Earth odyssey

Topics: Environment, Africa, Thailand, Travel,

It was with ambivalence that I finally made my way to the run-down international airport outside Nairobi one evening in March 1992. My plane ticket said I was taking the midnight flight to Bangkok by way of Bombay and Delhi. But to anyone living with one foot still planted in the nineteenth century — that is, to most of the people I had been traveling among the previous four months — this journey would qualify as something very close to magic. I would be seated inside a long metal tube that, despite its enormous weight, would lift off the ground, climb above the clouds and travel thousands of miles, traversing in hours the same ocean that ancient Arab traders used to take weeks to cross in their wind-blown dhows. The Air India jet that would perform this feat epitomized what historian Eric Hobsbawm has called the “revolutionary and constantly advancing technology … which virtually annihilated time and distance” during the twentieth century. Indeed, the main reason time seemed to pass more slowly in Africa was that technologies like the airplane and telephone had not yet touched the daily lives of most Africans.

The same could not be said for my destination of Thailand. It was a country in rapid transition, dangling somewhere between the unhurried rhythms of impoverished Africa and the hyperspeed materialism of my American homeland. I had visited Thailand two years before, in 1990, and as the Air India jet headed eastward through the night, I found myself recalling a young man I had met during that visit who personified the contradictions of Thailand’s passage to modernity.

At age twenty-five, Leno stood poised on the cusp of two utterly different cultures. I met him in Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand with a hundred thousand inhabitants and an airport that serviced a lucrative tourist trade. Leno rented his own apartment, drove his own jeep and owned a stereo system and a TV set. He had visited Bangkok numerous times and was fluent in seven languages. Modest, capable and genuinely friendly, he was a born leader who seemed destined for a bright future, perhaps as a diplomat or an entrepreneur within Thailand’s booming economy.

In his heart, though, Leno remained a child of the forest where he grew up. Leno was the nearest thing I have ever seen to a perfect physical specimen — sparkling smile, sleek torso, thighs that looked like they could run forever — and the joy he took in outdoor activity was boundless. A member of the Karen tribe, he had spent his boyhood in a village 120 miles northwest of Bangkok. Despite its relative proximity to the capital, no one in Leno’s village had ever seen an airplane or automobile; the villagers were subsistence farmers whose only contact with the outside world came during monthly visits to a nearby trading post. Life was simple, possessions few. Like his eight brothers and sisters, Leno routinely went barefoot as a child. His entire wardrobe consisted of two homemade, hand-me-down cotton smocks, one red, one blue.

At night, everyone in the village used to gather around the fire while the elders told stories. Leno’s favorite, he told me, was the story of the eagle and the snake. “The elders said that one day a giant snake would appear in the jungle, flash its tail and cut our village in two,” he recalled. “This snake would have ten thousand legs. Then a big eagle would appear in the sky. The eagle would land on the ground, swallow people into its belly and fly away.”

No one knew what the story meant, not even the elders who told it. They had heard the tale from their elders, who heard it from their elders, and so on into the past for more generations than anyone could remember. Not until the late-1970s, when Leno was a teenager and the first paved road was built through his village, did the meaning finally become clear. This must be the giant snake, the villagers decided. For had not the ribbon of asphalt come flashing out of the jungle in a burst of noise and dust and cut the village in two? And the travelers and vehicles that began appearing on this road, were they not the ten thousand legs of the snake? Soon after, one villager traveled on the new road to Bangkok, where he saw an airplane land and take off at the airport. When the man described this sight back in the village, everyone agreed it must be the prophesied giant eagle, swooping out of the sky to gobble people up and fly off again.

Recounting the story to me years later, Leno seemed certain his ancestors had foretold the coming of the airplane and the automobile. “I don’t know how they did it, but they did it,” he said earnestly. “They saw the future.” Leno had no trouble maintaining this belief, even as he spoke in the next breath of boarding one of the giant eagles soon to visit Europe, a plan that terrified his peasant mother.

Such incongruities are perhaps to be expected in a culture that is fast-forwarding from traditional isolation to high-tech overdrive. By 1990, the airplane, the automobile and other modern marvels had revolutionized not only Leno’s village but all Thailand, opening it to the tourists, technologies, investments and ideas of the relentlessly expanding industrial world. In less than two decades, Bangkok was catapulted from an easygoing, Buddhist-flavored tropical capital to a bustling, global business center. Talk about magic!

Now, in 1992, I was returning to Thailand, and from the moment I stepped
off the plane in Bangkok, the contrast with Africa was bracing. The
airport terminal here was brightly lit, spacious and air-conditioned, with
all the amenities one would expect from its European counterpart: clean
toilets, public telephones, plenty of newsstands and restaurants. The
customs and baggage claim operations were models of efficiency, and within
half an hour, I was heading towards the taxi stand, where fixed-price rides
downtown were offered. Since the airport was only fifteen miles north of
Bangkok, I figured I might be checked into my hotel and asleep within the
hour. It was, after all, past midnight and I was exhausted after
twenty-four hours of travel.

Outside, automobiles seemed to be everywhere, another culture shock. My
taxi was a late-model BMW whose plush back seat was more comfortable than
most beds I had had in Africa. The expressway was crowded with similar vehicles; Thailand was one of the world’s leading markets for Mercedeses, and second only to the United States in purchases of pickup trucks. The highway was in good repair, too,
more reminiscent of the autobahns of Germany than the crumbling pavement of
Nairobi; three and sometimes four lanes traveled in each direction, with
guardrails in between. High above loomed huge lighted billboards with
names like Sony, Siemens and Samsung in sparkling colors, as if making
clear to the newly arrived who, or rather what, was in charge here. The
accompanying advertising slogans were presented not in the languorous script
of Thai but the snappy authority of English, indisputable world language of
the Technological Age.

And yet. Lowering my gaze from these celebrations of global consumerism,
I peered into the shadows at ground level, where I saw that the highway was
also straddled by slouching shantytowns that recalled the poverty of
Kampala and Nairobi. Here in Bangkok, though, the shacks were crammed up
to the very edge of the highway, which meant that the inhabitants, in
addition to the other burdens of their existence, were treated to a
ceaseless assault on their lungs, eyes, ears and nervous systems by the
apparently nonstop flow of traffic.

Did I say nonstop? Actually, within three minutes of leaving the
airport, the taxi was engulfed in a traffic jam that reduced our progress
to stop, crawl and stop again. I remembered Bangkok’s terrible traffic
snarls from my visit in 1990, but I thought that arriving in the middle of
the night this time would let me off the hook. Wrong. Here it was, nearly
one in the morning in the middle of the week, and the highway looked like
Los Angeles during Friday afternoon rush hour.

Undeterred by the tiny Buddha shrine glued to his dashboard, my taxi
driver took the opportunity of one lull in the traffic to urge upon me
brochures featuring photos of extremely young, naked Thai women. “I take
you,” he suggested, clearly hoping to drive me to the nightclub in
question. When I waved the brochures away with a murmured “no thank you,” he
didn’t argue but simply slipped them under his seat and turned his
attention to our common predicament. Middle-aged and plump, he spoke very
little English, but he knew the word for his primary occupational hazard.

“Traffic, bad,” he announced.

“Traffic bad,” I agreed. Aiming my words carefully, I asked, slowly, “Why
traffic bad at night? Day, yes. But night?”

“Traffic same-same,” he replied with a resigned shake of the head. “Day,
night, same-same.”

Though I smiled inwardly (“same-same” was a fetching piece of Thai English
I recalled from my earlier visit), this was discouraging news. After poking
forward in fits and starts, we finally reached the city proper some
seventy-five minutes after leaving the airport. While still bumper to
bumper, the traffic moved somewhat more easily downtown, perhaps because it
included a higher proportion of motorbikes and tuk-tuks. Three-wheeled
vehicles whose name came from the sputtering sound produced by their
horribly polluting two-stroke engines, tuk-tuks looked like beat-up golf
carts with roofs and back seats and functioned as inner-city taxis.
Unfortunately, the advantage that tuk-tuks and motorbikes offered in terms
of mobility was undercut by their prodigious tailpipe exhaust. Both
vehicles burned a fuel that was part gasoline, part benzene — benzene, of
course, causes cancer — and each flick of a driver’s wrist sent thick puffs
of bluish-white smoke into the already soup-like air.

I remembered from my previous visit that the pollution of Bangkok’s air
had been so extreme it seemed to have a tactile quality; you felt you
could scoop up a handful of the stuff and splatter it against the wall like
a dirty snowball. Curious, I lowered my window to check its current
condition. Sure enough, it was the same viscous gunk as before, complete
with that foul chemical odor that caught in the throat and used to give me
a headache within two minutes of stepping onto the sidewalk. My rash
gesture alarmed the taxi driver. Blurting “No, no,” he quickly zapped my
window closed by remote control and turned around to study me, as though
trying to decide whether I were impossibly stupid or just uninformed. With
a nervous, placating smile, he pointed at his dashboard and said, “Air

It wasn’t just the noxious fumes he wanted to block out but the awful
noise. I got an earful of it when we finally reached my hotel, an ugly
high-rise near the Chao Phraya river. Stepping onto the sidewalk while the
driver hoisted my bags out of the trunk, I confounded the poor man again by
climbing onto a nearby pile of bricks — like much of Bangkok, the property
next door was under construction — in order to get a better view of the
traffic congestion we had been part of. Off to my right, for as far as I
could see, stretched three lanes of headlights, their beams semi-obscured
by the copious exhaust fumes hanging in the air like dense morning fog. To
my left, perhaps ten car lengths away, was a rare bit of open space, an
intersection, where the front of the traffic waited impatiently for the
light to change. Quite a few drivers passed the time by intermittently
revving their engines. The discordant whines and buzzing this generated
were bad enough, but paled next to the cacophony that erupted when the
pack took off again. With everyone hitting the throttle at
once — senselessly, for where was there to go? — it sounded like a cross
between a chainsaw massacre and the Indianapolis 500.

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the entire tableau was how little
it seemed to bother most Thais. My hotel room overlooked the street — from
eight floors up, thankfully — and when I stepped onto the balcony before bed
I saw on the sidewalk below an outdoor noodle shop that was doing an
amazingly brisk business for two o’clock in the morning. Much of the
clientele seemed to be young people. They were casually dressed, giggling,
eating, drinking, smoking — clearly enjoying themselves, while seated at
tables no farther away from the traffic-clogged avenue than the shantytowns
near the expressway had been. When the revelers were done, they would hop
onto motorbikes, two and sometimes three to a machine, and, as if they
hadn’t inhaled enough poison already, expertly weave their way through the
stalled traffic.

In the days to come, I encountered many more traffic jams in Bangkok, both
as a passenger and as a pedestrian. I saw that it was by no means unusual for
families of four to crowd onto a single motorbike — the father driving and
balancing one child on his lap, the mother holding another child behind
him. Conversations with such families revealed that, predictably enough,
they were eager to trade up to a tuk-tuk, just as tuk-tuk owners yearned to
trade up to cars and teenagers dreamed of their first motorbikes. All of
which helped explain why traffic speed averaged a mere seven kilometers an
hour. I discovered I could usually cover the same distance faster on foot.
I stayed off the main drags and traveled by river bus whenever possible,
but most locals seemed indifferent to such self-protective measures. A few
wore cotton face masks, but most went about their business impassively,
seemingly unconcerned about being constantly gassed.

And traffic jams, it turned out, were only the most visible symptom of
Thailand’s environmental problems. The Chao Phraya river was virtually
dead south of Bangkok. One afternoon, during a river bus ride, I saw three
young boys, shirtless and happy, leaping off a rotting pier to swim in the
murky waters. Twenty yards upriver, the bus passed a second pier, where an
older man calmly lowered his pants, squatted over the side and emptied his
bowels. Normita Thongtham, a journalist who covered the environment for
the Bangkok Post, told me that each of the dozens of luxury hotels crammed
along the waterfront also flushed their waste into the river; they had no
choice — the city had no sewage treatment plants. Waste water from
factories added industrial toxins to the mix. Meanwhile, Bangkok’s
groundwater was so badly over-exploited — thanks to soaring demand spurred
by tourism, economic growth and rapid population growth — that the city was
slowly sinking into the mud. And in the countryside, forests had been
felled mercilessly. Thailand’s tree cover had fallen from 60 percent of
total land area in the 1950s to a mere 18 percent by 1991.

These assaults on the Thai ecosystem were side effects of the
extraordinary economic expansion the country had experienced over the past
two decades, especially in the late 1980s, when growth rates topped 10
percent. As recently as the 1970s, Thailand had been quite a poor country,
with a standard of living not much different from that of Kenya or Uganda.
Now, after massive foreign investment spearheaded by such latter-day
Winston Churchills as the World Bank, Thailand was an apparent economic
success story. Per capita income in 1991 was U.S. $1,570 — a stunning
six-fold increase over the 1971 figure of U.S. $271.

Of course, it was that very surge in incomes that had put so many vehicles
on the streets — enough of them to cause Thailand’s work force to lose
forty-four days in traffic jams a year, at a cost of several percentage
points of foregone growth in the gross national product. Likewise, the
factories that boosted the nation’s GNP with their output were the same
ones who were fouling its air and water with their wastes. One key growth
area was the manufacture of air conditioners and refrigerators; a
side effect was that Thailand’s use of ozone-destroying CFCs doubled
between 1986 and 1989. Like many environmentally destructive enterprises
in Thailand, most of the air conditioner and refrigerator factories were
foreign owned.

At the urging of the World Bank, Thailand had pursued a
corporate-friendly, export-led development strategy since the 1960s. It
was a straightforward arrangement. Thailand offered cheap labor and
natural resources; the bank financed the roads, power plants and other
infrastructure needed to exploit those resources; foreign corporations
supplied the capital — the factories and industrial-style farms — to turn the
resources into salable goods. Thailand duly became a leading exporter of
rice, timber and electronics, but the environmental and human costs were
high. Forests and wetlands were cleared with abandon. National income
rose dramatically, but so did social inequality. Peasants unable to
compete with global capital were driven off their lands and into the
cities, where especially the young and the female worked in industrial
sweatshops or the burgeoning sex industry. An estimated one-third of
Bangkok’s 6.5 million people were rural migrants who squatted in
crowded shantytowns like those I had passed riding in from the

Thailand got an environmental wake-up call in 1988, when its rampant
deforestation led to landslides that killed hundreds of people south of
Bangkok. “The logs slid down the mountainside for two kilometers and
crushed people,” Normita Thongtham told me. “That was the first awakening
of environmental consciousness for both the press and the public in

Popular anger led to passage of a ban on logging in 1989, plus a
government pledge to increase the country’s tree cover to 40 percent.
But environmentalists complained that the government’s reforestation
program only repeated past mistakes, promoting not genuine reforestation
but huge plantations where eucalyptus trees would be planted and harvested
like so many rows of corn. Worse, these plantations required large-scale
evictions of poor peasants; the Khor Chor Kor forest development program
of 1991, for example, called for displacing 1.5 million people.
Not surprisingly, the peasants resisted, which is more than
could be said for most urban Thais.

“Villagers fight to protect the environment because they have no choice,”
Wittoon Permpongsacharoen, the director of the Project for Ecological
Recovery, told me. “The forest is the source of their food, their houses,
the water for their rice fields. Middle-class people in Bangkok are
concerned about air pollution, but they don’t fight. It’s such a money
culture, people think money can solve any problem. So their response is to
buy a better car and retreat inside their air-conditioning.”

It was true. Everyone I talked to in Bangkok, from sidewalk food vendors
and civil servants to businessmen, students and retired folk, was happy to
complain about the traffic problem, but no one was willing to reduce his
own driving. Meanwhile, mass transit was virtually non-existent. Bangkok’s tram
system, rejected as backwards, had been demolished twenty years ago. There
was no subway, and the few buses I saw were fiendishly overcrowded and
subject to the same delays as cars (but without the balm of air-conditioning). Years ago, Bangkok had been known as the Venice of the East
because of the city’s intricate web of canals. Most of the canals had been
paved over into roads during the modernization drive, however, and still
there was far from enough road surface to accommodate all the vehicles.
There was talk of building overpasses to relieve the congestion. But what
chance did the construction crews have against the mounting tide of cars
and motorbikes?

Bangkok’s traffic conditions seemed certain to deteriorate after I left
Thailand that spring, and they did. In 1995, after three years of
worsening congestion and pollution, the nation’s beloved King Bhumibol
Adulyadej complained publicly that the experts charged with solving
Bangkok’s traffic nightmare “only talk, talk, talk and argue, argue,
argue.” In 1992, I was told that the average Bangkok commuter spent three
hours traveling to and from work. By August 1996, the standard commute was
five hours, according to a report broadcast on CNN that showed the children
of one family breakfasting in the back seat in predawn darkness. Their
father explained that this was the only way to get them to school on time.
With a tired sigh, he added that the car not only sapped his time and
energy but 30 percent of his income; the only reason he did not leave
Bangkok was that he wanted his children to get a good education.

CNN did not mention Bangkok’s new auto accessory of choice: the
portable toilet. Leaving home without one could be risky, especially at
peak travel times. In 1995, one family tried to beat the rush out of town
before a national holiday by leaving at ten o’clock the night before. But
when they reached the expressway leading to the airport, they found
themselves in a traffic jam sixty miles long. According to Thomas Friedman
of The New York Times, it took the family twelve maddening hours to get as
far as the airport — only a few miles from their house — where they gave up
and turned around. The Governor of Bangkok told Friedman separately he
realized his city had to do something about its traffic: Foreign
investors, he conceded, “won’t come to live in a town where it takes three
hours to travel somewhere by car … [and] kids grow up breathing bad air.”
Not all his colleagues felt the same way, though. One government minister
interviewed by CNN actually called Bangkok’s traffic congestion “a blessing
in disguise.” Without it, he explained, “we wouldn’t have an
automobile industry in Thailand.”

Reprinted with permission from “Earth Odyssey” by Mark Hertsgaard, published by Broadway Books, © 1998 by Mark Hertsgaard.

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