Flirting with Treason in the Thai Capital

The weight of a collective gasp hung heavy in the air as I slapped my flip-flop down to stop a rolling coin. I lifted my foot to reveal the face of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, staring up at me with a look of indignation from the dulled and dirty surface of some denomination of baht. He did not look impressed.

The mob that amassed behind me joined the King and sneered.

As soon as I realised what I had done, I felt the sweat collect on the back of my neck then disappear as quickly as it formed, by the good graces of an air-conditioning unit whirring above the ticket machine. Performing with the care of a museum conservator, I gently lifted it from the speckled floor, whilst warily dusting the side adorned by the King with amplified affectation. I wanted to make it plainly obvious to the baying throng that I wasn’t deliberately disrespecting the monarchy. The Thai people take their royal family seriously; even the slightest show of disrespect can land you in hot water. This time, however, I was lucky enough to escape with just hot air.

I poked the desecrated coin into the slot, and my ticket shot out. I heaved my bag over my shoulder and hightailed it to the subway. The eyes followed me down underground until I boarded the train and fell into a seat. I nervously checked over my shoulder to ensure I wasn’t being tailed by one of Thailand’s sixty-something million royalists. I was snapped out of my paranoia by an old man sat across from me who smiled and said something in Thai. It was only half-understood and even less expected, but it took the edge off.

I arrived unscathed on the other side at Hua Lamphong and emerged to join the procession on the surface. I noticed the power-lines overhead, which snaked, coiled and weaved in every direction. They fizzed angrily as electricity coursed through them towards the shopfronts, street lights and speakers.

As if buoyed by the surge, one of the speakers dangling above my head came to life and issued a muffled throat clearing. The nation stood still. I stopped dead in my tracks and straightened myself up – I’d already disrespected the King once today, I thought, best to play this one safe.

“Please stop your activities and stand up to honour the flag of Thailand,” a man demanded before the anthem belted out. All across the country, twice a day, morning and night, the Thai people join each other in this ritual. On the streets, in shops, and even in cinemas.

The assemblage ends with the rallying cry, “All Thais are ready to give up every drop of blood. For the nation’s safety, freedom and progress. Hooray!”

Then, as quickly as they stopped, the crowd were back up and running. Through the tumult, people moved with purpose. Some slipped through the crush with consummate ease, whilst I floundered under the sun’s oppression. I had to stop under the shade of a coconut stand for a moment’s respite – and I had lost my lighter in the melee. so I thought I’d ask the vendor. I ignited an invisible one with my thumb whilst waving a cigarette.

Khrap,” he said while nodding, and fumbled in his pocket.

His hands carried the history of his work. It was a résumé made flesh. The man was missing part of his left thumb, and his other fingers were warped and whittled, a storied career, it would seem. I gawped at what remained of his thumb, wondering if it inhibited his ability.

He noticed me looking, and without uttering a word he picked one out of the barrel, threw it in the air and buried his machete in it, before slamming it down and quickly going to work, hacking in precise bursts with an engineer’s eye for geometry. He propped a tiny umbrella and a straw in the shell, then handed it to me whilst grinning from ear to ear. I checked my shirt for blood and counted his digits – all nine and a half, present and correct. I paid the man and waited for my heart rate to slow before heading towards the train station.

Bangkok’s traffic can be dense, dangerous and deranged, and it's no surprise that Thailand is second in the world for the number of deaths by road accident. Many of the road users in the Thai capital have become adept at navigating this chaos, but farang like me are hopeless. Those with a weaker stomach have been humbled in the face of this rash and unforgiving game of winner stays on.

Whilst standing there at the intersection, I was witnessing Darwin’s survival of the fittest in action. Those with a sharp sense to survive did so – dancing with death in order to pass their fearlessness on to the next generation.

I waited for an age it seemed, for a signal or a lull in traffic. Each time I thought that I had spotted an opening, the blood coursed through my veins and my chest puffed out. I made a dash for the centre, only to retreat three steps in, to evade an onrushing cab, and certain death. After numerous renditions of this pitiful dance, a middle-aged woman – dressed head to toe in hot pink velour – stopped to explain to me that the lights were out. She put her hand out straight and mimicked a fish swimming through water.

“Be like a shark,” she said, before laughing and immediately darting off to the side I’d been trying to reach for an eternity, her perm bobbing as she slid across the tarmac, weaving between the vehicles. I eventually summoned up the courage and made a run for it, almost decorating the bonnet of a rusty Ford Cortina on my way. Using the pink lady’s advice I finally made it.

Hua Lamphong station is handsome, yet brutish and imposing. It seems to sprawl out left and right for miles from the sweeping glass arch of the central hall, its summit topped by the triumphant flag of the Kingdom of Thailand. It is a symbol of what was – in the early twentieth century – Siam’s relentless pursuit of consolidation and modernisation, and many iconic buildings in the capital carry the hallmarks of Renaissance revival, a symbol of Thai class.

Inside, the booking hall was flanked by row upon row of blue plastic seats, separated by a void. Train announcements were often followed by the sound of hundreds of sticky bodies pulling away from the shiny plastic, as they made their way to their platform.

At the front, under the flickering neon of the departures board and a commanding portrait of the King, were a handful of glossy teak pews, cordoned off with red rope – an area specifically reserved for Buddhist monks. The benches creaked as the bald men draped in saffron silently shuffled to make space for their brothers.

Around the perimeter, vendors packed their products into matchbox plots, hoping to tempt those too impatient to wait quietly with pad Thai, bubbles, or books by His Majesty. I curiously flipped through the pages of one, on the cover of which was the late King himself, moving forward with a map folded under his arm, an image which is iconic in Thailand, and emblematic of the country’s progress in recent decades. Almost everywhere you look in Thailand, portraits hung of the King casting his golden glow over the Thai people, keeping watch.

My train had arrived, so I peeled myself off the seat and started for the platform behind the monks in a swarm of saffron, which edged forward as though it had no place in particular to go. I threw my bag under my seat and drifted off as the train hurtled past stray dogs basking in the sunset on tin roofs along the banks of the Chao Phraya river.

Twelve hours and some four-hundred-odd miles north of Bangkok, the sun rose and broke through the dust-caked window as the sleeper train lurched closer to Chiang Mai  – alongside the verdant expanse of the Doi Khun Tan national park, the open highways of Lamphun, and finally to the red-brick waiting rooms and potted plants that stippled an otherwise empty train station platform.

I checked my watch and noticed that we were due a national anthem at any minute. I put down my apple – which was artfully and unnecessarily carved into the likeness of a swan – emphatically straightened myself up once again, and waited in gleeful anticipation to hum along to the rallying cry with my transient compatriots.

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