Seven weeks in Bangkok

Although like most Westerners I’m attracted to the idea of overcoming craving, I spent 90% of my stay in Bangkok suffering from an insatiable yearning for deep sleep and iced refreshments. The fact that Thailand is a Buddhist society is thrust upon you as soon as you leave the airport, in the form of billboards sternly warning you that although it might be calming to place a craven image of Mr Buddha (fat version) in between the plant pots or adorning your upper left buttock, this is very actively discouraged, in fact it’s actually illegal to buy religious symbols as a ‘decoration’. Such ‘respect for Buddha is common sense’, admonishes the poster. It’s the kind of evocation of common sense which would make Pierre Bourdieu cough up his tam yang soup. Symbols of Buddhist faith do nowadays play an important decorative role in Western lives and households. What the relationship is between such images and actual faith and practice is a very moot question.

Maybe the authorities should also put up signs against selfies at buddha shrines. It’s easy (and fun) to sneer at such misplaced displays of self-centredness. It would also be unfair (as I did at one point) to complain that Thailand is less the land of smiles than the land of selfies. As it happens I identify with a lot of Buddhist philosophy and have a lot of respect for those who genuinely try to live according to its precepts, particularly renouncing one’s individual will. Just this morning I came across a quote from the Buddha: “Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most”. As it turns out, on tracking down that saying I see it’s fake, as is a lot that Westerners believe about Buddhism. In a classic article which he really should have called ‘Western Buddhism and the Spirit of Neoliberalism’ Slavoj Žižek argued that in contemporary Western ideology Eastern religions play much the same role as Weber (Max, not Lloyd) argued that Protestantism did in the development of capitalism*. They underpin an individualist mentality of detaching oneself from social responsibilities, particularly the moral consequences of one’s actions. You can spend 16 hours ruining lives by pushing innovative forms of debt enslavement in the City and then go home, close your eyes and pretend that reality is a mere illusion. To be fair my position had softened on this, but I do still think that those who persist in the belief that Buddhism is inherently more tolerant and peaceful need to take an honest look at what’s happening in Burma. The attitude of the Chinese authorities to religion has also changed. The former leader Jiang Zemin was keen on allowing Christianity to spread in the belief (also pace Weber) that it promoted industriousness. The current leaders seem to be taking a different tack, urging Party followers to stick to Marxist-Leninist atheism and restrict their contact with religious belief to eating members of the Falun Gong.

Maybe they should ask you at Bangkok Airport if you’ve come to nourish your body or your soul. I wasn’t there on a spiritual sojourn, but to accompany my wife while she did a summer course at the university. It wasn’t my first visit. In January 2005, in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, me and my then girlfriend abandoned our plans for a beach holiday and instead spent several weeks on the west coast helping tourists locate their loved ones and rebuilding fishing boats with our teeth while using our hands to bottlefeed orphaned children. The language was no problem, we picked it up in a couple of hours. The highlight was when I received a gold medal from the King, who became a close personal friend and subsequently introduced me to Michael Jackson, with whom I (retrospectively) wrote ‘Earth Song’.

Some of the preceding paragraph is not true. There were probably tourists who sacrified their time and energies in such a way. We (shamefully) took our lead from George Bush after 9/11 and ‘supported the economy’ on the relatively corpse-free west coast. Maybe it was the heat bearing down from the Thai sun or rising up from the bowls of Tam Yung, but my memories of our actual holiday are vague. As we were living in China at the time, the ease of finding transport and accommodation came as a pleasant shock and we were overwhelmed by how friendly and cooperative everyone seemed to be, especially when it came to providing us with smoothies and toasted sandwiches. I quite liked Bangkok, including the backpacker enclave of the Kaoshan Road. The Sukhumvit area was relaxing to walk around and the presence of the occasional street elephant impressed me, although the animals themselves didn’t seem to be massively enjoying themselves, except when they were producing tsunamis of steaming elephant wee.

In London over the years I had lots of Thai students. I’d sometimes gently oblige them to do a neat party trick, which was to recite the full name of their capital city, which is basically a massive list of everything of significance in the place. People’s names are also not what you might think. For years I had no idea how complicated the whole thing was and arrogantly insisted on using their ‘first’ names. It’s actually far more respectful to call Thai people by their chosen nicknames, even though my students were had invariably chosen things like Rabbit or Blue. The most common surname by far was Porn and we had one student who unwittingly glorified in the name Bumsick. Again, it’s easy to make fun, until we recall that the name of the current US President is a synonym for bottom burp, two of his predecessors were called Bush and the present UK Prime Minister shares almost her entire name with a scuzzy porn star.

Even the smiliest Thai person must get frustrated at being asked about the same old prurient clichés, particularly about ladyboys and the social role of women-who-work-as-prostitutes. One night our group of humanitarians and alternative thinkers ended up in a strip bar on the street called Soi Cowboy. We tried to join in with the hilarity but I’d read too much about the background to have a lot of fun. There is a mythology that sex workers are more respected back in their home villages. I hope it’s true and that they’re not coerced. It’s also nice to think I would never have to take my clothes off and waggle my arse in the face of fat German tourists. That whole supply and demand thing is probably a key factor.

My experience of the Thai language was actually kind of refreshing, in that it was a relief not to pretend that I fitted in. Learning any new language is always a great game but I was reminded how difficult it is to start, to get past the stage where you can get a phrase out but not understand a word of the reply. Were I there for more than a few weeks I would tried harder (try saying that in Thai) but as it is I felt grateful when people responded in English. It made a change from feeling resentful, as I often do in countries where I do speak the language and someone addresses me or replies in English. Given the immense linguistic and cultural gap, in Thailand calling yourself an expat makes sense. Although I vastly prefer the word ‘foreigner’ it would be misleading and absurd to put yourself in the same social category as a enslaved Burmese refugee peeling prawns for British supermarkets or a Pakistani Christian asylum seeker terrified of arbitrary deportation. A lot of English language culture is nonetheless very bland, filling out that nebulous category of ‘international’: soulless hotel bars, vapid pizzas, what should really go by the name of “Mexican” “food”. I joked with a random person we met at an expat meetup about how all we have in common is our language – for all we know, we could be talking to an arms dealer! He turned out to be basically an arms dealer, one who lives in Oman and occasionally comes to Bangkok for the (nudge nudge) ‘recreation’.

Maybe (to be generous) he meant the shopping. It’s incongruous that the authorities are so fussy about the statues because they are, like everything else, very much for sale in endless parades of cavernous malls. If you didn’t know Bangkok was the capital of a Buddhist society you might mistake it for a gigantic monument promoting human cravings. Parts of it felt distinctly like Canary Wharf. The absence of parks and the presence of the Sky Train above congested roads makes for a heavy and frenetic atmosphere and what starts as a five minute stroll to seek out yet more international adaptors can quickly drain you of physical and mental strength. The BTS trains themselves provide some relief from the heat as they are kept at a constant temperature of -273.15C.

Two cities that make for useful comparison are Bangkok and Mexico City. Before going to the former we spent a year living in the latter. There are obvious point in common (heat, traffic, spices, political chaos) but in terms of walkability the Mexican capital is (relatively speaking) paradise, with its abundant green spaces and (where we were living) leafy boulevards We were also lucky to spend ten days in Cuba, where the heat was often unbearable. We are making a sterling contribution to global overheating by virtue of our globetrotting. We will have some great travelling stories to regale our daughter with should we be able to stop gasping for air long enough to share them.

There are also some nice, quiet parts of Bangkok: some pleasant side streets and the teak mansion which that silk guy who used to be in the CIA called home. The night markets (particularly JJ Green’s) are a charm and a joy. Some of them are actually less markets, more shopping centres, because if there’s one thing which absolutely everyone loves, it’s more shopping centres.

I tried to take an interest in Thai politics but it’s a murky affair and it’s hard to work out who the least-bad guys are. The whole red and yellow t-shirt thing may be, well, colourful to outsiders but those colours are indications of treacherously deep rifts in society exploited by those with the means to do so. From a very voluble taxi driver I heard the best argument against democracy I’ve ever encountered. He explained cheerfully that given the immense power of Thailand’s version of Berlusconi (Taksin Shinswatra, who, when ousted from a military coup, simply put his sister in charge of his party – the army stepped in to cancel an election she would have won) there is simply no alternative at present to military rule (a fascinating and detailed background can be found here). In the light of Trump’s rise and Rupert Murdoch’s victory in the UK referendum it was hard to argue back.

At the Foreign Correspondent’s Club we saw a poster for an intriguing upcoming event discussing free speech in the light of the upcoming constitutional referendum. It was subsequently banned by the regime, which didn’t want people discussing what they’d be voting on. While we were there things were calm but there was a certain nervousness around the King’s health (he subsequently died in October). This is something that it is immensely hard to talk to Thai people and it would be wrong to joke about, especially given that the university hosting us is known as the ‘pillar of the Kingdom’.

In our brief interactions with people in uniforms we noticed a certain harshness of tone. Traffic policement were uniformly brusque, as if no one told them about the smile thing. Being snarled and barked at by people in khaki became a daily experience. The brutal treatment of those who challenge or offend authority both contrasts and is intertwined with the tweeness of official state promotion. The current Prime Minister is a retired general who gives regular speeches on ‘returning happiness to the people’ (he also write a ballad of the same name) and said of those who oppose his regime “Whoever causes chaos to Thailand or disrupts peace and order, they should not be recognised as Thais, because Thais do not destroy each other…The charm of the Thai people is that they look lovely even when they do nothing, because they have smiles”. This reminds me of General Wiranto, the sadistic Indonesian general with his love for karaoke. The documentary ‘The Act of Killing’ also exposes this deeply sentimental aspect of authoritarianism. Autocrats have a necesarilly limited and often puerile emotional range. An entertaining complement to Peter York’s classic coffee table book on dictators’ houses would be one on their music collections. I suspect that Trump’s CD rack contains a fair few Whitney Houston discs – ‘American Psycho’ Patrick Bateman (a character partly modelled on Trump) was obsessed with the production on her debut album. If he gets to lead the G7 I can imagine him, Putin, and Duterte joining in on a rousing version of ‘The Greatest Love of All’.

The course my wife was on was about Peace Studies. On a field trip down south the group was chaperoned by the army. The episode gave us an insight into how autocracy works: the military politely asked if someone could come along, and the organisers of the trip were in no position to say ‘no’. Those who work in human rights exhibit immense bravery and intelligence in the face of outright repression. The history of Thailand in the 1970s involves a communist insurgency partly inspired by the massive presence of US troops, soundtracked by bands like Caravan and marked by massacres of radical students. It puts me in mind of Costa Rica’s role in relation to the Contra death squads in Nicaragua. Thailand may famously have remained formally independent for centuries but its history is certainly not free of geopolitical compromise.

The imperial struggle to win over young people’s hearts and minds continues in other forms. One weekend towards the end of my stay an ‘Edutech’ festival took place on campus, the central theme of which seemed to be: “let’s get rid of teachers!”. Let the students eat laptops instead. Upcoming TEFL guru Hugh Dellar wrote an excellent diatribe against big business’s ongoing takeover of education here. Apart from the odd exchange I had little contact with the university students themselves. The atmosphere around the residence felt a little twee, or maybe that’s my sulky impression as for the first few weeks I couldn’t seem to find anywhere to buy beer.

The area next to where we were staying is being transformed from a filthy storage place for heavy industrial machinery into spick and span student apartments surrounded by manicured lawns and immaculate, if empty, bijoux shopping malls. I came across a friendly cafe several grubby street away whose owner was recently turfed off the campus to make way for shinier, newer things. There’s big money in international education. Another cafe just next to our building employed two charming Cambodians who spoke less English than anyone else I have ever met (although my command of their language is considerably  worse – at least they knew how to say ‘hello’). An extended stay in the orient is, as Edward Said taught us, an object lesson in trying to essentialise, to see everything as (in this case) quintessentially ‘Thai’. Any society houses hidden tensions and exclusions. Bangkok is a primate city, which means it attracts huge numbers of immigrants, some of whom, especially those from the Esan region in the north-east near Laos, are not always well treated. Most people would also prefer to live near the centre, in the place where we were privileged to be staying, rather than spending inordinate numbers of hours on various cramped and stuffy forms of public transport.

I lived a charmed life for the few weeks I was in Bangkok. Since I was in the midst of a swimmimg mania, my daily schedule involved an hour-long dip rewarded with a smoothie and toasted sandwich followed by a sunblasted stagger to the MBK shopping mall to seek out even cooler drinks, even more breathable garments and ever-spicier rice and noodle dishes, followed by a few desultory hours of dozy work interspersed with shouting at people who might be racists on Twitter. Although I did survive the heat, get paid for the work and achieve a relatively deep and even suntan, my one-man online campaign against Brexit failed to have any meaningful impact. Proof, if any more were needed, of the ultimate ineffectiveness of all human endeavour. Or maybe further evidence that Twitter is not an appropriate forum for combatting incipient fascism, especially when you happen to be thousands of miles away from where the events you’re ‘debating’ are taking place.

*If you’re in the market for a a imponderable conundrum to meditate on, that sentence may well be it.

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