On a scorching hot Saturday afternoon in March a friend and I braved the heat and headed to Bangkok's computer shopping centre, Panthip Plaza. Our journey was slowed by a long, but peaceful protest that saw tens of thousands of protesters form a traffic snake several kilometres long through Bangkok. It was my first sighting of the red shirts.
Traffic was disrupted as the friendly, smiling protesters passed through the city, waving at those who had lined the streets to cheer them on. While it was clear that they were on a mission, I never did think that just several weeks later
those very same happy, smiling people would bring the Thai capital to its knees, causing total chaos and massive disruptions to the Thai capital. Who would have thought that they would embark on a campaign that would see parts of the city sacked,
close to 100 people killed with scenes of Bangkok out of control beamed around the world.
Thinking back to what I saw on that warm March Saturday afternoon, it's amazing how fast things spiralled out of control. What we witnessed that day were rural people protesting peacefully, with a warm smile and pleasant demeanour. There was some rhetoric and some ranting but on the whole it was good-natured.
I've never really been interested in Thai politics. I pretty much accept that the political system here is confusing, corrupt and as I don't have a say, I largely ignore it. But over the past few weeks the political situation exploded and as it became a bigger part of the lives of all of us living here in Bangkok, I could no longer avoid it.
I had little interest when the red shirts took over the Phan Fa Bridge, out on Rachadamnoen Road, not far from Democracy Monument. At that point it had had little effect on most expats' lives. After the bloodshed of April 10 and the subsequent move by the red shirts to Rajaprasong, suddenly they were in the heart of the city and you couldn't ignore it any more. I made numerous trips out to the main rally area, photographed what was going on, but generally avoided contact or discussion with those who had started calling Rajaprasong home.
I knew things were starting to get heated when late on the night of April 21 myself and a good mate entered the fortress. We walked around, explored, and chatted with some of the red shirts. I tend not to initiate political discussion with Thais for many are most sensitive about it. And besides, I don't pretend to really know what is going on so I just shut up and don't say anything. But the reds wanted to tell us what they were doing and why they were there. They were open with us to the point that they even took us to the area where bamboo spears were being made, and showed us how sharp they were!
As we walked around Fortress Dang there was a feeling of unease. We were approached by one fellow who seemed to be following us around. He asked many questions, making us feel that he had been sent to find out just what we were up to and why we were there. We didn't see any other foreigners within the compound that night and when the announcer (there was ALWAYS someone speaking on the loudspeaker system) started talking about the two foreigners wandering about, it wasn't lost on us. The announcer went on to say (in Thai) how the reds may look scary but are in fact friendly and it was not dangerous for us to be there and we should not be alarmed. We just grinned as thousands of eyes focused on us. Playing the dumb farang works well at times, when in fact we had understood every word said. After we had taken the obligatory souvenir shots of us inside the compound we decided to get out, and once outside we each revealed to the other that despite the announcer's words we had each felt a little unnerved. That was the night that I felt things were starting to heat up.
As the area of occupation became greater, the story started to become more compelling. Every other day I would make the long walk along Silom, checking out Patpong, up, around, into and through the red shirt area, watching what was going on, always staying quiet and keeping to myself. It became addictive to see what was happening each day, what changes the new day had brought.
Any sympathies I had for the red shirts evaporated on the evening of April 23 when the skytrain station at Sala Daeng was attacked. I was in the Siam area at the time and despite traffic chaos and the public transport grinding to a halt, I raced to the Sala Daeng skytrain station to see things for myself, in what was my bravest, or perhaps most stupid hour.
What I saw that night turned me against the red shirts. At that point in time it was being (erroneously) reported that the M79 grenade attack had caused 5 deaths and more than 80 people had been injured, numbers that were later revised down markedly – I believe there was only one death. But one death is one too many, not that the red shirts seemed to think so. When I arrived the reds were partying and celebrating like there was no tomorrow. They were singing, dancing and celebrating like demented demons, lighting lanterns that were launched into the sky, lanterns that are usually saved for the most special holidays and events. Squealing in delight at others' misfortune – deaths at their hands – was something I just couldn't accept and from that moment on I looked at the reds in a different light.
From then on the reds became more visible and more aggressive. Taxi drivers and motorbike taxis riders supporting the cause wore red bandanas or tied red ribbons to their vehicle with pride. Packs of reds zoomed around the city blocking intersections, yahooing, and generally behaving like idiots. I started to avoid certain taxis and the local motorbike queue was avoided altogether. If they were a red supporter, they weren't getting a single baht out of me.
Friends visiting me in Bangkok were taken on the long walk from Silom, through Patpong, up Rajadamri Road, up to the main stage at Rajaprasong and along Rama 1 Road. Many had the same impression that I initially did – these are poor, rural people with a relaxed, happy disposition – what's all the fuss about?! As I translated for them what was being said over the loudspeaker system – extremely provocative and aggressive rhetoric encouraging highly questionable and illegal behaviour my friends also slowly started to see things differently.
I became more chatty with the reds, engaging them in conversation – but was always very measured when I did so within the occupation area. There I would listen and say little, but when I was in a taxi I would not just ask questions, but challenge them – and I was never convinced with the responses. Most of what they said didn't add up, much of it just plain vengeful thinking. I tried to keep an open mind, but not one could convince me of the merits of their cause. They felt disfranchised politically because they (mistakenly) believed that the current government is illegitimate and they wanted (convicted felon and wanted fugitive) former prime minister Taksin Shinawatra to return to Thailand. They would deny many of the protesters were paid to be there (which has been proven to be a lie) and denied that the reds had any weapons (another lie) and denied that the reds would ever turn violent and destructive – the biggest lie of all.
I said all along that the red shirts were a public relations disaster. They looked like a bunch of ragamuffins and the huge banner they posted at the main stage at Rajaprasong where they tried to convince us that they are not terrorists was just laughable. Their claims that they did not have weapons, despite much video and photographic proof to the contrary leaves them with almost zero credibility.
Probably the turning point for many neutrals was when some red-shirt barbarians raided the adjacent Chulalongkorn Hospital after they suspected army troops were in there – and went on to threaten hospital staff, including threats to rape nurses!
The whole red shirt affair could backfire on those who have supported the cause. They could be perceived, or even viewed, as people who cannot be trusted, people with an agenda, people willing to go to any length, no matter how unethical, immoral, or just plain illegal to get what they want, like stroppy children who sulk when things don't go their way.
Sure, I feel sorry for the many, simple country folk who sat there in unwavering support of the cause, enduring the heat of the hottest months in Thailand. They were subjected to some outrageous propaganda, much of which was barked at them by those who had become radicalised. Much of the rhetoric incited extreme violence.
What is crazy is that the reds had the finish line in sight. They were so close to “winning”. Their goal was always to force the government to dissolve parliament and call for fresh elections. The government came to the table, talked and with the pressure becoming intense, they agreed to dissolve parliament within 6 months. That was the amount of time necessary to manage the economy and make sure everything was running smoothly before fresh elections could be called. The reds had the government by the balls, but then that absolutely awful trait of rural locals came to bear, just when they had a deal on the table that was already very much in their favour they went for more. They refused to accept a remarkable deal that would have allowed them to walk away from the table and legitimately declare victory. Had they done that, we never would have had the mayhem of May 19 when buildings were torched, infrastructure attacked and many lives unnecessarily lost. That was when the reds totally blew it.
After what transpired, the utter madness of May 19, the reds are seen in many quarters as savages with many urban / Bangkok / elite Thais holding them in an even greater disdain than they did previously. The reds have damaged their cause and made the divide in Thai society even wider. The horrific actions of burning landmarks to the ground, attacking banks and generally behaving like bandits were probably the actions of only a small number of hardcore extremist red shirt activists, but how can you explain so many of the reds' supporters cheering when they saw Central World go up in flames?
Many of the reds complaints and grievances are legitimate. In a class conscious society, the reds, made up predominantly of rural poor, are so often referred to and treated as second class citizens. I'm no socialist but I do believe in fairness, and in a country where the rural masses suffer from an education system that could reasonably be described as marginal at best, it's a sad fact that they do not have the same opportunities as their urban cousins.
I am most definitely not pro red shirt but neither does that mean I am pro government or pro yellow. I just really don't like what the reds have done. I was sympathetic to them once. But no longer.
Obviously red shirt supporters, sympathisers or apologists will disagree with me when I say that Prime Minister Apisit, the Thai military, and even the police, yes, even the police, come out of this looking pretty good.
You might see it differently – and fair enough. We each have our own unique ideas based on personal bias, our own agenda and political leanings, but I can never ever accept what happened when they played their last cards and what can only be described as hooliganism, vandalism and murder, which combined, by my definition, equals terrorism.
I hope that the deep divisions that Thai society faces can, in time, be broached and that one day steps can be made to heal the major wounds that were always there, in addition to those that this crisis has created. Like many foreigners with a connection to Thailand, I just want to see the country return to peace and prosperity.
Last week's photo
Where was this photo taken?
Last week's photo was taken at the Siam BTS station and I was amazed that so few people got it right – I had visions of it breaking records for the most correct entries ever received! The first person to email me with the correct location of the picture wins a 500 baht credit at Oh My Cod, the British fish and chips restaurant. The second person to correctly guess the photo wins a 500 baht voucher from one of the very best farang food venues in Bangkok, and the home of Bangkok's best burger, in my humble opinion, Duke's Express. Duke's is very conveniently located in the Emporium shopping centre in central Bangkok.
Terms and conditions: The Oh My Cod prize MUST be claimed within 14 days. The Duke's prize must be claimed by March 2011. Prizes are not transferable. Prize winners cannot claim more than one prize per calendar month. You only have one guess per week!
FROM STICK'S INBOX (These are emails from readers and what is written here was not written by Stick.) Preference may be given to emails which refer to the previous week's column.
The left hand and the right hand out of kilter, again.
Things are getting bad and the Police / Army in some places are not helping the general public. This afternoon we were driving near Ding Dang where we knew there were problems, trying to avoid the bad areas, when we came upon 3 checkpoints. We were allowed to drive through, only to find that less than half a kilometre down the road the red shirts had blocked the road and we had to do a U-turn and come back. This was down a one-way road and traffic was still coming into the area. When we had cleared the area and come back to the police checkpoint my Thai wife told the police what was going on and they told her they knew about it! So she asked them why they were still letting traffic through and the reply was that they had to wait for orders to close the road. We were really in a place where you don't want to be! The left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing!
Actually, few foreigners left…
It would appear that the nightmare scenario is coming to pass and I wasn't just hallucinating when I sensed the tension in the air years back. The smart have already left Bangkok, the majority will follow soon, while the brave and stupid (not necessarily in that order) will hold out until the last minute. I am afraid a lot of foreigners still think that beaming a smile towards an armed Thai will get them out of trouble. Well, it won't and people better grow up and let the Thais beat the shit out of each other in their absence. I know you will not leave until absolutely necessary, but be sure to be on the guard and ready to move at a moment's notice. In the meanwhile, an educational viewing of The Killing Fields should focus everybody's mind to the real dangers lurking out there. This not the Land of Smiles any more, it is the Land of Snipers and foreigners would probably be safer in downtown Kabul than Bangkok at the moment.
No TV, no idea!
Just another realisation that I shall never understand the Thai mindset. I discovered that several days into the fighting, bombings and killings that have been taking place in Bangkok, my wife had little idea of what is going on in the centre of her city. She has not turned the TV on, not watched the news. She's just not interested. All she's heard is that university might be closed until next week and no-one can sit their exams. I was too stunned to talk. Maybe it's the Thai way – pretend that nothing is happening. Ignore it and it doesn't exist.
A gentleman talks accessories.
Before I arrived here, I asked you about passing through Thai customs with sex toys and you admittedly had no information. Here is my info and experience. First, the laws of Thailand apparently outlaw the selling of sex toys, but not their use. In response to that, I took all of the sex toys out of their packages and put them in the perfunctory quart-size plastic bags. Going through US customs, I spilled them out and looked the TSA guy straight in the eye and said they were for friends in Thailand, where I had lived from 2000 – 2007. He asked what I was doing there. I told him I was a journalist – the absolute truth. When I arrived at Suvarnabhumi it was after midnight. The Customs guy had a long day. He was sort of staggering around singing a song. I had extra baggage, my desktop, inside its shipping box. The TSA had decided to open it and then resealed it with inspected by the TSA tape. The Thai Customs guy saw the tape and decided to scan it through. I then shouted at him, "It's my computer" and he said "Oh" and hardly looked at the screen showing the scan. In other words, in magician's terms, I had the perfect distraction. The agent did not examine the rest of my baggage.
Credit card surcharge.
I'd like to alert readers to a fee that Thai retailers attempt to levy on transactions made with a non-Thai credit card. The merchant will convert the purchase price from Thai baht to one's home currency, using an exchange rate 2.5% lower than the interbank rate (i.e. the rate you would pay if your card company does not itself levy a charge for purchases made in foreign currency). I used my US-based credit card to buy a ticket from the Thai Airways office near Silom last week, and the clerk converted the charge to US Dollars without first asking for my approval. I looked at the slip (which clearly stated the unfavorable exchange rate) and upbraided her for not first asking for my permission. She offered to void the transaction and charge me in Thai baht, but I declined her offer, for fear that somehow I'd end up paying twice. My bad luck continued early this week, when I used the same credit card to buy some jeans in The Emporium. The clerk processed the transaction in US Dollars without first asking for my permission. The ironic thing is that the credit card slip from this shop contains a clause stating that the customer acknowledges having been offered a choice of whether to complete the transaction in Thai baht or his home currency. But, of course, the clerk made me no such offer. Let me inform readers that having the clerk process these transactions in one's home currency would be a good deal for you only if your credit card company charges a fee greater than 2.5% for purchases made in a foreign currency. But my issuing bank in the US does not levy any charge for transactions made in foreign currency – hence my desire to complete the transaction in Thai baht. And while 2.5% might not seem like a lot if you are making only one small purchase, the surcharge can quickly add up if you use a foreign-based credit card to pay for your expensive hotels, meals, drinks, clothes, crafts and tickets – it's death by a thousand lashes. Finally, in fairness to Thailand, it's worth noting that this dubious practice occurs in other countries, too. But I'd bet that the Finns, say, would ask for your approval and not automatically assume that you want to complete the transaction in your home currency. In short, processing a transaction in one's home currency should and was intended to be opt-in, informed consent; but the clerks I dealt with are treating it as an opt-out, non-disclosure matter.
Bangkok, city of character or characters?
I also felt many characters I met in Bangkok were dodgy but it added to the colour. During the normal course of my routine I met hardly any dangerous or agro people. Yes, I ran into petty scams but as a teacher of adults I met so many decent, hard-working, well-intentioned Thais that you could not walk away jaded. I have heaps of anecdotes where people went further than expected to help. Two young shop assistants saw I was having trouble threading the new laces in my shoes so she and a co-worker sat on the floor and threaded them for me. A person I once misdirected my aggravation at because of a complicated problem getting my computer online remained unphased by my rudeness and after many well-intentioned attempts to assist me she replied disappointed that she could not solve the issue, "Look, I just don't know how to help you" and seemed genuinely upset. She assisted me to a taxi with my computer. And even the drunk taxi driver I once had was exceptionally apologetic. (Can't do much damage in a traffic jam was my rationale for not ending the fare faster). Thais have their faults, don't we all, but there are plenty of endearing features which you can never let go of.
There's very little news from the bar industry this week. A curfew has been in place in Bangkok since Wednesday which we thought would end last night but has been extended to include tonight and tomorrow night. Pattaya also had a curfew for two nights, during which time all bars and other night-time business owners were forced to close their doors. There was no-one out and about anyway, but for any business owner who did open their doors came the warning that any business owner who violated the curfew order faced the prospect of a jail term of up to 2 years and / or the ordered closure of their business for up to 2 months. This was nothing like those lax holidays when there's a bit of nudge, nudge, wink, wink and alcohol is served in Polystyrene containers with the authorities smiling and looking the other way. This is a very real curfew with police and army checkpoints all around town as well as roaming patrols.
The government has announced that the curfew in Bangkok will continue for two more nights, with revised hours of 11 PM until 5 AM. It remains unclear how that will affect the bar industry. Bangkok's best show bar, Angelwitch, will be closed both tonight and tomorrow night. Spanky's and Rainbow 1 will open tonight with revised hours, from 6 – 10 PM. As far as other bars go, I just don't know, but my feeling is that most will probably remain closed. In practical terms, if the curfew starts at 11 PM, girls will have to be out of the bar by 10:30 PM at the latest so that they can reach home before the curfew gets going. Same for customers. Given that most bars don't get going until around 9 PM, that just doesn't leave much time for fun and frolicking. For those who want a drink tonight or tomorrow night, the best option is probably one of the many pubs.
On Monday night when it was all happening at Nana with hundreds of troops brought in to reinforce numbers and guard the area, bars were closing hour by hour, many bar owners making the sensible decision to allow the girls to leave and get home while they could, the fear being that Sukhumvit would be closed which really would have stuffed them up.
Dollhouse in Soi Cowboy, along with the other odd venue, has been opening early until a bit before the curfew starts, giving punters a chance to down a few quick drinks and perhaps find some companionship. Suzy Wong's has also braved the curfew and a mate who popped by reported that on late afternoon Saturday it was absolutely jam packed!
Spanky's in Nana is doing a good trade most nights – that is when they have a chance to open – and with 60 girls on the books it is no wonder. Spanky's is one bar which has bucked the trend and actually seems to have more and more girls every week. With that said, there are 60 girls on the books – but don't expect every last one of them to turn up every night.
On my brief rounds this week I couldn't help but notice that those bars which generally attract a significant Japanese contingent – which usually means they have the prettiest girls – seemed to be down in trade. The Rainbows in Nana and Baccarra, bars popular with the Japanese, do some of the best trade around but didn't seem to be as busy as you would expect – and anecdotal evidence suggests that there was a distinct drop in the percentage of Japanese men on the prowl. The Japanese are nervous travellers and with all of the crap that has been going on in Bangkok it would surely have put many off.
Down in Pattaya, the Walking Street gogo bar once known as Sisterz has been remodeled with a new look and has reopened as The Cavern.
I received emails from regular readers this week in Scandinavia, one in Sweden, and in Denmark, each of whom relayed that it has been reported in their local press that bookings for the next high season in Thailand from those markets are *up* 30% or more! It would seem that the Scandinavians are a hardy bunch and little scares them. Either that or Winter in that part of the world is so miserable that they'll do anything to escape it!
I notice there are more and more nicely done out open air bars opening up on Patpong, as per the venue pictured here, in the spot where the Roma restaurant once was, on the corner of soi 2 and a sub soi connecting with soi 1. It's a shame that Patpong is so quiet these days with little to be seen because a real effort has been made in some of the recently opened venues. Some feature available girls, some don't.
Things got so rough in Bangkok this week with many having almost zero confidence in the authorities' ability, or even willingness, to protect people and key infrastructure, that even the American Embassy had to reformat their "Town Hall Meeting". What had been planned as an open meeting for American residents at a hotel in Sukhumvit soi 31 – a curious choice in itself given that that soi is constantly guarded by police and army, it being where the Prime Minster's home is located – changed location to online. How it worked online I do not know – but you do know that when the Americans appear concerned that there really are things to worry about!
I ran into local personality Mekong Kurt earlier this week. He was waddling down the road with his good lady, on his way back to his neighbourhood, Washington Square, having just picked up a new set of lenses for his sexy spectacles. Lots of rumours have been going around about Kurt's demise but I can assure you that he is alive and in good spirits.
There were more casualties of the economic downtown and the drop in tourist numbers as a bunch of beer bars on soi 8 in Pattaya were demolished this past week.
Top Thai language resource producer Paiboon Publishing has released a novel new product – Thai Hit Songs Volume 1, a music video DVD which contains nine music videos and a booklet that explains the meaning of the lyrics of each song. It features performances of Thai dancers, illustrations and scenes of Thailand that depict each song. Each song teaches a specific aspect of the Thai language making it a novel resource for Thai learners of all levels. The owner of Paiboon Publishing mentioned that kids in particular love their music videos. The DVD and accompanying booklet is very reasonably priced at just $15 and is available now at: Paiboonpublishing.com. You can see a sample on YouTube.
With all of the troubles we've had recently, most government departments were closed in Bangkok for much of the past week. The one government department that all long-stay foreigners have interaction with is the Immigration Department which like most government departments will reopen tomorrow. Immigration doesn't always have a great reputation but I personally have found them to be just fine. Dress properly, be polite and use Thai if you can and any imagined problems just seem to fade away… If you had been planning to apply for a visa extension last week but could not because Immigration closed and are now on overstay or you are late for your 90-day reporting which was due last week, word is that you will be forgiven by Immigration *if* you go and see them and get it sorted out tomorrow! The big problem of course is that having been closed for a week, Immigration will be a right scrum with every man and his dog there tomorrow, and probably the next day too.
If you somehow missed the biggest piece of news out of Thailand this week, the magnificent Central World shopping centre in the heart of Bangkok was burned to the ground in the riots that followed the dispersal of the red shirt protesters. Like so many residents in this city, I have fond memories of time spent there, probably my favourite of all of Bangkok shopping centres. It's a real loss.
Quote of the week comes from Caveman and is so relevant to many in Thailand, "People with terrible judgment are immune to advice."
Britain's Telegraph suggests this week's chaos in Bangkok might be merely a dress rehearsal.
Is this idiot farang the guy who burned down Central World?
A Brit supporter of the red shirts gets famous for all the wrong reasons!
And the huge selling tabloid The Sun profiled what they called the Brit thug of Bloody Bangkok.
From the New York Times, Thailand's tourism takes a big hit!
From Business Week, the violence of this week has people rethinking Thailand.
From the Wall Street Journal, Thai farmers have stood up.
Here's a fascinating Thai perspective on the farang reporting of the Thai political crisis.
Reuters reports that, not surprisingly, Bangkok is bereft of tourists.
And another educated Thai criticised the international coverage of Thailand's protests.
Ask Mr. Stick
Mrs. Stick is unwilling to answer any questions at this time. If I receive any interesting emails to which I think the answer could benefit other readers, I may include the question, and my response, here.
Question 1: I am from Ireland and my girlfriend is Thai. She started work for a shipping company in Bangkok last week. The company brings in an English teacher every Saturday to teach English to anybody in the company who wants to learn and there are about 10 girls who attend the class. The teacher asked the girls to give him their names, phone number, and e-mail address to which I have a question. Is this appropriate behaviour for a teacher to do. My girlfriend says this is Thailand and thinks it's ok. I really don't think so. What do you think?
Mr. Stick says: There *may* be a valid reason for this "teacher" collecting these details but I cannot for the life of me think what it would be. I would imagine that someone within the company would administrate the course and it would be that person's responsibility to retain the students' contact details, perhaps to contact them if for any reason the class was cancelled one Saturday. Given that Bangkok has many sexual predators – and no doubt some of them are language teachers – I share your concern. The better language schools will dismiss any teacher who is seeing a student on the side although with that said, there does seem to be rather a lot of Western teacher / Thai language student dating in Thailand.
Bangkok is recovering from the nightmare of the last several weeks and a degree of normalcy has returned to the city. We have another 2 days of curfew, but the hours of the curfew have been reduced, previously being 8 PM – 6 AM but now a more reasonable 11 PM – 5 AM. Many of the roads that were closed due to the red shirt occupation have reopened and with the skytrain and underground resuming service today it's easier to get around in the downtown area than it was. It would be nice to think that we have seen the last of the red shirt protests and political problems in Bangkok, but that is probably being unrealistic. It hate to say it, but most agree that it's just a matter of time before everything kicks off again. Just how the protest will manifest itself next time remains to be seen… And yes, I do believe it is now safe for tourists to return to Bangkok. There's no need to put off your trip any longer!
Your Bangkok commentator,