It’s a good thing I’ve been practicing my French, because I found out just a couple of days ago, from Facebook, that a French friend of mine will be in Bangkok the same time as me. I gave him the name of my hostel and, being perfectly located for his purposes, he booked the same one.
I haven’t really kept up with him so I’m a little surprised when we meet up to discover that he’s living in nearby Yangon, working for an NGO dealing with economics, fair trade, tourism and so on. He says he does not want Myanmar to turn into Thailand and neither do a lot of people there, so he thinks the expanding tourism and influx of Western capital has to be done carefully. Flo, you see, is all about preserving local culture. He worked in Rwanda when they were being invaded by a kind of water hyacinth that was taking up too much of their aquatic resources. Some people suggested using this plant to produce biodiesel, but Flo objected: given how biodiesel tends to work, this would bring nothing back to the local economy. They then discovered that this plant was strong and pliable and made better weaving materials for baskets and chairs than what they had been using previously. Perfect: Rwanda already had a strong weaving culture, even going so far as to have a basket on its flag.
We’re going to the Nana metro stop, to Soi 11 where I have heard the nightlife is. “Maybe they have grandmothers there,” I joke of the metro stop.
“Or girls,” says Flo, “les nanas,” French slang for attractive post-pubescent young women.
He is not wrong. We discover in short order that “nightlife” appears to mean something different here. We’ve wandered into a bar-club where a Thai band is singing Linkin Park, and we realize that the bar is filled primarily with aging white men and Thai nanas that I am trying to convince myself are not prostitutes. After a few minutes this becomes utterly fruitless, and Flo starts taking photos of the room in the hope that this makes the white men uncomfortable. “I want to punch every man in this room in the face,” says Flo “myself included.”
He disappears for a few moments to use the restroom and I stand there until a smiling girl with a soft, round face and braces says hello and asks why I’m standing by myself. “I’m waiting for my friend,” I say. I try to talk to her, but the music is too loud and the language barrier is too great. Flo comes back and another girl tries talking to him. She asks him something he does not understand, so he says no. She is outraged and yells in my ear: “Your friend said I was…!” I don’t catch what exactly, but I’m guessing she must have asked him if he thought she was pretty.
We go back out into the street and Flo says: “Maybe I should make this my life’s work, the one problem that I try to solve.”
I nod. “The girls from the villages make a lot more money doing this than most anything else,” I say. The right kind of economic development is needed, better jobs here for women, less income disparity, less commercialism. It’s like a Siamese Les Miserables where everyone needs a smartphone to fit in. “Myanmar isn’t like this?” I ask.
“No!” says Flo “but a lot of girls are trafficked from Myanmar.”
Flo is so creeped out that he convinces me we need to watch a Disney movie so he can sleep. I pick: Robin des bois, Robin Hood, which I have never before seen in French, least of all in a hostel foyer at 3 am in Bangkok.