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From Our Correspondent: In the Land of Make-Believe
Thailand's fashion victims and villains

October 30, 2000
Web posted at 4:00 p.m. Hong Kong time, 4:00 a.m. EDT

Anywhere else in the world, it would be an ugly scene. Big bikes, studded leather, boiled denim, long greasy hair, aviator shades and black SS helmets. Thailand's Hell's Angels cruise around Bangkok and Pattaya on Japanese motorbikes retro-styled with more of a debt to Harley Davidson than to BMW. Bikers gather at favorite watering holes to compare tattoos and recent piercings as they suck down bourbons, Beck's or maybe a sly Mekhong soda.

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With so many German tourists around, the Nazi helmets sometimes cause a bit of a stir in the letter columns of the English-language dailies. There is no record of how many visiting European pensioners have been traumatized in their gridlocked taxis by Oriental storm troopers roaring past. In the late 1980s, there was outrage — in fact pretty much a diplomatic incident — when some local yuppy entrepreneurs opened The Nazi Bar in Bangkok's trendiest nightlife enclave. Waiters goose-stepped around with swastikas on their arms, and the walls were decked out with Third Reich kitsch. It was mostly meaningless stuff. The paraphernalia of Nazism had arrived without much appreciation of its awful symbolism.

Not unlike a lot of modern Thai architecture, come to think of it. Lots of ghastly surface flash but no underlying substance and poor functionality. Plenty borrowed eclectically from abroad; much less digested and understood. And maybe that's no bad thing. Take the wannabe Hell's Angels. Instead of tying cats to their exhaust pipes for a quick scrape round the block, these tough nuts are more likely to give you a smile and polite wai. Sweet guys, actually. Good manners, too.

Appearances, however superficial, are tremendously important in Thailand. And seldom do they quite square with reality. Deception and illusion are a part of the fabric of life. Each morning, almost anywhere in Bangkok, large Volvos and BMWs depart from semi-derelict shophouses and townhouses. It's much more important to have a smart car than a decent house. After all, you can be selective about whom you choose to invite home, not about who sees you when you are out and about. A decent set of wheels projects volumes about your status and wealth — even if it's wholly illusory. Certainly it's an important consideration when so much of the working day is spent static in traffic jams. If you're going nowhere very slowly, at least do it in style. Of course, not everybody is so unsubtle.

The passion for smart cars may be surpassed only by the love of uniforms. Even the prime minister dresses up as a boy scout at least once a year. To judge from the scrambled egg on his hat and gold epaulettes the size of ironing boards, I recently crossed the path of a field marshal. Only after a crashing salute and smashing click of his heels did I make a correct identification: the car park attendant.

If Laos is the land of a thousand elephants, then Thailand is the land of 800 generals. And they do it in great style — even if few can ever recall exactly which victory Bangkok's portentous Victory Monument commemorates. (It was a brief spat in 1939 with the French over Laos.) The Thai military has some of the most peacock-like parade uniforms in the world. Canary yellow, shocking pink, midnight blue, pillar-box red. Watch them march on a bright day, and strong sunglasses are a must against migraine. One army chief (recently deceased) was so obsessed with maintaining the sharp lines of his uniform that he stored his cigarette packet in his sock. Legend had it that his staff had replaced his tunic buttons with zips and Velcro so that he could decant himself into his uniform each morning — in his mind, no doubt, a vision of creaseless khaki perfection.

Not surprisingly, it was a uniform that triggered Thailand's latest crisis in the clergy. A former abbot was defrocked last week after being caught in a spiffy colonel's uniform — Special Forces, no less — on his way to a most unmonkish rendezvous with a female friend Whatever the garb, neither monk nor soldier was he. A few weeks earlier, another abbot was filmed carousing at a nightclub wearing a wig and dark glasses. Something of a regular, his shaved eyebrows had apparently always piqued the interest of his many hostesses. He too got his marching orders.

If anything, appearances are becoming more deceptive. Unwitting tourists have forever been led astray by stunning Thai women who turn out to be men — or former men retooled as women. An Italian businessman even married one before discovering, to his immense embarrassment, that all was not quite as it appeared. Bangkok is becoming the sex-change capital of Asia. Even a few Westerners are arriving for sea, sun and a surgical change of body parts. No doubt the immigration department simply proffers an indulgent smile to all these odd foreign folk who have reinvented themselves during the course of a holiday.

But the locals are also heavily into reinvention. Affluent Thais have been indulging in nose and eye jobs for decades. Facelifts, bum reductions and bust expansions are booming. Colored contact lenses are popular, and in recent years there has been a full-blown epidemic of hair dying. Blond Thais are still fairly rare, but an enormous number of women have tinted their hair light brown, auburn or burgundy. The most anxious to challenge stereotypes go further. With her vivid purple mane, one of Bangkok's leading socialites is assured of never being lost in the crowd. Others prefer a more demure blue. The outrageous go for red.

Cultural xenophobes will blame all this on evil foreign influences, though for the most part it has much more to do with Thai exuberance and the enormous indigenous appetite for sparkle, fun and amusement. Some imports are nevertheless appalling and should be condemned. Young Thai fashion victims are clumping around on ankle-breaking platforms, a style that harks back to the dreadful fashions of the 1970s. Such shoes are about as attractive as a pair of strapped-on bricks, and look positively alien on Thais whose every gene is stamped with grace.

Some fashion effects are more amusing. The other day, a salesgirl brought me my change and fixed me briefly with her gaze. She had light-green cat's iris eyes and pink eyelashes. Her sweet smile and gracious bow quickly reminded me that this could only be Thailand. My mood was picked up enough for me to tip the field marshal in the car park on the way out.

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