Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Thailand Journal XI: The Chao Phraya

Photograph by Hallie Cohen
The Chao Phraya River runs through Bangkok and sports its own version of Venice’s Vaporetto that can take you directly to the city’s famed flower market, Pak Khlong Talat. Even as demonstrators close down parts of the city, the gracious colonial style ferry, with its teak seats, that runs guests from the fitness center and cooking school to the main building of the luxurious Mandarin Oriental continues back and forth all day and into the night, impervious to the tides of change sweeping the country. But it’s important to note that the current demonstrations sweeping Bangkok have been initiated by the middle classes. This is not the Khmer Rouge or Pol Pot, not a grass roots uprising against the bourgeoisie. Actually it’s the reverse, an uprising by the bourgeoisie in protest against a corrupt government that doesn’t allow for a fair playing field. The current state of affairs exemplifies just one peculiarity in the sociopolitical structure of Bangkok and by proxy Thailand itself. Bangkok is full of contradictions. Low lying structures covered with soot lie in the shadow of modern luxurious skyscrapers. There’s an eerie kinship between poverty and luxury. The respect that's accorded in the very way Thais greet both strangers and friends, holding their palms together in a bow, can be a gesture of respect or the prelude to a hustle. Tuk Tuk and cab drivers are constantly on the make and Bangkok can be so hectic with the insane bargaining that accompanies nearly every transaction that one’s head begins to spin. Pantip Plaza is a curiosity, a building which is probably one of the biggest tech bazaars in the world. Thai computer wizards attend small shops which are really stalls. If you have ever been to the night market in Chiang Mai or other Thai cities, you will recognize the provenance of Pantip Plaza. Only what’s for sale are not the ubiquitous Buddhas or elephants sculptures, but Apple service plans.

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