Every day seems to bring another announcement of a new shopping mall being developed, as if we didn't have enough already.
The mall culture may be fading elsewhere, but in our Land of Smiles it continues to grow in leaps and bounds with no sign of slowing. Maybe this is our idea of what Thailand can bring to aid the birth of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015. And we are proud to show the world we are the epitome of consumerism, the ultimate shopping destination. This seems to be our very idea of progress, prosperity and civilisation - a limited vision indeed.
We are a country with a rich and long history, yet we have very few museums. Most are underfunded, some in a decrepit state. The United States is a young country compared to us, yet it boasts some of the world's finest and most extensive museum constellations. The largest, the National Mall, is nothing like our malls but a cluster of 19 museums and galleries in the capital, Washington. As the world's largest museum complex it houses 138 million objects from all over the country and the globe. One can spend days visiting its museums and galleries and still want to return for more. In addition to the permanent collection, travelling exhibitions are held regularly at the Mall, providing fresh opportunities for visitors to partake in the mission of the Smithsonian Institution "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge". Magnificent is the fact that admission to these Smithsonian museums is free, with visitors offered state-of-the-art automated tour aids that provide background about the artefacts on display. The Smithsonian also has a programme to train volunteer museum guides. To qualify, they have to study the history of each museum piece and pass an exam. Their reward is getting to view the heritage treasures time and again and to interact with visitors whose questions prompt them to expand their knowledge through more research.
Here in Bangkok, the two most significant heritage venues are the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, while our National Museum is in a rather sorry state. Foreign visitors must rely solely on hired commercial (meaning unofficial) tour guides whose knowledge of the places is usually much worse than their basic language skills. They also like to spice their tours with titbits of myths about the place, presented as fact.
For a country that professes so much pride in its long and glittering cultural heritage, Thailand rarely backs feeling up with action. Our so-called Cultural Centre was built with a grant from Japan and originally envisioned as a place where children could come and see Khon. The size of the chairs still attest to that fact. Over the years, the centre has been upgraded in terms of acoustics, structure and appearance, but the tiny chairs remain. A renowned conductor from overseas once had to change the orchestral programme because the centre's acoustics would have ruined the music. The centre remains to this day inaccessible to many physically challenged patrons. Meanwhile concert-goers wear flip-flops and jeans to world-class performances. The seeming lack of respect stems from a lack of appreciation for the beauty and value of the performances, which, understandably, are "French" to us.
We do not seem to care about one day having a National Performing Arts Centre to rival a venue like the Kennedy Centre, also in Washington. It boasts not only the Concert Hall and Opera House, but also the smaller Terrace Theatre, Eisenhower Theatre, Family Theatre, Theatre Lab and Jazz Club.
We do not realise that families need a place like the outdoor Wolf Trap Amphitheatre, located in Virginia, about 30 minutes from Washington, where the old and the young can dress casually, buy relatively inexpensive tickets, bring their own mats and folding chairs and sit on the lawn for a picnic while listening to music of all genres or watching performing arts like opera. They can bond over shared meals with family, friends and loved ones, glance above and see the stars. And such simple yet glorious pleasures of life do not come with a high price tag. Money and shows of wealth have no place at Wolf Trap.
Woefully, here, families and friends bond over trips to shopping malls. To many, the florescent havens of malls represent an escape where electrically generated cool air offers an illusion of affluence and well-being. Shopping malls provide a stage to show off one's chic-ness. Girls dress up to the tee. They gibber nonsense. Every mall has a food court and restaurants where one can flourish as much dough as feels hip.
They also have tutorial schools. Monks even hold sermons at malls. They figure that if they can't get people to the temples, they will follow them to their favourite hangout.
Washington is also home to the Library of Congress. The world's largest library, it boasts millions of books, recordings, photographs and manuscripts in its collection. Across the country, libraries are easy to find - both public and private, and at the community, county and state levels. In Thailand, ask for directions to a library and you'll likely be met with a blank stare.
The proliferation of shopping malls here has reduced entertainment to acquisition, success to greed, interaction to purchasing, and humans to mere buyers and sellers. Our mall culture has sown the value of money and material things as absolute. Everything can be measured by the act of consumption. It is, in turn, providing a fertile petri dish for corruption.
This column is not meant to condemn shopping malls. We live in a capitalist market-driven society, and malls are part of our modernisation. These words are only a call for increased awareness that, as a nation, Thailand needs more than an ever-growing number of retail shopping spots. It needs more public space for libraries, museums, art galleries, indigenous cultural and performing arts venues, and sporting facilities. We need to be more reflective of what truly constitutes a balanced rhythm of life, so we do not grow only materialistically and superficially. Continue to uphold the creed that "when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping", and one day our children will wake up as shallow as a puddle, with the backbones of jellyfish. As a nation, we will wander aimlessly, forward, backward, sideways, eventually becoming a mere ghost of what we once were.