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.