I’m sitting in the Suvarnabhumi Airport’s international terminal (again), eating mango with sticky rice (again) and thinking about my time in Southeast Asia. I’m quite glad I delayed writing up my general thoughts on Southeast Asia, as I’ve had time to reflect and compare each country and, of course, now I get to write about it while eating my favorite Thai dessert. While there are similarities across Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia (notably people’s friendliness to westerners), there are significant cultural, political, and economic differences. Musings on each country I visited are below.
Thailand: Many Constitutions
Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that was never colonized. Through skillful negotiation, they managed to remain independent. It’s also the most industrialized and western country I visited. Despite this, it’s path towards democracy hasn’t been smooth. Since the transition to a constitutional monarchy in 1932, there have been 19 constitutions and charters. The country continuously oscillates between democratic rule and a military dictatorship. This alternation seems to occur in part because no one can agree on how much power to give each branch of the government. As power shifts between groups, the constitution gets rewritten, often then leading to other groups protesting and/or staging a coup. Since the latest coup in 2014 by the Orwellian sounded National Council for Peace and Order, the military has ruled. The military has partially repealed the 2007 constitution, declared martial law, banned political gatherings, and taken control of the media. They have scheduled elections for 2018, but it’s not clear if the government will adhere to this timeline.
As a tourist, it doesn’t feel like a military dictatorship. There is a clear military presence in the capital and, as friends told me, in some tourist areas in the south, where there’s growing ethnic conflict. Yet, things are relatively peaceful and the system has been fluctuating for so long that this is all considered normal to the Thai’s I spoke to. They were more concerned with the economic policies the government was enacting, than who was actually enacting them. There is a huge divide between rich and poor in Thailand, particularly in Bangkok. And, much as we see in the US, there are concerns that the government will make that divide even bigger with new urban development policies. A current hot button issue surrounds street food in Bangkok. Most Bangkok houses don’t have kitchens, so residents rely on the 500,000 vendors for food. Yet, the government has decided to shut down all street food vendors. So far, 30-40,000 people are out of work and people are searching for an alternative cheap food source. Researchers predict that without street food, low-income residents will have to buy the next cheapest food: processed, western crap from 7-11. That food will lead to increased rates of obesity and diabetes. I spoke to a local Bangkok business owner who believed that the government would find employment for those 500,000 people, which shocked me, but was concerned about long-term economic, social, and cultural consequences of creating food deserts.
The one constant through all of this political and economic upheaval is the love the king. As a constitutional monarchy, the king has very little power politically. But he has successfully stepped in when the conflict between the military and parliament looked like it would turn violent. This beloved king died last year, leaving the throne to his son. The late king’s body is currently on display at the Grand Palace and mourners are still paying their respects. To an outsider, the love and respect for the monarch seems authentically fervent, but I can’t help but wonder if any of it is forced as it is illegal to criticize the monarchy.
I only had a week to explore the country and there’s much that I still do not now. Yet, I walked away thinking that Thailand, like many countries, is a place of contradictions: it’s Buddhist, but it also still has a huge sex trafficking problem. Modesty is valued, but ping pong shows and ladyboy cabarets are present. The rich in Bangkok are very rich, owning cars that they don’t have time to drive and buying up more and more real estate, but the poor struggle. The educated elite talk about the problems of urban development and economic inequality, but they underpay and overwork their staff.
Even with these complexities and challenges, I loved Thailand. The people are incredibly friendly, the countryside is gorgeous, and the food is delicious.
Vietnam: Snitches get Stiches
Vietnam is a one-party, communist country. The government is authoritarian in many ways, restricting things like gum chewing and pokemon go. The propaganda is also intense, filling museums and news stations. Voting is mandatory, although again there is only one-party so voting power is minimal. It’s illegal to criticize the government. A few Vietnamese shared their perspective on the situation, but they caveated their statements with “snitches get stiches.” (As serious as the situation is, I couldn’t help but laugh as it was the first time I had heard that phrase outside the US.)
However, it’s also capitalistic and faces economic problems similar to that of its neighbors. Taxes are very low, but there are few government services. Parents have to pay for primary and secondary school. (It is free for the ethnic minorities, but the majority of Vietnamese pay for it.) Healthcare is expensive, so many people can’t afford to go to the clinic or doctor when they’re sick. Without equal access to education and healthcare, most of the 95 million residents cannot escape the economic circumstances they are born into.
For all its challenges and political oppression, the Vietnamese I talked to had no interest in leaving and definitely no interest in moving to the US. One young man said that he would worry about his safety in America, where people have guns and the police can shoot him because of his skin color. I can’t help but agree—he probably is safer in Vietnam.
While Thailand is considered a Newly Industrialized Country and Vietnam has one of the highest economic growth rates in the world, Cambodia is struggling. There are, of course, huge economic inequalities in Thailand and Vietnam, but the poverty in Cambodia is striking. In Thailand and Vietnam, people sell their wares on the street or in small storefronts, but most seemed well fed and all were adults. In the areas I visited, I saw few beggars. Cambodia was the exact opposite.
Cambodians have been to hell and back. In the 1970’s, the Khmer Rouge wiped out roughly 25% of the population in four years. Now the country is ostensibly a constitutional monarchy, but since there is only one-party, it is ruled by a relatively authoritarian coalition. Corruption is rampant, as is hunger, political oppression, poverty, and environmental destruction.
There are only two main cities: Phnom Penh (the capital) and Siem Reap (the tourist destination). In the rural areas, agriculture is the main industry and it does not pay well, so many Cambodians move to the cities to find work. But, there’s little room for economic growth or education within the country. School is technically paid for by the government, but families need to pay for supplies, food, and transportation. Instead of attending school, many kids in Siem Reap and the surrounding villages beg or sell goods to tourists to make money. The administrators of Angkor Wat Park officially ask tourists not to buy from children as they think it encourages them to work and skip school. Families that can’t afford to take care of their children often put them in orphanages. One organization in Siem Reap noted that more than 75% of children in orphanages having living parents.
The people I spoke with were heavily concerned with economic conditions and were interested in opportunities wherever they could find them. Within Siem Reap, there are several organizations and businesses offering job training to young people, generally in food or hotel service. We ate dinner at two restaurants that do this and got a glimpse of the non-profit space in the city. Cambodians can generally earn more money by leaving the country to work for corporations in Japan, South Korea, and Thailand, but conditions vary. Our tuk tuk driver went to Japan for a few months and worked on a farm. He said conditions were fine, but the company made them pay for everything, much like US coal company stores used to do in the 1800s. He came back to Cambodia early as he wasn’t making enough money.
I expected the poverty when I came to Cambodia, but I didn’t expect locals to be so open and friendly to tourists. People clearly want tourists to buy things and Siem Reap is expensive by Southeast Asian standards, but the quality of service and the friendliness of the locals is also high.