Thailand: The Florida of Southeast Asia

If you’re like me, you’ve probably spent countless hours entertaining yourself by scanning the great @_FloridaMan Twitter feed, which highlights some of the day’s more outlandish news stories with the phrase “Florida man” in the headline (“Florida man sets car on fire in McDonald’s parking lot in dispute over dessert;” “Florida man arrested for throwing dog poop at pregnant girlfriend”).

Just me, then?

In any event, it’s incredibly entertaining – if not also a somewhat somber reminder that the apocalypse must be nearly upon us. Both of those mock headlines above are real, by the way, and both occurred in the past week. Florida is a place unlike almost any other in terms of the truly bizarre people it attracts, and the crimes they sometimes commit.

How will you top yourself this time, Florida Man?

My theory is that it’s a perfect storm of climate (hot weather tends to make people crazier); economy (or more specifically, the vital role that tourism plays therein – ensuring ample cheap drinks and drugs for a constant, steady stream of vacationers looking to unwind and shed all inhibitions); geography (its proximity to the Caribbean and Latin America makes Florida a magnet for smugglers and other persons of nefarious intent); demographics (a large immigrant population, coupled with a growing swell of retirees presents a particularly unique, and often conflicting, social dynamic); and an especially shady brand of politics that lends to an incredibly corrupt system that would make even Spiro Agnew blush.

There’s really no comparison to Florida in the U.S.; sure, Ohio can sometimes rival it in terms of absurdist headlines (remember when all those lions escaped from some crazed eccentric’s “private zoo?”) and there are plenty of other places for tourists to get ripped off, but when you total the sum of all parts there’s only one Florida. Expand the pool of comparison, though, and a number of intriguing parallels do emerge from one place in particular: Thailand.

Just as the aforementioned “perfect storm” of people, mindset, and location makes Florida, well, Florida, a similar intersection exists in Thailand. Like Florida, Thailand is hot, flat (excepting the north), and a magnet for tourists and retirees alike. And where Florida has “Florida Man,” Thailand has its estimable armies of aggressive ladyboys who do not take kindly to being ignored.

But it goes deeper than those surface-level comparisons.

Consider, for one, Thailand’s geography: located on a peninsula that juts into the Indian Ocean, it’s effectively the gateway to Southeast Asia. This means that it’s generally the first – and undoubtedly, most popular – port of call for tourists, as well as a key depot for smugglers (while it doesn’t play quite as significant role as it used to as a major conduit for global opium/heroin trafficking, it’s no coincidence that the infamous Golden Triangle is located in northern Thailand). And just as Florida is seen as a viable means of escape for politically oppressed neighbors in Cuba and Haiti, so too is Thailand in the eyes of the heavily persecuted Rohingya Muslims of neighboring Myanmar – who, tragically, often meet an even crueler fate upon entering Thailand.

There are also plenty of parallels to draw between the significant role played by tourism in the respective economies of Florida and Thailand. It’s worth tens of billions of dollars in annual revenue in both places; some quick research shows that Thailand expected to earn upwards of $38 billion from more than 25 million visitors in 2013, while Florida, which bills itself as the world’s most popular tourist destination, pulls in an even more staggering $67 billion from more than 87 million annual visitors (as of 2011). Both places market to all demographics too, from families to hedonistic backpacker types (Panama City Beach, meet Ko Phangan…). This broad, catch-all approach by no means makes them unique relative to other tourist hot spots, but given the eye-popping scope of the annual tourism revenues of each place, it’s safe to say that they do it better than most.

Thailand may be popular and all, but there’s apparently no competing with this steamrolling force of human nature.

Another point of comparison worth noting here are the decaying, decrepit cesspools that are the political landscapes of both Florida and Thailand. Where Florida’s corruption often tends to be more constant, overt, and outwardly hilarious (they’re considering dissolving an ENTIRE TOWN due to extreme corruption!), Thailand’s heavily institutionalized corruption lends itself to a more cyclical system in which things are calm for a few years, then there’s a coup, then they’re calm for another few years, until a seemingly minor dispute devolves into massive, city-wide protests that aim to shut down Bangkok until the current ruling regime resigns (which will eventually be followed, we can expect, by another period of tranquility, another coup attempt, and so on).

Your move, Miami.

Arab Spring? Not Quite

One final word on the protests that have been raging in Bangkok for going on four months now: they’re not what they may outwardly seem. Ask almost any resident of Bangkok, and they’ll be quick to (angrily) point out that the vast majority of protestors aren’t even from there, but instead bused in from distant provinces by well-financed political opponents of the current regime (which is by no means innocent in the matter itself), often enticed by the promise of free food at the protest sites. Hence, these protestors don’t mind pitching tents in the middle of some of Bangkok’s most crowded intersections, causing horrific traffic congestion, and settling in for days or weeks at a time. In truth, it’s more of a party-like atmosphere there than anything.

What better way to express your revolutionary sentiment than by getting a free caricature done? The streets of Kiev or Cairo, these are not.

While there have been several protest-related deaths over the past few months, which I certainly don’t intend to trivialize here, it’s important to point out that they’ve all occurred away from the main demonstrations, generally on the outskirts of the city where the actual hard-liners are facing off with the military, which officially remains a neutral arbiter committed to maintaining a general peace (and continued influx of tourists, which has apparently tapered off somewhat in recent months, due to anxiety over the protests). Oh and there’s also a king of Thailand, whom all parties respect and revere to an almost God-like status! But he’s old and apparently quite sick, so he’s yet to speak up one way or the other on the matter. It’s an incredibly complex and convoluted affair devoid of any truly innocent party – one that I daresay would perplex even the most jaded of Floridians.

One thought on “Thailand: The Florida of Southeast Asia

  1. AHEM, said Mom in Southwest Florida after reading this post. In the spirit of full disclosure, you should inform your vast readership that you are forced to visit Florida regularly due to your familial obligations, and that in fact it may be the most exotic place that you’ll visit on this round-the-world jaunt! While it’s true there are some unsettling parallels with Thailand, I think warm climates and beautiful beaches will attract all kinds of people wherever they’re found. You have to admit it’s hard to have a bad time at a tiki bar. xxxooo

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