Wednesday, January 16, 2002

John Maclachlan Gray

p. R3.

Third World lessons in better living

I recently returned from Thailand only to read of Stockwell Day blaming his political misfortunes on "elites." (Who in Canada merits that description if not the leader of the official opposition?) Having suffered a mild depression as a result, if you don't mind I think I'll talk about Thailand a while longer.

Canadians hear little about that excellent country, which is unfortunate, because if we did, we might discern elements both familiar and instructive. Chiang Mai is a startling city (founded in 1296). About the size of Vancouver, it's located near the Burmese border, and is surrounded by mountains and rainforest. Unlike Vancouver (founded somewhat later), Chiang Mai has no youth gangs, no graffiti, and its 300 temples, full of priceless objects, are left open and nobody trashes them; unlike Vancouver, Chiang Mai has a decent jazz radio station.

As well, unlike its Canadian counterpart, Chiang Mai has no public-transit system to go on strike and paralyze the city. Instead, people get to and from work by car, scooter (carrying remarkable numbers of passengers and, in one case I witnessed, a refrigerator), bicycle rickshaw and red truck — a kind of open van with bench seats that takes you where you want to go cheap, picking up other passengers along the way.

Exotic, true, yet your homesick Canadian has only to open The Bangkok Post to feel right at home: State railway governor dismissed on charges of inefficiency and corruption; head of government business-development organization removed on suspicion of "mismanagement"; "alleged irregularities" in the government's rubber-price intervention scheme; national telecommunications commission makes "inappropriate" concessions to company owned by the Prime Minister — all familiar, cozy stuff.

In his New Year's speech, I am told, the King excoriated the government over rampant conflict of interest. Unlike in Canada, the royal figurehead was not denounced in editorials for stepping out of line; on the contrary, the King is universally admired for doing precisely that.

While in Chiang Mai, we spent a fair amount of time in the temples, which are open to all and require the visitor neither to pay money nor to join up. In a 14th-century temple 1,600 metres up a mountain, an elderly monk tied a piece of string around our wrists, sprinkled us with water, said a blessing in Thai that left us feeling strangely uplifted, and asked for nothing in return. Such an experience is, as far as I know, unavailable in Canada without payment of a substantial stipend and/or a declaration of faith.

Other temples contain, in addition to ancient Buddhas, murals containing vivid, if alarming, metaphors for the human condition, in the Asian equivalent of Dante's Inferno. In one of these, a person is depicted bashing his brains out with a mallet, while another literally eats his guts out; the image will no doubt strike a chord with newspaper columnists and other members of the writing fraternity.

My favourite of these symbolic representations features a man suspended in a tree, holding onto a branch for dear life. Unfortunately for him, the trunk of the tree is studded with sharp spikes: The spikes below him are angled up, those above him angled down. To make matters worse, two vultures are perched on the branch, going at his hands and wrists.

Now there's a cautionary metaphor for Mr. Day, or Ms. McDonough, or Mr. Chrétien — or, for that matter, anyone who would scale the heights of corporate or political success. Sooner or later, you reach a point where you can't go up, you can't go down, and vultures are pecking at your wrists. Congratulations.

The perimeter of another temple, which I call the Temple of Opaque Aphorisms, contains a series of uplifting messages in two languages, the English only enhanced by an idiosyncratic translation:

Don't keep a dog and bark yourself.

Take care of used to good salt.

A honey tongue, a heart of call.

If we make pilgrimmage the pagoda our born annual during we have a life sustain it is believe that we have got a merit and to be lived.

Now there's a thought — that a person might have merit and significance simply by being alive, which deserves to be noted. In Thailand it seems to inspire an attitude. Despite the fact that the country has the same problems as Canada times 10; that 531 people died in car accidents over the holiday weekend; that up to 200,000 children work as prostitutes; despite the stray dogs (stray elephants for that matter) and the pollution and institutionalized corruption, ordinary Thais go about their business, however marginal, with humour and curiosity and a refreshing absence of envy, which I can only attribute to a richness of spiritual resources that puts Alberta's fossil fuels to shame.

Frankly, in terms of what we make of what we have, I am no longer convinced, if I ever was, that Canada is da best country in da world (nor is the USA, I hasten to add). In attempting (out of pure self-interest) to create a more balanced and harmonious relationship with less wealthy countries, perhaps North Americans need to ask ourselves not what we can do for them, but what they can do for us.

As a start, particularly in our relationships with our big brother to the south, Canadians might wish to fasten upon the fridge the following quote gleaned from the Temple of Opaque Aphorisms in Chiang Mai. To wit: Envy is the sorrow of fools.

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Created: January 22, 2002
Last modified: July 9, 2002
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