Monday, December 17, 2007

Empty Glass
Thailand - self proclaimed "Land of Smiles" (and military coups)- has made it hard recently to quaff a cocktail. Last weekend was "early voting" for Thai citizens unable to trek back to their home villages to vote (voting is mandatory here) for the main polls on Dec 23. While bars and liquor stores are traditionally closed on election day in many areas of the United States, Thailand took the concept further and banned alcohol completely beginning from 6pm Friday through Sunday.

It's the height of tourist season and the prohibition was announced with less than a week's notice. I was at a Bangkok restaurant with a former colleague on Friday afternoon discussing the keen wisdom and foresight it takes for a country which relies so heavily on the tourist trade to ensure that no inebriated foreigners would vote or otherwise sully what I am sure will be a fair and completely transparent election process. In fact, one of my Thai coworkers had already told me that she thought the amount of money she and her family have been strongly urged to accept to vote for a particular party was "very fair" and would not dissuade her from voting for that group.

Normally packed farang haunts such as Soi Cowboy were shuttered. Of course, Thai bar owners and employees - of which Bangkok alone has perhaps hundreds of thousands - also suffer from the ban having effectively been given two weekends off without pay.

Oh, wait. Of course, resident foreigners can't vote in Thailand. They can own property, but not the land on which it rests. They can open a Thai savings account but not a checking account and cannot obtain a loan or credit card from a Thai bank. They also have the privilege of paying, say, as much as 400 baht (US$13) to enter a national park/forest while their Thai companions - or spouses - might fork over a mere 40 baht ($1.30) or less.

"So..." my Canadian companion-with-a-Thai-wife sighed as we chugged the last of our Singhas at 5.58pm under the worried scrutiny of a harried waitress and watched a European group of tourists express dismay and disgust that they could not have wine with their dinner - "Why couldn't the government, say, just ban alcohol for Thais during voting? If they can discriminate against me at a national park, why can't they discriminate for me on an election weekend? And make some money in the process?"

Meanwhile, one of the vino-deprived Europeans was shouting, "What eeezee theeze? We are in Mormon-Bush USA? Not I think Thailand?"

We Norte Americanos laughed darkly. And my Canadian buddy had a Plan B, short of a foreign-generated counter-coup to dislodge the prohibition-minded generals. Thailand, of course, is erratic when it comes to enforcement and we made our way to a less traveled, older bar and restaurant area where we found one small pub open in which the half dozen or so foreigners were sipping furtively from large brown ceramic coffee mugs - the kind last served up by wise-cracking waitresses named "Flo" or "Lois" in mythic diners along Route 66.

"We'll have two of your 'special' coffees," he told the bar tender, no Flo, but a young Thai woman named "Tai" - "one high octaine Singha and a Jack black 'java' on ice for my friend." We sipped from the mugs and watched an older black American singer and keyboard player perform some vintage R&B standards. He was nursing a cold as well as his own "coffee" but managed to put down some wonderful renditions, including a credible version of all the voices - from tenor to bass - for the Temptations' Papa was a Rolling Stone.

I asked him if he took requests. "Sure," he said. "If I've got it." He patted his computer where he'd downloaded his backing tracks.

"How about some more Temps?" I asked. "Maybe Ball of Confusion and dedicate it to the Thai election commission?" He laughed and raised his coffee mug to me.

"You got it."


Mauberly said...

Priceless. Miss you at the Standard, but that outfit, at least online, has gone downhill.

Matthew said...

Sounds like a fantastic day. Kind of reminds me of Xmas in London with no buses or trains and only one pub that was open.