To the flutter of tricolour flags and the blast of folk-pop tunes, a group of bikers gathered on the main road in Bangkok’s Chinatown and revved their engines. Protests against ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s repatriation had been hitting headlines for a few weeks, but this was the first day of voting in national elections and demonstrators were upping the heat. It was also DD’s birthday, and the start of our escape from Beijing for Chinese New Year when locals leave for their hometowns and the city becomes deathly quiet.
After doing the obligatory whip round tourist-infested temples, we’d jumped back on the riverboat and ended up in Chinatown – one of Bangkok’s most vibrant hubs and a jungle of street food vendors and market stalls. As we reached a big junction we saw the commotion to our right.
“Uh-oh,” I said.
“Shall we abort?” DD said. True to his cautious nature, DD had studied the UK government’s advice on travelling to Thailand every day before we came and noted the larger protest sites. This one in Chinatown, however, seemed spontaneous and small.
“I’m still hungry though,” I said.
“OK, let me consult the guidebook.”
So it came to be that, while the locals rallied each other to raise their voices against the might of their rulers, a few feet away DD stood with his backpack between his legs and his nose in the Lonely Planet, while I thought about joining the cluster of onlookers who were pointing their gadgets at the spectacle and posting pictures online.
In truth, the protests we’ve seen so far have been unintimidating, with the flavour of a festival minus the joy and the chaos. When we first took the elevated train line from the airport, we couldn’t work out whether the families and couples around us carrying tricolour paraphernalia were going to the protests or to some concert in the National Stadium. As it turns out, they camp out in tents with their shoes neatly lined up outside, and they sit in rows on sheets watching anti-Thaksin speeches on big screens. Police are still staying out of it and the grenades of a few days ago already seem a distant memory. As for us, once we’re couped up – so to speak – in our Western hotel, all we hear of the demonstrations are shrill whistles and really loud, bad karaoke singing.
There’s a vague sense of guilt that comes with being a tourist sipping cocktails and lying beside infinity pools while the messy task of dealing with reality is left to the locals. But for DD and me, the guilt started earlier when we booked our holiday, when we decided not to spend Chinese New Year exploring China, our new adopted home.
“It’s really bad, but I just don’t feel comfortable going around China,” we said to each other by way of self-justification. We’d heard that, outside of the major cities, it’s very difficult to get around as a foreigner. Speaking decent Mandarin doesn’t help you negotiate transport systems and hotel bookings, and even people we’d put down as down-to-earth adventurers opt for tour packages.
While we love to travel and normally try new things, DD and I have already shocked ourselves by how little we venture beyond our comfort zone in Beijing, let alone the rest of the country. We mainly blame hostile roads and public transport, inflexible language barriers and the absence of anything really appealing – aside from olde worlde streets which we appreciate more for their aesthetic than their offerings, and slightly different versions of Western bars that manufacture rather than breed an authentic atmosphere.
So we’ve discovered that, bizarrely, it’s easier and cheaper to leave China than attempting to explore the country itself, something that the thousands of Brits squeezing on Easyjet flights every year to sunny somewhere anywhere might agree with.
In fact, Bangkok’s attractions are currently packed with Europeans and Chinese. Our hotel is full of Germans, Chinese group tours snake through temples and rooftop bars host sun-wrinkled tight-shirted white guys who look like extras from The Hangover II. This is all thanks to the Thai people who are friendly with foreigners, keen to take their money, and unoffended by their cultural faux pas and insistence that they speak English.
“What’s ‘thank you’ in Thai again?” DD said, as he flipped to the back pages of the Lonely Planet for the fifth time.
“I think it was three words… and they all started with ‘k’,” I suggested helpfully.
Having found it, DD tried saying it a few times, with the right inflections and at natural speed. He then tried saying it to the waitress, but mumbled it so quietly and quickly and only after she’d turned her back, that it evaporated into the warm Bangkok air.
“It’s so hard,” he said sadly.
“Just as well we’re not trying to learn a foreign language back home,” I said. And he looked even sadder.