The 7-11 as a metaphor of everything that goes wrong in the world is an image often used by Pichest Boonthumme, the already legendary “chain smoking Thai Massage master” from Hang Dong, Chiang Mai.
For the greater part I kind of agree with his view (and more on that later in this post), but nevertheless, to me personally — I do adore the Thai 7-11 shops. And I love them for a whole bunch of reasons.
You see, they’re everywhere, most of them are open 24-hours (not just from 7am to 11pm), they’re all basically the same (meaning you know what to expect), they’re cheap, and you can get about anything you really need (that is, especially when you’re a so-called Farang, which means Westerner, by the way).
The 7-11 boasts a huge selection of goods on often amazingly little floor space. From raincoats to coffee, from paracetamol to sandwiches and complete meals, and from tampons to reloads for your prepaid SIM-card.
Furthermore, it’s a very important reference point to me as a foreigner. For instance, when I arrive in an unknown Thai city or village, I will always ask for the 7-11. As there are almost never any signposts pointing out a city-center, the 7-11 is a sure thing when it comes to finding it.
Also, when I need to find a certain spot or address, I’d ask the Thai to explain the directions to me with the 7-11 as a starting point, or ending point for that matter. Always works marvelously.
You know, the first thing I do on arriving in Thailand is getting myself a coffee at the 7-11. And yes, you bet, also when I leave Thailand, it’s again the airport’s 7-11 and — a good-bye-cup-of-coffee.
Okay, you’re right, I just looooove coffee (and definitely take too much of it). Surely I don’t need a 7-11 for that, but they do serve these cheap, big ones, and they always taste same-same and not different, with this little perfect dose of plastic flavor released from the cup.
As for Pichest Boonthumme, well, it’s true that the 7-11 is the fast-food version of a department store, meaning it’s a small, stressful, hasty, crowded, highly non-spiritual and often low-quality products environment. I won’t dig deeper into issues like product packaging, employee wages, environmental stuff, and the like, but I’m sure these are some additional topics which are probably not so okay.
But whatever the case, seen from out the traditional Thai perspective and culture, the 7-11 is obviously a blasphemous horror-scenario.
When we look at the spirit and goals of Thai Massage in the sense of a peaceful, spiritual, and meditative healing bodywork modality, you can easily grasp Pichest’s idea of the 7-11 as the radical opposition of that which Thai Traditional Massage healing stands for. And the thing is, the 7-11 is certainly not attracting exclusively Farangs. Not at all. It’s crowded with Thais. Especially a lot of young and younger Thais.
Yes, today, we see loads of youngsters hitting the computer game-rooms after school, we see heavily overweight Thais eating junk-food and taking motorbikes for a fifty meters distance and we see too many gadget-loaded Thais craving for more and more “bling-bling.” We see Thais running after money, selling their souls and the like and yes, we see them adopting the “achievements” of the West in a maddening speed. What we did in two-hundred years, they do in just twenty.
I do share Pichest’s concern and his sharp critique. It’s just painfully clear and obvious — all these profound changes can’t be ignored. Not in Thailand, not in South-East Asia as a whole. We see a dazzling blend of traditional values intertwined with modern “conquests” and we wonder what’s happening and where things are heading to.
I sincerely hope that Asia is capable of mixing old and new in healthy ways, in creative and new ways. Because one thing I’m sure of … if there’s any hope, if there’s some kind of integration, sublimation, and transcendence possible, that it surely will rise somewhere and somehow from out this amazing continent and its incredible people.