Tag Archives: bangkok

Back in BKK

Back in Bangkok for a couple nights before I fly out to India on Sunday. Been running around changing my flight and everything. And of course corresponding with all you lovely people who read my Chronicle piece. Because I just adore you all so much, here is a delightful piece of Bangkok graffiti. You earned it!

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Science of the Eight Limbs

When I was in Bangkok a while back I went and took some shots at this back alley Muay Thai place for tourists who want an afternoon of training. Muay Thai is the traditional martial art of Thailand, best known for making great and devastatingly effective use of elbows and knees — not just hands and feet. Hence it is sometimes called “the science/art of the eight weapons/limbs.” It is often portrayed as being quite brutal compared to other martial arts, but of course life and death fights are all equally brutal. Here are some pictures of the training, the audience, and the surroundings.

Red Shirt, Yellow Shirt, Black Shirt, No Shirt

It was an unlikely series of events that put me in the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand [FCCT] on Thursday: a randomly chosen and several times delayed trip to Bangkok, an endlessly helpful acquaintance of an acquaintance, a long walk culminating in lost shoes. The FCCT is located in the penthouse suite of a large skyscraper office building — I couldn’t tell you which one — and includes a classy bar and dining area with a projector and several large LCD screens arranged to be visible by everyone in the room. When my new friend Rob and I arrive, the TVs are mutedly showing English-language Al Jezeera and the walls have been newly hung with an exhibition of beautiful and haunting war photography documenting the recent clashes between government forces and the anti-government Red Shirt protesters. I’m honestly a little shocked to have found my way into such a hip event with Bangkok’s expat elite, and one so perfect for my purposes. Tonight is a special dinner and presentation for and by journalists who covered or were caught in the Red Shirt chaos and the violence of the government crackdown.

Briefly then, this May (little more than a week before I arrived) saw the apex of a political crisis that has gripped Thailand since 2005. This is a drama with many players, but let me generalise them into a) the monarchy-backed military and their political allies and b) billionaire telecom mogul and deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his political allies. Each side has given birth to a mass movement whose protests have troubled Bangkok periodically over the last several years: the more-or-less middle/upper class and pro-monarchy Yellow Shirts (yellow being the royal colour of the current king) and more recently the more-or-less rural, poor Red Shirts.

Depending on who you talk to Thaksin was ousted in the 2006 military coup either for being a corrupt, embezzling tyrant or for his highly popular rural development policies, which cut the country’s rural poverty in half in four yours. On the one hand, there is much legitimate evidence that as prime minister Thaksin cut many shady deals that filled his own pockets, and that he had had a dangerously authoritarian streak regarding his enemies’ human rights. On the other, it is hard to deny that Thaksin’s wild populist support from rural areas and landslide election victories caused great consternation amongst Thailand’s wealthy urban elite in Bangkok, who openly argued that the countries rural poor were too uneducated to be allowed to vote. Class struggle is too simple of an explanation, but class is definitely a part of it.

So the Yellow Shirts agitated for several years against Thaksin and then against the populist governments that won subsequent elections in his stead, most famously shutting down air travel across Asia by occupying Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok for several days. Their efforts resulted in first the military junta that removed and exiled Thaksin, and later the military-backed Constitutional Court order that dissolved the three allied parties of the Thaksin-supported government.

A new anti-government movement formed in early 2009, allegedly funded from exile by Thaksin and this time calling for the resignation of the new Yellow Shirt-supported government. This escalated in March 2010 into a two month continuous protest in Bangkok — the largest in Thailand’s history — which, though mostly peaceful, eventually occupied several blocks of downtown Bangkok from behind rubber tire barricades. There were clashes with police and pro-government protesters, but the Red Shirts stayed put until 19 May, when the Thai Army stormed the camp, killing over 80 and wounding thousands more. As they fled, some of the Red Shirts set fire to several buildings, destroying parts of Bangkok’s shopping district, including the huge Central World Plaza mall. Now, just weeks later, Bangkok keeps a simmering calm, and through the immediate crisis is over the long term political future remains darkly unclear.

This, my best but ultimately crude approximation, leaves out many details: assassinations, bombings, statements by this leader or that, accusations and counter-accusations, white shirt peace factions, factions within factions, not to mention Thailand’s long political history and its rarely criticised but quietly controversial monarchy. And the acute sense I had of my own ignorance on the matter only grew as a variety of impressive journalists (all professionally my betters) arrived to pack the Foreign Correspondents Club. They clumped together in animated groups, drawing maps of Bangkok intersections on napkins to cross-reference with each other about who had been shooting at whom from where. Some were sporting injuries from bullets both rubber and lead, and others were asking about those the condition of colleagues still too grievously wounded to attend. When things settled down and the presentation began, it was standing room only.

The event features footage shot by several different journalists on both sides of the army siege. Some of it was too chaotic to follow, and much of it was of the kind of apolitical behaviour that one always finds in the midst of urban emergencies: people running haphazardly or walking around dazed, wounded people being bandaged on sidewalks or carried to safety, discussion about who was where and where was safe. The crowd chuckles at a shot of a man running with an arm full of Adidas shoes. Other parts, however, were extremely graphic. There was a clip of a fleeing journalist being shot, and several more of military snipers firing live rounds at the crowds. In another clip one such sniper was captured by Red Shirts and subsequently beaten, stripped and bound.

“I found a lot of the things going on so confusing that I don’t have a point of view,” journalist Brad Cox tells the crowd while introducing his clip. As it started to roll, he motions to the projectionist and says, “Can we turn the sound up? Sound was such a big part of the day.”

Occasionally the attendees quip and counter-quip about how biased or accurate so-and-so’s coverage was, but the main thrust of the discussion concerned the so-called “black shirts” or “men in black” — the armed protester paramilitaries whose presence and actions arguably escalated months of peaceful protest into urban warfare. This issue is confusing on a number of levels. For one, most of the black shirts didn’t wear black (and most Red Shirts didn’t where red after a certain point). Then there were the black shirted but unarmed sentries guarding the edge of the camp. Perhaps a better distinction is ‘men with guns’ versus ‘men without guns.’

The government claimed that there were 500 of these dangerous militia — “terrorists” — in the protest camp, and this was their justification for that final assault on the Red Shirts. This was disputed by many of the journalists there, including Kenneth Todd Ruiz and Olivier Sarbil, who were allowed to live among the black shirts for much of the protest on the deadly condition that they take no pictures. Mr. Ruiz and Mr. Sarbil claim to have counted only 30 members of the militia camp, only 12 of whom were armed. However, they also saw the black shirts with powerful rifles and grenades, using guerilla tactics to attack and harass the army and setting bombs around the perimeter of the camp.

Best evidence says that the black shirts were taking their orders from rogue army major general Khattiya Sawasdipol — until Khattiya was killed by a sniper’s bullet on 13 May. The “red general” often spoke fondly of his “Ronin” amongst the protesters, and several of the black shirts claimed to be active duty soldiers gone AWOL. The militia described themselves to Mr. Ruiz and Mr. Sarbil as “black angels” there to protect the protesters, but as so often happens when those fond of violent tactics get involved in a peaceful protest, their alleged actions ended up detracting from the credibility of the larger Red Shirt movement and helped precipitate the battle that kept Thailand in international headlines for several days.

The number of black shirts is obviously a sensitive issue. Were they a few bad apples in a barrel of thousands, or a large and significant contingent? Even here, amongst the theoretically unbiased reporters, the room is full of glaring agendas. The truth either calls into question the integrity of the Red Shirt protesters or damages the legitimacy of the military’s actions.

A Thai apartment building owner (and landlord of several other FCCT members) stands up and claimed his buildings in the protest camp were surrounded by armed militia members. “At least forty black shirts in my little street. They told me they were black shirts. They were wearing black shirts.”

But the landlord is quickly shouted down, and from the faces around me it seems few believe him. I catch the phrase “Yellow Shirt disinformation” amid the murmur. Tempers are starting to get short, and when Rob’s friend Linda tipsily grabs the microphone and badgers the crowd — “Have any of you ever actually participated in a protest?” — the MC quickly wraps up the event and directs us to the bar.

Now Bangkok again bustles about its business, but it is a wounded city. By the time I arrived the Central World shopping centre had been walled off from view, but I can still spot the sooty husks of several burnt out buildings, workers abjectly sweeping at floors strewn with charred consumer goods: hats, shoes, t-shirts. The Red Shirts have mostly gone home to their villages, and Thaksin, now wanted by Thailand on terrorism charges, has gone deeper into hiding. Things are calm, but there is no reason to think this political crisis is over, and in the meantime Thailand’s tourism industry and international reputation have both been damaged by the strife.

And the black shirts? Though the leaders of the Red Shirts surrendered to arrest, the “Ronin” were never caught. They likely remain in the city, underground and inconspicuous. The Red Shirt movement is dispersed, for now leaving these dangerous guerillas wearing no coloured shirt at all.

Bangkok Balcony

I don’t know why this was this way, but I think it is cool.

The Girls Past Midnight

By 3 AM the hookers lose their subtlty: a tap on the elbow, a jerking nod down the road. I smile and shake my head.  They move off, tired but efficient.

We wander down Khao San Road, vaguely trying to find one last good bar and keeping our eyes out for (white) girls to flirt with. As we stroll, the fizzling third act of the Friday night sex trade plays out around us, and we watch it with a morbid fascination. The uniform is uniform: unbelievably short shorts or ass-hugging skirts, sleeveless tops tight over often enhanced chests, tall strappy heels and fine little handbags, just enough makeup to not be classy. The signs are telltale when you know what to look for, but many girls Western and Thai are out on Fridays in attire just a few degrees more conservative. The truth comes out in body language, however. The way they roam, eyes reading the crowd for marks, or sit expectantly, waiting for the inevitable approach. The way they lean into their prospective clients as flirtation turns to business. Light touches to the forearm or lower back or, later, up and around the neck. Any affection is suspect. I simply can’t believe that so many white guys would have wooed themselves Thai girlfriends legitimately.

Much of the sex trade takes place in more sophisticated ways, though hot-lines or websites or any number of hypermodern platforms. You have them sent to your hotel room, rather than picking them up on the streets. But those arrangements are made earlier in the day, and by this late hour the prostitutes are starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel for business that will at least help them break even. As the streets empty, an arguably playful game becomes predatory. The guys get drunker, and the girls get less choosy, not to mention briefer with their sales pitches. Everyone gets more desperate. Western men hoping to win a Western girl for the night will take a Thai hooker as a consolation prize.

In a thumping, buzzing club green lasers fan out over the revelers and silhouette the exultant, smoke shrouded DJ. Bodies bob in rhythm to the bass, but no one is dancing on the dance floor. Everyone in the room is too busy either keeping their belongings in their pockets or bent low and close over girls, slyly negotiating the price.

“What percentage of these girls in minidresses and six-inch heels are hookers, do you think?” I ask Greg, shouting over the music.

“Oh, one hundred percent,” he replies immediately. I was going to be generous and say 90%, but Greg has been around here longer than me and probably knows better.

“And what percentage of these same girls are actually originally men?” I ask.

Greg thinks for a moment. “About thirty-five, I’d say. You have to watch the hands and chins.” Sounds about right to me.

During the day the crowds obscure things a bit, but still sex tourists looking for the “girlfriend experience” stick out like bruised thumbs. Guys in their mid-fifties shuffle around the mall in flat-billed caps and flashy Nike kicks, an impossibly proportioned 20 year old Thai girl on their arm. Chubby, sweaty British guys with bad haircuts, shorts, ratty tennis shoes and pulled up athletic socks are led from jewelry stall to sandal stall by gorgeous guides. The girls giggle and take john’s hand in their practiced way, playing the role and putting at ease until maybe the men actually fool themselves into believing in a love story of piercing foreign beauty seeing the charm through unappreciated exteriors — but I doubt it. Along the way the men are unsurprisingly milked for gifts and drinks and patronage at businesses that will later pass on a kickback. The industry is very sophisticated like that: bars, restaurants, hotels, pimps, police and all must each be sated with a sizable slice. Sex tourism provides some 3% of Thailand’s GDP, and Thailand is not a small or unproductive nation.

Official government policy censors any references in movies and television to the existence of prostitution or sexual promiscuity in Thailand. And of course prostitution and drugs are nominally illegal. Still, in many of the most touristed areas the rule of law curves to accommodate the vices of Westerners. I’ve heard that on the islands vendors sell psychedelic mushroom shakes (all clearly labeled) in broad daylight. Corruption is often happily accepted as an appropriate element of Thai society, even by the citizens who suffer from it. My host in Khorat explains cheerfully that I can borrow her truck, no problem, because if I get pulled over for not having a proper drivers license all I have to do is give the cops 100 baht.

Sex with prostitutes doesn’t appeal to me, personally. I understand the titillation and the ease of satisfaction, but I’m not good at letting human beings be my vices. And high school STD assemblies left a deep, nerves-twinging impression on me, and I’ve read enough about the HIV rates in Southeast Asia to be worried. Still, I must admit that many of these girls are genuinely beautiful. Not all, but many. I wonder what sorts of regimens they are put through to maintain their figures. Some are model pretty, and I suspect could be models if they had lighter skin.

The working girls don’t often approach me. One or two, late in the evening. But most look me over and can see that I’m not buying. Oddly enough, during the day I get stopped by every Indian guy trying to drag pedestrians into overpriced tailors for lousy Italian suits. Are my temptations that obvious?

After one night of beer, football and people watching on Khao San Road, I feel at once newly enlightened about human nature and colossally ignorant. The scale of the sex trade in Thailand staggers me, even just based on this brief but vivid glimpse. I don’t know how one could begin to tackle an issue of this size and complexity. Maybe the key is to be like the girls themselves: efficiently approaching one troubled soul at a time. Even when you are tired. Even long past midnight.

Bangkok Graffiti

Ugh. Kind of hung over. My feet hurt and I’ve lost my shoes. Here are pretty pictures. Go away.

The Stark, Existential Horror of Khao San Road

I had heard there would be white people in Bangkok. Westerners, you know. Who reliably speak English and can share my excitement or misery about being in the inexplicable orient. Not that I don’t like Thai people, but I’ve learned that having the occasional contact with fellow travelers is emotionally healthy. So I was excited.

Cut to: Victory Monument. This is where the van from Suree’s house in Khorat dropped me off. I know I need to take the bus to Khao San Road, where Annie suggested I look for cheap/safe/nice lodging. But of course, there are many buses, and I have no idea which one will take me there. Tragically, there are no white people around, and unlike in India where any reasonably wealthy looking young person could be expected to speak decent English, I would probably not have too much luck stopping random people on the street asking for directions. So I do what I always do when alone and at a loss in a foreign country: I wander around and look at stuff. It is a tried and true method, and never fails to present a solution eventually.

Usually this solution is in the form of a friendly Westerner or English speaker who, when approached, solves all my problems. But all those white people I was promised in Bangkok? Not here. Not at Victory Monument. Not milling about helpfully. No, I just see masses of Thai people, some trendily dressed, some beautiful, some poor, some wealthy, some of indeterminate gender. They mostly ignore me, which after five months in India I now find chilling.

Still, a few minutes later I run into an information booth. The nice lady there gives me a map and directs me back to the bus stop and writes down on a slip the bus I should take (in English) and my destination (in Thai, to show the driver). It is an awkward wait at the bus stop, but eventually I’m on a frigidly air conditioned piece of public transport. The ticket lady looks at my slip and promises to tell me when to get off. Never fails.

But — oh! — Khao San Road is something else. I knew it was kind of like Bangkok’s Thamel (from Kathmandu), but it has been a while since I’ve been to Thamel and anyways far more tourists come to Bangkok than Kathmandu. Jesus Christ, there are a lot of white people here. More white people than I have seen since January! And a lot of shops and restaurants designed for white people. It’s a wide street, closed off for pedestrians and the occasional motorbike. Tables selling designerish clothes or handmade jewelry, tailors offering custom suits, theme bars, wifi cafes, an Apple Store (!!!), ATMs, currency exchange booths, everything. The dulcet tones of Akon and Eminem informing the footsteps of the hustlers as they approach marks with offers to show us to their tailoring shop where they can make nice suits, great shirts just like this one (he plucks at my cheap H&M button-up). They are savvy, though, and when I make it clear I’m going to my hotel he shakes my hand and lets me go without even bothering to give me one of his business cards. Everything just screams tourist trap to my travelers paranoia. Luckily my skills at not spending money are honed.

And the white people, so many of them. And all in shorts! Hideous! The sweaty heat and their faded t-shirts and crocs give them a sort of “unwashed masses” quality, and I shudder. This isn’t like Gangtok or Kalimpong, where I can lounge in the cafe and offer a chair to any foreigner that wanders in. Much less approachable. Still, got to try. I stop some girls and ask if they can recommend cheap lodging. They say where they are staying isn’t cheap, but that I should get to a computer and book something online. The Internet! Thanks sunburned British girls! I actually hadn’t thought of that. I peer around and spot — yes! — “Free WiFi!” Sit down at the nicely branded cafe/bar/restaurant, the Green something, and get to work on this, my Macbook. A few minutes later I stumble across an entry for a budget hotel “The Green House.” How about that. Cheap (US$12 a night), clean, with AC and free wifi. Sounds good.

So here I am.

I got to admit, it is both comforting and existentially terrifying to around so many other Westerners. Maybe it is all the guys in shorts, which as a student of men’s fashion I find profoundly unsettling. Or maybe it is just that here I’m not the king of the pack, exactly. Not like in Gangtok, where I boast a job and a flat and impress people with the complimentary biscuits I get from the flirty waitress. I’m out of my turf, my element. Sure, I’m Asia Savvy, and I have Connections here in BKK. But these people probably have, like, travelers cheques and sunglasses. How can I fight that? How can I outmaneuver the Borg-like shambling of the Tourists? I can’t. My only hope is to stay clear-eyed and true to my purpose. Because even though I may, for now, stay in a hotel like them and sit at cafes like them and even sweat like them, I am here with a mission. I have a Job To Do. Jobs Plural, actually. Stories to track down and reportage to write. Never forget, Andrew, you are a fucking journalist.

Time to get to work.