Readers' Submissions

Through The Looking Glass


There seem to have been a lot of articles relating to 'farangs' in Thailand, the tone typically being that of the locals looking down their noses at us. I guess to a certain extent it is true. When I first bought the place where I’m presently residing in Bangkok, it was considered to be really far out of town. But it did meet all my criteria, that being within walking distance of the main road and an air-conditioned bus service, and spaced within easy reach of town, the inter-provincial bus service, and the airport. It was also within my budget. There were only three food stalls at the entrance to the main Soi (lane) – kway teow reua (boat noodles – the type where they usually sell it from what looks like a boat these days; I’ve tried the original item that is sold on the rivers), ‘hoy tord’ (mussels in an omellete / batter mix) and the drinks stall.

It was the young lady who ran the drinks stall who would always give obvious dirty looks at me and my wife; usually it was just me as my wife was still working in the provinces at the time. She’d pretend not to see me so I wouldn’t be able to order a drink, but back in those days it didn’t really matter all that much as you’d always get a free glass of plain water with your meal. Bear in mind that a foreign national would never make it this far out of town in those days, even by mistake, to understand that it was very unusual to be seen there.

This attitude of hers changed very suddenly one day.

Before I came to Thailand, I was working for many years in another Asian country. There were quite a few Thais working at this place too, and some of them would bring their families over. I had worked with one of them for more than seven years, so all his children would refer to me as their ‘uncle’ (it’s a term of respect to call someone this if he’s not immediate family but is considered part of it). The village where he was staying was across the road from where I had bought my house. Given the fact that there wasn’t much in the way of food in those days, it was obvious that we’d run into one another eventually. And so it was that I was having some noodles, when his daughter got off the bus and went over to buy some drinks from that particular stall. Then, while she was ordering the drinks, she looked past the drink vendor and spotted me. She immediately smiled and gave me a big wai. The drink vendor turned round instinctively to she who she was waiing to, and if I said her jaw practically fell to the ground and rolled under her cart it wouldn’t be too far from the truth when she saw it was me. Some animated conversation ensued, and since that incident this lady has been very nice and polite. Do note that this happened more than fifteen years ago; I now drive so don’t really see her, but when I do we both smile at each other.

But now, back on the topic as to why the locals seem to look down on the ‘farang’. Well, a couple of instances in my village may possibly shed some light on that.

A Swiss guy moved into the village a couple of months ago, fifty-ish and looking a lot older. He was renting a fair-sized house in one of the sub-sois near the main road. Word got around on the bamboo telegraph that he was on some kind of medical disability pension. He used to drink over at a fairly large and well-known supermarket nearby but soon became the ten-o'clock morning regular at the small provision shop in the main soi. It's a pretty well-travelled soi as it's a main shortcut these days, so the sight of an obviously inebriated farang almost every day doesn't do the reputation any good. I saw him as I drove past a few days ago; he was stooping and leaning against a tree with a beer in his hand, apparently quite lost in thought, while the factory workers (mainly girls) had to walk around him to get past. It was not a pretty sight.

He's married and has a year-old kid by his (much younger) Thai wife. The wife seems quite a nice person, but it’s only an impression as I pop into the shop just to grab a couple of cold cans before heading off home. I’ve bumped into him at the shop as well, and try to keep the cordialities to a minimum. It’s not pleasant when you look forward to just getting a few cold cans and head off home, and you’re faced with a red-faced, white-haired guy who hasn’t shaved in three days, and is slobbering all over. He’s also between me and the fridge. He's not a nice person when he's drunk, there seems to be a fair amount of one-way shouting if you pass by his rented house, sometimes quite late at night.

Another bloke moved into my sub-soi about two months ago, renting a room in a condo (read unfurnished single room with attached bathroom) further in. He's a reasonably young Italian guy, and has a Thai girlfriend. Fortunately I have not met him, but have seen him once or twice cycling a bicycle in the soi. The auntie who stocks Tiger beers for me (she has a small shop in front of her house) alerted me to the fact that there was another 'Italian guy' new to the neighbourhood. She also told me he drank lao khao (white Thai whisky) and has had frequent and rather vocal disagreements with his girlfriend. This alone turns me off.

Now I am quite friendly with both the provision shop owner and the auntie; having been here for at least fifteen years, I am treated as part of the community. I went over to get a couple of cans from the provision shop a couple of evenings ago (auntie closes by six) and the guy who runs it said the Italian had came over, got really drunk on the main soi, then proceeded to take off all his clothes (with the exception of his underwear). The police were apparently called in.

My wife, her sisters and the maid have been instructed (by me) to keep the gate locked and be on the lookout for this guy. And I'm not Thai, so how do you think the locals here look at him?

Many years ago, there was a similar (Scottish) misfit who would shuffle around in only short trousers, no t-shirt or sandals. He too, drank lao khao, as did his wife. I’d sometimes see the wife collecting tamleung (a kind of leafy vine that is popular in many Thai soups) shoots on a large vacant plot of land. When she had a sack full, she would then proceed to sell it at the nearby market. He eventually died from drinking too much lao khao in one go. His wife had apparently contracted aids, but it was quite some time ago and I’ve not seen her for a long while. They had two kids, a girl and a boy. I can only guess what has happened to them.

There was only one other guy who was well-liked in the soi, an American who worked nearby. He liked to exercise in the soi, sometimes jogging, other times riding his mountain bike. He also liked dogs, and would bring a bag of dog food with him for all his 'friends'. He, too, was quite close with the provision shop owner. He moved out when he bought a house in a different neighbourhood, but I do see him on occasion at the supermarket with his Thai wife, and sometimes do stop for a quick chat.

Those of us who have to work basically keep a low profile. The auntie, the provision shop owner, his wife, they all call me by my name here, as they did the American guy. We were never called 'farangs'. The people at the supermarket recognise us and always have a ready smile. The Muslim couple who run the photo shop on the main road smile and wave through the glass shop front whenever we pass by. We have gained acceptance here, but it’s not just with these few people. As a part of staying in any particular country for a long period of time, the local customs and mannerisms will unnoticeably be integrated into your demeanour. Others, outside your local community, also notice these subtleties and take note.

This is why a new person in the country (in fact, any country) sticks out like a sore thumb. If someone came to your country, you’d probably instinctively know if that person had been around for a while or not.

The sad thing here is, it's the misfits who are noticed because they hang around at all hours, drink themselves silly and do things that draw attention to themselves, things that would be considered in extreme bad taste in their own countries. Things that they probably wouldn’t even consider doing in their own countries in the first place.

Wouldn't you think that sometimes those ‘farangs’ deserve the bad reputation?


Stickman's thoughts:

A truly excellent submission and I really hope it doesn't fall on deaf ears.