Bob Roehr: The road to Bangkok

BangkokThe lot of an ink stained wretch of a journalist, even one who writes for as illustrious a publication as the BMJ, is not filled with travel and expense accounts. Those budgets, once small, have now disappeared as traditional media formats have contracted while online grows. Thankfully a few charities have stepped into the breach.

The US National Press Foundation runs a variety of education and training programmes for journalists both foreign and domestic, with the underwriting and support of a variety of charities, organisations, and companies. 

I have the good fortune to have secured a fellowship to attend their training programme and the AIDS Vaccine Conference, this year in Bangkok, Thailand. There will be 22 of us, half drawn from Asia. 

It was 28 hours from my home in Washington, DC to New York, to Hong Kong, to Bangkok. The last few kilometres seemed interminably long, thanks to Bangkok’s infamous traffic where walking often is the quicker alternative – unless one’s sense of adventure leads to the rear of a motorbike taxi and hanging on for dear life as it weaves its way between cars. Each change of a traffic light to green releases a school of motortaxis that have worked their way to the head of the queue and dart ahead of their lumbering four wheeled brethren.

The city region area has swelled to more than 12 million in recent years. It is a cosmopolitan mix where public life is dominated by an international pop culture of youth, fashion, music, and brand names that seems to have taken hold in most of the dynamic big cities of the world. The Thais give it their own cultural and personal twists.

The skyline dazzles with towers rising in every direction. Neon decorates the spires of more recent additions and construction cranes suggest that gaps between structures won’t last for long.

I’m impressed that amidst the cacophony of activity there never seems to be an accident, not a car hitting another or a person jostling another. Some invisible social lubricant seems to make it all flow smoothly, almost effortlessly.

It is my first time in Asia, leaving only Australia on the bucket list of continents to visit. I’ve come a few days early to take in the sights and also learn a bit of how Thailand has faced its own AIDS epidemic, the largest in Asia on a per capita basis. It is one of the success stories, but when talking of this disease, success is a relative term.

Bob Roehr is a biomedical journalist based in Washington, DC, and a regular contributor to the BMJ.