I cycle slowly through the gates of the Thailand Tobacco Monopoly, past the watchful gaze of louche guards, across a wide khlong that doesn’t smell terribly good. To my left and right are atypical khlong homes; ‘tented’ shacks made of corrugated sheets, wooden frames, and sagging plastic sheets. Each sits across a narrow alley that runs alongside the water route. Imagine a canal path in a U.K. countryside – those are national heritage protected waterways; here, the khlong are very much still needed as a place of work. People don’t live here in quaintly painted houseboats with manicured allotments beside them; they exist tenaciously, squeezing every drop of trade and life out of the environment. There is a strange beauty in them, yet they always end with a dam of human rubbish, a swirling gloopiness of chemicals and waste that turns scenic delight into sadness.
Entering, I cycle round the the right, starting the run down the side parallel to the Nakhon Expressway. There is a fire engine department here. Serving the TTM exclusively, I imagine. Three polished red fire trucks look out of their garages like watchful guard dogs in kennels. These are much older beasts, yet proud. A dog is barking in front of them; despite his hard-sinew body and torn left ear he is making sure I don’t stray any closer to his charges, darting in at me with bravado, yet retreating when I glare back in mock-false confrontation.
I cycle on, curving round to the left, pausing at the top of a long dusty straight. Cars and a bus amble crazily towards me, lurching to a squealing stop at one of the many harsh rubber ramps, bumping roughly over them, crunching through a couple of gears to get back up to speed. As I perch there, one foot on the pedal, one on the foot-high white and red painted kerb, I see a bowl of red chillis, drying in the sun next to a car. Beyond it a Thai flag flutters in an uncertain breeze over the white wall. In front is a small garden patch; two topiary trees sprout mushroom heads over brown patches of grass.
The faded teal bus chugs past in a haze of foul smelling diesel fumes.
I cycle on slowly, stopping often to take photos. I see an old truck. Its coating is a mixture of faded army camouflage and rust patches. A huge Mercedes sign dominates the grinning radiator, a blue tarpaulin is stretched tightly over a steel frame to make the goods compartment. It would not have been out of place in the chase scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark. A Thai woman walks past pushing her blue trolley full of foodstuffs. Lettuce, oranges, some chicken and fish. An umbrella is wedged into it, a red plastic stool swaying precariously on the long handle bars. She wears a pink, floppy-brimmed hat, glances askance at me as she goes past.
Moving deeper into the TTM, looking for tobacco. There is a smell of it in the air. That dry tobacco leaf odour that permeates your clothes. Ahead I see a small wooden hut. Peeling grey paint on slats. The number “6” stamped in a large red font on it. The statutory Thai guard is outside, gazing into the distance. They are always attired in dark green trousers and shirts with red armbands. A black belt encircles a waist with a number of closed pouches; a pair of hard boots, a black cap. He is standing at the entrance to a closed alley. An industrial alley full of cardboard, pallets, plastic bags, one or two cars. Corrugated roofs jut from both sides, almost enclosing the space; designed to give shade. Just past it where I have decided I will take my first foray into the heart of the complex – The Moon Rd.
Almost immediately the atmosphere changes. It is silent, the heat oppressive, flies buzzing. Almost a wasteland, but one that is tidy. Huge godowns (warehouses) march inexorably into the distance. Loading bays are open on some; either at ground height or several feet up the side of walls. Every so often a Thai worker appears from around a corner or cycles lazily past, or gazes at me from the shade of a tree or building.
Trees try to mask the concrete walls, partially succeeding. One man is standing frozen, like a statue, water arcing from a hose on to a small patch of garden that is curiously calming in this haven of industry. The long black trails of overhead cables are providing a fine framework for climbing plants. Around a lot of the cream concrete posts are wrapped tropical trees with vast frond-like leaves.
After a few hundred metres the area on my left side gives way to large open expanse. Corrugated v-shaped roofs give some shade, in five long rows, to a lot of old buses. As I peer over the wall (which a young Thai lad has just vaulted over) it is a working graveyard of rusted parts, ancient buses.
I go past this place, at the end turn right down the other side of the TTM. It is a similar long road. This time it is bordered by Benjakitti Park. A lot of Thais dressed in blue are working on the other side of a wire mesh fence, carefully landscaping trees, hillocks, flowerbeds. One tree has escaped the park, crossed the road and set up shop in a small expanse of grass near a godown; her leaves are a bright yellow, drooping.
Turning right past her, to double back on myself, I find this crossroad is a process line for the brightly coloured buses you see on the main motorways in Thailand. Used for cross-country tours, this is a place where they are cleaned and repaired. All down the left kerb are parked some fifteen of them. The first is covered in dust…this must be where they start their journey; by the end of the road they are gleaming…and their carers are taking a well deserved nap on a bench. Before that a friendly chap takes time to flex a bicep and strike a pose for me.
As I move deeper into the avenues that make up the TTM I become aware one of the vast warehouses is a repair shop for the two million+ mopeds that are the blood cells rushing through Bangkok’s veins. It is a marvel to behold. A place of engineering; of oil and rags, of shiny metal, of cogs, of sharp tools, of nuts and bolt, of the roar of revving engines – some tuned, other in dire need to medical attention. The interior of these huge spaces is like gazing into a Thai railway station. High ceilings, vaulted arches, great beams of steel. They almost seem empty of people till I look harder and realise that the employees have an uncanny ability to work with an economy of movement; they are concentrating hard, very efficient in their motion. One man saunters out, chuckles at why a farang should take an interest in something so commonplace to him, knows that being a farang is the best possible answer.
Opposite this work place is another open space. This contains a football pitch.
It has a rickety stadium that might take 1000 people. A man is watering this expanse. With one hose it will take him all day under the burning Bangkok sun. A dog is lolling in the shade. I still haven’t found any tobacco, but I am following its unmistakeable scent….there is more to find in the Thailand Tobacco Monopoly site…
Before I go, I will leave you with some views of the dogs of the Thailand Tobacco Monopoly. They have their own rules beyond humanity. It would take a lifetime to understand them.
Is this what diplomacy is all about?