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Heat with a Cool Heart

What, amidst all this gentle decorum, explains the country's long history of accepted prostitution?It cannot be blamed on the tourist trade, though so much has been made of the sex bars that most westerners feel compelled to visit notorious Patpong. This by now has become an occasion for striking a worldly pose. "I do want to see the darts!" says a young Irish woman, and the vaginal athletes who launch the darts, or the ping-pong balls (as well as performing explicit sex), are easily found on side streets of the district. It is hard to imagine that anyone now goes here for erotic purposes; instead you have the amusing, but not necessarily less decadent, spectacle of an audience full of would-be anthropologists.

The prostitution that is valued by the Thais themselves happens in the more upmarket "massage parlors," where the pleasures start at "body-to-body" massage. An American who has been living in Thailand for some time gave me a sort of "don't knock it if you haven't tried it" talk on this subject, explaining that sexual life was really very tidy in Thailand: A man had a wife, a long-term mistress or "minor wife," and the massage parlors. There were no messy affairs. My friend made a sophisticated argument. But, as I discovered, it takes more than a minor cultural adjustment to enter with equanimity one of the better massage parlors and to see the twenty or thirty girls, each seeming so young, dressed in demure frocks as if for a school dance--all arrayed in a brightly lit room behind a glass wall, like so many pastries in a case.

It's not as if the sex industry threatens to become a live issue in Thailand at the moment; if anything, the country is in a mood to protect all that is distinctively Thai, sordid or not. In the early part of this year, only one topic seemed important in Bangkok: the faltering economy. In recent months the baht had lost half of its value. It was enough to start a re-examination of national values, and an upwelling of nostalgia for a culture somewhat eroded by the West.

Many in the Thai business community have taken the view that Thailand needs to forge closer ties with its neighboring countries, to be suspicious of Europe and America. A Thai social philosopher, Prawase Wasi, goes further. He has recently urged his country to reject much of western capitalism altogether, and to return to traditional ways--both economic and philosophical. The western concept of GDP ill suits the "land of happy smiles," he said. Thais should measure their success instead in terms of GDH, gross domestic happiness. "If we compete on GDP standards, we can never win against the United States. . . . [But] we might already be happier than the Americans." He reminded his countrymen that, as the Buddha taught, all things flow from the right view, or sammaditthi. "Let us find our own path of development," he suggested, "which, unlike the present economic system, nurtures human values."

Even the innocent game of golf has come in for some criticism. The Economist magazine opined not long ago that the past season's economic difficulties in Asia could be symbolized by golf--an "unproductive" investment, and a venue for cronyism. It is widely believed that the course has become a favorite spot for bribes that take the form of the broad-wink wager. ("A million baht says I will sink this forty-footer. Too bad! I lose!") Even in the depths of this winter's financial despair, though, it hardly seemed that things had gotten so dire in Thailand that its legions of new golfers were going to retreat.

The best golf in the country, by general agreement, is found at the Blue Canyon Country Club on the island of Phuket, the championship course that was the site of the Johnnie Walker Classic earlier this year. Once you and Bangkok have fought to a draw, it is worth making the short flight to this haven--for the golf, for the sun and the water, perhaps for the massage on the beach, for the tranquillity. Between the rigors of the Blue Canyon course and the indulgences of one or another of the island's many resort hotels, you can put together a week or two of highly enlightened rest on Phuket.

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