As happy as Thailand is becoming, for some there’s little change.
First the came for the sexpats on visa runs and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a sexpat.
Then they came for the beach umbrellas and I did not speak out –
Because I use a SPF 45 sunblocker.
Then they came for the street vendors and I did not speak out –
Because I don’t really need another knock-off Rolex watch . . .
I hate to be one of those people who bemoans how things used to be, who rallies against the changes brought on by progress and the passage of time, who longs for the return of the good old days. But sometimes it’s unavoidable. Sometimes those changes aren’t necessarily for the good. Sometimes those good old days really were better. And sometimes it just pisses me off that Bangkok is far too quickly losing the exotic, wonderland appeal that I fell in love with decades ago.
There are things I miss that even I have to agree their loss really was a gain. Like the wide open expanse that Sukhumvit once was. Okay, so it was always a wide open expanse filled with cars playing parking lot, but the boulevard was open to the skies and the street’s hustle and bustle played out under the sun’s warming rays. Then they built the BTS. And the Sukhumvit of my youth became a shadow of its former self. Dark, cramped, and now slightly sinister looking – even if you don’t consider the Nigerian pimps and drug pushers – the tangled mess of barely overhead power lines and trash-filled gutters serving as a play pen for the city’s rat population took on a more ominous tone, prophetically filled with the light-blocking over-sized asses of women in burkas accompanying their men folk to whom Bangkok’s appeal is all those things they could face capital punishment for back home.
The street scene along Sukhumvit has changed over the years, and sometimes not.
But progress is what progress does and while the BTS cast its shadow upon what once was my playground, it also offered the opportunity to rise above it all, and be whisked past the stalled traffic at a mere 10 baht per ride. Now, I can’t imagine Bangkok without the Skytrain’s ease of getting around town and the air-conditioned journeys to my favorite shopping malls. I no longer have to attempt to negotiate a fare with a scamming taxi driver, no longer have to consider if the distance is short enough to risk my life in a tuk tuk. And while Sukhumvit no longer has the appeal it once did, now I can stay there and get to Soi Twilight within five minutes for 30 baht thanks to the BTS.
Landing at Don Muang was the perfect start to your holiday in the Bangkok of yesteryear. It looked, felt, and smelled just like the city did. Then Suvarnabhumi came along and its antiseptic greeting to the Land of Smiles foretold the changes awaiting your arrival some 45 minutes and a 500 baht scam later. I never understood those who bitched and moaned non-stop about the new airport. It’s an airport. It’s a place of transit. You’re not suppose to spend your afternoon there. But now, upon reflection, I think it wasn’t Suvarnabhumi itself that had the old-timers’ panties in a wad. It was what the new airport signified: a change to the Bangkok we’d all grown to love. And an end to life as we once knew it.
But Suvarnabhumi was progress too. Even if it being built was more about lining the pockets of Prime Minister Thaksin than it was about upgrading one of the city’s major transportation hubs. At least greed, corruption, cronyism, and kick-backs were part of Thailand’s landscape that we were all familiar with. Not so with the changes being imposed by The Good General. In his stated attempt at making Thailand a happy place, while power may still be the root cause of his brand of evil, the changes he’s championing are having a far more insidious effect on the Thailand we once knew.
Is it progress or is Bangkok just going to the dogs?
You can laugh at the notion that beach umbrellas are being banned from use on the country’s shores. And even agree that cutting down on the low-lifes who used visa runs to over-stay their time in the country is a good thing. And stamping out corruption is a noble goal, if perhaps an quixotic endeavor. But now the Good General is taking his happy campaign to the streets. And as Howard Beale put it in Network, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
Okay, so maybe cutting down on the number of street vendors isn’t all that bad of an idea. It actually might be nice to be able to use the sidewalks in Bangkok for walking. But I’m not sure the hustle without the bustle is the best answer. Street vendors are an integral part of the Bangkok experience. They’re like having a 7/11 spread along your entire path. You can buy souvenirs, the clothes you’ll wear tomorrow, and the protection – or assistance – you’ll need for tonight, all while you stroll back to your hotel. And without stall after stall lining both sides and sometimes the middle of the sidewalk, what excuse will German tourists have for standing and blocking those sidewalks in the future?
There may be those who think The Good General’s plan to upgrade the piers used by the express boats on the Chao Phraya is the good kind of progress too. But for me that just means one more of those things that made Bangkok Bangkok that will soon be but a distant memory. Watching a too prim Queen attempt an athletic leap to board a river boat is one of the joys of Bangkok. And when you take the danger out of using the piers, those boats will be filled with sun-burned farang faces, the very people you attempt to avoid by using water transportation in the first place. Next thing ya know they’ll be marking the piers clearly so touri will know when to get off. And then there will no longer be that small thrill in telling some lost soul the pier for the Grand Palace was two stops ago.
Or is it just a case of the blind leading the blind.
But I’m a live and let live kind of guy, and even though I’m usually too drunk to consider joining Alcoholics Anonymous, I too realize there are some things you have no control over and that you should accept those things you cannot change. Especially since I’m a guy and hate carrying around a pocketful of change anyway. But that too is on The Good General’s agenda. It’s no longer just Bangkok’s street vendors under attack. The city’s beggars who use stairs as chairs and open sidewalk areas as passing lanes to crawl along too have now found themselves facing The Good General’s wrath.
By now everyone knows those heart-wrenching scenes of homeless mothers and their urchinesque babies are as real as the love you can find in a gogo bar. Or if you didn’t, you know do. Those panhandlers are brought in by the mafia, assigned a child, and sent out to fleece the kind-hearted tourists who wouldn’t give the homeless in their home country a passing glance. Ditto for the cute tykes selling day-old flowers who interrupt you hitting on the beer bar boys; they too are just another money-stream for the city’s criminal master-minds. But according to The Good General the blind singers begging for baht while you beg them to quit screeching in your ear, and the slithering limbless who still manage to find a way to hold out their beggar’s cup, too are part of mafia and the result of Thailand’s trafficking problem. ‘Cuz its not just young women and fishing boat slaves at risk. The disabled too are being sold into a life of begging for tourist dollars.
Of course as anyone who has taken Anti-trafficking 101 knows, the best answer to the human trafficking problem is to arrest those who’ve been trafficked. So earlier this week Bangkok’s police announced they’d arrested 101 of Bangkok’s panhandlers. According to police General Siwara Rangsiphraphamonkun, his boys in brown divided the criminals into three separate and distinct groups: the blind who use speakers to play their accompanying music (beggars who qualify as being both blind and deaf), those with “troubling-to-unbelievable physical deformities”, and those who are just mentally ill (which would account for the 23 foreigners caught up in the police department’s panhandler sweep).
The changing face of Thailand is evident regardless of your level of perspective.
The Boys In Brown are using a little known and never before used law from 1941 that prohibits panhandling. And while some may think it’s criminal to arrest disabled beggars, those caught in the sweep are being sent to the Thanyaburi Homeless Shelter in Pathum Thani to receive career training. Or at least singing lessons.
Bangkok’s homeless always made for a good photo op; its begging urchins were easier to step over than trying to get around a slow moving dowager armed with an umbrella at eye height. And while a limbless man slithering along the sidewalk was never the Disneyland-like encounter you might think it would be, they did make for a good place to ditch the worthless satang that had been weighing down your pocket. And collectively, those folk made Bangkok part of what made Bangkok. The Good General’s plan to arrest them, just because they can’t run fast enough to get away, seems like a cheap shot. And if he really wants to clear the rubbish from Bangkok’s streets, why doesn’t he do something about those hilltribe ladies and their fucking wooden, croaking frogs?
Bangkok has always had a vibrant street scene. And yes, that included vendors selling everything under the sky, wretched looking mothers and not their young, blind karaoke aficionados, and slithering paraplegics. But when they come for the homeless, the disabled, and the disenfranchised, who’s next? The ladyboy hustlers? The helpful, friendly locals who know about a secret one day only state sponsored gem sale? The whispering sexy dvd sellers? Someday soon Bangkok’s streets may look just like those in any other major metropolitan area. It seems that’s what The Good General wants. But if he gets his way, I think Bangkok will be much less for it. Besides, once the sidewalks are cleared of vendors, beggars, and the homeless, what will keep tuk tuk drivers from using them as a thoroughfares?
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