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It’s time for another episode of Stuff Thai People Like! Today, Thai people are diggin’:
I have never seen plastic bags celebrated with so much vigour and intensity as they are in Bangkok. In Canada, “plastic bag” is like a four-letter word, but worse, because four-letter words are seen by many as being sometimes acceptable and/or witty, whereas plastic bags are evil incarnate. I usually carried reusable bags with me when I went shopping in Calgary, but sometimes I forgot. The cashier scanning my groceries would bark “Bags?”and I’d whisper “yes,” as though I’d just admitted that I enjoy beating puppies. This, of course, assumed that the store even offered bags – at my local hippy/granola joint, you couldn’t get a disposable bag for love or money.
Bangkok is a different scenario altogether. I have never seen such a bewildering profusion of plastic bags in my life. They appear to be an integral part of Thai culture, and frankly, I’m not sure that Bangkokian life would continue to function if they were abolished. They are to Thailand what doughnuts are to Canada – a guilty pleasure that is secretly holding the country together.
The plastic bag is used in pretty standard fashion in grocery stores – the clerks may not cram as much into the bags as they perhaps could, but the basic principle makes sense. It’s when you start patronizing street vendors and convenience stores that the addiction really becomes apparent. I have purchased the following items from the convenience store on our street on separate occasions, and been given a plastic bag with each: A large water jug with a handle. One small packet of gum. One can of juice.
The street vendors take the love affair to a new and special level. For example, fruit vendors are ubiquitous in Bangkok – you choose the fruit, they hack it up for you. They then dump the fruit into a bag which is then inserted into another bag. The trick is to get away before they bag the bag containing your bag of fruit. Another favourite trend in vendordom is pouring cans of pop into bags for customers to drink out of. And I have rarely been sold an iced coffee and not been offered a special carrying bag for it – I guess the ol’ opposable thumb sometimes just isn’t enough.
Witnessing this love for the humble bag is like watching a pregnant woman smoke – you feel a certain amount of moral/ethical responsibility combined with social awkwardness. I haven’t done a good job of refusing bags yet, because I don’t want to look like even more of a freak than I already am, but clearly I need to bite the bullet and just say no.
Joking aside, plastic bags are a serious problem in Bangkok. A 2010 article from The Guardian estimates that Bangkok goes through 600 000 plastic bags per day. I’m not sure where they are getting these numbers from, because I’m pretty sure that I’ve collected that many all by myself in the two months that I’ve been here. The article goes on to talk about initiatives that the government has taken to cut down on plastic bag usage, but I can’t say that I’ve noticed any signs of them.
As a visitor in Thailand, I am hesitant to criticize the culture, but I think this love affair has had its day. Swap that doughnut for some broccoli or something.