Bangkok Stories: Chicken police, snake-rustlers and the fertility cult of Queen Victoria

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The Independent Online

The British embassy in Bangkok wants to downsize, and is contemplating selling four acres of its prime property on Wireless Road for a tidy £30m. But there is one hitch - a rather frumpy sculpture in the garden.

The British embassy in Bangkok wants to downsize, and is contemplating selling four acres of its prime property on Wireless Road for a tidy £30m. But there is one hitch - a rather frumpy sculpture in the garden.

It's a statue of Queen Victoria, and unlikely though it may seem, in the past 100 years a pilgrimage to this stern figure has become a fertility rite for Bangkok's childless. Fresh garlands are regularly placed on the regal bronze lap.

Queen Victoria strikes me as a rather prim sex deity in a city known for its steamy nights. (The red-light areas of Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy are just a few stops away from the embassy on the sleek Sky Train monorail.) Lately, tight security has prevented ordinary Thais from entering the British embassy premises to approach the statue, but couples can still beg Queen Victoria's favours through the side gate. The guard says that new parents drop off posies in thanks when babies are born.

This odd concept of Bangkok women becoming pregnant after a visit to Queen Victoria is due to the uniquely Thai perception of this historic Englishwoman (though, with hordes of children and grandchildren, there was no doubting her own fertility). In her day she was likened to a white elephant, which is no slur: pale-skinned elephants are sacred symbols of plenty to Thais. After an audience with Queen Victoria, an awestruck Siamese envoy once marvelled: "Her eyes, complexion and above all her bearing are those of a beautiful and majestic white elephant."

The reputation stuck.

It's official. Many of those bothersome Bangkok traffic police who write up tickets for arbitrary infractions are clueless about the traffic code, and are likely to pocket on-the-spot fines. After failing a quiz on traffic laws, more than 600 police officers, 14 per cent of the force, have been sent back to government traffic school. They will not be allowed to write tickets for at least six months - and then only if they can pass a new exam.

The capital's cocky roadside police are disparagingly referred to as "chickens" rather than the more familiar "pigs". They wear hard, white helmets with beak-like visors, and the most efficient bribe-takers have paunches straining their snug polyester uniforms, resulting in a distinctive silhouette which resembles a bantam rooster strutting towards your car.

Stressed-out drivers, who have been grumbling about roadside harassment for some time, aren't gloating yet. In the Buddhist calendar this is the Year of the Chicken, so motorists believe the police are likely to prevail.

Given the recent rash of snake-rustling, it's understandable why some cops on night duty might be reluctant to stop and search at random. The risk of stolen goods being flung in their faces gives them pause.

On three occasions, raiders have grabbed scores of poisonous cobras out of locked containers at the Red Cross Snake Farm, where their venom is regularly milked for first aid against snake bites. Although police have questioned 10 suspects, they are as yet no closer to solving the mystery of Bangkok's 82 missing cobras.

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