BANGKOK, Thailand - Thais were a trifle cranky in 1997, a little less effusive than I remembered them, a little less willing to offer evidence of the country's nickname, "the Land of Smiles."
The source of the malaise was evident. Thailand's rapid growth as an "Asian tiger" during the past decade was cut short this year, brought to a halt by overspending, wild lending and corruption in governmental and financial institutions.
In August, the Thai goverment accepted a $17.2 billion rescue package from the International Monetary Fund. A sharp decline in the worth of the baht and the prospect of rising inflation worried ordinary Thais.
Newspapers reported runs on grocery stores, as people hoarded food in anticipation of tax hikes. The subject was on everyone's lips. The "Asian tiger," had largely benefited the capital, Bangkok. But its crashing end seemed most likely to hit the poor across the country.
Amid the economic uncertainty and the striking Thai contrasts -- gorgeous religious architecture and urban blight, lush ra scenery and pervasive rural poverty - are powerful examples, particularly among the minority Catholic community, of activists working for justice.
Of course, the boom that was ending in August did not benefit everyone in Bangkok. The evidence was clear throughout the city: beggars outside the busy malls, street children approaching tourists for money, handicapped people selling lottery tickets on the street.
Less visible to the casual visitor are the slums teeming with tin shacks and garbage, enslaved women hidden away in brothels, AIDS patients forced out of their jobs and homes. Some things don't change, except to get worse. The same elements were part of Bangkok when I lived in Thailand 1991 to 1993 as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Bangkok also remains one of the most polluted cities in the world, where traffic moves at about seven kilometers per hour - four during rush hour. But the cars, high-rises and pollution don't detract from astonishingly beautiful temples and palaces.
In Kong Toey, a part of Bangkok, the slums are "nice slums, compared to those in other countries," in the words of Redemptorist Fr. Joseph Maier, who has worked in the city for 20 years. The "nice" slum I visited with him was a maze of wooden walkways and shacks built on stilts over ground choked with trash. In the middle of the squalor was a oneroom kindergarten with 95 children in attendance that day, getting their chance a t a head start before they begin the first grade, just like the children who attend the country's private kindergartens. The slum kindergarten was one of 30 run by the Human Development Centre and attended by about 3,800 slum children.
Beginning in the first grade, public education is free, excepting fees, for uniforms, books and activities, which can be costly for poor families.
It is difficult for most Catholics to pay Catholic school tuition, said Maier, director of the center. "There are a lot of Catholic schools in Bangkok, and they're all extremely elitist and only rich kids go there," he said. The center runs an elementary school that is the only Catholic school in Bangkok that takes in the poor, said Maier, a native of Seattle, who attended seminary in Oconomowoc, Wis. "We go out of our way - if there are any kids with any money, we won't take them."
Sammakhee Songkraw (in English, "helping together") School has about 600 students and is located near the pig slaughterhouse in a Catholic area of the slums. As far as Thailand's pervasive bureaucracy is concerned, the kindergartens operate a little outside the law. The center could not ask for permission to build them, because they are all located in illegal squatter slums.
"Just because you have this door up here, you think it exists - well it really doesn't," said Maier. "The only way a building exists is if there's a funny little piece of paper down at the district office that says it exists. And we don't have funny little pieces of paper down at the district office. So therefore if they don't exist, you don't have to ask permission."
If this odd piece of reasoning doesn't work, Maier has sometimes brazened it out, threatening equal parts of guilt and bar assent for officials. "When the authorities come, we say, `Hey the school doesn't belong to Fr. Joe o the community leaders, it belongs to the kids. So you go tell them, Mr. Policeman and Mr. Whoever-You-Are, with your uniform and all your folks around you with your big bloody guns. Now we've got 200 kids here, sir, so what I want you to do is I want you to sit down and you tell these 200 kids that after tomorrow they can't go to school. You're going to tear down their school, because you're going to build a big building for rich peo ple to live in, or you're going to build E big Seven Eleven store or something to make a lot of money.
"'And we want to put one of these tape recorder machines here, so that wi can replay it for the kids who are sick today. And some of their mommies art not here. And you see those loudspeak ers up there? And then the Bangkok Pos and the Thai Ra.th and the other news papers, we want you to tell them abou it too, because you think it's so impor tant to build your building here.' "And for some reason, these folks don want to!" Maier's speech trailed off il laughter.
The Human Development Centre also runs Mercy Centre, which is half a hospice for people in the last stages of AIDS and half a home for street children. The children, most of them in their early teens, swarm all over the building, mopping floors, playing guitar, dashing by Maier with a quick wai, the prayer-like. gesture that is the Thai greeting.
The staff consists of eight social workers who work on the streets a minimum of 30 hours a week, finding children and persuading them to come and stay. Street children face a variety of dangers, and are often victims of adults who force them into begging or prostitution. Glue-sniffing among the children is a common problem.
Apitsit Srirungruand, one of the social workers, said he seeks the children out in the parks, bus stations, department stores and under bridges. It is not always easy to convince them to come in. "They have freedom staying on the streets," he said. "Here they have to wash clothes and clean. We tell the kids in a friendly way, there is food and good friends ii they come and stay here."
Maier keeps the rules of the house al a minimum. "We adults expect them to follow our rules after adults have almost killed them? How arrogant, how abso lutely, bloody arrogant," he said. "Adult rules don't work. Why should they trust adults? We run an open house, and the kids make a lot of the rules. They're in on all the decision-making."
Children "done in" by adults, as Maier put it, are often physically abused, like the 14-year-old girl staying at the house, the daughter of a prostitute and a German man. She lived with an uncle who abused her and threatened to kill her if she came back to his house. She began dressing as a boy - "the only way to protect herself," Maier said. At Mercy Centre, she still wore her hair cut short and dressed in boy's clothes. "She is very violent, and her being here ups the level of violence in the house," Maier said.
A 13-year-old boy at the house came from the north of Thailand when an agent convinced his family to let him come to Bangkok, where he'd get a good-paying job. Instead, he was forced to beg and give the money to the agent, who beat the children under his control if they did not bring in enough. Apitsit said the boy was found at the railway station after he had run away from the man. The center hopes to send the boy back to his family. In the meantime, he stays at the house and is studying in the first grade.
The Klong Toey community doesn't always win in the face of bureaucracy and money. On the way back to the center's office, Maier drove past what was once a soccer field, now half dug up, surrounded by construction materials. His anger was plain as he talked about the field being paved over as a parking lot. "I get discouraged by the absolute stupidity of government officials," he said. "They just don't give a shit. It was the only soccer pitch - a tiny one for half a million people. Now we have to fight all over again for a tiny soccer field for kids to play soccer, where no one is parking cars or dumping trash."
Parking lots and trash are symptomatic of Bangkok's population and infrastructure problems. During Thailand's boom, the city grew rapidly, planning governed more by money and bribes than safety and logic. Only about six percent of Bangkok's land is dedicated to roads (compared to 20-25 percent in most major cities), resulting in notorious traffic jams. Numerous commercial structures, shopping centers in particular, were built flagrantly ignoring building and fire codes.
Add to this the increasing rural migration as Thailand moves toward an industri,Med economy, and the human tragedies emerge. Most well-publicized in the world media have been the young women who come to Bangkok to work in prostitution, serving both tourists and locals. Some come voluntarily, hoping to help their families; others are either sold or tricked into the profession. Nearly all are poor.
Agents hover at stations as trains and buses from up-country unload passengers, hoping to draw in young female newcomers to the city.
"Many young girls have had very few years of formal education, so when they come into the city, they're often duped into thinking that agents are going to introduce them into lucrative working areas," said Sr. Meg Gallagher, director of the Women's Desk of the Catholic Migration Commission. "They end up largely in prostitution."
The women are also recruited to jobs outside Thailand, usually in Japan or Taiwan. There they are put even more at the mercy of their employers. They don't know the language, and many areillegal immigrants: If they complain they'll end up in a detention center.
As a migrant herself, Wannapha Phantipat, coordinator for the Women's Desk, understands the difficulties and dangers. Wannapha - Thais are commonly called by their first names - left her native village in the northeast province of Sakhon Nakorn to work in Bangkok, and then got a job as a domestic worker in Hong Kong. There she got involved in an organization of Asian domestic workers, and eventually worked for Thai social agencies in Hong Kong. She returned to Bangkok when she was offered the job at the Women's Desk.
A large part of Wannapha's job involves education, including going to rural villages to cut off migration problems at the beginning, encouraging villagers to try to make their way at home and explaining the dangers they may encounter in Bangkok or elsewhere.
"They don't know what's going to happen to them in Bangkok - they only know about the good things," Wannapha said. "They don't know the bad. We show videos and slides. They are very happy to know and also worry about their children going to Bangkok. When we show them about children in factories, they cry and say they didn't know that would happen to their children in Bangkok."
There is a certain contradiction, given Wannapha's success. Like so many others, she could not see how she could live where she grew up, surviving on its limited economic opportunities.
"If I had a chance, I'd like to go back to my village," she said. "But there's no way, because if I go back to the village, Id have to work on the farm or in a small shop."
The Women's Desk has a temporary shelter for the newly arrived, offering them education and helping them find alternatives to prostitution. The staff members of the Women's Desk have sometimes gone to the train station themselves, along with other social workers, to make a counter offer to women: Come with us and we'll help you get on your feet.
"I wouldn't say the majority that we have met there and talked with are willing to come," said Gallagher, a Rhode Island native who has worked in Thailand for five years. "Some are afraid that we're out to harm them. Some say they already have relatives in Bankok. In some instances that's true, but in many unfortunate cases, they're connected with agents that take them into their business."
Most clients learn about the Women's Desk by word of mouth from friends who have been helped. It has assisted over 2,000 women and young girls since opening in 1995. Their first client came from the beach resort of Pattaya, where she had been working as a prostitute in bars heavily patronized by tourists. The woman stayed at the center for 10 months while enrolled in a Bangkok beauty school. While it was not a smooth transition by far - "because when anyone violates their body to that extent, you have many emotional and psychological problems, highs and lows, highs and lows," said Gallagher -- eventually she graduated from the beauty program at the top of her class and got a job right away. "As we understand, she's doing very, very well," Gallagher said.
Others, for whatever reason, don't seem to be able to keep on track. One woman was taken in at the shelter after returning from Japan where she had worked for five years as a prostitute. She stayed until she got a job at a Japanese television station in Bangkok. Soon she also got a job at a Japanese tea house.
"Not the most savory place to be," Gallagher said.
Such businesses are often fronts for brothels. The woman continues to work at both jobs, and Gallagher feared "she might return to Japan to work as a prostitute, or encourage young girls to go, while she gets a commission."
Migration and prostitution have been contributing factors to the rapid spread of AIDS in Thailand. Despite the decline in new cases of HIV in Thailand, the number of women newly diagnosed with HIV continues to rise. The male to female ratio of those infected has gone from eight-to-one to-four-to one in recent years, according to the Public Health Ministry.
According to the Thai Red Cross, comparatively few Thai women have engaged in what would be considered "risk behaviors," such as having multiple premarital or extramarital partners or engaging in commercial sex. Women in Thai culture are expected to engage in sex only in a marital relationship, while men generally are not expected to confine themselves to one female partner. The thriving commercial sex industry resulting from theses social norms fueled the growth of HIV in Thailand. Migration added one more way to spread the virus: Men who traveled to Bangkok for seasonal work returned to their wives infected with the virus.
Life outside Bangkok can seem more liveable, if poorer. The thick smog clears, if not the trash on the side of the roads, the traffic thins and the lush natural beauty of the rainy season offers its own feast for the eyes amid the typically drab towns and dusty villages. The people in the countryside are friendlier, particularly in the poverty-stricken northeast region of Issan, where even the intrepid tourists who want to see "the real Thailand" don't often venture, given the region's lack of attractions and Englishspeaking Thais. But the brave are rewarded by people who shower the rare foreigner with curiosity and small kindnesses - candy, a drink of water, a ride to the bus station.
It is easy to see the vast economic disparity that exists between the rural and urban populations in this part of the country. Nevertheless, I could also find signs of growth since I had been there four years ago. My village of Tha Kantho had begun to see some development: The school now had computers and two new buildings to ease chronic overcrowding; the post office had moved out of someone's home and into a genuine public building; a few new stores had cropped up; and there was now an airconditioned bus running from the village to Bangkok. A number of my students had gone on to college. Even the family with whom I had lived had acquired a phone and a computer.
Whether this modest growth can be sustained in Tha Kantho and for the poor throughout the country remains an open question. That struck me when I visited the rural secondary school where I once taught. Among the usual questions I had been asked countless times by Thai students ("Do you like Thailand?" "Do you have a boyfriend?" "Can you eat sticky rice?"), one of my former students asked me, "What do you think about the economic problems in Thailand?" I didn't know what to tell her. I said I wished for the best and hoped Thai people weren't hurt too much.
A few months after my summer visit, a new government finally put the brakes on the plummeting baht, Thailand's main unit of currency. After Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh resigned Nov. 3, political parties battled for power for a week until Chuan Leekpai, leader of the opposition Democrat Party, formed a coalition government. The passage of a new constitution this fall has also brought hope for governmental reforms.
The baht and the stock market may have stabilized, but that will not stem increasing layoffs, government cutbacks or inflation that will affect average Thais. The new coalition still has serious economic problems to address.
So there may not be any new buildings in Tha Kantho any time soon. Computers and even telephones may once again be unattainable luxuries. My students graduating from high school will face limited job opportunities, not only in their village but even in the big cities.
Those in college or moving on to it next spring will have four years for the situation to improve for them, though careers that best use their talents will probably not be found in Tha Kantho. Some may be able to stay in the area if they find work in the provincial capitol.
The worry may crack through the graciousness of the people. But in the country, even in Bangkok, Thais endure in their own easy-going fashion. "The Land of Smiles" is not just a tourist slogan, but an expression of the way the people face a challenge: with humor, a shrug of the shoulders and one of the most common phrases in the language. "Mai pen rai," they say - "Never mind. It'll be all right."
To a frustrated Westerner dealing with the petty problems of travel, it's a maddening phrase. But for Thais, it can be a way to get through a bad year with a smile.