Magazine article The Spectator

Thailand's Next Fix

Magazine article The Spectator

Thailand's Next Fix

Article excerpt

The developing world looks to China for inspiration, not the West

Like any sensible, prosperous Englishman in his middle years, I spend every winter in Thailand. Indeed, I've been visiting the country for three decades: I can still remember my first hotel in Bangkok, a beautiful teak-stilted villa down a rat-infested alley which had the singular facility of offering heroin on room service.

I went with the intention of staying a week or two. I ended up staying four months: the heroin on room service proved quite distracting. At the end of my stay I got a bill with just three things itemised:

Room, Food, Powder.

Now I've returned from maybe my fortieth visit to Thailand (I stopped doing the drugs years ago; I still enjoy the sun). And I'd like to say that this eternally sensuous, supremely beautiful, languidly hospitable country remains unchanged, despite all the troubles and coups, and despite the curfew which has, this week, finally been lifted.

But I can't. I fear that the latest Siamese coup signals something serious; I fear that this time 'Teflon Thailand' (the name is shorthand for the remarkable way its booming economy and amiable society seem impervious to the nation's political turmoil) might have altered for good. I also wonder if this evolution says something ominous to the rest of the world.

This may appear contradictory. After all, Teflon Thailand does still make sense as a concept. In old Siam, everything changes, yet everything stays the same. When I first went to Bangkok there were no skyscrapers -- none. Now the skyline makes Manhattan look unambitious; at night, the soaring towers glitter, irresistibly, under the tropical moon. And yet at the bottom of those skyscrapers you will still find street vendors selling dried squid, fishball soup and succulent yellow crab curries. Just as they have done for decades.

Similarly with the sex industry (which, like it or not, is one of the reasons Bangkok is, by some measures, the most visited city on earth). In the late 1980s, Bangkok's red light district was centred in Patpong, where you could still find stranded American vets from the Vietnam war downing shots of Jim Beam at the bar and gazing at the ping-pong show with a desolate lust.

These days, the action has switched to Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy, the neon is dazzling, the price of a beer can make a Londoner blink, and the customers are more likely to be Japanese businessmen or Taiwanese students on the lash. But the girls still wear the same hotpants, the transsexuals are still inexplicably tall, and the Siamese midgets in fake leprechaun outfits still do their special 'welcoming' Irish jig as you push through the curtained threshold into the steamy vortex of K-pop and free condoms.

It is also true that coups and curfews are nothing new. That January, when I arrived in Bangkok and asked for the hotel maid to bring up scrambled eggs, milky coffee and two straws of China White heroin, Thailand was recovering from a communist insurgency and had recently repealed a state of emergency.

Since then, I have witnessed three coups and counter-coups in Bangkok. What is generally amazing is how 'safe' they are; it is as if all sides obey the Secret Queensberry Rules of Siamese Civil Strife: don't touch the tourists, keep your killing to yourself. Even the most violent urban conflict between the two factions now struggling for political supremacy -- the Reds (generally poorer and rural, though led by oligarchic billionaire dynasties) versus the Yellows (middle class, monarchist, though also supported by poor southerners and union members) -- can storm through the streets and leave most of Bangkok, let alone the country, seemingly oblivious. …

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