Friday, November 25, 2016

"It's Thailand"

In the small beach town of Ao Nang, down a nondescript alley, wedged between trinket shops and Thai massage parlours is a most incongruous establishment: A shooting range. Despite being the size of a (small) 7-11, this plucky storefront boasted “SHOOT GLOCK!” and “TRY SNIPER RIFLE!” and displayed a conspicuous pile of hardware on the front counter by the lounging tout. Given the complete lack of soundproofing, not to mention any apparent reinforcement to the back wall of the shop (behind the plywood targets), we momentarily assumed that these were airsoft, or video games, or...well, anything sensible and sensical. But this is Thailand. At our slightest expression of interest, the tout leapt into action, proclaiming “THREE-FIFTY SEVEN! REAL MAGNUM!!” and swung an enormous Smith and Wesson revolver into view. “You shoot!” he encouraged, fumbling a handful of thumb-sized cartridges onto the counter. For just over a thousand baht, with no waiver, no training, and no personal protection whatsover (to say nothing of the unfortunate neighbors) you too can go Dirty Harry on the mean streets of Krabi.
Drive the front of your car and
don't wait for your turn, it'll never come.
Welcome to Thailand. It’s a thrumming country on the cusp of joining the first world, and in a pell-mell hurry to get there. The result is a national culture of devil-may-care pragmatism where a tenuous “it works” is the status quo. When we gawk at the rough edges and obvious potential for catastrophe, Thais seem to approach things with a combination of blithe optimism and zen fatalism. With a little practice, we’ve learned to adopt their standing cultural shrug and just say “It’s Thailand.”

A glance into the streets perfectly captures this this state of affairs. Bangkok traffic is famous for its relentless melee of cars, delivery vans, tuk tuks, scooters, food carts, and jaywalkers. The lane lines are a suggestion at best, as drivers form new lanes at will and impatient scooter riders fish ladder up the wrong side of the street. Pedestrians cross with reckless confidence and the ubiquitous traffic cops appear to direct cars essentially at random. And yet, it mostly works.

The neon lights and cheap speakers are all part of the fun.
Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of the resigned disregard for Bangkok’s intractable gridlock--and the character of Thailand more generally--than the tuk tuk.  As we experienced on our tuk tuk food tour, they’re not meaningfully different than a bathtub with three wheels and a two-stroke engine. The driver straddles the front wheel, gearshift between his legs, and tears along with two terrified passengers sitting atop a bench seat that conceals the fuel tank, a pressurized gas canister essentially strapped in with hose clamps. Hop in, hold on, and don’t think too hard. Admittedly, the tuk tuk ought not to exist. It is not the product of a regulatory loophole, or a savvy compromise between four wheels and two. It lacks the maneuverability of a motorbike, and any of the safety or comfort features of a car.  The tuk tuk exists solely because tourists ride them, and tourists ride them because it’s fun (or “sanook”, if you want to dig a little deeper into the Thai national character.)

It's called a "Thai kitchen" and that refers to where it is,
not what it's cooking.
Cooking up a storm may well include cooking in a storm.
Even thinking that the tuk tuk exists as clever evasion of regulations or codes is, itself, a misread of Thailand. Instead, think about a place where asking for permission simply...isn’t considered. “Thai street food” is a common phrase you’ll see in cookbooks and travel shows but the real truth seems to be that in essence it’s *all* street food. Got a rolling cooler and a hibachi? Congrats, you’re in the restaurant business. Even for places with a fixed address, the average Bangkok restaurant seems like a hermit crab; it scuttled off the street to try out a storefront. Indeed, many hole in the wall spots stay true to their roots (or perhaps just maximize table space) by annexing the back alley for a fry kitchen. Those guys under the canvas tarp, sweating and toiling at woks over blazing charcoal blast furnaces jury-rigged from oil cans, they’re not hobos. They’re whipping up today’s special while getting blasted on pirated mp3’s and cheap hooch.

We have a dozen more examples, of course, from the jungle “Monkey Trail” constructed with a perilous economy of lumber to the Mad Max “long tail boats” powered by salvaged V6’s, crankshaft and all. When we marvel, sigh, and say “It’s Thailand”, it’s not a pejorative. In the race to hop aboard the first world economy train, everything is a first draft and there’s plenty of time to edit later.

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