…I leave the gaily painted and freshly cleaned buses behind. My cycle ride through this vast site is encouraged by the sight of this bicycle perching over the corner of a crossroads, casting crazy shading over the rusty weights of an outdoor gym. Opposite is another of the teal wooden guard huts. This is number 11, a broken wooden flap not quite fully open, the interior tenebrous. To the left a standard size shipping container rests, forgotten, shaded in ochre and rust. A man with a blue baseball cap and shorts, black wellington boots, and a top of a similar colour to the container sweeps a brush of broomcorn along its edge, clearing some leaves and rubbish.
I cycle down to the next crossroad – Gold City Road. The smell of tobacco is stronger here, but it’s mixed with a low hum of machinery. Several godowns are open, large pallets inside, outside. The left side of the road has a few more buses, overspill from the main service area. A man weaves in meandering arcs on his bicycle past me, goes through a large gate that has four Thai characters on it. Above me is a sealed grey, corrugated overpass – made for who knows what…people? a conveyor belt? Below a wasp coloured pillar surrounded by the habitual Thai mopeds. On the opposite side of the road is a line of seven trees, their canopies spread, beautiful pink and white blossom that drifts slowly to the ground when the breeze stirs.
I realise that I can look inside some of these warehouses. Even the ones with shut doors have peep holes. I slide form my bike and wander casually over towards one and peer in. It is like the ending scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark – the one in the warehouse with boxes stretching away into the distance. These places are easily 100m long, concrete floors, red high steel beams; pallets in neat rows with yellow boxes nine deep stacked on them. I have no idea what they contain but there is no smell of tobacco.
I feel something stir against my foot and glance down. It is a cigarette butt. Not a brand I recognize, but still…it is my first visual evidence of the use of this vast complex.
I stop my snooping and move on. Ahead, to my right, I can see steam issuing from a dirty concrete vent in an unkempt patch of grounds. Behind is a grey building. This one is not uniform, it has an industrial verandah, poles and cross wires everywhere. At the corner of its entrance a pink bush is a startling splash of colour amongst the scrub and litter. I venture cautiously through the open gate. It is clearly a working factory. Huge silos with massive pipes. Yellow rung ladders cling stubbornly to the side of these behemoths. On a fence in front of me is a blue sign saying “Wear Respirator”. The picture is a scene from some old US nuclear fallout propaganda in the 60s. There is no other security. I can wander into this place if I so choose, but I should wear a respirator. Maybe there is a street vendor selling the things? I scan the area. Not a breathing soul to be seen.
On my left, facing west into the sun that is falling from its proud zenith towards the Indian Ocean, squats an ugly, rotund, beaten silver beast. It is a forgotten thing, like a rusting spacecraft from the imagination of H.G. Wells. Weeds and vines crawl insidiously up its lattice of legs, tying it firmly to earth. There is only a large red symbol, like a tailless Christian fish gazing heavenwards, constrained by a cog. Next to it is a large black steel drum; easily taller than me, three times as long. It has two umbilical cords that disappear into a net of crisped leaves. Behind these gap open the door of the factory. As I peer inside a Thai man emerges from the gloom behind more twisted tangles of steel that look like electrical diagrams given life.
I have not found the tobacco so I decide to loop round the bottom of the TTM, past the entrance to Queen Sirikit Convention Center, past the new E-Z Parking lot, round the front of the Tobacco Monopoly Hospital with its manicured lawns, flags, topiary, lake and stylized architecture and head north again up the side of Benjakitti Park to the one entrance I had not seen.
I curve round a sweeping right hand bend after accelerating up the kilometer straight and find myself by the khlong that runs parallel to Sukhumvit. There are some pictures of it in the first blog of this tobacco trilogy. A little further on the smell of tobacco grows stronger and I see the Tobacco Monopoly Enterprise Labour Union office. It’s got green tinsel hanging from its double doors, the interior is dark. No one seems home. Scant yards further on are three warehouses. Each is a bustle of either green machinery or crates of cigarettes! There are open vats of tobacco leaves, mixtures of sawdust and broken produce. In just one box are enough cigarettes to kill a man over a single lifetime, a decade’s worth of costs handed over in endless counters at gas station, shops, in vending machines. All casually tossed aside. Blue barrels sit there, exuding that strangely habitual smell of tobacco. In another warehouse boxes are stacked to the steel rafters, but the place is only half full. An ancient truck sits outside – it’s a mechanic’s labour of love in the right hands, an automobile history lesson with its two spoke driving wheel, tangle of wires, long smooth gear stick and speedometer that maxes out at 80kmh. There’s not a single button in it, just the old-style metal flick switches.
Behind all this is a pile of rotting plastic bottles. White, black, blue. Like somnolent flies. The pile is trying to blot out the green trees behind, but, so far, failing. The slopes of rubbish carelessly tumble towards scratched, hard-packed earth. More empty blue barrels, three or four orange skips. The space gives way to a brick building; yet more rubbish piled outside. There are a group of blue-overall attired Thais hiding in the shade, woven hats, neckties over mouths from the dusty air. Brooms are driven between broken slats of wooden pallets, temporary resting places. They jut skywards like a curious copse of broomcorn.
Time to go home. I have found tobacco, explored a part of Bangkok that is away from the constant growth of new skyscrapers, found some peace and quiet, and peered into the working reality of some lives here…I can always come back another day.
Oh…and lest I forget. I stopped to take a photo of this Harley-Davidson. I have to say that the Thais – when they buy expensive vehicles – they go for ALL the trimmings. None of that base model stuff you see so often in the West.
Is this what diplomacy is all about?