Monday, March 03, 2008

On Tour 1 Bangkok, Thailand

While the Iranian-supplied Grad missiles fall on Ashkelon, and the IDF fights to protect Israeli citizens, Jerusalem-Magazine is on the road.
First stop was Bangkok.
The last time we were in Bangkok was a decade ago. The old airport was small and intimate. Walking down the corridors one looked out onto narrow canals with simple boats manned by peasants in baggy pants and bamboo hats, with the beginning of even narrower streets just beyond the water. Simple huts and homes lined both canal and street.
Today the new Suvarnabhumi airport is massive, ultra-modern, humming with air-conditioned filtered air, buzzing with electronics, laden with stylistic pipes and braces and architectural wonders, replete with all the elevators, escalators, moving sidewalks, computers, long-distance phones, internet and TVs one would want.
Outside the story is a little different.
Bangkok is a city of close to six million people, mostly ethnic Thai and Chinese, but blossoms up to nine-million counting the surrounding metropolitan area. Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, and its main port, is 49 times greater than its next largest city, Chiang Mai. The population is 95% Buddhist, the remainder Hindu and Moslem.
There are nearly 30,000 Buddhist temples in Thailand, over 400 alone in Bangkok.
Smog hovers over the city like a low-hanging cloud. After an hour or two outdoors amid the traffic you can literally taste the pollution on your lips.
Much of the problem is caused by the traffic.
The toll-roads in and out of the new airport are new, wide, sleek, and cheap. 50 Baht to get into the city (Baht 31 to the US $). But then the fun stops. So does the traffic. We were told by a tour guide that the average Bangkok driver spends up to two-hours a day stuck in traffic. Cars are relatively cheap, about the same as US prices, and everyone wants one. A decent Toyota Corolla sedan, the ubiquitous taxi model, costs about $25,000. Then the three wheeled motor-scooters are popular taxis, lastly the speedy 100cc motorized bicycles which weave dangerously through traffic but get the passenger to a destination faster than anything outside of a helicopter.
In fact, while stuck in traffic, one wonders when airborne cars will go on the market, making Bangkok traffic five or six-layered, but moving.
Our twenty-kilometer ride into the city took an hour, much of it stuck, sitting in a row of other cars, many belching diesel exhaust or smoke from bad piston rings.
Traffic lights come with digitized times, announcing how long before the lights change. The numbers count down, sometimes from thirty-seconds, sometimes from six-minutes. One only sits and waits, air-conditioning blasting, if you're lucky enough for your car to have air-conditioning.
But the ride only cost 400 Baht. Compare that to the ride from Kennedy Airport in NYC, and it’s a bargain.
The newspapers publish the air quality, which has a color bar, stretching from good to very bad. The days were in Bangkok the bar was on the cusp of bad and dangerous, and never got better.
Thailand, once called Siam, is now a constitutional Monarchy, ruled by the much beloved King Rama IX for the last 60-years. The first King Rama I The Great took the throne in 1782. Thailand's population is about sixty-million, with exports of $105 Billion, mainly to China.
The 80-year old king was born in Boston, Ma., a fact the tour guide repeated a dozen times. His father had been a diplomat stationed in the USA at the time of the King's birth. Later the King returned to study at Harvard, learn how to play jazz clarinet, and then take over the throne at the age of twenty. His photograph is everywhere, posters, billboards; pictures adorn streets, shops, banners, many with pictures of him from early in life to nearly the present, carefully avoiding his dotage. The most popular is of him with dark hair and glasses, a Nikon or Canon camera hanging from a strap around his neck.
But the king has only titular power. There have been a series of military coups in Thailand, deposing one Prime Minister and installing another, without interference from the king. One commentator said if he gets involved and the Army ignores him, the monarchy is finished. So he stays out of politics, preferring do-good "projects."
His daughter, the princess, rides in a yellow Rolls-Royce amid a nine-car convoy of guards and staff. Yellow is the color of the king's day of birth. In Buddhism, each day has a color attached to it. Traffic stops when the Princess takes to the street. We know. We were on tour with a guide when all traffic was stopped by the police, adding to the already irritating delays.
The main public works activity was pushed forward by the latest deposed 23rd Prime Minister, fifty-eight year old Taksin Shinawatra, called Taksin for short. A self-made Billionaire, who made his money owning the first mobile phone carrier in Thailand, Taksin holds an MBA and is reportedly "very clever." Too clever for the military who deposed him two years ago, accusing him of "corruption." A favorite accusation. The current Chief of Police was recently fired for "corruption," skimming money off a deal to buy 6000 cars for the police. His job had been to investigate Taksin's charge of corruption. Co-incidently, he was fired the day Taksin returned from "exile."
Taksin became popular when he brought Thailand out of a disastrous economy in 2000 after the local currency, the Baht, contracted as much as 10 per cent a year. Taksin used huge public works projects, locally called "Thanksinomics,"which resulted in economic growth of about 5% a year for the last six-eight years.
We learned all of this because Taksin returned to Thailand from "self-imposed exile" (meaning, according to one analyst, getting out before he was arrested, and coming back when he'd made a good deal) while we were in Bangkok. His arrival was the top story in every paper, as well as his background, and opinions pro and anti. It turns out Taksin got things done in a country where development outstrips infrastructure, where four-tower sixty-story luxury condo complexes are under construction by hordes of Thai workers who start their day at seven and work until nine at night. All this in land cleared of either green areas, or squatters huts. One watches the construction and wonders how the narrow crowded two lane roads will accomodate the thousands of new residents of the two-kilometer long street.
A new super-fast train is under construction from the airport to the city, a project Taksin initiated, as well as the new airport, but which was stopped while he was abroad. Taksin apparently knows how the government works, and how to get it working. He returned to face his corruption charge, and was already offered the Finance Ministry as a job. He swore publicly to stay out of politics, but most observers say he always says that when he's in trouble. Most consider him the de facto Prime Minister now, who is expected to get the country moving again.
The streets of Bangkok are lined with small shops, restaurants, coffee shops, and massage parlors. One coffee shop looked across the narrow two-lane road onto four massage parlors, one advertising itself as the "Japanese Club." The narrow sidewalks are littered with food stands, like the hot-dog or pretzel vendors in Manhattan. But here they have little charcoal stoves with sizzling meat, chicken, and who knows what else. Some stands sell plastic bags of white rice and vegetables. Low tables and lower stools line the sidewalk along the stands which become fast-food restaurants. Where ever one turns one sees these side-walk restaurants, as numerous as the cars. These are the "people's" restaurants where a meal can cost 20 Baht. Compare them to the up-scale restaurants where a meal can cost 800 Baht, without wine.
The growth of Thailand is attributed to Taksin. He is a populist loved by the poor people for instituting health care and improving the infrastructure, the electric grids, the roads, managing the economy by borrowing money from the Chinese to finance the public works. He is also despised by the "ruling class" for siphoning power from them, and according to one pundit, for not sharing enough of his skim with them. Or worse, stopping their corrupt deals to help move the economy forward.
They deposed him, tried to do without him, we were told, but they failed. So they let him back in.
Now to Israel. The press covered the IDF attacks in Gaza, spending 90 per cent of the article on how much damage Israel did to the Palestinians, but barely mentioning the cause for the IDF action. It is hard to find a balanced article about Israel.
Touring Bangkok in a mini-van, one sees the amazingly opulent Royal Palace, constructed in 1782; the Wat Traimit temple devoted to the five-ton solid gold Buddha, found in N. Thailand in the 1950's; and the 46-meter by 16 meter sleeping Buddha in the Wat Pho temple.
The rich and poor in Bangkok mix, but are separate. A massive outdoor market is crowded with shoppers buying everything from shrimp to mango, shorts to fans, all set out on tables in rows of stalls. For the rich there are massive shopping malls, like the Emporium, with Hermes, Guicci, Rolex stores. The poor ride the three-wheeled taxis and crowded filthy buses, the rich the new "Sky Train" where 40 Baht gets you on a air-conditioned luxury car with flat-screen TV's announcing the stops, and playing video commercials in between.
In traffic the motorbikes and three-wheeled motor-scooters sit idling their engines besides housewives with the kids in back of their SUVs or Mercedes sedans. On the side streets, away from the leafy villas set back behind high walls, are the rows of stores, families gathered on the floor eating their simple meals, all gathered around a color TV; the store is not only their place of business but also their home.
Leaving Bangkok one was again taken with the building, the cranes, the tractors, the sky-scrapers going up, and the tin roofed huts in their shadow.
Our guide, who lives 100 kilometers out of town, and left home at 04:30 am to meet us at our hotel at 07:30 said he remembers when Bangkok was mostly green, with shrubs and trees, now its mostly smog and traffic. Wooden homes are expensive because the forests have been stripped nearly bare. But he laughed when he said it. The Thai people are always smiling, laughing, "Accommodating" as Paul Theroux said in an interview which appeared in the Bangkok Post. Theroux recalled visiting Bangkok in the 1970's while the USA was embroiled in the Viet Nam war. Then he said Bangkok was a horizontal city, today it’s vertical.
The road out of town was clear; the driver took a different route, one that was 200 Baht cheaper and forty-minutes faster. Like anywhere else in the world, a tourist is at the mercy of the taxi driver, concierge, waiter, and frequently is literally 'taken for a ride.'
Perhaps that's reassuring. All over the world corruption and progress are at war. The best outcome is when some sort of stasis is achieved, allowing the corrupt to function, while the economy moves forward, and the plight of the people improves.