End of Empire
As darkness descends on the expanse of open ocean spread before me, I take a moment for some quiet reflection as I look out from the balcony of my 7th floor room. It had been quite a day; a trip to a nearby, remote jungle waterfall with my adventurous Vietnamese playmate – I’ll let your imagination do the rest on that scenario – being one to remember. In the end the curfew had taken its toll and not wanting to waste my precious time-off by idling my days away in a locked down Thailand I’d jumped on a flight to Nha Trang, via Saigon.
I’ve been spending quite a bit of time in the “Nam” these days and the fact is I’m beginning to like the place. It’s a bit raw, and less developed than the LOS but therein lays the beauty of the place. Think Thailand 20 years ago and it’s a rough approximation of where Vietnam is at now. The infrastructure here is way behind Thailand and large scale development has yet to really kick in. And that, if you’re someone who’s not overly keen on large scale development, might just be a good reason to come here; for a few years at least, anyway.
In a way I think Thailand’s peaked out with its tourist industry and a slow decline is now setting in. Overdevelopment, rising prices, dirty beaches, environmental pollution, noise pollution, overcrowding, traffic congestion, the sleaze factor, a growing local criminal class, and dodgy tuktuk and jet-ski operators have finally taken its toll. Compounding this has been the ongoing, and largely unresolved political shenanigans of the past few years. If it was a one off thing it wouldn’t have been so bad but it’s a bit like someone constantly chipping away at the edges of a giant edifice; eventually major cracks appear. The once impenetrable fortress of “Tourism Thailand” has started to crumble. My take on it is the tourists, being wary of the ongoing uncertainty / instability, decided to find other places with lower associated stress factors. Perhaps those places may not be the same all round package Thailand once offered but if you’re looking for decent / idyllic beach resorts the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia have plenty to offer. Scuba diving? The Philippines and Indonesia are way better than Thailand, and by some margin. Jungle treks and waterfalls? Try Laos and Vietnam.
Once you take the nightlife, alcohol and whoring out of the equation the other places start to look a whole lot better and that, if you’re a mainstream tourist, is what really counts. For them the Soi Bangla’s, Soi Cowboy’s and Walking Streets of this world don’t offer much. Over-priced seafood, noise, minging overweight hookers, dodgy katoeys, pimps, drug dealers, petty criminals and unauthorized shanties? No thanks. And that, as the current military group running the show are starting to point out, is a cesspool which needs sorting out. Another thing which the steadily disappearing tourists are also well aware of is the filth of the place. Filth which accumulates because of the lack of proper health and safety regulations. Or Mickey Mouse controls which select groups profit from while the unfettered chaos of the chuck wagons, vendor carts and curbside gin joints reign supreme out on the streets.
In a way I can understand the short term mind set which seems to be the SOP of the inhabitants of Thailand. A recent submission, regarding the effects of repetitive coups on good governance, touched on this aspect of life in the LOS. Twenty coups in the last eighty years, little wonder the average Thai citizen regards life as simply being about what’s in it for them. After all, isn’t that the mindset which prevails with whichever group is getting their turn at the helm? Due to the fact there’s always the possibility of a ruling party being usurped, or falling victim to another coup, governance in Thailand has never really been about the long term will of the people. It’s mostly about politicians cutting deals with business allies, getting their snouts in the trough and gorging as much as they can before they’re relieved of their posts, and repaying outstanding slights and grievances from perceived enemies. The upshot of this short sighted approach is ongoing instability and a population which is largely ambivalent to the idea their nation’s leaders possess any kind of integrity, or accountability. It’s the trickledown effect of course. If the average man on the street sees dishonesty amongst those tasked with providing leadership in the country he, quite rightly, doesn’t see the need to follow any kind of rules, or regulations, emanating from corridors of parliament house. Lawlessness throughout the land is simply an outcome of a poor example from those who are, supposedly, beyond reproach.
The army is doing their best to sort things out for now. Short term I think they’ll do some good but long term, once the elections are over and the same shady political groups are back on the scene, it will be more of the same. How does one change character traits – flaws – ingrained over decades? For me, it’s going to take a very long time. In many regards we’re talking about a major cultural shift and unfortunately for the Thai it’s going to involve things which don’t come easy to a lot of them; selflessness and a much higher level of personal discipline.
To be honest, I think the situation in Thailand now is a bit like the decline of the Roman Empire. When times were good they rode the gravy train, stuffing their pockets and filling their bellies as if there was no tomorrow. It was the golden goose and the good times would go on forever as the tourists poured through the gates to get a taste of the “amazing country.” But somewhere along the line, as happens with many empires, they started taking their success for granted. Greed replaced gratefulness, hubris replaced humility and arrogance replaced attentiveness. The prevailing attitude now seems to be one of entitlement or “the world owes us a living.”
Tourist arrivals, compared to yesteryear, are down to a trickle as the cold winds of frugality blow across the land for those who once grew fat on the vacationer paycheck. The reality is the good times are well and truly over as bulk tour groups with less disposable cash are rapidly replacing the more affluent, discerning individual travelers. They’ve gone and when one considers the state of what’s on offer in the tourist traps of Pattaya and Phuket, little wonder they aren’t coming back. The whoremonger, of course, will continue to cruise the strips but I suspect with the direction prices are going and the fact “porkerism” is getting a firm hold in many of the chrome pole palaces many punters, in the not too distant future, will see Manila and Phnom Penh as better value for money. Another thing which the TAT are going to have to eventually come to grips with is the emergence of the sleeping giant to its immediate west; Myanmar. Sorry to tell you, Thailand, but Burma’s got everything you’ve got – with the sex industry the exception – and better. More island paradises? Check; Miles of pristine beaches? Check; Bigger historical temple complexes? Check; Larger, undeveloped tracts of jungle? Check; More mountains and waterfalls? Check.
Perhaps my pessimism is tainted by my own experiences in the LOS but my gut feeling is the halcyon days are definitely over. Rampant development and crass commercialism are now firmly entrenched as the norms of the Thai tourist industry. And to be honest, the Thais probably didn’t plan it to be as such; it just evolved into the crassness and chaos it now is. Thirty years ago Pattaya and Patong were still small, attractive beachside resorts. In their mad dash to fill their pockets the locals, as is their wont, have made too many short sighted decisions in terms of building regulation, town planning, and pollution and effluent controls, which have impacted dramatically on the landscape. Unfortunately for them there’s no going back now. It’s too late. They’ve made their bed, from their pervasive short sighted greed, and they’ve now got to lie in it. Intelligent, seasoned tourists, and travelers, know there’s better elsewhere.
Something I’ve commented on with friends who’ve lived in Thailand and departed, or those still residing there but feeling a growing dissatisfaction with the place, is that being here long term just seems to suck the life out of you. Perhaps those residing in the more rural parts of the country feel differently? But certainly in Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya, the daily stresses of not putting a foot out of place, and thereby upsetting a local, just seem to beat a guy down. It’s almost as if one's safety, and by extension life expectancy, is solely dependent on being forever polite and never speaking one’s mind, even if you clearly have a legitimate gripe.
And upsetting the wrong types in this place can have serious repercussions as a friend, and fellow Bangkok resident expat, 006, recently found out.
In the last days before the end of the curfew he got into a serious scrape with a gang of motorbike taxi boys. Apparently it was late, he’d had a few bevvies, and as he was meandering back to his condo along a darkened soi 11 a taxi clipped him, knocking him to the pavement. The driver stopped his vehicle further along the soi and 006, feeling rightly aggrieved, decided to put the driver on the spot. A tap on the taxi's window received no response so 006 gave the vehicle's side mirror a good whack as he walked. The driver, probably feeling affronted at a farang's audacity to point out his wrong doing, then got out of his vehicle, chased 006 along the soi, and initiated a physical confrontation. Things escalated from there with a bunch of motor-bike taxi drivers malingering in front of a nearby 7/11 reinforcing the taxi driver. According to 006, he was set on by a gang of 8 angry Thai males and it was a running battle as he fought them off back along the soi. Eventually the noise of the scuffle brought the boys in brown on to the scene and, after cooling things down, they forced 006 to accompany them back to the police station where a demand for a cash settlement was made. Luckily for 006 he had a couple of well-placed local contacts he could call on in the event of such a situation occurring. After a bit of negotiation he was allowed to leave with his wallet fully intact.
His take on what occurred pretty much sums up what we all know about the place; the reality is it’s rotten to the core. It also obviates the fact, glaringly, we have no rights and that we’re fair game for the criminal classes who understand well enough we have very little recourse if they decide to take out their frustrations on us. The reaction of his live-in Thai lady also sums up my take on their indifference to us whenever there’s a dispute or altercation between a Thai and a farang; generally, a Thai will never go against another Thai if there’s an issue with a farang. According to his live-in Thai lady, it was 006’s fault, her warped logic being “of course he fight you, because you make damage his car.” His situation also backs up my summation that while coups and governments may come and go, the underlying mindsets which allow corruption, lawlessness and a lack of accountability to blossom, will be around long after we’ve checked out.
And checking out, particularly when it comes to people of the highest profile in Thailand, is something we need to consider quite seriously. I will put money on it that things at some time in the future are not going to be plain sailing. Opposing power groups, with vested interests will be vying for supremacy. And given the stalemates and bloody mindedness we’ve seen from these opposing groups in past years it’s safe to assume violence is not out of the question. I think it’s also safe to assume that the Army, if they’re not still in power, will step in very quickly to avert any serious trouble. For us the question is, where’s this all leading to? Do you consider life in the LOS for a foreigner is going to become easier or will it, as I strongly suspect, become even more difficult?
Having resided in Thailand for a good 20 years I can say, quite confidently, life for a foreigner is now much more difficult than it was even 10 years ago. And the net of scrutiny is being tightened. The latest developments with visa requirements make this plainly obvious. Short term visitors and legitimate tourists with wallets full of cash to spend in the “amazing country” are warmly welcomed. Those existing on the poverty line and putting little in the pockets of the locals are not. And in a way I can understand the new regime's targeting of foreigners whose reasons for being here are questionable; it’s an extension of their purge on what they consider the corrupting influences of Thailand. All well and good and if it was for purely altruistic purposes I’d give them some due measure of respect. Unfortunately, as some astute political commentary has pointed out, the targeting of local criminal (mafia) elements may have more to do with eradicating groups loyal to the opposition. Foreigners, by and large, are ambivalent to the political intrigue here. Unfortunately those who don’t measure up, in terms of proper visa requirements, are caught in the “cross hairs” of the wider purge on the country's corrupting influences. The visa runners, sex-pats, time share sellers, boiler room boys, improperly qualified English language teachers and those flying under the radar in terms of tax avoidance and criminal activity are now on the regime's hit list of undesirables. Granted it’s a soft target but, as many are now starting to understand, it’s a target which isn’t going to go away as long as this junta remains in power.
Status counts for a lot in Thailand. Granted it probably counts for a lot in just about any other part of the world. The old adage of “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is just a fact of life. In our own countries, however, it’s more of a level playing field. There aren’t any language issues and the rule of law, generally, doesn’t discriminate in favour of those able to buy their way out of trouble. In Thailand the odds are heavily stacked against us. For those foreigners of abundant means, extricating oneself out of a problem can be fairly straightforward if a large enough donation is paid to the right people. Even so, regardless of one's means, we never really fit in and remain rooted at the foot of this country's societal pecking order. There is a distinct class structure here with its roots in feudalism. And it’s a system stacked against the majority of its own population as well. A Thai lady I know once joked that she wouldn’t move above her present station in life because her family name wasn’t long enough. Except it wasn’t a joke. And having a white complexion, and a master’s degree, wouldn’t help her much. Most of us are probably aware of the unspoken discrimination which exists in the country but ignore or avoid it in an effort to pretend it doesn’t mean that much. But it does, and that’s really the underlying issue to the problems in this land of make believe. I’m firmly convinced the turmoil we’ve seen and experienced here has a long way to run yet; it’s just been paused while the military is in power. The bottom line here is a society in upheaval with deep rooted issues to address. The problem for me is whether they have the conviction, and temperament, to deal honestly with those issues. I suspect due to the ingrained importance of “face” they do not. And it’s largely because of the narcissism, of this fundamental character flaw, I don’t expect any great social change in the near future.
The fact is compared to its regional neighbours – Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar – life in Thailand has become expensive. Economic success has created an inevitable increase in the standard and cost of living and that, as many who’ve come to reside here are beginning to realise, is something which is impacting on their lifestyle. The rising cost of living and the more stringent approach to visa issuance will no doubt see many more, in the not too distant future, packing their bags and moving to those less expensive neighboring countries. With the AEC (Asian Economic Community) Pact soon to be implemented (January, 2015) I would predict the rate of departures by sex-pats, frugal retirees, visa runners, and English teachers will accelerate to something akin a mass exit. Reason being that the citizens of member AEC (former ASEAN) countries will no longer need a formal visa to enter Thailand. It will be the same situation as the EU with no questions asked, entry stamps issued on arrival and the free movement of labour amongst the Asian EU members. <I am not sure that this is quite right… The Thais are *highly* protectionist and I cannot see them opening up the country to labour from other countries, especially the likes of people from Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia who they look down on – Stick> The implications of this will be significant for farang and local Thais alike. Farangs employed in businesses because of their English language skills will, in particular, be under the cosh due to the influx of Filipinos willing to take on the same jobs but for half the farang salary. The local labouring, construction and minimum wage jobs will also be impacted because Burmese, Cambodian and Laotian labourers will do the same work at half the rates. And as sure as night follows day, the Thai and Thai Chinese employers and business owners will take complete advantage of it due to their short term / greed conditioned mindset. As I’ve already stated, if you think we’re beyond the worst of the social upheaval in Thailand, then you’re living on cloud nine; this is just the start of it. This place is headed for a serious implosion and I for one am not going to be around when it occurs.
Currently, my favoured place to relocate to is Vietnam. All things considered it may not even be better than Thailand and, 20 years down the track, it could potentially be afflicted by all the same negative aspects. But right now it offers a refreshing alternative. According to a couple of well-seasoned “old Asia hands” I know, the Vietnamese are a difficult people to deal with; a “hard-assed lot.” That may be so but, after 6 visits, my impression is they haven’t yet been corrupted in their thinking to the extent the Thais have in terms of self-perceived entitlement. I do not see an attitude of “the world owes us a living”. Sure, the potential is still there to be scammed or cheated if one doesn’t have their wits about them, and you’ll see all the same traps and pitfalls one might encounter in Thailand, the Philippines and Cambodia. But for someone experienced in the region this is actually a minor concern as the scams, cons and rip-offs are all much the same and easy enough to pick up on wherever one might be. For me the difference is in the people themselves. The Vietnamese, generally, are an industrious, enquiring and curious lot. Unlike the Thai they don’t have the attitude that their country is the centre of the universe and indolence, from what I’ve seen, isn’t a national character trait. Perhaps the hardship of their tragic past has made them a more circumspect, down to earth lot who understand the value of hard work and self-enterprise. Unlike in Thailand, I’ve yet to see an attitude which reeks of “what have you done for me lately?” Smiling is also something the Viets are not given to doing easily and at first glance, compared to the Thai, one might consider them a dour or less friendly people. But, as my esteemed colleague Mr. Stick noted some time ago, just because a person smiles it doesn’t necessarily mean they are genuinely friendly. And it certainly doesn’t mean they are nice. People in New Zealand and Australia are friendly and most are nice with it. I couldn’t say the same about Thailand and, having been there for twenty years, I make the observation that a Thai smile doesn’t actually mean very much; most of it is disingenuous. I’d rather be amongst people who smile less but mean it when they do.
Inevitably one will always make comparisons to weigh things one way or the other. But in doing so we should be careful to base our judgments on factual observations. From the moment one steps out of the arrivals terminal at Suvarnabhumi, the game is on and the ubiquitous taxi is probably the first potential scam that most initially encounter. My experience with taxis in Vietnam is in complete contrast with what I’ve encountered in my twenty years in Thailand. No driver in Vietnam has ever said to me “no meter, because traffic jam; no meter, it's curfew; no meter, it’s after midnight; I not go that way, too far, you pay more.” What I have encountered every time is a no BS attitude, the meter turned on almost immediately and a uniformed company representative (Vinasun or Mai Linh) handing me a business card with the taxi’s rego number and a hotline number to call if there’s a problem.
I’ve visited a number of national parks / scenic attractions along the length of Vietnam. At the caves in Phong Nha, and the waterfall sites at Nha Trang, I paid the same entry fee as the Vietnamese lass I had with me. Unlike in Thailand, I have yet to encounter a discriminatory dual pricing system. This is not to say it does not exist in some other form in the country but my take on their tourist industry is they understand the importance of looking after the clientele. The guides I’ve used on a number of tours have been informative, helpful and precise with their time keeping.
Service is something else where I’ve noticed a difference. Service in Thailand these days is a matter of course and not because the wait staff have any particular regard for ensuring you are well attended to. The distractions of smart phones, and the latest TV soap dramas, have yet to afflict the Vietnamese wait staff. In many restaurants I’ve regularly used I’ve often been asked if “everything is okay?” and in two in particular in Saigon – Phatty’s and Al Fresco – the staff are constantly checking on your needs. The right to a tip has also yet to infect the thinking of the staff and your change isn’t broken down into small notes and shrapnel. In Thailand, the entitlement to a tip has been taken to new levels with tip boxes being par for the course now at Boots pharmacies and Foodland checkouts. And the worrying part is there seems to be no shame in their expectation of a tip just for doing their jobs!
The pay for play scene in Vietnam is nothing like Thailand, then again nowhere else is either. But, no matter, as a move to Vietnam isn’t going to be about cheaper whoremongering for me. More like a withdrawal from it as the novelty of mixing with alcohol-afflicted, poorly-educated, disingenuous woman has definitely worn off. My take on a continued involvement in the bargirl scene is it’s about more than just the alcohol or easy sex. The fact is a lot of players always seem to end up with a regular or one, for one reason or another, they take a liking to.
What does this tell us? It tells us that, as much as some want to deny it, we’re looking for companionship. And companionship with a prostitute, as many of us have found out the hard way, is a difficult assignment. We can convince ourselves, falsely, that because she’s a hooker we can end it simply by paying her off. But the fact is it’s never that simple when you’ve been with someone for a longer period of time. Emotions are involved, attachments are formed and the ending always seems to be an uncertain scenario where harassment, in one form or other, is always part of the equation with some of these mentally unstable ladies. And that’s a scenario I could really do without at this later stage in my life. So much so that I’m not even willing to take a chance on being with one that’s deemed a “good girl.” I’ve seen too much of what I would call inexplicable behaviour by the locals during my twenty years here to make me decidedly wary of Thai culture and Thai character traits. Of course generalising about an entire population is never a good thing but I find the whole concept of face, and its attached connotations, rather pitiful and childish. How does one seriously communicate with people who have an inability to deal with criticism? Other more disturbing traits of many of the woman I’ve met, and known, here can be summed up in two words; narcissism and myopia. Perhaps this is really just a sign of the times in a country enjoying increased levels of wealth but their never ending preoccupation with status and appearance becomes boring in the extreme. And the barriers to developing anything lasting, and meaningful, are not just down to the inability to communicate. I’ve encountered communication difficulties with other Asian ladies but the Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese girlfriends I’ve had in the past all seemed to possess more energy, enthusiasm and general curiosity about the world beyond their own borders. They took pride in their own cultures but unlike so many Thai ladies I’ve known, were open to outside ideas of benefit or improvement. In Thailand, the locals seem have an entirely different perspective on ideas, or methods, originating from beyond their own borders. They’re often incredulous when the suggestion that something from beyond their own borders might be better than the Thai version or idea. It’s almost as though to admit so would mean a massive hit to their national pride. Too often something of benefit is quickly written off with a “thank you but the Thai way is better.” In the end I think it’s this lack of respect for non-Thais which is a hurdle too high to overcome and the many who depart after putting in a lot of years here could point to this as the number one reason for leaving. After all, why would anyone really want to try and live amongst people who, for the most part, think you’re not much more than a potential opportunity?
For a while the Army did a good job in cleaning things up but as it so often happens in Thailand things seem to loosen up rather quickly when there are opportunities to taken advantage of. The jet skis were banned for a while but then someone found a loophole and, after a short honeymoon period of peace on the shores of Phuket, the beachside mafia is back. The vendors won’t be far away with high season just around the corner. The visa conundrum; not married, under fifty and not interested in a Thai language course? No problems, there’s now a five-year, multiple-entry visa available; the Thailand Elite card. For a price, of course. And if you can’t afford the price, well I’m sorry but we don’t want the riff raff here anymore.
After 20 years here I’ve finally accepted the fact the face thing is part of their DNA and it’s never going to change. Those with wealth and the right connections will always be able to influence the course of events to their own benefit. And those further down the ladder dare not question others higher up. If they do it’s always in the safety of numbers. In Koh Tao a local kamnan has the connections and monetary clout to influence the way in which a murder investigation is conducted. Delays and subterfuge may well allow family members to evade capture. People don’t speak out for fear of retribution. Status counts for everything and the disingenuous daily social engagements keep it this way. Nowhere do we see people admitting their mistakes. Accountability is a zero sum game here; no one respects it so why bother being accountable?
Maybe it’s not the end of empire and things, in that unfathomable Thai way, will just ramble on into eternity. If it’s not the end of empire then it’s certainly the end of an era for me. And I’ll be sure not to let the door hit me on my way out.
We're on the same page about Thailand.
As much as I like Vietnam, I just don't quite see it as an option. For short visits, great, but Saigon – which would be the place I'd look at if I were considering heading there – is just a little bit too frantic and stressful. Whereas in Bangkok you can find a mix of action and adventure as well as peace and quiet, I felt that might be quite a bit more difficult to come in Vietnam where it seems everyone is always moving full speed ahead.