Seeing the red flags flying on the beach at Koh Samet this week – and translating several stories about yet more capsizes in the nation’s seas and rivers – Rooster was reminded about a remarkable event in the 1980s that I remember to this day. Not least because it was one of the times this columnist came closest to going up in smoke inside a temple chimney.
This week was also a reminder that while the country has made some progress in becoming safer that progress is rather in the manner of cute, ineffectual and face-saving steps rather than any giant leaps into modernity.
It was May 1986 and along with my best Aussie mate Mark and girlfriend Lin we had decided to go to Koh Samet as we all had the following day off. The thunderstorm and torrential rain raging outside all night was not going to put these intrepid young people off.
We nearly changed our minds looking outside at Soi Sri Bamphen in the morning. The water was waist high for six-foot something Mark, nearly up to my chest and Lin needed a snorkel!
As we later found out it was the highest 24-hour rainfall – 12 inches – in 500 years of records. The entire downtown area of the city was completely inundated, far worse than we had ever experienced.
Still, a traveler has got to do what a traveler has to do – we set off for Ekkamai bus station on foot with our bags hoisted above our heads tentatively stepping along the middle of roads past abandoned cars hoping not to be swallowed up in uncovered drains.
The walk was well over two hours but we made it. It was memorable for many reasons not least of all for seeing diners at a noodle restaurant with waves from buses flooding over their knees, a taxi door opening and water flooding in making the driver laugh and watching people fishing – yes fishing with nets – in Rama IV. The ponds in Lumpini Park had disgorged their contents!
The bus journey to Ban Phe was largely uneventful and flood free but the stormy weather made us wonder if the fishing boats that ferried visitors to the island would be running. They weren’t.
But again, we were not to be denied. Using my fledgling Thai I persuaded one fisherman and his son to take just the three of us across for the normal 40 minute crossing. We armed ourselves with important “safety” equipment – a large bottle of Mekhong to swig from for Dutch Courage – and set sail.
How the boat didn’t sink and how I am sitting writing this 34 years later I will never know. The seas were mountainous and at one point we had to hold onto the roof to stop it blowing off in the wind. Two hours later we reached the other side. The boat captain was white. We were red. We’d finished the entire bottle of spirits and were completely sober, tanked up on whiskey with an adrenaline chaser.
Ten people, mostly Thai students, died in two separate boat disasters just meters from the Ban Phe shore that weekend. I resolved to never be such a gung-ho numpty again.
Like New Year resolutions, it didn’t last.
Back in Bangkok they held the annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony at Sanam Luang where sacred oxen ceremonially till the soil then chose various products to determine what the weather will be like for farmers in the coming year.
The oxen chose corn. Not surprisingly this signaled lots of rain.
This week as the monsoon raged throughout Thailand tourists were warned not to go in the sea. One foreigner washed up on a beach in Krabi. In Bangkok a pleasure boat belonging to a hotel in Koh Kud sank though all onboard were saved. A salvage operation was conducted to find the deceased from the Raja ferry sinking off Samui. Then a truck carrying coconuts was nearly deposited in the sea when a bridging ramp, also belonging to Raja, collapsed.
As if on cue, hapless tourism and sports minister Pipat came up with the latest sound bite to save the ever-sinking ship that is Thai tourism, a campaign entitled “Safe and Sealed”.
‘Safe’, that on the surface appeared utterly absurd, apparently referred to only allowing entry to tourists from non-Covid areas. ‘Sealed’ was the fact that Pipat intended to imprison his much-needed visitors from the moment they stepped off the plane.
But sealed? Rooster couldn’t banish the image of a nailed down coffin along with a Post-It note to the relatives that a committee of inquiry would be set up and no stone would be left unturned to get to the bottom of all the reasons Thailand has ever messed up!
Signed Fenix (sic).
Predecessor Khun Kobkarn was lucky to preside over a boomtime for Chinese travel to the kingdom. So her “ban the sex industry”, “promote Durian flavor Kit-Kat” and ‘get all tourists playing Pokemon-Go’ schemes were simply consigned to the bin of dim ideas.
Billionaire Pipat has faced tougher challenges in an era when, according to the Thai Chamber of Commerce, 2 trillion baht has gone AWOL, the economy is worse hit than after the Tom Yam Kung crisis of 1997 and tourism is down 83%.
Whatever you do minister, don’t take any boat trips.
The aftermath of 1997 was memorable. At first there was a bit of a “phony war” as everyone held their breath as to what the financial collapse in Thailand would mean for the region and the world. Rooster celebrated still having a good job by buying my first car, a new Soluna for just 374,000 baht. There was bewilderment at the showroom as the sales lady just stared at me. I don’t think she’d seen a customer for months. A Pepsi was found somewhere so I wouldn’t leave without buying and I was shown to a parking lot where columns of Toyotas gathered dust.
When I signed there and then on the dotted line, they couldn’t believe they’d made a sale. I arrived back the next day with an English pal; I couldn’t drive and he took me home. After six days practice I was confident to try a longer journey. I backed straight into a tree, a dent that remains to this day on my now ex’s car that has done one million kilometers.
The baht behaved very strangely back then and very differently to now. It collapsed from about 40 to the UK pound to 50 almost overnight. Then stabilized a little before gradually slipping ever further into the abyss (from a Thai savings perspective) to over 90. At some points it was changing a full three baht a day.
To those modern-day residents and tourists who think Thailand is unsafe nowadays and the baht is weird I have a simple message: You haven’t lived!
Of course, coronavirus and all its implications will inspire stories with which today’s newbies to the kingdom will regale their Thai grandchildren. This week warnings continued about a second surge far worse than the first. Seeing a huge crowd at a Nakhon Sri Thammarat concert with nary a soul wearing a mask made people jittery. The organizers face jail for that and it may well be warranted.
Jail is also something that might once again be in the back of the mind of Red Bull Boss. After Uncle Too jumped up and down remembering he was a paid public servant and not a tinpot general, the case was recommended for reopening.
“Surpris Surpris” as my French grandmother used to say. Now he had taken cocaine and it wasn’t his dentist. Now he was doing 177 kmph when he dragged Sgt Wichian around Thong Lor in 2012. Now he would have to face the music.
If he ever leaves Silverstone and comes back to the “Sukhumvit-ring”, that is.
Plod in Chiang Mai got their collective fingers out again to find out if the death of a key witness, who was convinced that Boss was driving sensibly, was really an accident. Frankly Boss could have done with his testimony even though finding someone in the case who is not lying is like finding a farang who can say “mai mai mai mai, chai mai” (green wood doesn’t burn, does it?) correctly.
Meanwhile, TAT chief Yuthasak and BFF Pipat announced that they were turning to expats and their love of discovering Thailand to revive tourism. The tourism council chief insisted that it was time to welcome back Mr and Mrs Woo.
Rooster decided to go with “All is Forgiven” on the first story – a reference to DPM Anutin’s dirty farang tirades – but decided that using the expression in a story about the Chinese might leave Thaivisa open to accusations of Trump style “WuFlu” flaming.
My editor somehow resisted the temptation to accompany the foreigners to the rescue story with a photoshopped farang riding down Walking Street on a white stallion.
The head of the hoteliers’ association called for a 100 billion baht fund to help the tourism industry and large scale expansion of “soft loans”.
Let’s face it Thailand needs all tourists. People in the industry are worse than desperate. It was also good to see that a petition urging the government to reunite lovers separated by the pandemic was receiving online attention. It came out of a hashtag trending around the world #LoveIsNotTourism.
Indeed it’s not, otherwise Mrs R would have packed me off to a hotel years ago. She was happier this week after receiving her blood pressure meds through the post. This ever-expanding initiative is excellent and keeping hospital visits to a minimum
Top crime of the week was a shootout at a gambling den in Rama 3 where several people failed to beat the odds. As always happens when the shenanigans at casinos come to light, this case resulted in the transfer to inactive posts of a met commander, a station chief and four senior underlings.
I love using the term under-ling as it reminds me of monkeys in Thailand.
A couple of days later as the new station chief got his feet under the trough, all the CCTV at the casino was secretly removed and bloodstained baccara tables went missing. The locals were sure that Thung Mahamek plod had not been round.
Big Too again pretended to be a civilian saying that the police were now his concern and not those of Big Pom. One almost expected him to say that there mustn’t be corruption “not on MY watch”.
Top story for interest among those who need to extend visas in Thailand came when a woman variously reported as “Grace”, aged 34, was nabbed with 55 fake stamps she allegedly used at the interestingly named “Thai Visa Centre” (no relation) in Bang Na. Big Oud – Immigration Bureau chief Sompong Chingduang – had got a warrant for forging documents from the Chachoengsao court but even this former border policeman expressed surprise at the arrest in Bangkok.
Upstairs at the house plod found 60 marijuana plants and such items as a vacuum packer and lots of plastic bags. Grace’s American better half Chad was also carted off muttering that the “organic” ganja was all for his medical use.
He must be in a lot of pain, or soon will be.
One could almost hear those who have paid under the table for “visa processing” scurrying for cover. The visa center said there had been a lot of misreporting and many posters praised their service. Methinks that many in this case are speaking with a forked tongue.
In related news, the full legalization of medical marijuana became a step closer as Anutin’s pre-election pledge got closer to ratification. This will mean that medical practitioners, traditional healers and those with a doctor’s certificate will be able to grow weed. And it will pave the way for ganja that has been seized to be used to make legal drugs.
It is high time that the law is amended, pun intended.
Main news to come out of QUOTES this week was a group of 100 hopefuls gathering mussels blown onto Jomtien beach. Many on the Facebook arm of the Thaivisa forum suggested this was a sure way to get Pattaya Bellyache (different to the pains induced by sitting on a barstool all day) from the filthy sea.
But the real reason for not eating the shellfish came from marine biologist and arch Pattaya poster Professor Thon of Kaset uni fame. He noted there had been a plankton bloom and many of the mussels washed ashore in the monsoon would have already died.
One of the only things that has made Rooster seriously ill in Thailand is eating a lot of mussels in the crispy omelet street dish “hoi thort”. I failed to treat amoebic dysentery properly, developed an abscess in my liver and was obliged to enter St Louis Hospital for a week and miss seven weeks of employment.
Not to worry though; my cheeky nurse in the hospital was called Apassara and constantly giggled her way through the week when I compared her to Thailand’s first Miss Universe of the same name.
In international news thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the port in Beirut exploded killing well over 100 and injuring many thousands. Some estimates put the explosive power at one tenth that of Hiroshima, the 75th anniversary of which was commemorated on Thursday.
The Lebanon disaster brought to mind an explosion of potassium chlorate in San Pa Tong district of Chiang Mai in 1999 that killed 36 factory workers and damaged hundreds of houses injuring many members of the public. This chemical has been mixed with other substances and is used as a fertilizer by lamyai (longan) farmers.
In virus news Queensland and New South Wales shut their border as Australia continued to experience renewed problems.
In the US Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic filed for bankruptcy though rather like THAI it is a ruse to save the company, not an admission it has utterly failed. I knew a plummy teacher who taught Branson at high school in the UK. He always gave him a “D” with a “could do better” report.
As much as I like this story, I preferred one wag on Facebook who said that the only thing Mr Branson was good for was his pickle.
At a deserted Wembley Stadium full back Joe Bryan scored twice to win the richest game in world sport and propel Fulham back into the English Premier league at the first time of asking. They beat Brentford 2-1.
Back in Thailand a list of 34 top end hotels and suites was announced for well-heeled businessmen and foreigners as part of “alternative quarantine” to state sponsored 14-day porridge. One was 500,000 baht for the two weeks. I just hope that the maid is removing the virus from the gold-plated bath taps.
Fortunes varied in the week’s road accidents. In Bangkok a man who was a “pantomime villain” in the Likay theater played good Samaritan and stopped for a cop stranded on an elevated road. Along came a pick-up and the actor was thrown below to his death and the police caption was crushed. The actor’s girlfriend who was in the parked Civic phoned her boyfriend and not surprisingly got no reply.
Fortune was better for a lady called Arunee who found herself in the path of a careening dust cart hurtling round a bend in Rayong. Along with a 15-year-old on a motorcycle she somehow managed to see another day. Reporters first on the scene only had one question in their minds.
What amulet are you wearing?
It was a question Rooster might have been asked all those years ago in Samet.