Untold Stories #1

February 21, 2012

Here’s an essay from my time in Thailand that didn’t find its way into the book…the events it describes took place while I was in Chiang Mai to experience the country’s famous Songkran New Year’s festival…


I had shown up alone and but quickly became part of a collective, unpunctuated celebration. I had immersed myself in the crowd. Our unchoreographed parade of bodies flowed along the road that lined Chiang Mai’s square-mile moat. We alternated between wet and hot as we were cleansed with murky moat water by revelers and slowly roasted by the tropical April sun. The mood was irresistible. Under clear skies, music blasted from promotional displays, a rainbow assortment of plastic pails and Super Soaker-style water pistols colored the streetscape, and smiles were everywhere.

Together, we transcended social restrictions. Beneath us, the mores faded into specks. Nobody was spared from playful splashes of water or a smear of dampened talcum powder. Not the uniformed policeman monitoring the madness. Not the elaborately costumed and made up woman marching in the processional. Not even the saffron robed monk whose band followed behind her. And certainly not the lone, unarmed foreigner taking it all in.

Together, our impulses went unchecked. Booze flowed and booties shook. Women and men alike managed to make me feel wanted. Alas, I had no phone number to give out, I still wasn’t gay, and I wasn’t taking you to my hotel room. On another day, maybe the propositions would have been off-putting, but today they were benign and titillating at best.

Maybe you are hoping that this is the part of my story where I lead a Thai girl someplace private and come of age, or where a latent bi-curiosity opportunely awakens within me. If so, then I’m sorry to disappoint you.  I can at least offer that this atmosphere did eventually lead to a partial cure of my lack of attraction to Asian women. (I hadn’t considered it much of an affliction, until I happened to bring it up in conversation with male Westerners I met. In these instances, I experienced an immediate distancing, a kind of subdued bafflement I would expect had I claimed to be a eunuch.)

At one point the traffic slowed and our parade stalled. One of the cars or trucks nearby was belting out a pulsing techno beat. In front of me in the street, some young thing found it dance-worthy and was putting her back into it, as they say. Between the sway of her hips and the bounce of the beat, I was mesmerized. My eyes practically crossed and a switch inside me flipped. Was it drunken exhibitionism? No, it was easy to look past the 20 oz. beer bottle in her right hand. There was a purity present, a genuine joy through movement. It was practically mystical. My nineties-era network television upbringing forces me to compare myself to a Saturday Night Live host being entranced by the gyrations of Chris Kataan’s “Mango” character, while Everything But the Girl’s “Missing” loops in the background. Sorry if the allusion eludes you. Mango was an exotic dancer whose magical sex appeal overwhelmed all who experienced it, regardless of gender, age, or orientation. Observe:

Such was Songkran. Such was Thailand’s annual baptism and communal renewal.

As we rounded a turn and hit a straightaway, something about the mood was gradually changing. The most recent set of speakers faded away. And suddenly our flow divided around a disruption.

There was yelling. A man was on the pavement. Half upright. Two younger men stood on both sides of him. But he wasn’t looking at them. One of them ran up to him and kicked his head like a soccer ball. If this had been a fight, it wasn’t exactly a fight anymore. This dazed man lay silent, as if to get a grip on himself. A woman screamed and ran to his side. The yelling was too angry and too fast. I couldn’t understand the words. But their tones were clear. They taunted him. She pleaded for mercy.

She crouched over her man and tried to shield him from the attackers with her frail body. She cradled him like a child and protectively asserted “mine.”

One of the men, not ready to let go of their triumph, continued yelling. Perhaps encouraged by our collective gaze, he made another run and added another kick to the head.

Together, we watched. We looked away. We turned our backs. We continued on.

As I walked away, I felt an uneasiness in my stomach. Whatever I might have believed about the desensitizing effects of violence on TV and videogames didn’t mean much anymore.

As my thoughts moved past the quiet shock of witnessing brutal violence, I slowly sensed my own regret that we hadn’t done anything. Why didn’t we do anything? I imagine most of the crowd was like me. We hadn’t seen the entire episode. We didn’t know who said what, who hit who first. But at a certain point, isn’t there some obligation to intervene in a thing like that? Perhaps this man was the instigator, the antagonist. But now he was now just a man on the ground having his brain knocked around in his skull. Those attackers were likely powered with adrenaline and possibly emboldened with alcohol or other substances. Still the two of them would be easily subdued by a willful crowd.

It changed my perception of the whole event, and of what it means to become a crowd. One minute, all you see is liberty, passion, communion, and harmless hedonism. And right around the corner lies excess, rage, conflict, and wanton violence. The crowd helped me step outside of myself and experience the moment. But while it dampened by inhibitions, it also diluted my individual instincts.

Together, we were bigger than ourselves. Together, we were smaller than ourselves.