I know it’s not a terribly good map and if I had cycled like that you’d be justified in pulling me over for a breath test. Still, it is an approximation of my foray into a fascinating heartland of Bangkok. The heartland that used to be the Thailand Tobacco Monopoly. Well, it still is, to a much lesser degree. The rest of it is now taken over by administrative offices, godowns, a hospital, and both the Queen Sirikit Convention Center and Benjakitti Park. But…there’s still tobacco there if you sniff the air hard enough.
My journey begins a soi earlier. Sukhumvit Soi 4, to be exact. This is the road opposite Soi 3 – upon which lies Bumrungrad hospital where Joshua was born. He’s now a good 4.2kg and a month old. If Bumrungrad is the place to cure yourself of hangovers and STDs then Soi 4 is one of those places you might gain both. The irony of it is that towards the end of it are a veritable clutch of international nursery schools – Isla goes to one – so each morning I run the gamut of this soi. Forcing the truck through the narrow entrance you can class two types of farang. Those who are blearily drinking from the night before, those who are coming out to sample the new bar wares of a fresh day. The first two hundred metres or so is a loose neighbourhood of seedy bars, drinking holes, tattoo emporiums, massage parlours, cheap hotels, and VISA offices. Fighting for pavement space are a baker’s dozen of portable street carts selling fruit, food, magazines, and marigold flowers (in Theravada Buddhism orange and yellow symbolizes peace).
As I wind my way down the soi several shop fronts have Thai women sloshing soapy water across their facing pavements. It may be run down, but it is cleaned every day. The sounds are muted at 9am, Bangkok is post-rush-hour, pre lunchtime; lounging in a cooler moment, a short silent dawn that is a rare in a city born to make noise. Thai steadfasts join the hardened farang. The Diplomat disapproves of this street wholeheartedly. It is full of aging Western men looking for their next bar girl Thai “conversation”. The men all look and behave the same, peering furtively round cigarettes that droop from pale mouths, nursing a morning beer or coffee whilst indolent on their stool thrones. At times they straighten, suck in beer-corrupted bellies as an object of desire cruises slowly past. Vultures eyes feasting on flesh, always judging.
I will cycle to the end of this soi shortly; for a while I stop every few dozen metres, take some photos. It is a blaze of neon, a palette of gaudy, fresh paint designed to drag the tourist eye. Chalkboards sit outside each bar trying to seduce the farang with promises of western food – English Breakfast, Guinness starters, Eggs done “sunny-side-up”. Why would you come to Bangkok to sup on fake western cuisine? Yet, you can sample these for a mere 495Baht – $15. I wouldn’t pay that in the U.S, why should I pay it now? The myth that Thailand is cheap is rapidly fading in reality, yet remains fresh in travel guides and Western nostalgia.
I sense I am being observed. Turning I see a torpid man exhaling on his cigarette looking askance at me. He wants my business because I am his stock in income; yet he despises me seeing me representative of the tourism abuse his home suffers. I am a synedoche of the West to him.
It seems somehow fitting to remove the tawdry colour from the photos I took…the black & white shows things more grimly, more quaintly, more…
I digress. I am here to find out if the Thailand Tobacco Monopoly still exists; if it does, how it might have changed over its history, what this industrial park now offers.
Some research told me that the original tobacco factory was owned by Burapha Tobacco Co., Ltd until April 1939 when it came under governmental control. Then known as the “Excise Tobacco Factory”, rapid expansion occurred – with a period of changing control during WWII – until in 1943 the Thai cigarette industry was officially handed over to the government. After the end of WWII production rose 500%; by 1950 the Tobacco administration center moved to Ratchadamri road and operational production increased further by expanding factories at Saphan Leaung. This was done by a purchase of land in the Klong Toey district – the very area where I sit ready to cycle through. In the 65 years since then it has continued to operate producing 19 brands of cigarette (when you go through the site you will see banners proudly proclaiming 75 years – this is a salute to the 1939-2014 years of its existence). The site itself is large, encircled by Rama IV, Ratchadapisek, Chalerm Maha Nakhon Expressway and Sukhumvit. A good four kilometres to cycle round, with several cross routes to explore.
So, I reach the entrance way to the Monopoly, reach the end of Soi 4, pause at the lethargic toll and get ready to delve in…but that’s another blog….
Is this what diplomacy is all about?