• 14 . 02 . 11
  • In which we visit the markets, have a BBQ, try not to take sides in Thai domestic politics and are driven around Bangkok on motorised tricycles.

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Accidental Activism

Despite always having monumental jet-lag when travelling East to West, West to East never really seems to affect me, and so it was that I rose feeling refreshed not long after 7am local time. On previous trips, I’ve tended to head straight into activities full on, but being now a little older and wiser (or at least one out of the two), we decided to ease into it a little bit. A lazy breakfast was followed by languorous showers as we made the most of our pleasant accommodation at Udee Hostel.

Our afternoon was spent being guided around the hectic Chatuchak markets by Rachel, a friend of Emily’s, who has lived here for a couple of years. The markets are enormous and thronged, filled with everything you could imagine. They might compete with Amazon for Earth’s Biggest Marketplace and they certainly sold everything from A to Z. Important finds included a frozen banana stand, a la Arrested Development, but we also saw candles, chickens (live and dead), caps, coffee, carpets, cardamom, carnations, carvings and canvases.

The vendors calling out and school children playing music on a variety of instruments, formed a riotous cacophony. Combined with stalls as far as you could see, with each new intersection offering promise of new sounds and smells, the effect was vaguely hypnotising, as if designed to provoke a Gruen Transfer, albeit chaotically formed and naturally haphazard.

Leaving the market (finite, after all), we climbed aboard and squeezed into a tuk-tuk to take us across town. I had been told that these marvellous contraptions had three directions, forwards, backwards and “over”, but with three people in the back it seemed stable enough. On a covered, motorised, tricycle, we nipped in and out of traffic, finding space where there wasn’t any and playing chicken with buses. When the brakes went on, multi-coloured lamps lit up inside the vehicle as if to say hang on, but there really wasn’t much to hang on to. I internally renamed them the “hope” lights.

New Thai road rule: When approaching a T-junction with no lights and heading into oncoming traffic from the left, the correct manoeuvre is to inch out slowly into the middle of traffic until you have a greater than 80% confidence level that most of the cars heading towards you will stop. At that point, go full on the accelerator and don’t think of activating the hope lights. It helps if more people are leaving the intersection with you, so try to arrange yourself in a pack, in the centre if possible. (What is the collective noun for Tuk-Tuks, I wonder? A gaggle perhaps.)

As if that wasn’t enough, we found ourselves in the middle of a Red Shirt demonstration. If you remember the Thai protests last year, this was one of the sides involved, in support of Thaksin Shinawatra. I’m not sure exactly what they were protesting today (and in fact protest seems a little strong for what seemed peaceful and friendly), but soon enough we were surrounded by trucks and buses full of people wearing red, beeping their horns, clapping and chanting. I’m happy to report that our driver was also a red shirt and not ashamed to say that when he began speaking of how bad the yellow shirts were we nodded vigorously in agreement. Switzerland we were not, though we at least refused flags and clappers from people on the pavement.

After picking up some groceries, we headed to Rachel’s place, situated in a lovely compound with a pool at its centre, filled with friendly ex-pats from France, Australia and elsewhere, where we had a pleasant BBQ and, who knows why, a blind taste test comparing Bundy Rum and Thai Sang Som Rum. Sang Som for the win, though the Aussies complained bitterly. Still not as bitter as Bundy though. Chatting to the ex-pats, it really reminded me of Japan – with the vague unstated feeling that this was all transient and that most if not all would be moving on within a few years. With darkness falling, said our goodbyes.

On our own for the first time, we set about hailing a tuk-tuk for the short journey back to the apartment which we have been generously donated for the duration of our time here. We’d been told the trip would cost about 45 baht, so when we were dropped outside the BTS station, we were happy to hand over a 50 baht note and be on our way. Unfortunately, it turned out that the Thai I thought was limited to 3 words, was actually limited even beyond that and he’d actually dropped us outside the BTS Ari station just around the corner from Rachel’s place, rather than BTS Phaya Thai as requested. Note to self – if you don’t know where you’re going, repeat the destination when you get there to make sure you’re at the right place! Being dropped at a train station isn’t the worst thing in the world, even if it’s not the right one, so with a little map-reading we were able to make it home safely. Mistakes are easy to correct when they cost you a dollar.