Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Thai Crime, Thai Smile

Newspapers are where I turn for clues to the world around me and in Bangkok I received most of my enlightenment from stories about political turmoil and true crime. These were two areas that frequently overlapped, but I was happiest when I found the stories where they did not. Sons of politicians getting in bar brawls, brandishing firearms, and demanding “Do you know who my father is?” Boring. Bank robbers who successfully loaded their bags with cash after closing hours, then decided to take a nap and were found asleep when the bank opened the next day? Delightful.

I had become a connoisseur of Bangkok’s true crime journalism and would stare wistfully at all of the newspapers I was unable to read with their Thai script and their garish front page photos of blood and body parts. The Bangkok Post and The Nation were far too sedate for that; their model was the London Times, not the New York Post. But buried in their genteel reportage were stories of crimes that baffled and enchanted me; I hated those days when I missed a paper because I knew it held cultural insights that now I would never know.

In the mid-90s travel guides offered shrill warnings about strangers on Thai trains or buses who would offer tourists a snack or a bottle of water and then strip them of everything they had on their persons when the drug-laced gift put them to sleep. I was sure these stories were apocryphal until the days of the airport occupation when tourists were turning to any form of transportation that would let them continue their trip. A group of stranded travelers happily climbed on a bus that would take them out of Chiang Mai one night, enjoyed their complimentary snack, fell fast asleep and awoke in the middle of nowhere on a stranded vehicle with no driver, no conductor, no luggage and no money. There was a dash and style to that caper that I admired; it was imaginative, it took planning, it was nonviolent, and like the criminal mishaps that I treasured most, it was funny.

Banditry on a smaller scale took place on a Thai train when an armed man divested the passengers of the things they carried and then dove out an open window. One of the victims had the presence of mind to slam the window shut as the thief made his escape, closing it with such force that it severed some of the robber’s toes. The miscreant fled but the police had no worries about apprehending him. They knew somewhere in one of the nearby villages, at the end of a blood trail, limped a man with fewer toes than the ones he had been born with.

Rural criminals were the most brazen; not for them the random bag snatching while whizzing past on a motorcycle or the frenzied apologies of a working pickpocket who has just bumped into an affluent tourist on a crowded city street. Robbers in the countryside are after bigger game, like the men who drove into a village, took down the community’s water tanks which they claimed needed repair, and carried their haul off to sell to a scrap metal dealer. With chutzpah like that, I felt sure these thieves had to be using the gains from this heist to jumpstart their political careers.

Crime in Bangkok was usually more grisly than amusing, which is why the prize of my collection is the Squat Toilet Caper. A man entered a toilet cubicle to relieve himself but being more prudent than most, he removed his trousers, carefully folded them and draped them over the door of the stall, placing them so the contents of his pockets wouldn’t fall to the floor. While he was in no position to argue, he watched in horror as an invisible passerby pulled down his pants and walked away with them. Clad in his beautifully ironed white shirt, a tie, shoes, socks and underwear, the victim, who no longer possessed a wallet or a cellphone, was forced to commit an act of public indecency in order to find a policeman and another pair of trousers.

I was a crime victim only once. Walking down a dark soi in the heart of downtown Bangkok after having dinner, I heard a motorcycle slow down behind me and then there was a hard tug on what I had clutched in one hand. I kept my purse, my assailant got away with a shopping bag. His take was a pair of very old shoes that I was going to have repaired, a paperback in English and a copy of the daily paper. Luckily for me, and perhaps for him, I had already finished reading the newspaper.

Other people I knew or read about weren't so lucky, and in no way am I trivializing the really bad things that happen to good people all over the world, even in Thailand.

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