Stickman Readers' Submissions May 8th, 2006

Learning Thai

A Thai This And That

1. Introduction.

He Clinic Bangkok

Boom boom boom. The beat from the band at the “Zolid” disco was deafening. As usual the sound mixer with his vast array of technological knobs and dials had got it wrong again.

The noise from the musicians was successfully drowning the attempts of the singer on the stage. Nobody seemed to mind. Her feminine attributes and sexy attire were easily compensating for her diminished vocal activity.

The big screen was showing some popular football match. Was it Manchester united? Was it Rangers? Who knows? Who cares?

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It was dark in the disco, dark for effect. A huge string spiders web, ghouls in the corners, it was Halloween. Red label whisky was the drink of the moment. A bottle on each table, and more being carried in.

The faces around me were dark, all dark, every one. Why? , because this was not Manchester, not Glasgow, it was Khon Kaen city, north east Thailand.

I was tired. The previous night I had not slept much. Why didn’t I sleep?

I should have. Twenty eight hours to travel halfway round the world and I was exhausted. But the hotel air conditioning unit had other ideas. A deep resonance, a cyclic oscillation, a bloody awful noise. Despite all my efforts, it won. I didn’t sleep.

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This night too I was tired, but I could not retire for the night. My mind was working, working non stop. Trying to analyse the situation. Trying to rationalise the days events.

I had come to Thailand to visit my girlfriend. The trip was booked some time ago and I was looking forward to meeting her again. But events had taken a turn for the worst, and a brief telephone call had told me that she was in hospital having a major stomach operation.

Contact was then lost completely. Fickle things these mobile phones; no signal, no credit, lent to a friend. All these things conspire against this most clever of devices. Time had passed and contact was still lost, despite my best efforts to contact her friends and family.

So I left Scotland, as planned, not knowing whether she was dead or alive!! I packed my black tie. Callous? Insensitive? I do not know. Expect the worst and anything better is a bonus.

I had made the journey before, 3 months before. It had been the most amazing two weeks of my life. After sixteen years of relative stability (wife, child, business) three years in the divorce mill had left me drained. I had no ambition, no enthusiasm. I was depressed.

I needed something, or someone, and I had found it in Lek. I had flown across the world for a blind date. Wow, I was entering my international phase.

But this trip had not started well. Faulty “o-ring” seals in the hydraulic steering gear had resulted in the first leg of my flight from Manchester being delayed. One hour, two hours, two and a half hours. Time remaining to catch my connection in Dubai reduced proportionately. Would I make it? Would they hold the next flight? They should, both legs were with Emirates. They did. Phew!!

It had been a day of mixed emotions. Her sisters had driven me from her home town of Roi-et to the big city of Khon Kaen, to the hospital there.

I was apprehensive. My escorts spoke no English, except the usual paraphrase “fine thanks, and you?”. I did not know what to expect. The sight that greeted me at ward AE2 was pathetic. This was not the elegant proud Thai girl who had paraded me around her town three months earlier, showing me off to her friends and family, smartly dressed, immaculately groomed. This was a tired body, weary from the effects of the surgeons knife. Skeletal, she had lost ten kilograms of weight. Emaciated. Pipes into her body, and pipes out. Hardly able to talk. Bodily fluids oozing out of her mouth, convulsing dramatically after trying to speak.

But the eyes I knew. I had spent two weeks drowning in them previously, black and mysterious. I had gazed continually into them, trying to understand, looking for the signs.

Now these windows to the mind were saying something else. The anticipation and the curiosity were gone, to be replaced by self pity, fear and disappointment.

Pity because she was not the women she was, her femininity violated by the knife; fear of an uncertain future; and disappointment , even hatred, for the knife happy butcher who had nearly killed her during a first routine operation. But that first operation had gone horribly wrong, causing her emergency transfer from her home town to this city “university” hospital. The standard issue hospital pajamas resembled prison issue. One size fits all, unisex, SRINAGARIND 2547, but at least they were clean.

I did not know what to do or how to react. I had read that Thai people were not keen on public displays of affection. The best I could do was to take hold of her hand and say hello dear. It was not the reunion I had hoped for. No long deep embrace or slow passionate kiss, just “hello dear”.

All eyes were on me. The foreigner, the Englishman. I blinked away a tear. At least she was still alive!

2. Stereotypes and preconceptions.

An Englishman, yes. Fifty something, divorced, sadly disillusioned by the fat available offerings of the affluent west. Surrounded here by so many good looking women, how could any man fail to be attracted to these dark haired beauties? I had fallen for this one, hook , line, and sinker. Like so many men before me, I had succumbed to the temptation. A beautiful girl, mysterious, culturally different, exciting. I had embraced the new technology and found what I was looking for.

Fred Elliot, whoever he was, has a lot to answer for. I never met him but I believe he is responsible for a great many popular misconceptions.

“They are after your money!” So is my ex wife. So are the girls who frequent Glasgow Green after dark. So are the countless overpaid bearcats who administer our social and tax systems. Who doesn’t want my money???

“They will have a husband and kids at home!” Well, few people reach middle age without offspring and other “baggage”. A spouse, maybe, maybe not.

In this age of information, dies-information and propaganda, you have to make your own judgment. Assess the information available, use your intuition, and make your decision accordingly. Financial advisers, bankers, insurance salesmen, they are all out to con you! Test drive the car before you buy it, if you have suspicions then forget it and walk away.

This , however, may be true : “If you marry a Thai girl you marry her family”.

Thai people seem to have incredibly strong family bonds. If anyone in the family is struggling, the rest help out in any way they can. Elderly members of the family are revered and supported as best they can be. I think we could learn something here. Our clinical solution to old age is a retirement home or similar. In Thailand you change your parents “Medicos Adult Diapers” yourself, and empty the bedpan, and empty the sick bucket, and wash them , and……

“You will end up paying the hospital costs yourself!” What sort of person would I be if I would not buy five pounds worth of medicine for the girl I love, or a six pack of toilet tissue to mop up the spit. I have morals and a conscience. I am not after brownie points for the next life, I just want to help someone who helped me back onto my feet after the divorce mill and who restored my self esteem.

A man said to me shortly after my first trip, “well, did you buy a wife?”. Did I buy a wife.

I thought slavery had been abolished! If you went to a pet shop you could buy a dog, take it home, and if you knew what you were doing you could train it to be a loyal and faithful companion for the rest of it’s life. You could love that dog and in a doggy sort of way it would love you, but does anyone seriously believe that you could do this with a women?

A women who probably doesn’t understand much of your English, who has feelings and family, and has very different cultural values and a different religion to yourself.

They are not sat on shelves in some kind of “wife supermarket “, they have lives to live. To share that life you have to treat them like women, woo them, not buy them.

3. Asbestosis.

We tried to colonise the world, but fortunately for the world we did not succeed. Now our nanny government holds US in subjugation by crippling taxes and self perpetuating bureaucracy. “Asbestos sheet? Yes sir what colour would you like? Blue is popular, but we also have red brown and green. “ Buy two sheets – build a shed, it is your home. If you can afford three sheets you build a bigger home, and so on.

In my country I work for fifteen weeks to contribute to a department of bureaucracy called planning and building control. If I want to erect my three sheets of asbestos on my bit of land I have to pay this department yet another large sum of money just to ask their permission. And if they don’t like the colour or the way I want to lean them together I have to pay them again and probably again, until they are satisfied that enough money has been squeezed out of me , but by this time I can only afford two sheets which of course need stacking differently so I have to ask them if that will be ok, well it might be, but you’ll need to pay us again. By this time I can only afford one sheet of asbestos, I have some nails, but I am now too old to wield the hammer.

There is an alternative of course. I could go to see the thief with the nice suit and comfortable office. He will lend me enough money for twenty sheets, but I will be paying him back for the rest of my life, or he’ll want the sheets back.

So these people build with what they can, wood, asbestos, tin, concrete, all to good effect.

Sir Bob would have been proud of their efforts. I must admit, the blue sheets do make the hospital look pretty.

4. God and Buddha.

Day four of my bedside vigil. The ward was noisy, incessant chatter in a tongue I did not understand. “We wish you a merry Christmas”…A mobile phone woke up. Christmas!! I hoped that I would be spared the capitalist “run up to Christmas”. But to the phone’s owner it was more likely to be just some catchy tune rather than a religious sentiment.

I was trying to shut these sounds out, focusing only on the bleep bleep bleep of the heart monitoring machine. It had a three pin fused plug, made by MK.

The readout was unsteady, varying in amplitude and frequency, faltering occasionally.

It stopped momentarily. My heart missed a beat. “Please god, don’t let her die”. Bleep. Bleep bleep bleep. It started again. Thank you Lord Buddha. Pain and suffering know no religious boundaries. I found it hard to hold back the tears. Had I travelled six thousand miles to watch her die?

We had had plans. A walk on a beach, fishing, shopping. Now she appeared near to death. Convulsions, fever, tears, and the ever present spit oozing from her mouth, they were tense hours that afternoon. After an eternity she calmed down a little. Thank you God, thank you Lord Buddha.

It was hard for me to leave the hospital that evening and return to my hotel. If I didn’t catch the familiar green number four pickup truck at seven pm I would be hopelessly lost. Unable to make myself understood, with no familiar landmarks in the darkness. I had to go. I was shattered, emotionally drained. Back at the hotel I questioned the receptionist. “Tuk tuks operate 24/7”. So that would be my plan. I had instructed her best friend Roong, who was to do the “night shift” to phone me if anything happened. I could go back to the hospital if necessary by tuk tuk.. Did she understand? I know not. My phone didn’t ring.

The feeling of apprehension and uncertainty returned the next morning as I once again boarded the pick up truck. What would I find when I got to the hospital??

5. Jingle bells…

Another mobile phone chirped out it’s Christmas message, but this time I did not care. She was still alive. There was a tiny bit of improvement, and hope for the future returned.

It was my hope that she would be discharged sometime during my visit, and that we would have at least a few days together, but as the weeks rolled by progress was slow and spasmodic. I sat at her bedside every day for five weeks. There were good days and bad. Days with a little laughter, and days with tears. Days with optimism and days with depression. There were always patients coming and going. We saw them all. Gunshot wounds, knife injuries, motorcycle and car accidents, broken bones of young and old, alcohol poisoning, allergies, they came and went, but bed number 14 remained. Slowly, one by one , the drips and drains were removed, until only one remained.

I was not looking forward to my day of departure, it would be an emotional goodbye.

All eyes were usually watching the Englishman, this day would be very hard for me.

It did not help that her family turned up on that day to see me off. Half an hour before I scheduled myself to leave the hospital a doctor came round. Then incredibly everything changed. The doctor removed the last dextrose drip from her chest and said that if she wanted to see me off at the airport then she had better get dressed quickly. We borrowed some jeans from one person, a top from someone else, underwear from her sister, then we were off. Freedom, for a short time anyway.

We piled into the family pickup truck and headed off towards the airport, with time for a quick meal at a roadside restaurant……. My last image of her was as I headed towards the airport departure security screen, stood with her family with candles in their hands before a large photograph of the King of Thailand, it was his birthday. She was thin and rather frail, but she was alive.

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