Scene in Bangkok 1


Scene in Bangkok 1

........On the Skytrain station platform at Anutsawarichaisamorapoom (all names in Thailand are like that) I stood next to a very pregnant lady waiting for the train. She looked as if she might go pop at any moment. She was not so large however as to be unable to get close to her husband. There she stood facing him and, with great concentration and solemnity, picked his nose.


Today's Bangkok Post announces the weather in Bangkok will be 'rather cool'. The forecast low temperature is 22° C (72° F) and the high is 32° C (90° F). Hmmm.....

..........After a very convivial lunch at The Landmark Hotel, Adrian, Michael and I went to view a Cartier-Bresson (and 'school of...') photographic exhibition in the very beautiful Arts Centre in the old, original campus of Silapakorn University. It wasn't a very large exhibition so we were round the four walls in no time at all. The old campus is very near the Grand Palace and it was very pleasing to walk through these old streets where the Chinese shop-houses have been restored so well with cream walls and green woodwork. Vendors of all kinds had spread their wares along the pavements: fruits, amulets, screen prints of Michael Jackson, joss sticks, Thai silk and Thai snacks jostled with each other for any passer-by's attention. Michael knew of an excellent restaurant inside the Naval Officers' Club and wanted to show us where it was, for future reference, and its splendid
 river-frontage. As we entered the old, colonial-looking buildings of the club (though, of course, Siam was never colonised), there was a hand-written sign stretched across the gateway advertising traditional Thai foot massage, and there three naval ratings sat on plastic stools under it. Adrian asked them in Thai if the massage was done by women, but the sailors answered no. They did it. This seemed so bizarre, I was not at all convinced it could be true, and we moved on to find the location of the restaurant.

We viewed the restaurant, were suitably impressed, passed out of the gates and the sitting sailors once again and continued our walk through the streets. Suddenly Adrian decided he would like to try this Thai traditional foot massage. Sceptically Michael and I followed him as we retraced our steps back to the Naval Officers' Club. It was nearly closing time for the masseurs but they graciously said we could have a massage from them; it would last about an hour. We were led into a room within the Naval Officers' Club which was decorated in so feminine a fashion it defied all logic. Sharply creased, blue Crimplene curtains were drawn across several windows and stood boldly against pristine white walls; bowls of impossibly hued plastic flowers sat on low, over-varnished tables and cupboards lit garishly by neon lights. The room was lined with eight, black leather, reclining chairs with footstools, and in front of each was a wickerwork tray neatly and regimentally equipped with identical oils, napkins and various other artefacts of the masseurs' trade. At a desk sat a buxom lady in naval uniform who smiled and wai-ed a greeting to each of us as we slumped, in a row, into the reclining black leather chairs. Her spectacles, attached by a gold chain, rested happily on her ample, motherly bosom.

The naval ratings - what? twenty years old? - were solemn, unsmiling, slow-moving and uniformly methodical. First these three Norns brought blue plastic washing-up bowls of warm water laced with Dettol to soak and wash our feet. They asked us if we cared to remove our trousers and produced rather racy Hawaiian shorts to put on for modesty's sake, but all of us were so trepidatious we declined the offer very quickly and resorted to rolling our trousers up beyond our knobbly knees. (Michael had not instilled 
confidence in me with a tale that he had once tried a Thai foot massage from some ladies of the night in Patpong, had not enjoyed a single moment of it and had come away limping.) The sailors were not fazed by our rejection of their Technicolor shorts but themselves donned very medical-looking white coats over their handsome uniforms.

They wai-ed again and, sotto voce, murmured a quiet Buddhist prayer. The massage began in unison and each masseur followed exactly the same pattern as the others with each of his clients. Nothing was rushed; nothing was sudden. It was choreographed down to the last detail. And it was the most wonderful experience! Whilst one foot was being addressed the other was carefully wrapped in a blue towel folded meticulously and slowly as if a student nurse was practising her hospital corners. Blue seemed to be the favourite colour of the lady-in-waiting. I can't now remember every detail of their techniques but there was a good deal of pummelling and pressing, rubbing and tugging. Curiously none of it was tickle-some even when they stroked the soles of our feet. At one point they each produced from their tray a wooden peg-like instrument with which they pressed between the toes and ground into our soles and heels. Later they moved slowly up each leg, massaging as they went and then rubbed an embrocation (smelling suspiciously like Vick's Vapour Rub) into our knees. This tingled, but over the course of the hour a wonderful relaxation crept into my limbs. Adrian fell asleep and snored gently. When the massage reached our groins, I could understand the suggestion of the Hawaiian shorts.

The utter improbability of this scene suddenly struck me. Three middle-aged men were having their feet scrubbed, rubbed and scented in the headquarters of the Royal Thai Navy by three, gentle, respectful, young, tattooed seamen in uniform. This was so unlikely I couldn't help but think of Portsmouth, and the utter impossibility of such a scene taking place there. If you could ever get him out of his state of permanent inebriation, would a British naval rating ever consent to do such a thing? His machismo would be in tatters; his reputation among his fellow jack tars would be in shreds; his life would not be worth living when his vocational training had been discovered by his beer-swilling, hammock-swinging, tart-taunting, queer-bashing smelly-underpanted chums. I knew I was on a completely different planet when our immaculate Thai sailors finally came to the denouement of their work and brushed our feet delicately with Johnson's Baby Powder.

We paid and tipped the sailors handsomely. They smiled enchantingly and each
gave a low wai as we left, walking - as it were - on air. I think I shall 
go again...

...Tescos (yes, really, Tescos! - for my puzzled American and Antipodal readership it is a British supermarket chain, not unlike Walmart, with many branches in Thailand) has had a spate of bombings recently. I did say bombings. The last and most spectacular was an anti-tank missile aimed at the Tesco store in Bang Na. You didn't misread that: it really was an anti-tank missile. It missed, bounced off the roof of the store and landed on the 4th floor of the multi-storey car-park next door. Fortunately this was in the dead of night and no-one was around to see the fireworks. It did little damage apparently, which doesn't say much for Thai anti-tank missiles, it seems to me...

The reason for this derring-do was not some anti-foreigner desperado earnestly seeking justice for his local corner shop, but a feud which has grown nasty between two security firms. The firm which had lost their Tesco contract was out to prove (pretty convincingly, I thought) just how useless their replacement was. How better to demonstrate the incompetence of your new security organisation than to hurl a missile at the store? Where did the missile come from? Ah! There's the rub. BOTH security firms are owned by rival generals, still serving in the army. Need to engineer a little intimidation? Would an anti-tank missile do the job for you? Just a minute... I happen to have a spare one under my desk. All this needs a little explanation for an understandably sceptical world-wide readership (of which I may humbly boast...). The fact is that the Royal Thai Army has more generals than any other army in the world. That is not 'per capita', that is actually MORE generals. There are more Thai generals in real terms than there are in the US army or the Russian Army. Most of then draw a salary, have a lot of scrambled egg all over their uniforms, but don't actually do anything useful. Hundreds of offices are given over to officers who are - and you might know the Thais actually give it a name - 'on inactive duty'. It is these men who have businesses on the side; most often using army equipment and personnel - and , of course, influence - for their immediate
financial gain. The main suspect of the Tesco bombing, by the way - not to say culprit, - turned out to be a contract killer in the pay of one of these generals (you can get anyone killed here for the going rate of 5000 baht, a little over $100). His aim seems to have been generally a bit wild. He lobbed a grenade at policemen surrounding his house, but it unfortunately hit and bounced off the side of a window frame and ricocheted back into the bathroom where he was cornered, and he blew himself up (according to the police report).

I don't make any of this up you know. This is Thailand...