Body Heat

I’m fighting the internet in a small town in southern Thailand, feeling like one of those old foreign correspondents who must file the story at all costs.

Bangkok is the usual zoo, a mayhem of traffic, tourists, and touts. So it was a relief to head south, where the food gets hotter and the veils abound. We’re a stone’s throw from the Malaysian border, and there are precious few Western faces―just how I like it. I just missed Songkran, the Thai New Year, which is celebrated also in Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia. Thailand is eighty percent Buddhist, and the other twenty are Muslims, mainly here in the south. The Malay tourists come over the border for two reasons: the nightlife and alcohol.

From here, Europe and the United States might as well be phantoms―they don’t exist. It’s great to get away from Mitt Romney, Aunt Angela, and the sovereign debt. Unlike the Chinese, the Thais don’t have their own liquor culture; the people are not heavy drinkers, and when they want to get smashed, they do it with whisky. Only some of it is Scottish.

The closest I came to Europe was a piece on the ‘new’ Brit recession, yet more evidence of the rampant success of austerity policies, and another on the controversy between Donald Trump and the Scottish Government. Rather bizarre, Trump’s defense of a view unspoilt by offshore windfarms, given his track record of obstructing other people’s view with enormous buildings: do as I say, but not as I do.

The struggles of the EU are of little concern to the people here, where poverty, flip flops, and cheap bikes prevail. I’m working through Saturday and Sunday, in a display of solidarity―the poor and disenfranchised of Asia have no weekend, just as they didn’t at the time of The India Road.

Evidence of body heat. A cockle farmer in full regalia, plucking predators from his crop. Oblivious to the high tide, he removes the local version of the oyster drill, which comes in with the tide for a cockle dinner.

Aquaculture is everywhere, and pretty much all I’ve eaten comes from the farm. Sea bass, called barramundi in Australia, is cultivated in pens by the shore, and sells for 200 baht in the market. Prawns? Grown in ponds on land. Cockles and mussels, in open water. And of course the everpresent tilapia, which is no longer fed on chicken shit, because it’s headed for the export market. So what on earth do we do with all that manure? Off it goes to the rubber plantations, and the palm oil industry.

In poor countries nothing is wasted. The West doesn’t want to grow the fish, but it wants to eat it. We import the bass and export the pollution―and the jobs. Are the conditions here the best to grow fish? No one knows, because the seawater isn’t monitored. But they still produce about three thousand tons, just in this corner of the country.

Someone told me the other day that when the Americans landed on the moon, a Portuguese guy was already there selling hot dogs. So it will come as no surprise to you that the Thai gentleman who is acting as my local contact descends from a ‘Portuket’ greatgrandfather. This area was the stomping ground of Afonso de Albuquerque, who took Malacca in 1511, just fourteen years after Vasco da Gama got to the west coast of India. I expected to find evidence of the Portuguese presence in this part of the world, and I wasn’t disappointed. Like Phuket, Songkhla has an old town classified as a historic area, with Sino-Portuguese buildings.

Phuket’s old town is more complete, and the buildings are in better condition. But here, and apparently throughout Thailand, there is the sweetest reminder of the presence of Portugal in the region: desserts. Now a country that leaves behind its recipes can’t be all bad, and the shops I saw in the old town sold fios de ovos―little eggy strings, which were traditionally made in the convents back in Portugal. I had some at lunch, right along with the chili tilapia and the tom yum soup. The nuns would be proud.

I am the greatest: a fighting cock striking a pose for the camera..

Opposite the fish farms, another beast is on display. Or rather a good many, since this is a country with an appetite for cock fighting. Two birds face off on top of an oil drum. They stand stock still for a minute, eyes glaring, beaks touching. No one blinks. Suddenly one of the animals leaps up, furiously beating its wings, and thrusts at the other. The loser gets knocked off the drum, the winner proudly pulls in its wings, glares once all around, and stands motionless.

Cock fighting is illegal. Does it matter? Apparently not. Do the locals gamble on their birds? Er…yes.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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