Once upon a time, there was a utopia called Thailand…

by Rie Atagi

Let me tell you an old story that I often think of these days.

Once upon a time, there was a young fisherman called Taro Urashima. One day he found some kids toying with a turtle on the beach. He went to rescue and release the turtle to the sea. The following day, the turtle came back to invite Taro to his castle, Ryugujyo, in the sea. Taro went along with the turtle and met a beautiful princess, Otohime, who thanked Taro for rescuing the turtle and welcomed him with a feast, drinks, dance and music. Taro had a dreamingly good time. He didn’t know how long he had stayed there but he began to worry how his parents were doing. Taro asked the princess to take him home despite his desire to stay. She was sad but agreed since he was concerned about his parents. Upon his leaving, she gave him a gift box for his safekeeping, forbidding him to open the box. Taro went home, but he couldn’t find his parents, nor his home. He wandered around his village and found out his parents had passed away a long, long time ago. He was in despair. Out of loneliness, he opened the gift box the princess had forbidden to open. The smoke came out of the box and instantly Taro became a very old man.

This is a fairytale known to many Japanese, like Cinderella or Little Red Riding Hood. I am not sure if the story has lessons to teach, and if so, what the lessons are. Be good to the weak and you will get rewarded? Or you have to keep your promise otherwise you get punished? Or if you spend too long having too good a time, you lose important things like your parents or home? Actually, these lessons don’t make much sense to me, but my point here is not to talk about ethical precept of the story, but my theory of Ryugujyo being Thailand. Ryugujyo, a utopia in the sea where Taro had an euphorically happy time, entertained with feasts and music by a beautiful princess, and lost track of time, could have been in Thailand.


Let me explain my theory as follows:

Evidence one: Ryugujyo is a utopia in the sea. Thailand has many beautiful beaches, like those in Krabi, Samui, Phuket, etc. You name it. When you lie down on a white-sand beach looking over emerald-green sea under the blue sky, you forget all your worries. You are in a tropical paradise.

Evidence two: Endless feast. Thailand has an abundance of food. “In the water, there are fish. In the fields, there is rice.” I understand that this well-known stone inscription of King Ramkhamhaeng is a metaphor of prosperity of his reign, but I have seen this literally: There was a vacant land in front of my apartment, left wild for a while waiting for a new construction. One day I saw a man fishing in this lot, standing outside of the fence with a blue plastic bucket next to him. There was not a pond or pool there, but only puddles of rain water in the uneven soil. I had no idea what he was fishing and where the fish came from. There was a klong (small river) nearby but still a few hundred metres away. I tried to think hard how they were connected. Underwater? Flooding? But then, the phrase “In the water, there are fish” came to my mind and I was totally convinced that what I was seeing was not a metaphor.  

Evidence three: Hospitality. Taro was entertained by a beautiful Otohime and her companions’ singing and dancing. Well, this could indicate something more like an intimate relationship, but that is not my area of expertise and I would like to discuss it in a more general aspect. Thailand is the “land of smiles” and its major industry, tourism, is armour-plated by their smiles. Hospitality is Thai’s natural strength. When the BTS (skytrain) was introduced over ten years ago, what struck me was the passengers’ expression. They had a smile. They might have been simply excited to ride a brand new monorail in the city, yet this was a startling contrast to those in a big city I know: when you get on a commuter train in Tokyo, you find sombre faces, often with fatigue and grimness. But on the BTS, no one was frowning. They were serene and peaceful. I was amazed to find the “land of smiles” in a compartment of mass transportation. I was simply riding a train, but the tranquil ambience made me feel calm and happy. Isn’t it true hospitality?


Evidence four: Ryugujyo made Taro lose track of time. Thailand made me lose track of time. Thailand has no seasons. I’ve often heard Thais joke, “yes, we do have seasons, hot, hotter and hottest!” OK, that is one way of interpreting a season, and Thailand does have the rainy season and dry season, which have distinctive characteristics of climate. But I am talking about four seasons: flower-blossoming spring, sunbathing summer, autumn with fallen leaves and snowy cold winter. Thailand doesn’t have four seasons. A cycle of four seasons is an affirmation of one year’s passing for me. Without four seasons, you don’t notice that a year has passed. One year is a significant unit of time in life. We have the phrase, “accumulating annual growth ring”, indicating people become mature year-by-year by gaining experience. Unfortunately, I do not feel I have been “accumulating annual growth ring” to be wise. Rather I feel I am lost in perpetual summer. Yet, if I may say, I am feeling “forever young” like Taro in Ryugujyo.

Someone may ask me when this and that event happened. I try to recall, thinking it was recent, but my “recent” has a range of a couple of months to a few years. No matter how hard you try to trace the time, there is no quarterly indicator of time, like snow in winter or cherry blossom in spring. In Thailand, it is always hot. It is always summer. No season before or after. You cannot trace your past by seasons and your life is timeless. 

Have I persuaded you of my theory?

I know this is not a scientifically proven theory, but I feel as if I have lived a life of Ryugujo in Thailand. My life here has not been necessarily full of feasts, drinks, dance and music, yet still this is a tropical paradise and the land of smiles in an everlasting summer. You feel you are having a daydream, bitter or sweet, knowing someday you will wake up and open the forbidden gift box to realise years have passed.

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