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Heat with a Cool Heart

You may come to Thailand with a briefcase, an agenda, a mission--and, really, your knowledge is valuable, the linear knowledge of priorities and planning: It may indeed be eagerly awaited by your hosts. But it is their knowledge that pervades the air, and, unless you maintain a singularly impenetrable shell, it affects you.

It begins with the country's famous smiles, and with that little half bow, hands held together before the mouth, fingertips touching the nose, a gesture that, if you try it, not only expresses but also inspires humility. This is a culture in which deference and indirection rule. You sense at once that confrontation will get you nowhere. The politeness of the Thais cannot quite be called manners. It flows from the center of the culture, from the Buddhism that remains the almost universal religion of Thailand, despite the more recent pressures of the western world. Collisions of culture abound these days, of course, as the Thais westernize their economy, and life can prove frustrating for both sides. What sounds to American ears like useful advice can seem to a Thai a harsh rebuke. Days can pass while a proper path is found for such a message.

But one western custom has slipped easily into Thai society, and that is the custom we call golf. Much wry fun is made of Asians and their new interest in the game, and some of that interest, to be sure, derives from a a desire for status, or as one Thai put it, "meeting the who-the-who." But why should golf not be popular here?The Thais, especially, have centuries of spiritual training that makes them naturals at the inner game. What other sport places such a premium on controlling not others but oneself?And that, after all, is a large part of what the Thais strive to do.

Follow your breathe.

One's discovery of the tranquil side of life in Thailand can, admittedly, take a while. First comes Bangkok. The city provides almost every visitor's introduction to the country and it can be a daunting one. From the air, you may glimpse a cheerful if somewhat bizarre sight--the international airport is the only one in the world that sports a golf course between runways. (The course exists for the convenience of the Royal Air Force.) On the ground, Bangkok greets you with an overwhelming chaos. Economic development in recent years has far outrun the infrastructure--that would be the dispassionate way to put the problem. The practical effect is that you can watch the city's air deteriorate--it's not so much smog as unadulterated exhaust--as you languish forever in the traffic that generates this extraordinary pollution. Efforts at fixing Bangkok's congestion have so far only added to the problem. Construction of a new, not-yet-functioning mass-transit system has only made traffic worse. New freeways do speed up driving outside the city but someone seems to have forgotten to design exits, so that reversing direction or getting to a destination on the other side of the road can be life threatening. There is, all about, the usual third-world dissonance of hovels and high-rises.

Strangely, though, Bangkok's unlovely qualities yield to its charms. The city is an international place in the best sense: not "look-Mom-a-Gap" but a meeting ground for cultures that maintains a powerful sense of its own past. Orange-robed monks move among the business types on the sidewalk. Pungent, noodle-shop scents of chile and curry compete with the fumes of the street. A curious calm rules; horns are seldom heard in the stalled traffic, and one sees a little family of four somehow perched on a motorbike, weaving among the cars, all looking as cheery as if they were having a lakeside picnic. Beauty asserts itself in the sheer jumble of things, and so does the industry and inventiveness of the Thais. One street sells nothing but used car engines, imported by the shipload from Japan and destined for Saturday mechanics, the machinery stacked in such profusion that it looks like post-modern sculpture. Among the stuff arriving daily in the city are mountains of tropical flowers, and after dark a huge market for them opens, its scents redeeming the night air.

It helps, let's face it, to stay at one of Bangkok's several first-class hotels, and preeminently at the famous Oriental, with its cool, subdued interiors, its almost crazy superfluity of good-humored staff and its general air of festivity. Guests are glad to be here and they get happier as things keep going right. The clientele is largely western, but the tone entirely Asian, and you may become aware of the misguided urgency of our own hemisphere. The Oriental stands on the east bank of the Chao Phraya, the river that cradles the oldest part of Bangkok. With a secluded swimming pool, terrace dining and a nighttime ferry across the glimmering river to its restaurant, the hotel has the air of a seaside resort in the midst of the city.

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