Thailand Dreaming Sept 2006
The following contains stuff which should be informative for Thailand novices like myself, but not necessarily to a lot of the writers/readers who frequent the Stickman chronicles.
Continuing on from last time, I want to tell about some of the insights I got when in the company of ‘my’ tame Thai massage lady … one of those insights is that I got some understanding of the finances of your typical Thai massage lady.
‘My’ one received half of the rate charged to the customer, with other costs (oils, laundry etc) being covered by the shop management. She was not ‘employed’ in the Australian ‘employee’ sense, receiving money only for massages done. Which of the ladies in the shop does the next massage is organized by the existence of a queue, which is new every day and written on a list – simply filled in as the ladies get to work each morning. Consequently there is incentive to get to work early and stay there. I received massages in different shops and on asking I found that I was often the first massage of the day for that lady even though it was 6pm in the evening, and I might also have been the last. At the Khao San Rd shop there were ten ladies, clearly too many. This is repeated in all other shops (the larger ones might have thirty or more ladies) and I guess is evidence of why most human services in Thailand are so cheap – there are simply too many people for the available work. It was not unusual for ‘my’ lady to earn less than 200 baht in a day. Thus a tip for a good massage is very welcome.
After some days of contact I asked her if she would let me see her home (as in ‘inspect’ her home). She agreed apparently with no particular qualms, so this happened one evening. Lots of peeking by the neighbours on the way there – she pointed out to me that I was the first male she had ever escorted to her room, and even more interesting for the peekers, a farang. I had no reason to doubt this as her behaviour was at all times honorable and transparent. It was in a (concrete) block of apartments, four floors, and the rooms small and basic. Living area about 3.5m square with a small bathroom off the side (best described as a shower recess with a squat toilet in it), and a small balcony. Very few furnishings or substantial belongings, no bed or mattress (just some bedding and pillows on the floor), a small robe, stand for the TV and CD player. No arrangements at all for cooking or clothes washing. This confirmed my theory that many Thais don’t cook at all, no need to when all you have to do is walk out onto the street, just about any street, and you can buy cheap wholesome cooked food. Similarly cheap laundry services can be found anywhere. She said she rarely got to watch the TV at home as no time. This was explained by the fact that work starts at 10am and finishes at midnight – doesn’t leave too much spare time, and she is at work every day except for perhaps two per month.
Rent for the flat costs 3,000 baht per month including elec and water/sewerage. This is of course 100 baht per day, every day. With that limited earning ability you can’t take too many days off. She has no bank account or savings, and naturally was providing funds to maintain the five year old child (often this includes parents maintenance as well because no government pensions available in Thailand, but both her parents were dead). She showed me photos of her child and of the family home – inherited by her and two other siblings, none of whom lived there as there was no employment in Roi Et – the upcountry home town. I got to meet an older sister (now 41 yrs old but typically looking younger to my western eyes) who gave me a manicure (you need short smooth nails for massage – that’s my excuse anyway) in a shop further up KS Rd. – she told me she did not go to school because it was her job to look after the two younger sisters. That’s the way things were/are.
One of the benefits of having a local guide is that you can get to places you would not otherwise see. One evening I asked to go to a genuine Thai eatery. She took me to a place near her digs (across the river from the old town/KS Rd area) where I was the only farang present among at least a couple of hundred locals. This was a roofed place, no walls, roof being perhaps 40m square. In the centre was a raised area which had a smorgasbord style arrangement with every imaginable fresh meat, veg, condiments etc. Around this were lots of table settings, and outside the raised area more table settings. A fence around the perimeter, then street, motor bikes, cars, small cute sad elephant. The deal with the elephant was this – it was holding a plastic bag with trunk which it waved at Passers By. PB paid handler 20 baht, elephant handed bag to PB, PB removed contents of bag and gave to elephant (small quantity of food). Job done.
Things started to happen immediately on sitting down. Guide disappeared to the food, waitress arrived with a large Pepsi and tub of ice, waiter appeared with a fire box filled with hot coals and on top a brass dome thingy with an incorporated ‘moat’ around the outside. On the table was a large teapot filled with water. Guide returned with two baskets filled with small bowls of various meats (pork, chicken, liver, tripe, octopus, and other less identifiable things), veg, condiments and utensils, plates and bowls to eat from, so now we were setup with everything required for a feed. The nature of the place was ‘all you can eat’ so you could keep refilling your bowls all night. The meat was cooked bit by bit on the raised brass dome above the fire while the juices ran down via grooves to the moat, now filled with water from the teapot and veg and fast becoming a delicious stock/soup. Nothing lost here. Great meal and the waitress kept the glass refilled with Pepsi and ice. The place was very busy, lots of family groups, young people groups, birthday parties. It got noisy – I concluded Thais can’t live without lots of noise. Some music from a band, but thankfully no duff duff. So, what did all this cost? I paid the bill – 280 baht total, = A$10. Dinner for two. What a bargain, what an experience.
A completely different type of adventure was a trip to Kanchanaburi – the site of the infamous bridge on the river Kwai. Not strictly the need for a guide here as the trips are organized from your local travel place – plenty of these around KS Rd, but a guide is very handy when it comes to making/changing arrangements, keeping the monetary outgoings under control, and generally dealing with the language. First thing that happens at the cemetery at Kanchanaburi is that you start blubbering as you step through the entrance, because by this time you have pictures in your head of those poor bastards suffering in the heat, starved, diseased, dying, yet being flogged to work. The number of graves is horrifying, and the full picture slowly unfolds as you read inscriptions – 20 yr olds, 45 yr olds, Anzacs, Brits, Dutch. What is not immediately evident is the fact that many many more people from all over SE Asia were swept up by the Japanese and forced to work and die. No graves here for them. The blubbering continues for some time.
The day wore on with a visit to the war memorial, a rail trip on the old route, and then it was on to an elephant camp on the river and accommodation for the night on pontoons in a fast flowing Kwai Noi (tributary), for this is a two day trip. Beautiful place and quiet except for jungle night noises and that occasional elephant trumpet, some good company (in a group of 10 people from all over), excellent Thai evening meal along with a few Singhas.
Next morning after breakfast its time to wash the elephants in the river – great fun for all and lots of pics.
Then it’s off to see the tigers. Guide says this is hot, dry and boring and not good value, so instead she rearranges things and we head off to a national park upriver a bit (20 baht entry for locals, 200 baht entry for farangs) and swim in cool blue/green pools beneath fabulous waterfalls, real tropical paradise, with small fish cleaning all the dead skin off our feet. I subsequently found out that these were the same fish employed by Weary Dunlop (medico revered in Australia and NZ, and survivor from the Kwai bridge construction) to clean up the festering sores, gangrene etc ravaging the bodies of the enslaved prisoners of war on the bridge project. The trip drew to a close with a scary trip in the bus back to Bangkok, approx two and a half hours. Do this trip if you get anywhere near Thailand.
Back in Bangkok, travel to and fro for me anyway is best done by cheap tuktuk. Some say taxis are just as quick, quieter, safer etc, but nowhere they are near as exciting! The device is a 3 wheeler and can carry 3 passengers plus driver. The driver is usually an expert who can get through Bangkok traffic as if it is invisible, except that it is visible to you the passenger and this is why it is so scary. You simply can’t comprehend how full throttle is appropriate when all the vehicles in front of you have their brake lights on! Best way to handle it is to just sit back and larf. They have a water cooled 2 cylinder in line two stroke engine driving a conventional clutch and 4 speed gearbox and a cart axle at the back. Brakes do work, and steering is via bike type handlebars. Turning circle is very small which makes them very maneuverable in the traffic. Very noisy as the muffler is basic, and while the fuel is gas of course oil is added as it’s a two stroke, and lots of it comes out the exhaust pipe. There are thousands of them on the road and generally you will wait rather less than one minute for an empty one to appear. A new tuktuk costs 250,000 baht ($8,900) and like taxis anywhere, the drivers generally don’t own them. Bangkok traffic is not a place for tourist farangs to drive as the rules are not what they seem and very subtle. After many trips in tuktuk you begin to see how it all works – the drivers are pushy but very considerate of others and will give way to avoid collision and blockages. You appreciate the horn language – soft peep peeps of varying intensity and duration, saying ‘I’m here’ but not shouting it, or even ‘you can go now’. A single word to describe the way drivers behave is ‘cooperative’. None of the aggression you see on Australian roads, and a real education about road behaviour. Lots of motorbikes of small capacity driven very intensively get respect from other motorists. I have seen this ‘cooperative’ behaviour in Italy where it is similar and just as in your face, although I think there is more aggression in Italy to deal with but mainly coming from Europeans of other nations. I have ridden in Italy on a motorbike and felt safe enough, but would not attempt it in Bangkok.
More with the next submission.
Many of the people who write submissions are long time visitors or even long-termers in country. It is also nice to hear from someone who is new to it all, and re-live our first visit to Thailand.