Thailand Dreaming August 2006
The following piece contains stuff which Thailand novices (like myself – evident from what I write) may find interesting, but not necessarily interesting to a lot of the Thailand experienced writers / readers who frequent the Stick chronicles.
On my way to the UK, early March 2006, I stopped in Bangkok for 3 days as a way of attempting to ensure that on arrival at said destination the jetlag would not be too vicious, no trivial thing for this 61 year old. The only other time I had been to Thailand or for that matter any other part of Asia was 6 months prior to that as a one night stopover. This first stopover was enough to tell me that I would be missing out on a very interesting part of life if I made no attempt to spend time there, but 3 days was all I allowed on the second visit. On both occasions I indulged myself with massages, and was very taken with the traditional Thai method.
While mouldering away in the north of England (in the hottest summer there for 30 years, and I loved my time up there not mouldering away in fact but actually sweating), I decided that on the way back to Australia at the end of my sojourn I would stay in Thailand for 3 weeks and during that that time I would do two massage courses at Wat Po in Bangkok, renowned throughout the world for training the traditional Thai massage method. Along the way I found that the spelling of Wat Po varied depending on what publication I was reading, and that this happened with lots of other words intended to convey the Thai sounds, even in the same publication e.g. maps. Just one of the ‘different’ things to be found in that part of the world. I was looking forward to the feeling of ‘not cold’ – floor not cold, door handles not cold, tap water not cold – anything you touch, not cold! And only 3 pieces of clothing to organize for any day – shirt, underpants, trousers.
And so it happened – 3 weeks booked in the LOS (Land Of Smiles), but first I had to get there. I arrived at London’s Heathrow airport at around 1800hrs. Flight time was 2215hrs. A bit early yeah? Well, I did think it prudent considering the circumstances – this was Friday August 11 2006, the day after the liquids = bombs arrests in London, and LHR was battening down the hatches just in case there were any more silly people with bad intentions still in the vicinity. My flight was LHR to BKK – oh yes, I was looking forward to this. The grind of a long flight was not going to alter my mood, not at all, destination Thailand – I was on a high!
Anyway, all us would-be travellers were herded into top floor of the car park at LHR, and told to … . wait. There were lots of people from all walks of life and all nations milling about looking equally nervous (about missing the next announcement) apprehensive (about catching the next bomb) bored (about milling about), but the Brits in their wisdom had decided that the way to just about anyone’s heart is via the stomach and plenty of free sandwiches and drinks were on hand, all you had to do was pick up and stuff it in.
Fortunately it wasn’t really cold out there in the car park, cool but. I wore just a shirt and jeans and had a jacket in the carry-on bag just in case. Given where we were it could have been a lot worse. Normal London weather would have been bad enough. It had been a hot summer in England, and only in the last few days had warnings of what was to come weather-wise become apparent.
Occasionally a bloke with a forward leaning stance and a pressured tone would stride through the car park announcing things like “Qantas flights door 4”, and half the people would lift their heads from the free newspaper on their laps and half of those would jerk into activity and half of those would make their way to door 4 and half of those would get through the security heavies and the other half would trudge back to their respective possies, grumbling a bit on the way. Such is life in an airport under siege. Not an experience to be savoured and there are no heroes, but it’s not going to kill you …
After several false starts I found my way through door 4 and into the departures area of the airport building. Not the pandemonium I expected because the car park idea worked well and the number of people actually in the building was quite manageable. Queues were the order of the day (nothing extraordinary in that) and things moved along, just not very fast. Recently appointed uniforms walked up and down handing out advice and platitudes and were generally very supportive.
A certain class of these uniforms was handing out clear plastic bags and the information that these were to be the only carry-on bags allowed on your plane, and could contain only passports, wallets, glasses (but no glasses case), travel documents, and prescribed drugs. All other luggage must check in. Predictably this caused mostly negative responses. All that the uniforms could do was nod sagely and repeat. Eventually people got the idea that it would be enforced and set about repacking their luggage accordingly. One or two found it necessary to cause a ruckus, but the outcome was the same for all.
A bit after this latest revelation about carry-on luggage came a realisation slowly creeping over the throng that they were going to have to divest themselves of their favourite modern appendage – the mobile phone! Shock horror! What a sorry looking crowd it was after that, with all the phones turned off and packed away.
At last through security, which carried with it the possibility of one’s pants falling down as belts had to be seen by the x-ray separated from the body, along with shoes and jackets. Be assured that it was indeed an embarrassing / smelly time for some. Proceeding into the duty free area before the gate lounges, things were quite different from normal as well. Most of the shops were shut! More shock horror! Oh no, I can’t buy that perfume, that scotch, that deo! Yep, it was a dead loss for the shop keepers as nothing extra could be carried on board, all they could do was close up and go home. Better, down the pub.
No mobiles in the gate lounge! People had to stand around and look at each other. They couldn’t stare at their screens, play games on them, call friends and have interesting/inane conversations, make new contact entries, delete old SMSs, write new ones, try out new downloaded ring tones, you know, all those wonderful time wasting things you can do with your mobile when not much else is happening. But way, way best of all – it was QUIET. Amazing! These places hadn’t been like this for many years. You could even hear the airport announcements clearly, not interrupted by someone two paces behind you shouting into the phone about the horrors of the meeting they had attended, or the whereabouts of the dog food, or the fact that the thong just purchased was pulling the hairs on their crack! The modern traveller does get to hear about the whole-of-life experience when in gate lounges, whether they want to or not.
No mobiles in the gate lounge! Very pleasant indeed! And in the plane was added benefit. No bustle, all people had to do was walk to their seat and sit down. The overhead compartments weren’t even opened, nothing to put in’em. And who did we have to thank for all this pleasantness? Those nice terrorists, that’s who!
All went well with a couple of hours late start and I arrived in Thailand a little late therefore on the Saturday evening, ‘tired but happy’ as they say. Ah, that warm feeling, and the eye candy – you gotta see it to believe it! Such a pleasure to just walk down the street in Bangkok, I’m hugely entertained – does this ever wear off?
The massage courses turned out to be something of a challenge for the old brain, but I managed to get myself a very nice certificate for traditional Thai massage, and an equally nice certificate for Thai foot massage. Both courses were 5 days long from 9am to 4pm each day, with an exam at the end of each. The class was assured that some failures did occur, which had some of us farangs feeling nervous as although you could do the exam again and again till you passed, some including me were flying out next day after the second course. All was well however and I for one was totally pumped about completing these courses successfully.
The courses provided excellent opportunities to interact with the locals in a way not available to the casual tourist which was interesting on a number of levels, for example it blew away any preconceived notions that men in this Asian society are all
powerful. Quite obviously this is not the case and our instructors, mostly women, were definitely not backward when it came to putting us in our place. As well as that I could see that Thai women played an equal or dominant part in the day to
day running of just about every type of commercial enterprise I came into contact with. I stayed in various accommodations, but in the Khao San Road area I had the most interesting times. OK, call it crap, call it clichéd, not the true Thai
experience etc, but it was cheerful and fun! Huge fun in the morning to walk out onto the road, hail a tuktuk and hoon down to Wat Po (doesn’t take much to amuse an old Aussie).
During the first course it became clearly apparent that I would not pass the exams if I was unable to get practice outside of school hours. I approached the one classmate I thought likely to do this – not interested, so I schemed that I should first go to a massage shop, have a massage and become ‘known’, then next night show up with the proposal that the massage lady from last night would receive payment for a massage but I’m the one giving the massage. The idea turned out to be acceptable to a lady in a Khao San Road shop, along with my other requirement that the practice be conducted in my hotel room as the lighting in the typical massage area is low and I needed to constantly refer to my course notes, and I would have been causing quite some disruption in the massage shop (I could picture a gang of Thai ladies gathered around my feeble efforts with lots of giggling – how could I concentrate?). I had ascertained that this woman could speak a mangled version of English and she suggested she would like to be my guide as well, but not ‘GirlFriend’ as she was ‘not that type of girl’. Sure, I could put up with that, as it happens that I’m a happily married type of bloke, and had received strict instructions to keep my pants on! The whole thing worked brilliantly and I was able to get all the practice I needed, as well as a guide for other activities. Amazing to me that people are available to let you take over their life for a couple of weeks, and I was deeply humbled that she allowed me to look into her life and get some very special insights. Presumably she got something out of it too, not least of which was a holiday from her daily tedium along with more money than she could earn from it.
One of those insights is that I got some understanding of the finances of your typical massage lady.
I’ll tell you about this and others in my next submission.
It must have been quite amusing to the Thais when you made the proposal to massage the massage lady yourself. I can only imagine the confusion that went through their brains!