

Under Chiang Mai's Skin

4 March 2010


Tonight we are sleeping under a mosquito net in the new Sukhothai. And it’s hot. I just took a shower and I’m already dry. When I take a shower the water runs out through a hole onto the bare dusty earth. It rushes over the hard dirt until it’s absorbed into its cracks. Around us is a swamp that rises in the monsoon, remains low and murky in such heat, which is why tonight we will be sleeping under a mosquito net. If I move an inch I’ll be eaten alive.

Outside the mosquito net is the dusty new Sukhothai and further to the north, Chiang Mai. I didn’t realize how elevated we were until we came down, into the heat held by smoking fires to the bottom of this basin. There are many other things I didn’t realize about Chiang Mai, for instance, I entered not one wat; yet one evening I was entertained by pairs of ladyboy breasts, introduced to a great many bars and bartenders, rode whizzing on the back of a motorbike among other things.

Now, I want to ask you, what else is the traveller but a shifting observer? Someone who writes with a small hunk of spectrum. Or, that’s what I always feel I am, ever wanting to pry wider the vision. All this is a simple introduction to the thoughts of Thailand I’ve been having: Thai girls and ladyboys and sexpats and how Thais go swimming with all their clothes on, so that a man can be seen swimming in dress pants and a woman in jean shorts. Thais are said to be conservative people and the guide books advise against bottoms too short, yet walk into a beer bar wearing a long skirt and you may be the only one.

These are extremes and one extreme breeds its opposite so that the most regal conservatism will no doubt be paired with a fierce liberal. Thailand does not brag of its extremes, they sit succinctly in their places like the lumbering king whose image is everywhere: its proliferation is an immunity. Which brings me back to Thai girls. Something strange happened in this country to have built such a powerful monolith to sex tourism and I often wonder at it. The Western guys and their week-long girl or one-night girl or the one-to-bring-home-and-meet-mama, but they aren’t as creepy as the older men, the retired-to-Thailand men, the white haired, skin drooping kind of men whose walk is bent on one purpose.

I understand the relationship’s symbiosis; but that doesn’t help me to get my head around it. I want to know if the girl who dances near-nude around the pole of a go-go bar swims wearing shorts and a t-shirt? It’s as if Thailand wants to preserve an innocence—angelic smiles beam sweetly from advertisements—an innocence that has already been lost.

And I guess that’s my point: innocence? If you can read this, you’ve lost it and no use swimming in dress pants to cover it up. Anyway, tomorrow we’re heading south where I expect no such thing.



Commentary for Under Chiang Mai's Skin


1 On Friday 05 March 2010 Frank wrote:

Did you ever think that you can’t get your “head around it” because you aren’t Thai? Does everyone have to have the same outlook as Westerners?

2 On Thursday 11 March 2010 Amber wrote:

It is less my Westernness that has stuck me in the matter of beer bars and swimming in clothes, and is more on my account of being female. About being Western and voicing my “outlook,” I’ve written about in the following post.


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