I was talking with my buddy ‘Aow’ in a clothing market up the street from my Bangkok condo. He sells jeans and t-shirts from a stall alongside hundreds of other vendors. Aow and his wife ‘Kid’ have been friends and neighbors for twenty years, where we have lived, on and off, in this tiny Thai suburb of Bangkok. These are closely knit communities, where families of a clan or particular Baan, Tambon or village, have lived together, and intermarried, even fought bloody battles together for various political causes, over generations. Bangkok is made up of thousands of these invisible villages. Outsiders are not accepted out of hand. Foreigners stick out like a sore thumb.
We helped Aow and Kid arrange their first family vacation, by booking their flights and hotel on-line, with my wife’s laptop, while sitting in a modern KFC franchise, to a resort in Thailand’s southern island of Phuket. They’d heard so much about tourism and wanted to see what all the fuss was about. They’d never flown on an aircraft before, their three kids were thrilled. To afford a vacation meant success, a step into the modern era, it was a proud moment, and made Aow and Kid local celebrities. We were ‘acceptable farang’.
Because there is little direct contact between foreigners and average Thai people, they look at us through the lens of a narrow stereotype based on sensational stories passed through by the media. ‘Farang’ ( foreigners) are known to do tasteless, strange and often unseemly things according to the media. Thai people in these outlaying area’s, outside Bangkok, treat foreigners with reservation, temerity, and suspicion.
Contact between Thai and Foreigner is limited to persons working in the tourism industry. Most Thai happily will spend a lifetime without meeting an outsider and never learn more than a few words of English.
What is a ‘farang’? Why is the word used as a derogatory pejorative these days? The colloquialism is the distillation of a Thai accent, describing the original white travelers from France, who were the first foreigners to present themselves to the court of the King. ‘Francia’, pronounced as ‘Falangset’…(Falancia) and shortened by slang to ‘Farang’.
The lingua franca was applied to describe every foreigner who came in later years, whether British, Dutch or Portuguese. All foreigners are now collectively known as ‘farang’. In recent years it is a term spit out by the Thai people rather than spoken. Thailand was never colonized by foreign powers and the Thai have always looked down their noses at those who were over run.
What is the difference between ‘acceptable farang’ and ‘falang spit spit spit’? Ask any Thai and they will tell you. When Aow and I had become close enough to have an informal honest, personal conversation he asked me, timidly…if I had ever been to ‘Patpong Road’, the notorious red light district.
I replied honestly, “Yes, but not for over forty years”. I told him that when I had first come to Bangkok as a young man on business in the early 1970’s there were only two bars on Patpong Rd, in use by American soldiers, deep cover spooks and diplomatic workers, on R&R from the Vietnam War. The now notoriously mob controlled Pattaya Beach was a dusty village beside a minor naval base for shallow-draft American ships patrolling for communists and smugglers along the coastline of Cambodia. I told him how I had ‘discovered’ a pristine Phuket before a single hotel had been built.
Aow was obviously relieved, that the trust he’d placed in his judgement to accept me as a friend and sponsor into his community wasn’t misplaced. I told him that I would never take my wife or family any where near a place like that. “Yes” he said. “That’s what I think”.
Aow nodded in agreement. “We don’t go there”, he spoke of the red light tourist areas that had sprung up after battle crazed soldiers refused to leave ‘exotic’ South East Asia for the bleak perilous streets of Detroit and Chicago. I understood Aow’s comment to be a general statement, true of all Thai people he knew. Nice Thai people just don’t visit the human toilets that grew out of infamy and corruption to shocking notoriety.
Today, the area of downtown Bangkok, between Soi Nana and Asok, which represent the worst of the human spirit, isn’t overtly recognized by any decent Thai. They block it out and don’t recognize the existence of such places. Thai people who reside for work or business in towns like Pattaya and Phuket will not admit to living there. The mere mention of these places is an embarrassment to polite Thai people.
But, whether by road or transit through these bleak tourist ghetto’s you’ll see sidewalks crowded with ‘farang…spit spit spit’, stumbling out of go go bars with desperate prostitutes, vomiting in the neon lit gutters, passed out in the darkened alleys, biker gang members from global crime groups, wearing full regalia, marking territory. You’ll see the most disreputable scum in the world, Caucasian, Arab, Asian, all within spitting distance, as if tiny cracks in the gates of hell had opened and the devil was showing his bum to the world.
Yesterday, in the Central Park of Bangkok’s version of Manhattan…Lumpini Park, my wife and I were listening to the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra playing The William Tell Overture in the band shell as part of an annual concert season. We were surrounded by Thai families, living the modern moral life most Thai enjoy.
During a break we were approached by a group of timid students, asking our permission for a video interview, as part of a project for the business course they were taking. We agreed of course.”We so happy you can speak to us”, one of the youngsters said. “We’ve been walking for an hour and couldn’t find a single foreigner willing to talk to us”.
Our interview was extensive. The kids were very happy to finally speak to foreigners who could teach them honestly about world affairs. They had stereotyped outsiders into a narrow range as we had expected, and they were delighted to turn the subject away from a focus on ‘Thailand’s Developing Nation Status’ and dependence on tourism.
Our perspective on Thailand had changed over forty years based on observation of the visionary development that has taken place over the years we had been ‘in-country’ . This was the Thailand they could be proud of. As if on cue, the six o’clock chime from Lumpini’s famous clock tower rang out and from speakers set throughout the park the national anthem rang out. Every one stood up, the joggers stopped running..in silent respect for the nation.
The kids were knowledgeable about how many kinds of Eskimo’s there were in Canada and how Thailand also hosted many indigenous peoples. Of course, our polite conversation didn’t enter the ugly territory of the vice and corruption existing a mile away.
“We don’t go there”, the Thai will say of the tired prospects of the tourist who comes for vice. There are ‘Falang spit spit spit’…and ‘Farang’ who are part of Thailand’s accepting culture. The old Thailand is obviously behind them, the kids were on track to a better future…they are hungry for knowledge and communication with the outside world. The biggest problem said one ‘was a lack of English teachers outside Bangkok’.
I left the children with a word of advice, much the same as any parent would anywhere in the world. “Be careful who you talk to”. But… I suspected these kids were well aware of the pitfalls of dealing with certain ‘Farang’…as they were media savvy and modern, and had read all about the sordid behavior of some visitors. The fact that my wife and I are mature as well as being a couple was a signal they could feel comfortable approaching us.
The Thai are too polite to mention such things in conversation…but it isn’t if anyone isn’t aware of the sex tourist industry as being problematic and distasteful, let alone out of place in the modern age of this rapidly evolving Asian Tiger nation… within the vision these children see as the inheritance we will leave behind.