We arrive in Bangkok late in the day- what day I'm not exactly sure. By the time we pass Customs and Immigration, it's close to 2 a.m..
We head into town in a cab, to our hotel. The Prince Palace is not quite a dowager of a hotel, but it better get married to some rich investor soon. Set in three towers, seven stories up, the main levels show 80s-style opulence, not faded, but merely maintained in good shape. The vast hallways and conference rooms are empty. The lobby seethes with tourists. The Russians give off an aura of new wealth and danger. Maybe it's just me.
Surrounding the building is an old market, the Bo Bae. Think Bladerunner without the neon... the crush of people, food stalls, touts pitching their scams, hawkers selling clothes and dry goods by the gross. One of the city's old canals defines one border of the area... brown and reeking, a city artery not filled with a watery life-blood but sewage and ichor.
Small footbridges cross the canal at the base of the hotel into a kind of shantytown. Julie and I take a stroll through the warren of homes and shops. People seem taken aback to see farang, foreigners, in the neighbourhood. We wander a bit, not in unfriendly territory but not welcome either.
I look up at the hotel's towers, visible in the sky above the three-story shacks. That's us up there in the pool on the 8th floor, looking down over the city, over folks who likely lost a chunk of their neighbourhood to this tower.
Bangkok seems- if not angry- at least far more curt this time around. Cabbies complain about the government, porters make cracks about my size- something that seemed inconceivable last trip. I lose my wallet- maybe pickpocketed- in the busy downtown shopping area. A bomb goes off in the suburbs, the military are posted at choke points of human traffic.
The city is working hard to put a celebratory face on the King's birthday party. It could be his last, he's getting older and is in frail health. The fireworks are spectacular, but bickering continues in the newspapers the next day.
Is this just a hangover from the violent protests, only a few months in the past? Subconsciously, it's like the town is spoiling for a fight.