Lollipop Ladies of Bangkok

13th January 2017

The king is dead. The nation mourns, each in her own way. The hospitality manager at my hotel mentions him, and describes the tears that have fallen down her face in thinking of him in the last weeks.

There are garlands and bunting of black and white on public buildings. In places, the sun has blanched the black to a deep, roasted purple. Noble building after noble building declares its lamentations. It takes me some time to note that almost all are banks.

Two giant buildings, towering over my hotel room on the 22nd floor, bear images of his son. The new King. And in every magazine rack, images of the fresh-faced 65-year-old beam out. He is a pilot, a learned and good man, they say. And he is king. Long live the king.

As I arrive into this coughing, sprawling city that locals call something else entirely (the name ‘Bangkok’ is a western invention), I see the face of a Buddha depicted on an advertising hoarding. “It’s wrong to use Bhudda as decoration or tattoo” it declares to us tourists, advancing to the metropolis from the airport. The tone is not threatening. Just clear. And I like it.

Bangkok is a changed city since last I was here, 28 years ago. This is not a shocking thing. I, too, have changed.

The sweltering heat, the kerbside energy, the profound warmth of its people; all of these things hold constant.

But something is different. Something more than the obvious, physical changes such as the transformed skyline, and the omnipresence of global brands.

It takes me a day to name it. Yes. Something in the tone here has altered. Siam is dead. And the new Thailand’s famous welcome comes much less from a place of deference, and now from a place of self-respect. And I like it.

Young Thai businesswomen discuss deals over breakfast in an elegant hotel; fashionably clad guys and girls drink ice tea in delightful cafés, and laugh together in an unfettered, expansive manner. And the people I encounter, in the service industry for sure, meet my eyes and are willing to play with my conversation. When I do not understand a word (which is often, because in language I am a literalist), it is made clear that it my fault, and not theirs.

This is not to say that Bangkok of yore is not in evidence. Indeed, it is probably the dominant mood – just not one that I am getting to see.

Its metaphor resides above all our heads, and on every street. Hoards of black thick cables and wires line the roads, sloping from post to laden post. A massive knot of energy which looks unbearably confused and muddled, yet works nonetheless.

I depart my hotel on a sweat-soaked adventure to find the river. The hotel porter dissuades me from walking, but I am resolute.

Crossing Bangkok’s busy streets at zebra crossings is a kind of exciting death lottery. Red flags are deposited at most junctions – maybe so one can hold high and wave as one attempts to traverse the melée. Although, in fairness, maybe they are reserved for the traffic policemen who appear from time to time, blowing whistles and agitating for progress.

I reject the flags for a simpler strategy: appending myself to a random female, and shadowing her every move as she crosses the road. Women move with more assuredness in this city, and are less prone to spontaneously taunting fate. They become my unwitting lollipop ladies.

At length, I reach the Chao Phraya river. I immediately cheat the spirit of my walking safari by loping into the Mandarin Hotel. I despise my own weakness; my lily-livered reliance on a packaged version of Bangkok luxury for rich, middle-aged Westerners. But screw it, I wanted a riverside view.

Here, by the river bank, the slow drag forward of the Thai economy is writ large. Barge after barge goes by, pilot boats doubling as tugs for their mini flotillas, each vessel of which is laden to within a metre of the water.

I would dearly love to know what is in them, under their dull-coloured tarpaulin covers. But I do not ask. Some mysteries should be allowed to endure.

I order lunch, and begin to write.

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