In the land of smiles

Ayaz Amir:

Last time I was in Bangkok was in ‘89, a lifetime ago. And not having explored Bangkok remained a lasting regret. So when out of the blue there came an invite for Bangkok, I jumped at it, considerations of mortality not being the least of the factors behind my enthusiasm. Bangkok is not exclusively for the young. But what poi-nt in going to a fun place when decrepitude and old age have become your companions?

Bangkok itself is huge, and moving about is not easy because of the traffic. Yet this city relaxes you, persuades you that there are more things to life than the sterile preoccupation with politics, which is the staple of waking and thinking moments in Pakistan.

Despite the fact that often traffic hardly seems to move at all, you won’t catch anyone honking. No swearing, no breaking of lanes, no anger and aggravation. Amazing, isn’t it? Especially for someone from a land where everyone seems to be in a tearing hurry although no one yet has been able to figure out what all the hurry is about. A bit of the Thai calmness of spirit would do us a world of good, making us less grim and cheerless and angry.

There is no shortage of religion in Thailand. Buddhist temples and monks are all over the place. But religion is not intrusive. The loudspeaker version of it anyway is happily absent. Not that Thailand doesn’t have problems. It has, gap between rich and poor, corruption, lingering shadows of authoritarianism, a political past more full of military coups than even ours, and no doubt many more. Yet the Thai people are extraordinary serene, not wearing their worries on their sleeves or foreheads, going about the business of life calmly.

An article in the Nation, a Bangkok newspaper, by William Klausner, explained why: “A core element of the traditional Thai persona is the ‘cool heart’. One is enjoined to preserve a sense of emotional equilibrium. A Thai is expected to tread the Buddhist ideal of the Middle Path, avoiding extremes and overt expressions of anger, displeasure, annoyance, hatred.”

With us there is too great a preoccupation with the surface aspects of morality. Which makes for some of the grimness evident in our collective life. Who said that tourism was one of the worst isms of the 20th century? We live up to this intellectual snobbery as our approach to tourism is to make sure no one thinks of setting foot in our country. And if anyone is foolish enough to do so, he/she is unlikely to repeat the experience.

It wasn’t always like this. When countries like Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea had yet to make much of a splash on the world map, Pakistan in many ways was ahead of them. Now it seems like such a distant dream, General Zia’s puritan revolution, and our talent for making a mess of the simplest things, having reduced us to this pass.

Think of Bangkok and what springs to mind is Patpong. But there’s more to Bangkok than Patpong. My choice, Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy, both lively places. Once upon a time the rupee was stronger than the baht. No longer. Which means that Thailand is no longer the cheap place it used to be for Pakistani purses. But there is nothing prurient or ugly about Thai entertainment. It’s part of the landscape. Psychologists know it well. Repression and deprivation lead to an obsessive brooding on missing things. Something freely available liberates the mind. A simple enough lesson you would think but one somehow proving quite beyond us to grasp.

Ayaz, a columnist for Dawn, writes for THT from Islamabad