The Land Of Smiles
As a holiday destination, Thailand has remained popular over the years because it can be all things to all people. Alas, too many people are under the impression that the country has a fantasy-land quality and they partake of this dream until reality intrudes with a finality that can be lightning quick and utterly unstoppable.
The prisons and morgues are filled with the human detritus of those who learned the hard way and zooming around on a high powered, rented motorcycle sans helmet, at a seaside resort with a nubile on the back and a skinful of booze on board may sound like a hero biker’s dream to some.
But when that head hits the concrete at speed and the medical insurance runs out, who pays the bills? What airline will repatriate a drooling vegetable to wherever?
Jails and police stations have a quota of foreigners saying, ”What if?”, but as always, too late.
Perhaps the sunshine, the innate friendliness of the Thai and the cultural concept of, ‘Sanuk’, (Fun), can and often does lead to disaster.
What few foreigners ever see is the rigidity of Thai society for the Thai people. Thais love fun but have in addition, a highly developed sense of social responsibility hence doing something for the society, community or family is the norm, not the exception.
One doesn’t tend to notice this facet of life in resorts and there is little time or inclination to learn anyway.
The very relaxed attitude to drinking lands a lot of folks in a fix. Virtually everywhere sells alcohol and it is available round the clock in such diverse locations as gas stations and, (honest), hospital shops. This lends itself nicely to drink driving and the associated carnage which is even more apparent during the major holiday festivals:- Songkran, Loy Kratong and New Year.
Britain has roughly the same population as Thailand and the death rate from road accidents is ten times greater in Thailand…….work it out.
But, the Thais are great drinkers and great fun to be with when drinking as there are always the munchies on the table that you will be unlikely to find in a Thai restaurant at home.
Every day can be a surprise and eventually you just accept that nothing is ever what it seems. It’s either that or the nut house.
From the Friday evening traffic chaos in Bangkok to Sunday concerts in Lumpini park it is a country of opposites and this can cause the brain to wobble dangerously at times.
I arrived en route to somewhere else and decided to stay for a while. Before I knew it, nine years had passed and just quite where the time had gone is still a mystery to me.
Expats fall into three categories. Those sent by their parent company who live in relative luxury and tend to not have the dealings with the locals at a street level.
This is no fault of theirs, just the way it works and a pity as they tend to be more consumer orientated.
Having a wife in tow must be a drag to many as Bangkok’s reputation seems to be built on all the wrong impressions.
Then we have the retirees. The Thai have a great respect for the elderly and as such with a pension and medical insurance, a person can lead out their life in a contented way.
All too many though opt to open a bar or listen to the advice of a girlfriend or wife with little more than a basic high school education, (if even that), and lose the lot. It’s sad, but it happens.
I once saw an ancient old gent in the Immigration Detention Centre. He spoke German but had no I.D., and was dressed only in a pair of ragged peasant trousers. The poor old soul was half demented and handcuffed for his own safety.
It was a pathetic sight and I felt heart sorry for him: After all, without I.D., what country would accept him and what promises and broken dreams lay behind his elderly destitution?
The poor old soul was going to die there, alone, stateless and mad.
And us lot; Folks who liked Thailand enough and were intrigued enough to try and make a go of it and stay on through our own efforts.
A lot become English teachers but there’s no security there and the constant running around Bangkok must be wearing. The strain of having to maintain visa status and be available to work anytime, any day soon negates the novelty of having a job.( Paid by the hour).
The money is also crap.
Too many of these, ‘Instructors’, adopt an attitude that Thais are stupid because they make the same mistakes in English all the time. This is not so and has to be blamed on the way that they are taught English by their native teachers at High School-the basic syllabus has mistakes therefore the teachers are teaching mistakes and it’s a very difficult thing to try and undo something learned and reinforced at an early age.
And I never met many English instructors who could speak more than very basic Thai…
(There are exceptions and to these people may I say, ขอโทษ).
Most of the Thai people who go to English classes have put in a full day's work beforehand and this is something that is often overlooked by their instructors-the last thing that they want to do is get serious and be lectured about the past participle, active and passive voices, gerunds and such things which are of no damn use at all in the course of a normal conversation.
I like most, did some instruction in various fields and the secret is to make ‘em laugh and keep ‘em laughing. It didn’t matter if it was Apprentice Airmen, Customer relations for Air Hostesses or a bunch of High School kids……..It has to be ‘sanuk’ or they are going to lose interest.
(Wouldn’t you if you were paying hard earned cash for the service?). <I have to chime in here and strongly disagree. There are some things in life where you simply have to roll up you sleeves and do it the hard way. Not everything can always be fun. The Thais' incredibly low threshold for boredom is a major issue in education and is, in my opinion, the reason why academically they do not do so well. Remember in a comparison of TOEFL scores across Asia, Thailand scored the lowest, even lower than Laos! – Stick>
And of course, some of us have skills that Thai companies can utilise. With me it was my knowledge and experience within the aviation industry, Rob had his laser software and lasers, and, nobody ever quite worked out what Alain did apart from his pin badge business in France.
Though he did open a guest house in a country bordering Thailand, alas doomed to failure through the corrupt practices of the local officials.
This is how we all came to be living in Soi Zero, (Sukhumvit Soi 1).. As accommodation is the largest monthly expense then it makes sense to find somewhere cheap and central. Soi Zero, as we knew it long before Trink decided to rename, ‘Buckskin Joe’s’ as Soi Zero was in actual fact Soi Bumrungrad, a side soi to Soi 1, was super central and for the location, it was super cheap as long as one didn’t mind shared ablutions and a lack of air-con.
As foreigners we were treated exactly the same as Thais and as we were very, very much in the minority, people soon forgot that we were farang and began to treat us accordingly.
Best of both worlds I suppose and we enjoyed being part of the community.
Time went by and we moved along as life can never stand still. Alain decamped to Pattaya thence to Vietnam to wed his lovely Viet lady; I moved uptown, wedded my better half, then moved back downtown to be nearer the office and into a Thai community once
Rob checked out and got an apartment near his office which saved him the trouble of having to negotiate the morning traffic every morning on his motorbike. Statistically you are bound to get it sooner or later on a bike in The Big Mango and his odds were shortening daily…..
We would still mount his motorcycle and head back to the Soi for a few beers of a weekend afternoon, but the people had changed and a lot of our Thai friends were gone.
Married and moved, killed in accidents, or in the case of some, AIDS had taken its toll. We couldn’t see that we had changed, but the atmosphere had- it was muted somehow and in the evenings there wasn’t the crowd outside the shopette getting stuck into the food and booze.
En and Jiin didn’t play their skipping games in the street anymore and the bratettes didn’t run shrieking after a hula hoop or basketball.
Now En had left college and working for a Japanese company, her fluency in English showing time well spent eavesdropping on our conversations and Jinn had moved onto High School, her temper having developed to match that of her mother. Woe betide the
person who falls foul of Jiin in later years.
Rob and I would fall quiet to look along the darkened Soi then hand our empties to old Kay then slope off like cats in the night. It wasn’t our place anymore.
Surprising events can intrude into one’s life and one day I found myself at the airport with my wife and some friends, all wondering when we would see each other again. I had to get home.
Reality can be such a bastard sometimes.
Rob lasted a few more months but his son was coming up to school age, so he arranged his affairs and jumped on a jet as well.
As I mentioned earlier, Thailand can be all things to all people. But forget the books and movies about deranged hippies sitting on a beach and taking lots and lots of drugs. It’s nothing like that.
Sure, sit on a beach and take lots of drugs. Then sit in pokey for five years and think about it.
The reality is an African gent frantically running across the traffic being pursued by the cops. He knows that the half kilo of heroin wrapped around his waist is going to have him in jail for twenty or twenty five years. Is that really worth a couple of thousand bucks in the short term?
The reality is also the civility that you receive on a daily basis and of the beaming smiles that greet you from complete strangers who just want you to sit down and share their food and drink and have a talk…and I made a lot of friends.
The reality is also the constant enquiry, ”Tam arai?”. ”What are you doing?” This actually means, ’Look, I’m here and paying attention to the fact that you are here and would you like to pass some of the time of the day?’
Isn’t that just plain old fashioned nice?
I also think that I miss my family. All sixty million of them.
And just where did those nine years go?
“Well, my bags are packed and I’m ready to go”, “I’m standing here outside your door, baby, I don’t want to go…”. “But I’m leaving on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again, “Honey, I don’t want to go…”
And it’s an old song from the sixties, but I still want to weep when I remember the people and times and kindness that I always received from Thais and Lao as a matter of courtesy and when that song comes on the radio, I listen, because it hurts too much to play it myself, and when it does play, well, I just want to hang my head and cry.
So if you miss it so much, why don't you come back?