The Way It All Began
It is remarkable the way that one seemingly insignificant event can have such far-reaching consequences. It led to me changing my profession, to travelling the world, and eventually to meeting my wife and moving to Thailand.
One day I noticed in the local weekly newspaper where I lived in London a small article announcing that a hospital in the area was looking for volunteers for it's radio station. In those days, radio in the UK was so dire, following the outrageous
outlawing of the so-called pirate radio stations moored around the coast (don't get me started), that some major hospitals had their own internal radio station set-up which was run by enthusiasts.
In our case, it was run so well that it certainly equalled the standard of the professional outfits, and indeed several of the broadcasters went on to work on the 'real' radio stations and/or as journalists at national level (including me). A couple of people were even engineers at the BBC and worked with us in their spare time, so it was a top-notch organisation. Some of us, again including me, earned the station’s running expenses by doing discos for weddings and birthdays and so on, and we had a residency in a restaurant in the area too.
I met someone at the hospital who worked as a sports journalist for a commercial radio news station and he produced a sports programme for the hospital station and invited me to help. That led to me attending a tennis tournament at Brighton on the south coast with him. Now, I didn’t play the game, but was interested enough to take the Thursday of the second week of Wimbledon off work to watch the ladies semi-finals on television. I had more interest in women’s tennis because to me the girls looked better in their short skirts than the men did in their short shorts.
I went to Brighton and met people such as Chris Evert, which was cool, and a photographer who later introduced me to her editor, who then gave me my first professional assignment, attending a week at Madison Square Garden in New York. Some start, huh? I wrote a story, even took the photos, and spent 10 times more on the trip than I made despite staying in a YMCA. But I was published, and that led to other assignments and a career that has lasted, after combining journalism for about the first eight years with my ‘day job’, for nearly 30 years now. In a moment I’ll tell you how that in turn led to me finding my Thai wife after another seemingly unremarkable and innocent event.
There was also another occasion that something I read had a huge influence on my life, and also led to me making my first trip to Thailand. There was a feature in the Observer, a respectable Sunday newspaper, about Pattaya, explaining how loving and caring, as well as stunning, the local lassies were, pictures included. I still remember it mentioned the toothpaste on the toothbrush thing, and how they’d pour your cornflakes, as the story’s example of how attentive the ladies were. Now, this sounded interesting. I was, at the time, living in a room, a bedsitter, in a large house, no girlfriend. I didn’t really mind living in one room, with a false wall built to house a kitchen. It was certainly cosy in the winter, when I could keep the gas fire turned on low all night to avoid ice on the inside of the windows! But the bathroom was situated off the hall, and in the next room was an old chap, maybe in his sixties, alone. And I thought, ‘I do not want to end up like that’.
So I made plans to come to Thailand, vaguely in search of a mate, and made the booking through an agent specialising in the Far East (called Far East Travel, surprisingly). They booked me into the Mandarin Hotel in Bangkok, on Rama 4 near Suriwong, for around three days, with something like another three days or so at the Tropicana Hotel in Pattaya. And you know what? I didn’t meet a soul on the trip.
The first time I tried to go for a walk in Bangkok I couldn’t cross the road because of so much traffic, so I merely went around the block. I swear it’s true. I also had my first experience of what Thai-style service standards can be like when my sister called the hotel on three occasions to leave a message that my step-father had died suddenly, and I didn’t receive any of them. I did manage to walk up to Hualamphong Station, and received an enormous thrill when I discovered I could put my UK Visa card into a Thai Farmers Bank ATM, enter some numbers and win money.
We take that for granted now, but I’m old enough to remember going to Stockholm and having to go to the Visa office there to get a cash advance. That was the only place and means available, unless one had an American Express card I suppose, but in those days they were not given out to people such as me. There was also at one time just one place in the whole of New York City where you could exchange foreign currency, in what was then the Pan Am building above Grand Central Station. Imagine that.
I was certainly green in matters of Thai nightlife, but I had heard of Patpong and it was near my hotel. But I was too intimidated by it’s wild reputation to go there at night. I went to take a look during the day. Years later, that led to me considering setting up a meet and greet service for nervous first-timers, to guide them through their first 24 hours in a land where so much is confusing and they could so easily be taken advantage of by rogue tuk-tuk drivers or ambitious ladies of the night. But my wife wasn’t too keen on the idea. Oh well.
Then I went to Pattaya, and barely left the hotel. I’d developed a very painful sore throat, the Bangkok pollution perhaps taking it’s toll on me, and I pretty much lived on ice-cream for my entire stay there. I felt terrible, and spent much of the time by the pool watching a large German man with a short and rather plump Thai lady having a whale of a time together. All-in-all it was a bit of a wasted trip, really. I returned later, and sought out an escort agency (it still seemed the safest and sure-fire way to go about things).
I found it all but deserted, but a man there offered to help and took me to a house heaven-knows where. After waiting for a few minutes, about a dozen or so girls were brought into the room for my inspection. All looked very young and extremely nervous. I rejected what was on offer, and he took me next door where the same thing was repeated. I was about to reject again when one girl, older and with a spark of personality combined with a reasonable volume of busty substances caught my eye. We became a couple then for a while. She was bubbly and friendly, and I enjoyed the ‘girl-friend’ experience that many find so easily available in the Land Of Smiles. We went to Hua Hin, and then she took me to her home in Pha Yao, a wooden house on stilts with gaps in the floorboards, outside toilet and so on. It was my first experience of the real, rural Thailand. We parted because, although I was looking for someone to travel with me and she was willing, her father was not. Now, of course, I realise it would have been impossible anyway because of visas.
And then I met my wife in Bangkok, through an incident in New Zealand. I was reporting a tennis event, watching a British girl who on match point put the ball into the net instead of over it and went on to lose the match. I was so pissed off at lost earning opportunities that I decided not to cover the rest of that week in Auckland or the following week in Wellington, and instead flew to Thailand to fill in an unplanned break. I contacted an introduction service, went there and looked through some photos and videos. The owner was a rather vivacious young lady with excellent English. One of her friends had been hanging around the place one day, and she had persuaded her to make a video just for fun. I picked her out, a meeting was arranged, incredibly it was on her birthday, and we got married exactly two weeks later.
That was over 16 years ago. She had a degree in Political Science, but was working on the information counter of the Tokyu department store by Siam Square at the time, and I’d meet her outside the staff entrance when she finished work for the day. Actually, she was so quiet on our first date that I thought she had no interest in me, and I was amazed when she agreed to a second meeting. But she was merely shy, and the next time she brought her talkative friend from the introduction office to make herself feel more at ease.
During the first 18 months of our marriage I took her around the world with me, beginning in Palm Springs in the Californian desert and then to New York, Washington, Miami and other cities in North America, as well as to Australia and Europe. By then, though, it was beginning to be a strain on the wallet and she was getting bored sitting around all day and often half the night while I worked, so we arranged the use of a house in London, belonging to a friend of my sister who spent much of the year in Spain. Before too long I realised it wasn’t fair for her to be left in London while I travelled, knowing no-one except my sister, and suggested we move to Thailand. She still does go overseas, but maybe just once a year for a holiday with me.
Now we’ve been here for ages and, like everyone else I know who has left the UK, I would never go back there to live. Sure, there are plenty of frustrations living in Thailand, especially as I probably don’t have the ability and certainly not the time at the moment to learn the language, but the good outweighs the bad and I look forward to one day putting my feet up in the countryside. My wife is my retirement plan, because she is now doing a degree in English, mostly to pass the time while I still travel six months or so of the year, and hopefully she’ll be able to find a job as a teacher when her studies are over.
Boy, did I get lucky, not only with her but her family. First, the wedding was so hastily arranged, deciding on Friday and marrying on Monday, that no Sin Sot, which I’d never heard of anyway, was mentioned. We simply got married at the government office near Suriwong, and members of her family came down from Kalasin for a meal at that huge restaurant in Ratchada where the waiters speed around on roller skates. Her farming family are comfortable without being well-off, and no money or car or new house has ever been demanded of me. I do now and then loan some of them money, which is always returned and sometimes even earlier than agreed. My wife is careful with money to a fault, getting angry if I ‘waste’ money on DVDs, and writing down every purchase over a couple of thousand Baht into a book. She can tell me exactly what I paid, and when, for my office chair five years ago.
It’s an interesting thought that if I had not spotted a small item in the local paper all those years ago and joined the hospital radio station I would not have taken up tennis journalism as a career. And I would not have then been in Auckland to watch a tennis player hit a ball an inch or so too low, sending me to Bangkok to meet my future wife.
A really nice, neat story!