“We go to Laos when we miss the past.” This from Pond of Bangkok.
In our final night in Bangkok, we decide to attend a ‘cultural evening’ in a purpose-built facility in the middle of this massive city. I approach with a healthy scepticism borne of a remote observation of such functions. They are too often artificial reconstructions of a culture which has been lost, resurrected and confected for the tourists. These shows – worldwide – run the risk of being a remnant show exhibiting anachronistic parts of the culture which are no longer visible in everyday life. This is a bit like the Australian Aborigines putting on a corroboree for the benefit of credulous tourists with thick wallets. For Australians – including, no doubt, the participants – it smacks of fakery. So, visiting another country one should be innately wary of the same thing.
a grain of salt
Here in Thailand, the city of Bangkok has grown so big as to hide much of the wonderful Thai culture. Yes, this culture is something of which the Thais can be proud, as the blurb avows. But take it all with the grain of salt, knowing you might be seeing something from the dead past.
With this kind of pessimistic prologue you might be thinking I was determined to pick holes in the production. Not so. I am always optimistic about such possibilities these days. In fact, the show was a superb spectacle, highly informative as to the demographic fusions which have created the modern nation. It was a very inventive theatrical triumph which amounted to a brilliant exposé of the culture past and present. There was a clever use of the props and technologies which had both of us chatting volubly for quite a while afterwards (in admiration). They even had a very credible simulation of a monsoon on stage. (The heavy rain fell into a river which ran across the stage!)
elephants in the auditorium !
The elephants walking through the auditorium added another touch, too. The whole production was a superb testament to the organisational prowess of the company which ran the show. It also illustrated that culture in Thailand is alive and thriving.
the land of smiles
Thai people typically are a very gentle and kind people. Their culture encourages them to perform deeds of merit during their lives so that they might enjoy a pleasant afterlife. Even if the notion of an afterlife is – for humanists like me – a bit farfetched, it is not drawing too long a bow to credit the belief with some of the decent characteristics of the people here.
Urbanisation might have hardened some – just as it does everywhere else – but the majority are genuine. Pond’s statement suggests that there might be a nostalgia for some of the better aspects of culture which may have been lost on the altar of economic progress.
different stages of development
Thailand, Laos and Cambodia are each at very different stages of development. Laos is seeking to develop from a fairly modest base in an effort to improve the lot of its people. Cambodia is ravaged by civil war and faces a long, difficult road to recovery. Thailand is a sophisticated modern economy.
The trick to development is to grow and develop without suffering all of the unsavoury accompaniments like environmental degradation, crime, loss of culture and inequitable wealth distribution.
culture and traditions
In The Vientiane Times a young competition winner was interviewed and asked, “If you could travel abroad which country would you visit?” The boy’s name was Sisouphon Amphonephong. His answer: “Japan is a country I would want to visit because it is modern with advanced technology. I would also like to see how the country has developed without neglecting its culture and traditions.”
The boy’s sentiment is a common theme among Lao people. They want to improve their living conditions but they don’t want to do it at the expense of their culture.
the trade-offs of development
It could feasibly mean that both Laos and Cambodia could rid themselves of the landmines which do so much harm. But, that might also bring more pollution and traffic jams in the cities. It could mean that Laos would lose its masturbating beggar but it could also mean they gain planeloads of foreigners intent on paying for sex as is the case in certain suburbs of Bangkok. It could mean that Cambodia and Laos lose their abject poverty in the villages but it may also mean that they generate much more waste than is currently the case, per capita. (These villages are actually treading very lightly on the planet because they generate so little waste.) What could also happen is that citizens here gain a better opportunity to travel abroad but at the same time see a proliferation of western brands and marketing techniques that are alien to their own culture. It could mean that these people have less exposure to deadly diseases like typhoid and malaria but it could also mean that their community structure has to be sacrificed in the name of progress.
affirmation of Thai culture
To develop without collecting all of the odious aspects of progress is a giant challenge for such countries. The optimal result is to improve the material standard of living of all without sacrificing the things which make the people human. The cultural show in Bangkok last night was a refreshing affirmation of the Thai culture, something of which they indeed should be proud. It was a reassuring way to end our stay here. I sincerely hope Cambodia and Laos have even more success in maintaining the best things of their respective cultures.
from Bangkok airport, en route to Sydney, Australia