Remembering Bangkok

In 2004 I was an unemployed public school teacher in California, fed up with my inability to find a job as the recession was taking hold in California, and thinking I would write a book on using frequent flyer programs to travel the world inexpensively.

I had United Airlines Mileage Plus 1K status and an opportunity to pick up 85,000 redeemable miles and 17,000 EQM from a single $550 ticket to Bangkok, Thailand when Mileage Plus gave 4x miles to members who signed up before the promotion was corrected based on their promotion wording screwup for a 3x miles offer.

Today I came across some diary entries from that Bangkok trip while trying to find my Excel tables on hotel-points-to-miles exchange rates. Yesterday I watched a couple of stories on PBS News Hour and BBC World News on the current flooding in Bangkok. Here is a Huffington Post piece from last week on the Thailand flooding.

Bangkok Diary February 2004

At breakfast in the Westin Grande Sukhumvit lounge I listened to a couple of American doctors discussing how they were going to speak frankly about sexual transmission of AIDS to the Thai government officials they were meeting at a conference in Bangkok.  They decided on a strategy of directness with an attempt to not be insulting.

The newspaper articles I read this week said a move has been on since 2001 to scale back the sex trade in Thailand and beginning March 1, 2004 there will be greater restrictions on the legal hours of nightclubs and bars.  Apparently the entertainment areas used to run all night long.

There was also a move to set a 10 PM curfew for children under the age of 18, unless accompanied by their parents, to try and reduce the child prostitution and immoral influence of night culture on teenagers.  Both these impending laws are receiving some protest by the affected groups.  Teenagers complain of the difficulty for legitimate activities as social birthdays, night classes, and sports often occur after the hour of 10pm and their parents are frequently too busy to accompany them.

There was a news story about female workers in textile trades making 400 to 1,000 Baht ($10-25) a month for 70 hour work weeks in sewing sweatshops with limited toilet privileges. Too many people are waiting to take their jobs, so they have no option to complain.

There were a couple of articles about Mimi Driver visiting workers this past week while touring Bangkok on her way to Cambodia.  The Royal Family of Sweden and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands also passed through Bangkok recently and visited shelters during their stays with the Thai Royal family.

City Shopping 

I walked down an alley after leaving MBK shopping center which I thought would take me directly over to the parallel street leading to another shopping center where I’d seen an internet cafe.  It started out being a typical small alley with food vendors, stray dogs and cats, and workers pushing carts of goods and foods.

Bangkok alley

There was a local elementary school on my left behind a large metal gate. I could see through the metal gate and inside the large open doors about 100 feet from the alley were 50 children sitting on the classroom floor chanting.  A couple of women were bringing a cart of aromatic hot food through the metal school gate as I passed.

As I walked between high metal walls the alley way narrowed until it was only a paved sidewalk two feet wide, and soon after, the pavement was gone altogether.  There were dozens of dwellings constructed of corrugated aluminum, plywood, and scraps of board pieced together into a mosaic of a dwelling wall.  Inside the dark rooms I saw toddlers playing on the floors, women sewing shirts, men fixing motorbikes, children and families preparing meals and doing dishes.

There was no electricity and as I walked deeper into this maze of slum dwellings the alley was just wide enough for one person to move by at a time without stepping off into the mud.

There were several men digging a ditch and laying pipe along one portion of the alley.  They had no motorized machinery.  They used hand spades to cut a trench about 30 feet along.  One of the workers looked to be a boy, 12 or so. They were up to their knees in water and I watched them for a minute.  One of the men smiled and motioned to me to join them in digging.  I laughed and told them the work looked too hard for me.  I doubt anyone understood me.

There was another group of men nearby sitting in the shade, talking and playing cards.  I was at the point where I thought I should be coming out to the major road I was heading toward, but the straight narrow alley had closed in completely and I had to make a right turn along the path.  Haphazard structures closed in around me as I continued along the alley.

I had a choice to either turn around or venture on.

This urban slum in the middle of one of Bangkok’s most upscale shopping districts attracted me. Most of the people I passed smiled at me, and there were hundreds of them looking out from their little, dark rooms. I had that feeling of being in a place that could be dangerous, yet at the same time feeling these people were not going to bother me as I passed by their homes.

I ventured on.

There was a small clearing in the jumble of shacks with a playground placed in the shade of two large trees.  Several kids were swinging on the swingset and just being kids laughing and smiling in play.

A tiny old woman sat in a little metal chair watching the children play.  This slum appeared to me as a commonplace community for Bangkok alleys with little stores and food stalls interspersed between the shacks.

At one location I could see over the wall separating the slum from luxury hotels.   I snapped a photograph of a set of newly made garments hanging on a line between these two slum houses next to the high metal wall separating the slum from modern Bangkok’s luxury condo skyscrapers on the next block.

Two chickens pecking at grains in the mud were milling around the front of one shack and walking around dirty dishes in soapy water tubs on the ground.  Apparently nobody had been in this neighborhood to kill the food source. Millions of chickens have been killed in Bangkok in the past few months to combat avian flu virus and there are not supposed to be any live chickens in the city.


So, if I come down with avian flu virus I can blame it on my wanderlust.

Buddhist monks pray for 26 million slaughtered chickens in Thailand Feb 2004.

The mid-day heat made me thirsty and I was exasperated with the maze of paths through the housing area.  I just couldn’t find my way out of the slum. I wandered for about 35 minutes between the dark homes, unable to get directional help from any of the local people.  If they spoke English there might be upward mobility out of this place.  English language development seems to be the primary educational focus for the urban population in Thailand. Tourism is the avenue so many of the Thai people use to gain better economic standing.

I was at a crossroads, or more accurately a crosspaths where there were three routes I could take.  The housing was two floors high and the path so narrow that I couldn’t see over the buildings to get a bearing of my location.  The paths I had taken weren’t straight lines so basically I was wandering through a maze and constantly turning between the houses, workshops, and food stalls/markets.

A group of young guys on a second floor porch were looking down at me.  I asked in English which way I needed to go to get to the street.  One of them motioned to turn left and within a couple of minutes I found myself exiting out of the housing slums and into an open construction site.  There was the shopping mall I had been looking for just a couple of hundred yards away.

Hand laborers were carting concrete blocks and sand in bags and loading dump trucks.  There were several large construction cranes and heavy earth moving equipment doing the groundwork for another shopping mall or condo complex or office building or luxury hotel.

The realization that the slum community I had been immersed in for the previous hour had a limited life kind of saddened me.  The people will be relocated as their slum dwellings are razed to allow modern development.

The slums literally abut the deluxe shopping center of designer label stores like Burberry and Gucci.  There were a half dozen young women with their babies and toddlers on the smooth tiled walkways leading into one side of the shopping center.  Children ran around barefoot on the polished stone in the sun and shade while mothers toiled with sewing or handicrafts or just sat sleeping in the shade of the shopping center steps.


About Ric Garrido

Ric Garrido of Monterey, California started Loyalty Traveler in 2006 for traveler education on hotel and air travel, primarily using frequent flyer and frequent guest loyalty programs for bargain travel. Loyalty Traveler joined BoardingArea.com in 2008.

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  1. Good stuff. your writing made me feel I was there.

    Your experience is what makes traveling more than just tourism: you saw everyday life and not just what the marketing tourism boards have “packaged” for your consumption.

  2. Great article – I remember working in Bangkok on Petchburi Road back in about 2003 in a shiny new office tower of marble and glass with a two story water fountain in the lobby.

    Just to the left side of the building in the empty lot, was a little shanty town just as you described – no electricity, corrugated steel walls and guys working with only their hands. The difference between the haves and the have not’s was very evident.

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