Enter Bangkok

Enter Bangkok

I thrash back and forth for an hour in the pre-dawn fuzz before giving up and hauling myself upright. The air-con has clicked off at some time during the night, and it is hot already, as the sun creeps around edges of stippled grey. A tepid shower, in the haphazardly tiled bathroom, neck angled to avoid hitting my head on the roof, provides none of the refreshment it should. I am sweating as I step out of the water. I will continue to do so for the rest of the day.

I am the first one down. The cavernous dining hall, empty every other day this week, is this morning teeming with people. There must be a conference here today. A line snakes out the door as people queue to sign in, smiles and head nods between people in the queue, everyone knows everyone, or at least makes a good show of doing so.

I head for the coffee, a tarnished pot that emits the smell of stale Nescafe. Still, it's caffeine, and dearly needed. As I fumble for the milk jug, a woman, head to toe in peacock green, and with a pin that would make Madeline Albright jealous, leans across me and places a stirring spoon into my coffee with a toothy smile. I manage a grin in return and shuffle back to my table in the corner to watch proceedings.

It smells of the tropics today, the steady rain overnight putting a gloss sheen on everything, rust-stains and dirt streaks in shining relief against the dead grey sky. But it is not polluted, the air, or not noticeably so, and this surprises me. I remember the smothering heat and exhaust-choked air of my last visit, shirt wrapped over my face as we sat on the open-windowed public bus as it idles in traffic. We sit for thirty minutes of so, stuck in a Chinatown side-street, an immobile island in the sea of commerce around us. T remarks that the traffic is worse than KL, and that this is somewhat of an achievement in South East Asia. Nate gets out of the bus to stretch his legs, walks a slow circle around us, the heaves himself aboard. We have not moved. This is close to ten years ago.

So yesterday, as we whisked over the traffic in the efficient, clean public transport system, and the clear blue sky showed a city that stretched right to the horizon, it occurred to me that Bangkok has changed, and much more than I had expected it to. In the time large Australian cities have spent bickering over the implementation of smart cards on the struggling, poorly connected public transport system, the Thais have built the public transport, linked it to a smart card network, connected the smart cards to the atms, then linked these to essential services. Taking a leaf from Japan's book, the atms are the service centre where you, in addition to banking, top up mobile credit, pay bills, clear flight bookings and recharge any of those aforementioned smart cards.

It's eminently sensible and makes me wonder about the two-dollar-munching obelisks that grace Australian shopping malls, that click and crunch as they struggle to produce a balance statement on request. This is not smart technology, nor a strong use of a network, it is a profit creation device, one akin to speed cameras on deserted weekend free ways, right on that corner where the speed dips to sixty, but only for two hundred metres.

A group of Thai men, having collected their folders of conference paraphernalia, take the table across from me and the last man to the table realises there isn't a seat left for him. He glances around at his options, and as he does so, is teased about, just perhaps, having to sit with the foreigner. This causes much amusement amongst the group, and they titter as he pointedly turns his back on them, and moves to sit on a free table on the other side of the room, alone. His colleagues continue to chortle for a while, then turn their attention to plates piled with wilted vegetables, red chilli heaped on top, and the ever present fish sauce glistening like the rain-slick streets outside.

Good Morning Bangkok.