The taxi driver is philosophic when I ask how people are coping now.

“Mai pen rai”, he shrugs.

A ubiquitous Thai phrase that means anything from "It’s OK, no problem," or "Let it go," or, as now, "We’re hanging in there".

The city is struggling back to its feet, trying to regain the momentum, desperate to woo back the tourists that underpinned so much of Bangkok’s economy but it’s struggling against the ever-present danger of Red Shirt flare-ups, demonstrations which the city now accepts with sullen resignation.

No one talks about the devastation that occurred during the Red/Yellow civil war, when the military was called out and much prime CBD real estate went up in flames. Bangkok was once a fortified city.

And now, coming back to Bangkok, after that time, I realise how old this city is, how little known, really, away from the shopping malls and the Sky Train suburbs.

You can still see the old city walls, at the corner of Rajadamnern and Maha Chai roads and the 18th century guard tower encrusted with cannons. 

It’s a part of Bangkok that even Thais forget about, yet Klong Ong Ang, one of the few klongs left in the city, is where you can still catch a longtail taxi boat and be ferried across the Chao Phraya, the Great River.  

Mention to Thai friends that I’ll be working in Pattaya, and they raise polite, curious eyebrows.

Pattaya’s sin-and-sleaze reputation remains though the numbers of older farang males seems to have diminished slightly, possibly because of an increased Thai police presence along the beachfront.  But Pattaya is also home to the Fr. Ray Foundation, a pleasant meandering sprawl of buildings comprising a school, orphanage, hospital, old peoples’ home and a vocational centre for people with disabilities.

Ray was a feisty American Redemptorist priest working in Bangkok at the height of the Vietnam war when GIs on R&R brought serious dollars but also serious social side effects, such as the baby Fr. Ray found on his doorstep one morning.

He took the child in, then, realising there were others, born to usually young girls who worked in bars and had few resources when they fell ill or pregnant, started, on shoestring funding, an orphanage, which grew into the Foundation it is today.

“What will we do with the children when you leave, when you go back home ?” his anxious parishioners asked.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he replied, and he didn’t.

British and Scandinavian students on their gap years fly in now to teach English for a term or two at Fr. Ray’s school as do American and Australian retirees.

Living in a Thai soi gives a insight into the unique nature of Thai society.

The lane I live on, our soi, is home to hardworking Thai families, often two or three generations, who work in small businesses, drive cabs, sell food and proudly offer their sons to the local Buddhist monastery or the country’s armed services.

As everywhere in Thailand, from every house along the soi flutters the red, white and blue national flag, alongside the gold, His Majesty’s personal standard.

The flags flutter patriotically from balconies and gateposts, and the taxi driver two houses down displays a wide sticker on his taxi that says "God Save Our King".

Even the humblest street pedlar’s cart, and there are many carts selling all kinds of bits and pieces, that traverse the soi, each day, each with its own street cry or bell, flies a tattered flag in honour of the much-loved monarch.

My neighbours, to the left and right are two ancient, but extremely active ladies, both in their eighties, Auntie Gun – pronounced ‘goon’ – and Mrs Cabbage, who spend their days sitting on a wooden bench watching the world of the soi go by.

Their names are nicknames, and every Thai has at least two or three.

Auntie Gun’s favourite passers-by are the monks who walk the district very early, allowing the charitable to gain merit by offerings of food or money. 

But as the last monk was held up for almost an hour by Auntie while she summoned her friends to have him bestow blessings, no monks now venture into our soi.

Mrs Cabbage doesn’t miss the monks, preferring the Sunday morning services offered by a fundamentalist Christian preacher across Bangkok in Lumbini.

The preacher from Singapore, backed up by electronic accompaniments worthy of a travelling rock star, had, Auntie Gun tells us, cackling merrily, to make a hurried departure back to Singapore when his inflammatory remarks on "graven images" aroused the ire of Lumbini Buddhists.

Mrs Cabbage, who rather enjoyed the show, is discreetly silent.

Auntie Gun is also a wonderful source of information of shopping, the buying of household goods and cooking tips. Farangs, she insists, smell bad because they eat so much meat, and this meat-eating also attracts mosquitoes, which is why westerners are bitten more than Thais in the wet season when mosquitoes breed.

Mai pen rai. Bangkok is still a nice place, all things considered.


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