Like a Movie
”Why would you go there? They eat bugs there. Rats are this big. Dragons walk through the parks. Mosquitos can kill you! And beware of cheats. They are lurking around every corner!” already mad at myself for traveling half the planet only to be robbed the minute I leave the plane, and to finally be killed by a tiger mosquito, I traveled to Thailand for the first time in 2018. After a few days of ridiculous timidity, I freed myself from all prejudices loaded by my acquaintances and the internet. It was not difficult to fall in love with a place where it is always summertime, and which carries the nickname ”Land of Smiling People”

By: Dragana Barjaktarević
Photo: Janko Počuča

Several hundred foreign movies were filmed in Thailand. It is no wonder my most frequent cry of amazement was: this is like a movie! To honor cinematography which fed my soul before my departure to Thailand, I used film geography to name the following three stories.

BEACH (The Beach, 2000)

In three Thailand winters, we visited five islands: Koh Phangan, Koh Lanta, Koh Chang, Ko Mak and Koh Tao. Five islands and five completely different stories.
Koh Phangan was the first encounter with paradise. Palm trees, coconuts, waves, fine sand, spectacular sunsets – everything you need for a beautiful wallpaper. It happened after the jet lag, the Bangkok rollercoaster, migrating to the north of the country, all-day excursions, two planes, buses, ferryboats and tumbling in an open trailer they call a taxi. Koh Phangan island is most famous for its Full Moon parties, but it remained in my memory as five days of forced laziness.
The second was Koh Lanta, closest to the Koh Pi Pi Island, where The Beach movie was filmed. We settled immediately next to Long Beach, a five kilometers long beach grown in scented pine. As if we did not just change our island, but also the part of the world. However, the variety of flora shows that Koh Lanta is one of the largest islands in Thailand. While one side is covered with pine trees, a jungle-like national park is on the other, ruled by skilled pickpockets – macaques monkeys. When I think of Koh Lanta, the first picture I see is a small quarrelsome primate stealing a coconut with a straw from my hand.
The following year, we visited two islands in the Thailand bay near Cambodia: Koh Chang, the third biggest island in Thailand and neighboring Koh Mak, which can be traveled by bike in two hours. Koh Chang, or at least its southern part with the charm of a Caribbean island, is another place where the only care in the world is: what to have for lunch today! According to the calendar, January is wintertime in Thailand, so the sun sets already at six. And since I knew that Belgrade minuses were waiting for me in a week, I chose to be in my swimsuit as long as possible, at the expense of hunger, so I delayed lunch for the golden hour. And the late lunch – Tom Kha (piquant coconut soup), Som Tam (very hot papaya salad), Pad Thai (national specialty no. 1 – fried noodles with chicken or shrimps) or any other adventure from the menu, served with dancing and singing of waiters in Warapura resort, with a view of the sun diving into the pastel sea and light music background – is not just a meal, it is an act of pure enjoyment, as well as my favorite memory from Koh Chang. A bit more tense experience followed in the small Koh Mak. Let alone the sand flees, fiery ants, screaming geckos, snakes, medusas and other tropical monsters I don’t even know the name of, but have excellent material for storytelling, I remember the island for its palm trees, with different heights and thickness, white, soft sand brought from the Maldives and, for the Believe it or not column – the most wonderful cappuccino with a coffee shop owner who bought Italian machines and escaped from the madness of the capital city to a side street of a miniature paradise.
Chronologically the last, but number one favorite: Koh Tao. The western part of the island, or to be more exact Sairee Beach, is a perfect balance of everything best from the previous stories: variety of flora, white sand, crystal clear sea, black round rocks resembling the ones from the Seychelles, hipster cafés and traditional restaurants, flags, lanterns and remaining New Year decorations, and, speaking of beasts, only colorful little fish and sea turtles our eyes caught at organized snorkeling.
More than twenty years ago, I was standing for the first time on the swimming pool diving board. Shall I, shall I not, and then, paralyzed by fear, I jump into the water. Then I repeated it another sixty times. A year and a half ago, I was standing on top of a catamaran that took us snorkeling. I wasn’t really comfortable when I saw where the sea was, but everyone had already jumped, so I could not give up. The refreshing splash took me straight back to childhood. It is not just enchantment by Koh Tao Island. Thailand generally has the power to remind you that a child still lives inside of you.

RAMBO (Rambo, 2008)

Most part of the Rambo action movie from 2008was filmed in the north of Thailand, in the rainforests of the Chiang Mai province. In terms of culture, religion, climate, gastronomy… Southeastern Asia is a different planet compared to Europe. However, all those differences are malted in an international metropolis such as Bangkok or in the islands which try to please tourists. I saw genuine Thailand in Chiang Mai.
The first time we went to Thailand, we determined that, since we were already traveling that far, we have to see everything. As soonas we began adjusting to the new time zone and accepting Bangkok, we were already packing our suitcases for Chiang Mai. We fairly paid back the dept to Bangkok in the following two years.
After dizzying Bangkok which scrapes the sky, the low buildings, narrow streets, Zen atmosphere and refreshing air of Chiang Mai literally took us into a new movie. The promoter on a stand around the corner noticed the amazement in our eyes, used it to hypnotize us and within five minutes, in bad English, sell us three must-visit tours. The following morning, while our ride for the first tour was more than half an hour late, all those warnings were echoing in our heads: Beware of cheats! They are lurking around every corner! However, our ride arrived that morning, as well as the following two mornings, and the tours were really an experience one shouldn’t miss.
The first excursion was hanging out with elephants. Domesticated elephants, used in the past for exploiting teak, became entertainment for tourists in Thailand. These animals, national symbols of the country, are often drugged in order to have a better selfie. Thus, there are more and more shelters in which it is possible to feed them with bananas and sugar cane or walk with them through the jungle. The star of the shelter we visited was a baby elephant with a fighting spirit called Jackie Chen. And that would be the only similarity with the action movie in my story from the jungle.
The following two excursions took us tracking to the lush rainforest, to wide rice fields and coffee plantations, as well as to the highest point of Thailand, where pointy peaks of the king’s and queen’s pagoda dive out from the clouds, to the white lace palaces of the previous capital of Chiang Rai, and finally to a boat trip through the Golden Triangle and short visit to Laos.

HANGOVER 2 (The Hangover Part II, 2011)

However, Thailand is not only paradise beaches and palaces. Thailand is also Bangkok, and Bangkok is, if you handle heat well, everything you can wish for. My Bangkok has nothing to do with the Hangover movie, or any other common tourist station. I have never been at the ”floating” market or seen the reclining Buddha, but visited my own temples: cultural centers, galleries, museums, a studio of a local artist and several art festivals.
While in Bangkok, it is impossible to stick to a predefined plan. Wherever you head to, three hundred various wonders will steal your attention along the way: bizarre Unicorn Café, colorful scooter museum House of La Dolce Vita, Wall Flowers Café with walls of flowers, five story gallery Palette Art Space, traditional Chinese house Lhong 1919, street market Art Box, glittering shop windows, convenient city decorations, because there is always something to celebrate, especially in winter, when three New Years come in a row…
In the first Bangkok tour, we were only learning how a city five times bigger than Belgrade functions. The second visit brought most excitement. The area was already familiar, and we knew exactly what we wanted to see – all available locations where the Bangkok Art Biennale settled. First, we headed to the Bangkok Center of Art and Culture. The Cultural Center is located near the BTS station Siam, which I believed was the city center according to the sweltering heat, traffic, pedestrians and numerous shopping malls. The semicircular modern building is divided in two parts. The first four floors are reserved for shops selling art equipment, graffiti shops, bookstores, art galleries, studios, conference rooms, cafés and souvenir shops. The fifth level is an atrium with another four floors – enormous spiral space exhibiting works of international and local contemporary artists. A tower made of a hundred­ colorful trash baskets was rising through the central part of the building during the Biennale. The Basket Tower installations was supposed to indicate that we are mostly satisfied with superficial happiness.
The next station was the Bang Rak district and the main artistic vein of the city – Charoen Krung Road. The Warehouse 30 cultural complex (extension of the Jam Factory cultural complex on the other side of the Chao Phraya river), ATT 19 artistic hub, Thailand Creative & Design Center, located in the post office building, where the Design Week was taking place at the same time, the wonderful East Asiatic Company Building, with a similar destiny of our Geozavod before its renovation, Art to Art, Speedy Grandma and my favorite Adler galleries, where you can often find works of famous street artists.
Another location from the list was the Bank of Thailand Learning Center, not really along the way, but a must visit, because Alex Face, the greatest local graffiti star was exhibiting in it within the Biennale. He presented himself with a sculpture of a gigantic baby with three eyes in a rabbit costume, peeking from a little house, which is at the same time a mini gallery of Alex’ oils dedicated to his fight for preserving the already pretty polluted Chao Phraya river. On the way back, passing by the Lumpini Park, we stumbled upon the Golocal festival of Thai culture, and within it the graffitiam, where Big Del and Joker, local artists we met the previous year, were drawing. Janko (known on Belgrade walls as Junk) got an opportunity to draw the following day, and a day later received an invitation from Alex to visit his studio.
Alex lives in the Bangkok suburbs, out of reach of the subway, in a place where you can breathe more peacefully. We traveled until the city lowered down to three floors, and then wandered suspiciously until we reached a fenced fancy oasis for well-off Thais. He welcomed us in his garage, contemporary studio, full of commenced works and sculptures. He was telling us about Japan, where he had just come back from, about what he was doing at the time, about his drawing babies with aged faced, because he was concerned about the environment his daughter was growing up in, how he became famous due to a lucky star, since an important buyer appeared at the right moment in the right place, but (since his daughter already came down to the studio) that it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t work very hard, because otherwise a lucky star doesn’t help. They served us ice-cream made of durian, known as the most stinky fruit on earth. On the list of forbidden things at entrances to museums, shopping malls, taxis, buildings, elevators… besides sharp objects and fire guns, there is always this fruit drawn. I wouldn’t say it stinks, but its scent is so strong, that you will certainly get dizzy at some point. The ice-cream was more of a fun experience, without which you don’t return from Thailand, and then they took us to dinner in a local restaurant, where we were probably the first white guests. The reclining Buddha is fifteen meters high and forty-three meters long, but I am certain this experience was much greater.
I close my eyes and: I see darkness speckled with green lights of fishing boats somewhere in the open sea; I’m in a boat passing through the Golden Triangle, whose axes are Thailand, Laos, Myanmar; I’m standing on the terrace of a bar on the 49th floor, watching a city spreading endlessly to all sides; I’m in a restaurant, dressed in a unicorn costume, eating waffles in colors of the rainbow… I close my eyes and collect particles of my own Thailand. They come in handy in these difficult times.


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