Pampered Pooches or Problem People?

©Dan White. No repro without authorisation.

Some dog owners live in confusion, thinking their beloved pet is actually a person like them,  with real human characteristics.  Dogs, on the other hand, emphatically believe their human nearest and dearest are simply other dogs, albeit a little ungainly. It can make for a worrying state of affairs.

Let me run this by you. There is a Chihuahua in Florida called Conchita who had a choking incident. Obviously it is a distressing experience for any owner of a beloved pet to see their pooch’s eyes bulge as they struggle for air. Conchita, however, was slightly different from your average pooch in that she wasn’t choking on a bone, a slipper or your favourite album cover. She was choking on her very own Cartier necklace worth thousands of dollars. Traumatised by the experience, the little furry Princess who her owner calls ‘the boss’ now refuses to wear diamonds at all.

Undeterred by the mutt’s obvious lack of material consciousness Conchita’s owner still spends $7000 per month to provide her with Louis Vuitton handbags (it’s a well known fact that dogs feel naked without a handbag), bikinis, pearls, dresses and indeed makeup.

It doesn’t stop there. Conchita also has a private bathroom, a pink four-poster bed shaped like a racing car, a widescreen TV and she lunches daily at the swish Miami Shore club, her preferred dish being grilled chicken.  Conchita has her own minder (a man, not a dog). She also ‘enjoys’ weekly manicures with her publicist.

One thing is obvious. This one-year-old 500g chihuahua is living the deeply unnatural life of a neurotic and very human heiress. The second thing that is obvious is that her owner is a total idiot. One Miss Posner, the numeracy of whose father’s dollar bills quite obviously outweighs the numeracy of her own brain cells points out,  ‘I am enamoured by her and so is everyone else’. She goes on to fantasise, ‘She is a demanding diva. She cries like a baby if she thinks she isn’t going to go to the Shore Club.’

Is Miss Posner deluded? According to eminent animal psychologist Dr Werner Krugar, ‘Dogs do not think they are people, they think people are dogs. As the owner, you need to relate to the dog as another dog, rather than a furry person!’  The inference of this is that Conchita should shed the penthouse lifestyle and Miss Posner would better earn Conchita’s love by bounding about pointlessly chasing inanimate objects and publically licking her own private parts.

Despite this learned advice, Miss Posner is not alone in attributing human qualities to her pet despite the fact that poor Conchita would probably be far happier if she was credited with being the dog she is rather than the mini-human her owner wants her to be.

Here in Thailand too a few selected dogs are lined up for lavish attention whilst the vast majority languish at the end of sois licking their festering sores (Although to be fair they haven’t yet occupied central Bangkok and demanded the dissolution of Parliament in the same way as their human brethren). The fact remains that Bangkok is not a very ‘dog friendly’ metropolis. It’s hard to find places to run, roam free and consistently fail to catch frisbees in your mouth. Pavements are uneven when they exist and more often than not you are pinned to the wall by the constant stream of traffic roaring up the all too narrow streets. To add insult to injury, many of the parks that do exist don’t even allow dogs entry.

The Thai dog-pampering industry has come up with answers to combat these gross injustices.

Situated near the end of Sukhumvit soi 28 in Bangkok’s upscale Emporium district, Ozono is a hybrid shopping mall, doggy playground and meeting place for the city’s upper echelons and the dogs they adore. Ozono founder, Khun Dhanesha, explains that the inspiration came from watching the frustration of pet owners at the woeful inadequacies of Bangkok for those both with privilege and four legs. ‘I have had dogs all my life,’ he says, ‘but Bangkok is not a dog-friendly city. You can’t bring dogs anywhere.’

Except to Ozono. There are trendy shops, chic cafes and plenty of green grass, all presented with a friendly nod and a wink to our joyfully surprised canine buddies. They bound blissfully, seemingly in slow motion, ecstatic in the freedom that Ozono provides. Tiny dachshund’s frolic playfully with mighty deerhounds in a utopian bonanza of doggy joy. Owners cavort too caught up in the sheer exuberance of being at Ozono.

Feel like you are looking a bit manky? Ozono’s ‘Aqua Dog’ Beauty Salon is a place for you and your dog to relax in relaxed bliss whilst enjoying the huge number of treatments on offer. The standout feature of Ozono is that the owner may be pampered in parallel with their beloved beast. Both you and Fido can sit about under the hair dryers reading magazines and making idle chitchat about all those things you have in common.  You can swap manicure or pedicure tips (well really only pedicure tips in the case of Fido) whilst ordering lattes.

Once you are both groomed to the zenith of perfection, step out into ‘Petropolis Park’. This 3,200 square meter, purpose-built pet-park is an enclosed oasis planted with tall trees, lush plants and thick shrubbery. Dogs can lounge at tables whilst owners cavort, defecate and run around to their little heart’s content.

There is a dark side to Ozono though. Huge gangs of swarthy soi dogs lost in resentment at the sheer injustice of what they are denied are known to gather at the entrance and bark menacingly at poodles stepping out of Mercedes.

Ozono isn’t the only dog-friendly hangout in the Thai capital. Another popular establishment is the aptly named Doggiedo swimming pool in another upscale part of town – Yen Arkat (meaning Cool Wind) in leafy Sathorn. This giant pool is full of toys for dogs and several decidedly resentful looking staff members in wet suits, swimming with their doggy guests and indeed doing their every bidding in terms of flinging things repeatedly. Owners sit at nearby tables taking photos. 
Prices vary depending on the size of the dog. 50 baht for a ratty looking midget you can carry in your handbag, moving up to 800 baht for a huge German shepherd.

Pooch can’t swim?…… No matter. Life jackets are provided. Does Fido understand life jackets? Of course not. The psychological scars will last a lifetime.

And what would this beautiful country be without the ever-ubiquitous spas that have become such an integral part of the lives of the privileged? Dogs, thankfully, are not excluded.

After a tough day choking on diamonds and frolicking in idyllic pastures a better class of canine can now soak in a fragrant tub scattered with orchid flower petals, or recline on a massage table as an expert masseur (trained not quite sure where) attends to those tired and aching muscles.

‘The special selected blend of herbs help to make the dogs unwind with even fierce dogs able to relax here at our Spa,’ points out veteran dog trainer Jare Jansrisuriyawong who conceived this ‘Thai Dog Resort and Spa’. Set on a leafy acre area of land, just on the outskirts of town, pampered dogs belonging to an even more pampered human elite appreciate treatments using a complex and secret blend of special herbs from Thailand, China and India.

‘I bred dogs for more than 8-years before noticing that some dogs experienced tension too,’ adds Jare, before pointing out the medicinal properties these very expensive treatments impart to his patients. Treatments include a lemongrass rub and the Ayurvedic application of hot stones. We are assured that the dogs really do appreciate this because they tend to fall asleep in the middle of it. Allowances are also made for the international nature of the clientele and most dogs are relieved to discover that the staff at Thai Dog Resort and Spa speaks perfect English.

What does all this say about the dogs on the receiving end of this lavish, complex attention formed by the projections of their owners? Well the simple answer, of course, is nothing at all. Dogs love to eat. They love to run about. They love to sleep. They love affectionate attention from those they trust. According to their breeding dogs will naturally simulate their programmed tasks. Sheep dogs without sheep will naturally herd anything that appears to move, be that a football a chicken or a child. Pointers point. Retrievers retrieve. Despite their reputation as useless ornaments poodles were actually originally also bred as retrievers and have a natural agility in water. Take away some of the haircuts imposed on them by their disturbed owners, and they might even appear proletarian. After border collies, they are also considered the most intelligent breed of dog. German Shepherds guard and attack. Pit Bull’s also attack, but only if accompanied by really bad rap music. Most dogs are bred for a purpose and the really bright ones (most of whom probably live on the street) are a mixture of many. Dogs are actually quite simple and loveable beasts. They are dogs. Their owners, however, are often rather more worrying.

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That’s Not a Horse! (Absolute Phuket. 2007)

©Dan White. No repro of words or pictures without authorisation.

 

It’s amazing what raw eggs and beer can do to a man. What is more amazing is what they can do to a normally slow four legged beast that weighs as much as a truck whilst displaying a contrary nature.

Once a year in the small port town of Chonburi beasts that normally amble are inspired to hurtle as they race each other in a bonanza of rustic traditional prowess. Greyhounds, thorough bred horses and even Camels look like they are born to run. Buffaloes do not, but run they do. Whether it’s the raw eggs and alcohol that have been fed to them, the crack of the whip or a simple desire for it all to be over they pick up frightening speed over a 300 metre track under a burning hot sun under the gaze of hundreds of onlookers. This event has been happening for 136 years. By the beginning of the last century the races were well established. In 1912 King Rama V himself was a witness to the spectacle. It first started as a trade fair where farmers gathered to buy and sell buffaloes which were, and are, almost a form of currency in rural Thailand. Buffaloes are a status symbol even though their traditional role on the farm has been superseded by the tractor.   Many of the buffaloes taking part in the race never do farm work at all being trained and cherished for this event alone. The farmers raise them to be as lean and sleek as a buffalo can be.

Events start early in the morning as pick up trucks pull up to the ground disgorging reluctant seeming buffalo who are then led by their noses in single file into waiting pens. Before the serious business starts there is a parade of lavishly decorated carts drawn by equally lavishly decorated buffaloes preceded by a gaggle of elaborately dressed beauty queens smiling coquettishly as they pass, shimmering in gold and feathers. This being Thailand ‘sanuk’is the order of the day and following the procession is a brass band and streams of small children in fancy dress. As the buffalo count rises so does the smell of ordure and it is fast becoming imperative to watch your step if you want to keep your shoes clean. In the tents outside the spectator stands buffaloes take part in a beauty contest. With spectacularly long horns and tired eyes they are dressed in shiny blankets, tinsel and bunting. It is hard to tell the criteria by which the winner is chosen, buffalo beauty being an art only for enthusiastic connoisseurs. As the heat builds up the racing buffaloes are lined up in the sun beside huge metal tubs full of water. Farmers splash them constantly keeping them in shape for the big event. It is amazing in some ways that the races ever get underway as forcing these huge beasts into the starting gates against their will is no mean feat.  They buck and squirm as the scruffy race officials dance around them coaxing them into place. Often they break lose and make a run for it charging up the track solo and riderless to be corralled at the other end and returned to duty whether they like it or not.

Out of this chaos the riders get the nod and they are off out of the gates. Seeing a buffalo leap is an awesome if unlikely site, but at their first stride that’s just what they do. Mud flying everywhere they charge at full tilt up the track the jockeys perching precariously on their rear haunches hanging on for dear life whilst belting them with sticks. Some don’t hang on hard enough, tumbling into the dirt and buffalo waste. They do not come up smelling of roses although they are smiling in friendly embarrassment at having tumbled so publically. As one or other beast tares over the line the jockey dramatically leaps off its back running alongside it as it slows to a halt to be doused with water by the farmers waiting by the metal water drums. The races are short and intense after a seeming age spent getting the contestants into place. The signal is given with no warning and the race is over in seconds. Over the loudspeaker a laughing woman commentator gently mocks those who take a tumble.

Buffaloes are expensive in Thailand. They certainly cost more than motorbikes and so since these buffaloes don’t do any work they are quite a major investment in prestige. The prize money of 5000 baht to the winner seems small given the amount of time, work and trouble the owners put in. The truth, though, is that it is not about money. It is an event about culture tradition and that very Thai special ingredient that is all about fun. It is also an event that is very confusing to outsiders. One minute buffaloes are charging in all directions, the next it is all over and a farmer in a red arsenal strip is marching up the track with his thumbs in the air, apparently celebrating victory.

The event at an end the farmers load their charges back on to the trucks, ladies in useful scarves hose down the buffalo waste that now carpets the whole area and police direct the traffic  to the various corners of Thailand from where it first arrived. Within half an hour the place is deserted although still less than fragrant. Driving back through the countryside the road is lined with fields, water buffalo bathing languidly in ponds and ditches looking unconcerned as the sun beats down. Little do they know that with a small taste of beer and raw eggs and the crack of a whip they too could take a shot at being champions.

Invasion of the Frog Ladies

©Dan White. No repro of words or pictures without authorisation.

 

That gentle tapping on the shoulder, the melting friendly eyes…. Then the daunting, insistent simulated croaking. The frog ladies are here and you will buy the frog.

Dan White lives the horror.

All over Thailand where tourists gather, visitors will often find themselves playing a part in a very common scenario. There you are sitting in a cafe watching the world go by when you are approached by an orderly queue of ten old ladies wearing brightly coloured clothing, lots of heavy jewellery and elaborate hats resembling metallic Christmas trees. Be aware that you are in the presence of the elite of the elite of the commercial street wandering crowd. They are Asia’s finest and most persistent purveyors of things you may just want but most likely it has never occurred to you. They are Bodie and Doyle, Starsky and Hutch and Charlie’s Angels all rolled into one. You have just been confronted by a crack squad of frog ladies.

Descending from the misty hills of the wild borderlands near Burma they fan out across the country in orderly lines walking quite slowly. As they march the characteristic sound of wood scraped against wood echoes across the countryside accurately imitating the mournful cry of the humble frog. This confuses genuine frogs everywhere causing them to mate wildly. Once the frog ladies finally arrive at the front lines of Bangkok, Pattaya and Patong they employ a simple tactic to corner their prey, grind them down and eventually force them, terrorised and confused, to become the proud owner of the noisy wooden replica reptile. This weapon consists of a relentless, never ending repetition. It’s  harsh. As the first kindly, smiling old lady walks by you may gently decline her offer. Forget it. This makes no dent at all on the frog lady.  She stands beside you for a seeming eternity gently scraping at her frog, and indeed at the fibres of your sanity, using a small wooden stick. Smiling serenely the noise will start to bore into the inner most chambers of your consciousness growing in volume, the sound wafting gently into your future nightmares. Then just as you are about to break the frog lady moves on.

You may think it’s over. Think again. The nightmare is only starting. As one frog lady drifts off the next in the queue approaches and the routine starts all over again. The scraping, the gentle smiles, the funny hats, more scraping. Your nerve endings exposed, the world starts to jitter around you. It will not end. You will crack. You will buy that frog. The frog ladies know this. They are merciless. The fact that they know it is what gives them their friendly serenity. The only question for them is how long it will take you to crack.You will end up vacantly muttering “The horror, the horror, the horror” over and over again whilst weeping gently and beating your head rhythmically against concrete.

Frog ladies hail from the Akha tribe living in the mountains around Chiang Mai. They are famed amongst other hill tribes for their intelligence and commercial prowess. But on Thailand’s urban streets they do have competition. You may not want a noisy frog but this does not prevent you from being presented with the opportunity to wear a hat cunningly disguised as a goldfish. This sartorial delight could be complemented by a Zippo nearly the size of a pick up truck. If that doesn’t appeal try a string of dangling cuddly monkeys, a stuffed squirrel (perfect for the beach), an amorphous splodgy thing that goes splat or the eminently practical model tuk tuk made from old beer cans. In fact old beer cans provide the raw material for a plethora of objects that you might not want…. Planes, sailing ships, motorbikes. All seem to have been beamed in from a parallel world of miniatures where all vehicular transportation is sponsored by Singha Beer or Heineken.

Of course none of this is a bad thing. The wonderful reality is that Thailand is a country where the cities and villages teem with life and excitement and commerce of all kinds takes place on the street. It’s a country where one half of the nation seems to be in the constant process of feeding the other half. Snacking is a national obsession and it is virtually a government decree that where ever more than three people are gathered together in one place it won’t be long before someone pulls up on an adapted motorcycle or staggers by with an impossibly heavy load suspended from bamboo slung across their shoulders.  From these mobile cooking contraptions will emerge delicious steaming bowls of noodle soup, grilled fish balls, omelettes and a hundred other tasty, pungent delicacies. Going hungry in Thailand would take quite some effort.

Hungry or not, going into a culinary trance will not help save you from the gentle persistence of the frog ladies (no one has ever seen them eat). They will interrupt your reverie…..

Why not save yourself the bother and just buy the frog at the outset…… and the hat made of car parts, the bracelets made of sea shells. In fact invest in the giant Zippo and festoon yourself with cuddly monkeys.  Admire your fleet of thousands of small vehicles made of used beer cans. Embrace the void.

Bongos and Backpacks – Who Controls The Pajama People?

Dan White attempts to read the runes in a world where people drink from buckets and parade in pajamas.

©Dan White. No repro of words or pictures without authorisation.

What is it that getting on a plane and travelling to Asian countries does to the young of Europe, Australia and America? They climb into their economy seats on their cut price flights looking, sounding and talking as normal as anyone else. Within hours of arriving something transforms them and they appear from their rabbit-hutch guest house cubicles decked out in infant’s pajamas whilst eating a strict diet of peculiar pancakes and suffering from a compulsive aversion to footwear. The formerly average become the strangely shaped, flocking from all over the world to wear clothing that would have them arrested in their home country. Most alarmingly of all, they appear to have any sense of humour they might have previously possessed surgically removed on arrival whilst simultaneously acquiring a deep knowledge of all things and an almost messianic need to spread the infinity of their wisdom. It may be only a sinister coincidence that they are all reading from exactly the same book.

Who is doing these terrible things to our kids? What drives the newly anointed pajama people? No one is perfectly sure.  What is known is that for the pajama people money and the not spending of it has been elevated virtually to the status of a religion. They huddle in cafes exercising the virtue of thrift to an almost devotional degree. What is also known is that they enter into a parallel existence through certain portals. The three major ones being Khao San Road in Bangkok and the island of Koh Phangan in Southern Thailand whilst the small mountain town of Pai is now, undoubtedly, the pajama bastion of the north. All these places, like a Hadrian’s wall of cheap unreality, have become hives of the po-of-face and the baby-smooth-of-skin. They exchange tales of hair braiding, bad tattoos and all else that is not too costly. Suddenly perfectly healthy teenagers who in their real lives stacked shelves at Safeway’s, worked in the local pub just near Leatherhead or just completed their A-levels in grammer school in Tonbridge start speaking in a retro hippy patois that they can only be way too young to comprehend. All this whilst looking fashionably disinterested in the sure confidence that they have recently acquired a supreme knowledge. They are of the Book. With solemn appreciation they talk misty eyed of sunrise over the Taj Mahal or the latest Full Moon party… Something that they fail to grasp resembles nothing less than Aya Nappa or summer in Hove at its most naff.

Ominously, some of them start to juggle.

Traditionally it has been a cardinal rule for the pajama people to only collect together where other pajama people have been before them. Like worker ants they tread well-worn and defined paths labeled ‘authentic’ and ‘unspoiled’. Once a suitable spot is found the necessary hive support is constructed; banana pancake stalls, cafes run by a man who looks a little bit like Bob Marley, guest houses designed for the efficient breeding of mosquitoes and three internet cafes for each pajama person. In this way the collective assimilates the authentic and makes it suitable for pajama habitation. All this at an incredibly reasonable price.

What makes the pajama collective different from average tourists? The only way we know is to is to ask them. Like programmed drones they intone “We are not tourists, we are travellers.”  They prove this by bullying hard working, poverty-stricken rice farmers to sell them coconuts at an authentically cheap rate….  all the while jealously fumbling 400 dollar iPods.

Entering through any of the allotted portals to pajama planet is a disconcerting experience for the unwary. The first thing that will strike you is the largeness of their bags. For kids who wear so little clothing or footwear they carry an awful lot about with them. The untested theory amongst pajama experts is that the largeness of the bag carried on the back denotes the importance of status. So next time you are floored getting out of a taxi by the swinging, laden arc of an alarmingly perfumed backpack you can be sure that the person wielding it is surely a big cheese on Koh Phangan.

The second thing that will strike you whilst touring pajama planet is the very controlled and hierarchical nature of the conversations you might over hear. Like ancient shamans on a spiritual quest the mind of the collective is highly focused. Pajama people make the world’s finest accountants and conversations rarely stray far from the word ‘cost’. The second characteristic of pajama interaction is the highly evolved jockeying for status based on the ‘coolness’ of the places they have visited. Although they never stray far from the collective hives pajama people increase their status by talking of visiting places that other pajama people have never been to. Some of them even wildly claim to have eaten in restaurants that are not mentioned in the Lonely Planet. All pajama people know that this is just plain crazy talk. If it’s not ‘in the Book’ then it is not worth going to. Om.

The overriding tragedy of the pajama collective, is that it is held to ransom by a regional mafia for whom the manufacturing of plastic buckets drives a scandalous brutality. In a cruel and outrageous travesty of otherwise naive but slightly pompous fair play, innocent pajama people are forced to drink their dainty shots of sangsom mixed with battery acid and Farley’s rusks out of garishly coloured buckets forced on them by suspicious looking men in ripped jeans with greasy pony tails.  Some of them genuinely don’t understand that they are being humiliated by this brutal application of pastel shades. They guzzle away like cheery, maladjusted piglets before passing out on the sand or each other.

What happens to the pajama people when the pennies run out? One of two things. The best result is a flight home, a job back in Safeway’s or a well earned career as a real accountant with proper shoes and the same kind of hefty mortgage that brings a pleasant frisson of reality into the lives of others. The most horrific scenario is that they actually do learn to juggle. Once you can juggle there is no turning back. There is nothing for you but a life of bongos.

(c) Dan White.