The Creeping Menace Within
It was about as dark as you might very well expect it to be on a moonless night at 1:00 AM, but my taxi ride from Don Muang to Lower Sukhumvit was darker than I thought it should be for a city the size of Bangkok. I can’t for the life of me remember where I read years later that Bangkok did indeed have the dubious honor of being on the list of the top ten poorest lit cities.
It turns out that it was just as well I couldn’t make out the horror creeping its way in the shadows. By the harsh light of dawn I wouldn’t be so lucky. Walking out of the front door of the Nana Hotel it was there to confront me. There was no escaping it. It was everywhere I turned my head, black as death with green splotches that you might expect to find oozing from the mouth of a zombie looking for fresh human brains to devour. It was clear that I was going to have to hold my breath and make a mad dash for someplace that would serve as a refuge. That was going to be a challenge, because this wasn’t a George Romero movie. This was Thailand, and the creeping menace was…mold!
Oh, sorry to get carried away. Perhaps you are thinking in disgust, “Here’s old Sawadee, being melodramatic about nothing… once again!” Still, I’m willing to bet that a large number of you had the same impression I had on your first visit to the Land of Smiles, and had the same question I did. Why does everything look so, well…dirty?
There is of course more than plenty of ordinary grime that is associated with urban life, especially in a city with little (or no) pollution control. It was my “good fortune” that my first tuk-tuk ride trapped me behind an ancient bus which was belching out enormous black gouts of diesel smoke. Back in Farangland I’m sure this emphysema causing hulk would never be allowed on public thoroughfares. This being Thailand, this cancer-mobile from hell is probably still out there wheezing away twelve years later. I once made the mistake of casually brushing my hand against a Bangkok lamppost. I never did that again, since my hand came away as black as coal.
Yes, there is a thick film of greasy dirt out there, but it is relatively nothing compared to the huge quantities of yucky mold almost everywhere. Even in the most remote rural hamlet, chances are you’ll see it everywhere you turn your head.
Thailand it turns out is paradise if you are a mold spore. It is warm. There is a lot of rain. The humidity is generally high. This is the perfect environment for the stuff to grow, and grow…and grow. Although technically mildew refers to mold which is growing on fabric, it sounds icky enough that I use it for mold growing anywhere. Well, perhaps moldy bread is just moldy bread. We ain’t talking penicillin here folks…just your basic (filamentous fungi).
Why do Thais seem utterly oblivious to the stuff? Perhaps it’s simply because they’ve seen the stuff everyday of their lives. Hell after my first few years living here, I’ve managed to “tune out” a lot of whole lot of things I was once appalled at. Garbage strewn on the ground? Crazy Thai motorists? Flies swarming on meat in the market? It’s as though they exist, but the mediating filter in my brain, dials them down to an almost subliminal level. Actually the flies still turn my stomach. I find it better to simply avoid those sections of the markets.
I know that combating mildew requires a concerted effort. Perhaps seems more effort than its worth. The idea of preventative maintenance is hardly part of the Thai mindset. Better to let things fall apart and rot. Still, when the stuff builds up, year after year…after year, any building is going to look like a set out of a remake of “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”. I find it difficult to believe that even Thais think a thick coating of slime improves the appearance of their homes, but even very expensive homes around Lampang are the worse for wear. There seems to be a philosophy that one (and only one) coat of paint, is good enough for a lifetime.
I’m sure that many of you have eaten at Thai sidewalk restaurants whose roof is nothing but a few sheets of blue plastic…or old advertising banners, or whatever plastic can be scrounged. Without exception, there is mildew half an inch thick covering everything. Perhaps I’m over fastidious, but this doesn’t make me want to come on it and sit down for a meal. Somchai though and all his many relatives aren’t bothered in the least. They obviously have a stronger stomach than I do.
When we built “Bahn Sawadee” almost six years ago, I swore that I would never, ever allow the creeping menace to worm its way into our property. Like many good intentions, keeping that pledge has proved harder that I would have imagined. When we painted the wall around our home, I made sure that we put on a coat of mildew resistant primer. The label on the paint we used for the finish coat said that it was mildew resistant. Apparently, like many things in Thailand, the word “resistant” is highly subject to interpretation. In my case, resistant meant that 90 days after painting, the walls remained pristine. These 90 days were of course during the dry season.
When the rains came, as they always do, I began to notice a few areas of discoloration. Not wanting to sit on my ass while any mold could establish a beachhead, I set to work to eradicate every trace of I could see. Out came an entire arsenal of ant-mildew weapons: chlorine bleach, a steel wool, a bucket and a pair of rubber gloves. I must have made a curious sight for my Thai neighbors. Here was this Farang, scrubbing away, doing the kind of donkey’s work that only the lowest class of Thai would ever in a million years dream of doing. Hey, laugh away. I’m the one with clean walls!
My house itself seemed immune from mold. Maybe it didn’t like teak. In any case, that was a big relief. To this day, my house remains stain free. My walls and the stone walkways alas, have not faired so well. It’s as if a mutant strain of antibiotic resistant bacteria is mocking me with my mere mortal attempts to keep it at bay. If a colony of mold could speak it was saying: “Ha!” (With an evil sneer and a voice like Darth Vader.) “Why don’t you just give in to the inevitable? In the end we will have our way with you anyway. Spare yourself your futile efforts foolish human! We were here when life crawled out of the primordial sea onto the land, and we will be here long after your species is gone from the Earth.” Well, that’s a cheery thought. After whatever apocalypse slams closed the book on Homo Sapiens, there will still be mold, and of course cockroaches!
I haven’t been ready to wave the white flag of surrender, but it has become increasingly difficult to soldier on. The truth is that after four or five rounds of heart surgery, I simply lack the stamina for hand to hand combat in the trenches. Just the mere thought of going out to scrub makes me tired. Obviously I need to call in reinforcements. It would be a foolish waste of time to ask my tee-rak to slog away at it. She would look at me as if I had asked her hold back the tides with a broom and shovel. Being Thai she has never understood the joy of living in a sparkling clean environment. I should say though that she is a whole lot higher on the evolutionary ladder of sanitation than her family, who still tosses rubbish out in their yard.
My wife mercifully didn’t want me to have a coronary. Two years ago she hired a Thai neighbor who had a pressure washer to give everything a good cleaning. They did a creditable job, if being a little too enthusiastic, managed to strip paint away with the mold. Unfortunately she was outraged by the two hundred baht they charged. Now she refuses to even consider calling them back. Needless to say, the creeping menace came back with a vengeance. I don’t have the money in my budget this year, but in 2011 I hope to hire someone to strip and repaint the walls, and pressure wash the walkways. This will not end the battle, but things will look pretty damned good for a while.
And so as the sun sets in the west, a lonely man stands vigil against the onslaught which will come. Call him a fool if you will, but he will continue to fight the good fight with his last dying breath…or at least until dinnertime, because a roast chicken is cooking in the oven and Mythbusters is on a 7:00.
Interesting topic this. Thais are fastidious about the cleanliness of their residence, workplace etc. but have you noticed that the top of the walls and ceilings are often filthy. Perhaps the problem is that most of the cleaners comes from the north-east, the people from that region are generally short….and so they cannot reach those places!