COCONUT PALMS on the distant horizon across green paddy fields. Saffron-robed monks with their rice bowls, begging. Smiling children weaving in and out of the Bangkok traffic selling sweet-smelling garlands. Old Chinese men bobbing up and down carrying heavy yokes. Thailand is rich in such visual imagery.
Bangkok, its hot overcrowded capital city, attracts country people like a magnet Thousands of young people end up in factories, as they have little alternative source of income; while the number of young girls in Thai brothels is quite unbelievable. Some adults eke out a marginal existence selling food, flowers and fruit on the street stalls that pop up everywhere. But for many the journey to the city of bright lights brings nothing but disillusionment and hardship.
Two major influences in Thai society, Buddhism and monarchy, are interwoven. The king is head of the Buddhist church and in many houses portraits of the Royal family sit side by side, above head height, with a Buddhist shrine. The monarchy assumes a mystical significance which leads to unquestioned power.
Of all the countries in this part of the world, Thailand is the only one not to have been colonised by the British or the French. Economically the country had always been independent and self-sufficient As the traditional proverb goes, ‘In the water there are fish; in the fields there is rice.’ But in 1855 a treaty signed with the British gave foreign companies access to Thailand’s natural resourcs such as teak and tin. This was the beginning of an insidious kind of colonisation which has climaxed in recent years in relations with the US.
During the Vietnamese war the US used Thailand as a base for its B52 bombers and the country was regularly awash with GI’s on ‘rest and recreation’. The close relationship has continued since the end of the war, with the promise of protection for Thailand, and a foothold in SE Asia for the US.
There have been two coups in recent years, with a swing from tough military control to relative liberalism and back again, smashing unions and exiling many students in the process. But for the 85 per cent of people who live in the countryside they mattered little. Life for them is becoming more difficult as prices rise and there is no longer enough rice in the fields both to feed the family and to pay for other necessities.
For the government, problems include what they see as the ‘communist’ threat at its borders and the alienation of the hill tribes who are not Thai and over whom the government would like to have more control.
In the meantime images continue to bombard the visitor. Fat Americans linking hands with dainty little Thai girls. The children in their neat and well-pressed school uniforms. And the Bangkok traffic which ends up drowning all the senses.