THE ULTIMATE GARDEN PARTY
By Andrew Biggs
Yesterday the Ploenchit Fair completed a full circle. The quintessential British event returned to its mother’s breast, the British Embassy, as a swansong for the grounds themselves.
There are not that many annual events on the Expat calendar that have stood the test of time. There are the various embassy balls, of course, and this year Fight Night made a successful return after its alleged demise in 2016.
But nothing comes close to the prestige and quaintness of the Ploenchit Fair, an event that is well-documented in its altruism, having raised some 70 million baht for charities within Thailand.
What perhaps is less known publicly is that the event is as resilient as its charismatic chief organizer, the famous Carolyn Tarrant, MBE, who can be seen swanning around the event keeping a watchful, if not at times dictatorial, eye on things.
Carolyn would agree that Ploenchit Fair has weathered just about every major disaster one could imagine including torrential rain, a massive fire, floods and a bomb threat. And a chain-smoking orangutan driving a tractor around in circles, but more about that in a minute.
There are so many things going for the Ploenchit Fair. It starts with the chimes of Big Ben and then a parade of Scottish bagpipers. It ends around the beer garden stage in a pool of plastic beer containers and sweat.
You can get all your Christmas shopping done in an hour providing your family is into scented candles and hand-woven scarves. Clown Eckie is there. Nancy Chandler’s coloring classes for kids are popular while her arch rival, Groovy Map, runs the bingo stand. It’s a day you can swap your Singha for Old Speckled Hen while listening to ageing expats performing earnest Springsteen to a younger, slightly perplexed audience in that beer garden.
This year was especially nostalgic. For the first time in 17 years, and the very last time ever, the fair came home.
The very first fair was held on the British Embassy grounds in 1957, back in the days when embassies were places where educated folk spent their days engaged in cultured discussion and slow inebriation, the latter of which survives to this day at the fair.
The annual event slowly became the premier date on the Bangkok expat social calendar. In 1978, just about the time disco was taking off, an attractive young lass from Hampstead Heath agreed to take it over.
That was our Carolyn, and from that moment she became synonymous with the event. Thailand Tatler describes her as the “brains behind the Ploenchit Fair” but that is calling it short. She is also the eyes and ears, and without any dissent from her dedicated team, the mouth. But then that is the only way one can run such a major event.
I remember the Ploenchit Fair in the British grounds throughout the 1990s as an event where you spent half the day catching up with friends, and the other half darting into bushes to avoid those you eschewed. Everybody was there. Last Sunday in this newspaper, Roger Crutchley reminisced about 1992 when he sat at the fair trying to sell his book Postscript to little success. It’s a small world: He doesn’t remember it, but I bought a book off him that day.
The crowning glory of the British Embassy is, or was, its greenery and it really was spectacular. One of its major features was the statue of Queen Victoria which Thai women, for decades, prayed to in the belief she would help them get pregnant.
The fair at the embassy had little drama for 45 years with the exception of 1995, when Central Chidlom, right next door, burnt to the ground. Staff had to hose down the adjoining walls — and probably pray to Queen Victoria — to stop the fire spreading to the embassy grounds, where 18,000 people were attending the British fair.
In 2001, two months after 9/11, the Ploenchit Fair was told it could no longer be held within the grounds.
The terrorist era had begun and the British embassy grounds had to be locked up. The grounds went from Botanical Gardens to Fort Knox.
So Carolyn packed up the fair and moved it to Sanam Seua Pa near Thai Parliament.
The following year, ten days before the fair, the Bali Bombing took place killing 202 people, mainly foreign tourists. Embassies including my own issued warnings not to go to any public gatherings where foreigners would be.
That wasn’t all. Early Friday evening on the eve of the fair, the heavens opened. And they didn’t close again, properly, for another 24 hours.
Worse, Sanam Seua Pa had no drainage. The place flooded. This meant all volunteers were handed pairs of wellingtons. Your favorite columnist was the fair’s announcer and said a little prayer himself, maybe even to Queen Victoria, not to be electrocuted every time he made a public announcement.
Most memorable from that event were the cute animals from the Lopburi Zoo that kids could pet. The biggest was an orangutan that was addicted to cigarettes. His trick was to drive a tractor. This is the most vivid picture of the Ploenchit Fair that year: an orangutan, chain smoking, driving a tractor round and around in the pouring rain. As Carolyn did her reconnaissance, cigarette dangling out of her mouth, the orangutan immediately made a beeline for her, probably more enthused by the fag than Carolyn, and she beat a hasty retreat to the bathrooms.
There have been other emergencies. The fair ended up on the grounds of Shrewsbury School by the river. During the 2011 Bangkok floods the school informed Carolyn less than a week out of the event that it could not be staged there. It is testament to her organizational abilities that she managed to move the entire fair over to higher ground, namely, Bangkok Patana School, where it has been ever since.
For me, I am still the fair announcer, which has its perks. I get to play the music for the fair, which consists of popular British hits from the last 50 years, especially ones that I like. This means I could satisfy my morbid obsession for Kate Bush on loudspeakers. I have also acquired skills such as how to pacify lost children, as well as how to track down the owners of missing wallets and phones. My weirdest memory is of two years ago when I dashed out to do my final Master degree exam at Ramkhamhaeng University. The juxtaposition from raucous fair, to the stifled silence of writing independent sample t-tests while stinking of beer and cigarettes, then returning to the fair was a day I will never forget.
Yesterday was a real dose of nostalgia but the atmosphere was perhaps not like the lazy days of the 1950s and 1960s. It was a full-on security event yesterday with a maximum of only 2,000 visitors allowed in at any time, and a clear police presence.
Prepaid tickets snapped up quickly, sold out way before the event, as people came to cast a final look over those beautiful gardens. The days of Ploenchit Fairs on the British Embassy grounds were now over for good. The grounds themselves were over for good.
Next year it’s back at Bangkok Patana. Now the residence is empty, and those trees and bushes and flowers stand silently … although there are rumors Queen Victoria is going to stay where she is, perhaps for the sake of the country’s future children.