The Sensations of Siam

George, Samantha and Cassidy drop coins, offerings, into 128 metal pots that line the wall of the Reclining Buddha. As each coin drops it makes a loud bell sound, and the result is an echoing room that nearly sings.

I heard it said by many Thais, both men and women, but it took me a while to understand. Thailand is "soft." The women are described as soft when compared to other Asians. The culture, an alchemy of ancient roots, blended religions and intermixed peoples has evolved into a soft, luxiourous fabric. Its dance is soft graceful moves, its music a soft blend of bell-like sounds, and its language a soft song of inflections. It's no wonder that Siam is the center of the silk trade.

This softness is not to imply wimpishness, puffiness, or lack of will. It's more like the kind of softness that comes with wisdom, like Monet in his final years creating over eighty paintings of the same gentle, soft scene of his pond, or the samurai who gives up the sword for the bonsai pruning shears. It's the softness that you find between the layers of two absolute opposites.

Yet, below and above this thin but rich veneer of softness are the jagged, violent worlds of reality.

The roof lines of every wat (temple) and every public building are crowned with soaring nagas, the image of the cobra rearing. The base of many staircases are also decorated with these same creatures, often times with glaring fangs and fierce mirrored eyes. As all over Asia, the favorite literature is comic books depicting cruel violence, and the most successful movies are Hollywood blockbusters like Terminator Man and Barbed Wire, or Hong Kong gore spectacles.

It is this way in the core of Southeast Asia, Thailand. The yen and the yang have mixed like watercolors to produce something unique enough to entice all people from Asia to its "softness." The Japanese and Germans come for the sex, the Chinese for the profits, the Singaporeans for the easy living. Everyone it seems comes to imbibe in its nectar, finding what they search for--yet Thailand is the only country in the region to have never been colonized.

Thailand is the drainpipe of Asia. All that occurs or can occur from the harsh northern Mongul regions to the nearby mystic Tibetan Plateau, swirls and blends and rolls down through Siam. It has been this way since nearly the beginning of time. Recent archeological discoveries indicate that possibly three separate forms of hominids: homo sapien (us), Neanderthal and the much more ancient homo erectus all co-existed in this region. The stone age, bronze age and iron age all softly meld into one continuum of pre-history.

And in Thailand, this softness is unusually sensorial. The full range of all senses are always at play in what is done. And it is in this interplay of sensory input that one discovers the real heart of Southeast Asia.

Salli and the girls stand alongside one of the many gold gilt mythological decorations that were built to celebrate the King's birthday

At the center of Thailand is Bangkok, a massive, sprawling megalopolis described by sociologists as a "primate city" since all of the rest of the country revolves in every way around its economic, cultural, religious, and civil power. And yet, within this somewhat modern city the powers of sensation prevail. To walk, to sit, to sleep in Bangkok is to steep oneself in sensations--not always pleasant, not always enjoyable--but rich and full nonetheless.

Along every street and soi (alley) street merchants ply their trade. Buckets of burning coals heat skewered foods, creating clouds of aromatic smoke that reminds you of industrial furnaces and Saturday afternoon patio bar-b-ques. Sweet fruits renowned throughout the world lay next to chilies that blew the scales of Texas university pepper monitors.

It's a country where most boys enter the priesthood to wear the saffron robe and meditate upon the Buddha, yet they walk down streets so loud with the traffic of mufflerless motorbikes, trucks and busses that all conversation is useless. It's a country that intensely honors its King for his softness to his people, and the fact that this King once played soft jazz with Benny Goodman. But it's also a country that once deposed a King and executed him by beating him to death inside a velvet sack so no royal blood would stain the ground, and a country that still to this day bars the showing of the 40-year old Rogers and Hammerstein, Yul Brynner classic, "The King and I."

It isn't long after entering Thailand before you are offered a Thai massage. I'd heard of hundreds of other variations of massage, but never "Thai." So we tried it, hiring a "Doctor" from one of the most famous wats in Bangkok. He came to our hotel room with his two female assistants and for one hour gave each of us a "soft" massage, applying pressure and force only when necessary, and leaving each of us with the resulting feeling that we were like classical Thai dancers floating on a stage with nothing but precise and measured movements.

This is a land in the tropics, a place that has been occupied by mankind since we first left home in Africa and between Ice Ages went to work around the world. It's a land that has been settled by Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians; a land settled by Tibetans, Chinese, Japanese, Malaysians and just about everyone hither and yon. It's a land where the living is easy and the living is dangerous.

And the result of all these stark contrasts is a land of the senses.

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