The following is a piece I originally wrote for Stickmanbangkok.com a few years ago, although I have updated it slightly to reflect my current situation. It provides an interesting account of Bangkok in the 1980s and highlights the underbelly of life in Bangkok.
I first moved to Thailand at the age of 9, way back in the early 1980s. Bangkok was a very different place then. There were very few foreigners and very few of the Western conveniences of today that make life very easy for those seeking a Western existence in an Asian paradise.
Notwithstanding the scarcity of Western convenience, life in Bangkok was very good. Western food and supermarkets did exist, as did some great shopping centres. However, travel was required and the traffic and pollution in the 1980s was really something to experience. Given foreigners were few and far between, Thais had little experience with us and gave us a lot more respect compared with today.
The other nice thing with there only being a few foreigners, was that the ex-pat community was quite small and intimate. People built a strong circle of friends and most people knew each other. As a result, every time we took a trip to one of the main ex-pat hang-outs such as the British Club, Silver Bell (the only NTSC video rental place), Villa Supermarket (the original at Suk soi 33), the US Embassy Commissary, or Central Chitlom, we always bumped into people we knew.
For some, life in Bangkok in the early 1980s meant a very sheltered existence. I knew people who lived in gated compounds where 100% of the residents were ex-pats. For example, the US Embassy had a couple of compounds just for the family of their employees. For the friends I knew that lived in those areas, they lived an entirely Western existence. They only interacted with other Western kids, ate primarily Western food, only spoke English, and of course, attended ISB, which in those days was almost exclusively foreign (only students with foreign passports could attend; although some exceptions were made for members of the Thai elite).
Rather than being sheltered, I actually lived in two different worlds. On the one hand, when attending school, or attending at ex-pat enclaves, I lived a very Western life. On the other hand, my house was in Phrakhanong, whereas most Westerners lived along Ekamai and almost nobody lived beyond the Rama IV/Sukhumvit intersection. My after school friends were therefore the Thai kids that lived around my house and I spent a lot of time getting to know them and Thai culture.
Both worlds were great fun. Notwithstanding the traffic, Bangkok felt like it afforded more freedom back then than it does today. I felt a lot more invincible, was happy to do as I pleased and go where I wanted to. Part of this feeling is tied to the lack of certain laws or at least lack of enforcement (at least against foreigners). However, I also believe another big part was the fact that my innocence was still intact at the time.
My innocence, or lack of understanding of how the system really works in Thailand, allowed me to feel a false sense of freedom and safety. Interestingly, I exercised those freedoms at the time and never had an issue. For example, by the time I was 11, I often traveled either alone or with friends my age all over Bangkok on public transport. I never had any issues. One time, we created a rocket launcher and fired rockets from a friend’s balcony trying to get the rockets to fly into the open window of an apartment in a nearby building. No one ever came up to stop us (the security guards thought it was funny). Another time, a friend and I went roof-jumping. We managed to walk across several of our neighbour’s roof-tops. Some neighbours came out to see what was going on, but just smiled and laughed when they saw us up there. For most things we did, people just turned a blind eye or laughed. Only occasionally did I get told off, but that was the extent of the punishment (including the time a friend and I knocked on all the doors of the rooms on one floor of Hyatt Central Plaza hotel).
By the time I was 13, my friends and I were old Bangkok hands. We felt like we had complete run of the city. We easily navigated around the city area on public transport and often ended up playing around Patpong. Although I never felt like I was ever at risk, Patpong was certainly a little shady and the touts would sometimes hassle us, trying to get us into a club to see a ping pong show. At 13, we also discovered that we could purchase alcohol from convenience stores without any issues. We could also go to night clubs (e.g. the Palace or NASA) but that didn’t hold our interest (we actually spent more time buying pirated games at computer stores – buy 10 floppy disks and for nothing extra, get them filled up with software and games).
Even into my early twenties, when I no longer lived full time in Thailand, I still had my innocence intact and thought Thailand was a wonderful free place and a great playground for young and old alike. As a result, my dream had always been to return to Thailand one day and live there permanently.
Slowly, over time, my innocence was gradually erased, kind of like layers peeled off of an onion. As each layer was removed, Thailand became slightly less attractive.
The first eye-opener for me was the military crackdown on protesters in 1992. This of course wasn’t a first for Thailand, but amazingly, the 1973/75 clashes were never brought up during my education at ISB and when I did first learn about it, the incident was played down. During the 1980s, everyone seemed to pretend that all was sweet. A military government was in power and other than one or two attempted coups that only had minor loss of life (e.g. a reporter getting in the way), there weren’t any dramas and things seemed stable. However, the 1992 incident left a sour taste in my mouth.
Fast forward to the rapid expansion of Bangkok in the mid 1990s, with double digit economic growth and corruption so blatant and “in-your-face”. The politicians did so little to try to disguise the corruption, and that too left a sour taste in my mouth… or maybe that was the som-tam. In any event, when the 1997 currency crisis hit, I actually just thought “som-nam-na” (serves you right). Of course (and I didn’t know this then), many of the ones who deserved to be punished were not as affected as everyone else.
When the skytrain was finished in late 1999, I was actually quite happy again and I mistakenly thought Thailand had turned around and was now heading towards a true “developed country” status. The massive development of infrastructure, shopping centres, and all the other things that make life more Westernised were all great. For me, Thailand as a regular holiday destination was great. However, with each visit, I came to recognize the dangers that existed, that lay hidden beneath the surface.
Having grown up and spent a considerable part of my life in Thailand, I learned many things about the Thai system and realized just how exposed we all are. By this time, I had built a nice collection of senior Thai contacts that were useful in the event I ever had a problem. However, the problem with this Thai system is that no matter who my contacts are, there will always be the risk that I will piss off someone who is more senior than my most senior contact or who has contacts that are more senior.
A friend of mine, who is a Westerner with Thai citizenship, presents a classic example. His parents have lived in Thailand long term. They have held very senior positions in companies in Thailand and are good friends with many of the elite. They purchased a beautiful piece of land near the ocean. One day, the owner of an adjoining block, a military general, decides he would like to own their land. Even a personal photo of my friend’s father meeting with the most important person in the country was not sufficient to dissuade the general and of course the general’s offering price for purchase was well below market value.
So how has my loss off innocence affected me? I still spend a lot of time each year living in Thailand. I still enjoy all the great things that Thailand has to offer, such as getting spoiled at beach resorts, wandering aimlessly in huge air-conditioned malls, and eating from any one of a plethora of great restaurants. However, I am always cautious never to try to stand out from the crowd, don’t try to piss off the wrong people, and try not to end up on the wrong side of the law. I’ve actually never had a really bad experience myself, but just knowing that it can happen is enough to leave that sour taste in my mouth. I would never make Thailand my exclusive home, with no ability to quickly retreat to another country and I would never keep any serious cash in a Thai bank nor would I invest in property using anything more than hobby cash (i.e. money that I don’t intend to use for investment purposes). In fact, I am presently building in Thailand, but I don’t view this as an investment in any way and if the worst happens, then so be it, I can always abandon the project if need be.
I guess things wouldn’t be so bad if I had retained my innocence. I suspect that the chances are that nothing really bad would ever happen to me in Thailand, or at least I doubt the risk is any worse than what could happen to me in the West. However, it is the understanding of how things actually work and that if it goes wrong, it can really go wrong without any safety net, that lingers in my mind. I no longer feel the sense of freedom I used to and would love to have my innocence returned. Knowledge can be a curse sometimes.