I’m sitting in a cafe masquerading as a diner, and like so many of the places I enjoy the most, I’m embarrassed to say I like it. Two elderly white couples are chatting quietly in the adjacent booths, and assorted bric-a-brac is arranged self-consciously around the dining room. Out back, beneath the gray, persistently gravid sky, there’s a small swimming pool, a touch that feel both obscure and perfect.
I’m in Chiang Mai, and have been for the better part of a week. Before that I was in Bangkok, a city so choked with pollution and activity it makes New York feel like a backwoods yoga retreat. My days there were a blur of exhausted but sleepless nights and bleary daytime exploration. To the best of my memory, we walked around Lumphini Park, ate dim sum on the 60th floor of the Banyan Tree hotel, and looked at rows upon rows of denim at Chatuchak Market, enough denim to cover the planet nine times and still have enough leftover to give it a matching denim purse.
This is my first time in Asia, and when my plane touched down on Thursday morning (after flying straight through Wednesday, a phenomenon around which I still can’t totally wrap my head), my mind struggled to place this wholly new environment in context. It had a third world quality which I wasn’t expecting; the water is not drinkable and the sky runs thick with dense ropes of power lines, some of which are dangling worryingly toward the sidewalk. I see flashes of familiarity—does this corner look a little like La Paz?— but the similarities are quick to dissolve under further scrutiny. I have never, for example, seen a spirit house in South America.
Other things are entirely outside the bounds of my experience. One morning while trying to cross the street, I saw a clutch of army officers motioning cars toward the side of the road, conducting what appeared to be random checks. The drivers of those cars pulled over without protest, and I got the strong impression this was a standard practice, as endemic to a commute as snarled traffic and hastily-made coffee. After a few minutes of rooting around in the vehicles, the drivers were allowed to leave. I don’t what it was they were searching for, though it seems that such encroachments on privacy are not uncommon in the kingdom.
Though the country has been run by a military dictatorship since 2014, the monarchy makes its presence felt in perhaps even less subtle ways. Enormous portraits of blank-faced royalty are everywhere, from highway entrances to the outside of the zoo to construction sites. Speaking ill of any royalty is a punishable crime, even for tourists.
Then again, much is punishable by crime in Thailand. During a stroll around a wat in Chiang Mai’s old city, I stopped when I saw a knot of monks seated under a sign that said “Monk Chat.” The idea was that tourists can get answers to their questions about the many monks they see out and about in the city, going about their lives in their bright orange robes. These particular monks were quite young, and seemed more interested on scrolling through their phones than talking to a couple of damp tourists. But one man, dressed in street clothes, was happy to chat. He answered my dumb question about why the Buddha reclines (it’s his last pose before he enters parinirvana, since you asked), then asked what I did for work. I told him I was a journalist. What did I write about? And then:
“Is the press in the U.S. free?” he asked.
I told him that it technically was, though that freedom is being threatened by billionaires who have recently discovered that money can out-muscle democracy, an answer I believe to be true.
He nodded. “Not here,” he said.
He’s right. The country’s strict lèse majesté laws obviously apply to the press, and moreover, the ruling junta, called The National Council for Peace and Order, works aggressively to silence critical coverage, regularly calling dissident reporters to meetings where they are pressured to get in line. In 2016, the Computer-Related Crime Act gave the NCPO even more expansive surveillance and censorship powers, allowing for the prosecution of vaguely defined offenses that are “likely to cause damage to the public.” Freedom House rates Thailand “Not Free.”
I read recently that following the collapse of the Roman empire, daily routine kept chugging along for quite some time, fueled by inertia that doesn’t vanish just because power has changed hands. This doesn’t surprise me. Thailand’s politics may be in turmoil, and I do not pretend to know the hardships faced by every day Thai people. But in the most outward sense, life seems to move along apace. I am here, listening to American indie pop in a comfortable wooden booth under the glow of an illuminated Coca-Cola sign and a vintage Indiana Jones poster. Motorbikes are zipping along the road outside, despite the pouring rain.
In Havana, oppression seemed to hiss from every open window and languish under every sallow streetlight. Maybe it’s because I was there as a journalist, and spent my time there pelting everyone who would talk to me with questions. Maybe Cuba was a little less practiced at coddling its visitors, buffering them from its most brutal realities. Or maybe it’s the language barrier—if an undercurrent of protest exists in Thailand, it would be lost on me.
In my short time here, I have come to realize that Thailand is a country of dichotomies. Gleaming skyscrapers rise above ancient temples. Crumbling infrastructure juxtaposes enormous digital ads playing out over several buildings. I can sit here and write this in complete comfort, knowing still that if I acted insolently—spat on the towering image of a Royal family member, for instance—the abundant politesse that has defined my experience here would be gone.