Earth Calling Bangkok
“First time you come Thailand?” It’s Bangkok airport, and my cab driver is the chatty type. “No. I’ve been here before. I love Thailand.” “Oh, thank you, thank you! How many time, you come Thailand?” I am jet-lagged and dizzy enough to need to count on my fingers. “Seven?” I’m guessing. It might be six. I have lived in sweet, lovely Scotland for seven years, and every winter I go somewhere very, very hot. This wonderful luck is now at an end, and this trip is my last hurrah. “You holiday? Or you business?”
“Both. Some holiday, some business.” Both things used to be true. This time I’m not sure. “Good-good! Have fun, make money. Good-good.” If only. For now, “so-so” will do. “Where your husband?” “What?” “Only you?” “Yes. Only me.” “Oh.” No “good-good” this time. He has his doubts. I bloody do, too. Two months ago, my partner of many years announced it was all over, out of the blue. Amidst the immediate devastation emerges a practical question: What do we do with the air tickets to Thailand we bought months before, just like we’ve done for years? He’s going anyway, itinerary unchanged. Someone writes to sympathise with me about the end of the relationship and for having to stay at home. What? I sob at the very idea. It’s out of the question. I’ve done business there for years, after all. I have every right to go – even though I’m almost broke and my business sold next to nothing last year. Why go on a business trip when clearly there’s no business to do? I have no idea. Therefore I go. While I hesitate to do something I’ll regret
it’s worse to think I’ll regret not even trying. So I decide to try. Or rather, to paraphrase Bart Simpson, “I can’t promise I’ll try, but I promise I’ll try to try.” I change the departure date, abandon the itinerary and focus on creating a new one. All I know is that suddenly – within less than a year – I have no income, no business prospects or obvious abilities, ongoing poor health, no close family, a cold and damp house filled with frogs and slugs which I really must vacate, and then, when all its heating shut down and I had nowhere to stay in freezing winter, this is exactly when my beloved partner of seven years announced he doesn’t do bad times, and ended it with a note. Best of all, it is the start of the winter of 2008. The year in which the entire UK is just waking up to the realisation that this is not just a recession: this will be a long, tough one. I’m not usually rash, but on absorbing this latest bit of world financial news, I go straight to my bank and empty my savings account – all two thousand pounds. The clerk raises her eyebrows but I don’t care. I change the ticket to open-ended – and would have made it one-way if that were cheaper. Would I rather be miserable in frozen Scotland, or miserable in the tropics? At this point in time I am too confused to know. Thank goodness some great invisible magnet pulls me in the right direction, by which I mean any direction away from where I am. If it has to be a grieving season, at least in the tropics you can weep at night and thousands of cicadas will join you. In daylight, tears wash away when you swim, when you sweat, when mango juice dribbles down your chin. You’re always dripping wet in the tropics. What’re a few tears thrown in? The cabbie turns up the radio, bringing me back to now. Sugary pop music chirps away. It’s a high-pitched Asian version of the Osmond family, only sweeter if that’s possible. It’s such a happy, pinky-girly accompaniment to my downfall, as I see it, that for irony’s sake, if nothing else, I thought I should buy the single. We crawl towards the city centre, into the dense, vast jungle that is Bangkok rush hour – oozing like molasses, and shimmering in the blinding heat. This is going to take a while. The cabbie starts humming.
Fruit Guy and Other Reunions
“Home!” says the taxi driver. “Madam. Wake, wake. Home.” “What?” “Home. You home.” Oh, home. The old neighbourhood. An alley of nondescript, low-budget, cheap-but-cheerful guesthouses. These are not rock bottom accommodation but more lowish mid-range, which means adapted Thai food but European toilets. I’ve only been here a few times, but it’s familiar. Home-away-from-home. Every little shred of familiarity is a comfort.
We turn the final corner, off the mega-boulevard and, oh joy of joys: Fruit Guy lives! I am so pleased he’s working the same corner as always. He’s senior street vendor on this patch. Every year I buy fruit from him. It’s the first really proper, luscious tropical fruit of my year. This has been a favourite since, as a child, I drew pictures of coconut palms, and there aren’t many of those in New Jersey. Fruit Guy is at least eighty, but I want to believe he’s a hundred and fifty. Extremely skinny, he’s nothing but wire, and tough as old boots. Long, white, wispy goatee, flip-flops and shorts, backwards baseball cap, and no shirt. I have never seen him in a shirt. He may not even own one. He doesn’t speak a word of English, and I hope he never does. He will be my first port of call, after I check in. Check-in is a terribly sweet affair. The staff are mostly the same. I remember most of them. Some even remember me, and welcome me back. I remember how to say “hello” in Thai. They praise this and giggle, and I protest and giggle, and we all love this game. It’s like applauding a dog doing party tricks. It amuses them, another new dancing dog. Miss Main Receptionist bows and bestows. upon me, as one of their sacred returning customers, the privilege of not having to pay in advance. This is unusual and I am highly honoured. I bow back, incorrectly. She changes the subject diplomatically. “Single room OK? Where your husband?” This is going to happen again and again, and I am going to have to get used to it. I take a deep breath. “This time I am travelling alone.” “Oh,” she says gently, kindly changing the subject again. Later that afternoon, I’ve showered and powdered myself into a summer dress I haven’t
touched for twelve months. Now it’s imperative I stay awake until bedtime, which should rocket me forward eight hours, if I’m lucky. Time for a stroll. See that old gang of mine, down Foodie Alley. It sounds like a 1950s radio comedian. “At eight o’clock: Foodie Alley, in Don’t Touch that Plate.” Let me tell you what I love about Fruit Guy. A few streets away, tourists buy fruit from exquisitely constructed pyramid displays, each one sculpted into intricate, filigree rosettes. More functional offerings are the pre-cut packages, with a small bag of dipping mix (sugar, salt, chilli). With my guy, minimalism rules. Gritty old card tables support fruit displayed plain and simple, straight onto newspaper, while he reads a fresh newspaper seated on a plastic beach chair. He always keeps odd bits of fruit to one side to throw in free extras if he wants. They might be from yesterday, but they’re always fine. He chucks them in as a parting shot with not exactly a wink, but a discreet nod, and a look that could come from somewhere between your guru and your granddad. He sets up when he likes and goes home when he feels like it, which is my idea of a perfect business.
There are over ten different varieties of banana in Thailand. I start with my favourites, “finger-bananas”, delightful little fellows. There are twenty or thirty of them to a bunch, reminiscent of plantain but with a tanginess all their own. I add mangoes, and he adds a free orange. Mangoes come in many varieties – and all stages of ripeness. I pass on the crunchy, tart green ones, and instead go for the luscious softies, the ones they use for “sticky rice and mango” – a dessert for which I would faint in homage. I get four, then six, and he throws in another orange.
The Coconut Trip
The plan is to visit a group who make arts and crafts out of old coconut shells and wood. They are called the Padang Coconut Products Group, from a small town called Padang Besar in Songkla province near the south-east coast of Thailand, not far from Malaysia. I am to meet Soo, my Thai exporter and translator. She has a typically lengthy Thai name, and Soo is my shorthand. We’re booked on the afternoon train down south, which will travel all through the night. I’ve not been on many sleeper trains, and still think it’s a game. I’m smiling, thinking it’s like a scene out of Some Like It Hot. Unlike most places, trains here are often slower than buses. Bangkok is more of a boat and bus town. The main train station is touchingly small, with a huge TV screen jumping with female kickboxing, its rapt audience sitting in front of a hundred picnics on mats. Our train is the next to depart. The queue fizzes with all the excitement that precedes an extra-long journey, the kind that takes days. Our train terminates in Malaysia, and there are plenty of people in Muslim dress in the queue. I suppose they are a mix of Thais, Malaysians, and other
nationalities, judging by the variety of skin tones and facial types. This is a side of Thailand that I have not seen before. Muslims in Thailand make up about 3 or 4% of a 95% Buddhist country. The few locals I’ve spoken to refer to their minority religion neighbours in a nervous, embarrassed way. It reminds me of 1960’s American whites talking about “Coloureds” and “Negroes”, insisting some of their best friends were, but you wouldn’t want to marry one, and that sort of thing. There’s plenty in the press about a few extremists sullying the reputation of thousands of peaceful, industrious and studious people. I don’t see any white tourists in this queue. There is a young school party, mostly Muslim. They’re peering at the train, trading snacks, playing games, and itching to go. We get the signal to board and find our places. Our seats are filled with a large, chubby Buddhist monk stretched out and snoring, dressed in traditional orange robes with the usual shaved head and lack of baggage. There is general hesitation about waking him. No one wants to poke a monk. Females must never touch them, for any reason. Soo gets the
guard, who gently shoves him with some friendly chat. The monk wakes, shunts over to the seats opposite, and grins at me. “Good morning!” he bellows heartily. It’s nearly evening. “Hello.” “Good morning!” he snaps with a sort of mad authority. I switch to his clock, dialect and world view. “Good morning,” I agree. “Where you go?” “Padang Besar. And you? Going home?” His face falls like a child’s. “No,” he answers glumly, “I go back to the monastery.” He’s as miserable as a kid after the school holidays. Most of our carriage is filled with Chinese Malaysians. They boarded in groups of twos and threes, but quickly introduce themselves to each other and merge into one large swell. By the time the train leaves the station, twenty of their bubbliest members are cackling around one table as if at a family reunion. They are unbelievably noisy, their eruptions, shrieks and screams painfully ear-piercing. Everyone else is cringing. The Thais show great forbearance. I sense there could be historical references here, but I am not privy to them.
High Ground Above a Tsunami
The next leg of our journey looks short on the map, but it isn’t. In the spirit of Italy’s boot, and the UK’s begging dog, we are down the southern end of Thailand’s dangling elephant trunk. We need to traverse from one side of the trunk to the other – east coast to west coast – along a sharp diagonal: on small roads, with several bus changes. This will take all day and part of the evening too. I wasn’t aware of this at the time, and that’s just as well. Our destination is Kaolak, in Pangha Province on Thailand’s south-west coast. It’s just north of its more famous neighbours, Phuket, Krabi and Pipi, and the other darlings of the jet-setting beautiful beach people. At first glance, there is far more money on this coast than on the other. I read there’s also more rain, more lush scenery, more Muslims, more tourism, and more inflation. The small town of Kaolak suffered 90% of the damage done to Thailand by the 2004 tsunami. In a way, my entire trip revolved around this fact. If I’d stayed home in Scotland this year, the main local event, besides Christmas (which I have to fight fierce opposition not to celebrate), was the twentieth anniversary of the Lockerbie air crash, which happened just before Christmas 1988. Instead I rescheduled my trip to Thailand. A non-Christian does quite well in a predominantly Buddhist country, after all – in general and especially at Christmas time. Also, the Thai tsunami happened just after Christmas. I’ve been trading with a tsunami survivors’ group called Saori, but have never had the chance to meet them. Maybe now is the time, on the anniversary of their loss, and their founding. If they can get through that, I can get through this. I did not tell them my personal troubles, but we made contact and they were happy to receive me. I decided to spend Christmas and New Year in the tsunami zone, and build the rest of the trip around that. Thus a shaky new itinerary was born. So that is why I’m in the Hat Yai bus station, waiting with Soo on an open-air bench next to two monks who look like ex-cons. Make no mistake, a tiny percentage of them are ex-cons. They span the gamut of drink, drugs, crime, prison and who knows what else, and then – in a last ditch effort – they show up at a monastery’s door with nothing to lose but their hair. Good luck to them. In this particular case, the younger one smokes his cigarette out the side of a tough scowl. He’s rubbing his calves, which are covered in tattoos of knives, blood, and images of violence. The older monk looks like the thug who taught Junior everything he knows. Uncle Thug and Junior Thug-in-training. Across from me sits a girl in a cap with the glittery slogan “Christian Audio” above a picture of three flaming skulls in a heavy metal style. Below the skulls is the caption, “All You Need Is Love”. Other than this, she and they look quite normal. I decide to take a walk around the block. I buy a cold drink and terrible snacks from a lovely man so eager to speak English that it’s absolutely touching. I want to talk to him and his entire family all day, and possibly move in with them. On the way back, I pass the “Brilliant Progress Company” and wonder what kind of brilliant progress they provide.
We get loaded into a minibus, which takes us to the main bus, and somewhere along that long hot day we change buses again. We wait in a little roadside café, full of various Thai people trying to assist a mad-looking, badly sunburned Italian. He’s dressed entirely in fluorescent colours that match his luggage. Many items he’s wearing have price tags hanging off them. Perhaps he’s been selling things all day on a market stall with no hat? He wants directions to an island no one has heard of. No one can find it on his map, either. There’s a bit of froth at the side of his mouth and he seems delirious. People start backing away.
Plummeting Down a Cultural Divide
Cripes, I’m on my own now. It’s only a short bus ride today to the town of Bang-Niang along a dusty two-lane coast road. I’m on a local bus, which is not a bus. It’s much more fun. It’s what they call a song-taew, which means two benches. It’s a kind of pickup truck with two long benches in the back facing each other, covered by a tough metal canopy and roof rack. There’s a climb-up ladder at the back, which young lads hang off while we travel at high speeds, as they shouldn’t. These vehicles ply a flexible route, go where people need to go, let customers on and off at will,and it’s a fraction of the cost of a taxi – if you can explain yourself to the driver. That’s a big if, for most visitors. This one is typically filled with locals and shopping. As usual, everyone’s nice about squeezing in one more person and one more bag. There’s the usual curious but cute glance or two. As usual, if I smile at this point, everyone smiles back, and then we settle back into private thoughts again. If I say hello to any child – especially in Thai – this always scores a hit and often starts a chat, but today I am subdued. In terms of our map of Thailand as an elephant’s head, we are continuing north, up the west side of its dangling trunk, heading to its chin. I will stop in the town where the tsunami memorial will take place tomorrow, on what they call Boxing Day back in Britain. I don’t know anywhere else that calls it that. I think it’s to do with masters giving an annual treat to the servants, but this wasn’t on my UK citizenship exam. This bit of coast used to house some of the ritziest resorts in Thailand, and in many places it still does. Wrought iron gates guard white beaches and heavenly gardens that are filled with white people trying to brown themselves. They are beautifully well served by troops of graceful brown people who often cover themselves from head to toe, in an effort to whiten themselves. We are a strange species. I can only add that the local pharmacy sells “Nipple Whitening Cream”, and other cosmetics promising similar bleaching properties. It’s difficult, in fact, to find any toiletries without “whiteners” anywhere in this nation.
Soon these resorts become fewer and further between, and then there is nothing but thick jungle, until we arrive in the next conurbation, Bang-Niang. This looks like the place where tourists go if they cannot afford Kaolak, the last place I visited. It is not a gardened, palm-studded boulevard. It is a fast-moving highway, surrounded by a hodgepodge of small businesses and a lot of uneven, cracked concrete, with the din of high-speed trucks in the background. It reminds me of London’s North Circular Road but with sunshine, or New Jersey’s Route 22 but with palm trees.
No matter where you go in most of tourist Thailand, you will probably be dropped off at one of the ubiquitous Seven-Elevens, or “Seven” as it’s called here. If you are looking for any sort of bus stop or taxi rank, or anything really, like street vendors or drug dealers, you simply proceed to the nearest Seven. This may not take even thirty seconds. Sometimes there are two branches at either end of one block, or so it seems. I drag my things off the truck and into a clutter of concrete and dust, populated by covered-up Thais and all-too-uncovered fat Europeans. This is my destination. Merry Christmas.
In front of me are the Seven and the road to the sea. Behind me on Terrible Highway is something in a bilious, nauseating green called Motel Reg. I yank out the handle of my pull-along suitcase,suitcase, put the motel and the highway behind me, and trundle down Seven Street towards the water. It’s not far to the Welcome Guesthouse, pre-booked for me by colleagues, and it’s very easy to find because it is vividly festooned with alternating garlands of German and Swiss flags. OK, it’s late afternoon, and I am not shopping around for places now. This will do for tonight. I venture in and meet the German husband and Thai wife who run the place. There’s a mix-up with my name. They recognise it, but for some reason were expecting an English man and are confused at getting me instead. This is OK, they decide. I can have his room since he didn’t show up, and is also fictitious.
Trying to Try to Get Ready to Get Ready
This is the first cogent sentence to traverse my brain upon waking. “Just go,” it repeats. “Just go. Just look, just listen. Just go!” In no time, I am packed and ready to pay and go, but no one is up at the Welcome Guesthouse. They are a Stay Up Late Place and therefore not a Breakfast Place. No signs of life until lunch, I expect. No send-off coffee, not a noodle in sight, all deathly calm. Eventually Niece Helper shuffles in and adds up my bleary bill. By the way, I never had that cola. I never would. I hate the stuff and all it stands for. But I want to go, so I pay. I treat whoever it was that drank the evil brew. She sweetly unlocks the back gate to let me out, locks it behind me, and I hope she goes straight back to bed.
I trundle along Terrible Highway for a few blocks: past a lawyer, an internet place, several travel agencies, and a row of noodle joints, then turn down Sweet Mango Alley. It’s bumpy and rutted, and strewn with building rubble. I long for a travelling bag with both rolling wheels and rucksack straps, as if I could lift that now! Old Faithful has been with me a long time. I bump up to the Fair House breakfast porch. Two laid-back Dutch biker couples are finishing an English breakfast prepared by Sister Mango and Younger Cousin Mango, both of whom are very cheerful. Instant coffee is produced instantly, and my breakfast put on the grill. Too bad it’s English. They’re puzzled to be asked about rice vegetable soup, two beautiful bowls of which steam to one side, but to which I am not entitled. Younger Cousin gets the key and my bags while I dine amongst the tattooed. I’m feeling better already.
Sister remembers my question from the other night and produces a hand-drawn map to the Boat Park. She also gives me a small leaflet detailing the day’s events, mostly in Thai but with a few bits in English. She explains that the public memorial ceremony will not be on the beach this year, as it was in the past, because now the entire beach is owned by a string of private hotels. There is no public beach left. The hotels jointly decided the bereaved could relocate. Perhaps it might interfere with the cooking time of their pink, roasting customers. She did not say that last bit. In the morning is a private wreath-laying ceremony for those directly involved. After lunch, the area is open to the public. The main presentations are in the evening. This means I have time to settle into my new gaff, get ready, and even go look for a sun hat. I faint without them, so I need to do this early in the day. A scorcher is already in the making. Soon I am fortified with greasy eggs and dry white bread. I’m ready.For research purposes only, I wander through the lanes to the sea and find various simple hats for five and six pounds. I try a big place on Terrible Highway and see a straw one I rather like. He wants ten pounds. I turn to go. He runs after me, grabbing my shoulder and spinning me around, demanding, “How much you pay? How much you pay?” This is very uncharacteristic of Thai sales people; in fact, completely out of character. Then I see he is not Thai. I do not like being grabbed by strangers so I exit quickly. I pass by later and still like the hat, but can’t hand my money to that sort of behaviour. One of the reasons I come here is because, by and large, people behave beautifully to their guests. Even to the worst of the idiots. Now it’s getting hot and I need cheap hat advice. I go back to the guesthouse and find both Sister and Cousin folding laundry. They ask where I’ve been, as Thais love to do – “Where you go?” I tell them, adding that I can’t find a simple cheap hat and I don’t like Seven (neither do they). Younger goes inside and comes out with a hat to lend. What a sweetie. The hat is unusual. It is extravagantly wide-brimmed, with a lavish, long ribbon, all in frothy bridesmaid pink.
After the Deluge
That evening, the return to the Boat Park has a completely different feel. The light is just starting to soften. It’s merely intensely humid and hot, instead of suffocatingly humid and hot. There are three seasons here: hot, very hot, and hot and wet. There is no “not hot”, except at the top of a mountain that’s way up north. The crowd steadily trickles in with a feeling of anticipation. It’s that buzz of a special occasion. Gone is the strolling gait. People are walking with intent. Some are very dressed up, as if for church or temple, but not everyone, and there is certainly no feeling that it matters. There is a remarkable cross-section of human beings taking part. Many small groups seem to cling to each other. There isn’t really very much talk from group to group, but there are many tiny glances, hints of smiles, and warm looks of sympathy, however subtle, from every passer-by to the next. There are hundreds and hundreds of them, all affected somehow by this event. All these people who do not know each other have something extraordinary in common. The boat has now been fully strung with white lights. Next to the main stage gather all the groups who will perform: several squads of dancers, the Navy jazz band, and several school groups too. Chairs are filling up. The media boys finally have more to do, and they are covering ground, just like me and a lot of other people. I love photography, especially this kind – on the hoof. There are dozens of us. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s a professional with national TV or newspapers, and who are the well-heeled dads using a broadcast quality family camcorder. The entire event is going to be very well preserved from every possible angle. It is interesting to see there are clearly some Thais are on a higher economic plane than their neighbours. I aim to write whatever I can about this event, and yet am haunted by not being exactly sure why I’m here. I’ve often been advised to be a journalist, but I could never report news. I could never be objective enough. However, as celebrated war correspondent Martha Gellhorn once said, “Forget all that objectivity crap.” Just say what you see. Tell the story that’s right in front of you. OK, this I can do. This I can at least try to try to do. So I, too, circle the area again and again from every possible angle, taking notes on paper and tape and clicking away. The media hounds
can plainly see I am not “properly” covering the event, but am at best some wannabe “freelancer”, i.e. an unemployed writer, which is true. The families, on the other hand, clearly think I am a pro, which could be due to the sheer heft of the camera. When they hear English, they say, “Are you BBC?” I used to work there as a sound editor, but not now. “No, I am not BBC”, I tell them. I am independent (unemployed). Here’s how I tell everybody apart. The real media guys are in jeans and tee shirts. Dads are in smart dress trousers and white pressed shirts. Whereas earlier in the afternoon I was in a yellow and pink Muslim bridesmaid ensemble, now it’s dark and I lost the hat. The new fashion statement is Not Mad Just Odd. The main banner is in English, with Thai and Japanese subtitles. Most of the speeches are in Thai: speech upon speech upon speech, by local officials, event organisers, the Education Minister, the local Mayor, all herded on and off by two pretty female presenters. There is no shortage of speakers. On they pour like ants. By now kids are playing up and the rest of the spectators have begun to chat lightly amongst themselves. I think it’s sort of a given, some evenings are full of speeches that aren’t meant to be heard, but tolerated with due respect.
There are traditional dance groups with beautiful sarongs, fabulous gold headdresses and elaborate make-up, rotating their graceful wrists like unfolding lotus petals. The cool big band from the Thai Navy does loads of jazz classics extremely well, mostly early bebop. The King of Thailand is a great fan of jazz music, is himself a fine saxophonist, and has even released an album playing his own compositions. I’m sure people have tried to get him to jam with Bill Clinton. I’d certainly like to think so.
There is now the religious blessing, which is conducted by representatives of the three different faiths. Each group in turn sends their speaker to intone a prayer and then join the delegation in a song. I did not understand any of the languages they used, but the sound of prayer and chanting is remarkably similar. As for the songs, I’d say that musically speaking (and I do mean purely musically speaking) the Muslims rocked, the Buddhists grooved, and the Christians were slightly limp and lacklustre. They, at least, had a few women participants – and were the only group that did – but the lonely Kumbaya style guitar and struggling warble was just plain painful. I don’t know any other job where you have to sing in public even if you really cannot sing. It isn’t fair to anyone.