JJ Rose found what he was looking for, but not where he thought he’d find it.
I’ve been in Chiang Mai, Thailand a few weeks now. I’m a 55-year-old recently separated white male. Sounds all wrong doesn’t it? But I’m not looking for the usual tawdry thrills associated with men my age in Thailand. No, I’m actually here for something far worse. I’m here to find myself.
Cue eye rolls. Fair enough. But hey, it’s been a really tough year. My wife announced she wanted to end Us late last year. She had her reasons. I understood. I accepted in a fog of confusion and guilt and with a misguided sense of adult acceptance of moving on and all that. I was wrong.
It has been horrible. We’re still friends mind. There’s been no screaming – well maybe a little – and no worldly possessions strewn across the lawn at 2am.
But, I had to leave.
Couches are comfortable. Couch surfing is not. Surfing is fun. Couch surfing is not. This is a very poor terminology for this action. But, my time sleeping on the couches and in the spare rooms of friends and family was at least inexpensive. But, I couldn’t go on with it. I figured Asia was less expensive than Australia and so I cobbled together a few grand and here I am. Chiang Mai.
I was last here maybe 25 years ago. Then I was with an Israeli girlfriend I had been living with in Japan. Israelis tend to travel in packs, like desert nomads. They are loud talkers, raucous company and bargain for everything. And so my memories of Chiang Mai are filtered through a thought cloud of camel-spitting, haggling Semites. That is, I can hardly remember a thing.
Chiang Mai is the ancient capital of a forgotten empire – a geographical version of how I have felt this last year – and is as much Burmese as Thai (the Burmese border is closer than Bangkok). The city is landmarked by an algae-bubbling but still functioning moat ringing the former old city, taxis that look like fire trucks and a sumptuous gold sparkling Wat around every corner.
It’s full of funky, dark wood cafes, where whirling fans, menus on pulpits and touting staff invite in weary elephant and/or tiger trekkers or hill tribe returnees. The vibe is very cool. Laid back is the feel.
My first thought was; my ex-wife would love it here.
One thing I totally didn’t notice before was the number of apparently single white guys, mid-40s and up, wandering the streets like zombies.
GUYS past 40 with anything other than military six packs should never tuck anything in, unless it’s formal. Do not wear thongs. Get a haircut. Use a moisturiser. Go for block colours, never stripes, hoops or patterns. Single older men in Hawaiian shirts must be shot; If revealing a hairy chest, shot twice. You are not Magnum PI.
Chiang Mai is full of pot bellies dragging lumbering post-marriage male bodies about, eyes rimmed and glazed and fixed straight ahead like a sleepy-eyed Robocop. Guys don’t look at shops and barely notice anything peripheral at the best of times, but older guys are worse – accompanied by the sad slow metronome of thongs flapping on the pavement.
Bored, broken and lost, they amble about from meal to meal, Singha to Singha. When they sit, say, in a bar or restaurant, they stare, finger their dormant phones and perhaps try a lazy flirt with the female staff – always in a forced, uncomfortable and ultimately unsuccessful foray.
They don’t move. You could trace a chalk line around them like in a Squeegee photo and come back in an hour and still see all the outline.
Breakfast is an ordeal as it presages another empty day ahead and serves as an unwelcome reminder that it is too early for a Singha.
Pat was sitting at the Saloon Bar and Restaurant at midday. Our eyes locked. Species recognition.
Fifty-two from Perth. Squat and solid with hands like shovels. A human Bobcat. Sure enough he’s a landscaper.
“Getting harder now,” he says, motioning a dodgy back.
“We separated two years ago,” he tells me.
“Been up here a few times since then. Clears my head. Love the food.”
He had in front of him a blood puddled plate, former home of a steak, chips and salad. More RSL than ASEAN. A beer sweated beads into a clear pool round its base.
“Head clearer or numb out?” I asked Pat, trying not to sound hostile.
“Yeah, more dropping out, I guess. Bit of time alone. Just a change of scenery.”
Time alone at home or here seemed to me to be pretty much the same script.
“Do you do anything here, you know, to clear your head?”
“Can drink more beer.”
But, while said wryly, he didn’t sound that chuffed; ironic triumphalism at best.
Pat was less talkative after that, like the battery in the Bobcat gave out.
I met Derrick, early 50s, up the road a few days later. Another Aussie but with a slight Irish lilt in his speech – Ts from the front the mouth rather the Aussie ‘ch’ – as he spent his first 20 years there.
“All relationships are an illusion,” he announced as soon as the chat moved onto the topic, which was generally, I found, somewhere between hel and lo.
We were in the New Delhi Indian restaurant and sweating over dahl, biryani and green curry. Uncharacteristically it was a soda water bottle that melted in front of him, not beer.
“We come in alone and we go out alone. Simple truth.”
Derrick had a habit of getting sententious. So I tried, as they say, to bring it home. I asked how his view equates to his own personal experience.
“What we had was a convenience, to satisfy our procreational urges.”
You have to imagine this with that slight Gaelic sway, which made words like “procreation” sound like a stand-up routine, like Jimoean.
“It was a stopping point in our lives which reached its unavoidable conclusion. All relationships have to die.”
“Or adapt,” I suggested, hopefully, thinking of my own situation.
“Adaptation is death.”
It didn’t sound in line with the basics of evolutionary science, but then again I don’t recall seeing any relationship advice in “Origin of the Species”.
All the men I spoke to, off the record, casually (which is why I have changed their names) had their rationalisations.
For Pat, Derrick, Matt, Lionel, Marcus and “Shadow” (he insisted I use that) all dealing with the Big Break, or dysfunctional marriages, had their stories. Mostly, it boiled down to the fact they’d forgotten who or what they really are.
In a way, their relationships and family lives were like war. They were shell-shocked by the experience, about how hard it was and about how much of themselves it had cost. When they got their papers and could go home, they looked inside themselves for sustenance, security and strength, to begin building a new life… and found a vacuum. It was all gone.
As hard as the war was, many would go back in a second, because they don’t know how to do anything else. There’s comfort in the discomfort.
It’s an odd feeling to be both scared and bored.
Scott is a Vietnamese American in his 40s. He’s not actually separated, but he and his wife are taking a break and seemed to be considering it.
He carried alert eyes and a sharp mind. He wasn’t one for wallowing. He was doing yoga, running, had even considered online dating while here.
He put it this way.
“Men are great at following straight lines,” he argued.
“Every war in history had been built on this simple… would you call it a strength?”
I seem to remember straight white lines are used to hypnotise chickens, to calm them before decapitation. I replied that no, I didn’t think it was a strength.
“They do this (relationship, family) they follow the lines and then, while they’ve got their eyes down, everyone else grows, evolves, moves on. Except them. They turn around and their family, their partner, isn’t there anymore. The line stops and they’re all alone.”
“And some of us react to that by searching for other lines to follow.”
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that the shift from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to the more sedentary, pastoral society was something of a mistake.
In fact, he says, it was “history’s biggest fraud”.
Foragers’ lives, he writes, were more comfortable, interesting, rewarding and healthier.
Now we need to remember, those lives were also shorter, more directly hazardous, more violent, and there was no Netflix. But I for one can see where he’s coming from.
Harari also writes about one of the more odd offshoots of the Agricultural Revolution. He says the shift created “niches for imbeciles,” meaning males. I think it’s pretty clear one of the many growths since that the Ag Rev has been this niche. In fact, I wonder if we can still call it a niche.
The late Bruce Chatwin has also argued for the benefits of the nomadic lifestyle. He espouses a theory that babies are pacified by being jigged about because it mimics the movement of being carried whilst walking, or of a moving beast or caravan. I would add that the sound of a rattle, replicating the sound of things being transported, works in a similar way.
Now this all makes a lot of sense to me. But, if you dig a little deeper, you have to say that a more settled life tends to work more to women’s benefit than men’s – unless of course they are imbeciles.
Women are not imbeciles. This was a smart move. Being pregnant, giving birth and rearing children, the traditional lot of womenfolk in most societies, is just easier when you’re not traipsing across the veldt or climbing mountains.
Women tend to be like my ex-wife, who famously unpacks suitcases even on overnight stays, opening and closing drawers, snugly packing in folded clothes. It makes sense women may have been keen to remove the pack-up, pack-down rhythm of the nomad.
You can’t blame pre-historic women for not knowing that in pining for a more settled life, they were laying down the white lines that lead to here, to Chiang Mai Man. You can’t blame them for the inability of males to adapt. Or unwillingness to.
Indeed, women today are paying a high price. Apparently there are some 5,000 prostitutes in Chiang Mai. On my Wikipedia-based calculations, that’s something like 6.5% of the female population (that’s right, not just women, I’m talking under-age girls too…) who are on the job. That looks like a social catastrophe to me. Chiang Mai Man has more than a little to do with this disastrous situation.
And for men, those excellent adventures, out hunting, being gone for days, of pissing in the woods and scratching your balls whenever you wanted were replaced with tilling fields, tea with the vicar and picking up the kids from school. And hunting Asian prostitutes.
Those early former hunter-gatherers must have picked it, sensed the dangers. But presumably imbecility soon kicked in.
Maybe Chiang Mai Man is wandering lost because he’s searching for that sense of movement he’s no longer allowed. Perhaps he is essentially enacting the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that is still in his DNA.
The aimless street shuffle is just an instinct gone wrong, like tigers in a zoo that pace their enclosure endlessly searching for the jungle that isn’t there; the chook mesmerised by where the white line used to be.
I am a little ashamed to admit it but I tried to distance myself from Chiang Mai Man. I figured I was better, knew where I was heading; I try and keep well groomed, avoid prostitutes, and don’t drink Singha. I kept my wedding ring on, not out of attachment to my marriage, but to show I wasn’t one of them.
But I am aware, although there are things we don’t share, that I too am Chiang Mai Man.
Fellas, we have all been going nowhere, confusing circular motion with forward movement, following lines that, it turns out, all lead to the scariest place in the universe: ourselves.
And that’s where they all end. Right where life begins. That’s where we all need to be. Not Chiang Mai.
If you know a Chiang Mai Man, or indeed, are one who is heading that way, let him know he can stop, look up and start living, that he can release that inner nomad and create his best self, the one he’s always wanted to be. Bugger the white lines.
For my sake, for your sake, for their sake, for society’s sake but, most importantly, for fucks sake, let’s make Chiang Mai Man extinct.
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