Daily Archives: May 2, 2006

Finally: beyond the airport…

In Mid-April I finally got beyond the transit lounge of Bangkok International Airport. I’d been in the airport several times, but always on the way to someplace else. I’d been preparing for several months for this visit to the family of a friend in North-West Ang Thong province. But I still had misgivings. Could I cope with Thailand in the hot season after a New Zealand autumn? Could I cope with the food? The bathrooms? Would anyone understand my Thai?

A short flight from Hong Kong, but a world away in atmosphere. Just boarding the Thai Airways plane had a soothing effect. The runways and the transit lounge looked familiar. There’s an annoying space on the immigration form for a visa number. I don’t need a visa but I hate leaving blanks on a form! Looking at the “Address in Thailand” box I realised that I didn’t know where I was going! “Just write ‘Bangkok’” my friend advised. The immigration officer made no comment.

Out of the building and into a pickup. The heat was not as bad as I feared; it might be 35C but at least it’s not particularly humid. The expressway could be anywhere: are we in LA, Beijing, or Brazil yet? Bangkok was out there in distance somewhere, but this is the closest that I got on this trip. Next time…

I did a lot of research for this trip, including watching a lot of movies, and I drove a little in Malaysia in the 1990s. So once we got beyond the expressway the towns and roads were much as I expected. The drivers seemed a little crazy at first, but nothing as harrowing as I’ve seen in India or China.

My halting Thai at least made a good impression on my hosts. But I started to realise that just knowing a few greetings does not allow much exchange of information.

Since it was late afternoon we stopped at Ayuthaya for a little sightseeing and dinner. One thing that struck me was how small it was. And it hadn’t registered that brick would be so prevalent in the old ruins.

We spent some time at Wat Phanan Choeng, which, according to the guide book, features a 19m Buddha. It’s certainly neck-straining and stunning. I was pleased that I’d spent some time at the local Thai wat back in New Zealand, so I knew what to do with the incense and gold leaf that were thrust at me.

The next stop was a restaurant on the river, opposite a mosque (right-hand picture), which I didn’t anticipate. The food was even better than I expected. I’ve had good Thai food in Hong Kong but there’s nothing like being in the right place, with the right ingredients. My hosts were impressed that I didn’t pass out from eating the tom yam. Luckily I’d been practicing for this for months by cooking with lots of chilli.

One of my overwhelming impressions of Thailand is the amount of food I was persuaded to consume and how wonderful it all was. I eventually developed a self-defence response: the command “gin” would trigger “im laa-ou” from me.

We planned to come back and do the dinner cruise when the city is lit up at night, and I wanted see a few more temples, but in the end it didn’t work out. “Next time” was a recurring thought during my ten days in Thailand.

It was dark by the time we got “home” and I remembered that this was the tropics, and this was countryside. It was nice to see stars, even if they were somewhat unfamiliar.

Stories….. From The Hot Season!

Guess you hadn’t noticed anyway, but I decided to take a short vacation from blogging and concern myself with ‘earning some proper cash’. What the heck, do as the Romans do and follow in the steps of Thai teachers who spend their school summer holidays teaching privates 10 hours a day at home. Not a bad job – earns an annual bonus equivalent to that of working for some fancy international company in Bangkok…..Oh well, maybe not!

So, howabout a blog of all sorts to start off the blogging season again?

Contrary to what the English language says, Thailand doesn’t really have much of a difference in seasons! You may be taught when you first arrive that there is a ‘cold season’, a ‘rainy season’ and a ‘hot season’. Shivermetimbers, but I gotta admit that I’ve never exactly been ‘that’ cold in Thailand, except perhaps for the times of being subjected to some Antartic-like below-zero air-conditioning on some overnight bus headed out of Bangkok’s Northern Bus Terminal.

Instead, Thailand prides itself in three seasons which ought to be more articulately named ‘pretty hot’, ‘rather rainy hot’ and of course….’darned hot’. Who am I to complain though? Certainly beats the seasons one finds in the likes of…..London. Now, most westerners on coming to Thailand usually have a problem with the heat at any time of the year, and can be witnessed prodding along the streets with a handkerchief stuck to their head, wearing a wringing t-shirt and sweatingly smelling to the heavens.

So, back to some serious blogging and how about a quick briefing on the lively events which have taken the country by storm…..or not! Now, what a fantastic month, April was – for elections! Just when you thought you had had enough of General Elections, we had General Election By-Elections, Senator Elections and some more frivolous elections at the end of the month for some local law-abiding local councilors. Not exactly fine times for the tax payer! Then, we had Farang-orientated Pattaya bar-beer owners up in arms cause every election meant that they couldn’t sell any alcohol for 36 hours at time! Of course this is not the first time when Farang bar owners or even tourists for that matter, have been brandishing such ‘temporary prohibition of alcohol’ as “What the heck have the elections gotta do with me? Just gimme a beer man!”

After the not so exciting General Elections which saw the reigning party battling its wits against other backstreet previously unknown political parties such as the ‘Farming Party’, ‘No Debt Party’ and ‘Be Moral Person Party’ the nation set itself ready for the ………Senator Elections. Just ask any old Thai person to the likes of “What does a senator in Thailand do?” to which you will be rewarded with some stumped look as if you just came down from planet Mars. Not only does no-one know (including myself) what the Upper Senate’s actual does besides opening now and then, but this year the public didn’t have a clue to whom half the senate-wannabes were.
Not much of a surprise really when the only way the hopefuls were allowed to promote themselves was by putting up pictures of themselves along the main roads!

What a great way for the electorate to decide on which candidate to vote for! Walk around, look at all the election billboards and decide which picture looks most worthy of running the country! At the end of the day, having a fancy/well-known name – sufficed winner yet again and the majority of the population could only decipher which candidate to choose from by their surname, something along the lines of “I remember his old man was a politician once, that surname rings a bell, let me vote for him!” How can you blame the folks however, when the laws regarding self-promotion are almost non-existent.

The only folks to make money from all these elections were the happy-smiling garbage collectors. Just waiting for the election booths to close, the garbage girls and guys were running around their local constituencies snatching up as billboards as they could possibly retrieve and selling them to garbage collection companies at 3 baht a piece. Not a bad money-making scheme actually, when you consider that places like Bangkok were plagued with literally hundreds of thousands of the things.

Talking about garbage collectors, I can’t think of any other career opportunity which has grown with such immense popularity over the years. Don’t get me wrong, I think these people have done wonders for the country, especially after the local authorities had failed to notice just how grubby looking a lot of the places were. In fact, there are so many garbage collectors now in Thailand that there is a lot of competition which has led to some bitter rivalry. Living at my school before, I was constantly asked by the school’s cooks/cleaners “When are you gonna chuck your garbage out? Don’t forget to save all the bottles for me!” Due to their eagerness, I just got into the habit of throwing the contents of my bin onto the balcony and let them sort through it all. I wasn’t so stupid too, advising them to “Do us a favour please, and mop the balcony after”

I must admit, that I haven’t always been too chuffed with the antics of the local garbage collectors. Just a few weekends ago at the back of me school, I sat down with the Bangkok Post and a big beer to enjoy the peacefulness of a Sunday afternoon. Half way through me beer, I decided that it was time for a snack of some potato chips, and left me seat for the short walk to the nearest convenience store. Thinking nothing of it, I left me bevvie next to my half finished bottle. In less than 3 minutes I was back and to my complete aghast, I sees the local hairy-moustached Indian garbage collector pouring out the contents of my beer onto the ground while folding up my newspaper to toss into his garbage cart! Seeing me approaching he apologetically replied to the likes of “Oooh, I am being very very sorry, I am thinking you already have finished”

Now, I don’t mind the local Indian population in Thailand, I think they are fun. To this, I mean the Indian immigrants who have come over from India in the past few years to make a better life for themselves. Most can speak Thai pretty well, but their accent is pretty difficult to understand. So, what is the occupation of these immigrants, you may ask? Not really garbage collecting. Firstly, there are the ‘nut vendors’, probably the lowest paid job of all. There have been reports however, that some of them who sell their nuts to Farangs in the bar areas of Soi Nana/Bkk and Pattaya have made a small fortune knocking them off at 10 times the local price.

Next, we have the ‘roti vendors’. Thais enjoy the odd roti but unlike the Indian version, the Thais prefer theirs saturated in sweet-condensed milk and 8 tablespoons of sugar. There are quite a few Thai ‘roti vendors’ around, but just ask the locals and they will tell you that even the Thai can’t make a roti as delicious as the Indian immigrants. Talking about corrupting the old roti – it has been with the advent of backpackers over the past decade or so, that the population is now scoffing egg roti, pineapple roti, jam roti, banana roti and chocolate roti.

Finally, we have the affluent ‘money-lending’ Indians. The authorities have severely cracked down on their operations over the past 2-3 years, arresting half of them and deporting them back to India – but they are still around. Not exactly loved by the local Thais, they lend out money at extortionate rates of interest. The most popular sum being 20%. Quite a cheek these Indian money-lenders have though, when most of them are here on a tourist-visa!