Chiang Mai

Written by Jane Harris No Gravatar

The nice thing about Chiang Mai is that unlike some of the other expat communities we’ve visited the city feels able to comfortably accommodate its Western guests without being overwhelmed by them.  Mutually beneficial relationships have sprung up between Thai and Western communities – in spite of, and sometimes because of religious, economic, and social differences.

We saw an example of the former at ‘monk chat’ yesterday – a weekly session at which visitors to the city’s temples are invited to converse with resident monks. Monk chat is designed first and foremost to give the monks an opportunity to practise the English  they are studying at nearby colleges.  At the same time  it provides Westerners with an opportunity to learn more about Buddhism and satisfy their curiosity as to the monastic way of life. This was the second time in my life I’d been afforded such an opportunity.  The last time was at a Benedictine monastery near the Welsh border visited as part of a primary school trip. On that occasion I asked  what sort of pants monks wear under their habits (Answer: “The same as your dad’s I expect”).  This time I hope my questions were a little more insightful.

We saw another example of a relationship between indigenous and Western communities at the Free Bird Café.  The café was born to support the work of Thai Freedom House – a community learning centre for refugee families from Burma and Hill Tribe communities within Thailand.  It teaches them Thai, English, the arts, agriculture and vocational skills.  The café is situated within the Thai Freedom House classroom during down times and is staffed by students from the centre. Westerners get great coffee.  The lessons get resourced.  It’s as simple as that. Westerners living in Chiang Mai, as well as those just passing through, are also asked to share their skills with refugees during free workshops every Friday.

A third, and more debated, example of a relationship between Thai and Western communities exists in Chiang Mai, as elsewhere in Thailand, in the form of  ‘girl-bars’.  Notwithstanding their views about prostitution per se may people feel uncomfortable about Thailand’s girl-bar culture – me included.  Passing the bars prompted me to download a book on the subject.  Thailand:Men’s Paradise.

According to the book Thai women work in girl-bars as waitresses in the hope of financially advantageous liaisons with wealthy Westerners. Bar-owners typically provide the women with food, accommodation and a small monthly salary to cover their waitressing work.  If a woman chooses to  approach and leave with a male customer a ‘bar fine’ of around £5 is added to his bill in compensation for loss of waitressing capacity. The woman separately determines and keeps all of a fee for time spent with the customer.  Sex is usually but not always involved.

Many suggest that bar-owners and their customers take unfair advantage of impoverished women from villages in the North and North East of the country.  As well as looking after themselves women from these villages are expected to support their extended families. The caste system ensures that the only other way for them to do so is through arduous farming or factory work.

Others suggest that by deliberately blurring the line between a financial and a ‘genuine’ or emotional relationship some bar-girls take advantage of lonely or inexperienced Westerners.  The book suggests however that the line is already blurred by the fact that  in Thailand a woman’s family charges a dowry for her hand in marriage and may also ask for compensation from any man who has had a prior relationship with her and thereby negatively impacted the asking price. Cash-gifts are an accepted and sometimes expected part of courtship. It’s complicated.

The book – Thailand: Men’s Paradise – talks about these and associated issues in far more detail than I’ve been able to do here.  Although I don’t wholeheartedly agree with all of the assumptions it makes, I can thoroughly recommend it as an interesting read

One Response to “Chiang Mai”

  1. JillNo Gravatar says:

    Interesting although I can’t help conjuring up an episode of Monkey Magic in my head when you talk about the Monk Chat sessions… (sorry!)

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