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Return to Indochina; Thailand: the domino that didn't fall

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The joke used to be that if the Vietnamese wanted to invade Thailand, the only thing that would stop them would be a Bangkok traffic jam.

As it is, Vietnam has had more than enough trouble at home, and in Kampuchea (Cambodia).

Thailand has become the domino that didn't fall.

But in the spring of 1975, when Kampuchea fell to the Khmer Rouge and South Vietnam to the North Vietnamese, a number of foreign observers thought that Thailand would have to accommodate.

The Thais were famous for shifting with the prevailing wind. The bamboo, it was said, might not break but it would have to bend.

Some foreigners thought Thailand was in for such bad times that they sold their companies at fire-sale prices. Foreign investment in this nation at the geopolitical heart of Southeast Asia plummeted. Americans had once been told by their leaders that Thailand would fall if its Indochina neighbors went communist , and they had done so.

''A recurring nightmare these days of both foreign investors and local VIPs is that some years hence they may be kicking each other in the face in a desperate struggle to board the final evacuation helicopters lifting off from Bangkok,'' wrote Jeffrey Race, an American scholar, for the Institute of Current World Affairs, in April 1976. He predicted this would not happen, and he was right.

A reporter returns to Thailand after a six-year absence to find that this nation of some 48 million people is in many ways doing well.

The old problems are still there, however: corruption and injustices, the rich-poor gap, and the Bangkok-countryside gap. Or as a Thai newspaper headline once put it: ''Bangkok vs. Thailand.''

A crowded, polluted, hectic city of 6 million, Bangkok is out of control. But it lives better than the rest of the country, and it makes most of the decisions for the rest of the country.

The days when Bangkok's canals earned it the title ''Venice of the East'' are long gone. Most of the canals have been filled in and the boats replaced by some of the noisiest pollution-producing vehicles in the region. Bangkok's madcap taxi drivers seem bent on self-destruction. Crime and violence are major problems.

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