Where else but Thailand can you experience ostentatious sex tourism under a military-backed regime? Sometimes the groups of masseuses standing outside stores will grab your arm to go in. Middle-aged men holding photo books of “chicks”, or after a few seconds, they may ask point blank, “dicks?” And other times, you see military personnel with guns on the mass raily transit. Or blockades at any large plaza areas. And large photos of the king or queen, either vintage or current, usually framed with tons of gold leaf.
MBC, K, and myself landed in Thailand two months after the 2014 coup d’etat and several weeks after the curfew was lifted.
We went to a mall where we met our Thai friends M and A for dinner. “Thai people are lazy,” M said. “We like to buy all our things in one place and not move around too much in this heat. That is why we have malls.” Amidst the humidity, we were definitely not complaining. The mall was on a piece of land owned by the Thai princess, who also owned the next door office space.
To enter the mall, we had to walk through a security checkpoint guarded by the military junta. The plaza in front of the mall was completely fenced off to prevent congregation of too many people. The junta would not be tolerant of protests or demonstrations of any kind.
The curfew was gone, but the country was still being run by the military since the May 2014 coup.
Our friend A was thankful for the end of that 22:00-5:00 curfew since it caused so much chaos. During the curfew, by the time A got off of work at 18:00PM, if she tried to grab a drink at 19:00PM, most of the restaurants would refuse to serve because they would be closing up by 20:00PM, leaving restaurant workers about two hours to get home before curfew began. Regular Bangkok traffic can get you stuck in a pickle for 1-2 hours. Imagine the mad dash once the curfew began.
In the “Land of Smiles,” talking about the King is like speaking Voldemort’s name in Harry Potter. Even though the King has not made a public appearance in years because of declining health, one of our tour guides had hastily denied such a thing. “She said, “He needs a wheelchair, but he is in perfect health!” When we were chilling at a mall, K asked our Thai-born friend A if she cared about the King at all. A’s tensed up and immediately stopped chatting, looking around at the other people on the escalator.
In the “Land of Smiles,” taxi drivers smile at you but do not run the taxi meter like they’re supposed to. A ride worth 100 baht becomes 900 baht in the blink of an eye. Taxi drives make up some excuse about a place having to much traffic (not always true) or “mishearing” something we had already pointed to in Thai. Thailand is where the military junta hosts happiness campaign events to bring joy to the people through song, dance, beautiful dancers, and the works.
The overall atmosphere of precarious peace makes me think of Joo Dee from Nickelodeon’s Avatar series (spoilers alert!). Amidst a brutal war, the fortressed city of Basingse is a stronghold for the Avatar and his friends to visit. The Earth King of Basingse sends courteous and smiling Joo Dee to be Team Avatar’s tour guide the entire time. Though there is a war raging outside the fortress walls, the Earth King’s administration vehemently imposes an illusion of safety and punishes those who bring up “unpleasant” matters. Joo Dee is not only Team Avatar’s guide, but also the babysitter that makes sure Team Avatar doesn’t discover any ugly truths. If she fails, Joo Dee is replaced by other “Joo Dees” who look exactly like her.
Another similarity of Basingse and Bangkok is rampant corruption and inefficient bureaucracy. Our friend M worked as a doctor in a public hospital and after growing disillusioned, became a worker at an “aesthetics” center. As a doctor, he witnessed government officials favor certain people and assign grunt work to those from disadvantaged backgrounds like himself. Promotions were assigned to military friends and/or family. He actually makes more bank now by seeing a few patients a week and administering their botox injections. The corrupt government makes it a difficult work environment. M also announces that he bought a new condo, but it may never be finished by Chinese developers who have not punctually and adequately completed their tasks. The communal pool in the complex was filled with polluted water. The supposed waterproof building material rusts after the rain. If M sues the contractors, will he ever make it to housing court? It would take at least a year.
Our Thai friends seemed quite nonchalant about the coups. After several, it seems so commonplace you might as well start a Buzzfeed of “which Thailand coup are you?” A said a military coup could mean no school! I guess kinda like our American “snow day?”