Reflecting On My First 10 Years In Bangkok, Part 1
Reflecting On My First 10 Years In Bangkok –
Part 1, Summer of 2538
I first arrived in 1995 on a work-study kind of program. My first reaction riding from the airport and looking at billboards was “Oh my God. I am never going to be able to read ANYTHING!” I had no idea that Thai had its own written language.
I was not prepared for anything! I lived with my Thai friend, who was educated in the U.S., and his extended Thai family out off Sukapiban 1 Road. There was only one other farang in the whole neighborhood, an elderly Englishman next door named
Robert. My pal’s mother-in-law kept referring to me as “Robert”. “Does Robert eat Thai food?” Would Robert like to go to the beach with us on Sunday?” My pal asked her, “Mere, why do you keep calling
him Robert? His name is James.” Then Mom explained that after hearing the lady next door for 20 years scream for her husband out in the garden “Robert! Roberrrt!” she thought that you just referred to all farang men as “Robert”.
Traffic was a much worse nightmare back then. To get to work on lower Sukhumvit by 8:30, I had to catch the bus by 6:30. I just took whichever bus was going my way. Most of the time I wound up at the right place, but sometimes ended up at the Makkassan Intersection and had to walk to Sukhumvit. Soi 3 was being widened and improved that summer. I would buy Chinese doughnuts and a cup of coffee near the Grace Hotel. The young coffee vendor and his wife were very friendly.
After work, I would have a beer or three in one of the beer bars off Soi 3. Most of the customers were Middle Eastern but I never had any problems whatsoever. A younger Thai colleague walked by one day and was shocked to see me and said that I should not go there alone. I explained that he should not worry. Nothing bad ever happened and I still drop by the same bar, once in a blue moon.
I made friends with another Thai colleague who was kind of the wild man of the office, a drinker and smoker. We would stay out late together. Once he took me to a fishbowl kind of place off Soi 4 but the whole atmosphere was so foreign it made me nervous and we left quickly. I preferred just drinking beer in the little pubs on Soi Sarasin or having Isaan food at the original Sarah Jane’s in Soi Langsuan.
That summer, I had no idea about Bangkok nightlife and never went to Nana Plaza, Patpong or Soi Cowboy. I had no idea those kinds of places even existed.
Romance: I met a lady who worked in the same building and fell in love with her sweet voice and soft manners. She spoke perfect English, liked jazz and was a true romantic. We had a great summer together and we visited Lopburi and other towns at the weekends. Hua Hin was truly a sleepy little village back then and food cost less than half of what it does now. There was no fast food or anything like that. From time to time I still stay in the same hotel I did way back then. They have the same friendly staff and the prices have only increased in a reasonable way.
As we could not go back to my pal’s family home and certainly not back to her parent’s home, I got to see the inside of a few Bangkok hotels: Dynasty, Novotel, City Lodge and a few others. The only place that pulled a two-tier farang price charge on us was the Rattanokosin Hotel, sometimes called the Royal. When my girl handled the check out, the cashier glanced over at me ten feet away and explained “Madam, there will be an additional charge at another rate because your husband is a foreigner (She at least said “khon ton chart” and not “farang”). Oh well.
Not knowing anything about the nightlife, after work I would usually have a few beers, wait for the traffic to ease up a little and head home. It was the rainy season. Sometimes it would take 2 hours or more to get home. Dinner would be waiting on the table for me and my pal and his wife would try to teach me a little Thai. I could count to 20, negotiate motorcycle taxi fares and say “Sawadii Khrap” and a few other useful phrases. My pal’s wife was amused the way I mixed Thai and English. We were talking about new movies “Oh, come on! You rujaak Jeff Goldblum nair nawn!”
One afternoon it rained like hell. Soi 3 was flooded and I lost a shoe in the knee-deep, swirling, brown water. Deciding that who knows what kinds of diseases and vermin lie beneath the surface and that it would not be a good idea to try to reach in to find my shoe, I hopped on one foot to the sidewalk and bought a pair of rubber sandals and tossed the remaining shoe. I had to wear the sandals to the office the next day until I could buy a new pair of shoes at lunchtime.
One Friday I came home and there was a note on the table. “We have gone to Ratchaburi to visit my wife’s father. See you Sunday”. I felt like the kid in “Home Alone”. My God, I had to fend for myself! I made my way to the market with my trusty phrasebook and managed to order a nice dinner and a beer all by myself. I still tell this story to this day, but with lots more drama than here.
Soon I was going to the market almost every day on my own and learning a lot of new vocabulary. The market became my university and the vendors were my professors. One thing that really threw me off though was an ATM, which were fairly new back then and few and far between. Well, I pop my card in and there was no English whatsoever, even the NUMERALS on the screen were in Thai! Since I couldn’t read ANYTHING, I cancelled the transaction, fearing that I might overdraw my account by a couple of million baht or bucks or whatever.
The rest of the summer flew by much faster than I wanted and I promised my girl that I would try to save enough money to come back in December.
This promising start could turn into a very nice series.