Part 3 – Vigilantes in Bangkok

Our friends Pui and Burkay hosted us for about a week and a half at their condo in Sukhumvit, which was interesting because Sukhumvit looks nothing like the rest of Thailand.  A favorite spot for the long-term foreigner community in the city, this neighborhood is home to offices and residential high-rises, gourmet international restaurants, speciality grocery stores, spas and tailor shops.

But as usual, Minah and I were exploring at street-level, on the hunt for cheap lunch near Phlom Phong (**??) station.  I was just checking out the tasty-looking picture menu of one restaurant (big sign with “THAIFOOD VERY GOOD AND VERY CHEAP” caught my eye, those guys know marketing),

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Man I love picture menus.

when Minah tugged on my arm.  A circle of people had formed around some sort of incident occurring in the side street next to the restaurant.

Amid street fruit vendors, idling motorcycle taxis and gawking on-lookers, two men were squaring off.  One was a tall, well-dressed fellow wearing an expression of the purest hatred, easily the most vicious visage of pure potential violence I’ve ever seen outside of a movie.  He was the victim, apparently of a street robbery, and he was restrained by two motorcycle taxi drivers, and while their hands on his shoulders seemed friendly enough, even sympathetic, it was clear their primary interest was in keeping the peace.  This hate-filled victim, his eyes never left the face of the thief who stood maybe 5 meters away.

The thief, or the accused thief we should say, looked like a caricature of a guilty low-life – his body was pouring sweat, his hair was mussed, his belly distended out from under a cheap polo shirt and over his too-tight khaki shorts.

He had a brown messenger bag across his chest, into which different moto-taxi drivers plunged their hands in to search for something, maybe a wallet or a mobile phone, every few minutes.  It seemed the victim had lost something, and perhaps this thief had passed it to an accomplice at some point in the chase, because it was nowhere to be found in the bag.  As his handlers held him, the thief staggered and squirmed uncomfortably, not even deciding properly on a facial expression, his face resting somewhere between “child caught elbow-deep in the cookie jar” and “panty-peeping village idiot”.

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The scene unfolded for us behind the restaurant window.

We got some explanation from a British on-looker who’d witnessed the beginning.  Apparently the well-dressed man (no doubt a Sukhumvit high-riser) had been walking with a bag over one shoulder, and the thief had passed by on a scooter, snatched the bag, and driven off.  But this was busy midday Sukhumvit, the roads weren’t exactly clear, and a couple of motorcycle taxi drivers, their attention on the people around them, looking for their next passenger, had witnessed the incident and sprang to life, roaring out on the road behind him.  What happened next nobody around here had actually seen, but I imagine a high-speed chase, the thief riding through market stalls, maybe ducking into alleys to evade notice but getting himself cornered and man-handled onto the back of a scooter, the powerful hands of the scooter-driving elite keeping him subdued enough to be transported, probably with some resistance, back to the scene of the crime.

The “motorcycle taxis” bear some explaining – before visiting Bangkok this time around I never seen them before, and I’ve been told their licensure is only a few years old.  If you’re in Bangkok looking for a cheap ride, look for guys with scooters who wear an orange vest, like a construction worker might wear, with an identity number on the front and back.  We saw them especially in the Sukhumvit area, and since the 4-wheeled traffic tended to get bottled up on one-way streets, these mounted warriors would ferry commuters from their homes to the subway station, or vice versa, what might be a 25 minute walk, for the equivalent of 60 cents.  Just hop on, grab hold of the little bar on the back, and off you go, no helmet, no fuss, and if you’re super cool with a sense of balance, no need to hang on.  I tried that a few times, but occasionally the moto-taxi driver would find a break in traffic and gun the engine, pitching me backward as the vehicle shot out forward from under me, and I had the horrible feeling that I’d just topple backward off the scooter, head-planting on the pavement.  So I held on.  Or you could even ride side-saddle which is how most women passengers ride; all kinds of positions are available for the fashionable and veteran scooter-taxi-takers.

So there they were, these vigilante moto-taxi drivers, having delivered the thief back to the rage of his victim, and now intent on preserving the highly charged limbo until a greater authority arrived.  This side-street, next to the stairs to the BTS Sky Train, this was their turf.

So the scene continued to unfold like an old-fashioned playground brawl.  The moto-taxi drivers had hold of each arm  of both the thief and the victim, and there was a back and forth, some shouting, and the victim seemed to be bargaining for one clean hit, he was itching for street justice, and the moto-taxi drivers seemed divided on the issue – the entire group swayed and almost danced back and forth, the thief seeming to want merely to sink below the pavement, perhaps to prop open a manhole cover and drop down in into the filth below, anything would be better than this scene he’d found himself in.  He continued to stagger, as if drunk (perhaps he was) and sometimes fell to the ground – from my vantage point it looked like mock-weakness, a ploy for sympathy and mercy maybe.  But the orange vests picked him back up again, preserving the stalemate.

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Police festoon the perp with a jaunty hat and give him a few puffs before they take off for the station.

This went on for far too long.  Minah and I had, by this time, decided on “THAIFOOD VERY GOOD AND VERY CHEAP” and grabbed a seat by the window right across from where the action was. We ordered our food and it arrived, and I couldn’t believe the police haven’t come to the scene.  I mentioned it to Minah two or three times as the minutes ticked by.  Ten, maybe fifteen minutes since we arrived, and finally a few police showed up.  One talked to the victim, one immediately cuffed the thief and instructed him to sit on the pavement, which was what he seemed to have wanted to do all along.  The thief was in full pity-party mode now, all pouts and big brown eyes.  I expected that the thief, the victim, and key witnesses/vigilantes would be brought down to the station for a full debriefing.

Not at all.  As we leisurely enjoyed our pad-see-ew and stir-fry veggies in the window, the police questioned the victim, moto-taxi drivers, and everyone around.

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Simple but delicious Bangkok staples.  Do we take pictures of all our meals?  Yes.  Yes we do.

The police, some of them, even got drinks from the vendors.  I started to sympathize with the accused thief (innocent until proven guilty!) as I realized that, even if his guilt seemed obvious with all those witnesses, he’d been subjected to maybe 30 minutes of public shame, helpless and restrained as hundreds of people passed by and gawked.

The police didn’t help the situation – one of them stuck his head with a sideways baseball cap which the thief continued to wear pathetically as things start to wrap up.  One cop, smoking a cigarette, put it briefly to the thief’s mouth and he took a few drags, and I snapped a picture through the window.  The cop took it back and continued to smoke as they led him off the street, presumably to a cop car and to the station, finally, but who knows.

The moto-taxis by this time had largely dispersed, leaving only a few orange-vested knights on the lookout for their next passengers, or maybe the next thief to apprehend.  In Korean, the word for taxi driver and the word for knight is actually the same – 기사 (gi-sa).  Seems appropriate.

BONUS:  Bangkok Street Demonstration

What looked initially like a political protest turned out to be a parade of soccer fans of Thailand’s Ultras team.  Complete with flags and banners, chants, and colored smoke bombs (red white and blue, the colors of the Thai flag), from across the street at least this march had the bottled-up energy of a something more serious.

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This guy’s Skeletor mask is so boss.

I snapped this shot of a masked marcher with the sign “Pray for Brussels.  Ultras Against Terrorism!”  We’re not sure what they were chanting in Thai, but it was surprising and exciting to be swept up in the passions of a street crowd.  Don’t worry though Mom, we were across the street – actually in a restaurant again.  Good things happen when we eat Thai food!

NEXT TIME: We are now in Vietnam!  In the next blog entry, I take  a 10 minute walk from our hotel in Ho Chi Minh City to a cafe for breakfast, and encounter: chickens in cabinets, mysterious industrial equipment, roadside open-fire cooking, chickens getting weighed on a scale, grandmas living in boxes, an absurdist Vietnamese rap music video, and — chickens getting their beaks cleaned.  Seriously, a 10 minute walk at 8 AM.  Blew my mind.

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