Letter from Thailand - September 2012
I was last in Bangkok before the floods and just after the red shirt demonstrations had subsided. I returned last month and because I have been away for so long I noticed a number of changes. Most of them good!
When I last saw Central Plaza it was nothing more than a gaping black hole after the fire, now it is a superb shopping mall. I really have no idea how they have managed to achieve so much in such a short time.
The red shirt demonstration caused a great many small businesses around Silom and the Siam Skytrain station to go out of business. One little noodle bar I particularly liked managed to hold on but the watch repairer, the little lady who sold me socks and many other small independent stallholders seem to have disappeared. I hope they have managed to find new locations and are thriving but now their places have been taken by other similar businesses.
Another small indicator of the thriving Thai economy is the fact that on a recent trip on the Skytrain I realised that about 30% of the passengers were tapping their fingers on a smart phone. Whether they were sending messages or playing games the fact of the matter is that one year ago smart phones were very scarce and in the intervening time many thousands of ordinary Thai people have managed to purchase what is a relatively expensive consumer item.
On one of my Skytrain trips I found myself surrounded by schoolchildren and university students on their way home. Now one of the reasons I like Thailand is that I am relatively tall here but merely of average size in the UK. It is quite nice to see a long way when I am in a crowd, rather than the head of the person in front. But when these young people crowded into the train I realised that many of them were taller than I am. This was never the case when I first started coming to Thailand some 15 years ago. I realised that, at that time, the young people I was now surveying were small pre-school children who had now grown up into potential basketball players.
I assume that this development is due to a better diet and the copious amounts of milk I see young people drinking these days. I suppose this is a true benefit of the globalisation of diets. Unfortunately this globalisation has a negative affect as well. A globalised diet also includes things such as sweets made from sugar, sugary drinks and other comestibles of doubtful nutritional quality. I am told that the childrens’ teeth are suffering.
Years ago, when children existed entirely on a traditional Thai diet, dental decay was almost unknown particularly in the first teeth. Sadly this is not the case today. The number of young children whose milk teeth have been severely damaged by sugar and similarly damaging items is reaching almost epidemic proportions. There is also a great shortage of dentists in Thailand, particularly those who are willing to work in the less well off communities; a sad state of affairs that the public health organisations are attempting to improve.
One very obvious improvement is that many of the klongs and drains have been cleared so that they not only look better but they should be able to cope better with any flooding that takes place this year. But things are not entirely perfect, I was due to attend a meeting one night but a sudden downpour caused the Soi, in which my hotel is situated, to be flooded to a depth of about 6 inches and I was entirely cut off and unable to make the meeting.
The flood had cleared away the next morning and I was able to make a number of very interesting meetings at Government House. My meetings were with several advisers to the Prime Minister. I noticed few changes from previous similar meetings, even though there has been a change of Prime Minister, indeed of government. That is, except the one major development. A very splendid building that was used, until recently, by the Crown Princess, has been turned into what is now called the "Single Command Centre". Many people were quietly working away planning and reviewing the plans for water management in the whole of Thailand.
On the wall there were computer displays showing the height and state of water retention by every dam in the country and many other reports showing the state of water flows from North to South.
I gained the impression of a great many, very intelligent people, attempting to solve a very difficult problem both by technical solutions and organisational changes. There was an air of quiet determination that makes me feel more relaxed about potential flooding in the future. I think it is possible there may be some horrific floods before their plans are finally completed and implemented because they are trying to redress the problems that have been caused over the last fifty years. I think my impression is perhaps a little more valid in that I had not been invited there; indeed I simply walked in with one of my colleagues from the Prime Minister's Department. We just wandered about the building, chatting to people, and observing what was going on.
This new organisation is attempting to coordinate water management throughout the country, this, together with the significant effort that has been put into clearing the waterways should reap benefits in the relatively near future and I wish all these people the best of luck, as they have a very difficult job. If you want to see what is going on, and can read Thai, go to the website "www.waterforthailand.com".
Almost everywhere I went I noticed that buildings were being improved. Not always because they had been damaged in the floods last year. If you know Nana Skytrain station, you will remember that ghastly concrete skeleton of a building that was never finished after the financial crash about 15 years ago. That has now, at last, been demolished which greatly enhances the view from the station. Many of the buildings surrounding the site seem to be either cleaned or repainted.
All these changes following the disasters of the red shirt occupation and the flooding are indicative of one central characteristic of the Thai character. It is the amazing ability of the Thais to accept disaster and then rise above it. Bangkok seems to have improved significantly since I was last here and has certainly recovered from the problems, at least the visible ones. I think this resilience is one of things that make me glad I live in Thailand.
© Colin Jarvis 2012
Calendar of Events
Tuesday 12th April
Talk by Dr. Martin Seeger of the Thai Studies Centre, Leeds University. For more information and booking details, please click here
Tuesday, 10th May
7:00 pm. Talk by former Ambassador David Fall, 'Released into the Community - Recollections of an Ex-Excellency' at The Royal Over-Seas League. For more details and booking information please click here
Monday, 20th June
6:30 pm - 8:30 pm Summer Reception in the Cholmondeley Room, House of Lords. Booking details coming soon