Watching Them Watching You

November 27, 2000

Heading off into rural Thailand is like falling off the planet. You may only be gone for three days but it always ends up feeling like one week or more. Once you leave Bangkok and hit the back roads, life changes. Skinned frogs, curries, dried squid, and fish become viable breakfast options. Gas stations are sometimes scarce, but when in a jam you can usually find someone selling gasoline from glass soda bottles. Roadside vending stalls take over. It becomes difficult to find your favorite junk food snack or even feminine items, if you know what I mean.

Getting off the beaten tourist-hot-spot track turns the tourist into an attraction. As the metropolis of Bangkok fades, you become more and more of an anomaly. Everyone starts staring at you and you start staring back. This may sound scary, rude, or uncomfortable but actually it is my favourite part of any trip. This is the game called ‘watching them watching you’ and it can sometimes go on for hours.

Passengers in071200k1.jpg passing vehicles wave as you drive along. Reaching your destination, smiling faces, confused faces, and curious faces pop out of windows, doorways, and stores. People shout “Hello!” I have never had an unwarm welcome. It always amazes me. Life in sprawling high-rise Bangkok keeps people out of touch with each other. It is good to get your feet on the ground with everyone else.

If you go off and sit by yourself for a while, be certain a curious crowd of children will gather. After some gazing time passes, you can stick out your right hand and say “Hello.” You will receive a screech of giggles and the bravest of the bunch will inevitably come up and shake your hand. Sit long enough and the others will follow and may even begin practicing their English with you.

Rural Thai life is simple. These are small villages with small roads where everyone knows each other. Entertainment takes on different forms. Children play with deflated soccer balls, broken umbrellas, and make071200k2.jpg kites out of plastic shopping bags and string. Adults sing songs and gossip as they work. When a visitor pops in, it becomes the feature event of the day. It is almost like an alien landing.

Staring is considered to be impolite even in Thailand. I think the problem is that we end up finding each other far too interesting to take our eyes away. The rule about politeness becomes overruled by default.

In actuality, Thais make and hold eye contact more frequently than most visitors are used to. A friend visiting Thailand stated on his first day, “Argh, everyone is staring at me!” On the day of his departure he stated “I am really going to stop staring at people all the time before I get back to New York City or I am going to get beaten up!”

It may seem strange to the locals that as visitors some of us leave our air-conditioned rooms and hot running water for adventures in the middle of nowhere. We ride rafts, cruise on elephants, sleep in bamboo huts and use squat071200k3.jpg toilets. We leave the downtown club scene for rural karaoke bars and warm beer while the locals may dream of the excitement in Bangkok.

It is extremely important to dress appropriately in Thailand, especially when heading outside of the cities. Rural Thailand becomes more modest and less accepting of bare-skinned shoulders and cleavage. There are different kinds of staring. If you show up in your mini-skirt, tanktop, see-through clothing, bathing suit, or shorts you will receive a different kind of stare.

“Did you see that old man with the pipe?” “Did you see the man with the leaking boat bailing like crazy as he made his way across the lake?” “Did you see the woman with seven crates of eggs balanced on her head?” I chat away about the people we have met and seen. I wish I could be a fly on the wall to hear what they have to say about us. Perhaps the people back in the village are all saying, “Did you see those visitors? What do you think they were doing here? Did you see her hairy arms?”

I have taken pictures of everything from brooms to eggs to chickens to old cars. What is commonplace for some is fascinating for others. I put the shoe on the other foot. I picture myself living out in the middle of the woods in my old cabin in Vermont. I imagine a group of Thais walking up my road. I am certain they would photograph my vacuum cleaner, dog, and maybe even my car. We would stare at each other and I would wonder what they were doing there.

They say eyes are the windows to the soul. Human curiosity is a wonderful thing. When I shut my eyes I can still see the many faces that have shared their eyes with mine.

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