Things Fall Apart
This is the chapter that, perhaps controversially, didn't make it into Andrew Hicks' recently published "My Thai Girl and I".
28. Things Fall Apart
I sometimes wonder if it’s a consequence of ‘Thainess’, of the readiness to say mai pen rai, meaning ‘never mind’ or ‘what the hell’, that the folks round here seem to be irredeemable botchers. Everything’s a mess in the countryside, though to be fair, it’s the same with small farmers everywhere. Tiny farms in rural France are a tangle of broken machinery, nettles and brambles because you haven’t time for anything fancy when you work a ten hour day and can hardly make ends meet. Likewise a Thai farmer isn’t too concerned about having the ideal home, but still it bothers me that nothing here ever seems to work properly and nobody is the slightest bit concerned about it.
My old jeep’s in dock yet again and when our second hand motorbike, bought from a dishonest motorbike mechanic, fails to start yet again, I do begin to wonder. With both out of action, we’ve just had to borrow a motorbike to get into Sangkha. On the way Cat begins to slow, shouting to me that something’s wrong. We grind to a halt and as I look down, there’s a ping and a greasy sprocket falls into the dust. I try to pick it up but it’s blazing hot and I burn my fingers.
Having paid for the repair of the motorbike, I tried the bicycle instead. It was securely locked with chain and padlock but then the key broke off in the lock. When I found the hacksaw to cut the chain, that was broken too and as for the bike, it’ll be exactly the same story.
All these experiences leave me feeling a little cynical. I’ll soon be telling you more about the jeep I’ve bought, but the succession of five mechanics I paid to stop its brakes seizing up were either incompetent or hadn’t even touched them before writing out a bill. When we came back from a trip to England the brakes were seizing up yet again, so I got Cat’s cousin to take them apart at the house, while I watched. They were utterly filthy and full of black dust, the slave cylinders were seized and the pads were coming off the shoes.
Sadly a few days later we never made it home from town, the front brakes binding tight and screaming so loudly that people in the street turned to stare. Thankfully, mechanic number five whose garage was nearby seemed competent and he had it fixed the next day. The jeep has modern servo-assisted brakes and the servo that was supposed to be new, was a dud.
For some months the jeep then stopped perfectly, or as well as drum brakes can stop a ton or two of metal, but then the ultimate nightmare occurred. One day, on the way into town I put my foot on the brake pedal and it went straight to the floor. With a rush of adrenaline, I grabbed for the hand brake, forgetting there isn’t one and then resorted to prayer. It was only because I was on a straight road with nothing in front of me that I didn’t have to die. If I’d made it into Sangkha and lost my brakes in the middle of town, the story could have been very different.
At little more than walking pace, I then drove the jeep back to my mechanic and paid him to have another go at getting the brakes right. A rubber seal in the ‘new’ servo had apparently failed. Not long after, exactly the same thing happened again, so the only thing I can now think of is buying an emergency anchor.
My conclusion is that maintenance doesn’t come naturally in this part of the world. To make it worse, most cheap things like door locks and taps are rubbish anyway and people are thoroughly careless fitting and using them, casually trashing everything they touch.
I won’t make any friends by saying this, but in my experience the bush mechanics I’ve encountered in Africa were far, far better than the Thais. In India and Burma they have amazing skills breathing life into old jalopies and I’m told the Vietnamese are fine mechanics. So why can the Thais not keep my jeep on the road as it’s not so very difficult. The engine, gearbox and brakes are modern Japanese transplants, while the rest is as simple as a tractor.
Small motorbikes regularly break down too, so maybe the problem’s a failure to do simple maintenance. Neglect can be expensive but Thais just don’t do maintenance, or so it seems to me. I often wonder why this is as the Thais are highly materialistic and sometimes strive hard to get the shiny baubles they’ve seen on the telly. I think of Prasert who, with his wife, spends his life stirring noodles to keep up the payments on his now ageing pick-up. I think of the girl in the bar who told me she’ll be hard at it until she’s bought the new car she can’t live without. So why is it that once they’ve got the object of their desire, they often seem to neglect it?
Is it a Buddhist thing? Could it be that material things are illusory and impermanent and if you can’t expect them to stay gorgeous and new, why bother to look after them at all. But no, I’m sure that’s not the explanation and I don’t know what it is.
Asians generally like everything to be brand spanking new and often can’t be bothered with the old. The Chinese for example like new houses because old ones are full of spirits from the past and as Bangkok is largely an immigrant Chinese city, many of the buildings there are un-maintained and falling into ruin. Apart from a few old areas that deserve restoration, half the city needs to be knocked down and rebuilt.
Attitudes are so very different in the West. We farang actually like old things for their hand-made feel and for the patina they’ve acquired from decades of human contact and use. For all these reasons we lavish enormous care on old buildings and I adore my thirty year old MGB which runs beautifully despite its age.
In Thailand it seems acceptable that nothing much ever works. The ATM at the bank often has no ink so withdrawal receipts come out blank, it’s run out of paper and even of money. Copy shops give you appalling photocopies and in the internet shop the letters on the keys have worn away to nothing and are illegible. My TOT IP Star satellite internet, a recent acquisition, rarely works, the maintenance men are quite shocked at being called out and I’m expected to pay for a sub-standard service.
It’s boring to trot out more examples and I’d better stop moaning because maybe they’re right… it doesn’t matter anyway! It’s my farang attitude that’s out of line, though sometimes it really does drive me mad.
Recently when taking Cat’s sister to the Bangkok bus, I spent two baht to have a pee at the Sangkha bus station. Twenty four hours a day somebody sits outside the toilet collecting the money, but do they ever clean the filthy urinals I’ve just paid to use? Not apparently. They’re yellow and stinking and broken and it’s hard to believe Thailand has just hosted the World Toilet Expo in Bangkok which promotes high standards of sanitation. The Thais are very particular about personal hygiene, so why do they tolerate these appalling public latrines?
Since then, the bus station toilet’s been closed and it says ‘sia’ on the door (‘spoiled’), so perhaps something positive’s about to happen. Trouble is, now there’s nowhere to go for a leak before you face an eight hour bus ride to the capital.
I see no reason why this chapter could not have been included in your excellent book.