Thai Mai Thai

My family first came to Thailand in the 19th Century. Great Grand-Aunt Bert arrived in Bangkok on a clipper ship. Her father was the captain. The year was probably 1879, but on her 100th birthday she recounted seeing a city of golden temples surrounded by a jungle. “And all the women had black teeth from chewing betel nuts.”

Not many women in Bangkok follow that old tradition.

In fact Thailand is hard to recognize as Thailand in its cities with the spread of 7/11s, shopping malls, and fast food restaurants. I was sitting last night with Boy on Soi 12. The police had come down the street, but said nothing about shutting down the Full Moon bar. The owner was worried about a fine and Mam, my wife, was concerned that I might get arrested for drinking a beer past the witching hour on 9pm. It was time for me to go to bed with my son and my internal clock was arguing for pillow time. I drained my glass. Mam was frustrated by my lagging behind her move to home.

“I can only drink as fast as I can.”

“You want go jail? You go jail. Then who take care of Fenway?” She stormed off to our apartment. A man’s stupidity is a match to the Molotov cocktail of a woman’s anger.

Boy shrugged acknowledging it was time for me to go. He was only 21, but he had a wife too.

“This bad time for Thailand. Everyone not know what come next.” Boy was one month out of prison. The police had arrested him after he outran them during a house search for ya-baa. Instead of two months he got six. His skin was recovering from the worm infestations in the filthy cells. He didn’t talk about the time in ‘krook’. It was the same story for everyone busted for ‘adung’. Bad.

“No have any farangs come.” I had passed through customs the only westerner on the flight from Tokyo. “Everyone scared of the mob.”

“Many dead. Many shopping mall burn too.” Boy listed several the biggest being Central Shopping Mall on Ratchaprasong had collapsed in flames. “Belong to yellow shirts. Red shirt shopping mall not burn yet.”

“Why not yet?” The leaders of the red shirt movement had called for their followers to torch special targets in the city to hurt the pockets of the five families ruling Thailand.

“Because people not realize shopping malls not Thai. Same 7/11 and KFC. Not Thai and change Thai people. Paeng too. Everyone spend money on junk. After pay money to bank. Have no money to eat or drink beer.” Boy lifted his empty bottle of Leo. It was a national beverage. Moon the owner of the bar brought him another. The supposed curfew began in 10 minutes.

“So Thai people are angry at the shopping malls?” I never went to them. The food was poison and the clothing bland. They were as bad as the ones in the States, only the Thai consumer was not as fat as my countrymen.

“Yes, they love them, but hate them too.” Boy sold ja-baa to pay off a debt to a loanshark. He liked smoking a little too. Now he could pass a police piss test. Most everyone coming out of prison could do the same, but not everyone. Drugs were available in jail as long as you had the money. Everything else was too, except escape. “When I was young boy. Have no 7/11. Drink water from well. Eat food from farm. Now everything different. Everything not Thai. Food not have taste. Only beer still good. Everything bad now. Air bad. Sea die. Puying get fat. But can not say this. People think you crazy. They love KFC. Pizza Hut too.”

“And you?” I first visited Thailand in 1990. 111 years after Great-Grand Aunt Bert. abngkok was a city of few skyscrapers. The Malaysia Hotel had rooms overlooking the pool for $20. The city was a pleasure dome. Robsinsons across from the Dusit Thani was the city’s sole shopping mall. Up-country was dirt roads through gleaming rice paddies. Everyone greeted you with a wai and a smile.

“I like pizza.” He sang out the telephone delivery number for Pizza Hut.

“Sorry, but they’re shut.” I hated Pizza Hut pizza. The dough tasted like cardboard and the tomato sauce like ketchup, still I wouldn’t mind a slice. Boy nodded his head toward my door. Mam was waiting with Fenway in her arms. I was a bad man and bad man can expect a long night of hard glares.

“See you in the morning.” My glass was empty.”

“Chok dee.” Boy toasted my departure with a full glass of iced beer.

“Thanks.” I could use all the good luck in the world.

And so could Thailand.

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