It is just after daybreak on an April morning in Bangkok, and already the heat is suffocating. A group of South African journalists is being escorted to the Grand Palace, a glorious architectural achievement that for centuries housed the ancient kings of Siam.
Built by King Rama I in 1782, it is a complex of buildings in the centre of the capital, each adorned with gold, displaying everything that is central to the picture-postcard version of Thai life: constitutional monarchy, dignity, and a strictly Buddhist way of life that masks its monetary excess in behavioural demureness.
Tour guides whisk us though the complex, to the famed Temple of the Emerald Buddha: a statue of the sitting Buddha just 45cm high, considered to be one of the holiest figurines in Thailand. Its gold-plated clothes are changed at the end of each season by the Thai prince, a centuries-old tradition that endures to this day.
Out of the complex and into the street the tourists go, into a waiting cavalry of tuk-tuk taxis, where a cold towel and a bottle of water await. A police escort helps the taxis negotiate the nightmarish morning traffic, leaving ordinary Bangkok drivers in their dust.
These tuk-tuks are carrying just five ordinary South Africans (including me) who are in the country courtesy of the Thai embassy in Pretoria. We are not VIPs by any stretch of the imagination, except by virtue of our perceived ability to market Thailand to our South Africans readers.
Soon we are taken back to our five-star hotel, overlooking the Chao Phraya River, where we see a stage-managed tableau of Thai life brought to life. It is a farcical affair. The policemen lead the tuk-tuks away from downtown Bangkok, where mass anti-government demonstrations are approaching critical mass, and the graffiti-decorated highways call for the Thai people to “Shut down Bangkok; Restart Thailand.”
In a month’s time, they will get their wish. On May 7 the Constitutional Court will remove caretaker prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office. And, after a week of political chaos, the Thai military will step out of shadow, remove the rest of the government, and declare martial law.
For now, there is only choreography. We are led through the flower markets, where the scent of thousands of lotus blossoms masks the smell of the stifling pollution.
Once a country that needed little help selling its shores and beaches to Western travellers, Thailand is now on a tourism offensive. Tourist numbers have plummeted, thanks to what Thai government apparatchiks euphemistically call “the political situation”. They will decline further in the next few weeks, despite the many little tours like ours.
Mass protests are staged daily in the capital’s streets. And though they are peaceful, even festive at times, the Thai government admits they are hurting the country economically.
Before the government’s collapse, Thailand’s National Economic and Social Development Board will reveal that the country’s economy slowed by 2.1% in the first quarter of 2014 – a direct result of lowered investor confidence stemming from the political deadlock. Predictions for economic growth are one percent lower than a year ago, and sinking.
The country is on edge. But in the comfort of an air-conditioned bus ride through the country’s northern parts, matters like this are not discussed. Instead journalists are ushered in and out of government offices for presentation after presentation on the country’s tourist attractions.
In just such an office, Thai ambassador to South Africa Voradet Viravakin admits that the “political situation” in Thailand is “big news in South Africa”. The negative publicity must be countered. “We want to show that it is safe to visit Thailand.”
After we return to South Africa, around the time of what the Thai military will insist is not a coup, the ambassador will blithely invite us to a Thai crafts and culture, coffee and dance event to celebrate our own 20 years of democracy.
In the meantime, and with less overt irony, we are being treated to only the best restaurants the country can offer, and shown the breathtaking vistas and Buddhist temples considered too exquisite and holy to be photographed.
We are swept along on a whirlwind tour of the ancient cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, which extends all the way to the the Thai border with Laos and Burma: a famously porous frontier, with a reputation for being kind to opium smugglers.
The north is peaceful; a green and mountainous haven that provides a welcome counterpoint to Bangkok’s busy streets. Here it is easy to forget the monsoon is coming.
Brass rings chain Burmese refugees to tourist ‘human zoo’
Makor poses unflinchingly for the gawking tourists and their cameras. The strikingly beautiful 24-year-old is a member of the Padung Karen tribe, famous for the brass rings around their necks that compress their collarbones and create the impression of an elongated neck.
Makor lives in northern Thailand in a fake cultural village surrounded by farms and rice paddies. It was created just for tourists who come to see her tribe. Like many of the women who live there, Makor is a refugee from the conflict in Burma, just across the border.
For a fee, visitors to Thailand can see Makor and buy the brass wares she sells. Thai tour guides say the money from tourism helps these women to preserve their culture – as Makor will tell you, wearing the rings is a choice and a source of immense pride, but it is difficult to function normally in society with the rings in place.
But critics of this cultural village, or “human zoo”, will tell you the women are stateless, exploited, and will never see the actual proceeds of the money the tourism generates.
Makor sends the money from her jewellery sales home to her sickly parents across the border – but the nominal daily stipend is not enough for them to live on: the Burmese government took their farm during a series of land reforms.
Makor is just one of approximately 119 000 Burmese refugees in Thailand who have no legal status to seek employment in the country, so the cultural village is perhaps the only employment she will ever have.
A woman from the Padung Karen tribe. (Reuters)
Many women who wear the tribe’s signature neck rings are not able to find work in the cities, because they fear ridicule from Thailand’s urban population.
But this is not the primary reason Makor cannot find work; she has never been to school because her parents were too poor to educate her. Makor dreams of becoming a teacher.
She also dreams of Europe. At first, Makor doesn’t answer when asked where she would go if she was given the chance to escape the village. She doesn’t want to leave; she is happy, she insists.
When pressed, she confesses that she dreams of going to Europe to see where the “white women” live. With barely enough money to send home, her travel dreams will have to wait. Until then, the white women will visit her instead.