Tempests in a Thai-pot

Despite sex scandals and overspeculation, Bangkok residents still find reasons to smile.


Morris Dye
September 4, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

The rains came early to Bangkok this year, with April showers taking the
edge off what is normally Thailand's hottest month. Big black
thunderheads crashed over the city in May and June, churning the Chao
Phraya into an unruly cappuccino-colored torrent as intrepid pedestrians
hiked up skirts and trouser legs to wade barefoot through flooded roadways.
Then in mid-July, a different kind of tempest raged through the capital,
after the international edition of Newsweek published a controversial cover
story
under the headline "Beyond Sex and Golf: Money is pouring in. But can
Bangkok escape the low-cost rap and join the high-tech world?"

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The 2,000-word commentary on Thailand's prospects for economic recovery
raised eminently level-headed concerns about corruption, greed and cronyism
in the upper echelons of Thai society. The minor furor, however, erupted in reaction
to one essentially irrelevant quip, attributed to an unnamed Western
diplomat, which Newsweek's editors mined for the headline. "Thailand has two
comparative advantages," the source said: "sex and golf courses."

That statement alone was enough to spark heated debate in the halls of power
and in the op-ed pages of local newspapers, and the magazine's layout added
fuel to the fire: Although the article was ostensibly devoted to serious economic
matters, the opening spread featured a three-column image of a scantily clad
Thai woman cruising Pattaya's sleazy nightlife district on a motorbike with
a Caucasian man in tow. The cover photo showed a magnificent golden stupa
with the ridiculous teaser "Thailand: If only its economy looked as good as
its temples." Huh?

An important point Newsweek's reporters raised briefly, then brushed aside
with another reference to "the raunchy strip bars of Pattaya," is that
mainstream tourism -- not just the naughty kind -- has been the one bright
spot in Thailand's ailing economy. While the manufacturing and financial
sectors have stumbled, exchange rates have remained favorable, the
government has remained stable, visitor arrivals are up and business is
booming along the beaches of Phuket and Koh Samui.

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The Asian economic crisis began here in July 1997, when the baht plummeted on
international currency markets and the Thais could no longer afford to pay
interest on the foreign loans that had financed the nation's rapid growth in
the 1980s and '90s. The baht has recovered somewhat since then, but the
collapse has left its mark on Bangkok's cluttered skyline in the form of
delinquent construction sites where massive erections of concrete and Rebar
have been abandoned by bankrupt developers and left to fester in the
tropical heat.

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These crumbling monuments to excessive speculation serve as a constant reminder of
how far Thailand's economy has fallen, forcing laid-off construction workers
to return to farms and villages in the northeast, forcing commercial and
residential property owners to cope with tenants who can't pay the rent and
forcing formerly high-flying executives to liquidate golf clubs, Rolexes and
other icons of affluence from the boots of their beloved Mercedes.

Even so, the juice has not all been sucked from the Big Mango.

Two years into the crisis, Bangkok does not feel like a city depressed and
downtrodden, largely because the Thais have a remarkable ability to put a
good face on even the stickiest of situations. Times are tough, to be sure,
but there's nothing like a healthy dose of "sanuk" -- fun -- to ease the pain.

For example: At Cabbages & Condoms, a Bangkok restaurant that promotes safe
sex while raising funds for the nonprofit Population and Community
Development Association, the free prophylactics that have long been handed
out in place of after-dinner mints are now available in a choice of "IMF
Size" or "World Bank Size" (no indication of which is bigger, or if either
variety is full of holes). Another restaurant, founded last spring by
laid-off employees of the Bangkok Bank of Commerce, serves such topical
delicacies as "Poached Chuan" (a fish dish named after Prime Minister Chuan
Leekpai), "Tom Yam Tarrin" (after Finance Minister Tarrin Nimmanhaeminda)
and "IMF Soup" (an austere broth of chicken bones and bitter melon).

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Consumer spending may be down, but the shopping malls are still packed on
weekends, with gaggles of schoolgirls crowding excitedly around photo
sticker machines, one of the latest youth culture crazes to be imported from
Japan. And at an office building off Ploenchit Road, a circus-colored banner
cheerfully hawks cheap commercial real estate with the slogan, "Downsizing
is welcome!!"

(Downsizing has not been such a breeze for transvestite kickboxer Prinya
Kiatbusaba, aka Nong Tum, whose request for a sex change operation was
reportedly turned down in March when surgeons at a Bangkok hospital
determined that the 18-year-old slugger, who is famous for wearing makeup
and a sports bra into the ring, would require more counseling before making
the final cut. If Prinya eventually does earn approval for the operation,
he'll be in good hands: Thailand has lately gained notoriety as a
destination for sex changes, cosmetic surgery and other elective procedures, as local hospitals have actively marketed their expertise abroad. The Tourism Authority of Thailand has even gotten into the act, promoting health tourism as a way of boosting foreign earnings.)

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Despite the crisis, many new business ventures have forged ahead, betting on
longer-term profits when the economy picks up. The Peninsula
Group of Hong Kong made a big splash last spring with the grand opening of a gorgeous
five-star hotel directly across the river from the venerable old Oriental. A
new technology mall opened in May, claiming to offer only legitimately
licensed products and throwing down the gauntlet to its notorious competitor,
Panthip Plaza, where shoppers can pick up pirated software and pornography
for little more than the cost of a blank CD.

At Siam Discovery Centre, an
upscale mall on Rama I Road, a Hollywood-style movie and entertainment complex just
opened, including two "Gold Class" theaters equipped with massive reclining
seats (picture a carpeted room full of plush red La-Z-Boys) and in-house
wine and cocktail bars so moviegoers can savor a buttery Chardonnay along
with the latest Hollywood action-adventure flick.

While Bangkok restaurateurs and bar owners have suffered over the past two
years, there's no shortage of post-crisis success stories. Biscotti, the
fine new Italian restaurant at the Regent hotel, has introduced the right mix of
cool atmosphere and reasonable prices to attract local diners, and the room
is full almost every night. Nearby, impeccably made-up society ladies sip
expensive espresso drinks in the first of several Starbucks outlets that
have been popping up around town -- including one in the lobby of a posh
private hospital -- and local entrepreneurs have begun to develop their own
uniquely Thai take on the growth of international cafe culture. My favorite,
a tranquil haven called Kuppa on Sukhumvit Soi 16, offers excellent coffee
(roasted in-house) and a tasty mix of Thai and Western foods in a big,
bright room with high ceilings and a soothing neo-colonial interior.

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Old hands will tell you that the city's club scene has lost much of its luster
since the baht collapsed, but young Thais still squeeze into pre-crisis
favorites like Spasso at the Grand Hyatt, Round Midnight on Soi Langsuan
and Saxophone near the Victory Monument. Some newcomers have hit it big as
well, including the chic Red Bar on Royal City Avenue and the enormous
Species Arena on Sukhumvit Soi 24.

One welcome side effect of the crisis has been a noticeable decline in
Bangkok's notorious traffic jams, as personal automobiles have been sold or
repossessed -- and the situation is about to get even better with the
opening of a new elevated light rail system.

After years of delays, metropolitan transit officials vowed to get the
long-awaited system up and running in time for the king's 72nd birthday
celebrations in December, and they're almost certain to meet the deadline.
(Most Thais genuinely adore their king, and this will be a particularly
important anniversary, marking the monarch's sixth cycle in the 12-year
Chinese zodiac.) Some people say that few locals will ride the trains, which
will be more expensive than public buses and less convenient than private
automobiles, but visitors will be able to make good use of the system, which
will link the riverside hotel district and Silom Road with the Chatuchak
market, the shopping centers along Rama I and Ploenchit roads, and the
often-congested reaches of Sukhumvit.

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The Thais love a good scandal as much as anyone -- the other day I came
across a pair of "Clinton" and "Lewinsky" pillow cases for sale at a local
boutique -- but the mid-summer Newsweek kerfuffle quickly lost momentum and
fizzled within a few days. After the offending story hit the stands, the
Foreign Ministry summoned its authors to a meeting with angry government
officials. The Nation, a local English-language daily, reported that one of
Newsweek's writers "apologised for any hard feeling his story may have
caused," and blamed the magazine's New York editors for the provocative
headline. The reporter was also said to have denied any role in planning the
layout of the story, including the suggestive photo from Pattaya.
Face-saving statements were issued, tempers cooled, the prime minister
called on his colleagues to do a better job of educating the media and that
was that.

It's a good bet that Newsweek's cheesy packaging succeeded in boosting
newsstand sales, but sadly it also diverted attention away from the real
meat of the story, and from a refreshingly frank sidebar by Amaret Sila-on,
chairman of Thailand's financial sector restructuring. In 500 no-nonsense
words, Sila-on took Thailand to task for the "perverse social values" that
contributed to the crisis, and called for "a fundamental rethinking of how
we do things."

That sort of change will take time, of course, and meanwhile there are
plenty of more pressing matters at hand. The rains have continued, bringing the
worst flooding in years to Thailand's eastern provinces. Further reforms of
the nation's financial and legal systems are in the works. The army is
struggling to update its weapons-control systems before the Y2K bug kicks
in. The powerful and popular abbot of a scandal-plagued temple is under fire
for amassing wealth and distorting Buddhist teachings. And now the British
edition of Esquire has come out with an article describing Pattaya as a
place where "Young British men go ... in their thousands to get what they
can't get at home -- endless sex with as many beautiful women as they can
manage."

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Esquire's exposi prompted another round of angry public statements, of
course, and the new tourism minister, Paveena Hongsakul, was quoted in the
Bangkok Post as saying that "anyone who tries to sabotage our country by
writing such an article will be blacklisted." The same article said that
Hongsakul claimed to have seen "no evidence of a flourishing sex industry"
on a recent visit to Pattaya, but the Post's editors knew better: On the
same page of the Aug. 12 edition they published a captioned photo of the
U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk, which had just dropped anchor off Pattaya
so the boys might enjoy a little wholesome R&R in the exotic East.

Through it all, the people of Bangkok still find reasons to smile -- like the
taxi driver I rode with recently whose meter registered 43 baht when we
arrived at my destination. I handed him two 20-baht notes and was fishing
around in my pocket for coins when he waved me off with a friendly "Mai pen
rai" and added (in English), "Have a good-looking day!" I paused for a
moment to reflect on the poetry of his sentiment, then unfurled my umbrella,
squeezed through the crush of pedestrians on Phayathai Road and slipped
optimistically into the dank back alleys of Siam Square.


Morris Dye

Morris Dye is a writer and editor who lives in Bangkok.

MORE FROM Morris Dye

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