Who Stole Thailand’s Sanuk?
My hand hovered over a small collection of travel guides on my bookshelf. Japan, USA, Canada, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain… I stopped at my fourteen year old copy of DK Eyewitness Guide to Thailand, and pulled it off the shelf. Memories came flooding back. In my mind I could hear Thai music, the sound of the sea lapping the hot sandy beaches, the traffic, the shouts of touts. I could smell the klongs and woodsmoke and food from street vendors and small open-air restaurants.
I was transported back fourteen years to those halcyon days, when the whores hadn’t yet figured out how to use ICQ, and decent middle-class girls where ten a penny, and had an office Internet connection, and a shortcut to Yahoo Messenger.
Thai girls. They charmed you with a swish of their long black hair, their ultra-slim figures, their cream-coffee skin, and a flash of their dark eyes. So many girls. So many girls. And then you found The One, who with a crooked smile could melt the heart of a snowman, and with one caress, could make even the most world-weary cynic believe in love again.
Back then, strolling the sois in the late afternoon sun, you could virtually taste the sense of optimism of the place. The future seemed as clear as the bright blue sky. The possibilities as plentiful as the Bougainvilleas that grew over the high white walls of the large houses down in Sathorn. It was like walking through a dream.
When I left UK for Thailand, I exchanged long cold nights alone in front of mindless TV, for long warm nights of laughter and friends. Late meals enjoyed outside, the heat of Bangkok tempered by ice-cold beers. The conversations and chit chat and laughter and tall stories always ran into the small hours. When I finally got the baht bus or a motorbike taxi home, through the hot and noisy neon-lit streets, it was rarely before 2:00 AM. I never ate alone. I never laughed alone. I never slept alone.
It was the land of sunshine and smiles and love and laughter. And fun. That’s how I will always remember it – above all a fun place to be. Sanuk. Sanuk was always the soul of Thailand.
But that was then, and this is now. Someone has stolen the sanuk of Thailand. Was it the locustian Chinese hordes, the Russians who have raised boorishness to the level of art form, or the illiterate cavemen that while out the last of their tragic lives, with a bottle of beer and an eighteen year old fuck doll?
Or the endless stream of backpackers tramping over the once pristine islands, bringing with them their Western obsessions for drinking themselves unconscious, drugfuelled full-moon parties, and fist fights with all comers?
Perhaps the web explosion, with its blogs, and Facebook and Instagram have called in the masses like a giant siren, pulling with it the less-desirables, the ill-mannered, the Cheap Charlies?
Did they steal Thailand’s sanuk?
Maybe, like most desirable places, if enough people go there, they become undesirable places, ipso facto.
I don’t know. But I know Thailand is no longer a place I want to be.
Now, it’s only the place to be if you’re prepared to turn a blind eye to the corruption, the military government, the long running visa shambles that lurches from one ill-thought out and badly implemented policy to the next, the dirt and shabbiness, the police on the lookout to shakedown a clueless farang, the unappealing characters that lurk on the fringes, and, above all, the eye-watering hypocrisy of the place. Sure, if you want cheap whores and beer, then Thailand still has something to offer. Maybe. But I get the sense that even the hardcore mongers are on their last legs, physically, emotionally, morally, and financially.
Perhaps the same applies to the bar industry? The exchange rate isn’t what it once was, and prices seem to be going only one way, the quality of the “experience” in the other direction. The industry seems to be doing the same old things, and expecting different results, the very definition of madness.
Even long established expats (including a certain well known internationally published author who shall remain nameless) are lambasting the place. Many have moved on, never to return. Those that haven’t pickled their brains in alcohol, or completely burned through their inheritance, cast a furtive eye over the possibilities of Vietnam or the Philippines. Hint: check out the retirement visa options the Philippines offers and compare to Thailand – message received, loud and clear.
Some “lifer” farangs, ensconced in their crumbling condo blocks, nervously view dwindling accounts and the ten year exchange rate charts on xe.com, and, God forbid, consider the Nuclear Option – a return to Farangland. Sometimes, in an insane world, the unspeakable is the sanest thing to do.
The rest remain firmly in denial.
Meanwhile the news from Thailand seems to be of the unendingly dire variety. The murders on Koh Tao, and the authorities’ subsequent chaotic and insensitive handling of the tragedy. The myriad strange deaths in suspicious circumstances, people regularly falling from tall buildings, another old sap poisoned by his Thai wife for his money, the general danger of being mugged, or smashed to bits in a traffic accident. It won’t happen to me they say. Until it does. Death rates of foreigners are going in one direction – up. Just to be clear, that’s the wrong way.
The laughing stock value of Thailand endures though. Witness the recent debacle of the “Pattaya gamblers”, a hardcore bunch of elderly Bridge players, slung in jail for the heinous crime of “having too many cards”. All grist to the mill for the international press.
You couldn’t make this stuff up you laugh to yourself, and then turn to the serious business of booking your next holiday, in a nice clean safe place that actually wants you.
Of course the Chinese will keep visiting in ever increasing droves, and the numbers will continue to look good (or be made to look good). But this is not the Thailand I knew, this is a faux Thailand, a parallel universe Thailand, a disappointing place that, like some cheap tart, has failed to live up to the sweet promises.
It could all have been so different, so much better. Thailand was a clean sheet of paper, on which could have been written an inspiring story, but it got scrunched up and thrown in the bin. They had found the Garden of Eden, and they trashed it.
Poor Thailand, who stole the sanuk?
I dropped my DK Guide to Thailand into a plastic bag for the charity shop, and pulled down the Guide to Japan. I’m thinking of Hokkaido next – almond-eyed beauties, bullet trains, cherry blossoms, and snow-capped mountains. I can’t wait.