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Bangkok Observations

Scene from the series The Serpent

We flew back to Bangkok from Danang in Vietnam. Prices at Danang Airport are in dollars. No surprise then that, apart from a family of Chinese tourists enjoying 18 USD dollar combos, Burger King was empty. I felt guilty buying a small bottle of warm Sprite for $3.80. What a waste of money. An odd situation considering prices in Central Vietnam outside the airport are, by my measure, cheap but the food at the airport costs more than at airports in New Zealand. So imagine how the locals feel. Price-gouging hungry travellers at an airport seems out of date. There’s an upside to encountering such a situation. If I’m outraged by the prices, then there’ll be some entertaining rants online covering the same topic. Here’s an example from a review of Danang Airport on

“Appalling. Food was exorbitantly expensive, more so than any international airport I have ever visited. I felt like a cow being milked for money during my final hours in this beautiful country.”

The 7-Eleven at Don Muang Airport in Bangkok has the same prices as anywhere else in Thailand and therefore does a roaring trade. I’m not the first person to fall in love with the 7-Eleven in Thailand. This omnipresent convenience store chain has a huge variety of delicious food and drinks. By contrast, I found the convenience stores in Vietnam and Cambodia middling at best. According to this video made by a European personal trainer based in Bangkok, it’s possible to maintain a healthy diet by eating Thai 7-Eleven food. However, while I don’t drink anything sweet in NZ, I found the sugary drinks in the 7-Eleven irresistible. A Grab driver, who I’ll say more about below, burst my bubble about the wonderfulness of the 7-Eleven.

Two weeks before we had stayed in Bangkok Old Town. This time I wanted to stay at the Miami Hotel in the Sukhumvit area because of the retro feel, its history of being the place American soldiers stayed in the 60s, and because it featured in the Netflix series The Serpent. However, other nearby hotels with the same facilities had more attractive prices. We did visit though, mainly to get photos of the pool area that appeared in The Serpent. Serial killer Charles Sobraj, whose life the series is based on, recently got out of prison in Nepal – a shocking development. How can a serial killer be released? The hotel has a layout typical for Bangkok: a swimming pool surrounded by mezzanine floors. You can come out of your room and look down at what’s happening below. No Europeans in bikinis lounged by the pool as I’d seen at hotels in Bangkok Old Town. Could have been the time of day but I’d suggest you see fewer Western women in the Sukhumvit area than in Old Town.

On the wall, in the memorabilia area, an article from the Bangkok Post gave details about the hotel and the Netflix series. The owners hadn’t agreed to everything the producers wanted, refusing to have murder scenes filmed at the hotel. According to the article from the Bangkok Post:

“The popular backpacker hotel where Sobhraj preyed on people exists today. (If you want to know where check out The Life And Crimes Of Charles Sobhraj.) In The Serpent, the shooting location was actually the Miami Hotel Bangkok in Sukhumvit 13.”

I’ve gone through my phase about finding everything out about Charles Sobraj, so I won’t be reading or watching anything about his life or times to track down the ‘popular backpacker hotel’ which was called Santa Cruz. I can’t find a current iteration online.

One fat man, British perhaps, came out of his room on the second mezzanine floor with last night’s date. He’d survived another night in Bangkok without a heart attack from being with a woman thirty years younger. Well done. A Korean couple took pictures by the pool. The man was short, very white, and muscular with gelled hair and the woman wore sunglasses and a swimsuit that didn’t reveal anything. I, too, wanted to get a good picture by the pool.

From the Miami, it’s a short walk to Terminal 21 Mall which has a wonderful food court on the top floor with street food prices. Most meals are between 30 and 70 baht. The regular price to eat at a mall in Bangkok – even if it’s just a bowl of noodles – is at least 160. I had chicken curry with rice and a fried egg for lunch. It went through me quickly but didn’t cause much discomfort. Something I like about Thai food in Thailand (as opposed to Thai food in NZ) is that many rice dishes are accompanied by a fried egg. We went back to the food court in the evening, and I had mixed seafood with rice. Both meals cost around 60 baht. The highlight was the coconut ice cream in a cone for 15 baht. That’s 42 US cents. I wish we had a food court with reasonable prices in Wellington. I’m not talking 42 US cents, but something less than the 400 baht we pay for noodles here. 

Behind Terminal 21 is the go-go bar street, Soi Cowboy. Famous or infamous since its inception in the 1970s, later it got Hollywood-level famous by appearing in the movie ‘The Hangover II.’ Longtime Bangkok nightlife observer Stickman calls it a tourist attraction rather than a real bar area like Nana Plaza down the road. Soi Cowboy, never mind what I got up to there twenty years ago, underwhelmed me this time despite all the neon and the fun of seeing girls outside the bars in bikinis trying to attract customers. M told me it didn’t compare with Amsterdam where topless girls can be seen from the street. M, who proclaimed the Thailand nightlife disgusted her not half an hour before, decided she wanted to have a look inside a bar. One joint wouldn’t let us in. Maybe they don’t allow female customers. We ended up as the only customers in a bar called Cowboy 2. The server was pleasant and of uncertain sex – not a biological male wearing super feminine clothing – but a woman in a baggy t-shirt and backwards baseball cap. Soft drinks were 110 baht – not a huge ripoff. The girls on stage gave it a half-hearted effort. Without us there, I suppose they’d have been resting. We weren’t likely to buy them lady drinks or bar fine them, so where was the motivation to perform? Only one could be described as attractive. But she had very fake boobs and obsessed over herself in the wall mirror. The girls didn’t change their positions on stage or remove their tops. I got bored because M always takes much longer than me to finish her drink. 

At a marijuana cafe on Soi Cowboy, a young European man sat at an outside table with a Coca-Cola in front of him. He stared into the distance with a look of abject horror on his face. Soi Cowboy is not the place you want to be alone and too stoned for your own good. Having had a similar experience recently, we thought about asking him if he was OK. But then, thankfully, his friend appeared.

In the area around Cowboy, we saw several guys walking hand in hand with obvious, but not too obvious ladyboys. You wonder whether the guy knows.  Maybe he does know but doesn’t want others to think he knows. Very confusing. Walking through the Skytrain station, we observed one young Indian man in negotiation with an attractive ladyboy. Not reaching an agreement, they went their separate ways. From Cowboy, it was a short walk down Sukhumvit Road to Soi 8, where we were staying.

At the end of Soi 8, away from the insalubrious nightlife, you can access Benchakitti Park through an Evangelical Church. Google Maps didn’t show me this option, it suggested a tortuous twenty-minute dogleg route from our hotel. Luckily, the church leaves its gates open – very Christian – allowing us to nip through to Soi 9, thus avoiding the dogleg. Crossing a very smelly canal even by Bangkok standards we came to the entrance of a seriously impressive park. The park has many sections, and the nearest to Soi 9 is the dog park, where locals and expats exercise their pedigree pooches. To have a dog in Thailand you must be there long term, although I suspect often one dog lives with a series of expat families. The dogs looked healthier than the dead-eyed tourists and expats down the other end of Soi 8. Beyond the dog section, is a running track around an artificial lake. The track must be two kilometres long. At the far end of the lake, is the Queen Sirikit Convention Centre, a massive building with a sleek minimalist design. This iteration of the building opened in 2022 after a renovation that increased the size of the facility at least three-fold. It must have cost billions of baht. Will it be used much? I can’t imagine such a development in the U.K., a country with a similar population. There is some serious money in Thailand. Conveniently, at the convenience store inside the convention centre, I could get my favourite toasted tuna sandwich for the normal price. 

We decided on a Grab taxi for our move to the Silom area rather than the Skytrain. To this point, we’d been using public transport in Bangkok. The driver, whose English was good despite an aversion to auxiliary verbs, proved informative and had a tragic story. Before picking us up, he rang M, who’d booked the Grab, to say he’d be late due to traffic. On arrival, he told us because he’d been working for fifty hours straight his skin had come out in a rash. He needed money to pay for his father’s cancer treatment. He complained about the price of petrol. Driving for Grab, he earnt only enough to buy the petrol to keep him on the road. Grab took a huge commission on his fares – over 30%. He showed me this on the app on his phone. Our fare was 202 baht and he’d have to pay 67 of that to Grab. Before he’d driven for Uber and they’d only taken 10%. With Uber life had been possible. But the powerful guy in charge of Grab in Thailand had got Uber kicked out of the country. This guy was connected and Uber didn’t want to have a big problem with the authorities, i.e. the military and the royal family. Grab now dominated the market, but instead of raising prices for users, they demanded more commission from drivers. This driver gave us a mountain of information in twenty minutes, but I think he said the controller of Grab also owned one of the beer companies. Much of what he said is hard to corroborate online. That doesn’t mean it’s not true.

He listed who had the big money in Thailand: the owner of 7-Eleven, the owners of Chang and Singha beer companies, the military, the royal family, and the Chinese.

“Something very wrong in Thailand sir, the military government selling everything to the Chinese. The Chinese buy everything and Thai people can afford nothing.” 

Thailand is not alone in that.

He told us he didn’t like the King… “But what about the King’s father, wasn’t he better? He did stuff for the people, right?” I asked.

“No sir, just the same. He came back to Thailand from overseas and made himself very rich. He made laws to stop anybody criticise him. What I say now I could go to jail and maybe I die very quickly in jail. I not care, sir, I tell you the truth.”

He said the former King, Rama IX, shot his brother, Rama VIII, to get into power. I’d heard this before, and if you look at the circumstances it’s not implausible. Watching an English language interview with Rama IX, he seems a considered, sophisticated man… I wouldn’t pick him as a killer… I realise that isn’t a scientifically based judgement. Later, I expressed my surprise to M at hearing a Thai criticise the royals, explaining that in Thailand you could indeed be thrown in jail for doing so. She asked how the driver knew I wasn’t a spy for the royalists. I said Thai royalists would be too xenophobic to hire a foreign spy. In Thailand, the amazingly named Rubbish Collection Organisation tasks itself with finding and doxing lèse-majesté offenders i.e. those violating the dignity of a ruler as the representative of a sovereign power.

A travel writer once dissed another (maybe Theroux on Naipaul?) saying they’d written up a number of dull conversations with taxi drivers that hardly counted as investigative travel writing. I didn’t think what I heard from the Grab driver dull, and on a shortish holiday, I didn’t intend to look under many rocks. He proceeded to unload some weighty personal stuff. His Altheimers-afflicted mother had jumped off a balcony to her death and his young daughter had never been to the beach. “‘Daddy beach beautiful? Daddy sand soft?’ My daughter ask me.” At this stage M and I were about in tears. The cancer treatment for his father was expensive as was his daughter’s schooling. His sister had taken up banana farming in the North and earnt next to nothing. He was trying to figure out how he could make more money. He’d worked for an oil company but the government had sold it to the Chinese and he lost his job.

Another target of his wrath was the 7-Eleven.

“Nobody say, sir, but people in Thailand dying of liver cancer because of the chemicals in the food…especially 7-Eleven, I only buy Coca-Cola from there.”

The brothers at the head of the 7-Eleven parent company, the sons of a Chinese immigrant, also controlled chicken farming in Thailand.

“He no allow you to farm chickens not from his stock sir. His chickens no good, genetic modified.”

It was hard to follow which ‘he’ the driver referred to sometimes. But in his defence, had he used Thai names, we would have been more confused. 

When I looked for the evils of 7-Eleven and its parent company online, I found articles on insider trading and this piece on Medium about the astronomical amounts of plastic bags they use. We kept going to the 7-Eleven after meeting the driver, reasoning the chemical-laden food would be fine for a few more days. On occasion, we managed to stop them from giving us plastic bags. M was more vigilant about this than me. M liked the plastic-wrapped rice dishes and I couldn’t get enough of the tuna sandwiches. We both loved the wide range of canned coffees. My favourite was the Birdy Latte with less sugar: it tasted much sweeter than the rest.

The 7-Eleven workers in Thailand impressed me with their efficiency. As well as manning the till, staff needed to heat rice dishes and sandwiches and make coffee. I think you could pay your bills and do basic banking there too. Even in crowded 7-Elevens, I found myself out the door with what I wanted before I knew it. By comparison, in the more basic convenience stores in Indonesia, I remember feeling impatient as they laboriously counted out my change. Thailand’s 7-Eleven employees had levels of efficiency equal to what I’d seen in Taiwan, a place where people take even the most menial job seriously thanks to the influence of Japanese ( definitely not Chinese) culture. A Marxist might use the 7-Eleven as an example of capital upgrades leading to an intensification of labour. The investment in microwaves, coffee machines, bill payment software etc. meant that staff had more tasks to complete than before, but for the same pay. The investment led to greater profits for business owners but did nothing for labour in this case. In my current job, an upgrade in technology – i.e. replacing computers from 2007 would help me in my labours. But there is no profit motivation for my organisation to do so.

The driver was a big fan of Thaksin, the former Prime Minister who the military kicked out of government. Thaksin had done things for the people, he’d prioritised education.

 “Maybe things’ll get better now that the military government lost the election? Isn’t there going to be a new prime minister?” I asked.

“No sir, they already made a scandal against him, saying he own television station. In Thailand the military have the power.”

Here we are a couple of months later (August 2023) and still no new prime minister – vindicating the driver. I don’t want to go further down the Thai politics rabbit hole. I’d do better to look at some NZ politics, there’s an election here later in the year… Argentine and Mexican politics are also more relevant to my immediate future. 

As we neared the hotel, the driver got lost, he’d been talking too much and not paying attention to google maps. We made it in the end though.

Scams are a part of overseas holidays. On this trip, I got scammed once in Cambodia and once in Vietnam – both times due to my own stupidity – but not in Thailand. Some, and they would be incredibly harsh to do so, might call the Grab driver a scammer, saying something along the lines of: “He’s like one of those bar girls asking for money because she needs to travel north for her grandmother’s seventh funeral.” I wouldn’t agree with them. The guy’s emotion was palpable. He wasn’t lying about his woes. Also in a capitalist world, he deserved more money, as he did add value. His rant was gold for this curious tourist. 

I gave him 260 baht and 10 NZD dollars. Meaning instead of giving him 6 USD I gave him 13. He seemed happy, and I dare say felt better after telling us his worries. As we walked up the steps to the entrance of the hotel, M suggested some kind of limpieza espiritual to get rid of the bad energy. I pictured someone waving a chicken in front of me. 

They’d be those scoffing at that tip. “You think that absolves you from using this country as a cheap holiday destination?” They too, would be off target. It’s not going to help the world to be this judgmental. There is a Thailand vlogger I watch called Cheap Charlie. He’s a bumbler, some would say a loser. He earns a living by making long live streams that get Superchat donations. He reminds me of the protagonist of the wonderful ‘An American Bum in China’ by Tom Carter…probably the best book about a hopeless, ne’er-do-well Westerner in Asia. Like others who film their every move, Charlie makes enemies. A German guy punched him because he thought Charlie was filming him in a girly bar. A guy told Charlie to shut the hell up when he was vlogging at a foot massage place. A young wokester got upset at Charlie vlogging in a cafe, claiming Charlie was making money off Thailand through his vlogs…”but what was Charlie doing for Thailand?”

Charlie’s answer was a good one. “I come and spend my money here.”

The hotel in Silom was more expensive than the others we’d stayed at and worth it. The garden area where they served breakfast was shaded by lovely trees, an oasis in the grubby, noisy metropolis. The only thing weird to the Western eye was the litter of 6-month-old kittens circling the tables, looking for scraps – ready to jump up on a table if they got a chance. Unhygienic and odd to have cats in a nice hotel? No, given the number of rats we’d seen in Bangkok, it made perfect sense.

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