Arriving in Laos for the second time, I confirmed that it feels as if something is sucking the country dry. You can sense it, like a sponge that swallows up water. My companion gave it a name; “It’s China. They’re pillaging this country.”
My companion was in his fifties, retired but does things for cash when he’s in the mood for it. He told me some of his story, as well as what he’s discovered about Thailand in great detail. He was from Quebec, worked in sales for most of his life, so his ability to convince and convert people was impressive, and his honesty about it was itself a warning not to take everything he says literally. I call him Info-man. From the moment he met me at Immigration, he’d already sized me up and was moving chess pieces. “Do you understand all of this?” he asked, comparing our papers. If I didn’t he’d have the info that I was looking for.
We were discussing the more stringent laws concerning immigration and resident aliens running businesses that are put in place each year in Thailand. The new rules are meant to curve Thailand’s true immigration problem: not forgetful backpackers or seedy retirees seeking young love, but rather the Chinese businesspeople who use their capital and influence to extract wealth and resources from the country. Info-man exemplifies the tourism industry. The Chinese set up hotels, import Chinese staff and Chinese tour guides, funnel in Chinese tourists who pay for the tour through a Chinese touring agency, then those tourists depart by Chinese buses, or these days, drive home, contributing to tremendous traffic congestion. I’ve seen this myself in Chiang Mai and Pai. Many of the highways, according to Info-man, were built with Chinese labor and are Chinese-owned.
Info-man began to enter murky waters. The wealthy families that control Thailand are part Chinese, he told me. When I thought back to some middle class and educated people that I know in Chiang Mai, they too are partially Chinese. My partner sees this as one reason why China is able to enter Thailand and exploit it. Centuries of integration via family and business relationships has enabled Chinese nationals to take over a great deal of the tourism scene, locking the profits in their own country.
Info-man had quite a lot to get off his chest that day. We had a long time in transit and he seemed relieved to be out of Thailand for a while. He was speaking to me as if he had impunity in Laos, but we weren’t even over the Friendship Bridge before his revelations began.
The new immigration laws don’t curve problems in Thailand, he told me; they feed it. People with connections to entrenched power easily circumvent the law, while the grand majority of foreigners are regarded as second-rate citizens. He believes that you can sense that in the culture. Once you recognise the word ‘farang’ (white, typically Anglo-Saxon foreigner), it’s the first word you hear uttered when you walk into a room of Thais. They see you and put on another face, the one that they present to foreigners.
I didn’t agree with everything he said, but there was some truth to it. Didn’t feel as much animosity from Thais as he did, either. To my mind, most of it was misunderstandings borne of cultural barriers. Info-man has worked in consulting there. He had a Thai girlfriend, he’s been through immigration multiple times, and he’s worked directly with many Thai businesspeople. He was also based in Bangkok. The people he was complaining about were likely not those that I typically interacted with.
We got into socioeconomics for a while. I was craving a conversation like that and welcomed it. We agreed that many laws and regulations in general are actually used to consolidate power among the wealthy elite, and the accumulated wealth is then inherited. Meanwhile, a growing consumer culture ensures that the “middle class” is a filter for those who manage to save a bit. Once the lower class reaches a certain level, they are wooed by the flashy consumer lifestyle and go into debt or otherwise spend their money climbing the social ladder. Info-man believed that this was a homogenous truth for all people in Thailand today, but I believe it to be a concentrated and contextual phenomenon.
I said that Thailand would be wise to avoid laws that dilute the incentive for foreign investment into the country, which damages Thailand’s position in the ASEAN community. That is a position that developed not through isolation, but by the transfer of technology and knowledge, and through co-development. While unfettered foreign investment can be damaging (and often is), it is the way that wealth is consolidated and invested that matters more than who owns the wealth. A person is but the representation, while their behaviour is what governs what happens to wealth.
He didn’t seem so energised by that topic, so I let it fade until we got onto the subject of consumerism.
“They’ve got Burmese slaves, you know,” Info-man said. “And they are more materialistic than you’ll believe.”
We were entering the outskirts of the capital. Rickshaws in Vientiane are frankenstein experiments done to motorcycles, like tortured horses attached to a cage of metal bars. Every wedge in the road is felt, the engine putters violently, the brakes react slowly and grind in protest. Vientiane unfolded around me. Children riding motor scooters. A few people wore dusty rags with infants cocooned on their backs while begging for money. I bought water at a general store, the clerk tried to cheat me when she noticed I didn’t count the zeroes on the notes. The Kip is grossly inflated; I saw a local woman hand over a wad of notes to the serviceman at a fuel pump.
“I’m so nervous that they’ll see the overstay stamp and reject me.” I said.
“They’ll issue the visa at Immigration and take your money,” Info-man replied. “Don’t you worry about that. In the end it’s the money they want. The moment of reckoning for you is at the border crossing tomorrow. That’s when you need to look good, because the man at that counter is who decides whether to let you in.”
I steered back to our old subject. “Many Thais that I speak to like to spend their free time shopping. They want expensive things and prefer the high-end brands. I met a well-educated part Chinese Thai lady. She was telling me her reason for moving to Chiang Mai, and it all summed up to ‘I moved to Chiang Mai so that I can have a bigger house and more cars.’”
“Yeah, of course that’s what they want. And the poor want to get there. Nobody questions whether it’s right to think that way here.”
It’s still much of the same where we come from, I thought.
“Those in top positions of companies and government are downright stupid,” he said. “But what the bosses say, goes. Hierarchy and saving face is so important in Thai society. I told you that I was a consultant, and we were visiting a potential client. Nobody in there but the secretary could speak a word of English. That’s great, we thought. We offer English language solutions for medium-sized businesses. Perfect, hey? But when we spoke to the boss’s secretary, he apologised and told us that they did not need our services. We asked why, and he says ‘well…the boss doesn’t speak English’. I said, ‘no problem, we can focus solely on the staff’. And he says to us, ‘you don’t understand. We don’t speak English here.’ Then it hit me; When the boss doesn’t speak English, you don’t bring in someone with excellent business English solutions to solve that problem. You just make it an unbendable rule that no one else speaks English, either. Nobody questions the Big.”
This meant that age also has great significance, and if you look younger, you’re in trouble. Given, that’s more of a global phenomenon. My friend was lucky. He was big, balding, and looked a good ten years older than he actually was for most of his life.
“Hate to break it to you,” he continued, “but you’ll be nothing but a centrepiece, a boy toy, an asset for increasing sales. An older-looking person will be treated with respect.”
We’d made it to immigration at Vientiane and were having some BBQ sandwiches before heading inside. I spotted Info-man for the money.
“I’ve never been this early before,” he said. “A full half hour.” Then he regarded his sandwich, “They’re much better around the city, but this is good when you haven’t eaten anything.”
I nodded and appreciated the taste of bread, any kind of bread.
“You know the language schools keep you teachers poor on purpose. They keep wages and hours low to make you all desperate.”
“You think teaching is not the way to go.”
“Don’t contradict your goals. You said earlier that you wanted to start a business. Teaching here will not get you anywhere. It’s slavery.”
He thought that I’ve missed the mark on Vietnam by fifteen years, but that I can still save money in Taiwan. I’ve heard the contrary, but he insisted that he has knowledge of the country and that it would be best for me to just go there as a teacher and start knocking on doors.
“Nobody takes you seriously before you’re thirty, anyway, so you’ve got time to experiment. I was all sorts of things before I made my break. I can drive all kinds of trucks. Hell, I can paint a house and I learned that online. It’s easy to learn things on your own these days.” We were standing awkwardly beneath the umbrella of the sandwich trolley, shielding ourselves from the tropical sun. “Remember, I came from a poor family. I had nothing, just like you. We have to make it out on our own.”
We finished our sandwiches and moved on to the Immigration office. It didn’t take long to make our application, but Info-man had to scramble to find a place that would produce photocopies. When he returned, I asked him what I should put down as my occupation on the visa application sheet, thinking ‘unemployed’ would be the safest bet.
“That’s the worst thing you can put down. They don’t want you if you don’t have money. Put down that you’re a consultant. What do you do? You consult. How? ‘I work on projects back in the States’. Do you work in Thailand? ‘No, I have a rich girlfriend. Her family takes care of me. We’re getting married soon’. That’s what they want to hear, aye.”
We were out of Immigration only twenty minutes later, found a coffee shop and sat down. I was pulling around half of my belongings in the big red backpack, nervous about leaving them in Thailand now that I’d complicated my chance at re-entry. We continued our conversation while waiting for his friend to show up. She was Laotian, Info-man told me she doesn’t have much money but has a heart of gold. “She’s just a good woman. My girlfriend cleared her closet this week and I’m taking this bag of clothes here to my friend. A gift, you know. I like to help people.”
He told me what I’ve heard many times, that Myanmar is just now opening up, that if I go there now and learn the language, work for NGOs in exchange for room and board, I can set myself up as a ‘fixer’, the guy who says to a richer man, “You don’t have a problem, I have a problem. You just sit back and relax, I’m going to take care of this.”
“It’s like the guy in Shawshank Redemption. See how much easier your day was after you met me? Immigration was smooth sailing, we passed through a few pay points unnoticed, you didn’t waste time in the wrong lines. We caught the local bus that they don’t want you to know about. I speak basic Thai and was able to negotiate rides for you. I look like a Big so we got slightly special treatment. Tell me, these rich guys like Bill Gates, what is their most valuable asset?”
“I’ll assume it’s family or their house.”
“No, it’s their time. They don’t have much of it, they’re busy people. If you can save them time, they’ll pay for it.”
“What about the internet, search engines, and all of the information products, bloggers, travel writers and all that out there? Don’t they make ‘fixers’ irrelevant?”
“Hell no. Who has time to sift through all that stuff? It’s mostly anecdotal and who knows who you’re speaking to. It’s often inadvertent advertising, a bunch of the same garbage, and it quickly goes out of date. People need real connections for real trust. I have a business idea for something along those lines.
“When wealthy people like Beckham need a place to go on vacation with their family, they don’t want any trouble from paparazzi, they don’t want to have to plan anything themselves. Money isn’t a factor for people like that. They don’t care if they have to pay one hundred baht or a thousand for a Singha, all they want is the Singha with no hassles. Beckham doesn’t want to spend all his time researching and trying his luck with random hotels and agencies online. He needs a special service, something that will safely and quickly take his family to an isolated island and drive a boat right up to the front door, with lunch and a few beers waiting for him in the dining room.”
He then told me that if I spend the next ten years in Myanmar, I’d have to focus on what Burma doesn’t have; American products.
“That means I’ll have to go back the the States to make connections. That takes a lot of time and money.”
“But that’s why it’s valuable. These people can’t do that, you can.”
“I can’t afford to do it. There’s nothing for me in the States.” I frowned, but it wasn’t an entirely negative thought to me like it used to be. There was a lot that I had simply accepted. “My skills are fairly limited to teaching English.”
“You can still save money in Taiwan,” he said. “In Thailand, you’re wasting time. It’s growing riskier there every day.”
I was thinking that Info-man and I grasped the cultural differences and daily reality of people in Southeast Asia quite differently from one another. That was also the first time he mentioned Rothschilds and illuminati, a rabbit hole I really didn’t want to go down. Perhaps understanding that, he began to wrap things up.
Info-man’s final observation is that Thailand is closing itself up, becoming a feudal state of people who aren’t only ignorant, but don’t care about politics. Thailand risks getting itself ejected from its current seat of modest economic power. Again, I found some truth in what he said, as generalised and overstated as it was. The global stage is far too complicated to explain away with homogenous statements about any one group of people and my own perception of it all is equivalent to looking through a keyhole.
An hour had passed by the time his friend arrived. She was driving an old motorbike and was grinning, but looked exhausted. She had been waiting at the bus station the entire time, and that was an hour away from here. There were short exchanges between us, then Info-man prepared to leave. The last I saw of him that day, he was driving her motorbike down the dusty road. I was walking aimlessly along the shoulder of the road with my backpack, attempting to hail a rickshaw. He called out to me with his fist in the air, “Fight the power!”