Sawat Dee Don Muang And Thanks For The Memories
I am not submitting this because I am desperate to hook up with Dana and the writer’s convention in November but I feel I must at last add my twenty bahts worth to the submissions. That and the fact that Stick has been braving taking snaps of the tanks and Humvees all week it is the least is I can do. Don Muang is where most of our journeys start and end and has been a rich source of fun and laughter for me over the last few years. Built in the 1920s it expanded to today taking an astonishing 25 million passengers a year. I know many of the readers will miss the old lady when Suvarnabhumi airport opens for business soon. I guess it’s a sense of loss akin to when you hear that the mamasan from Soi 4 is no longer working in your favourite bar and has married old Leif the Gloomy and gone off to live in Northern Finland. (Is that a good analogy, Stick?). You have been away from the Big Mango for a while working long hours in London, Chicago, Melbourne, Toronto, Auckland, wherever. You’ve had a long flight, hot, thirsty and in need of sweet company. You rush in from landing and, well it’s all changed, they’ve ripped the heart out of the old place, it’s all shiny and new and full of chrome fittings! You sort of miss her and the old dump you knew for about a second or two and then immediately check out her far better prettier and more efficient replacement, chug a cold beer Lao and wonder what you ever saw in the original anyway.
Don Muang memories ….
I stepped off the plane the first time having flown Swiss Air (never again) and nearly getting lost in transit in Zurich, not an easy thing to do I might add, surrounded by hyper health conscious Swiss nationals. My first ever sight of Prathet Thai was being greeted by scores of surgically masked Thai ground staff spraying us and the air with what looked like fly spray. Welcome to the ancient Kingdom of Siam I thought. It was actually at the start of one of those pandemic terrors, SARS or Hong Kong flu or some variant. Most of the Swiss grabbed masks, turned tail and fled. Being of London-Irish stock it reminded me of the smog of my early childhood so I strode happily on. I immediately loved the buzz of the airport as I had travelled a lot in Asia in my twenties and it all seemed fairly safe and very lively. I passed through the throng of taxi touts, hotel hustlers all the while trying to look like a seasoned traveller but secretly turning over butterflies in my stomach. Like a hard nosed global man of the world I brushed aside the touts and hustlers and was then captivated by the very first beautiful Thai lady I saw waving and smiling at me from a ticket booth on my left. “You come first time in Thailand?” she very helpfully asked and then quickly said something in Thai to her colleague. I’m in here I thought. I skilfully negotiated a very special price reduction for a return trip at only 1,600 baht! What a player, eh!
Okay stop laughing you experienced old Thai hands, we all had our first trip once.
Twenty minutes later I was flying down the airport road (and paying the toll way too so stop giggling!) and within thirty minutes ended up at the truly classy joint known as Nana Hotel where I tipped the driver a meagre 350 baht, about 5 quid seemed reasonable I thought as he fell to his knees wai-ing and kow-towing in delirious supplication! The heat was astonishing and I pleaded for a quick entry to this top notch establishment as everyone outside seemed completely mad, running about throwing water over each other while grossly fat Brit skinheads seemed to be rampaging around in khaki shorts with huge water pistols all covered in flour. Help! Mayhem all around the Soi! Yes dear reader, for I had also arrived on the first day of Songkhran, which I had never heard of and nearly turned right around again to the airport but my taxi driver had by now sped off looking for something called Lao Khao I think..
Four other things have remained constant with me from that very first trip. Firstly the sheer joy of flying down over the Bay of Bengal, past Myanmar and knowing that Don Muang is very near. Secondly the mad adrenaline buzz of that taxi ride from the airport to downtown Sukhumvit. Thirdly that horrible feeling of loneliness, sadness and emptiness you get as you pass through immigration on departure. Finally as the plane lifts off in the sky the hunger and desire to get back to the LOS as quickly as possible.
I have been lucky and managed to achieve the latter many many times.
The second trip I was Mr. Cool Cockney and braved the cab rank and only waited in the sweltering heat for forty five minutes! I had not yet learned the great trick for getting cabs straight away and this time was really cooking as we sped down the airport highway nonchalantly handing over my 100 baht note for the tollway. No change forthcoming, oh well. The cab pulled to a halt outside that monument to chicken farmers everywhere, the Nana Hotel so mission completed. I then got that famous blank expression known to us all when I asked the taxi man how much. No have meter! I thought at the time I did really well knocking him down from 1,000 to 700 baht. Okay you can all pause from reading this and scoff and make braying sounds. They then famously allocated me the front room (never been back since by the way) overlooking Golden Bar and Big Dogs but that is another story in Part 2 …
(No it’s not really!! I, like Stick, hate all that recent trend of to follow rubbish. You are contributors to Stickman, not latter day Charles Dickens).
By the third trip I had met the future love of my life and was so psyched up at the thought of being met at the airport by the tilac Thai having been parted from her for almost three months. Had flown Eva Air which had been great, slept most of the way and was strutting like a peacock as you turn left out of customs. A sea of faces, but as Iris Murdoch said, when you are in love you only see the special one. There she was with her half-sister behind the barrier, more beautiful than I ever remembered, heart pumping, perspiration rolling, feet skipping in anticipation of seeing her again and then and then the long awaited passionate moment of embrace…
“Oh my God big mess! What you do your hair why you no cut hair. Look bad darling” as she pulled away sharply.
Ah, the romance of Thailand. But as Stick well knows she is a great warm-hearted delightfully funny gal and tells its like it is. <I can verify that indeed she is a lovely lass with a heart of gold – Stick>
Fifth trip was smooth as silk on Thai Airways which I loved, really friendly. Arrive feeling great, get bags off carousel early, thinking I love Don Muang never have to wait too long for bags, stride purposefully through customs, passed taxi hustlers passed the bar girls dripping thawng and waiting for their one true loves for this week at least and then nothing! No tilac. Get out the mobile and text “Where are you?” 5 minutes later get reply. “Airport” .Text: “Great! where in airport?” … 5 minutes later “Airport”… Text: “I know airport where in %%%&&**** airport”.. 5 minutes later get reply “I in airport. Where are you?”… I almost grabbed the nearest waiting tattooed, gold dripping, crop topped bar-girl in arrivals and jumped in a taxi instead but about half an hour later and innumerable texts we were finally re-united. As every old Thai hand will by now have guessed, go on guess…. guess what she was doing … yes, correct she was eating noodles as she was hungry. Thai woman priorities in order are King, family, som tam, noodles, gold, lottery, shopping, beauty salon, bia chang and at number ten, you Mr. khun farang!
By now I had a good routine going and was coming to Don Muang every two months or so. Few Stella in O’Neill’s Terminal 3 Heathrow, couple of red wines on plane and sleep for at least 8 or 9 hours and wake up over Myanmar, this had gone smoothly on the sixth and seventh trips.
Eighth trip was eagerly awaited as it was to be slightly longer and a visit to neighbouring countries planned. It started with a truly horrible massive delay on British Airways Terminal 4, (never again), standing solidly for four hours at check-in while flights to Abuja and Jo’Burg are loaded in front of you. Can’t get a window seat, bars closed in Heathrow, mini terrorist alert and crap food on board, little sleep so feeling really cranky but never mind soon to be re-united and flying down the highway with my loved one in my arms. Feeling not great to put it mildly. Never liked those morning Don Muang arrivals but …but what the hell Somchai! Tilac Thai nowhere to be seen in arrivals hall! No reply to texts. Mood getting more murderous by the minute jump a cab with no waiting and am at the Royal Benja Hotel Soi 5 in no time at all, about 240 baht all in and tip included (you see I learned quick). Hammer on door to find beloved vomiting in sink, while squatting on floor of bathroom. Ah the romance of Thailand!! “Oh sorry darling have party in room with friend last night, I very drunk now….feel sick dahlin….so sorry….bleuughhh”
I start a rant “I travel 6,000 miles to see you and this is the way… and you and your card playing mates have racked up room service of…etc etc” . So I figured now might be the trip to request all those unusual practices so beloved of Dana to make it up to me. But being noble and a gentleman settled for, well, let’s move swiftly on.
By now I actually really liked the old airport. Well you would too if you had to travel through Heathrow as often as I do. I had learned all the tricks of the trade, always queue up on the left at Passport Control because that is where they open extra windows and can save you twenty minutes; go upstairs to the second floor and get a taxi from departures you never have to wait more than a couple of minutes, always check the meter is running and insist on “pai tollway” no excuses; have Thai baht ready when you arrive and make sure you have small money too; never ever go to the British pub on the left when you are leaving it is as expensive as the Ritz and it still serves vile slops like Watneys Red Barrel, a smokers heaven and is so depressing it is like Dante’s sixth circle of hell; learned by accident also one late boozy night about the special services place for stressed and lonely travellers on the left beside the restaurant upstairs once you have cleared customs; learned never to buy gifts or books in any of the shops at departures and above all don’t get too hammered in departures when your Qantas flight (never again) is delayed by three hours and you’ve been on the lash all day anyway because some mincing little steward who bats for the other side will try to bar you from the plane. Finally learned never bring your tilac to see you off, if they’re genuine Thai ladies it really upsets them and if they’re bar girls they will upset you as they grimace when you give them a large generous leaving gift, cos its never enough for them bro’….oh and they’ll still ask you for taxi fare too!
So I now own a house and farm in Thailand, speak decent Thai, drive a new pick-up and have driven at high speed through an incredible monsoon on the airport road and have been just about everywhere in the kingdom, oh and most importantly of all have the same lovely Thai lady as above and recently a beautiful young son. I never let her come anywhere near the airport anymore by the way.
So what will I still miss: still love the golfers as you land even playing in a ferocious lightning storm one day as I landed seemingly chipping balls across the runway, still love the carousels that seem to have baggage ready in under fifteen minutes from touchdown, still love the melodic tannoy announcements “Prosab– khreaung bin neung, sam sorng maajak London….”, still love seeing the re-unions both genuine and shall we say more mercenary at arrivals, still love the fast taxi ride in and the huge billboards and the highways never completed, still love the ham and cheese toasties in the Basic Café on the right after departures and I still love the buzz and rush as you drive late at night to catch a plane when you should have left the bar at least an hour and a half ago.
I have seen the new airport go up over the years and regularly drive that way. It will be great for trips to my own lovely almost undiscovered region near the Khmer border but I fear it will be as soulless as the modern monster that is Beijing airport. A recent book I read stated that as recently as the 1960s it was rice fields most of the way in from the airport. It will probably soon fall into disrepair and end up like the old Templehof Berlin airport as a relic to a bygone age. Or as Shelley once wrote about human folly,
“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands (rice paddies??) stretch far away.'
But at least we can bore our kids and fellow newbie travellers rigid for hours in the bars and Sois of 4, 7 and 33 by saying: “It’s not a patch on the old airport sport …I’d give it at least three hours to get there from here lad…. about 1,200 baht should do you for a special licensed airport taxi buddy… how many bags did you lose? ….there are no last minute massage centres in the new place but before in Don Mu…. what do you mean you ended up in Pattaya by mistake cobber….you had to wait behind how many thousand Chinese tourists in immigration? Never used to be like… see it’s just not safe anymore but the old airport well I tell you …customs confiscated your special multi-speed pink headed rabbit, gee I’m sorry mate, wouldn’t have happened at the old gaff, is your name Dana by any chance?…).”
But like another old Don– Quixote we’ll all be tilting at windmills because it was always an illusion anyway in the Land of Smiles?… was it not!
Be happy guys.
A timely submission with the new airport due to open tomorrow. We all have our own favourite Don Muang stories, and memories. I think my favourite times there were surreptitiously taking photographs of guys balling their eyes out over girls a third of their age. I still find that disturbing.