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My trip to the south of Thailand

More on my train ride down to the South:

It's going to take me a bit to process this trip -- now coming to an end, something in itself to process -- but here are some quick and random thoughts. Let's start with a lousy picture:

(Train fans note the European-style "goods wagons," now replaced by American-style "freight cars" with trucks (bogies)). Check out the regular spacing of the trees; the photo is not of a forest, but a plantation, possibly rubber or palm oil [UPDATE I'm told definitely rubber]. This reminds me very much of Maine, where so much of the land is owned by paper companies or Irving, which extract resources and money from the state and send them to the metropolis. Old Thailand hands will correct me, but I believe that this plantation economy is different from the economy of the rice-growing Northeast, which (at its worst) is more like sharecropping. That is, the rubber worker in the South has a shitty job for a big landowner, but they're not in debt to the bank for their seeds, fertilizer, and fuel, as they are in the Northeast (which is why the governments rice scheme clusterfuck is so bad).

Now here's a map:

As you can see, the electoral map of Thailand is divided, rather as if there were a Mason-Dixon line: The North in red (indeed, a party supported by a group known as the "red shirts") and the South in blue (oddly, since their movement, which opposes the "red shirts," is often called the "yellow shirts"). Bangkok, where I began, is perhaps 40% red, and 60% yellow. I wish to avoid the intricacies of Thai politics in this post, but as the map makes clear, the train -- the green line -- took me from one political world to another. Suffice to say that I did not pack my actual red shirt, and made no comment when the matriarch of the family I was staying with settled down to watch the [horrible, Limbaugh- heck, Mussolini-like ranting on the] yellow shirt TV channel.* It never does to project, but I often have the same queasy feeling moving South from the gritty world of Bangor to the "progressive" world of Portland.

And since I don't think I've ever cited one of the books I loved as a teenager, here goes! From Stephen Potter's Lifemanship, a sort of meta Games People Play, a discussion of "The Canterbury Block," an early form of trolling:

The beauty of the best Canterbury [Block} is its deadly simplicity, in the hands of an expert. Six words will suffice.

EXPERT (Who has just come back from a fortnight in Florence): And I was glad to see with my own eyes that this Left-wing Catholicism is definitely on the increase in Tuscany.

THE CANTERBURY: Yes, but not in the South.

‘Yes, but not in the South,’ with slight adjustments, will do for any argument about any place, if not about any person.

The irony being that "Yes, but not in the South" is, for Thailand, quite often true (and that's before we get to the deep South, where the Muslim insurgency is). And speaking of plantations, we see for example sights like this:

This is a little sugar boiling house. Behind the fires is a stand of sugar cane; they slice off the end of a cane and catch the dripping syrup in a cylindrical bucket sealed at the bottom, also made of cane. Then they dump the buckets into the boiling pot over the fire. Remember, this is Thailand, so it's like 90° F in the shade, and then, because of the fire, who knows how hot it was. Anyhow, I had some fresh, slightly warm sugar, and that sugar was one of the best things I've ever tasted; that sugar was as different from "refined" Domino sugar as square tomatoes are from heirloom tomatoes, or white bread from real bread, or foie gras from fried liver. I could immediately see why the entire Western world went crazy for the stuff, and so, um, 4 million slaves and a few country houses for Jane Austen. (This looks like an interesting book.)

So the person feeding wood into the fire, in 90°++ sticky heat -- granted, normal for Thailand; they don't even sweat! -- was an old lady dressed in black pajamas; I'd seen her earlier collecting logs from a stack near the garden of the house where I was staying. Granted, I didn't see any whips or shackles, and the whole operation was pretty relaxed, with plenty of smiles; the old lady had a lovely smile. But still, the Gini ratio seemed to be tending toward 100%, there. The sugar was input to another business of the entrepreneurial family with which I was staying: A "whiskey" distillery. And somehow I don't think the old lady got a cut from that operation.

Exploitation, it is said, creates suffering, and the suffering is known to both the exploited and the exploiter, who deliberately creates it. How bad was the exploitation here?** I can't enter into the hearts or minds of either Thai in this case; Thailand is an intensely hierarchical society, and it may be that both parties to the transaction took comfort -- or, in the old lady's case, what comfort she could -- in knowing each other's "place." (Later on, I saw a number of the neighborhood ladies scaling a haul of fish; perhaps the sugar, and the fish, are the work of the village, done in a group, for a few hours at a time?)

Then again, I've always thought -- completely without evidence -- that the medieval flaming hell was imagined by the feudal peasants who turned meat on the spits in the castle kitchens -- and imagined Lords and Ladies turning on those same spits. So we don't know what the old lady sees in the flames under the boiling sugar pots, now do we?

So then I took the train back North to Bangkok. It's cooler, in Bangkok. But not in the South.

NOTE Thailand is a monarchy, and the lèse-majesté laws are enforced, even against foreigners. Therefore, readers, discussion of the Thai monarchy or royal family is off-topic. Guests in Thailand must obey its laws. Their house, their rules.

NOTE * There's no corporate veil, as with FOX. Political movements outright have media channels.

NOTE ** I don't mind the brute fact of the old lady working; my mother worked 'til she dropped, as I hope to do. But if she was forced to work -- there's no Social Security in Thailand -- then that's quite another thing.

UPDATE Optimist that I am, I forgot to add that I'm sure the old lady would prefer stoking the fires in the boiling house to being hooked up to a machine in an extended "care" facility, an option I'm sure is literally unimaginable to her, and a good thing, too.

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V. Arnold's picture
Submitted by V. Arnold on

...and Thailand is a constitutional monarchy by definition.
All hard liquor is called whiskey here, but in fact the sugar is for rum. Sang Som is Thailand's premier rum and quite good by any measure.
I had to change the preface of a book to avoid possible problems, so I'm all too aware of the intricacies of the written/spoken word.
We tend to drag our western values wherever we go and this necessarily colors our view.
Best to leave our western values behind; but not our humanity.