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Fried Bananas And Traffic Jams

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FRIED BANANAS AND TRAFFIC JAMS

By Andrew Biggs

Never have fried bananas posed such a threat as they did this week in the Land of Smiles.

The Pom Prab cops had their hands full, stamping out a scourge they claim causes Bangkok’s infamous traffic jams.

This story begins on an inner-city street not far from the Nang Lerng market.  

Like most of Bangkok, Nakhon Sawan Road is gridlocked day and night. I have read entire chapters of Crime and Punishment waiting for the lights to change at the T-junction where Nakhon Sawan meets Phitsanulok.

In fact I can get through almost half a Dostoyevsky from Nakhon Sawan through to Phetchaburi, a route I take as rarely as I read a Dostoyevsky since both to me are way too slow and circuitous, leaving me drained and depressed.

Why is Bangkok so jammed? Too many cars on too little streets and inadequate mass transit. Those poor police officers who control traffic lights aren’t a great help either.

We need to seek out that learned professor at the police academy who has been instructing generations of traffic cops that leaving lights red for nine minutes at a time is effective traffic management. We must wai him, bind and gag him, then leave him forever in a forgotten basement somewhere in that academy.

Back in the mid 1990s one traffic cop at the Ratchadapisek intersection went crazy from the traffic. Claiming to see the ghost of a former king, he turned the lights green on all four sides then danced traditional Thai style in the middle of the intersection.

You couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for the guy, and for a while there he was a microcosm for all that is wrong with this city.

The solutions have been as countless as they have been fruitless. One police chief decided massive colored helium-filled balloons would help alleviate things.

When the traffic was jammed, a red balloon would be raised. When it was good, a green balloon would go up. I don’t know where that long-since-retired police chief is now, but I bet he’s living somewhere near a circus.

There was the other chief who, in his very first interview upon assuming office, claimed Bangkok’s traffic problem was “incurable” and thus wouldn’t even bother to try to fix it.

I like a man of conviction, but boy did we count down the days till that guy retired.

Politicians have tried. One MP announced he would solve Bangkok’s traffic “within six months”. He didn’t, thus setting off a chain of events that ended in him fleeing the country.

In summary; we’ve heard it all. We’ve heard of schemes and tricks and methods to alleviate Bangkok’s traffic woes to the point where we have now run out of excuses. Until this week, nobody thought to put it down to fried bananas.

It’s been claimed fried banana vendors hold up traffic on Nakhon Sawan Road and it has a spiral effect. If we could outlaw these fried banana vendors, then peace would return to the Bangkok streets (spoken as if there was peace in the first place).

I wonder if you are familiar with this Thai dessert called kluai khaek. A direct translation would be Indian Bananas, since that’s where they originate.

You take a banana and coat it with enough thick batter to feed an Ethiopian family for a week. Then you toss it into a tub of hot palm oil, where it bubbles and crisps over.

The banana doubles in size, which is what happens to you, too, when fried bananas are eaten on a regular basis.

Bite into one of these things and sickly-sweet palm oil glistens on your lips. Globules of grease run down your chin, dropping into your lap thus providing your trousers with an embarrassing stain for the rest of the day. But what a taste sensation!

A vendor at the Nang Lerng market made exquisite fried bananas. One day she casually glanced up from her bubbling vat of palm oil and noticed the terrible traffic in front of the market.

Why not sell to this captive audience? And so a fried banana seller flitted in and out of the cars, selling bags to famished motorists.

Thais are extremely innovative, while at the same time are incredibly good copyists. In no time another fried banana vendor set up shop at the Nang Lerng market, dispatching staff to run in between the stationary motorists. And another. Then another.

How many is that – four? Soon there were SIX fried banana vendors with their multitudes of sales staff wending their ways through the Nakhon Sawan Road traffic! It was a bizarre sight; on a stretch of road not more than 100 metres and nowhere else, dozens of fried banana vendors buzzing around the cars.

It is here we must welcome, from stage left, the Pom Prab police. They’re not REAL police per se, but what we call jaonahtee tetsakij or “Sanitary Officers”, a bit like school monitors hired by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration.

They dress like police, blow whistles like police, and even take bribes like police, as any westerner who has thrown down a cigarette butt in front of Emporium can attest.

There aren’t many tourists around Pom Prab to fleece, so their attention turned to fried banana vendors, but curtailing them was a task bigger than the BMA. They contacted the real police, that is the Nang Lerng police station.

From now on, it was announced late last month, anybody who sold fried bananas on the street would be fined 2,000 Baht. Anybody purchasing them would be fined 500 Baht. In that way the government would make money and Bangkok’s traffic woes would quickly dissolve.

Signs went up. We were obliged to announce the crackdown on air. Meanwhile the cops swooped on the vendors, making sure they were properly registered as businesses (the only market vendors, no doubt, in the whole of Bangkok now registered as such). The vendors nodded their heads vigorously and promised to co-operate.

The faux police even set up a Facebook page, along with an email address one could write to in the event one spotted an errant fried banana vendor on the street.

Cops shook hands with vendors. Everybody went home. And that is where the problem lay.

Last Saturday and Sunday, days one and two of the crackdown, nobody was out monitoring the fiendish fried banana boys and girls. It appears the weekend is even a rest time for those faux police. With the coast clear, the vendors went back on the streets with vigor, darting in between the cars and the SALE OF FRIED BANANAS PROHIBITED signs.

Two days into the clampdown and not a soul had been arrested. The only things brisk during those days were condemnation of the entire campaign – and fried banana sales.

By mid-week it was clear the crackdown had been an unmitigated failure.

By coincidence I happened to be stuck in traffic at the Nang Lerng intersection this week. There they were, the fried banana sellers, still racing through traffic, big smirks on their faces.

We shall never know if indeed fried bananas are the real reason our roads are jammed. It was a theory never tested. We can only wait till the next great idea comes along. Somtam, perhaps?

/Andrew



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