Travels in Thailand 2015 – On the Road to Bang Saphan Noi
My wife is ecstatic after she returns from taking her certification exam for massage therapy and finding out she has passed. This accomplishment was made possible by a rough three months of 50-hour work weeks along with another 40 hours studying for the exam. When my wife puts her mind to something, she is a force unto herself that you don’t want to mess with. All this studying was required as this is not an easy certification exam, as it’s not designed to test your knowledge of massage as much as to keep you out of the business, thus maintaining the high fees of current practitioners. Now that she is in the ranks of the privileged few certificate holders, her next goal is to visit family and friends in Thailand and attend advanced classes in Thai massage. “Hey”, she exclaims, “are we still going to Thailand? Can we still get tickets?”
Her exam was in the first week of August. If she failed the exam, she might have wanted not to go to Thailand and stay home to take it again. Months before that had I started looking for flights and I found a couple of insanely cheap ones near the end of the month. I thought about it for a few days and decided these prices were too good to pass up, so I secretly bought them. Now I announced we are going to Thailand in three weeks. This roll of the dice was worth all the hugs I was now receiving.
The problem now is we are leaving in late August, much later in the rainy season than our normal March – June target. Places we want to visit may literally be rained out, so our plans need to be flexible and include a few indoor venues. I am glad this worked out, as I am always ready to return to the land of unexpected adventures. Had I known what some of these adventures would be, I may have been wishing that I had lost the gamble after all.
One more bit of context. This trip came on the heels of another trip I made to Pennsylvania to visit my cousins and my very old uncle. I always love to visit with what is left of my immediate family. However, these affairs can also be a little bittersweet as well as awkward. My family comes from solid German – English – Scottish stock and according to our gene pool; we eventually accumulate more than a few excess pounds as we grow older. That is, except for me, thanks to some “slim” genes from my mom and my regimen of daily exercise and diet. At some point during our gathering, someone will say, “How thin I look”, usually after we take the mandatory group snaps. As we view the pictures, I am the lone thin guy in what looks like a gaggle of offensive linemen. Everyone laughs and then one cousin adds his usual comment that the only fit men he knows at my age are gay. Everyone laughs again while I force a smile to my face. One year, after we had done this mandatory comedy routine, my cousin emphasized his point by humping my leg. Like I said bittersweet.
The reason I mention this is that being called gay really resonates with me, as it’s not the first time this has happened in my life. It started in high school when a Navy reservist tried to pick me up in a drug store. This shocked me but then it happened again a couple more times in college. I’m not sure why I am showing up on the gay-dar; is it genetic? Anyway, it seemed to subside after I was married, sired three boys, and eventually divorced their crazy mother. When I began traveling to Asia for business, it started up again when I encountered my first ladyboys, who always smiled at me, like I was a kindred spirit. I was inwardly repulsed but later on, as I realized they are probably excellent judges of male flesh, I accepted their attention as a compliment. Recent trips to Thailand with my wife thankfully produced no new encounters.
On this trip, after our two long air flights to Suvarnabhumi, it happened again. My wife and I are standing in a queue for our hotel bus when I notice a couple of ladyboys walking towards us. They stop some 10 feet away, look at me, and start waving. I turn around me to see whose attention they are trying to get but no one is there. They continue waving at me until I clutch my wife’s arm, much like a little boy would do to his mom after seeing a scary man with tattoos. Eventually they stop but I am more than a little unnerved. My wife, of course, is oblivious to this nonsense as she is keeping a sharp eye for our bus. I feel it’s an ominous beginning to our trip and I say a silent prayer to Buddha to please not let the “curse” rear its ugly head again.
Late August in Thailand, when our trip begins, is just a couple of weeks after the Bangkok bombing. The Chinese stock market had recently crashed and the Russian ruble continued to crumble. The American dollar was fetching near 36 Thai baht so it seemed like a perfect storm of good (bad) conditions for a visit. Still, I’m shocked at my flight into Bangkok, where for the first time ever, both flights are barely half-full. When we arrive, I literally walk through immigration. I could have gone from plane to baggage to taxi in less than 30 minutes, something unheard of on previous trips. The smiling and wai-ing TAT officials at the gate exit was another sign that tourist Thailand is really struggling. Anyway, going through the airport so smoothly, I mistakenly let my guard down, as I should have checked the stamp the immigration officer gave me. More on that later.
Surviving my ladyboy encounter at the airport, we shuttle to the Best Western hotel near the airport. This is a reasonably priced, nice hotel with a good shuttle service to the airport. For those looking for a stop-over hotel in Bangkok, I highly recommend it. It was just what our tired bodies need to get ready for our multi-destination trip through Thailand.
The next day, my wife’s brother picks us up and drives us southward to Bang Saphan Noi for a visit with my wife’s 93-year-old mother. This wonderful lady still wakes at dawn, cooks the family meals on an old stone stove using an ancient wok, and then putters around her old wooden house, chasing grandchildren and gossiping with the neighbors who drop by. When night descends, we always share a Singha yai while she holds my hand and talks to my wife. It’s easy to see why my wife is such a wonderful person as she comes from the stock of a truly traditional Thai family.
The family home is an old wooden structure built on a cement pad; pretty common for Thai houses built many years ago. It’s not air-conditioned, it’s slowly succumbing to termites, and monsoon rains. We have offered to upgrade the house and install an air-con unit, but her mother likes it just the way it is. She even likes the outdoor toilet. The house resides on a bucolic parcel of land of about 5-6 acres of coconut trees right off the main road. Our visits there are enjoyable but I can only take them in small doses due to the lack of air-con. So, the wife and I usually stay at one of the small resorts on the beach some five minutes away.
We stay at a small, Thai-owned resort for only 400 baht a night. It’s a very basic room with a Thai-style bathroom (no enclosed shower) and we have free Wi-Fi. It seems a perfect place to stay considering the alternative of the family home. That is, until we discover the bed is rock solid, like a ply board is underneath the bed sheet. Both of us sleep very little that evening. The next morning, as we walk along the beach, we notice there is a similar resort right next to ours. We wander in and find it’s owned by the father of an old classmate of my wife’s. We ask to see a room, test the beds that are nice and comfortable, and seal the deal for the next two nights. My wife makes a lame excuse to our original resort owners (saving face, of course) and we promptly move our stuff. The first night’s sleep was bliss but on the second night, we discover the hotel is being occupied by the local cops, who are having a loud outdoor karaoke party. Lucky for us, the alcohol runs out around 11 PM as does the off-tune caterwauling. At least we did not have to worry about thieves breaking in that night.
Earlier in the evening, we had a family dinner with my wife’s siblings and all their cute children. I provide the Johnnie Walker Black for my brothers-in-law while the ladies create some really tasty Thai food, including a whole fried fish covered with a sweet and spicy sauce. Afterwards, while the women clean up, the men sit around the table finishing off the last of the whiskey. I really like my brothers-in-law (in fact, my entire Thai family) and I think they have grown to like me. Taking in my wife’s children and helping to send them to college, has really earned me some respect chits. In addition, they seem to be really nice guys; no drunks, gamblers, or skirt-chasers as far as I can tell. I’m not surprised by this knowing the parents who raised them. Like my wife, they are very decent human beings and well respected in the community. I know some guys struggle to find a “good” Thai woman, so let me suggest you look at her family first. This bit of advice probably works not only in Thailand but in every other country as well.
During this trip, we will start the process of building our house in Thailand, which will become our permanent retirement home. This will be located on my wife’s family land, probably behind her mom’s house up in the coconut grove. That spot has a wonderful view of the sunset. I have a good knowledge of what it takes to build a house in America, as I have overseen the building of two previous houses. However, I have no idea what the process is like in Thailand. We later find that my wife’s friend at the hotel is building a new home in the area. She offers to give us a tour, which we readily accept.
The next morning we arrive at the building site and at first, it looks like it’s nothing but an old building. But as we pass the gate, I see there is a new building being added at the rear of the old. I later learn that the old building is part of a long-time family estate, now filled with old Thai furniture and other stuff. The new building is a series of five bedrooms for the parents and the adult siblings, with a large living room and kitchen in the middle. There is a covered open space between the buildings that is a walkway and party area for the family. It’s a curious design but the workmanship is really good and the building standards appear to be of western quality. As we walk around the compound, it becomes clear that this very old estate used to support the local farmers, as I notice ancient rice mills in another storage shed. Nearby there is an active coconut processing area. It seems like this family has been on this land, which stretches all the way to the beach, for many years. They have used this large swath of coastal land for a succession of rice farming, rice milling, coconut processing, and now coastal resort properties. It seems this family has been living off the land agriculturally for generations, but are now leveraging their beach access through a series of small resorts. I’m pretty sure they are fairly rich.
Later in the tour, I meet the brother of my wife’s friend, who can speak English really well, as he studied in the UK for 5 years getting a doctorate in Computer Engineering. We hit it off immediately, as we are both in the “biz” of IT. He says that after he received his undergraduate degree, he joined the staff of a Bangkok university as an instructor. Later, they approached him with a deal to pay for his doctoral program in exchange for 10 years of service as a professor. I tell him this seems like a sweet deal, as he is still a young man. I ask what his plans are after this service, and he replies with a straight face, he will retire and do nothing. Wow, I guess the family finances are in good shape. Later we talk some more about today’s technology and he seems impressed I know about some of the more edgy stuff. I blurted out I may be looking for a job soon. He said his university is always looking for foreign lecturers who were up on the latest stuff. I said maybe in three years. Interesting that that here in the wilds of southern Thailand, I am networking for a job when I move to Thailand. Never discount the value of a Thai network in Thailand.
The next day we say our good-byes to my wife’s family. This is always a sad time for me, as it may be the last time I see my wife’s mother. She is a grand lady and I will miss her when she’s gone. For the drive back to Bangkok, my sister-in-law will be doing the driving. She speaks no English but she is a very pleasant person. I believe we are going straight to the Bangkok hotel I have booked for the next two nights. However, along the way, it is decided between the sisters that we’ll be making a stop to visit my wife’s brother who lives just west of Bangkok. As I remember from past visits, he works for the Thai government as a laborer, supporting a nearby large aqueduct. Even with a salary and a provided house, he barely lives above the poverty level. However, he is married to a sweet woman and they have two gregarious children. After we arrive, we talk to the oldest daughter who has just started high school. She tells us she is determined to be an English teacher. She appears to very bright and has a wonderful smile. After we leave, my wife and I decide we will find a way to help her meet her goals.
As I have said before, my wife’s very conservative family expects no support from us. Yet, for those who want more from life than what this small community can offer, there are always family members willing to help. So it was when my wife was young, she decided early on she wanted to go to college. Through a system of help from her extended family members, she was able to attend a good high school near Prachuap Khiri Khan and later get into college at Bangkok. I know my wife sees a little of herself in her young niece and may even feel an obligation to help, sort of like paying back an old family debt. There is more to this than just her niece. If she works hard and gets into a good university, she may get a good job. She will need to, as when her parents get old, she will be responsible for their care. My wife says if we help her niece, we can also help her brother. This is how the Thai family support system works; find a way to help those who need it and deserve it.
Now back on the main highway heading towards Bangkok, our driver decides Sunday’s traffic is so bad she will never make it back to Bang Saphan Noi at a reasonable hour. She announces she will drop us off on the side of the highway, as she is sure we can catch a taxi to the hotel. What? I am numb with disbelief as I pull our bags out of the car. I look around and there is nothing but miles of traffic on the highway. There is no way we are going to find a taxi in all this mess. Incredibly, two minutes later out of the mass of cars on the highway, a taxi emerges and stops beside us. He agrees to take us all the way to our hotel, which is located in the heart of Bangkok on Soi 1. This is what I love and hate about Thailand. The chaos and uncertainty we westerners see, which can send a normal person into panic mode, is normal for most Thais. Yet they always seem to find a way through it. I imagine this calmness in chaos is a learned skill from previous years of dealing with chaotic situations. Not having this experience, I wonder if I will ever be able to develop the ability of letting go and calmly dealing with, what seems to me, the sometimes-incomprehensible Thai way of life.
In the taxi, with the sun starting to set behind us, my wife wraps her body around me in the sleepy way she does. I wonder what the next few days will hold for us. There she is sleeping soundly in the firm belief that everything will work out, while I worry if this taxi driver has any clue where our hotel is. I later decide to let it go and have faith we will make to the hotel. Now I start to sleep as well. Yet, had I known what lay ahead in the next few days, I would have been wide-awake and shaking in my sandals.
Next: Travels in Thailand 2015 – Sukhumvit and the Chao Phraya.