Postcard From Thailand
Sawat dee khrap…it means hello, goodbye, good morning, good night, welcome or any other greeting you can imagine…..(Greetings) from Bangkok, the City Of Angels as it’s known locally (Grung Tep). You thought that title deservedly belong to Los Angeles? Well, LA is for Hispanic angels and BKK is for the Oriental angels. Remember that there are good and bad angels. Bangkok is also known as The Big Mango (vs The Big Apple). I think an expat named it that and it stuck. Bangkok is the biggest city in Thailand, LOS, the Land Of Smiles (it’s also read Land Of Scams or the land of traffic, temples, sex, drugs and rock’n roll), with an official population of 6 million but it is estimated at any given time there are twice as many people in the city and during peak hour (read between 5 AM in the morning until 3 AM at night), it seems that there are 4 times as many people in the city, especially if it’s raining.
Bangkok taxis are plentiful, on Silom or Sukumvit Road they line up like a train carriage one after another. However if it’s raining (like it does everyday in September and October) then don’t bother looking for a taxi as you wont find any. My theory is that when it rains the taxi drivers like to find a cosy place with their mates to indulge in one of their favourite activities, drinking and playing cards, no other explanation for it.
The other favourite activity of theirs is to invent scams to fleece the newbie foreigners of another 2 baht (10 cents). I think it makes them feel better, rather than the need for the 2 baht. For example, they have two counters on their meter, one clicks when the car moves, the other when it stops. So if the car is moving slowly, they cant take advantage of both meters, that’s why you'll see some of them wait until there is a clear gap in front of them like 20 metres or so then they will accelerate as fast as they can to cover the gap so they can stop again, that way the second counter kicks in.
Traffic is atrocious, imagine Lane Cove at Epping Road. The only difference is that the lights on some of the intersections stay red for about 5 minutes, the one on Sathorn Road which I go through everyday stays red for 8 minutes at times and my favourite at Asoke and Sukumvit Roads on the evenings can stay red for up to 12-15 minutes. The reason for inconsistency is that most intersections the lights are controlled by some policeman sitting in booths “watching” the traffic. Watching can translate into reading newspaper, eating (we'll cover that later) or snoozing. In the breaks from their “watching” they find time to change the lights….truly amazing.
Driving in Bangkok is relatively safe compared to driving outside Bangkok. In the city, if you didn’t know any better and judge Thais by their driving, you would think that they are the rudest people in the world. The way they violently cut you off at every opportunity and the way they are so determined not to give way to you when you need it…well, if it happens in Sydney there would be a road rage murder occurring every minute at every corner. This is when you realize how wrong you are thinking that they are rude, this is when you realize they must be the most polite and tolerant people on earth to be able to put up with that.
Driving or being in a car driven by a Thai outside Bangkok is another experience. Sweaty palms are inevitable. They overtake at any given time, regardless of whether a car is coming from the other direction or not. This is on an interstate highway with one lane each way. The other car coming in the opposite direction is expected to move to the shoulder…and if you don’t?…well, it’s up to you, as Thais will say at every situation. They will drive as fast as the car allows them to, notice I didn’t say as fast as road or traffic conditions allows them to. Seat belts are rarely used. When I use it they call me something like an equivalent of “chicken” in English. The kids are jumping around in the front or back seats at speeds of 180 km/hour.
The traffic rules in Thailand are suggestions rather than rules.
Walking is not a favourite activity of Thais. In fact they hate walking any distances and when they do it’s the extreme opposite of the speed they use when driving, they walk so slowly. Their awareness of the people around them when they walk is exactly the same as when they drive…no consideration.
Crossing the road at a pedestrian crossing is read “cross at your own peril”. If a car sees you crossing then he will speed up to get by you before you get to his path, otherwise he may sound his horn to say “are you @#$%^% blind? Can't you see me coming? Crazy foreigner !!”.
Crossing the road anywhere else translates into “suicide”.
Motorbikes are the fastest and most popular form of transport. On the major intersections you'll see about 30-50 motorbikes congregated waiting for lights to change (not necessarily lights for them) then they'll take off. You'll be forgiven to think that they are practising to challenge Peter Doohan at the next Grand Prix event. One can’t help thinking “why haven't they died yet?”.
Quite often you'll see a whole family of 5 on their family station wagon, oh I mean a 100 cc motorbike. First time I saw this I was flabbergasted thinking my God, there are 4 people on that bike, the taxi driver corrected me and said no, there are 5. I still don’t know how those girls with their short skirts and platform shoes side saddle on the back of the motorbike taxi without holding on and keep their dignity while the bike weaves in and out of the traffic.
Helmets which are not used regularly can look like anywhere from a regular motorbike helmet which they wear on top of their head (rather than putting their head in it) to construction helmets or Nazi style German W.W.II soldier hats, which comes complete with a swastika.
They transport all sorts of goods on their bikes, like half a dozen LPG gas bottles etc. One time I saw a washing machine strap to the drivers back. You think that’s amazing. One time I saw what must have been at least 20 boxes of things attached to the back which must have been about 5 metres high. As he was weaving in and out of the traffic all you could see was boxes above the buses, pick up trucks and vans moving in and out, you couldn't see the bike or the driver. If you thought that should take the cake, wrong, the best was when Peter Berenger, Sharon Wilkins and Brennan Flynn was in a taxi one day we saw a motorbike whiz past us, he had so much junk on the back he didn’t have room for a passenger, but he did have a passenger. Where was he? The passenger was sitting on the drivers shoulders !! TIT (it’s read This Is Thailand).
Eating is THE favourite activity of all Thais. So why are they not fat? There are many theories about it but I don’t know. They just eat and eat and eat and eat and eat. I thought I was a pig (and I am) but these people are bigger pigs. They are always eating. There is no concept of breakfast lunch and dinner. They eat at anytime and they eat anything at anytime. At restaurants they'll order just about every dish they can, there is hardly any room at any table, if the table is bigger then they'll order more. In the office at any given time (from 7:30 AM until 9 PM – I haven't been in the office outside those hours) when I look up I can guarantee at least one person – but probably more – is eating…usually junk.
I think that their taste buds are dead from eating too much chili. Everything has to be smothered by chili – that’s when you order “not spicy”….otherwise you stay hungry. When it’s not spicy then it’s smothered with sugar – very strong tastes, otherwise their dead taste buds cant taste it. Very difficult to find regular bread for example, even hot dog buns taste like apricot Danish buns. On the restaurant tables quite often you'll find sauces which all have chili in it (in case your meal didn’t have enough) and sugar but very rarely salt. Difficult to get any natural drinks that doesn’t have masses of sugar and salt in it. I usually have to order my orange juice “special” and even then I have to watch them in case they are trying to sneak something in…and I usually do catch them and when I say I don’t want that crap in my drink I usually get the deer in the headlight look… or…..”are you stupid or what? How can you drink it without this crap” look.
Went down to Pattaya, a beach resort on the weekend with a Thai family. We met them at midday on Saturday at a restaurant in Bangkok where they were eating. We left at 12:30 and arrived in Pattaya at 2 PM, checked in to a hotel and immediately walked down to the beach where they have umbrellas to sit under and chairs to sit on. This was about 2:30. This place is like a walking market, they line up one after another and trying to sell you everything under the sun, usually food. So what did we do? I counted we bought 20 different food items from prawns, fried rice to fruits and other sweet crap, in the next two hours and the family was constantly eating (and drinking). After the beach we went back to the hotel to shower and get changed, by 6 PM we were ready to go out. Guess where? Yep, to eat dinner !! I am like, you gotta be joking right? They say OK we walk for ½ hour first (to please me). After dinner it was sleep time and the next day was very similar in terms of eating habits.
A few months ago we had a someone knock on the door of our apartment. We were both asleep. I looked at my watch and saw that it was 2:45 AM. I went to open the door and who do I find? My girlfriend's brother with a smirk on his face, he was carrying bags full of hot Thai food and he says "I bring food for you". Arrrgghh, it is $%^$%^& 3 AM in the morning, he looks at me puzzled with my reaction…uhhh, you no hungry?
They eat just about every piece of garbage they can find in their backyard and sell the leftovers in the street. They waste nothing, chicken butt is one of my favourites, I am not too keen on maggots or grasshoppers even though they are golden brown fried. One time I asked the vendor, pointing to the maggot, how does it taste? He says it taste good. I say but how, does it taste like chicken? He says, yes, yes, it tastes like chicken. So I point to the grasshopper, how about that one, does it taste like watermelon? The response: yes, yes it tastes like watermelon.
I hate the way they boil everything, especially the meat. Last night I ordered T-bone steak, it come back boiled then put on a skillet – it tasted awful. Even Burger King puts the meat on hot water – it tastes like cardboard.
Eating at sidewalks can be fun. In fact some expats swear by them. They say it tastes better because it’s more authentic and it’s dirt cheap, usually around 20 baht ($1). There is a lot of truth in it, especially the dirt part. The other day – just after I had my meal there – I was observing the lady serving the food. To my surprise, she was using her hand instead of a spoon to scoop the rice from the pot into the plate. I thought, well she must be using one of those plastic gloves. A closer inspection revealed no such thing, it was bare hands. I figured it must be clean then, right? As I was trying to convince myself of that thought, she proceeded with raising her finger and placing it in her nose. While she was vigorously moving her finger I was thinking who will replace her while she goes and washes her hand. Needless to say washing didn’t take place. In all fairness, she did attempt (twice) to wipe her hands on her hip. I assume she made contact before resuming her primary task of placing rice on the plates.
Drinking in Thailand is compulsory (I think) for men and they do it with eating (read at every opportunity). They always drink whisky. Johnny Walker is a treat except if you say Johnny Walker no one will understand. If you say Red or Black however everyone will understand. Don’t bother asking for any other drinks in a Thai establishment because they wont have it – except for the drink they have when they are not drinking, that is beer. They always “open botten”, buy the whisky by the bottle between a few friends and they'll drink it with water and ice, there is no variation on this. It is as I describe it above, expecting anything else would be putting yourself in a ridicule situation.
In Bangkok everything is for sale, but beware you don’t always get what you think you are getting. The goods are often substituted. Like the CK after shave I bought the other day…it was cheap but watered down. You buy a movie, you get a different one, you buy software at 150 baht ($7) where you may pay $700 in Australia…but it may not work. I haven't seen Ingenium at Patpong yet though, rather disappointing.
One day we were buying a towel, I ask how much, the lady grabs the calculator as they always do and starting punching in some numbers, I could see that she typed in 200 (about $10) then she looked me up and down and then added in another 0 to the end.
A good pastime would be to play a game called “spot the katoey” in Patpong. Katoey is a “Ladyboy” i.e. transsexual. It’s always fun playing with the newcomers to Thailand because they always lose. The plastic surgery in Thailand is the most advanced in the world. Elephants, you can see them everywhere in the street. They are very good soccer players, always scoring goals with a half volley. The beaches have signs (next to no dog signs) no elephants.
Talking about signs, some places you'll see Japanese only, or Gentlemen welcome, no lady please…or for a job at a hairdresser near our apartment: Ladies and Katoey only, no men please (gay men OK).
Toilets. Well, they have the modern toilets….someplaces…they flush OK and some of them are equipped with special jet hose attachment to wash yourself if you feel so inclined. It is not a drinking fountain and is not designed to use when brushing one's teeth. At our office, we don’t have these. For Thais who are used to washing themselves, small buckets are provided which they fill with water before going into the cubicle. Toilet paper (now) is provided but it is designed to dry yourself rather than wipe and they are usually placed in the waste basket next to you rather than in the bowl for flushing. I don’t personally care what their hygiene method is but the paper in the basket takes a little getting used to – I will one day.
The squat type can be the modern one with flush facilities or just a hole in the ground. Flush facilities mean that you use a small bucket of water to invoke the removal routine.
If you are at someone’s house, you could easily be confused between the small pool of water used for flushing the toilet or the bigger pool of water used for flushing dirt of your body, commonly referred to as shower / bath.
Don’t look for the toilet paper because it will be futile and will cause you to stay in there longer than you have to, wasting time looking for it. My theory as to why you cant find any toilet paper in the toilet is because it’s usually on the kitchen table, used as tissue paper / napkin. Quite often on the bus, you'll see a young pretty girl holding a toilet paper in her lap, especially if she has a cold or something. Imagine that in North Sydney.
There is a prerequisite in using these squat toilets. If you want to get out of the toilet without agonizing cramps in your legs or stomach muscles or if you want to get out dry then you must complete Circus Act 101 prior to entering the toilet. If you are David Copperfield or Houidini, you are exempt.
Try to use your hotel toilet before you go out. In one case, I went into a public toilet in a petrol station, there were two booths with doors, one was occupied, when I entered I was shock to find that there was no partition between the two booths. I was outta there in a hurry, the Thai man next door didn’t pay any attention to me.
They are master of not paying any attention to anything, nothing bothers them, they don’t complain about anything which is why I think many things are mediocre here because they accept anything and everything. You get on an air-conditioned bus and the driver turns off the air conditioner, and no one says a boo, the job is always left up to the big bad farang (foreigner)…that’s me…and no matter how politely I do it, it’s impossible not to embarrass everyone.
The person next to you could be doing something very annoying, like blowing smoke on your face or he may have taken your seat or screaming his head off while you are trying to talk on the phone or whatever, no one complains.
Talking about noise, everything is very noisy in Bangkok. They play music as loud as they can, the louder the better they think, the TV is on full loudness everywhere, the buses, tuk-tuks, motorbikes are very noisy, the PA system is as loud as it goes, the radio in the taxi is so loud you cant talk, the nightclub music is so loud that you cant even hear yourself talk let alone someone else. On the positive side you can swear at someone you don’t like without the fear of retribution. Yet, except for a few exceptions, everyone talks so softly that you can barely hear them…go figure.
The weather is usually hot, except when it rains, like today, like now, then it is cold. If you don’t believe me just ask the Thais, it is very cold at 24 degrees today, as you walk down the street you can see many Thai girls doing a shivering act only Canadians maybe accustomed to, in the meantime I am sweating profusely while walking even in the hairless part of my anatomy…like the top end of my head.
Umbrellas are used daily, sometimes for sun sometimes for rain and sometimes I cant figure out why. The other day I saw a 5-6 year old kid riding a bicycle, the “maid” or whoever she was, was using an umbrella to protect him from ummm…..either expecting the sun to come out or rain to drop, it seemed unlikely for both at that time. The brat was doing a butterfly act trying to avoid the shade, poor lady was running, chasing him with an umbrella to protect him from the evils of nature. She was losing but it was good entertainment for on lookers.
For a country which has extremes in the weather in terms of heat and wetness, it’s people seem rather sensitive to it. When they are walking in a light rain undercover and they come to a small street that they need to cross (which has no cover), they tend to overreact to the situation as they virtually sprint (together with get set, ready) at Maurice Green speeds over the 3 metres or so. The same overreaction occurs on sunny or even overcast days. People without umbrellas feel that they are doomed. They’ll use whatever means possible to defend themselves, including wallets, mobile phones, post-it notes etc.
Double pricing is annoying and it occurs way too often, such as when you go to an attraction park like the Crocodile Farm or something. 60 baht ($3) for Thai people and twice as much for farangs? Wrong, about 6 times more at 350 baht. The guide that took you there will make even more money because he / she will buy your ticket at 60 baht and will tell you it’s 350 baht as it is evident from the ticket booth sign, and you will give him 500 baht and tell him to keep the change for being such a nice guy. It is everywhere but you may seldom notice it, unless you can speak Thai or in some cases even that’s not enough, you have to be able to read Thai. Of course Thais wont say anything to warn you even in the best of times, let alone having to make you and the other Thais lose face. So you pay accordingly and happily I might add, after all it’s only $20 and if you are American it’s only $10 and if you are Japanese it’s less than $0.
I am beginning to sneak in with the humans however, the lady who sells corn on the side of the road started charging me 7 baht instead of the regular farang price of 10 baht while the Thais pay only 5 baht. So she is not treating me like the regular Walking ATM Machine, I am now almost a human. It’s a double compliment because she considers me closer to human than a machine as when she rounded the 7.5 baht, she rounded it down towards the human price. I am so proud of my current state of being a sub-human, first step towards my aspirations to be an ab-human.
Having said all that, I find Thai people to be amongst the friendliest in the world, Thailand to be one of the safest countries in the world. All in all, LOS is a place to experience with the true meaning of the word, and I am glad I was able to experience some of it. I have met many expats (including families) who call Thailand their home and can’t imagine living anywhere else.
Bey wrote this nice collection of anecdotes and observations about life in Thailand for his company magazine and then decided to also submit it here for others outside the company to enjoy.