Fifteen Weeks, A Brief & Entertaining Diary Of A Farang’s First Impressions Of Thailand –Deliciously Tongue In Cheek, Chapter 1
“The secret of a good memory is attention, and attention to a subject depends on our interest in it. We rarely forget that which has made a deep impression on our minds.” (Tryon Edwards 1809 – 1894)
Between Jun and Sep 2008 I stayed for fifteen weeks on the tropical island of Phuket and it was while based there that I formed my first impressions of Thailand. I made the hour long hop by plane on the occasional business trip to Bangkok and worked remotely on my business in Cape Town, in daily Skype contact, with my partner Paul. During this period I began to learn a little of what it would be like to live in Thailand permanently. I diarised my activities, observations and some of the more amusing (well, amusing to me that is) incidents which took place during my visit. It should be evident on reading that in 2008 I did not take either myself, or Thailand, too seriously. But I did glean some valuable information which I backed up in the four years following with research and some rather testing personal experiences. This enabled me to write my first book MASK in which the diaries are incorporated. They now stand alone as the subject matter for a thirty-five part serial. www.jamoroki.wordpress.com.
Thailand is unfathomable, baffling, inexplicable, magical, perplexing, puzzling, veiled, enigmatic and secretive; in a word ‘mysterious’. If you stay for any length of time in Thailand there will be many times when temptation hooks you up to the internet in search of the cheapest air ticket to anywhere. You will feel like you are banging your head against a brick wall and then fall into the trap of making incomparable comparisons with your country of origin as you become bewildered by the aesthetic discord, pretence and hypocrisy. Everything seems to be broken or is about to break and whenever a workman fixes something it ends up worse than before. You will wonder why more people are electrocuted in showers than you could ever imagine possible. Then you find out that most electrical installations are not earthed and the ‘electrician’ (I use that word loosely) is perfectly content to connect several old bits of wire with tape to make up the required length. You wonder why and then you find out that he has saved the customer twenty baht in materials and charged him an extra fifty baht in labour! You are desperately trying to understand a new culture, new customs and a new ‘sign’ language. You know nobody thinks like you so you are trying to think like everybody else and you are slowly going doolally and are about to have a kynyption. If you think you are the only one in step then don’t worry you’ve just joined the tribe.
Evolutionary Biologist Professor Richard Dawkins says that humans are far more uniform than any other species and there is a greater genetic difference between two chimpanzees in the same forest than there is between two human beings living at opposite ends of the earth. We humans are, then, so uniquely uniform that it is hardly surprising that, behind the mask, Thais are just like everyone else; vibrant, intelligent and adorable people. Thailand is irresistible.
Welcome to this captivating and enthralling land. Contradiction, controversy, confusion, frustration, weird language, cultural barriers and mystery will haunt you. When you eventually get over the early shocks, which may incidentally take years, and you realise that you cannot fix a ‘dysfunctional’ nation without a modicum of help from above you can begin your bumpy journey.
1. CAPE TOWN TO KUALA LUMPUR
“I have found adventure in flying, in world travel, in business, and even close at hand…Adventure is a state of mind – and spirit.” (Jacqueline Cochran 1910 -1980)
‘Flight 535 to Kuala Lumpur is now boarding at Gate 8’. On my third visit, I would begin to find out what living in Thailand was really about as I boarded the Malaysian Airlines flight from Cape Town to Kuala Lumpur on June 2nd 2008. On previous visits I always flew direct to Thailand via Changi airport in Singapore. Normally business was the priority with maybe a short holiday in Phuket for two or three weeks afterwards. But this time it was to be a fifteen week working holiday with a few days stopover in Kuala Lumpur to start with and a couple of weeks of intense business in Bangkok thrown in for good measure.
At the check-in desk I met an Aussie called Paul. A youngish, short man in his thirties, I would say, who informed me that he was born a Jew and raised as a Roman Catholic. I am still wondering why he volunteered such personal information to a complete stranger without being interrogated. Strange that he didn’t say what he is now! He said that, until recently, he was unaware that there were a lot of Jews in South Africa. I expressed surprise and told him that Johannesburg is often, jokingly, referred to as ‘Jewburg’. He followed up by saying ‘They seem to be all over the world now. I always thought they were mostly in Israel’.
Normally I don’t have too much trouble finding an appropriate response but this time, I must confess, I was stumped. So I asked him something banal, which seemed rather fitting in the context of the conversation. ‘Where did you get that amazing hat you are wearing?’ It was an indescribable, incredibly bizarre multi-coloured concoction. He replied very seriously. ‘Why; do you think it suits me?’ Just before I wet myself I managed to blurt out, without a hint of a smirk ‘Yes, it’s fantastic; do they do them in bright colours?’ By then I could hardly contain myself any longer. Thank God it was time to board. Isn’t it amazing how funny people can be when they are so serious?
The flight time to Kuala Lumpur via Johannesburg is approximately twelve hours and we landed on cue at six am local time. My body clock was telling me ‘It is one am.’ but my head was telling me, ‘I know, but I must ignore you and move straight into our new time zone.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Look, it will be tough for a few days but we have to do it; please trust me.’ ‘OK, if you say so Boss.’
My thoughts were running to that charming air hostess who was only with us on the first leg between Cape Town and Jo’berg.
‘I’ll be at the Cape Sun hotel again in October. Do you think you will be back by then?’
‘Unless I am kidnapped I definitely will be’. Said I.
Amazing what a pretty face and a bit of chit chat can do for an ageing man’s soul!
‘Ladies and gentlemen please return to your seats; we are starting our descent into Kuala Lumpur’.
What a great airport; rivalling Changi in Singapore and Suvarnabhumi in Bangkok as the best airports I have ever seen. South East Asia is on another planet when it comes to modern travel. Admittedly it’s a little daunting when you first step off the plane to find that you have to take a very swift skytrain to immigration and baggage reclaim. But only because it’s so unusual. No immigration papers required!! That’s a first for me. Now hear this – I’m through immigration and customs in five minutes! Throw in a smiling customs official. ‘Enjoy your stay in Malaysia sir.’ Is this real? A trifling little wait for baggage because of a technical problem which was announced believe it or not and I was picked up by Jonathan, my friend of two years and, for a few days, my very own personal chauffeur. All the foregoing happened within twenty minutes of disembarkation! What an admirable and peachy start to my journey. A few months of this kind of hospitable service will be fine by me.
Walking from the airport to the car park the heat and humidity enveloped me like a steam bath; how I love Jonathan’s air-conditioned Toyota Camry. Forty five minutes’ driving from the airport to the big city took us through broad freeways with little or no traffic which would have surely taken double the time in Bangkok, if you were lucky. But then there are only 25 million inhabitants in a Malaysia. Palm oil tree plantations line the motorways of the jungle for mile after mile. There’s no time for rest even though my body won’t stop telling me, ‘I desperately want some sleep.’ Three hours later following a relaxed business meeting and refuelled by a roti and dhal for breakfast.
Roti and dhal for breakfast?
It’s four am.
Not it’s not, its eleven am.
Nearly lunchtime then!
I really must have a little rest now. I bath, give in to my body’s urges, lie down and relax so I should be ready for the evening.
My genial host Jonathan, a Chinese Malay who is fluent in four languages, refuses to let me rest too long after my journey. I know it is important not to succumb but I’m in danger of becoming a somnambulist.
Kuala Lumpur is an impressive modern city of around two and a half million people. Ecumenical and sophisticated it also has a gregarious aura which feels good and I was quite surprised to find that everyone speaks pretty good English too. Then I was somewhat humbled when I discovered that mine host’s six year old daughter, Ruen, speaks four languages; Mandarin, Cantonese, Malay and English. I suppose the reason why we are so lazy when it comes to languages is because English is the main international language and we can get away with it. But it is a limiting factor in communication if you are a traveller.
The Twin Towers, when built, were the tallest buildings in the world and are an impressive example of modern glass and steel architecture. Beneath them lies a world class spacious shopping centre. Outside, the lake with water fountains and manicured gardens adjoins restaurants and bars. Even in this devoutly Muslim country there’s no shortage of booze. Two glasses of wine accompanied by a bowl of olives and we were off to meet the family again, and others, for dinner in a, simple but elegant, small Chinese family restaurant. Despite the fact that Jonathan says he’s never been here before I was bemused to see that he knew the owner, all the staff and most of the customers! When it quietens down or on the way home, I’ll ask him. ‘Elementary my dear James; they just moved premises.’