Sunday, July 20, 2014

Missing What I Do Not Know

Today I woke up missing Nakhon Phanom, a city I've spent two weeks exploring. Two weeks of staying in a hotel that's frozen back in the 60s, walking along the Mekong river, taking a sunset ride on a basic tour boat, drinking coffee at a little corner cafe, and eating desserts at a lovely oasis owned by a woman I met when she lived in the States. I've spent hours walking this city's dusty and colorful streets and I know it not at all. I'm an observer, not an analyst.

And that's a good thing, because so many foreign analysts who bring their microscopes to bear on the many landscapes of Thailand are horribly, laughably wrong in their assessments. The foreigners I respect are the observers, who watch and keep their counsel. I try my best to emulate them.

My private opinions have been formed by where I've spent time. In Bangkok the neighborhood that I lived in for years is Thai and in it I've seen a segment of the multileveled nature of Thai society. It's taught me that many people in the capital city are often little different from their rural counterparts, except their cost of living is much higher. From conversations held in and out of a classroom, with middle-class people who have traveled widely and are bilingual, I have found that official dogma, repeated throughout years of education, not infrequently replaces critical thinking. As for truly wealthy people in Bangkok, I have no idea. But I have been in the home of a man in Samut Prakan who had five cars in his garage, among them two Benz and  a Jeep Cherokee. You could easily drive an 18-wheel truck up the main staircase of his house, which had the gleam of highly polished teak, and his wife, who taught at the local primary school, had a lighted, walk-in closet filled with the deep glow of silk cocktail dresses. She gave me one when I admired it and told me it was made of Shinawatra silk from Chiang Mai. In Thailand even the silk has a pedigree.

I know how people in Bangkok live when they are hungry because I was, after the baht fell. So were the people I worked with and we banded together, Thai and farang. We shared. We took care of each other. The Thai people taught us foreigners how to do that and I will never forget those lessons.

These are things engraved on my bones and I know they are true. But don't ask me who burned parts of Bangkok in 2010. Or who hired the snipers who killed people who took refuge in a temple. Or who The Men In Black were in the recent protests. I don't know--and you know what? Anyone who says that they do, especially if they are foreigners with a limited knowledge of the Thai language, is a dupe, if not a liar.

The only political opinion I have is that all Thai political leaders of all lineages and regional origins, just as in my own country, are manipulators of public opinion. There are no good guys among them and the rest of the Thai people are getting it in the neck. It's happening right now, but we're unlikely to hear much about it because Thai media is being suppressed in a way that's been absent since perhaps the 70s. Facebook is being monitored for sentiments that may not be "happy" and who knows how long the foreign press will have a toehold in Thailand?

Even in my brief episode in Nakhon Phanom, politics became part of what I observed, enough that I know there are people there who are not happy. The thought of them not being able to express that truth makes my stomach roil. Thai, I was always told, meant free and a Thailand that is under rigid control isn't somewhere I want to be. I will probably spend a long time missing Nakhon Phanom.

No comments: