So Long, and Thanks for All the Sanuk
I first landed in Thailand on the afternoon of Friday, 7th March 2003. The flight itself, a Thursday late night BA flight, was relatively uneventful. Within a few hours of landing I was standing on the deck of the Tower Inn’s rooftop swimming pool, looking out from the Silom Road, over Bangkok’s vast canyons of concrete and glass and steel. I’d never been so in awe of a city before, and I’d travelled to over forty countries, and worked in a dozen. The hot air seemed heady with the sense of new possibilities, of adventure. The bright afternoon sunlight seemed to clarify all things, it was like seeing reality for the first time.
To fully do justice to the following two weeks of my life would take a hundred submissions, but I am not that prolific a writer, although I have tried to capture some of what happened in my submissions over the years.
I wrote my first sub for Stickman a dozen years ago, back on 10th July 2003. I have penned a number of submissions since my first sub, even collecting a coveted “green star” along they way for my piece “The Ten Biggest Mistakes Westerners Make”. I must admit it pains me more than a little, having written that piece so long ago, to then read something like “The Ides of March” – a recent, brilliantly written, and absolutely riveting series of submissions, that resembled watching a slow-motion car wreck in Technicolor, with Dolby Surround Sound thrown in for good measure.
There was a woman too, entangled in my Thailand story, and while that roller-coaster ride lasted two and a half years before I brought it to a halt, this is not the time or place to write a blow-by-blow account of that episode. There’s enough of those subs on here to last anyone a lifetime. I did manage, unlike some unfortunates, to emerge with both my finances and sanity intact, although according to some, the latter is questionable.
Of course I have returned to Thailand on a number of occasions since that first trip, having a lengthy stay at the tail end of 2003 into 2004. I wanted to see if Bangkok was somewhere I could live full time. I was staying at what was then the Oakwood City Residence – Chatrium in its current incarnation – and I remember coming home one evening after a great day out to find a jazz quartet playing in the lobby. I kept a bottle of Dalmore behind the bar. While the bartender poured me a glass, I listened to A Night in Tunisia, and thought to myself life doesn’t get much better than this. I was seriously considering relocating to Bangkok permanently, and working remotely for my employer, who had already (and much to my surprise) given the green light to the venture. However, two children and the aftermath of an unexpected divorce had left a vacuum that needed my physical presence to seal, so I never did make the move permanent.
As things turned out I often wonder if my presence at home did more harm than good, and what my life might have been like if I’d stayed in BKK. I was, however, lucky enough to be able to return to South-East Asia on many occasions over the years, visiting various parts of Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines. I lived a life I couldn’t have conceived of in my married days – I dated exotic almond-eyed beauties, with good jobs, good hearts, and good families. I kissed their soft brown skin, and smelled the heady scent of their perfumes. I dived the reefs of far-off islands, trekked volcanic mountains, and ate the best food I’d ever tasted. But finally I gravitated back home and settled down with a good woman, pondering the balance between freedom and loneliness.
I still carry a soft spot for Thailand as it was then. There’s no doubt it has changed. For better or worse I don’t know, there’s always good and bad, the rough and smooth. But changed it has. They say that change is the only constant, and that is as true in Thailand as anywhere else. Especially now with the web, that great accelerator of change. Even the nooks and crannies of Thailand are now blogged about extensively, the kimono well and truly lifted, all her intimate parts documented and photographed in high-pixel detail, her secret treasures FaceBooked a million times. It is no longer the Thailand I knew, for me the mystery has now gone. But I loved my time in Thailand, and I squeezed every last drop out of the experience, like a man who has wandered the desert will drain every last drop of water from a glass.
I realized that when I started to write this sub, it would be my last. It’s not just the prospect of Stick leaving Thailand that prompts this (although we still don’t know if that will actually happen), in more than one way it really is the end of an era. Sure, the Stickman site was an anchor point. A certainty in an uncertain world. Even in the darkest days of winter in the UK, there was always the weekly column, always the submissions to warm the cockles. But the truth is, though Thailand is a wonderful piece of my past, it is not likely to be part of my future. At this point I have written most of what I wanted to say about Thailand, or, more usually, others have written what I wanted to say far more eloquently. My writing, always a bellwether of my life, now calls me in different directions. About Thailand, or Thai women, I have nothing left to say, beyond this final sub.
But, before I sign off, I will say this. Reading some of the submissions here, you would think there are only two things that matter in life: sex and beer, and that the only measure of a place is how cheaply both can be obtained. Neither of these things is true. And you might also think, reading these pages, that the only measure of a woman is how thin she is, or how pretty she is, or how good in bed she is. I wonder how the readers here would fair only by those metrics? About women all I will say is: all that glitters is not gold. If you really look for beauty, look for it in the heart, not the face.
If you haven’t been to Thailand – go. Go before the old Thailand is gone for ever. Go with an open mind and an open heart, and be prepared to sail beyond the seedy bars and godforsaken last-chance massage parlours. They are so often the first and only port of call, where, like half-drowned sailors, victims of the great storms to the West wash up, spluttering and gasping for life – any life, and there, under the neon lights, something that looks like it can be had, for a few thousand baht. In the long run, it is a voyage of the damned.
There is so much more to Thailand than the “naughty nightlife”. Wander down Bangkok’s byways, tread slowly along the dusty sois, breathe deeply of the smell (there is nothing like it in the world), feel the heat on your skin, explore the air-con mega-malls and coffee shops, the food courts and mini-marts, the temples and tourist traps. Let adventure take you. And maybe one day, when you feel like the city is closing in on you, head out to the islands, to the blue-green seas, and clear skies, and just live your life and let your imagination embrace the possibilities. I would like to say (with apologies to Thoreau), that I think every man should live in Thailand for at least part of their life, lest they get to their final days and realize that they have never really lived.
Just before I go I wish to thank Stickman for accepting my cack-handed contributions without fail over the years, and for providing this wonderful forum, which I believe is a unique and valuable archive of our collective Thailand experience.
It is said that to be a writer you simply need to write. But I think there is more to it than that. Anyone literate can write. But to be a Writer you must have something you need to write about. Thailand has given each and every contributor here something they needed to write about. So, to my fellow Writers I salute you.
Will I return to Thailand? I don’t know if I will, but I would like to, one day. I see myself going back to where it all started, standing atop the Tower Inn in the fading light, looking out over the city, watching the green and red lights on the tall towers blink slowly, measuring the heartbeat of the city. I will marvel at its intricacy – a giant monument to human possibility, a living entity of complex emotions, the dark and the light, the old and the new. As I stand there, memories of past loves, and good friends, float slowly across my mind. And as the dark red sun creeps below the horizon, and the purple clouds drift into oblivion, I will know again, this is my one and only precious life, and it has been so much richer for having had Thailand’s presence in it.
And with that it just remains to bid you all farewell. Goodbye, take care, wherever you are, and may Thailand’s spirit continue to fire your soul.