As my second Bangkok ‘winter’ slowly lifts..
Except that it’s nothing like a winter. And last week the temperature dipped into the 20’s – today it’s back into the high 30’s.
Steamy, heaving Bangkok, with its glitzy malls crawling with tourists and its spaghetti roads crawling with traffic, is hot all the time.
Yet Thais rarely wear sunglasses. Men certainly never wear shorts. When the temperature dips below 30 many locals slip on a cardigan. They walk slowly – incredibly slowly – I assume to conserve energy.
And despite the oppressive heat, the congested roads, the sidewalks jam-packed with food vendors that make walking down the street like an episode of It’s a Knockout, the Thais remain unflustered.
Incredible, given these are people whose rights have been severely trampled on by the steel-caps of their own military.
Their right to speak out has been stolen, their right to decide who should govern them, and how, cruelly quashed.
In its place, a soldier who claims to be acting to protect democracy, but who shows no signs of wanting to give up the power that comes with storming into office under the threat of violence.
It’s my first experience living in a country under martial law. Walking the streets you wouldn’t know it’s a country run by the military, except that you know all over Thailand people are being ‘invited’ in by the junta for what they laughingly call ‘attitude adjustment’.
You don’t need to scratch too hard to see what’s bubbling under the surface. When a visiting American diplomat dared to suggest the military might like to step aside and return the country to the people, tempers flared.
Suddenly a military, which had muzzled the media and the people, heard some nasty home truths, and they didn’t like it.
While a compliant press, and the terrified public, didn’t dare question the impeachment of, and corruption charges against, the popular former Prime Minister, there were no such constraints on the visiting diplomat.
But if the US was hoping to help unclench the Thai military fist, the early signs are not good. Several former government ministers who dared to stand alongside the outspoken American visitor found themselves hauled in for more ‘attitude adjustment’, with the junta warning it was prepared to go further.
Thai society is riddled with contrasts. Social media and the newspapers went into meltdown because a young couple dared to show open affection on the metro (it was no more than kissing and cuddling).
Yet you don’t need to look too hard to find the shady streets with wall-to-wall massage shops, and even shadier bars with scantily clad women hoping to lure one of the hundreds of middle-aged washed-up anglo-saxon barflies to part with their baht.
It’s a country where anyone who is deemed to have disrespected the Royal family will feel the full force of the law, and some, but where corruption at all levels is often barely concealed.
So have I enjoyed my first year in Bangkok? You bet. It’s an incredible city, full of incredible people, in an incredible part of the world.
And I feel like a bit player in a soap opera..