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The good news is that it feels good to be in Thailand, a place I once lived for some ten years or so, depending on how you count it. The incorrigible wackiness and petty racial nuisance of being a “farang” in a foreign land where such things matter is easily overcome by the gentleness of the culture and handsomeness of its people… where such things matter. What I don’t like is the rainy season, and it’s not getting any better. A couple nights ago I had to drive through a flood with water almost entering the car, no fun, some of the scariest moments of my life, in fact. I couldn’t believe we made it where other cars were dying left and right. I didn’t sleep much that night.
Given the current idiosyncrasies of the American political and economic dilemma it’s tempting to be encouraged by the fact that there might be some place or places in the world that are worse… but not really. Such nonsense as the current debates over health care, economic justice, and senseless violence—not to mention multiple fronts in a series of never-ending wars—are the stuff of Grade-B science fiction. But yes, there are places in worse shape, mostly in the Third World. And for all its self-styled rep as the Land of Smiles, Thailand—along with many others—would probably fall into that category. Despite the fact that hundreds died for democracy in 1992, the real thing seems farther away than ever.
It’s complicated. The students that wanted democracy then don’t want it now, because it’ll get you a populist megalomaniac multimillionaire who acts essentially as dictator due to his base of support among the impoverished peasantry, where votes are bought and sold for a few dollars a pop and people seem to like having a Big Man whose larger-than-life presence is so reassuring that a shadow government run by his cutie-pie sister and a handful of henchmen can still run the country as effectively as the opposition. And of course they do have a national health care system—unlike even some developed countries—thanks to that same popular populist and his deep pockets, so that helps. Ending the violence in the Islamic south is another matter entirely. Neither major political party has a pair that big nor the grey matter to deal with the problem effectively.
But that’s politics. Society is another matter. Not long ago Thailand was so awash in drugs, prostitution, and corruption, that it seemed nothing could even conceivably ever change all that. As a Buddhist society there is a certain amount of tolerance and passivity built into the system. Of course there is also a certain amount of negativity. What do you expect from a religion whose first tenet is, “Existence is suffering.” Ouch! Thai Buddhism makes original sin look like a picnic in the park. The religious reductio ad absurdum that follows from the premise that we’re all sinners takes different turns in different places. If that means horrendous restrictions on the rights of women in Islamistan, and not much more than some vestigial guilt in the Western Lands, in Thailand and much of SE Asia, it’s more like “WTF—carpe noctem,” complete with little white lies to Mama-Papa and appropriate back-filling of logic to oneself to assuage the guilt of not-so-original sin.
The idea that one can be anything one aspires to be and that we should all be all that we can be is slow to catch on in a society where conformity is the norm and paths of least resistance are the paths most frequently taken. To follow a preexisting business model is the business model, which partially explains why enforcement of intellectual property rights in the ‘hood here is so difficult. What intellect? What property? What rights? So women spend money on lipstick and powder instead of education and careers, and society happily clambers down the path to its LCD’s—liquid crystal displays and lowest common denominators. The value of a human life is well-known, and that of a woman is much less than that of a man. For an older woman it’s almost nothing, of course, so women have to stick together. This is not the popular Western conception of “trafficking,” mind you—though that happens, too, sometimes—just women making bad choices, over and over and over, until Mr. Right comes along… yeah, right.
Poor business models are not all bad for the consumer, of course. The fact that one modern coffee shop here looks just like the coffee shop across the street with similar menus and prices and interior design means that if I do happen to pass that way, then I certainly won’t fail to notice. Too bad there’s not one in my neighborhood. Maybe one day one of them will even realize that most people drink their serious coffee in the morning… but that could take years before someone finds an appropriate model to copy.
This is all part of what I call “village communism,” living within a house of mirrors and the opinions and judgment of your neighbors, mostly having to do with the accumulation of wealth, the more the better, as long as you don’t lose face in the process. The logical conclusion to this model is one street for stationery, one for hardware, one for groceries, one for restaurants, and one for bars, etc. As one fails or prospers, then so do they all. Other consequences are not so good. No one really even notices when the dancing girls bring their little dog-and-pony shows right on the temple grounds, at least not at first. Where’s a money changer when you need him? All that’s changing… slowly.
It comes with the turf. When Japan was the big shot in the neighborhood back in the 80’s, Thailand and others got some benefit by association and their first economic “boom”… ever, to my knowledge. When that faded after a decade, and the Afghani Taliban sent the prices of White Powder Ma up here in the Golden Triangle soaring in the 90’s, Thailand was right back in the cesspool. China should be able to deliver a benefit longer and stronger than that—given the genetic relations—as long as they mind their political ม’s and ย’s. The business class in Thailand—and everywhere in SE Asia, for that matter—is and always has been Chinese-descended. The difference with other countries is that here it’s also been gene-shuffled, so that after a generation or two, Chinese people here “become Thai.” Would that it were so easy for us “Farangs.”
So, while life continues a slow if familiar pace up here in the north at Chiang Rai, the changes are palpable, if a bit long in coming. Gone are the sex shows in many a bar’s back room. Gone are the go-go dancers—most of them, at least. Bars themselves have been removed from the ever-popular and generally family-friendly “night bazaar.” There’s even a weekend street-long arts and crafts market, copied from Chiang Mai, of course. With the collapse of an export handicrafts market, this is essential to maintain traditional skills and products. Bars in general are in decline, while coffee shops are on the increase… and they make a mean frozen blended espresso drink I might add (though none dare call it “Frappucino™”). And marketing madness still rules, as always, a cure-all pill in every medicine cabinet and a 7-11 on almost every block. The psychology department of the local bookstore will explain it all to you.
So the future is bright for Thailand, economically at least. A solid and successful free and open market trumps a black one any day by some law of economics that I’m still working on. Unfortunately there are still one or two white elephants in the room yet to be dealt with. One is named Thaksin, of course, the fugitive financier ex-PM that has set the country back decades politically with his power grab and subsequent expulsion from the country, where he now rules by proxy and a clear majority. The other is the King, whose death will set a series of events into motion the likes of which this country—maybe even this world—has never seen before. But I can’t talk about that, because that would be against the law. It’s complicated.
Perhaps even more annoying, though, is the poor quality of products here and the general perception that nothing really works, not the way it’s supposed to, anyway, electrical systems especially. I turn on the light switch and it finally comes on…four hours later. Most annoying is that when there’s lightning it’s strongly advised not to use the TV. They tend to explode. Electricity is not grounded here, running wild and subject to surges and spikes. Computers get it bad. It storms a lot here, too, especially in the season. They explain on Thai TV how to ground your appliance: drive a metal rod deep into the ground, etc. etc… Repeat for every sensitive piece of equipment. Welcome to Thailand.