I have read Larry Cameron’s No, Thailand Will Not Be There Again. It is very well written, but I must say I do not totally agree, only halfway. But who am I to opinionate? I who do not speak Thai at all, and am not an expat resident in the land. Well, I have been visiting Thailand at intervals since 1993. I have paid close attention to the country and its culture because I was not a tourist, I was an investigator and fact finder for a travel organisation engaged in education and voluntary work. I took notes. I paid close attention to changes big and small in order to keep updated.
– The Thailand I came to love and enjoy was colorful and lively, deeply fascinating, but not materially rich. In fact, the warm welcomes and broad smiles that met the Farang traveller were born out of desperate poverty on behalf of the common Thai person. The reason behind the laissez faire attitude towards sex tourism was abject want especially in the backwards provinces of the country.
To me the year 2010 stands as a bit of a ‘marker’. Others may hold different views, but to me something happened around that year. And it wasn’t just Thailand that changed. I noticed similar changes in the Philippines and the Dominican Republic. There was a general feeling of disenchantment in the old haunts around the world.
I visited Bangkok in 2009 and had one of the most pleasant nightlife experiences ever in my life. It was creaming fun. Then I returned in 2011 and nothing had changed – except everything had changed. There was a feeling of ‘Elvis left the building’. It was all there, the lights, the massage parlors, the bars. But it was all without ‘nerve’, without excitement. This showed in many ways, one of them being the slow death of literary inspiration. Like Montmartre inspired painters in turn-of-the-century Paris, the red light of turn-of-the-century Bangkok inspired creative writing up till circa 2010, when “Bangkok noir” novels and short stories were published in considerable numbers. Since then the stream has been diminishing steadily year by year, a sign of the disenchantment of Thailand’s nightlife. Another sign is the attitudes in the gogo bars where agency girls and a structure that encourages the girls to stay in the bar became prominent.
Why was that? I believe several factors were at play. First of all, the general income around 2010 had now generally risen enough to secure a level of financial independence for, say, the bargirls and their families. They simply didn’t need us any more in the same way as before. As someone said: “If you struggle to keep your little brothers in school, the Farang is a lifesaving boat to be helloed and greeted. If you’re just out to get the latest iPhone, the Farang is a means to an end, a piece of work to be finished as quickly as possible.”
Other factors also were at play. The general level of sophistication had risen, maybe (and probably) due to streaming services and social media, enough to make the average bargirl more worldly wise and less impressionable. Social media and streaming services started around 2005. About 2010 they reigned supreme on the internet. Bargirls began to consider their Facebook and Twitter accounts more important to check up on than bar patrons.
Plus there was now room for a moralistic backlash. I believe this to be much underestimated by observers and commentators, but George W Bush had let in Evangelical Christian groups as a genuine power force in the US administration. Where former presidents had limited themselves to lip service to this part of American culture, White House staffers now assembled for Bible study and prayer as part of their lunch break. This wasn’t felt so much in Thailand, but in Angeles City FBI agents (often in pairs) began to show up in gogos looking for “child sex trafficking”. Local police raided gogo bars, arresting girls and bar managers (but not bar owners, the cash cows). City majors took steps to restrict the freedom of places like Sosúa. I believe them to be inspired by American NGOs with the backing of the White House. – This was felt also throughout the Obama presidency (maybe due to Hillary’s influence), and one of the few good things I can say about Donald Trump is that we haven’t had any of that with him in office.
I could elaborate more. Things have not stayed unchanging for the last ten years. I personally detected a minor uptick in the emotional temperature of Bangkok’s nightlife around the middle of the past decade. Bargirls were again a bit more aware and interested, more there for the costumer. Maybe it was just me, or maybe bar owners had realized the need to stop the decline of bar culture. Or maybe there was actually a slight decline in the general economy of the Thai people, who knows.
Does that mean that Thailand “will be there again” like in days of old, the glory days of the 80ies and 90ies? No, not just like that and not in the same way it used to be. The clock can’t be turned back, and a lost innocence cannot be restored. But something may come back. Maybe the Farang will again for a while be a lifesaving boat – just now competing with his Chinese, Indian and Korean fellow travellers – if Larry Cameron’s predictions for Thailand’s economic future comes true. Probably it will be a Land of Desperate Smiles again, of bargirls keen on close up and personal interaction again. However, the Thais generally will probably also be a hardened people, maybe more violent than before. Less innocent. And the internet is going to expand also in this respect. Like everything else, P4P interaction will move via cyberspace in the future.
– We’ll see what’s ahead for Thailand and the world.