I’m Outta Here
Thailand is a lovely place to visit, and it's even been a lovely place to live for the past few years. But things are going pear-shaped fast, and the Land of Smiles is becoming less welcoming on all levels. With random re-interpretations of the laws governing foreign visas, investment, businesses and land ownership, long-term residents on any sort of visa have pretty much been given the boot.
A scan of The Nation and the Bangkok Post over recent months reveals that Thailand's new military junta is not shy about slamming doors in foreign faces, regardless of the financial consequences. As Marc Holt has mentioned in his shrewd assessments, the property market has stalled out and it's not likely investor confidence will recover anytime soon. Thank god I managed to avoid buying a house in Phuket last year. The luckiest failure of my adult life.
To make things worse, someone within the country is not very happy with the military junta and there have been bombings in the capital – very professional, coordinated bombings that suggest military or police training.
On a local level, according to some of my Thai friends, Phuket has become the least friendly place in Thailand. That's no surprise though – it's bound to happen to any resort destination. A flood of tourists who are perhaps a bit ignorant of local ideas of polite behavior always inspires contempt. The Thais aren't smiling much anymore in Phuket and it doesn't take a lot of goading for the thin veil of hospitality to drop. In several serious cases, tourists have been beaten and knifed by tuk-tuk drivers and even bar owners. The Thai smile has grown fangs.
So we're outta here!
In the second week of January, my Isaan Lao wife and I pulled up stakes and made for friendlier (if colder) shores. We hired a moving company to take on the ugly job of packing, and they sent half our stuff to the US, and half to our house in Isaan where my in-laws will take care of it. I wonder what the rice farmers in the village will make of the grinder and espresso machine? Just before we left the country, we got word that they finally figured out the washer. Little sis' read the instructions. Imagine that.
On our last day in Phuket, we delivered our practically new car to the guy who bought it from us. Before we handed the keys over, my wife removed the Buddha amulets from the rear-view mirror and hung them around my neck. The buyer then drove us with our suitcases to the airport. Along the way he hit a dog, and ten minutes later a long plastic strip chose that moment to spontaneously peel right off the roof. My respect for Buddha amulets went up a notch.
Despite the recent bombings, rumors of more bombings to come and perhaps even a counter-coup, we risked a few days in Bangkok. We hit some of our favorite restaurants for the last time. Barbecued pork ribs at the Huntsman Pub, spicy clams at an Emporium cafe, miso ramen at Akane, and super-spicy papaya salad from a street vendor near the Ambassador Hotel.
I got in a few swims at the hotel pool and my wife took a few Thai massages. We hit Mahboonkhrong for cheap (I mean meaningful) gifts for my family, a load of sweaters and coats to protect my hot-weather girl from a Seattle winter, and a big green suitcase to throw it all in.
I made it out to one of my old watering holes – a bar where good-looking women play a killer game of 8-ball to the soothing strains of AC/DC. My wife naturally doesn't like the place but she was cool about letting me off the leash for an evening, no questions asked.
Three days of Bangkok was enough to drain the city of interest for us. At four in the morning we threw our bags in a Merc limo, told the driver to can the chatter and hit the airport. Suvarnabhumi was looking pretty good considering all the bad press it's gotten for everything from cracked runways and rampant corruption to dirty windows. The guy who designed the gleaming metal and glass terminal, a Spaniard I think, obviously never took a look at the other buildings in Bangkok. In four years I have never seen a Thai window washer.
We flew out on United Airways. Check-in was bliss compared to the chaos of our Thai Airways check-in at Phuket Airport a few days earlier. I believe the Thai word for "queue" is synonymous with the word for "mob". It's an ugly, ugly sight that would scare a Hell's Angels' security guard at a Rolling Stones concert. By contrast, it was downright cute to see the way the American tourists stood politely in file before the United Airways counters in Bangkok.
Being an American airline, they couldn't let us on without rifling through our bags. Each and every passenger had their carry-on luggage emptied out, then politely repacked. It was quite a long wait, and I lost a tube of rather expensive shaving cream to the airline Gestapo. I offered to shave with it right there in the terminal (and I needed to), but they weren't impressed. "It's too big," they offered by way of explanation.
The first leg of our journey was a relatively painless five-hour flight that landed us in Tokyo's Narita Airport. We had a three- or four-hour layover there, of which we took full advantage. My wife is nuts over ramen and the authorities have seen fit to place a decent noodle stand in the terminal since I was last there. Two huge bowls of ramen was a great way to apologize to our stomachs for the weird little trailer-park cheese sandwiches we'd consumed on the UA flight.
We then hit "Little Akihabara", a duty-free shop for all sorts of wonderful Japanese electronics (the shop is named for the Akihabara district – Tokyo's Panthip Plaza). My wife came away with two watches and I with one. Hers were a little pink flowered thing and a robot suspended from a key ring. Mine was one that I'd seen years ago in Tokyo and had been kicking myself for not buying ever since. On a heavy black leather band is a dial with Chinese numbers at the hours, and an orange crystal diode face that blinks the seconds, also in Chinese. It's so groovy I can barely stand it.
Next was the flight over the Pacific. My wife hates to fly. Her first time in a plane was for our honeymoon in Chiang Rai. I remember I was so excited to show her what clouds look like from above. As the plane took off I pushed her at the window, "Honey, look how small the cars are!" When she turned back I saw she was so scared she was crying. Boy, did I feel like an ass.
She's been up in the air a few times since, even made a trip to the US a couple years ago. That was a disaster too, which took her nearly two weeks to recover from.
This time, though, she was a champ. Her blood pressure was soaring on the Bangkok-Tokyo leg, but she toughed it out pretty well. Then, flying over the Pacific to Seattle, she fell asleep on an airplane for the very first time. During the last hour of the flight, as the sun rose out of the clouds ahead of us, my wife was actually glued to the window, just marveling at the limitless field of white clouds on the blank Pacific. When the snowy Cascade mountains came into view she could barely contain herself. Thankfully the landing on the icy runway was gentle and her fingernails didn't leave any permanent marks on my arm.
Next was the ordeal which I was most dreading: US immigration and homeland insecurity. We waited patiently in the visitors' line until we finally found ourselves before an immigration officer. He took one glance at the giant sealed manila envelope of papers that the US consulate in Bangkok had burdened us with, and directed us to another desk at the end of the row.
A sign above this desk indicated it was reserved for, "Disabled visitors and visitors with time-consuming paperwork." Great. Just great. Here we waited for the family of a disabled Indian man to be passed through, then stood before a surprisingly genial officer who took our paperwork and asked us to sit while he "did some computer stuff."
A few minutes later he called us back to the desk and asked my wife to give her parents' names, which she did successfully despite a looming case of jet-lag. He asked me a bit about what I did for work, then stamped her passport.
To my pleasant surprise, it was a 'green card' stamp, which meant that my wife could work and enjoy all the privileges of American citizens short of voting. Her green card is good for ten years, so we are ecstatically free of US immigration hassles for an entire decade. Even then it will be a simple matter to renew. Are you listening, Thai Immigration?
We were the last ones out of immigration. At Customs an officer asked us whether we were bringing any horrible diseases or renegade fruits into the country, then whether my wife had a sister who was single. In all, the US immigration experience was polite, pleasant, open and even friendly. I was speechless with surprise.
When we made our way to baggage retrieval it was then my wife's turn to be surprised. Coming from a country where houses don't actually need walls, the mid-January cold hit her pretty hard. She was wearing a cotton turtleneck and a sweater over that, but it wasn't nearly enough. Luckily my parents showed up bearing warm jackets and we cranked the heater in the car for the ride home.
As we headed up Interstate 5, my wife gazed out the window. She was seemingly fascinated with the countryside but I know what she was really thinking: she wanted to taste the snow and see if it was really like ice cream.
I don't know when we'll return to Thailand, though I know we will someday. For now, my future posts will most likely concern the adventures of Mrs. Lucky in the wide-open spaces of the USA.
Goodbye Thailand. It's been swell.
So it has really started. Stickman submission writers ARE leaving, and the conjecture has turned into reality.
I hope your wife adjusts well to life in your new home and for sure, it'd be great to hear how it goes for the two of you. Do let us know when you get a chance.