Once when I was in my twenties, I was enjoying a day at the beach. The sky was a clear crystal blue. The air was comfortably warm, with a light breeze wafting a salty tang along the shore. I was floating without a care on a child’s inflatable air mattress, watching the gulls riding the wind and hearing the surf crashing on some nearby rocks. Suddenly, and without any warning, I began to be carried rapidly away from the shore. It was time to paddle quickly back to the beach, but despite my best efforts, not only was I not making any progress, but in fact was being swept farther from the shore. Not being a very good swimmer, I am not ashamed to admit that I felt panic begin to set in. I seemed utterly incapable of getting myself back to safety. Luckily, an alert lifeguard, seeing my distress, swam out to help me back to shore. My heart was pounding in my chest so rapidly that I was sure that everyone on the beach could hear it. The lifeguard explained that I had apparently been caught in a rip-tide, which was an uncommon occurrence at that particular beach. Nevertheless, I was lucky that he had spotted me, as I may never have made it back on my own.
There is something about seeing your impending doom approaching to make a lasting impression. Not being a complete fool, I vowed never to get myself into another such situation ever again. Ever since that time I’ve been especially careful when playing in the ocean. Being swept away once was enough, thank you very much! Two nights ago in Bangkok though, I had the terrifying experience of being swept away once again. This time however, it was not an ocean of water, but a sea of humanity that threatened to carry me to my doom.
It had all started well enough. I had come down to Bangkok the evening before to take care of things that I couldn’t do in Lampang. On my “to do” list were: visit a chiropractor and get my neck adjusted, have a steak dinner, see a movie and go to a good bookstore. Not very exciting I must admit, but, oh well, no one has ever accused me of being a thrill-a-minute kind of guy!
The bus ride was long, but uneventful. This being the holiday season, I was unable to get a VIP ticket. The conventional air-con bus wasn’t bad, although it lacked those comfortable VIP seats. I was “treated” to a bootleg showing of Quantum of Solace with the usual bad Thai dubbing. Is it my imagination, or does the same group of Thai actors dub every movie and TV show? There was also a long concert video featuring a dozen or so scantily dressed “coyotes”. If Thais wonder why the rest of the world thinks of Thailand as being the sex capitol of the world, they should just take a long hard look at what is considered “family entertainment”. The people at this concert were not a bunch of drooling, sex-crazed farangs, but ordinary working class Thais…and there were as many woman as men in attendance. Talk about Dirty Dancing! The moves those sweeties were doing on stage was nothing less than a parody of what they would likely be doing in bed later that evening.
I arrived in Bangkok around 5:00 PM and headed for the taxi meter queue. I politely declined the “taxi” offers from the usual suspects who would have cheerfully charged me 3-4 times the proper fare. Being a gregarious fellow, I struck up the first of many conversations I would have that day with taxi drivers. All were from various parts of Isaan. All knew exactly where my wife’s village of Nong Ki was in Buriram. All of them were Thaksin supporters, and had nothing but contempt for the recent occupation of Suwarnabhumi by the PAD. Oh yes, I can almost count the days until the next disaster in the streets.
Travelling in Bangkok at this time of the day is never easy. There are simply way too many vehicles for the city streets to accommodate. That day it took only 20 minutes to get from Mo-Chit to the exit ramp to Sukhumvit Road. It then took 30 minutes to make it down the exit ramp. I would go crazy if I had to drive in this traffic everyday!
Eventually I made it to my hotel, Livingstone’s on Soi 33, checked in, washed up and headed out to have my long awaited steak dinner. I do mean long awaited. I believe my last steak had been about 18 months earlier. Since the last one was so tasty, I headed back to The Londoner for another. I wasn’t disappointed. My T-bone was thick, juicy and flavorful. The Bitter Cream Ale was without reproach, and the pretty waitress in her fetching Beefeaters outfit was as efficient as she was cute.
I found something to read at a nearby used bookstore, Trigger by Arthur C. Clarke, propped myself up in bed and was happily snoozing in minutes.
Early the next morning I set out for the Chiropractor to get my neck twisted and pummeled. While I believe that the whole theory of Chiropractic is complete and utter hog wash, having one of these guys press my neck in a certain way and give it a twist, seems to have some ameliorating effect on my pain. Call it the placebo effect for skeptics, but anything that reduces the amount of medication I’m taking is personally beneficial. Well, perhaps not voodoo…but then again, Chiropractic is about as scientific!
Anyway with a new spring in my step I headed over to Siam Paragon to take care of the last two items on my list. First was a movie. Let me explain that NO first run movies make it to the cinema in Big C, and the third rate ones that do make it are dubbed into Thai. I can download virtually any movie via bittorrent, but there’s nothing like seeing a flick on the BIG SCREEN! The paragon cinema complex is pretty fancy, much nicer than any that I’ve ever been to back in the U.S. The seats are quite comfortable. The ticket price, 130 baht was reasonable. The way that the ticket sales were handled though was infuriatingly slow. There were quite a lot of people in line, yet only two cashiers were on duty… and then it took them 2-3 minutes to sell a lousy ticket. Perhaps it was because they were peddling some kind of promotion. Perhaps it was because every Thai dithered endlessly over a seat location. Just pick a seat and be done with it I wanted to scream! My movie begins in five minutes! But of course I waited as patiently as I could until I had ticket in hand and sprinted to my theatre. I needn’t have hurried. There were at least 20 minutes of advertisements before they even got to the coming attractions. Eventually my movie began: The Day the Earth Stood Still. Although the reviews have been decidedly mixed, I quite enjoyed it. It lacks the simplicity of the original, but was none the less entertaining.
I spent the rest of the day wandering through the mall. Part of me was delighted to see Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Maseratis, another part of me was repulsed by the orgy of gross material consumption going on all around me. Everything was so expensive. Much of it was so frivolous. But the high-so Thais were shopping like there was no tomorrow. Gee I don’t suppose there are many Red Shirt supporters among this crowd! The food court is truly a marvel. I settled for some roast duck and a bowl of noodle soup. I spent quite a lot of time in Kinokuniya Bookstore browsing through a decent selection of English books.
It was finally getting late enough to think about heading out to Mo Chit. Seeing what the traffic was like yesterday, I wanted to start out early. If I was early, it was no big deal. I am quite good at waiting, and I had a book or two in my bag. Soon I would be back on the bus and headed home, or so I thought.
I knew that things were not going well when about half a kilometer from the bus station my taxi driver told me that it was impossible to get closer and that I would have to walk the rest of the way. Apparently he didn’t want to be stuck in traffic. So, duffle bag in hand, I got out and joined an enormous throng who were also headed for the bus station. We had to scramble over a concrete road barrier where someone had put up a crude ladder. That wasn’t so bad, but things suddenly got downright scary. We had to cross a pedestrian bridge over the highway, which spent going up a long flight of stairs. What was scary was that instead of an orderly line was a frenzied mass of Thais scrambling up, while an equally frenzied mass was trying to go down the narrow staircase. I was reminded of a National Geographic special which showed army ants swarming over each other to cross a river. I had no choice but to literally throw myself in this river of humanity and hope that I would not be crushed or thrown over the side. Somehow I made it up and over, with nothing more a few bruises. If I thought things had been scary on the bridge, I had no idea of the nightmare that awaited me once I actually made it into the terminal. The sheer numbers of people was astounding. I mean absolutely mind boggling. I knew of course that people were headed home for the New Year, but I thought it would be okay to travel on December 27th. Boy was I sadly mistaken! I remember last year seeing news stories about the chaos at bus and train stations in China for the Chinese New Year. I never dreamed however that I would be caught up in a similar situation. You simply could not move. That however did not deter the crowd from pushing and pushing and pushing. Some fat woman behind me actually kicked me, and I do not mean by accident. It was her way of telling me to move it. Couldn’t this stupid bitch see that it was impossible for me to take a single step? I swear if I had been able to turn around, I would have given her a kick or two! Turning around however was not an option. Hell, breathing seemed an option that would not be around for very long; that’s how tightly we were packed together. That’s when I really started to become frightened for my life. I was in a human rip-tide that threatened to pull me under. I had visions of what would happen if an emergency occurred. We’ve all seen the stories about people being trampled to death at events like football matches, but these things always took place a world away. This was here and now. Inch by painful inch, I was dragged toward my goal. Thank God that that was the direction I actually wanted to go! I was in sight of my bus platform, #34. It was only about 150 feet away, but it might as well been on the moon. I had no idea how I was going to cross that distance. Soon I saw my bus arrive. I had to make a move or I would be stranded in this hellhole. Balancing my duffle bag on my head, I wedged my way through, apologizing in Thai all the way. “Khaaw Thot! Rot bus kang pomm Rot bus kang pom” “Excuse me please! My bus, my bus!” Somehow I finagled and snaked my way through this mass of sweating flesh to my bus. But I needn’t have hurried. The bus wasn’t going anywhere soon. There was a bit of a Thai soap opera to be played out. Anyone who has traveled by bus has probably observed that many Thais do not travel lightly. They often in fact bring everything but the kitchen sink, and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has actually brought a kitchen sink. So, here was a woman who had two enormous bundles wrapped in plastic tarpaulins. Each one was easily the size of three large suitcases. How she expected to get these on to the bus is beyond belief. How she even got then through this sea of humanity was amazing! Here was the Thai thought process at work. She simply felt that, despite the fact that the bus was full and everyone had luggage, she was entitled to take as much as she liked. I wish my Thai was better. I’m sure I could have learned some colorful new phrases! In the end, the woman and her bags were left on the platform. At long last we pulled out and I was on my way back home. I was exhausted, physically and emotionally, but I was on the bus!
If nothing else I have learned a valuable lesson. Do NOT attempt ever again to travel anytime near a holiday!!! Somehow I think that this is one New Year’s resolution I will have no problem keeping! Having escaped a second rip-tide, I am not attempted to tempt fate a third time.
I remember when you called me from the bus station and told me how bad it was and there was a definite edge to your voice. It sure sounded scary!