Ploenchit Fair: A history-making hiatus

by Robin Westley Martin

Stardate: November 1957, Bangkok >>>

Stardate: November 2020, Bangkok …

No need to turn on your calculator, I’ll do it for you. Sixty-three years have passed since the first Ploenchit Fair was held in the grounds of the British Embassy, in the days of old-time rock n’ roll, in the heart of Bangkok. For all those years, amidst political turmoil and coups d’etats, disastrous flooding of Thailand’s capital, the 9-11 attack on New York’s World Trade Centre, and more …  come hell or high water the biggest, most well-known, and longest-lasting charity fair in Asia has proven unstoppable. But this year it’s a no no. The Covid 19 scourge that has made its unwelcome presence felt around the world has just found its latest victim.

 Ploenchit Fair 2020 has been officially cancelled, for the first time in its history. The committee of the British Community for the Needy (BCTFN) – that includes matriarch Carolyn Tennant (MBE), Jane Rodgers, Gale Bailey (MBE), Anna Whitcraft, John MacTaggart, and Khun Por. They are the hard-working team that organise the Ploenchit Fair each year, and they regretfully informed me of their decision in a recent meeting at their Sukhumvit Road office.  The rules and regulations during the time of Covid, and the strictures put in place by the Thai Government to keep its country safe have made it impossible to run the fair this year.

Whilst visiting their office I had an interesting chat with the team, and they gave me a brief history of the fair, which I will pass on to those who might not be familiar with this much looked-forward-to event on the social calendar for all who live in Bangkok, Thais and the foreign community alike. Including myself, who has been a regular fair-goer since 1988.

It started life in what seems like (was like) a different age, in 1957, as an event put on by the United Kingdom Charities for Thailand Committee (UKCTC) the forerunner of the present day BCTFN. To this day the format is essentially British, and similar events are held to this day in the UK’s cities, towns and villages. From the very beginning it has been a great day out for the family, and the kids, then and now, can enjoy a carnival-like atmosphere, with rides including a big wheel, fairground sideshow attractions, games, raffles, a visit to see Santa Claus (the fair is always held at the end of November) and Bingo for the ladies and their friends who avail themselves of  a harmless little flutter. While the kids and moms were enjoying themselves the dads and the twenty somethings had invariably graduated to the beer garden to enjoy the music of the day played by Thai and expat bands, on a rudimentary stage that had been set up on the back lawn of the Embassy. 

The committee laughed as they told me that often when the fair had closed for the day it took a long time to make sure that all the revelers had left the Embassy grounds before the front gates were locked and the place was handed back to the Ambassador. It involved a careful search for sleeping bodies under a bush, or other hiding places the imbibers of ale, whisky or wine had found for themselves to sleep off their guzzles of the day.

From these small beginnings the fair continued to grow in stature, and from an initial 2,000 to 5,000 or so attendees in the early days, at the height of its regard – in the 90’s – there were almost 20,000 visitors packing the Embassy grounds, at the peak of the its populariy.

Of course, as the Ploenchit Fair is a charitable function, it is all about how much money can be raised to disburse to the charities they help. And the up to 200 millon baht they have raised over the 63 years of its life, since the first fair, is an amazing achievement. 

Examples of the organisations they help include the People Eye Care Foundation, a group that provides free eye care for people in rural areas. An example of their work is cataract surgery, without which people would go blind. Last year they gave 50 cataract sufferers new lenses in both eyes. And a new lease of life into the bargain. The Wild Flower Home provides safe shelter, education, and takes care of the health of young, abused single mothers. The recent donations allowed them to expand the building to take care of a further 25 girls in need. A charity known as Rejoice is based in Chiang Mai, and gives much-needed aid to villages in the province with medical and social support to the poor, sick, elderly, and the underprivileged, including to the hill tribe peoples. The Sisters of Good Shepherd is a non profit making body dedicated to developing the quality of life for those in need. Irrespective of their religion, race, creed or lifestyle. The Fatima Centre that is a part of their organisation provides opportunities for women and young girls to break out of their families unending cycle of poverty, through skills and job training. These are only a few examples out of a long list of charities that benefit from the money raised every year by the Ploenchit Fair.

Apart from the BCTFN committee members, it takes a lot of effort and organisation to run an event of this scale, and as soon as one Fair ends, preparation for the following year soon starts. It is a gigantic effort, and receives support from the British Embassy, the British Chamber of Commerce, local businesses such as Boots, Tescos, BP Castrol, Central Food Hall, and a host of smaller businesses that hold stalls at the fair. It is all done on a voluntary basis, and on the day of the fair itself there are about 2,000 of these guys and gals giving their time and money for free. It is this coming together of the community that has made the Ploenchit Fair a success for so long. Even if you are not a volunteer, and only a visitor there to enjoy a day out with your family, you also are doing your bit. The money you spend there you can be sure is going to a good cause. The fair makes no money for itself … all profits made go straight to the charities once expenses have been paid for. 

In 2018, the fair returned for one last time to its founding home, the grounds of the British Embassy. The land containing the Embassy and the Ambassador’s Residence had been sold, and this was its swansong. I had been asked to help out by Paul Jackson, the Entertainments Director, and DJ at the fair for many years. He knew of my interest in music and the arts from the magazine articles I had written, and I was more than willing to help out. Paul moved back to the UK for an unspecified amount of time in 2019, and I was then asked by the committee to take on the role of entertainments manager and DJ, myself. 

Thus it was that I became part of the team for the 2019 Ploenchit Fair. It was fun being at the fair and treating the throngs of festival goers to my choice of music, which mostly consists of an extensive playlist of 70s, 80s, and 90s music, with a few more recent toons that I like thrown in, for the benefit of the young crowd of today. I am happy to say that the bands I booked enjoyed the gig, the audience enjoyed listening and dancing to their music … and even I was thanked by a few guys who told me it was great to hear some of the songs they had enjoyed in their teens or twenties.

There is a large community of expats in Thailand, many of whom have been here for an extended number of years. As Bangkok has grown in size it has not always been easy for these guys to keep in touch. But another facet of the Ploenchit Fair is that it has become something of a ritual for these long-term residents to always meet up at the fair – even if they only see each other once a year – this is their meeting point of choice. Much back-slapping takes place as they reminisce over a pint or two, remembering their friends of old, and the escapades that they used to get up to when they had first arrived in Thailand. Some of the conversations I have overheard at the fair are best kept secret. Whatever you happen to hear at the Ploenchit Fair stays at the Ploenchit Fair! 

This year the longtime sponsors of the fair are going to continue their support of the charities that have come to rely on the funding they receive from the BCTFN, and should you be able to donate a few baht, please do … every little helps. 

But we will be back next year, with a day full of excitement for the kids and their families, all the fun of the fair … and plenty of food, wines and beers to accompany the live music and my DJ set …  just wait and see! 

Robin Westley Martin

Robin has been living in Thailand and Southeast Asia for over 30 years. He first worked as News Editor for Business in Thailand magazine, before moving on to edit and write for the Thai Airways inflight magazine, and also Hotel & Travel, amongst others. He continues to work in Southeast Asia, Thailand, and further afield, as a freelance writer or editor for several magazines, covering a wide range of genres. 

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