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A short story

 

The Bangkok Sky-train, that repetition of great, grey megaliths of ferroconcrete looms above us.   

All along the main roads, under the overhead railway above, small igloo tents and market stalls provide a carnival atmosphere to Bangkok.  It’s like a giant school fete - except that people are getting killed – half a dozen shot and a couple of grenades lobbed-in to date.

Periodically, as we pass along the pedestrian thronged roads, closed to all but involved vehicles, we encounter flattop trucks mounted with huge video screens or deafening loud speakers. 

Around each screen crowds of Democratic Party supporters have assembled.  Each point made or slogan shouted against the upcoming election, by a seemingly endless succession of talking heads, is greeted by hoots of approbation accompanied by ear-shattering whistles and the rattling of plastic clappers. 

The speeches are incomprehensible to non-Thai speakers but the timing and delivery is all too familiar, reminiscent of the great demagogues of the past.  I keep expecting to hear a call for ‘lebensraum’ for the Thai people, followed by shouts of ‘Sieg Heil’, instead of the din of rattles and whistles. 

Ten days ago during our last stay in Bangkok we were caught in a similar melee.  We had already walked for miles and felt helpless to go another block. The crush, the noise, all exhausting. 

“What’s that place over there,” Wendy had said, with a note of elation as if she’d seen a mirage.

“Where?” I asked despondently, expecting yet another market stall that we just can’t go  past.

“Over there behind the barriers, a hotel car park.  It’s the Ibis!”

I took step a few paces towards it and sure enough the hotel sign came into view under the Sky-train’s grey concrete.  The forecourt, fenced off by chest high movable steel barriers and secured by uniformed guards, did indeed look like an oasis beyond the tumult of the street.

“Thank god for that!”  I responded, genuinely relieved and suddenly feeling the need to get out of here. Now! 

I’m not usually a fan of Ibis hotels but I found myself saying: “They must have a restaurant or at least a bar.”  It was not just a drink I needed, but to get out of the press of humanity, and above all, away from the incessant noise.

Seeing an oasis is one thing but getting to it is another.  Down the centre of the central strip under the railway there is a fence and on either side the protester’s tents are pitched.

“We’ll have to walk all the way back the Siam Square to get around to the other side,” I said, despairing.

“No we won’t!” said Wendy.  “the protesters are getting across somehow.”

“There between the tents. They’ve made a hole in the fence.”  And sure enough with a squeeze, we realised, we may be able to get through.

We stepped our way between the tents and over cooking utensils to the squeeze hole. One through then the other.  We crossed confidently to the Guards, behaving as if we are guests.  They opened the barrier and welcomed us through.  What a relief!

“Is the restaurant open,” I asked the concierge.

“Level 8,” he replied.

 

Image of Modern Thailand

 

We found ourselves in a vast modern well-furnished room.  There was a glass and stainless servery in front of the kitchen to one side half way down.  Along the whole length was a shelf featuring a dozen or more hot Thai dishes. Facing it on the other side of the room was a U shaped presentation area where cold-cuts, salads and desserts were displayed. There were half a dozen varieties of fresh juice, teas and coffee or espresso coffee at the table.

A cornucopia of delights.  Lifting each lid in turn new aromas assail our senses.

We could choose this Thai smorgasbord or from the à la carte menu.  That evening the smorgasbord was the same price as a beefburger.  It just got better and better.  

It was a feast to satisfy several hundred. But they were struggling for customers. 

It was happy hour, so cocktails were in order. 

We'd taken a prime table on the window but apart from the window tables only two or three other tables were occupied.  Most of the restaurant was vacant and it didn’t fill any more.  It was the demonstration.  No one wanted to come here, so near the epicentre.  The hotel was almost empty.  They were desperate for customers.

After we settled with our drinks Wendy asked if I had any idea why the protesters were camping in the street. 

“It’s very confusing,” I confessed.  “But as best I can fathom these are from the Democratic Party and their aim is to prevent or disrupt the planned general election, if that makes sense.”

“But why would a Democratic Party be against elections?” Wendy asked, genuinely confused, as the second round of cocktails arrived.

“Well that’s the million dollar question.  They know they have no hope of winning under the present constitution, so it’s my understanding that they want an interim government appointed and a new constitution that will assure them of government in the longer term.”

We left our table to sample the hot food.  It was magnificent. I chose a portion from among several that looked and smelled nice.

“How do they think they can get away with that?” Wendy asked, as we returned, she with something too spicy for me.

“Well,” I replied, trying something less poisonous but still tasty with noodles, “the Democrats are the party of the new elite, the people who are doing well in this booming economy,  the ones who buy all the Rolexes and Bentleys and live in those new mansions in the suburbs, and they have a lot of behind the scenes support from the Judiciary and the Army and it is said even the Palace.   But the Government is in the hands of the popularist party headed by Yingluck Shinawatra.  As Prime Minister, she took over from her brother Thaksin who is in exile, having been convicted of abuse of power and corruption.”

With that I went back to try something else a little more exotic.

“So what are the elections for?” asked Wendy when I returned.

“Yingluck attempted to have her brother pardoned and that precipitated mass resignations from Parliament.  So she dissolved Parliament and has called a General Election.  This has done nothing to dispel the claim that she is just a mouthpiece for her brother who is said to be ruling Thailand by remote control.”

It was time for desert. And there was too much choice.

“But how do the demonstrations help?”

“Who knows, but these are nothing compared to what will happen if the Red Shirts come back into town.” 

“Who are they?” 

“The Red Shirts are the shock troops of the rural majority in the country.  All those who feel that they are not getting a fair share of the new wealth and who see ‘their’ resources being exploited by others.  They are the ones who support the Shinawatras and in the past they have raged pitched battles in the streets.”

“So if they are opposed to this lot outside why haven’t they come back in?”

Just then coffee arrived, fern patterns formed in the crema, a good sign.

“As long as the present government remains in power they have been relatively quiet, content with a few small explosions and one or two shootings.  But you can be sure that if the government is removed by some legal shenanigans they will be back in force.”

"It would best be away from here if that happens. Then a lot more businesses than the Ibis will be affected."

"And it’s sad that the politicians seem to be incapable of finding a resolution, with things going from bad to worse." 

But this had been the best meal we have ever had in Thailand.  And certainly the best value.

Alas, when we returned today to repeat the experience it had all disappeared, just a big empty room.  The dining cornucopia has gone like the mirage we originally took it for.  No more heady aromas, no more taste sensations.   All wafted away on the hot air generated by the politicians in the street below.  

But we've spent another hour pushing our way through crowds and noise and mayhem and through another hole in the fence to get here, hoping to yet again experience the best meal in Bangkok.  Now we are disappointed, hungry and exhausted.  We just need to escape this god forsaken place.  But please, not back through the crush of demonstrators and all that noise.  Wendy suggests a cab but how would it get in and out?  And the roads around here resemble a car park.  It's a lot faster to walk.

Then I have an inspiration.  We can take the Sky-train - National Stadium, Siam, Ratchadamri.   It’s been towering above us the whole time.  How could we not think of it?  And it’s just two stops.  It will get us back to our hotel above and beyond the blockade. 

Back to the Grande Centre Point Hotel Ratchadamri.  Now this is nice.  I can recommend this.

 

Hotel image

 

February 2014


 

Author's note.

I have taken some liberties with the dialogue.  As the words attributed to her are not literal I had previously referred to Wendy as 'my companion', in an attempt to convey the thrust of several much longer conversations and to signal that this is not a literal transcript.

Also, my tourists are more concerned about personal comfort and food than about people fighting and dying for their principles outside.  This may be realistic, given rumbling tummies and love of good linen and a voluminous shower, but it's probably not politically correct.  

So I had shied away from putting words into Wendy's mouth by naming her directly. But I have now selfishly reversed this as obviously she was indeed my companion and I like the story better that way. Apart from this 'find and replace' I haven't changed anything else.

In Thailand we sat back and enjoyed the meal; and our nice hotel and failed to take any part in the obvious political turmoil, except to walk amongst it.

When travelling we often find ourselves adopting the position of dispassionate, uninvolved and helpless observers, as if in an observation bubble. 

Until one has a reasonable grasp of the issues this is generally the wisest position to take.  In many places we are simply a couple of relatively ill informed individuals passing through as we have been in Egypt and Syria and even Paris before or during political or social upheaval.

To be more than an uninvolved observer in such situations is likely to result in serious errors of judgement, like perpetuating the enslavement of beggars in India.

In the case of Thailand, the cultural issues, like the language and the writing, are completely obscure to us.  They involve the Monarchy, the religion, racism and tribalism, in addition to the more obvious economic issues.  Which side is right and which wrong?  And who is in between?  I tried to work it out from the English language newspapers; in vain.  Why would I believe a journalist in respect of anything except perhaps the basic facts? 

Facts don't have a right and wrong except in a human context.  Which facts are reported and in what context is often in the hands of the reporter.  We can't make a judgement unless we understand the human motivations and influences behind them; and even that is often a matter of opinion.

 

A further footnote:

The election was duly held.   As predicted there was landslide in favour of Yingluck Shinawatra and her party.  But the results remained in dispute on the basis of various technicalities for many weeks. Then on May 7 2014, the Constitutional Court found Yingluck guilty of abuse of power, stemming back to a decision she took in 2011, and ordered her to step down as Prime Minister.

Two weeks later she was arrested in a military coup, simultaneous with the arrest of other party ministers and a roundup of prominent Redshirt leaders.  This effectively forestalled any popular uprising.  

Two days later, May 26, the King formally appointed General Prayuth, the coup leader, as head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to run the country in what has in effect become a military dictatorship, complete with muzzling any protest by Redshirts; in the media; or academia and imposed the requisite restrictions on personal freedom. 

As foreseen in my story, one of the first acts of the NCPO was to implement a new 'Interim Constitution':  Learn More...

Good, bad?  You tell me.

To see more impressions of Thailand from an earlier visit:  Read More...

You can also read The Bridge over the River Kwai

 

 

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