Soda Pop Gods

How riots, food and patriots keep Bangkok bubbling.

By Steve Burgess 6 Feb 2007 |

Steve Burgess is filing reports home from his six-week tour of Asia.

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Politicians come and go, King Rama is forever.

Hello from Bangkok, where the gods love Fanta. All the little street shrines have a couple of open bottles of the bright red variety. Cream soda, if I know the gods.

It's all intended to ward off trouble. And the precautions are warranted. Bangkok has had more than its share in the past year. Last fall's military coup deposed the government of Prime Minister Shinawatra Thaksin and briefly put tanks in the streets. New Year's Eve celebrations were blown away by mysterious bombs that killed three and injured 38. Much Fanta was sacrificed then. But last weekend, the headlines told of more trouble -- rioting near a Bangkok stadium. The problem: sold-out tickets to the big soccer grudge match with Singapore. Fans didn't believe the tickets had been distributed on the square. As a riot-inducing issue, it is instructive.

Outsiders bemoan the loss of Thai democracy, but most Thais tend to shrug. Peace, order, good government and the king. Prime ministers and military leaders come and go but Thais revere their King Bhumibol Rama IX, who is now 79. Last year, the 60th of his reign, Thais wore the royal yellow every Monday. Many still do. "What happens when he dies?" I asked one local.

The shocked reply: "Don't say that!"

More patriotic than US?

Thai patriotism is powerful. When the anthem is played in public the chaos of Bangkok streets and markets freezes as everyone stands at attention. The night I arrived they played the first leg of the Asean Cup final against rival Singapore. As often happens, soccer and politics blended with the series -- Singapore has been an important base for deposed Prime Minister Thaksin, who recently visited there. Thaksin's downfall may have been sealed when he flouted Thai tax law to sell his massive family firm to a Singapore government telecom company, enraging many Thais. Time to show those arrogant Singaporeans a thing or two.

As luck would have it, a blown call in game one led to a penalty kick and the winning Singapore goal, but not before the Thai team walked off in protest for 15 minutes. With the second match set for Bangkok, extra security was planned to protect Singapore players and fans. Bombs? Hell, that was last month.

Bangkok is as vibrant a city as exists on this planet, full of marvels and overstuffed with energy. Bangkok is also hideously ugly, and it smells bad. There's a corner I pass on Sukhumvit Road so pungent it almost makes me retch, and a lot of people seem to have beaten me to it. A cab ride in the Bangkok traffic can make you pray for death, which, considering the lack of seatbelts, is always a possibility.

Food on the edge

Today, as on many previous occasions, I plunked myself down on a plastic stool to eat noodles at a street kitchen. This time, though, I suddenly took note of my surroundings. Just above the woman who stood flash-frying greens, egg and noodles in a propane-fuelled wok, dark, grungy plastic sheets drooped from a tattered overhead frame. Down on the stained cement, a tailless calico cat limped by with a bandage wrapped around its ribs. This was surely the dingiest alley I had ever entered, certainly with the intention of dining.

But after several visits, Bangkok engenders in one a sort of foolhardy confidence. Scenes that would scare the bejabbers out of you somewhere else are just part of the package here. Carry on, and when the food arrives all will be well. It always is. Although it must be said that on many mornings there's a moment of pleasant realization that yesterday's meal did not result in gastroenteritis.

After the New Year's bombings the Canadian government warned against travel here. Is it dangerous? Maybe if you wear a Singapore football shirt. The bombings, however, do not seem to concern people very much (and that includes tourists, who still arrive in record numbers). That may be because the truth, while still veiled in confusion, is to some extent an open secret here. It seems the bombers were not Muslim extremists from the south, or aggrieved supporters of Thaksin as first suggested, but military people. (Arrests were made, but the suspects were subsequently released, at least for now.) Consistent with the very complex world of Thai politics, it looks like a disgruntled military faction may have taken its struggle to the streets. But cowed by unanimous public condemnation -- everyone rallied around the King -- the plotters backed off. Most of all, Thais want things to go smoothly.

Fresh lubricant has come from the return of small-scale corruption. While the military government battles major corruption on projects like the troubled airport, the small everyday payoffs have been on the rebound since the coup. Nightclubs can stay open later now that Thaksin's curfews have been replaced by old-fashioned palm grease.

Meanwhile the gods are bought off with Fanta. Alas, they are not always appeased. In an exciting return match, Singapore scored a late goal to draw 1-1 and win the Asean Cup with an aggregate score of 3-2. There was no violence, though. Perhaps the cream soda did the trick after all.

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