It is Friday the thirteenth, there’s a full moon, and we’re flying into the middle of a military coup. Which would indicate that while we are neither superstitious nor vampires, we may be stupid.
But, then, Thailand has had about twenty coups over the past century, indicative of a military more interested in seizing power than wielding it. The current fuss is a response to “unrest” resultant of one mob who wear yellow shirts and call themselves “the Yellow Shirts” and another mob who wear red shirts, calling themselves “the Red Shirts”. It goes without saying that Thailand, like most of Asia, is not renowned for its branding expertise.
We westerners may assume the colours represent a battle between the cowards and the commies, yet nothing could be further from the truth. The Red Shirts hail from far and wide outside of Bangkok, and support democracy, mostly because they keep winning the elections. Unfortunately, their leader, Thaksin Shinawatra was accused of being utterly corrupt prior to his 2006 deposition by the previous military coup.
In a rare moment of wisdom, he fled the country, using his allegedly ill-gotten booty to purchase Manchester City of the English Premier League (eventually, their fans also chased him out of town). Once something resembling democracy returned to Thailand, his sister was promptly elected PM. This irked the Yellow Shirts, the loyal royalists that make up much of the relatively well-to-do population in and around Bangkok. Which pretty much brings us up to date.
After three years of opposing protests, demonstrations, riots and occupations (at one point the Yellow Shirts occupied and shut down the spanking new airport for some unfathomable reason), the military had had enough of the nonsense, stepping in to impose law and order. Well, order to be sure, and law insofar as the military became the law, referring to themselves as the National Committee for Peace and Order (NCPO).
The pundits suppose the timing of this action was motivated by the rumoured ill-health of the king. The king, who neither looks like nor dances as well as Yul Brenner, is marginally more alive, and the quality of his libretto remains an open question. Regardless, the military apparently fears that his passing might spark widespread “unrest”, which is a lovely euphemism for people killing each other.
As for me, I’ve never been able to sit through The King and I, so I approach Siam unfettered by romantic notions of imperial majesty, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. The first and only time we were in Bangkok was seven years ago, the penultimate stop of a six-week trip around-the-world that had left us so exhausted that we ventured from the hotel for a grand total of three hours over our three days there.
Then, we insulated ourselves from the realities of Bangkok with a bubble of luxury. Whisked by limousine to the astonishing Lebua Hotel, we enjoyed its facilities including its famed rooftop, vertigo-inspiring, Sky Bar, where many a honeymooner didn’t notice the change in decimal from page two to page three of the wine list, inadvertently purchasing a $2,000, not $200, bottle of wine. I understand Sky Bar was later used as a location in Hangover 2, which also falls into my “I’ve never been able to sit through” category.
So my first trip to Bangkok was something of an embarrassment from an intrepid traveller’s point of view. This trip is intended to right that wrong. While we’re in the neighbourhood, we plan to check out Penang and see how Singapore is coming along, too. But for the most part, having just flown over the equator, this 10-day winter getaway has served its primary purpose by literally getting us away from winter.
As I write, I have just finished my fourth breakfast of the day: 1) Melbourne Qantas Club; 2) Flight to Sydney; 3) Sydney Qantas Club; and, 4) this flight. And I wonder why I put on weight when I travel… I have never been able to resist, indeed, my values are such that I consider it immoral not to partake in, free food or an open bar.
Just once I want to check that box on the customs form that says I’m carrying over $10,000 in cash, just to see what happens. However, the Australian foreign affairs folks have urged us to “exercise extreme caution” in Bangkok, so carrying ten grand seems a tad imprudent. I consider any advice containing the words “exercise” and “caution” to be common sense, which leaves me pondering the realisation of the suggested extremity. I confirmed with our travel insurance people that our policy does not cover “coup-related events”, which they explained meant that we are covered if we get run over by a bus, so long as the bus is not full of soldiers. So “extreme caution” in this instance appears to imply giving hum vees a wide birth. Oh, and riots.
Our digs in Bangkok are well off the beaten track, a hotel chosen by its TripAdvisor status as the best hotel in our not stingy price range (#2 of 793 neurotically boutique hotels, if I recall). It was something of an adventure finding it, which I will recount in my next missive. Right now, I have a walk to a train to a boat to a restaurant to deal with.