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Blue Men, White Monkeys and Me

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For the past two weeks I have been obsessed with the Ramakien, the Thai epic poem translated into English prose and based on the Ramayana.  I really cannot tell you why I have been so absorbed by this story but I have determinedly searched through at least twelve bookstores within walking distance in Chiang Mai just to find a copy of the legend and even ignored the hundreds of beloved and cheap Western classics!  On Saturday we, as a class, visited the Khon, a performance in honour of the 60th anniversary of the King’s coronation.  The Khon is a masked dance in which the dancers become glittering several-headed giant demons, monkey soldiers who yawn moons and stars, gods reincarnated as blue princes and gorgeous women equal to Helen of Troy.  It’s not fast paced.  Far from it! If you’ve ever seen The King and I, Tup-Tim’s version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin should give a fair idea of the Khon’s style.

A portion of the fascination, for me, lies in the fact that the Ramakien and its dance performance so ably embodies all I have experienced of Thai culture as I could never have expressed it myself.  For one thing, the miraculous and rampant spirit world of the Ramakien is no mere fantastical legend here.  Every large building, almost every home and even some vacant lots are carefully protected through faithful maintenance of spirit houses, tended by all ages of all sorts of Thais at any time of the day.  Elephants are presented at the shrine in the front entrance of the Chiang Mai University to give the student good luck on his or her exam.  Temples are more common than flies!  (Yes, that may be an exaggeration, but it’s slight!)  For another thing, during the experience at the Khon, as we sat en masse and struggled to follow what little of the epic poetry that could be translated into English, fully aware of just how much we were missing in the Thai narration, I found I could finally put my finger on what it was I had been observing with confusion and a certain amount of frustration for the past three weeks.  Even still, my words alone cannot adequately express it and I must rely on the translator of my copy of the Ramakien to do so:

Neither political, religious, nor social obstacles of an overt kind stand before the institutions, temples and homes of the Thai, and many Westerners, thinking that to see is to understand, gain the impression from having seen so much of the country and people that they understand it–and them–completely.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  For like the chameleon, the Thai have perfected the useful art of being fully in view and remaining almost invisible. (J. M. Cadet)

While I am very grateful for what I have experienced of Thailand and I mean no criticism of this beautiful kingdom, I have still that haunting feeling as I explore the streets and temples that I have missed something, some of the depth and meaning of Thailand.  I have never been smiled at or welcomed so enthusiastically or fed so well or respected to such an extent as I have been here but neither have I found out what is behind the smile or discovered what could make them want to smile at me, the rich Westerner who tramps through their temples as they venerate their religious leader and cheapen their handmade wares to ridiculously low prices.

Cadet conjectured that perhaps it was because, and I paraphrase dramatically, all the fairies were massacred long ago in the west while their wonderful species is allowed to thrive in Thai culture that we cannot bridge the gap.  Personally, in discovering the Ramakien, I feel as though I’ve found a window that slightly lessens the thickness of the transparent glass wall standing between “us and them.”  I’ll never know the beauty of Thai poetry, straight from the pen of King Rama I, but I can share with them in imagination, at least slightly. And that in itself makes the hour long walks to so many bookstores well worth the sweat and stink!