Sunday, December 24, 2006

Same, same ... but different

Fake The North Face jackets sold in shops in Thamel, Kathmandu’s backpacker district, reminded me of Bangkok.

Seeing The North Face, which specialises in outdoor clothing and equipment lines, was like deja vu. A few days before I flew to Kathmandu in Nepal for an assignment, I had seen similar counterfeit jackets in Bangkok’s MBK (Mah Boon Krong) shopping mall.

And walking through the overcrowded streets of Thamel, which was teeming with hundreds of restaurants, guest-houses, internet cafés, travel agencies and shops, I felt as if I was strolling through the packed Khao San road, which is Bangkok’s backpacker district.

The pirated Casino Royale DVDs, the Red Bull t-shirts, the Tibetan handicrafts retailed in Kathmandu and Bangkok also served as reminders that Nepal and Thailand share certain similarities.

Yes, Nepal and Thailand are two distinct countries. The differences are as obvious as a Nepali rupee and a Thai baht.

Nepal has a majority Hindu population while the Buddhists dominate Thailand. The country, which has the Himalayan mountains as a backbone, is landlocked while the country flanked by the Andaman sea has world-famous islands.

There is a gap between the purchasing power of Nepalis and Thais. Just compare the price of their two leading English newspapers. The Kathmandu Post costs Rs 3 (RM0.15) and The Nation 25 baht (RM2.50).

And although Bangkok is a cosmopolitan city, Bangkokians’ English proficiency is limited compared with the Nepalis residing in the developing-world city of Kathmandu.

Take the example of my experience in the genuine The North Face outlet in Siam Discovery Centre, which is one of the high-end shopping malls in Bangkok. Communicating with the attentive salespersons was frustrating as they could only speak limited English.

At the authentic The North Face outlet in Thamel, it was the opposite. The helpful salespersons spoke British-accented English and habitually used the word, “shall”.

Now for the similarities. Thailand and Nepal can proudly claim that in their nation’s history, they have never been colonised. Both countries have a monarchy.

The present kings of Thailand and Nepal ascended to the throne because bullets killed their brother. However, King Bhumibol Adulayadei is revered in Thailand while King Gyandendra is reviled in Nepal.

The 238-year Nepal monarchy may end next year when Nepalis decide on a new constitution. To paraphrase a famous saying, the writing is on the wall for Nepal's royal family.

Well, if you enter any building in Nepal, there are not as many portraits of King Gyandendra as compared to that of King Bhumibol in Thailand.

There’s no escaping Thailand in Kathmandu. There are shops offering Thai food and even ancient Thai massage.

The only difference was the “Gent for gent and lady for lady. That’s Nepali rule.” In other words, unlike Thailand where women are allowed to massage men, in Nepal, masseurs are only allowed to massage their own gender.

That’s an indication of how conservative Nepal is. Or, in the point of view of a conservative Nepali, how “free” Thailand is.

“Freeeer,” said a 29-year-old Nepali, who dragged the word as if to make it more “free” when asked what he thought of Bangkok.

His eyes twinkled when he spoke of his wild experience in Patpong.

“It is not like in Kathmandu. At 10pm, our nightspots are closed,” said the man who was on the flight from Bangkok to Kathmandu.

But as I walked at 2am to my hotel in Thamel, a nightspot blasting the distinctive music which drives dancers wild, made me recall what my Nepali friend had told me.

“Kathmandu can be wilder than Patpong,” he said, and quickly added, “That’s what my friends told me.”

I wouldn’t know. Although I saw a nightspot called Go Go Bar in Thamel, the 1°C nights of Kathmandu persuaded me that the electric blanket on my bed was more appealing.

In bed, I debated whether Nepal’s namaste (traditional Hindu greeting) was similar to Thailand’s sawatdee. It must be somewhat the same as Nepalis and Thais bring their hands together at chest level in greeting.

In this globalised world, Nepal and Thailand are like the slogan on the t-shirts hawked in Kathmandu and Bangkok, “Same, same ... but different.”

(Published in The Star on Dec 24, 2006)