Thai Thoughts And Anecdotes Part 160
CANARY IN THE MINESHAFT
An expat acquaintance of mine who lives in Jomtien, and an expat friend of his who lives in an adjacent condo tower, and the owner of the restaurant, and myself are sitting on the porch of the restaurant having dinner. The restaurant is on Soi Pattayaland 2 in South Pattaya and the owner owns other businesses on Soi Pattayaland 2. He is an American who has been in the Kingdom for sixteen years and has been successful. He is a fount of information and colorful stories. He is everything you imagine you would like to be if you ever emigrated to the Kingdom. Successful and tough and smart and balanced and having fun and respected and financially independent. A farang expat alpha male businessman. It does not matter what story you tell he can top it but you love him for it. He is the real deal. When you get to a certain age you just give credit where credit is due and forget the stupid man-to-man competition.
He is low key and quiet and intelligent and educated but when you reflect on his years in the Kingdom as a businessman and on the fact that he is not only a survivor but also a financial success you know that underneath the patina of quiet civility there has to be a subterranean river of toughness and focus many of us do not have. You wonder about the behind-the-curtain stuff you will never know and maybe even the stuff you don't want to know. Has this guy got blood on his hands? Has he got unsavory allies? Will I outlive him because I have made no enemies? What price the giant cash drops he makes every day? When I am elderly and still having dinner at this wonderful restaurant will it be under a different owner because this quiet reflective tough farang has been vaporized by Thai culture–another victim of third world adventurism? If all is entropy and chaos and downward spiral why would anyone with half a brain stir retail cash business in a red light district into the pot? Do the rewards really outweigh the risks?
Behind him in the street is a tall Thai male in his late twenties or early thirties with ramrod straight posture and the swiveling head and alert eyes of an owl. I notice him quietly taking up space in the background and speculate on the fact that it is odd that he has not moved in an hour. Sitting facing the owner of the restaurant I can always see this tall Thai over the restaurant owner's shoulder. The owner of the restaurant does not move and either does the Thai. I am a good observer but I do not necessarily have good street sense skills. Someone else has to help me. My Jomtien expat friend points out to me that the Thai male is the restaurant owner's full time bodyguard.
Jesus, count me out–I do not want to live this way. Anyway, it is a wonderful evening with wonderful company, and wonderful food, and the most delightful beautiful waitresses God ever put on this earth. Fathers' daughters who aren't on the game, and are still full of hope and innocence and ignorance of all that life can deliver. They are dreaming of only the good things from good people. Angels of Thailand.
The quiet American restaurant owner remarks that the motorbike concession run from the street right next door is run by a Muslim woman. We all turn our heads and look. I never would have noticed her before but now that he has pointed her out I see her and take note of her–the difference between the surface water of the tourist and the deep dark water of the expat businessman in retail on a street in a red light district in South Pattaya, Thailand. With blue headdress and iron discipline she is taking in lots of cash. We talk about this. All middle-aged farang like to talk about business. Without being pointed about it, or profiling in a juvenile way, or being mean spirited–speculation is made about where the cash came from in the first place to start the business. More speculation is made about where the excess cash is going. With her demeanor, and her way of dressing; she is clearly an island in a social sea that ignores her and that flows around her and that is indifferent to her. But is she indifferent to her surroundings and the social sea around her?
It is hard to ignore the fact that Thailand is currently fighting a war of insurgency against Muslims in the southern part of the country and so far there is little sign that Thailand will win the war. It is established government against religiously fueled terrorism. In most historical cases an even match and hard to know where to put your betting money. It is also hard to ignore the fact that Malaysia is Muslim dense and they are believers. Not compromisers or negotiators; but believers. Malaysia is a country with population density and economic challenges and the southern border of Thailand is porous. A porous border and people willing to die for a cause. Makes you think. We all think we can win any battle. But there are no draws in history. Somebody always loses. The reason wars are so popular is because everyone thinks they are going to win. Someone always loses.
It used to be that wars were fought with heart and violence. But now a third component has been added to the cocktail drink of death. Money. Wars are now fought with heart and violence and money. And money always comes first. Looking at the Muslim motorbike rental woman with her inscrutable face, and her defining headdress, and her prideful refusal to fit in, and her cash pouch hidden beneath yards of clothing; I offer the opinion to my dinner companions that she is the metaphorical canary-in-the-mineshaft here on Soi Pattayaland 2.
In the old days and right on up to the modern new days until quite recently, canaries were used in mines to foretell impending disaster. If the canary died then you knew the air quality had turned against you and it was time to do the carbon monoxide marathon and get out of the mine. You never ignored the canary. Drop your tools, piss in your pants, choke down your heart, and run like hell. The moment you heard his little budgie body crash onto the bottom of the wooden or metal (better-bigger noise) cage you started stumbling and shuffling and leaping and crawling and yelling and running. No secondary thoughts about this or that; just start moving. In other words, if some day this successful American expat business owner came to work on Soi Pattayaland 2 and not only was the Muslim lady gone but every single one of her motorbikes was gone; then the canary just died. Time to just keep driving before you get incinerated by the blast. Don't stop to warn your employees, or to pick up last night's cash: just keep on driving.
The rest of the evening and the meal was superb. I fell in love with all four of the waitresses and I got to reflect on the beautiful weather. It is not always hot and humid in Thailand. Some evenings the weather is so perfect it almost anesthetizes you. Tropical perfume in a far away land that distracts you with postcard perfection. Distracts you from larger issues that you may not be paying attention to but that someone else might be paying attention to. Repeat: Distracts you from larger issues that you might not be paying attention to but that someone else might be paying attention to. Life is not only about us. We are not islands. Other people count too because they are going to impinge on us. What kind of people are they? What are their ideas? What is in their hearts? What were they taught by their parents and their teachers when they were very young and impressionable?
Thailand is changing. We wondered what she is doing with her money. What are the motorbike profits financing? Except for bribes and monthly payments she has no expenses and it is a cash business. I wondered later what the American expat business owner with huge cash drops to be made seven days per week was doing with his money. He can't be keeping the whole load in Thai banks. What is he financing? There is a saying that 'Time tells all'. Fine for philosophers but all you really need to know is 'Follow the money'. The money tells the whole story. Sitting on the front porch of the restaurant there was the usual expat chatter but most of it eluded me after a while. I was wondering about the invisible streams of money flowing around me.
A wonderful dinner and a few middle aged men thinking and talking. A subterranean world that the farang tourist knows nothing about. Every body of water has the surface and the depths. The surface is bright and glinty and fun, and the depths are dark and scary and dangerous. Being a tourist is surface water work, being an expat is deep water work. Sitting there on the little porch in front of the wonderful restaurant with interesting companions and mankiller charming waitresses I reflect that I am glad I am only a tourist.
Anyway, only in Thailand. But it didn't used to be this way. You can know too much. And once the data has been punched into your brain it is hard to ignore. I now know that every single time I am walking down Soi Pattayaland 2–I will look to see if the Muslim woman in the blue headdress is still renting motorbikes. I hope she is. Because if I don't see her maybe the canary in the cage in the Thailand social mineshaft just died. I've got bad legs. If she isn't in place I'm in trouble–I can't outrun an explosion.
There is a wind of change blowing through Thailand at the moment, change that may not necessarily be good for foreigners residing / working in Thailand and I fear it is going to blow stronger, and stronger…