Saturday, March 28, 2009

Thai Means Free

 Since my return to Bangkok after my seven-year absence,  what surprises me most is the amount of regulation that has fallen into place since I first came here fourteen years ago.

Thai people meant free people, I was told repeatedly by my students, and the amount of personal freedom that I saw was stunning, especially when compared to the strictures and caveats I'd left behind in the States.

Carol Hollinger, in her classic Mai Bpen Rai, tells of an aristocratic Thai friend who went to America and returned horrified because of the signs she saw everywhere that said "No Spitting" and who questioned the U.S. reputation for liberty because it was a country where there was no freedom to spit. After my recent visit to Beijing, where I was mildly surprised to see a chic woman whose outfit I was admiring bend her head and elegantly spit into the ground surrounding a streetside tree, and having grown up in an Alaskan town where the indigenous residents spat on the sidewalk as a matter of routine, this was not a personal liberty that I yearned for any country to uphold.

However I was thrilled to see that in Thailand, anyone with a cart and a talent for cooking could set up an impromptu restaurant on the sidewalk, that every available surface was filled with small-level entrepreneurs so that shopping was possible on any skybridge, that smoking was allowed almost everywhere, and that it was possible to buy a can of beer and take it with a bag of popcorn into a movie theater. As a former Alaskan, I had grown up where you could do just about anything you were willing to take the consequences for and the Thai mindset was very familiar to me.

When I passed workers who were employing open flame miilimeters from pedestrians, when I crossed a wildly busy street without regard for traffic lights, when I drank beer while listening to the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra as they gave free concerts in the park, I felt at home. When I heard a man on CNN who, when constructing rockets for the annual festival held in the northeast was working with gunpowder while a lighted cigarette was in his mouth, respond to the interviewer's question about the threat of smoking while working with what was very close to live ammo, by smiling, saying "It is forbidden" and taking a deep drag off his cigarette, in some very perverse way, I understood. This guy was fully willing to accept the loss of a limb or his life for doing what he pleased without strictures on his behavior.

Now the skybridges and most of the sidewalks have been emptied of the people who constructed instant markets in the space available, cigarette packs are hidden from public view in most convenience stores, bars and nightclubs close earlier than they do in strict Singapore I've been told, and kingdomwide there are hours of the day when you can't buy alcohol in any form.

Yesterday was a lazy Saturday afternoon. I had errands to do and realized that I was hungry. There was a sushi restaurant nearby and sushi and a bottle of Kirin sounded really good. I went in, studied the menu, placed my order, and there was a moment of silence. "Oh madame," the waitress said, "no beer, wrong time." And it was--I was forty minutes away from the five o'clock happy hour, which in Thailand has become an hour bordering on the ecstatic, with no alcohol sales in restaurants or supermarkets between two and five pm.

Of course there are little neighborhood mom and pop stores where I could have bought a cold beer after getting my sushi to go--there are always ways of circumventing  regulations anywhere in the world. The fact is any true sot can get what he (or she) needs at any time of day. It's the person who spends money for lunch in a restaurant or for expensive expat delicacies at an upscale supermarket who's being penalized, and at a time when economies all over the world need a certain amount of frivolous expenditures to take place, this particular law in Thailand seems about as sensible as banning the consumption of fish sauce  in the hours before dawn or during the late afternoon.

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