Monday, 31 May 2010

Thailand: A country like no other.


You are the Prime Minister of a country and what do you say to yourself every morning when you look in the mirror?
“I am the Prime Minister of a country whose economy runs on women selling and men buying.”

I have never understood this about Thailand. What’s there to understand, you might ask. It is classical Economics. It is demand-supply. It is poverty. It is better than dying hungry.

We are outside a temple in Pattaya. The temple offers traditional Thai massage, but there is an hour-long wait. So we ask a motorbike-taxiwallah for a good massage centre. He doesn’t have much English but wants to know what kind of massage. He opens and shuts his fingers to indicate pressing. Then he slams his open palm on his fist. Which massage? We choose fingers.

The taxi driver, the tuk tuk driver, the hotel concierge, the guy who hangs outside the mall scratching – they all want to sell you a massage. In the anonymity of the parlour or in the comfort and privacy of your room.

We have reached Bangkok just after the army has moved in, shot the general of the Red Shirts and cleaned up the neighbourhood where they were lodged. Our tour guide loves to talk. After every piece of information, he puts a finger to his lips to indicate that what he has just told us is a secret, as if he is afraid of being charged for espionage for sharing sensitive information with foreign nationals.
“The king doesn’t like the PM. Remember the Yellow Shirt protests a few years ago? They were the PM’s supporters. They took over the airport, there was a coup, the democratically elected PM, who the king liked, was overthrown and the current PM was chosen by a simple show of hands. But the army is with the PM because the overthrown PM had siphoned off money meant for buying stuff for the army. So when the general of the Red Shirts was giving an interview to foreign TV channels, an army sniper shot him in the head, dead. The big mall that was burnt down by the protesters – there it is, on your right. It is owned by the PM’s friend. And the movie hall too. The king’s son is a naughty man; he has many wives…”

You are a young girl growing up in Thailand. One of your career options is…

There are four young men, all from India, in the van with us. They speak in hushed voices because there are women and children in the van. Their parents know they are on vacation, but don’t know where. Two guys complain about not being able to do the ‘work’ they have come for in Bangkok because of the curfew at night.

You are a young girl in Bangkok and you look at yourself in the mirror every morning before going to your job in a bank, a hotel, an ad agency… And you take a deep breath and brace yourself for the commute because every tourist in the city thinks you are, well, a girl in Thailand, so.

Apparently the Thailand situation is a result of the Vietnam War. American soldiers came to Bangkok for their break and turned the place into what it is today. I guess that is an easy thing to do: Blame the Americans for all the ills in the world. Like Mac Donald’s. Which, by the way, is not their most irritating export. No, it’s not even the weed they sent along with the free wheat to India in the last century. It is the cockroach that travelled in ships from America many more centuries ago. But I guess the world is paying back. There are enough illegal immigrants in America who live like cockroaches… But I digress. ‘Someone else started it’ is no excuse for continuing anything. Never has been.

The king is everywhere in Thailand. On the pillars on the roads leading out of and into the airport, on hoardings, in tuk tuks, in taxis, in hawker stalls, framed on walls in restaurants, in massage parlours, in people’s wallets. He is the Big Brother who watches everything and sees nothing. He is not god, but he is almost there. “Of his three daughters, two are like the queen – they are drinking whisky all the time,” our guide tells us and puts his finger on his lips, “One daughter is good; she is like the king”. As he says this we pass a ‘Just married’ black and white picture of the king and the queen. The king has the earnest look of a studious school boy. The queen has her hair waved like Garbo.

In the street below the hotel, there is a cart with an LED sign: Lisa’s Street Bar, run by Lisa who is in her late teens or early twenties. Next to it, a woman in her late forties runs her street food cart. She is not at the food cart when I pass by. She is on the other side of the road, trying to wake her husband who has passed out drunk on the pavement, his head resting on a heap of garbage.
The pavement that runs parallel to the beach front in Pattaya is lined with stalls selling souvenirs, CDs, tee shirts and what not. Two or three men sit around an upturned carton with glasses and discreet bottles of whisky and soda in the shade of most of the stalls.
I stand in the window of the hotel in Bangkok. I can see the building next door. It has a sign in Thai on it and its architecture says, ‘government offices’. It’s around nine in the morning. I stand at the window for almost half an hour and every person who walks or drives into the building is a woman.

You are a young boy in Thailand. One of your options is to grow up and become a woman.

I enter the restroom at the airport and am reluctant to pee. There is an attendant cleaning the basin counters. And she is a woman. But I soon get used to it wherever I go – hotels, restaurants, malls etc. I even smile at one as she hides in the men’s restroom in the gem and jewellery workshop-store and talks to a friend on her cell phone.
Before boarding the flight back to India I am frisked with a hand-held metal detector by a cop who is a woman, but of course.

I haven’t met or had a real conversation with a local. So there are no conclusions in this post, just observations. Though I did notice that there weren’t too many Thai women wearing pink.


In the picture above: Lady boys outside the Alcazar Show, Pattaya.

3 comments:

  1. Your observation - as always - is bang on!
    We were told by a friend who lives in Bangkok that it is an accepted norm in the society for a woman to work as a prostitute.
    The poor village girl comes to Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket - works as escort (instead of working as a maid) till the time she can - then goes back to the village, gets married, buys bulls with her savings for her husband & raise families. The more bulls she can buy, the more is her chances of getting married.
    And Thai men, as history has it, prefer to look the other way, as long as they are not inconvenienced. They have figured out a way to live life the easy way – they have hit the bull’s eye!

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