Bangkok, 27 July 2014
Well, I’ve received my transfer orders. I’m moving to Bangkok to take over our office there. So my wife and I have been down in Bangkok for the last week, looking for a place to stay. For the moment, we’re renting an apartment which we got through AirBnB. It gives right onto the Chao Phraya River, which runs through the middle of the city and around which the city grew. So as we have breakfast in the morning before we go out apartment-hunting we can watch the traffic on the river: the empty barges, riding high
the full barges, with water to their gunwales
the express boats crowded with commuters darting in between as they weave their way from bank to bank.
But what also catches my eye is this temple on the other side of the river
and it always reminds me of … China. Or rather, a certain corner of China, the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture. This is way down in the south of Yunnan province, squeezed between Laos to the East and Myanmar to the West. A few years back, we spent a Dragon Boat Festival holiday in the prefecture’s main town, Jinghong, in a beautiful house which was built from elements scavenged from traditional houses that were being torn down in China’s rush to modernity.
It too gave on a river, the Mekong in this case (although the Chinese don’t call it that; it’s the Lancang River to them), and there too we could gaze down on the river while having our breakfast.
The temples in Jinghong are built in the same style as the one I see across my breakfast table, or at least the newer establishments are.
The older temples in the area are somewhat more sobre.
This very obvious echoing of the Thai style has a simple reason. The Thai people (Dai people in this part of the world, hence the name of the prefecture) originally came from southern China. Then, for reasons which may have to do with the southwards migration of the Han Chinese, a portion of them upped sticks in the first millennium AD and started wandering south through Laos and Myanmar until they settled in what is now Thailand. But they left echoes of their culture behind, reflected in the designs of the temples but also in the language – many of the signs in Jinghong are in Thai as well as in Chinese.
The local culture (Thai and non-Thai; the ethnic mix in this part of the world is quite bewildering) is threatened with submersion in the Han culture – recall that this is why the Thais probably originally started migrating southwards. Until the 1950s there were few Han Chinese in this part of Yunnan – they were afraid of the malaria, which was then endemic. But the Chinese communists vigorously promoted programmes which eradicated the malaria. They then brought in poverty-stricken migrants from other parts of China and put them to work cutting down the jungle and planting rubber trees in its place, so now the hills around Jinghong are monotonously covered with acre after acre of rubber trees. These are all clones from the same genetic line. Those who know about these things predict that sooner or later (probably sooner rather than later) a rubber tree virus from Brazil will arrive here and wipe out every single rubber tree: an environmental disaster of epic proportions.
In the meantime, the descendants of the miserably poor Chinese who were sent to Xishuangbanna to plant and tap all those rubber trees still live in miserably poor Chinese villages, scorned and resented by the local populations.
As I look at the temple across the river and reflect on all these historic movements of people, I am reminded of the current tensions in Thailand caused by more recent movements, tensions between migrants from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, who do the dirty, poorly paying jobs which the locals no longer want to do, and the Thais, who have conveniently forgotten (if they were ever taught) that they too were once migrants.
“Plus ça change et plus c’est la même chose”, as Jean-Baptiste Karr, a French journalist and novelist, said back in 1849, and as my French grandmother was fond of quoting: the more things change, the more they stay the same. So true.
Chao Phraya river pics: mine
Yourantai-interior: http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/01/b9/8b/a5/les-repas-dans-un-cadre.jpg [in http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g528741-d1749170-i28937125-Yourantai_B_B-Jinghong_Yunnan.html%5D
Yourantai-river view: http://www.cielyunnan.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Yourantai-24.jpg [in http://www.cielyunnan.com/hotels/hotels-xishuangbanna/xishuangbanna-yourantai-resort/%5D
Buddhist temple Jinghong: http://www.yunnanadventure.com/UploadFiles/Yunnan-Attractions/Xishuangbanna-Attractions/Mange-Buddhist-Temple-Jinghong-XishuangBanna.jpg [in http://www.yunnanadventure.com/attraction-p156-mange-buddhist-temple-jinghong-city
Temple Xishuangbanna: http://www.wildchina.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/img_8570.jpg [in http://www.wildchina.com/es/multimedia/wildchina-blog-details/yunnan-hiking-in-xishuangbanna%5D