Of course, one never thinks much about censorship unless either 1) in a political/philosophical university class or 2) being, in fact, censored.
And, at present, I’m both. China has attracted a bit of press attention (that terrible, backwards Communist state! oh my! (note the sarcasm)) for censoring large segments of the internet– anything from pornography to potentially subversive politics is liable to get filtered by China’s much-hyped firewalls.
What the press fails to mention, however, is that China isn’t unique in its attempts to limit the scope of the World-Wide-Web. No– although not as extreme as China– Thailand censors all in-bound internet traffic as well.
Being an especially conservative society, it’s not surprising that pornographic material is filtered– no where in South-East Asia is television more prevalent than Thailand, but it should be noted that American movie and music channels are filtered for offensive language, nudity, violence, and even the wrong brand of cigarettes. Alas, I’m unable access my favorite website– www.sex.com– which, although I’ve never actually been to, I inevitably had to try to visit after reading that I couldn’t. Sure enough: “Access Denied. Your system was configured to deny access to this URL.Because this url was and improper/obscene website.” (the type-os are accurate).
In addition to pornographic material, however, certain websites degrading the royal monarchy, part of a Separatists movement, and those websites that are economically advantageous for bankers and businessmen in Thailand to buy off government officials to block.
It’s funny– riding on the bus the other day, I looked out the window as the bus was passing a huge, ornate compound. The imposing sign by the guarded gate read: “Royal Thai Ministry of Counter Corruption.” Yeah. Right.
In Chiang Mai, there’s a wonderful city ordinance, according to my Lonely Planet, that prohibits the construction of buildings taller than 4 stories within 200 yards of any wat, park, or historical place. The design was to preserve city’s skyline, and has been mostly successful, except for a hotel or two that was able to pay the right price to the right official to have this little ordinance overlooked.
Along these lines… I’m told that “all the garbage Bangkok produces is recycled.” I’m told that everything is sorted, and then recycled appropriately, so “feel free to throw everything in the trash.” But I don’t buy that. Let’s look at it this way: a sprawling, urban metropolis, long on impoverished people, and short on infrastructure, with approximately the population of New York City proper (Bangkok has, at last estimate, 7 million people to NYC-proper’s 8 million, although some sources put Bangkok’s population at a disconcertingly vague “5 to 10 million people– what? we know that in 1993 there were 8,335 elk in Yellowstone National Park, a rather exact figure, but Bangkok’s population is only known within a figure of oh, say, 5 million people??!). Anyhow. Recycling. So here’s what’s proposed: in the developing industrial center of Bangkok, Thailand, there exists a recycling program vastly superior to any found in the United States? Maybe I’m just mis-informed. Maybe recycling isn’t expensive. Maybe it’s more economically feasible than raping the surrounding countryside for new raw materials. Maybe no capitalist has figured out how to turn a quick dollar on saving the environment in the United States, so we lag behind Thailand in terms of recycling…
Somehow I doubt it. To me, “everything is sorted offsite and recycled” sounds a lot like the Royal Thai government announcing to the people “don’t worry, just keep consuming and expanding industry. Feel free to throw everything away– we’re taking care of it.” Which actually means “expanding our capital base and industry is our greatest concern. We’ll worry about the environment later– for the time being, let’s just get some money flowing in to the economy while we bury millions of tons of trash in the countryside or dump it in the ocean… near Singapore… ooh, yes! Near Singapore! What an insidious plan!”
I would look into the question a little, but I somehow doubt I’m going to be able to find something in Thammasat’s limited library that says “actually, it’s all just a big lie.” The media and press in Thailand is self-censoring, much like the American movie industry under the Production Code.
I guess I’m just a conspiracy theorist at heart. Or I’m skeptical about the fact that a country that can’t remember if it counted Bangkok’s population by ones or by twos (was it five million … or TEN million?) has a recycling system that exceeds the United States’.
Well, forgive me. I didn’t mean to go off on a meaningless tirade like that. What I had meant to do was write a bit about my trip up to Chiang Mai. So here goes:
-I took an overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai
The train was comfortable and an efficient way to travel– I spent a few hours awake reading, and then turned in for the night, and woke up the next morning well rested and twenty minutes from my destination– any other form of transportation, and you lose a day in travel time.
-When I arrived, I immediately met up with my trekking group, and we set off for the countryside outside of Chiang Mai. We hiked for ~5 hours through jungle, rice paddies and bamboo forest before arriving in a hill tribe village where we stayed the night.
-The next day I woke up early and was guided to another hill-tribe village where I met up with a different group. We were out of the jungle and into the countryside by 1:00PM.
-The first stop was bamboo rafting, which was quite a thrill. It was quite a bit more mild than white-water rafting, but there’s an element of “I’m floating down a river on six bamboo trees” that a rubber raft just doesn’t have.
-After the bamboo rafting, my group and I went on an elephant ride, which was absolutely a thrill. That Hannibal crossed the Alps with an army of elephants in 218BCE is a feat beyond comprehension– we went no more than a mile, and the elephants, eating a vast amount of food along the way, begrudged every step.
-After returning to Chiang Mai and showering up, I rented a 125cc motorbike, took a brief tour of the city, and then retired to my hotel to wait out the rain.
-After waiting out the rain, I went out to try to find Chiang Mai’s Night Bazzar (perhaps the single largest tourist trap in the world) and found myself stranded by the rain a second time– this time retreating under the awning of some random building down some dark alley– the fist escape from the rain I came to.
And can I say something? American’s don’t know the first thing about rain. And that’s a fact– I sure didn’t, but believe me: I’m learning quick. Imagine a rain storm that has half the drama of a thunderstorm, twice the volume of rain, and ten times the duration. That’s just the start of a monsoon shower. I spent upwards of a full hour under the awning while the heavens dumped, in a steady, determined manner, an ocean or two of water on to Chiang Mai. There wasn’t any wind or massive thunder or impressive lightning strikes. There wasn’t even the massive torrents of pelting, cold water that characterizes Western thunderstorms. No, it was simply a slow crescendo of rain starting at a light patter and peaking at a steady downpour that lasted for no less than 30 minutes before it began to subside. I’ve never seen so much water.
After an hour or so of waiting, a kind Thai emerged from the building I was hiding by, handed me a disposable raincoat, smiled, and walked off. I can’t say how many times I’ve been touched by the random generosity and kindness of many of the Thais I have encountered… but many of them are so amazingly kind and eager to help.
As if that wasn’t enough kindness, however, later on that night a Thai woman who barely spoke a marginal amount of English drove me around Chiang Mai for a half hour, looking in vain for a gas station that was open past 10:00PM. Hmm… but let me back up a little.
Apparently, as one of those surprising features of Thai culture, Thai vehicles do not require gasoline after 10:00PM. Vehicles rented to foreigners, however, do not contain this mystical power. This is my conclusion, anyway, from the fact that all gas stations in Thailand cease selling gasoline at 10:00PM. Yeah. So what do you do if you need gas at, oh, say 11:00PM, if, oh, say, it didn’t even occur to you that your rental vehicle might have been rented to you with little more than fumes in the gas tank? Well, if you’re me, you start pushing your gasless motorbike until you find a gas station. Or, in my case, you find yourself flabbergasted by the selfless generosity of another Thai, who, even though she barely could speak a word of my language, saw a foreigner pushing a motorbike down a street late a night and decided that she wanted to help. Not wanting to be a burden, I initially tried to decline her offer, but she was insistent, and I… was grateful. I parked and locked my cycle, and she gave me a ride all over Chiang Mai looking for a gas station that was open. None were.
Her name is Nan, and she’s a 30-something single woman who makes her living by managing the wholesale import of souvenirs. Ironically, she lives in the same district of Bangkok as I do, but she happened to be in Chiang Mai on a business trip. Or at least this is what I gathered from our broken conversation.
Eventually we despaired, and she drove me back to my bike, which I resolved to push back to my apartment and refuel in the morning. I thanked Nan as best as I could, and once she saw that I was taken care of and on my way, she drove off.
There was no reason why she should have stopped in the first place, and no reason why she should have been persistent in trying to help me. But she was. And I’m still rather taken aback by that. Obviously, I have something to learn from the people I’m surrounded by here. Perhaps we all do.
I saw Cardigan Welsh Corgi nearly killed in traffic tonight. Walking back from dinner, I looked out into the street just in time to see the dog stop in the middle of four oncoming lanes. The cab didn’t even slow down. Boom. Somehow, after a little summersault and crawling it made it into the next lane of traffic. At least the second car tried to slow down, but in Bangkok’s traffic… boom. Another summersault. And then the distraught owner was there, picking it up and rushing to the vet clinic where, apparently, it had escaped en route to. Even after being hit after by the second car, it never yelped, despite being very much alive.
So there. It’s out. Do I feel any better? No. Not at all. There’s your happy, the world is round and perfect image for the evening.
-Fortunately, a gas station I walked past kept a small reserve of gas in a plastic bottle under the counter for destitute idiots such as myself. For about twice the price of daytime gasoline(highway robbery, to be sure, but at that point I would have given my first born son for a half litre of petro (not being one for primogeniture, anyway)), I procured for myself a litre of pure 91 octane gas-o-line. I must have used half of it driving around in the sheer ecstasy of being able to drive around, before I finally returned to my lodge.
-The next day I got up, saw a few temples, and drove into the local hills to see … another temple. But I’m so glad I did. The hills were absolutely beautiful– trees, elevation, all that good stuff, and while I was at the top, the quintessential, oriental mist settled around the top of the mountains, hiding the world in erie, white uncertainty.
-Gravity rocks. I drove the entire way down (15km or so) in neutral. In other words, I rode a motorcycle for 15km without actually using the engine. I even managed to pass a couple trucks on the way down. I could have been on a bicycle.
And I guess that’s about it. I returned my rental, had dinner, and returned to the train station, and made it back to Bangkok in time for class Tuesday morning. It was a great trip.
I really enjoyed Chiang Mai, especially. It struck me as being to Bangkok as Jackson must be to New York City– certainly it was rather touristy, but at the same time it was surrounded by mountains, had a number of nice parks, and was generally a clean and attractive city. Although I’m sure it was present, the poverty wasn’t nearly as visible. The pollution was still a problem, but at least the streets were clean.
And that was my trip.
Goodness, that was a long post.