Thailand, The First Time, Part 1
As a regular and long-time reader, fan and infrequent contributor to the Stickman site, I am indebted to the many readers that have contributed their submissions and tales of their Thailand adventures over the years. Compulsive reading material. And with a complimentary nod towards Larry Cameron for his recent exhortation for more people to submit stories. Larry, you took the words right out of my mouth!
During the initial Covid lockdown, in Spring of 2020, I decided to do some decluttering. I have two travel boxes. One contains travel books, maps, agency brochures and the like. The other contains lots of old holiday photographs taken in the pre-digital era with real cameras and from an era when people used to actually print their photos as opposed to storing them on a memory card or hard drive that eventually becomes corrupted, lost, damaged and never seen again. It was while rummaging through these boxes that I turned up some maps and photos from my first visit to Thailand more than 20 years previously. Bangkok maps adorned with ads for tailors, gem shops, shopping malls and ladyboy shows, photos of an elephant trek in the jungles near Lampang, a rural homestay and a visit to the hill tribe people, a wet and wild group after river rafting near Chang Mai and tequila sunsets on Karon beach in Phuket. Of course there are no photos or footage from gogo bars or adult entertainment spots as they were very much forbidden back then.
As the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic continue to be felt worldwide, and with no ‘happy ending’ in sight, my thoughts still turn to Thailand occasionally and some of the good times that I’ve spent there on my travels. My first visit to Thailand was in 1999 when I was a mere 40 year-old! I didn’t realise at the time that I was visiting the Kingdom in what would become known as the golden age of Thailand. I also didn’t realise that, on reflection, I was probably living in a sort of golden age of my own at that time. Still single and on an upward career / income trajectory, living and working in a happening, capital city and an economy that was about to start booming as the Celtic Tiger began to roar. I still hadn’t met Ms. Right (although I would subsequently meet Ms. Wrong a few years later. But that’s a whole other story and not for these pages) and was young-ish, free and single. I had been developing a penchant for foreign travel over the previous decade and enjoyed exploring new horizons. Most of the great European cities with their amazing architecture, cultural attractions and highlights had been explored and ticked-off. The emerging Eastern European states such as the Baltics – Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia – The Balkans – Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro – and other interesting places such as Romania, Israel and the Czech Republic had also been ticked off my list. So Thailand and the mystical ‘Far East’ seemed like a logical and intriguing next step / new horizon.
One of the curiosities that I always enjoyed on my travels was checking out the local strip clubs or lap-dancing establishments that offered a much more exotic and risqué experience than was available back home in holy, Catholic Ireland. I always enjoyed getting a good look at and interacting with the local lovelies but in all honesty was probably more voyeur than monger and rarely indulged in ‘full service’ P4P as it seemed both tacky and risky what with HIV / AIDS still of significant concern at that time. That of course would all change once I reached Thailand where it seemed to be almost obligatory and quite acceptable / normal to indulge in the P4P frolics.
As a forty-year-old, most of my male friends were either married with children or in serious long-term relationships. The forties can be a difficult decade for single men (and women) as you adjust and leave behind some of the things that were fun to do in your youth and start to take on more responsibilities in the shape of career, property, family, health matters and so on. Meanwhile, your married / settled friends start to move off on different tracks and for them it’s all about babies and christenings, teething and schooling, birthday parties and events for small people while their wives / partners are constantly trying to match-make you up with their totally unsuitable single lady friends. You know that story well if you’ve ever been there!
For recreation I enjoyed the bars and the live music scene and balanced that by doing some jogging, hiking and I played tennis a few nights a week at my local club that had a good social scene and a good reputation for ‘boys meeting girls’. In fact legend had it that most of the lady members only joined the club to find a male partner / husband and once the trophy partner was secured they were never again seen on court or at the club! Those that were ‘still searching’ found it to be a lively and safe place to socialise. It certainly worked well for me at the time.
It strikes me that single women at that early middle age handle the transition much better than men. They are better at developing and maintaining peer networks and friendships, meeting pals both married and single for coffee, drinks, dinner and so on while single men will often become more career focused at the expense of relationships and retreat a bit socially. It can be a difficult adjustment as you try to find your age appropriate place in a changing social landscape. You don’t want to be the oldest party-goer in town or some saddo that still behaves like a teenage headless chicken while desperately trying to cling to the last vestiges of youth. The fact that the male of the species always feels like some part of them is still 25, as George Best put it so succinctly, can be both a blessing and a curse.
From travelling with friends on small group holidays in my twenties and early thirties I found that as I aged most of my travel adventures became of a solo nature. This has its upsides and downsides but I soon came to realise that the positives easily outweighed any negatives as I was free to go when and where I chose and by travelling alone was much more likely to engage and interact with other interesting and like-minded travellers. I admired greatly the single lady travellers that I saw or met on my travels as I imagined it must have required additional courage and a leap of faith for them to take off to far flung corners of the world on their own. One of my single lady friends in Dublin told me that she greatly envied my ability to travel to remote and exotic destinations on my own as she just considered it too dangerous for her.
Depending on the destination and its potential difficulties such as language, distances or transport options I would sometimes book a slot on an organised tour / itinerary that usually ensured getting to see as many of the main attractions as reasonably possible without having to waste or lose time searching for or selecting sometimes bad transport / itinerary or accommodation options in a country where I didn’t speak the language. It also provided a ready-made support system of like-minded travellers and (usually) a savvy and competent tour leader. Of course this type of option comes at a cost premium but sometimes it’s just the best way to go. I would also usually top and tail these tours by flying in to the starting point city or country a few days early to spend some time on my own, decompressing from the stresses of work and exploring the local highlights at my leisure. I would also stay a few days extra at the finishing point city, sometimes even crossing borders and travelling on to an adjacent country and flying back from that point. I think this is known as an ‘open jaw’ ticket / arrangement in the travel industry. I would certainly have my jaws opened more than a few times on my travels around Thailand.
As my travel adventures took me further afield and away from the relative safety of western and central Europe and onto the margins and peripheries of civilised society, where often English was not widely spoken, I began to realise that the travel experience became better and better the further away from home and my identity culture that I travelled. Looking back now it seems clear to me that, whereas there are numerous local and regional variations within Europe, from language to food to weather and social mores, in fact most European countries / cultures are somewhat homogenous and based on certain well established practices and principles. Europe is uniformly polite, civilised, efficient and well organised. But sometimes we crave something different. A walk on the wild side even.
And so it was in the Autumn of 1999 after yet another failed romance / relationship that I’d had high hopes for initially, I found myself in a transit lounge at Frankfurt Airport waiting to board a Lufthansa flight for Bangkok. As this was my first trip to South-East Asia – or indeed any part of Asia – I had booked my place on a ‘Highlights of Thailand, North and South’ group tour run by the Intrepid Travel Company also called ‘The Imaginative Traveller’. An excellent tour operator.
As I enjoyed a cold German beer in the transit lounge at Frankfurt while waiting for a boarding call, I was thumbing through a travel book on Thailand that a friend had lent me. Remember, the internet was still in its relative infancy at that time and smartphones had not yet been invented. I had reached the chapter that described the gigantic massage parlours on Rachadapisek Road and whereas this was a ‘general attractions’ tourist manual, the book’s author extolled the reader to go and see / experience these parlours for themselves. There was no mention of the extra services that would be available in them or the fact that there would be precious little actual massaging occurring in these soapy palaces but regardless, my interest was piqued. A friendly German guy sitting near me spotted me studying my travel guide and asked me if this was my first time to visit Thailand to which I nodded. He began to tell me about his experiences there and told me that he had been visiting for the past 20 years. I was astounded at this revelation as at that stage of my life I was firmly of the view that it was best to keep seeking new pastures for my travel adventures and not keep returning to the same place(s). I would always ask the question after each overseas trip: ‘Would I come back here?’ To which, the answer was invariably yes (with the exception of Finland!) but the more pertinent question of ‘Will I come back here?’ was usually answered with a more vague sense of ‘Maybe – if time and finances permit. And maybe after I’ve been to all of the other places on my travel wish list.’ In other words, when I have satisfied my wanderlust to visit so many other new and exciting places.
My new transit lounge friend went on to tell me about the time he brought a Thai lady to Germany on a visit visa for three months but then sent her back as long-term commitment was not for him. Even then, with my limited knowledge of Thailand and its lovely ladies, I thought this a little strange. However on mature reflection and with the benefit of many subsequent visits to Thailand, I guess I can maybe better understand his thinking now. Not every man is the marrying / long-term partner type. And with the availability of so many Thai lovelies once you are in the Kingdom, then why restrict yourself. Clearly my German friend had found a formula that worked for him but one which I didn’t really understand at the time. Over the years I have seen more than a few Stickman submissions where the writers advocate keeping the ladies at a distance. Pay them for a service and treat them well but don’t get emotionally involved. Sometimes that’s more easily said than done. After all, you may well have shared the most intensely intimate of life experiences with a stranger and it’s not really human nature to just walk away and forget all about it. Part of me admires the guys that (claim to) do that and part of me wonders how is that even possible? Probably a theme for a separate submission that I may come back to.
Anyway, the Lufthansa boarding call was made and my German friend and I bade each other good luck. I would never see him again but was grateful to him for sharing his pointers, experiences and non-judgemental, man of the world observations.
If you enjoyed this submission then tune in for part two shortly when I will write about the culture shock of my arrival in Bangkok, a classic Thailand newbie mistake, a recurring theme / problem and the highlights of my tour of Northern Thailand.
The author of this article cannot be contacted.