Where Food Drives Out Politics


Photos by Jarrett Wrisley

To view images of the food and people at the market described in this post, click here for a slide show.

In Bangkok, behind a busy gas station and beside a military base, there lies a parking lot. Most days it sits empty, as plastic bags dance across the cracked slab of concrete. They bounce between the ambitious plants that break it into smaller and smaller pieces.

But on Mondays and Wednesdays that barren lot comes alive. And for nearly a year I barely noticed, though it all happens at the end of my street.

This Thanksgiving will mark my first anniversary living in Thailand, I realized, as I was scouring this newly discovered spot. A year is a short time to live anywhere, but this year in Thailand has been different. Much has happened.

My wife and I were on one of the last planes to land at Suvarnabhumi Airport on November 26, 2008. We touched down just as waves of protestors, clad in yellow shirts and singing protest songs, seized it and squeezed a government out of office. Thailand has struggled to recover ever since.

"At the market, we put politics aside," said my Thai teacher Janet, "because it is one of the only times when you can escape it.

A few months later, the opposite end of this whirlwind of discontent spun out on the streets during Songkran, the Buddhist New Year. The opposing Red Shirts clogged the streets surrounding Government House in Bangkok. Thais on both sides watched on television as the Prime Minister's motorcade was attacked and shattered, as tanks rolled through Victory Monument, as soldiers fired warning shots over a seething sea of red.

Today, the leader of the Red Shirt movement and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra resides just over the border in Cambodia, the guest of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Now a domestic dispute has gone international, as Cambodia's appointment of Thaksin to the office of Economic Advisor threatens to upset ASEAN's (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations) shaky balancing act. The neighbors trade rhetorical blows almost daily. Meanwhile, Thailand's adored and aging King has recently been hospitalized.

VIEW SLIDE SHOW>> slideshow_10_post.jpg

Photo by Jarrett Wrisley

Two weeks ago, the yellows were out en masse, rallying against Cambodia's impertinence and pledging to protect the Thai monarchy. This Saturday, the reds will again attemptto overthrow the standing government, which has struggled to cement its own legitimacy. And a violent insurgency rages on in the deep south.

It's been a rough year for Thailand, and sometimes the divisions that split this nation seem too formidable to bridge. But myself, and many foreigners just like me, have no intention of leaving. Because for all of its political problems, Thailand remains an enchanting place to live.

My love for this country is born of small discoveries. By walking around my neighborhood, stopping to chat and snack, and exchanging smiles. By drinking iced coffee with old ladies, or medicinal whiskey with construction workers. And by taking part in a culture that celebrates a sort of kindness and courtesy that I have not experienced anywhere else. This grace is probably best expressed in markets--in places like that field of broken concrete, open twice a week, at the end of my street.

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Jarrett Wrisley hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania. For the past seven years, he's been working as a writer in Asia, though he still dreams of greasy cheese steaks. More

Jarrett Wrisley hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania. For the past seven years, he's been working as a writer in Asia, though he still dreams of (and occasionally returns for) greasy cheese steaks. Jarrett's first trip to Asia came as a college student, when he traveled to Beijing to study Mandarin Chinese. He returned to China after graduation, and began writing about Chinese food in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. After a six-month stint in Chengdu, he moved on to Shanghai, where he worked as a food critic and magazine editor for four years before striking out on his own. After six years in China, he recently moved to Bangkok, where yellow-clad protesters immediately shut down the airport where he had just landed. Luckily for him, he couldn't leave—and now intends to stay. Jarrett is presently working on a series of modern Chinese cookbooks with Hong Kong chef Jereme Leung and writing features that focus on food and culture in Asia. He'll be bouncing around the region as much as possible and writing about things he encounters along the way. His blog trains an eye on food but addresses other cultural phenomena, tidbits of travel, and the oddball politics of East Asia.

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