Return to LOS
Hey, everyone, how’s it going? It’s been a fair few weeks since my last submission (though rest assured, I’ve been reading you guys’ stories every night for my daily Thailand fix!) and during most of this time I’ve been plugging away at my new job, putting in the hours, trying to earn and save up some money. But in the last two weeks I’ve done something amazing – I saved up all my money and went back to Thailand! I’m sadly back in Farangland now, of course – back at work, Monday being the first day at the office, once again braving the daily commute, braving the cold, braving the mindless tedium and repetition.
But let’s not talk about that – let’s talk about the beautiful Land of Smiles, in all its perfections and imperfections, smiles and scams. What was it like going back to see April after over three months? And going as a moneyed “two-week millionaire” rather than an impoverished backpacker?
Well, it was certainly different – don’t get me wrong, I was never part of the hardcore backpacker crowd, with their tatty Singha wife-beaters and frayed trousers, fretting over every baht. Sure, my university mates and I followed the same backpacker trail when we travelled around Southeast Asia, and sure, we hung out with the backpacker crowd extensively, but in all honestly we were stereotypical “flashpackers.” You see them often in LOS, young travellers who forgo the standard backpacker outfit for designer shirts and smartly pressed cotton shorts, a pull-along suitcase instead of an unwieldy bulky rucksack, staying at mid-range 1,000 baht a night hotels rather than the usual Khao San slum. Although to be fair I do like Khao San and have stayed there numerous times, I am and always was a self-confessed flashpacker.
Going from a student flashpacker to a two-week millionaire was a whole new league again though – roughly the same amount of money I had to make last for nearly three months, now had to just last me two weeks. I did have to pay for most of April’s costs as well though, so didn’t go completely mad, but still we stayed at the Sofitel in Bangkok, the 4-star Holiday Inn in Chiang Mai, the Traders’ Hotel in Penang. Also, no more did I endure ten hour bus rides to and from April’s home in Isaan – instead we flew to Ubon Ratchathani, rented a Toyota Camry and drove to her home 45 minutes away.
So did I have a better time than before? To be honest, not really. Don’t get me wrong, LOS was just as amazing as I remembered it. But after travelling to Asia for a minimum of a month at a time, going for two weeks was positively depressing – so wonderful, yet it felt like it was over before it had even begun. Seeing and being with April after all this time, and then having to go home again wasn’t great. To be honest I would have much rather been able to stay out in Asia for twice as long and stayed in more mediocre accommodation and got ten hour buses / trains (as opposed to Air Asia flights) across Thailand. But, alas, I suppose this is the reality of being a member of the workforce rather than a student. Ah well.
Okay, I’ll stop rambling and start my story chronologically, like any good writer – after an 11-hour EVA Air direct flight I touched down in Suvarnabhumi Airport. Going direct was a serious improvement on the previous 18-hour slogs (complete with lengthy Mumbai/Dubai stopover) I had endured in the past, so that was good. Also, I can only recommend EVA as an airline of exceptional quality – the plane had comfy seats, a good choice of movies, and was staffed by an army of beautiful smiling Taiwanese stewardesses who were almost constantly coming round and offering snacks/drinks/alcohol. So, yeah, I can think of worse ways to spend 11 hours!
This being my first trip to LOS in the so-called high season, there was a noticeable absence of backpackers on my plane – instead, there were considerably more families (a lot of Thai/farang families as well as just farang) as well as a fair number of men who would probably fall into the “monger” category. I just want to say I don’t say this with any kind of judgement, after all I do have a Thai girlfriend myself (though not from a bar!) In fact on the flight I found myself sat next to one group of “lads on tour,” a group of thirty-something plumbers from Nottingham. They were all really friendly and chatty!
Having had a fair few beers before getting onto the plane, one of the guys Steve explained the whole group was in high spirits given that in just a few hours they would be returning to Pattaya (or “Sin City” as they referred to it as) for three weeks, a holiday they had been saving up for over the last six months. This was their second trip to Pattaya, before that they’d been to Phuket a fair few times.
We passed the time by chatting about Thailand and SE Asia and how great it was. I said how I had a Thai girlfriend and we’d been around Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam etc. over the summer. At the mention of Cambodia Steve noticeably perked up even further, and said he and the lads were thinking of going there for their next tour.
“Supposedly it’s like Thailand was 20 years ago, with prices to match,” the wink he gave me told me he wasn’t referring to the price of tom yam.
I said yeah, it was, whilst inwardly thinking that although I couldn’t help but like this guy I’d only known a couple of hours, it was perhaps a bit unfortunate for Cambodia that would-be tourists were not thinking about going to see the ancient temples of Angkor Watt and learning about the horrendous history of the Khmer Rouge – rather the country would be judged on the quality of its nightclubs and go-go bars. Ah, well, maybe Phnom Penh is to be the Pattaya of tomorrow.
Once we touched down in Suvarnabhumi I encountered another high-season feature – excruciatingly long passport control queues. The sheer influx of people and the scarcity of Thai immigration officers on duty meant it took no less than a whole hour and a half from disembarking the plane to getting my passport entry stamp. <This seems to be current high season problem and hopefully it will be resolved soon – Stick>
By this time Steve and his group of tour lads were well ahead of me in the queue, but I found myself next to a group of Australian uni student backpackers who were equally good company. In true farang fashion we would talk about LOS and sing its praises in one sentence, then moan and bitch that the length of the passport queues was so typical of Thai-inefficiency. The backpackers were particularly worried as they were supposed to be catching a plane to Ko Samui in less than two hours, where they would then get a boat over to Ko Phang Ngan for the infamous monthly Full Moon Party. As soon as they got their stamp they were grabbing their luggage and sprinting upstairs towards the check in desks; I still wonder if they made it in time.
What was it like seeing April after all this time? Without sounding too clichéd, it was like we’d never been apart, not that surprising I guess, considering we’d been chatting for a minimum of an hour every day, every week – for the past three months. We spent three amazing days in Bangkok at the Sofitel, going out and downing Singha like it was going out of fashion, before waking up hung over at 6 AM on New Year's Day to catch the early plane to Ubon Ratchathani.
It’s only about an hour to Ubon Ratchathani “International” Airport (as far as I know it only flies to and from Bangkok?) so by 10 AM we were in the rented Toyota Camry and on our way into to Isaan.
A big difference I noticed was when I went to see her family – whereas before I was referred to by everyone (mum, dad and the sisters) as “farang” I now get talked to and referred to in conversation as “Alan.” Not that being called a farang ever bothered me much, but I thought the change was pretty sweet. Equally, whereas before April and I had to stay in a nearby hotel, this time April’s mum and dad decided they didn’t want me to have to spend any money un-necessarily, so me and April ended up spending three nights together on a fold-out mattress in the makeshift garage.
They weren’t entirely saintly though, I got the hard sell from April’s dad (April translated) to buy some new tyres for his pickup truck, ending up with me forking out 7,000 baht. Still, at least we made a day of it – me, April and her dad went down to the local Isaan garage, and the dad kept comparing the different brands of tyres and consulting me on my opinion, eventually choosing the ones I recommended as being the best value. Afterwards he gave me a big smile and wai and thanked me profusely in Thai. I’m sure I sound a bit sappy and I’m sure I read a lot more into it than there really was, but at least he didn’t just take my money and go off by himself without so much as a thank you.
But yeah, the cynic in me thought that they were letting me stay at their home so that the “farang ATM” would constantly be on tap. April’s brother, who is my age but as far as I can tell unemployed, was constantly pestering me to drive to the local supermarket and buy some more whiskey. The whole time I was there, the guy was pretty much perpetually hammered – April says he’s been trying to get a job in Bangkok, but in all honesty I think the only shot he’s taken at employment is the shot of Mekong he shoves down his throat seemingly every five minutes. He was a nice enough guy, just a bit of a waster – though then who I am to judge? It’s easy for me with my university-educated western background to look down on the guy, but if I’d been born in some god-awful rural village in a third world country, would I be any better? Probably not to be honest.
Also, staying at April’s home meant no air conditioning, no mosquito protection, no proper shower – and no western toilet. The last one was the hardest for me – I had the runs virtually every day from ludicrously spicy Isaan food, and being someone with a nervous bowel, I really struggled using a squat toilet. In the end I just about coped – let me tell you, it’s a lot like sex, the first time you do it you really don’t know what you’re doing and it isn’t at all enjoyable!
For all my moaning, however, I honestly did have a really cool time – we drove around, saw some ancient Isaan temples, drove to Khon Kaen (the closest port of civilisation to April’s home), and even went to an Isaan karaoke bar one evening! All in all, Isaan really is a pretty interesting place! I think April had a great time too, she doesn’t like to admit it but I think she enjoyed the face bonus she got from everyone in the village seeing her being driven around in a new Camry by a young farang.
She looked pretty smug when we went around the local market and bumped into a couple of her friends from high school. When April introduced me they started giggling and chatting excitedly in Thai, before looking at me and saying “you velly handsome sir” in broken English; April proudly said afterwards they were saying how good-looking I was and whether I had any farang friends I could introduce to them. April’s sister, just turned 18, apparently also asked about the possibility of being hooked up with a young farang. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I’m Brad Pitt or anything, rather I imagine it was that I’m a slim, young westerner – I daresay you probably don’t see too many of those in rural Isaan. More face for April gained anyway.
Though now we’ve been together for a while, I think the whole family thinks we’re going to get married – one evening, when we were all sitting in her home getting drunk on Thai whiskey, I heard the words ‘sin sod’ being said back and forth between April’s mum and aunty. I asked April what was going on and she confirmed what I thought – they were talking about how much sin sod to ask for.
I inquired as to what figures they were banding about (just out of curiosity more than anything else) at which point the aunty, who speaks some English (her husband’s a tuk-tuk driver) said half-jokingly “don’t know, but you farang you pay more.” To be fair she was somewhat bladdered on whiskey and I think it was meant a bit humorously, but it did irritate me a bit. Ah well, mai pen rai I guess.
When the day finally came to leave Isaan, April was sad to say goodbye to everyone; I was happy to be getting back to civilisation and western toilets. We returned the Camry at Ubon Ratchathani Airport before boarding the flight back to Bangkok, then got onto our connecting flight to Penang, Malaysia.
Penang, it’s fair to say, is an interesting place – nice beaches (though not as good as Thailand), beautiful architecture and vibrant Chinese and Indian communities. Coming from the UK, seeing Indian people is certainly nothing new to me, but that didn’t detract in any way from the experience of walking through Little India – with loud music blaring out of shop windows, curry houses on every corner, it really felt like I’d stepped on to Indian soil. The people were nothing like the westernised British Indians you see back in my home – they were dark, so dark in fact they made my tanned Isaan girlfriend look positively pale!
Chinatown was cool as well, very different to Bangkok or London’s Chinatowns – rather than hustle and bustle, the streets are narrow and quiet, filled with rambling shop-fronts and coffee houses. Although I probably wouldn’t hurry back to Penang, I had a great time there, and I think April enjoyed it more than me – she later declared Malaysia to be her favourite country after Thailand. I think she particularly enjoyed it because it’s so different to other SE Asia countries like Laos and Cambodia, in that it’s not Buddhist, and it was a British colony rather than French-owned.
We finished up our excursion in Penang by enjoying a delicious Eastern & Oriental Sling (copycat of the Singapore Sling) in the luxurious five-star E&O Hotel, before heading back to the Traders Hotel to get our belongings and go to the airport. From there we went to KL, slept for a few hours at the airport (all the nearby hotels fully booked, grr!) before getting the early plane to Chiang Mai.
In short, Chiang Mai was incredible! I won’t bore you guys too much with the breakdown of what we did, as I’m sure you’ve been to Chiang Mai already (hasn’t everybody?) Suffice to say we saw all the major temples and sights, and I now fully appreciate why Chiang Mai – despite lacking any beaches – is such a popular destination on the tourist trail.
After just a few days, it was time to go back to Bangkok for one last night before I had to head back to Farangland. I was only out in SE Asia for two weeks, but to be honest it went so quick it could’ve been two days. I know from reading on Stick that the magic may wear off eventually, but for me every time I come to this part of the world, I find it harder and harder to go back. I just love everything about the place – the people, the culture, the history, the food, everything. Not just Thailand, but the whole of SE Asia.
So what’s next? Well, I’m back to the daily grind at work for the time being, but our next step is to get April to come see my in Farangland! I’ve pretty much spent the whole of this last weekend on putting the visa together, and given that I’m employed full-time and we’ve been together for not far off a year now, I’m really hopeful of an approval.
If not, to be honest I don’t know what I’ll do. Every fibre in my body tells me to slog at work for three or four months, save up a wedge of cash (at least £3 or £4k) and then just get a one-way ticket to Bangkok and play it by ear from there. I so want to. Every night I dream about doing it. But logic and reason keep holding me back – after all, I’ve got a good job, and if I just quit I won’t be able to go back, and I really don’t want to have to come back to the UK broke and with my tail tucked between my legs in six months’ time. Or worse, end up a member of the Pattaya Flying Club.
That’s everything for now – I’ve got a work presentation to prepare for tomorrow morning, so I’d better get on it sharp. Not that I want to of course, but sadly dreams by themselves don’t pay for air tickets to LOS!
Sounds like you had a great time.
A small bit of advice about the future. Play the long game. Think about where you want to be with April and what is best for the two of you and then put a plan in place to make it happen. Just turning up with a few thousand pounds will drastically limit your options and put you at the mercy of Mr. Luck!