Travel in music: Chapter 27 - 2004, Thailand
2020, the world is in confinement because of a corona virus. I have used this time to reminisce on my past through a musical blog series. They will take you through my peregrinations on this tiny, unique earth, in chronological order. Click on the song, use it as soundtrack, and enjoy!
2004 – Chapter 27 | In Thailand, I did two projects, back to back. The first one was on the electronics industry, for a Japanese magazine, and the second on high-end textiles, for an international publication on fashion and apparel. Although seemingly very different, those two sectors actually had quite a lot in common in Thailand. Together, they afforded me a rather unique view of globalized capitalism. It felt like going right into the heart of the machine and analyzing the cogs through the lens of a microscope.
Much like the “maquiladoras”, the factories set up in industrial free trade zones in Mexico and Central America to supply the US with cheaply manufactured products, Thailand was the kingdom of outsourced production for the Japanese (and Korean) electronics juggernauts. In sprawling, squeaky clean, suburban, tax-free complexes, specialized plants produced a variety of components such as capacitors, diodes, resistors, and processing chips and assembled printed circuit boards. Most of them were Japanese-owned and run by Japanese expats – at least in the top tiers of management.
The textile plants did not have the same look. They were small and urban, noisier and messier. However, the concept was much the same. They produced ‘precision’ goods that formed part of an international supply chain, mostly for large foreign fashion brands. Because most countries were unable to compete with China, Pakistan and India on the low end of the textile sector, Thailand had successfully refocused its industry on high-end products such as lace, lingerie, “technical” components and synthetic fabrics.
We interviewed the owners and the managers of these factories. When they explained why they had chosen Thailand as manufacturing base, they used eerily similar expressions. Of course, they both hailed the fiscal benefits, i.e. the mechanisms that allowed them to avoid paying taxes on any of the value they created. More interestingly, both in electronics and in textile, they praised the ‘discipline of the workforce’ and the ‘nimble precision of female Thai fingers’. After hearing them for the umpteenth time, these two expressions sounded like ugly euphemisms for ‘cheap, pliable and reliable’ labor. Had a carpets or sports goods manufacturer uttered praise for his child workers, it would not have used a different formula.
Beyond the dark realm of factory visits and repetitive interviews, Thailand offered a tourist playground of paradise-like proportions. During the first project, I spent some time up North, near Chiang Mai and had the opportunity to roam the hilly, leafy landscapes of the ‘Golden Triangle’, the area that lies at the confluence of the Mekong and Ruak rivers, where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar intersect. The CIA gave it that nickname because it has been the largest opium-producing region in the world for decades (Afghanistan supplanted it in the early 2000s) but for visitors like me, it offered postcard quality snapshots that looked exactly the way I pictured Southeast Asia. Villagers with circular, pointy straw hats bending in emerald-green rice paddies; kids leading water buffalo laden with harvest along sinewy mud paths; wrinkled, skinny old men chilling in the shades of banyan trees, puffing on pipes. I stood out like an intruder but I also felt privileged to be witnessing such simple portraits of rural life. With most tourists packed on the island beaches of Thailand’s southern tip, life seemed to float along at a happier, mellower pace in these remote hills.
During the second project, my Canadian colleague fell ill and traveled back home. Her replacement was a young, charming South African with an insatiably curious soul and a strong personality. Together, we explored every nook and cranny, visited every temple, exhausted every market and sampled all street foods Bangkok had to offer. We hosted wild house parties in our gigantic Sathorn apartment and we searched for traces of ancient Siamese and Khmer kingdoms in the ruins of Ayutthaya and Phimai. We quickly became inseparable. Our project extended beyond the validity of our visas so the agency told us to choose a nearby destination for a border run. We selected Siam Reap, in Cambodia, and spent a magical weekend discovering the ancient complex of Angkor Wat. On a site exceeding 150 hectares, dozens of stone temples, some half-eaten by jungle, others preserved and restored to their original 12th century beauty, bewilder all visitors with their exquisite, ornate architecture. Not only tourists revere the splendor of the main temple. Locals too use it as a backdrop for their wedding photos. On any given day, large, colorful Cambodian families in their Sunday best take their portraits in front of the edifice’s bas-reliefs. On our fateful last evening, at sunset, on a hill overlooking the jungle canopy from which emerged the temples’ towers, we kissed. Little did I know then that I would write these lines nearly 16 years later, while lying in bed next to her.