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In October 2012 flew to India and Nepal with Thai International and so had stopovers in Bangkok in both directions. On our way we had a few days to have a look around.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Thailand is the relatively high standard of living.

 

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Population growth has slowed dramatically from the peak in the 1960's to less than 1% pa.  Population is now  66.7 million.

Compared to other countries we have visited in the region Thailand has a fast improving material standard of living; most comparable to that of China. 

It is quite a bit higher than that in Vietnam, which is most comparable to India.  Although Vietnam is a lot more even in wealth distribution; with lower population growth; and so lacks the abject poor of India.

Thailand’s a lot richer than neighbouring Cambodia, which is similar to Nepal in wealth.

The following table simply confirms the observations we’ve made while travelling in these countries; there are no surprises.

 

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None of these developing countries is nearly as wealthy as Singapore, now a truly a first world country with a per capita GDP five times that of Malaysia; and higher than that of the United States.

Visitors to Bangkok are immediately impressed by the number of tall modern buildings; the overhead metro rail service; the quality of the expressways; and nevertheless, the total traffic gridlock in parts of the City.

 

 

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 While there are still many tuc-tucs, seen all over developing SE Asia, these compete with normal cabs and many late model cars.

 There is also a great deal of urban development and high-rise building; but not on the scale of China.

 

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As in China there is a very prosperous middle class who frequent up-market shopping malls in great numbers.

In addition to high fashion clothes, jewellery and cosmetics, several Bangkok Malls have very expensive German and Italian cars being ‘boutiqued’. I was impressed that they obviously have goods lifts large enough to take half a dozen Mercedes to the fifth floor.

 

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Returning to Thailand from India was like lifting a weight from our backs. Just to escape from the abject poverty and contrasting wealth that assaults the egalitarian sentiment in a way that almost no other country does.

It was such a relief to get to a place where they don't separate women from men at airport security; where the toilets are clean; there isn't rubbish everywhere; and from the constant bombardment of all the senses that that extraordinary country constantly imposes.

Not that Thailand is egalitarian. Alongside the obvious wealth there are still many people living in very poor conditions similar to those in neighbouring Cambodia. This growing inequality has recently resulted in political instability; very well reported in Australia and worldwide.

 

 

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As in most of SE Asia, substantial resources are being committed to universal education and literacy; with mathematics, engineering and science given a high priority. But there is a problem in joining the international scientific community in that they have an unusual language and writing script that is indecipherable to others. It seems to me that Thailand should follow Singapore and adopt an international language like English and/or Mandarin within the education system, on a much wider basis than presently seems evident.

Nevertheless Thailand is certainly doing better educationally than India.

As we have just seen, there are some states in India in which strong educational values apply. But there are great regional and class differences. A full quarter of the Indian population is illiterate; with no access to education at all. Among those that do attend school educational standards are often very poor. Many of these people are pitifully ignorant, living lives that are short and brutish; with no prospect of an education that might save them or their children. Their only consolation is a constellation of gods and spirits and superstitions that serve principally to make matters worse.

But in Thailand despite recent riots and political upheaval, there is a feeling that the poor too are benefiting from economic growth, getting richer, and life is generally improving.

The dominant religion of Thailand is Buddhism (90%). Buddhism is based on the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha around two and a half thousand years ago. Like its contemporary Confucianism, Buddhism is a significant diversion from primitive agrarian or animistic religions that posit divine intervention in everyday lives.

 

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As originally taught Buddhism effectively puts aside any need to hypothesise a god; suggesting that the purpose of life is personal a quest for enlightenment; steering a middle way between asceticism and sensual indulgence. But neither of these ancient religions eliminates the supernatural. While Confucianism replaces conventional gods with ancestor worship; a central metaphysical premise Buddhism is a belief in reincarnation.

Over the intervening two and a half thousand years Buddhism has become corrupted and more like a conventional religion; with priests and temples often supporting the divine right of rulers; and other social conventions and mores.  There is a strong Hindu influence in some of the temples; but it does not seem to create a shortage of Thai beef salad; or McDonald's franchises.

Similar observations have been made about the actual teachings of Jesus and the practice of Christianity in support of the State, and priesthood, in medieval Europe; right through to the modern period.

As a result of this institutionalisation The Buddha has become a focus for worship and even prayers for intervention.

We visited a number of Thai institutions (the palace temples and so on) that are structured around this ‘evolved’ form of the religion. I even had to put on funny pants to cover my lower legs when visiting the temple complex. How has that got anything to do with Buddhist teaching?

 

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Manufacturing

Manufacturing is the principal driver of Thailand’s economic growth.

The country produces many of the world’s digital integrated circuits and has a substantial related industry manufacturing printed circuit boards for computers. More recently this has extended further manufacturing optical communications fibres and electrical vehicles like Golf Carts. There is also a substantial industry based around natural rubber and related chemicals.

Great bundles of data cabling festoon the streets of Bangkok rivalling those in Vietnam. While this is true of many cities we have visited, like Kathmandu and in Kerala in India; Hanoi, Saigon and Bangkok take the prize. Predictably, data access speeds in these locations are fast and connection is very cheap and often free.

Similarly the Electricity Infrastructure is rapidly expanding with new transmission towers and additional sections added to older towers across the countryside.

 

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Thailand's annual electricity demand was 150 terawatt-hours (TWh) in 2011, having grown at an average annual rate of 8.2% since the 1970's.  Almost all of this energy is derived from thermal power stations burning natural gas and coal.  Hydro electricity provides 4.7% and other renewable 1.4%. They also import around 2% from neighbouring Laos and Malaysia (also derived mainly from fossil fuels).  

This compares with France, with almost the same population, that annually consumes 425 TWh and Australia, with less than half the population (22.7 m) that consumes 220 TWh.  So Thailand still has a long way to go; not good news for world carbon reduction targets.

Thailand was once predominantly an agricultural economy and now less than half the workforce is employed in agriculture. Nevertheless Thailand remains the largest exporter of rice in the world.  Other rural industries include sugar, and tropical fruit for domestic consumption: coconuts, bananas and so on.

 

 

 

Tourism

In Bangkok, and at resorts like those in Phuket, tourism is obviously an important industry. There are many international tourists and a very active supporting tourism infrastructure.

Aparently, substantial sub-sectors of Thai tourism include: ‘sexual tourism’ providing prostitution, and occasionally wives, mainly to western men; including many Australians; and medical tourism providing mainly cosmetic and dental services and occasionally joint replacements, mainly to western women; including many Australians.

As our time was limited, and we were restricted to Bangkok and environs, we used our Lonely Planet and did the conventional tourist things; except for the prostitutes or surgeons.

Around town we used the metro, the cabs and tuc-tucs and walked.

 

 

The Jim Thompson House

If you’ve never heard of Jim Thompson I don’t blame you; nor had I.  He was an American businessman and co-founder of the Thai Silk Company; for which he was awarded the ‘Order of the White Elephant’.  There’s a men’s clothing franchise named after him; not the white elephant.

His 'claims to fame' include developing the silk business and a wartime career in the in the Office of Strategic Services that later became the Central Intelligence Agency. It is speculated that he continued with the CIA in a clandestine way. He divorced after the War to live what appears to have been a somewhat dissolute life in Thailand.

Thompson's 'cloak and dagger' background adds colour to the mystery of his death.

In 1967 while on a trip to the Cameron Highland in Malaysia with friends, he went for a late night walk; and was never seen again.  That's it!  They searched and searched; but he had disappeared without a trace.

Before the war he had experience as an architect. 'The Jim Thompson House' is actually six traditional houses gathered and joined together in 1959 to make one large house plus a studio and a garage in a pleasant garden overlooking a small river, the Klong.  It’s very nicely done; and decorated with antiques that Thompson gathered mainly from Thailand; but also from Europe and elsewhere in Asia.

 

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Today it operates as a museum and tourist shop. Our hotel was near Siam Square and the house is an easy walk away.

We also used the metro station a few hundred meters from our very comfortable hotel (Siam@Siam) to go the huge markets at Chatuchak.  This is certainly a place to see some local colour; people up-close and personal; and to eat a meal from the street vendors.

These vast markets specialise in fake almost everything: bags, watches and clothing labels but unlike the clandestine markets in the Middle East and China, the goods are mostly rubbish and wouldn’t fool a child.   In those other places the counterfeit goods are virtually indistinguishable and made from the same materials - fine leather bags, crystal watch faces, similar mechanical movements and so on - and they even come with fake certificates of authenticity.

Chatuchak markets in contrast, specialise in factory seconds and cheap goods for the local poor; to which designer labels have been applied in a simple breach of the trademarks, not involving replication or serious 'passing off'.

Wendy likes browsing in these places but I ran out of patience and got the train back to the Art Museum at Siam Square.  At first I thought the building only contained uninteresting commercial craft shops; upmarket versions of the stalls I had just fled.

I was disappointed at a wasted visit and about to leave.

But then I discovered at the top of the building a spiral ramp reminiscent of the Guggenheim in New York. While the ramp display area was confined to some rather boring photos there are several connected gallery areas with several relatively small but very nice collections of works from Thailand and overseas.

These are organised into various international art movements as well as local religious art. I was really interested by paintings in some of these areas and wandered about happily; along with a few other patrons and their children; pleased to be out of the markets and the hot street.  I was also surprised to see among these collections several, probably quite valuable, western pieces by well known artists.

Some of the local revolutionary art and art with a social message was powerful and well executed.

But almost all the religious art was incomprehensible to me as I don’t understand the cultural references; and much of it seemed poorly executed in comparison to the high standard elsewhere.

Thailand is very parochial in terms of the local language, writing, culture and religion; and proud of being the only country in the region not colonised by a European power. But this has consequences in terms of their ability to become part of the international conversation in the sciences and the arts; and probably religion too.

 

 

The Grand Palace and Temple complex

This is a large cluster of buildings. Some are religious and others secular.  The main museum is adjacent.  Close-by is the jewellery district; not far from Khao San Road, the rather predictable backpacker area.  We walked, caught tuc-tucs and cabs around, and to and from, this area.  The Grand Palace is a considerable distance from Siam Square and there is no metro station.

 

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The Tourist Experience

We seldom use tourist coaches except occasionally for intercity travel. But on this occasion we used the travel desk in the hotel to book a package tour that took in the ‘floating markets’ and a coconut plantation.

Wendy caused a minor sensation on returning to the almost full coach when she went to the wrong side. The guide playing Sherlock Holmes said to her ‘you’re American’ – a general snigger passed through the bus. But of course she promptly denied it. He then said ‘but you went to the wrong side so…?’ He seemed put-out that she was Australian.

It was too hard to explain that the last time we travelled by coach was in Cuba and the time before that in South America and the time before that…

Now we were on a real tourist bus and in for the FTFE (full tourist fabricated experience); or other ‘Fs’ to that effect.

 

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First stop the ‘James Bond’ Boats in their Disney-esque concrete lined canals. They acquired this name after featuring in ‘The man with the golden gun’ with Roger Moore as James Bond.

 

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They operate line a stern in a continuous queue along the channels and never really get above 10 knots. I found the variety of engines in use interesting; mostly from cars but occasionally bigger, probably out of trucks. The gearbox and propeller shaft seems to be standard.

 

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The water is fresh so cooling and corrosion is not a problem.

Along the canals are relatively poor stilt houses, mostly on concrete rather than wooden stilts.  There is a distinct feeling of being on a Hollywood ‘back lot’, similar to that we got in Malacca in Malaysia on a similar tourist ride.  That one more clearly declares its hand with an amusement park, a pirate ship and monorail alongside.

 

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At the end of the Bond ride one reaches the Floating Markets. While there are boat loads of fruit for the locals; these intermingle with those with tourist goods. Alongside are the real markets: wide undercover warehouses of cheap clothes; and more tourist souvenirs.

 

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I took my photos then found a coffee shop until it was time for our bus to leave.

On the same trip we were taken to a coconut sugar ‘factory’. This substance is derived from the collected sap of coconut flowers. We were shown the process of progressively reducing the liquid until it becomes a very valuable and a natural (magic) cure for almost everything.

 

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We didn’t see the process by which it gets from the reduction pans into the various bottles of creams and lotions on sale.

Another substance people in Thailand kept trying to rub on me is Tiger Balm.  Originally this substance was based on Tiger bones that imparted its magical properties. But now it is purely herbal and could easily be made at home from ingredients found on the shelves at Woolworths (Wikipedia has the recipe).  It was a great fad in the 1960's, along with purple flared pants, and came in little tins.  It smells.  That's about it.   In the markets I had to keep dodging and weaving to avoid the sellers' smelly fingers.

I rather like Tim Minchin’s beat poem set to music in which he has difficulties with ‘Storm’ who only uses natural remedies. He say there is a name for ‘alternative medicine’ that has been proven to work: ‘medicine’.

 

 

But then there was a woman in our local Mosman shopping centre flogging some yellow concoction that she had cooked up at home that she assured us was ‘all natural’ and contained no chemicals; and so was bound to be ‘good for you’.

All these claims seemed unlikely to me as: I’ve never seen anything like her cream in nature; there appeared to be something in the jar, presumably consisting of chemicals; and with little difficulty I could collect some 'natural' things to make a concoction that would definitely not be ‘good for you’.

I could start with the oleander cuttings that are presently filling our green-waste bin.

 

chemical structure

Oleandrin: one of the 'natural' toxins present in Oleander.    Like other material things in the Universe it is a chemical.
It is immaterial whether it came from the plant or was made in a test tube. If it has the same chemical structure it will be toxic.  

Source: Wikipedia

 

 

Like the Thai coconut stuff and Tiger Balm, the Mosman lady’s cream is good for the skin and cures aches and pains; as well as anything else a placebo works on.  That it is effective and not harmful in some way, to at least some users, remains unproven.  It’s not (properly) tested on animals; of any variety.

For my part, I like to be assured that effective pharmaceuticals that I buy have been tested on animals; in particular Homo sapiens.  If they have no effect I don't want to waste my money.  And I don't want to smell of plant oils that make me sneeze and/or my eyes and nose run.

 

If you haven't already done so (and can see it) click on the 'Storm' play button above.

 

The good thing about the coach, as opposed to taking local transport, is the ability to sit up high and survey the local surroundings, although I noticed quite a few passengers simply went to sleep at this point.

I amused myself looking at the electricity infrastructure, the variety and quality of the buildings and several impressive bridges.

 

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On a tour everything is scheduled and runs like clockwork. You become a parcel to be delivered and picked up at a particular time; having been processed through a standardised ‘experience’; and having had as much money extracted along the way as possible, at various overpriced craft shops.  It’s all nicely timed so you will get back at the appointed hour.  It’s so easy and safe.

There is none of that other kind of experience. No finding your way through an unfamiliar local transport system in a different language and currency; no arguing with cab and tuc-tuc drivers over the cost; no getting lost; no walking for hours or eating in a local café or from a street stall; no finding the bloody place you went to see closed and so doing something else instead; and no being ‘ripped off’ by local crooks.

Tour members need never see a slum or jostle with locals in a marketplace; and if you do, you do it as a team; a bus load.

This way you can avoid our experience of getting out of the cab mid journey when the driver announced he wanted to charge us twice the normal price for getting across town; or the tuc-tuc that ran out of fuel on a main highway so that we had to walk for a kilometre or so to find a side road where we could hail another.  

That experience made the more usual side-trip to a service station, to buy fuel with your money as part of your fare, the lesser of two evils.  This diversion, and wait, must have happened at least half a dozen times during this trip.  But this has happened to us elsewhere too; sometimes with the driver trying to extract the full fare in addition.

On a tour you can avoid seeing people living rough; the piles of excrement; or the smell of urine. You can avoid real local food or seeing the flies in the food markets. In fact, you can avoid seeing the country at all.

 

 

Tourist Shopping

Bangkok has ample shopping; from up-market boutiques to those I have already mentioned the Chatuchak markets and the floating markets.

There are also some huge department stores in which many 'brand goods' are cheaper than in Australia. We both purchased new shoes.

 

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And I bought some reading glasses – the frames are titanium but one of the plastic lenses broke three weeks later.

As in Vietnam, tailoring is another service competitively provided to tourists; with numerous tailors offering overnight production of suits and shirts. I had two shirts made but the little jacket Wendy had tailored was a total mess, badly sewn and completely unwearable, not just unflattering.  She refused payment; much to the distress of the business owner who was suddenly not the tailor.  I paid for the shirts.

 

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