Readers' Submissions

Her First Time



Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok


She’s looking back at me, a slight nervousness apparent in her eyes. I smile. She smiles back. ‘Are you okay?’ She nods her head, and tries to hide her nervousness. ‘Look, it’s not as bad as it’s made out to be. Anyway, it was your decision. No going back, now.’ She smiles again, the nervousness gone. ‘You have the camera?’ She nods, then adds, ’Later…’

Flashback to a couple of weeks before today.

I’m sitting in Lek’s kitchen, having a cup of coffee, and catching up with the news. It gives her a chance to vent, especially now that her daughter has a new boyfriend, and she sees it as possibly interfering with her studies. I’m not in a particularly decent frame of mind either, having forgotten about the Christmas rush and finding that plane tickets for end-of-year travel have become as rare as a rocking horse’s teeth. Well, reasonably priced tickets, anyway.

In the middle of the conversation she suddenly stops, as if realising something, then says ‘You know, just two weeks ago Paew and here husband were here. They were asking after you.’

Paew is the daughter of the old retired army captain staying opposite. She had married a Chinese guy from Singapore, where they had set up home many, many years ago. I’d met them once or twice before several years prior, and could only smile at the fact that even after so many years of marriage, the husband could only speak a smattering of Thai. Not that he needed it in Singapore, though. Lek seemed to think that Paew preferred it that way. ‘Unlike you. You know too much.’ Then she laughs, because she knows if I didn’t know that much, we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place.

Back in the time I was working in the area, I had rented a room next door to the old man, and if he saw I was back fairly early in the evening, he’d get somebody to come and get me over for a chat. I’d usually bring my beers over, while he had his half-bottle of Thai whisky, so we’d spend a pleasant couple of hours chatting. As Lek once put it, when she was delegated to get me over, was ‘You should consider it a privilege. He’s a well-respected person in this village, it is an honour to be invited. Now go.’ You can’t get any more matter-of-fact than that. Besides, I really liked the old man and still visit if I have the time.

‘What did they want?’

‘Oh, they haven’t seen you in a long time, that’s all.’

‘ Okay. Anyway, I’m planning on flying down if I can get a ticket for a weekend.’ She gives me a mischievous look.

‘Take me with you.’ I laugh. Her look turns serious. ‘No, I mean it. I feel it’s a good time, and I’ve never been anywhere before.’

Hmmm. ‘Okay, let me make a few phone calls first.’ First is Somsak, a good friend of ours, also staying nearby.

‘Only if my wife will let me go’ was his reply. No problem, I’ll convince your wife. We all know each other well enough. Next was my sister…

She had met Lek a couple of months before, when I brought her around on a trip outside the usual shopping in Bangkok. You can only take so much of Chatuchak and Mah Boon Krong (also known as MBK center). She wanted to see what you could find outside of Bangkok, so it was a combined excursion come shopping trip.

Now when you put two women together with shopping in mind as the common denominator, language barriers practically disappear. Lek was invaluable with her local knowledge of where to get bargains, and a late lunch with Somsak and a couple of other friends rounded off that day. My sister had also extended an open invitation to visit…

Was Lek serious about travelling out of Thailand? Oh, yes, she was. I was delegated to bring her to the passport office two days after that conversation, and put her back on the bus to the provinces later in the day. Judging from the amount of passports being issued on that given day, I’d also say there are a lot of Thais travelling these days. The passport arrived in the mail a couple of days later.

Back to the present…

So here we are, eTicket in hand, waiting to check in. Somsak has bailed out at the last minute, but she’s determined not to let the opportunity pass by. She still looks a little nervous. I guess that for someone who has to take medicine for car-sickness even if it’s for a short car ride, the prospect of getting on a plane for the first time can feel quite daunting.

And here I will just add my little rant about the Suvarnabhumi (pronounced ‘swampy- poom’) airport. The queues at the immigration checkpoint are long and slow, especially so if you have a morning flight. You have to walk miles (seemed like it) once inside, and you will be delayed at the second queue where they x-ray your cabin luggage.

Well, I’ve managed to secure a window seat, so she’s looking out of the porthole. I also explain where some of the in-flight bumps and thumps come from so she’ll be prepared. And give her a mint just before take-off. The involuntary swallowing motion helps equalise the pressure exerted on the eardrums as the plane climbs, and so minimises the discomfort for those who are unprepared for it. The two kids on board obviously were not, and voiced their opinion through both the ascent and descent. Lek, in the meantime, did not look distressed, and ten minutes into the flight was looking like an excited schoolgirl on her first amusement park ride of the school holidays, peering out the porthole. We landed in Singapore with the barf bag still sealed and in pristine condition.

We don’t have any problems getting in through immigration, grab the bags and meet up with my sister. Lek’s taking in the scenery while I have a chance to get up to speed on the latest with my sister. I’m happy to see Mum and Dad, and act as impromptu translator. There are laughs all round.

To satisfy my cravings for local food, we take a walk down to the government housing flats where they have got hawker food. Lek, Mum and my sister obviously have to stop and browse at every sidewalk stall there is, and the first thing that Lek notices is the price of things. When I’ve converted the price from dollars into baht, she looks incredulous as says, it’s four times more here for the same item I get in Chatuchak! She also did not like the crowds. I suffer from sticker shock every time I order hawker food in Singapore, as there is practically nothing you can get for less than eighty baht a plate – a similar meal in Bangkok food court would set you back thirty baht.

The next day my sister has a bad stomach so Lek gives Paew a call, and we arrange to meet at the train station near where she is. The good thing about where our place is, is that it is in ‘old’ Singapore. By this I mean that the government has not acquired the land for public housing, so there are still a few bungalows and semi-detached residences around. It is also not too far from the flats and the train station.

We meet up with Paew near Chinatown, and have some Chinese food I have not had for a long time. It was interesting to note that she ordered the food in Chinese – sad in a way because Singapore back then was one of the few places where everybody could speak English. Not so nowadays, and with an influx of nationals from mainland China, even the locals are growing frustrated with their lack of any other language skill.

We decide to head off to Paew’s place – and this is when she realises that we don’t carry cash cards. Everything these days is paid for in this manner in Singapore – from the train fare, to the bus fare, to the parking – never mind, I’ve got enough coins stashed away for that. In this respect, Singapore seems to be moving very surely to a cashless society – whether this is a good thing or not has yet to be seen.

After Paew’s place we meet up with my sister in Chinatown, where the girls went gaga, moving on later to the Orchard road shopping area and the Christmas lights…

I think she had an interesting weekend trip, and was quite comfortable on the flight back. I have a feeling she’ll be meeting up with my sister sometime in the future for a longer stay. She has overcome her fear of travel, and flying, and most important of all, the fear of learning and using another language. She’s broadened her horizons, and is now determined to make a go of learning English.

And when we got back, she pulled out a plastic bag she had stashed in the side pocket of her handbag, still in pristine condition, and said with pride, ‘See, I didn’t use it!’ And smiled.

Stickman's thoughts:

Sounds like she enjoyed her first time!