The Real Land of the Free

by Isaac

Thailand, of course.

There’s a popular meme here that the “Thai” in “Thailand” means independence; i.e., Thailand is the “independent land”, or more poetically “the land of the free”. Actually, “Thai” is simply the name of the predominant ethnic group.

Still, the meme is sticky because things do feel very free here. I was in Malaysia yesterday. It’s been 4 years since I was last there — I’d remembered it being similar to other SE Asian countries, but it has some very strong local characteristics, too. Like Europe, SE Asian countries all share a particular vibe but each is unique. Vietnam has the strongest Chinese influence, and feels the most crowded — I saw very few cars in Saigon, just pavement-to-pavement motorbikes. Laos is the most undeveloped — quiet and rustic.

Malaysia is the most developed (excluding the city state of Singapore) and also has a large Muslim population. I like that many of the skyscrapers have a distinctly Islamic look — it’s simply a change you see from the generic interchangeable blocks in most other countries. Malaysia is also orderly. Maybe too orderly — I found myself missing the more chaotic street life of Thailand.

Thailand is one of the very few countries that was never colonised by a Western power. My cursory knowledge of modern Thai history suggests to me it has an “antifragile” government structure — like Italy, the government changes so often that the broader society adapts to constant minor instability. It has a military junta and hipster cafes. (I’ve heard a theory that authoritarianism and totalitarianism are distinct things: authoritarian governments tend to be right-wing and unscrupulous, but leave people alone if they don’t threaten the regime; totalitarian governments tend to be left-wing and idealistic, and want to meddle in every aspect of life).

Henry Ford said the aggregate of many small freedoms makes up the great Freedom. The United States was founded on the idea of the great Freedom, but seems to be lacking in small freedoms these days. Thailand, for me, has many small freedoms —

* You can rent a motorbike by simply heading to one of numerous bike rental stores and handing over a small pile of baht for the deposit, and then drive off 10 minutes later. You can park the bike pretty much anywhere for free. Of course there are gas stations, but if your tank runs out in the countryside, you can usually find a shack selling (some kind of cheap clear liquid which runs as) fuel.

* You can have a custom-designed house built for a very reasonable rate. I can explain why this seems significant by comparing it to China, the Asian country I have the most experience with. In China, people in cities tend to live in apartment complexes, whose building quality seems to depend on how corrupt the contractors were, and people in villages tend to live in low-quality concrete homes. In Thailand, in both cities and villages you’ll see a fair few newly built buildings, of good quality and tastefully designed (as in, they’re clearly different from the surrounding buildings, but they still blend in), mixed in with the wooden cottages and tin shacks. My theory is that because you can’t actually own land in China, only lease it from the government, people have reduced incentives to invest in good architecture.

I think a lot about what makes countries more or less free. The United Kingdom and the United States have a philosophical commitment to freedom, but at a day-to-day level are extremely regulated and stifling. China is obviously not philosophically committed to freedom, but the society is surprisingly laissez-faire. Hong Kong is a paradise of capitalist freedom, a merchant city created after a busted drug deal 150 years ago — but the simple lack of space makes one of the basic freedoms, solitude, extremely hard to find. In poor countries, you’re free from having to deal with complex automated systems; in wealthy countries, you’re free from inconvenience and unpredictability. (In wealthy countries you rarely haggle; in poor countries you rarely queue).

Thailand has a surprisingly good mix. Still, I don’t plan on staying here too long — for one, the foreigners who live here long-term tend to be the kind looking for an easy life, rather than opportunity or challenge.