A couple of years ago, I took a mid-winter break in India with the modest intent of catching the sun, warming the old bones in semitropical waters and sampling the culture of the country’s southwest, Kerala State, famous as the historic center of the spice trade and of having been the first landfall by Portuguese navigators, whose presence over a couple of centuries is still felt there in surviving architectural monuments.
I went there partly under the influence of the Incredible India advertising campaign which the Indian state has promoted rather heavily on Euronews and other media. Partly it was the influence of a 1997 novel by Arundhati Roy, one of India’s first great women writers, winner of a Booker Prize for The God of Small Things, which highlighted, among other points, Kerala’s status as the most literate part of India owing to long rule by the Communist Party.
As it turned out, what I experienced in India was one lengthy economics-political lesson on the dysfunctionality, incompetent governance and general chaos of the country, even in its richest city, Mumbai, where I spent several days, not to mention in provincial Kochi in the South. Day by day I came to understand why so many educated and middle class Indians have chosen to leave their homeland and take up residence on our shores, returning only periodically as visitors to the 5-star resort hotels where I stayed. I wrote up my observations rather fully in an article to which I now refer the reader – https://wordpress.com/post/gilbertdoctorow.com/241
Precisely because of the inflated image of India as the world’s largest democracy, and because of the presently quite negative image of Thailand among our European and American elites over its human rights record, ruling military junta and other violations of our values, I imagined as I set off on my 17 hour journey to Bangkok that besides sun and surf, my two weeks in the capital and on Phuket island in the south of the country could be instructive and not only pleasurable.
On that score, my hunch was correct and in this short essay I will explain what exactly was, is and obviously will long be the attraction of Thailand for tourism and also for real-life instruction in why our values can be dead wrong. Indeed, their values are the only ones that are relevant to judge the Thais, until such time as the peoples and religious groups populating Thailand may become more closely integrated in terms of wealth and cultures, and their system of governance evolves accordingly.
It was said of Henry Kissinger by way of criticism that he never met a dictator whom he did not like. A bit of exposure to the joys of Thailand under military rule might be the best antidote to such smirky remarks.
Finally, by way of introduction and in keeping with the general focus of my essays on Russian affairs, I have some words to say about Russians in Thailand.
Of all the European nations, the Russians are perhaps the most consistent in choosing locations for their holidays based on value for money, climate and general hospitality. With Russians, these considerations usually outweigh whatever terrorist threats, tsunamis or other mishaps may threaten any given tourist destination, not to mention the politics of that destination, which is furthest from their minds. The only way they could be dissuaded from traveling en masse to the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh after the terrorist bombing of one of their aircraft several years ago was for the Kremlin to order a halt to all charter flights to Egypt.
Given the priorities of Russians on vacation, it came as no surprise that two years ago I found almost no Russians in India on my visit there. The one Russian couple whom I met at the poolside cafe of the swank Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai were there only because their planned cruise was cancelled. They explained to me that with respect to India Russians only book Goa. That former colonial enclave, otherwise integrated into the Indian state, does not have dry laws as so many other states do. Unavailability of liquor aside, it may also be that Russians are not favorably impressed by the general ugliness and poverty of India, realities which they are happy to have left behind in their own past from twenty five years ago.
By contrast, Thailand is awash with Russians, mostly those coming for a couple of weeks of sunshine as I did, but also those who have settled down and run hotels serving their fellow countrymen among other businesses. In Bangkok, the airport information panels are written in Thai, English and Russian. The billboards positioned along major highways warning visitors not to blaspheme by showing lack of respect for the image of Buddha are rendered in Russian as well as English versions.
In Phuket, restaurants, hotels and other public services all have menus and general information in Russian. Often they have some Russian-speaking local staff. In this regard, Russians have largely displaced Germans, British, and Scandinavians who had the resorts to themselves in the period twenty years ago when I first visited here. In our family-oriented Kamala Beach, young Russian couples with their toddlers predominated. Their accents told me they came not from Moscow or St Petersburg but from provincial Russia. And so Phuket has become a kind of “Sochi South” during the harsh Russian winter.
But then again, Russian-Thai relations did not begin last week. Siam as it was formerly known, had a special relationship with Russia going back to the 19th century. Their King Chulalongkorn met with Tsar Nicholas II in St Petersburg during his first Grand Tour in 1897. And one of his sons studied in the Russian Page Corps, married a Russian lady and brought her back to the royal court. In that period the Siamese also had close relations with Germany and England.
The other big tourist flow in Thailand today is Chinese from both mainland China and from the worldwide Chinese diaspora. That flow builds on still deeper historical roots. The Chinatown in Bangkok is ancient and vibrant today. Indeed, overall Chinese account for 15% of Thailand’s population of 68 million.
Since the mainland Chinese visitors tend to come in groups and are shepherded into dedicated hotels and restaurants and since their tour buses take them to the interior for elephant rides and to shopping rather than leaving them in peace on the beach, their presence is not felt as clearly as the Russians. Of course, the Chinese, like the Russians, are quite indifferent to local politics.
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My single greatest impression of this visit was the sheer delight of smiles. The climate is, of course, a factor. As I know very well from living in Belgium, on a good day of spring or summer when the sun happens to be out, even generally dour Belgians become animated and sociable, and…may share a smile.
The near equatorial climate of Thailand ensures plenty of sun and warmth. And then we are told there is the influence of Buddhist culture, with its emphasis on getting along and giving no offense. While these ever-present smiling faces of the Thai may be a culturally imposed mask, that in no way diminishes their effect on the visitor who, willy-nilly, responds in kind. I have not smiled as much in the preceding six months in Northern Europe as I did in two weeks in Thailand, with all the related impact on my sense of wellbeing.
My first visit to Bangkok was back in 1996, and upon entering the city again on the route from the new airport to the center of town, I was amazed by how it has changed. What had been a low-rise city now enjoys a skyline punctuated by dozens of high office and residential towers in all directions, with construction cranes visible at every turn of the highway.
Official statistics indicate that in the twenty plus years leading up to the Asian financial crisis of 1997 which began there, Thailand enjoyed one of the world’s most dynamic economies. To be sure, the time of political turbulence that began in 2004 and the military coups d’état of 2006 and 2014 brought down the pace of economic growth, though it remains enviable on a world scale today. The export led economy is diversified across agriculture, fishing and industrial manufactured goods including cars; it is world-beating in certain sectors. Unemployment is negligible and, as I say, the cranes attest to an ongoing construction boom, at least in the capital, which now has a recorded population of more than 8 million in the city limits and 14 million in the greater metropolitan area.
Bangkok is not a pedestrian-friendly city. The multifunctional tower complexes, like the new indoor malls and longtime specialized street markets are islands in a sea of vehicular traffic. In this respect, it is not very different from Los Angeles, from Moscow back in the ‘90s or from a great many other major cities in the developing world. On side streets in particular sidewalks may be non-existent and only tourists and construction workers make their way on foot. Moreover, the six-lane or eight-lane thoroughfares which divide up the city have no pedestrian overpasses or underpasses, so that getting from one side to another is problematic.
The islands of glittering towers are set back from the boulevards in open plazas. The prestigious districts such as the foreign embassy quarter where my high-rise hotel was located, are uniformly well landscaped and well-guarded, with security personnel quite visible. In this regard, Bangkok is in total contrast with what I saw in India.
In Mumbai no building or street was so wealthy as to be spared the clutter of shanties and the milling to and fro of the homeless at street level. The notion of women going out alone in Mumbai was unthinkable for security reasons. The situation was so dire that even the city’s beautiful public beaches were totally empty due to widely reported youth gangs of rapists who descend on the city center each day from the hinterland. As for Indian women, their bird in a gilted cage status contributes to the mobility problems of the middle and upper class ladies whom I encountered everywhere.
Nothing of the sort could be said of women in Bangkok, not to mention the southern resorts. Moreover, the integration of women into the labor force at all levels was striking. Even on the construction sites, women wearing hard hats were ubiquitous. And in many restaurants, there was no question but that the real boss was the hefty lady running the barbecue or standing behind the cash register.
Throughout Bangkok, taxis were plentiful, mostly recent vintage Toyotas manufactured locally. Add to that the fleet of tuk-tuks. These were originally simple open sided vehicles propelled by two-stroke scooter motors but they are now evolving from three wheel to four-wheel versions and are beginning to approach pick-up truck chassis status. Then there are the traditional passenger vaporetti on the Chao Phrava River that snakes its way through the city center. But the most impressive urban transit is the elevated metro, the BTS Skytrain.
The air-conditioned Skytrain is vitally important for getting from one end of far-flung Bangkok to another in predictable time given the ever-present vehicular grid-lock on the ground. The ticket prices are not cheap and yet the trains are well filled, as I discovered. The atmosphere on board was polite, with no pushing. The public address system reminded riders in both Thai and English that they should give up seats “to those in greater need.” By all appearances, this advice was being followed by fellow riders.
Bangkok is a center of commerce, industry and services. One specific niche which bears mention is medical services. “Medical tourism” represents a tourist flow all by itself, and its significance was striking even in my brief sojourn in the capital. As it turned out, my high-rise apart-hotel is part of the medical services industry. Many of its rooms appear to be occupied by long-term residents from abroad, elderly and disabled men in particular, who are taken on their short walks at ground level each day by their Thai health-carers. I discovered on a short walk in the blocks adjacent to my hotel that the second and third floors of a nearby multifunctional office tower are entirely occupied by small medical centers specialized in cosmetic surgery. Thailand is known as a world’s leading center for sex-change operations.
After the tumult of Bangkok, Phuket was as relaxing a resort island as one could hope for. It very quickly recovered from the reputational and physical damage of the December 2004 tsunami that put it on the world news at the time. Today there are more than 9 million visitors to Phuket a year and the region is a significant contributor to the 15% of the Thai GDP that derives from tourism.
Early January is peak season for Phuket, and yet tourist facilities were not strained. Our beach at Kamala always had free lounge chairs for hire and was perfectly clean. Restaurants had no lines for seating and the featured seafood for evening meals – locally caught sea bass, red snapper, bonita tuna, crabs, rock lobsters and giant tiger shrimp – were fresh and prepared by the chefs with care.
Going back to my first visits here in 1996 and again at the turn of the millennium in 2000, Thailand and Phuket in particular was not cheap. It is not cheap today, with prices in the major international hotel chains on the Kata beach very similar to those you might find in the Caribbean or in the Gulf States at peak season. However, four and three star accommodations in less known beaches may be a third less expensive and offer outstanding value.
Whatever the category of lodgings, all visitors to the Phuket resorts enjoy the unforgettable celebration of New Year’s arranged by the local authorities. Thousands of Chinese lanterns are launched from the beaches and create magical constellations as the wind carries them to and fro on their ascent. The midnight fireworks up and down the coast is a great treat.
I mentioned already that Kamala beach where I stayed with my grandchildren is family oriented. However, Phuket is welcoming to all kinds of tourists. At the far end of Kamala, there is a large complex of discos that draws in a numerous gathering of singles every day and night. From hearsay, I understand that densely settled Patong Beach twenty minutes by tuk-tuk from Kamala always had its attractions for sex tourism. Judging by what you see in bars, fresh or not so fresh young Thai women are available there for two week romances with middle aged European visitors.
One of the changes to note on Phuket from the time of my last visit in January 2000 is the “coming out” of Islam. Officially Thailand is 94% Buddhist and 4% Islamist. But until the nation’s period of civil disturbances began in the Muslim south in 2004 there was no way to know for sure who was who. Today, one does not have to guess. The substantial Muslim minority in Phuket is visible by dress of the women, or from the ‘As-salamu alaykum’ exchanges between men that you can overhear on the street. . That said, you do not see many mosques, do not hear muezzins such as have taken over the days and even the nights in India’s Kerala State, as I discovered.
In conclusion, Thailand today embodies a strong argument in favor of an open-minded approach to national traditions and systems of governance that are different from our own. The Davos Culture notion of a single set of tracks leading all nations to an identical set of values in the foreseeable future is patently mistaken. What counts more for the vast majority of people is competent economic management bringing growing prosperity to all and a spirit of tolerance that allows all citizens to enjoy their private lives in peace.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019