A couple of postings ago, I mentioned that the area of Bangkok I live in is one of the so-called “entertainment districts”. The music blaring from the bars, the restaurant touts, and the inviting ladies lining the sidewalks can make an evening stroll a disorienting experience, especially for a first time visitor.
Covid-19 has changed all this. The first indication I had of what is in store for my depraved neighborhood came when I was lugging another load of groceries home and noticed some signs on the windows of a bar.
In the two weeks since, it is like a neutron bomb has gone off over the Soi, leaving only deserted buildings. The traffic has thinned out and only an occasional person can be found wandering the sidewalks. It makes one wonder how many of the businesses will be able to reopen now that there is a month-long Emergency Decree in place.
I’d be lying if I said the economic devastation is causing me any great concern. No longer do I have to run a gauntlet of ladies offering massage services on my weekly trips to Villa Market. There’s an especially annoying place a couple blocks from my apartment, impossible to avoid, where I get propositioned even when I’m on the other side of the street. You’d think that after forty or fifty no responses the women would figure out I wasn’t interested in getting pawed over. Now that they are closed, I find myself smiling as I stroll by. Savoring the moment.
Bia is one of the nicest women I know at the Beer Garden bar. Always has a smile for me. If I’m in the need of some company, she’ll sit and chat. If I’m wanting my space, she’ll graciously back off. Most of the time I buy her a drink and later pass a one thousand baht tip (@ $30). A few times a year, such as at Christmas, I’ll present her with an envelope containing much more. It’s something I do for women I am especially fond of.
Now I’m not one who, having provided money to a Thai lady, expects anything in return beyond maybe a thank you. My generosity does not come with strings attached. So when Bia bought me a pair of nice wine glasses at Christmas, I was taken aback. It was hard to imagine her going to such trouble.
Largely because of this, Bia was one of the three women at Beer Garden (along with the two barmaids) whom I bestowed special money upon to help tide them over while the bar is closed.
Another Beer Garden lady I often buy drinks for, Gae, has proven much harder to figure out. According to my barmaid friend Sumontha, both her and Bia are good women. However, after transferring Christmas money into Gae’s bank account, I never heard anything back. When I finally ran across her at the bar in January, she barely acknowledged receiving my gift. The antithesis of Bia’s reaction. And a recent SMS I sent, to see how she is getting along in these troubled times, was not answered.
The latest Thai government edict — more of a request, actually — is for people to stay home this weekend. Make that seven days. Should this fail to slow the rate of infection, then we will be talking twenty-four hour curfews. The same kind of steps other countries have been taking — with varying degrees of success.
I have been of two minds regarding this. On one hand, I worry about running out of bottled water (the tap water here is not potable) and being unable to make a covert trip to the 7-Eleven just down the block. But I’m also intrigued by the challenge of seeing how long I can get by without having to go out and replenish my supplies. It’s something I never had to consider growing up in America, the land of plenty (and now the world leader in the number of infected).
One thing that will not be bothering me is the so-called social distancing. Being alone has never been a concern; it’s the way I’m hardwired. With my reliable MacBook Air companion I can download books and movies, surf the ‘net, play chess, check my mail and otherwise ignore the world outside my window. Besides, my Soi 4 neighborhood is one of the city’s famous tourist areas (or at least it was). All that’s remaining are idling taxi drivers, hoping for a fare. Not people I care to go out and chat with. (And I’ve had enough bad experiences with these characters to take no small amount of pleasure in the dearth of customers.)
According to an article in the Bangkok Post, there is a major concern about not merely keeping maladjusted farangs like myself off the streets, but preventing Thais from “fleeing” Bangkok and returning to their home provinces. No small amount of irony here. While trying to find safer havens, some are carrying the coronavirus (covid-19) with them, thus insuring the disease will be spread to all corners of the country.
There are times I wonder how Homo Sapiens has managed to survive as long as it has.
I must admit that when I hear about the shopping malls and theaters being closed it does not upset me. My “local” mall, Terminal 21, has started playing hip hop themed music. And going to a movie up on the top floor means enduring a seemingly endless string of advertisements before the show finally starts. The current plan is to keep these venues closed for at least three weeks. Three years would be fine by me.
The shutting down of the Bangkok bars, on the other hand, has proven to be more traumatic. I am a long time regular at Beer Garden on Soi 7. It is such fun to saunter in on a busy night, find a good seat, order my usual glass of red wine, then casually scan the premise to see if any of my special friends have arrived yet. (Like Liam Neeson’s character in the opening bar scene of Schindler’s List, except I am not looking for high ranking SS officers.) To have this routine suddenly shut off has led to some empty evenings.
Of greater concern is how my pair of barmaid friends, Sumontha and Sirada, will be getting by. Thailand does not have much of a safety net: if things go bad, family and friends become the fallback positions, though neither may have much in the way of money. This got me thinking that if the two of them will not be getting paid while the bar is closed — an assumption that proved correct — they could be feeling the pinch. So for my final visit before the shutdown, I gave them each three thousand baht (@ $90 USD) to help them through the following two weeks. (This had Sirada in tears.)
Today’s announcement by the Thai goverment of a state of emergency and possible curfew bodes ill for the girls; it could be another couple of months before they can return to work. I will continue providing support, relying on Sumontha to tell me how much they need. It’s something I am happy to do. Last year, when I was under the weather, I made a joke about them bringing some wine to my apartment to aid in my recovery, never imagining they’d actually do it. So when they did show up late one night after work and presented me with two bottles of respectable red vintages, I was stunned. Friends like these deserve to be helped.
In the past week I’ve made three grocery runs to restock my depleted cupboard. I always go in the mornings when there are fewer shoppers. But even then I inevitably find myself having to edge around someone as I go down an aisle. At least they are all wearing masks!
From speaking with friends and relatives back in the U.S. — as well as following the local news — it sounds like there has been a rash of panic buying. In particular, people have been stockpiling toilette paper (which may become the new currency in a post-pandemic world). It has made me realize that people’s reactions can be as much of a concern as the coronavirus itself. (Also known as covid-19.)
Happily, my own grocery (Villa Market on Soi 2) has experienced no shortages that I’ve noticed so far. The shelves in the TP section have not been denuded and there’s no sense of urgency amongst the shoppers. Of course this is no guarantee things will be going as smoothly come next month, so I’ve been loading up on cereal, pasta, canned goods…anything with a long shelf life. These can be rather bulky, which gave me the idea of going to Villa Market wearing my old backpack with a reusable bag stuffed inside. After I finish my shopping, I put the big heavy stuff at the bottom of the pack, then on top of it, the reusable containing the smaller purchases. Lugging all this home makes me feel like a pack mule, but it reduces the number of visits I have to make.
I have started visiting the Bangkok Post website for the latest on the in country infection rates and places that are closed. They seem to be on top of things. However, sometimes there are advertisements which are in the same format as the news stories, which can be confusing.
Another website, that of the World Health Organization, I checked out a few weeks ago, hoping to find some common-sense advice. This turned out to be a disappointment. The home page featured, amongst other items that were of little use to me, a pair of links to speeches by the WHO General Director. Not just one, but two talks, mind you. Whether these slowed the pace of the global outbreak is unclear.
At least it now looks like the WHO is on the ball. When you bring up their site, there’s a large red hard-to-miss rectangle on the left side of the page. Clicking that will show a box titled “Protect Yourself” that leads to plenty of useful information. (And below the box, of course, is the latest speech by the General Director, who seems to have nothing better to do these days.)
And for those who want to keep things simple, I’ve come across an easy-to-follow checklist from a New York Times columnist.