Thailand: So near, yet so far
There is much to learn from the Thai way of life and economic progress that is inclusive and accepting of all.
There is an intriguing word in Sanskrit called 'kupamanduka' or the 'frog in the well'. Consumed in our daily lives and routines, we all become 'kupamandukas' to some extent. Travel breaks that monotony, opening us up to new experiences. For my annual break, I chose to go to Thailand. I believed that the strong Indian influence on Thailand would be fascinating as would the turquoise blue ocean and pristine beaches. My experience in this country though was like no other.
Many locals are familiar with Indian mythology, statues of Ganesha abound and, of course, there is Buddhism that was sent there by King Asoka via monks and was eventually adopted as the state religion. Thailand bears a great social, cultural and religious debt to India. Its people are kind and accepting of us and it is hard to spot racism or disapproval. Though rowdy Indian tourists visiting Bangkok for its flourishing flesh trade may evoke different reactions. The similarity between both countries, however, ends at the cultural ties.
Even as we played a role in Thailand's history, as in the rest of southeast Asia, today India could not be far more different. I was astounded by the infrastructural development, the wide, well-tarred highways, the 24X7 convenience of 7-Elevens and Family Marts. I was euphoric to find the choicest of meats and fresh seafood even at roadside eateries. Exhilarated to pick up a couple of brews from a local café and liberated to walk anywhere in whatever garb I deemed fit. No one to dictate to me my dietary selections or choice of attire.
It was around the same time as the anniversary of the Emergency of 1975 that I happened to in the Thai nick of the woods. The BJP-led NDA government was trying to remind citizens of the ills of the Emergency but sitting in my beautiful Airbnb overlooking the imposing rock structures, over 4,000 kilometres from my motherland, I felt that my life back home was still anything but free. At home, even the daily trudge to work and back is a struggle. First, you fight to take local transport, get groped and ogled at, the roads are mostly broken, and God save us if there is a downpour. Mumbai, Kolkata, and most other Indian cities and their roads cannot handle torrential rain. Our cities come to a virtual standstill inundated with water, buildings and roads collapse, and lives are lost! I witnessed four days of heavy rainfall in Krabi and while there were inconveniences, life did not come to a stop and the roads looked as smooth as ever the day after with tourists and locals zipping past in scooters. No craters on the roads to dislodge from the ride.
Bangkok's bustling Patpong night market was equally mesmerising. Notorious for its nightlife, Patpong seemed as normal as any other market. Hundreds of people, including families with children, frequent the bazaar to pick up knick-knacks. Bangkok's most famous red-light area simultaneously does brisk business with its ping pong and sex shows and easy availability of hookers and Kathoeys (ladyboys). The provocative prostitutes huddled outside clubs in chairs waiting for willing customers and cheeky kathoeys inviting for a peep show or more, the market also has lots of regular women selling grilled meats or succulent, sweet fruits as casually as the others sell their bodies. There is no judgement, no harassing, and definitely, no sexual misdemeanours as various kinds of people happily ply their trade.
Can we even imagine this happening in India? Sure, we have a burdensome population that impedes most matters and the development of such a large country like ours may not always be uniform. But let us at least compare the cities. Bangkok's pace of economic progress with its social acceptance and respect for all kinds of people is a breath of fresh air. And yes, the air itself was a treat to the lungs. The kathoeys fight for legal status, in our country though, homosexuality is still a crime and transgenders are looked upon with suspicion. According to a recent Thomson Reuters Foundation survey, India ranks as the most dangerous country for women in the world. While we may argue these findings, I know that I like many others who venture to countries like Thailand, immediately feel a sense of freedom, safety, and elation, even in a red-light area. Daily life should not have to be so tough. But 'kupamandukas' will tell you otherwise.
(The writer is a journalist and media entrepreneur. The views expressed are strictly personal)