Bangkok this week has
secured its reputation as the place (to borrow Maurice Sendak’s book title)
the Wild Things Are. Wild things like in wild, feral animals are a good place
to begin a Conrad-like journey into the heart of urban darkness.
Noah, according the myth,
collected a pair of each animal and loaded them onto an arc as he had advanced
warning that a flood would wipe out life on the planet. This week a modern
version of Noah was busted in Bangkok, although no arc was found on the
premises. But that is a minor detail, as no self-respecting face displaying
local would be caught dead shoving animals into a wooden Arc. The new Arc is an
imported luxury cars.
Before we move on to the
animal selection process for filling up an Arc, let’s start with the noise
animals make. Noah must have had neighbors, too. We never heard their side of
the story. Noah didn’t work in silence. He banged nails day and night to
construct the arc, while his animals caged up kicked up a chorus. Never heard
that part of the story? Right. That merely proves that some great background
stories never are told, or if told, are remembered and passed down from
generation to generation.
In Bangkok, after a
drinking session the music is usually turned up … and up … and at some point it
blares through of the neighbor’s walls. The racket Leeches through the floors
and ceiling and sucks you dry. Welcome to the neighbor from hell. The one with
the teenagers who has formed a rock band with his buddies but no one has ever
taken a music lesson. The wannabe rock stars bang away on electric guitars
and drums from midnight to four in the morning. You complain to the police. They
do nothing. As Thailand is a hub of the unconventional story about hellish
neighbors, at last there is a story where the police actually came, saw, held
their noses, and returned with very large trucks to remove the source of the
noise. Only in this case, it wasn’t loud music that caused the
one of the remote neighborhoods in Bangkok, Khun Lek bolted up in bed as he
tries to awake for a nightmare of roaring lions and a distant tingling of pigs
and peacocks. You are awake but the sound of jungle hasn’t disappeared. And then
he smelled something foul as if a hundred sewers have backed up and overflowed
in your bedroom.
The police discovered the
neighbor—a Mr. Montri runs a pet shop at the Weekend Market also known as
Jattujak or JJ Market. He’d previously been convicted of trading in wildlife and
had gone back to his old ways as officials found: 14 white lions, 4 otter
civets, 2 hornbills, 1 oris, 23 meerkats, 1,000 sugar gliders, 12 peacocks, 13
turtles, 6 minks, 4 miniature pigs, 17 marmosets, a number of birds, and some
stuffed animals. It seems the police got tired of counting after the exhaustion
of counting 17 marmosets (those little buggers race around like rats on speed
and all look alike making counting an ordeal) as quantities grow vague when it
comes to birds and stuffed animals. There it is. After the great flood, the
world starts over with this population of animals.
Mr. Montri told the police
that he had the paperwork to legally import the lions from South Africa.
Apparently a lion cost Baht 200,000 wholesale or about $6,700.00. There was a
slight problem with the papers. The import documentation showed 16 lions coming
into Bangkok, and there were only 14 in the cages on Mr. Montri’s land. The
paperwork hasn’t stopped the police from charging Mr. Montri with offenses that
could delay the sailing of the Mr. Montri’s Arc by up to 4 years.
Where were the missing 2
lions? That question is one Mr. Montri’s neighbors are seeking answers to as
they gingerly rush from their front doors, climb into their cars or on to the
seat of their motorcycles and get out while the getting is good.
The rich in Thailand
apparently have a strong desire to own unusual pets. There is also a dark side,
too, as the delicate bits from some of these animals are also made into
medicines usually to increase the vitality and virility of aging men.
The secret sex lives of
some old men include harvesting organs from rare, large African animals. Others
go for luxury sports cars.
This leads us back to the
on-going investigation by a large number of agencies into the smuggling of
luxury cars into Thailand. The 300% import taxes are staggeringly high for
someone using the normal import channels. That provides an opportunity for
someone who can figure out a short cut. Somehow 2,000 luxury cars were smuggled
into Laem Chabang port in Chon Buri and stored, making it one of the world’s
largest luxury car parking lots in the world. As one would expect, cars began
disappearing from the port as importers began selling them off at bargain
The Department of Special
Investigation (DSI) is looking into 600 luxury cars to see if they were legally
imported. DSI has impounded a 100 luxury cars so far this year.
News reports indicate 90%
of the luxury cars imported into Thailand came in illegally. That is more than
just a little leakage in the system. That’s the sound of Niagara Falls roaring
next to those missing lions. Like prohibition of alcohol, criminalization of
drugs, or 300% taxes on for a luxury item is guaranteed to fuel a grey and black
market, corrupt officials and create a wealthy criminal class of middlemen. In
the case of Thailand, the grey and black markets are the lion’s share of the
luxury car market. The grey market includes luxury cars used abroad by students
and imported into Thailand—just think about it. You come home from year of study
abroad with a half-million car that slides under the tax regulations. Or if you
have a luxury car assembled in Thailand, another free pass. Though the assembly
of such cars require technicians and facilities that rival NASA, and the local
‘assembly’ shops appear to have no more than the usual screwdriver and hammer.
And the luxury car has to be registered. Basically the luxury car market is a
legal mess with many fingers pointing and many more fingers in the
The owners of luxury cars
are a who’s who of Hi-So personalities, senior government officials and even an
abbot. Their sons and daughters also have a taste for the exotic import that
distinguishes them from the lower orders running around town in their government
subsidized locally assembled cars that cost less than the upholstery on a
You need vitality to drive
one of these babies. With a white lion in the passenger’s seat no one, I repeat
no one, is going to have a larger face than the man behind the wheel. Most
people are status obsessed and the Thais are no exception to the rule. Face is
important. What you drive, wear, and the animals you collect, if of the right
sort, can create a face the size of the moon. Capitalism in its full glory has
provided a mechanism to achieve the elevated heights undreamed up in Noah’s day
of mere arc builders.
If we stand aside from the
personalities and the distracting images, we can see more clearly what is at
stake. The lions and the luxury cars are really a story about our uneasy,
troubled relationship with nature and each other. Our problem has caused a
problem with nature once it became apparent that there is vastly more profit in
destruction than in maintenance of natural resources.
We are a species of
Deceptive Apes, Killer Apes, and we are a danger to ourselves and all other
species. Our ancestors passed laws and wrote constitutions to protect us against
ourselves. In the digital age we have found those in power have discovered new
and powerful ways of deception, means far beyond the imagination of prior
We deceive ourselves that
nature can absorb our rapacious behavior. We deceive ourselves that those who
collect information will never use it for their benefit rather than our
We deceive ourselves into
believing that the rule of law will continue to protect us like a dyke against
the rising tide of government intrusion. Apathy is the bedfellow of deception.
We are enablers of the worst excesses that should worry us but don’t. A majority
of Thais accept corruption as part of the system. A majority of Americans don’t
object if their government accesses, stores and analyzes their emails, Amazon
purchases, Google searches, Facebook likes and posts, and telephone
Collectively we’ve fallen
into a state of denial that a price is paid for deception, and we are the one’s
who pay it. Our minds fill with the soma of the media and the government
officials, and we miss the context and the larger issues. Like a great magician,
who knows how to distract his audience, we are easily fooled. We focus our
attention on the slightly amusing personal stories that limit the damage to a
couple of dodgy schemes that the authorities are investigating. Imported lions
and luxury vehicles are a good laugh. Until we realize that we are laughing when
we should be weeping.
We live in a time of great
loss—nature, privacy, freedom, honesty and fairness. One by one, these values
are dying. Like Old English words, one day no one will remember what such words
meant back in our day. The natural habitat of the Deceptive Ape is in
transition. What that new space will look like? Perhaps our descendants will
occupy a mental cage with as much space to roam as the cages that the Bangkok
resident white lions were housed.
We can only guess. Where
the Wild Things Are is just beginning to unfold.