Saturday, November 8, 2014

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy...

I have a friend who goes to Bangkok a few times every year and stays for several weeks in the same hotel each time he visits. The hotel has copies of the Bangkok Post, which he reads and then brings back to Seattle for me. Last time the paper was filled with news about the new government; this time it was dominated by news of the entrenched junta's accomplishments, especially those of the Prime Minister, whose talents and wisdom seem to have no bounds.

One of the new plans that will be launched in 2016 is guaranteed to change cities in the north, northeast, and south of Thailand, which are (no doubt coincidentally) all areas of concern to the junta.

Twelve border areas are slated to become "special economic zones," with free trade and customs duty exemptions between neighboring countries, which are expected to "attract foreign investors."

One of the targeted districts, the northern city of Chiang Khong, is protesting this plan, saying that in anticipation Chinese investors are snapping up local real estate and driving up prices. Known as a center for culture and natural beauty, Chiang Khong says this plan puts the area at risk of "losing its identity." Fears that industrial factories will be built with accompanying environmental degradation is a large concern, as well as the effect of rapid population growth. At the same time, job opportunities for local residents and a bolstered economy is a large attraction of this plan.

I've yet to go to Chiang Khong, but I have seen other cities that will also become part of this plan. Nong Khai, Mukdahan, and Nakhon Phanom are also on the agenda to become special economic zones, each one a Mekong river town with charm and its own unique character. I've seen how Mukdahan's riverfront has changed over the past five years in response to increased tourism as buses filled with Asian travelers belch their way into the market areas and disgorge travelers daily. It isn't pretty. Local food spots have been replaced with coffee houses that serve mediocre versions of Starbucks offerings along with microwaved meals. Near the tourist office, women arrive in the morning and set up an arena for selling silk. They stand there without enthusiasm all day long, as buses pull up and then roll away. The walkway that runs along the riverbank is clogged with a double row of stalls for at least a mile, selling fabric, clothing, and souvenirs, with still more of the same in the Indochine Market that runs under the walkway. A pretty little restaurant that served Vietnamese food on the banks of the Mekong is now as crowded and lackluster as a foodcourt at any Bangkok shopping mall.

In February I spent half of my Thai time in Nakhon Phanom, which is one of the most delightful places I've ever been in Thailand. A friend who has lived there much of her life told me that real estate prices were soaring. Right now its riverfront is quiet and open to anyone who chooses to enjoy it. Residents come to the old center of the town on weekends to shop on a "walking street" and an old building near the river is the local Indochine Market which is decidedly smaller than Mukdahan's. It is still a Thai city, not a tourist mecca, but soon it may be an economic monster.

But bread and circuses are still the best way to calm a recalcitrant population, and nobody knows better how to accomplish this than the government in Bangkok. That city has spread almost all the way to Khorat and down into Rayong, with business parks and housing developments and superstores. Where to go next? It looks as though they have that all figured out.

The tourist zones are already well established. Now on to the areas that pose a political threat--fill them up with entrepreneurs, bring in the Chinese money, and let the games begin.

And I watch a country I've loved for two decades face the threat of becoming something I will never want to see again. But at least its population will have the disposable income that will allow everyone to come to Bangkok and buy something from the new Embassy shopping paradise, or at Asiatique along the river, or at whatever new behemoth has destroyed yet another neighborhood in Thailand's primate city.

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