“Have you tried som tam salad yet?” is a frequent question for visitors of Bangkok. Bangkokians are proud of this fiery concoction of unripened papaya, lime juice, and mouth-burning chilies, regarding it as quintessentially Thai. Yet this Bangkok favorite is not a native dish: som tam hails from Issan, one of Thailand’s poorest regions in the North-East.
Service in the capital wears an Issan face; there is som tam on the streets of Bangkok because migrant workers come in vast numbers to work as taxi drivers, cooks, maids, and prostitutes, bringing familiar dishes with them. There would be no Bangkok without Issan; there would be no Issan without Bangkok.
From the dustiest street shops to the glittering Boots, the shelves of Thai pharmacies are lined with whitening creams and powders, puzzling pale tourists who fly halfway across the world for a tan. White skin means wealth in this land of eternal summer, but it is not Caucasian looks they covet. It is the porcelain features of the Chinese and Sino-Thai who dominate the highest spheres of business and politics. Thaksin Shinawatra, the ex-prime minister, is Sino-Thai.
The humblest details of everyday life are eloquent with greater currents of human destiny.
Last year, I spent seven months traveling through South-East Asia, three of them living in Bangkok. I was struck by the raw nerve of its people, their endless ambition, the relentless hunger of a new world being born.
Europe is an old man savoring past victories and the pleasures of age. North America sleeps the placid sleep of the middle-aged, her position solid, the course set. But Asia still trembles in the stormy moods of youth, her future wide open. Will tomorrow bring triumph or disaster?
I want to see it happen. I want to write about Thai teenagers breakdancing on elevated platforms connecting glossy malls; Chanel billboards towering over women chopping open coconuts on the street; trucks heaving under the weight of giant tree trunks as they wind down from Laos forest reserves; newspapers folded open to the daily price of rice in Vientiane cafes, where development consultants in thousand-dollar suits discuss malaria over lemonade and Paris-perfect croissants; tin-roofed shacks in Van Vieng dishing up bootlegged episodes of Friends and opium tea in Disney cups — all the fracas of a new world colliding with the old.
I am a mathematician by education, a computer programmer by trade, but my passion is the world. I have studied economics, politics and religion between courses about measure theory and complex analysis. I am French-Canadian, a minority in my own country, two generations away from a grandmother who hunted bears in the woods with a rifle and spun wool from the thick coats of her Northern dogs. I am no stranger to worlds colliding.
I am interested in collision points where East meets West, poverty meets wealth, old meets new.
What is the loneliness of country people adapting to life in the concrete cities? What are the dreams of young university students learning English and Mandarin? Will the Thai junta succeed in implementing King Bhumibol’s “sufficiency” economy”? Will newfound oil heal Cambodia’s wounds? How is the money sent home by Bangkok prostitutes changing the face of Issan? How are the young people in South-East Asia developing art scenes, music scenes, computer scenes, moving from aristocracy-sponsored art to art created and enjoyed by everyday people, as we once did? How are the foundations of Thai culture — Buddhism, family, the monarchy — holding up under globalization? What is life like for refugees on the Burmese border? What happens to unemployed elephants?
These are some of the questions I want to answer.