The Long Journey Home

I ran into one of those travel perfect storms on my way back from the Land of Smiles (LOS). I misjudged Friday rush hour traffic on the conservative side and ended up at the airport three hours before my flight. I was promptly told upon check in that the flight was delayed three hours which meant a nice six hours of my last day in paradise in the damned airport. I make the best of it and grab a meal and wander about watching hundreds of my fair skinned brethren sadly and reluctantly making their way back to their countries of origin.

The flight is supposed to arrive at midnight in Hyderabad and I have a 2am Lufthansa flight back to Frankfurt. It’s close, especially since HYD doesn’t have the infrastructure to check your bags through to their final destination and I will have to re-check in, but I think I can make it.

Unfortunately, my bags are one of the very, very last bags off the carousel. In all, I’ve waited for my bags a good 45 minutes after clearing immigration which was a half hour unto itself. As I try to leave the airport I am stopped and told that I must have my bags scanned by customs. This is basically a shakedown as they aren’t really concerned about drugs or weapons or some other illicit item being smuggled into the country (that would be easy enough to do by crossing the border from Pakistan). No, this is a way to catch those filthy little buggers who might wish to go to another country and bring back something that the Indian government can tax.

They scan my luggage and in my checked bag I had put my digital SLR which drew great attention. The guy kept insisting that it was a video camera despite telling him several times that it was a regular digital camera and I can assure him that it has enough dings and scuffs that if he wanted to me to open my bag I could prove this wasn’t purchased anytime recently. Eventually I am told I can go and glance at my watch whereby I see that it is about 2:20 and unless there’s been a major delay of my connecting flight I am stuck in Hyderabad for the night.

But being stuck in Hyderabad for the night was wishful thinking because when I check with Lufthansa they tell me that they can’t get me on the flight for tomorrow either as it’s booked solid. Best bet would be to shoot for the Monday 2:15am flight which has me in Hyderabad over the weekend. Argh! I mean, spend the weekend in Hyderabad or stay in Bangkok and fly out on Monday . . . hmmmm, if only I had known several hours ago that I would be in this situation.

So I ended up getting home Monday 9pm at night. Of course, that wasn’t to go smoothly either. When I boarded the plane in Frankfurt after a 7 hour layover we get to the runway and then the pilot comes on and says that a fault light had come on in engine number one and they had to go back and see if they could fix it. They can’t fix it so we have to get on another plane. Total waiting time on the tarmac: 3 hours.

I arrive back at my apartment exhausted after travelling for some insane number of hours. I put my electronic key into the front gate of my building and . . . nothing. I have to wait until someone comes home to get into the building.

But now I’m home. In my jet-lagged idle moments I’ve thrown together a list of random moments from my trip that I hadn’t mentioned previously.

Looking for a job

There’s an older farang (Westerner) guy who sits out on Sukhumvit most nights like the beggars. He’s a clean cut guy and his little cardboard sign says he’s looking for work in construction or oil. Not sure what happened to the guy but it’s one of those things that seems strange even in Bangkok. I’ve had several Thai people mention him to me so even for them seeing a farang beggar seems to be pretty unique.

Father of the Year

During a conversation about the strange farang on Sukhumvit one person told me about a farang guy in her village in Kohn Kaen (farming country in the Isaan province). She says he’s a middle-aged guy who has two kids and a small house. He does back-breaking physical labor and will take any job he can get. She said she had spoken to him and he told her that his Thai wife split on him and took most of his money and left him with the house and two kids. He said he thought it was important that his kids appreciate their Thai culture so he ruled out moving back to the West until they were both older. She said he was one of the first farangs she ever met and thought he must have a really good heart to put up with those conditions just so his kids could stay near their grandparents and learn the Thai culture.

Personally, I’m not sure I buy the whole culture thing. Maybe it’s true and maybe it isn’t. There’s a lot of reasons a guy might not want to go back home. Maybe he’s broke and would be worse off back in his home country. Maybe he’s got legal problems at home. You just never know. But if he’s really doing that, putting himself through such hardship, just for the sake of his kids then I think we’ve got a Father of the Year candidate here.

I guess that’s why they call it the blues

My friend Mark organized a little group outing one night to a blues club over by Victory Monument called Saxophone. He told everyone to show up around 7pm which is somewhat early for a Sat night out in Bangkok but I made my best effort to be there somewhat on time.

It was a small crowd at first and we took some seats in the second floor and people ordered some food and drinks as we all chatted and caught up.

When a table opened up on the first floor we caught some seats near the stage and listened to some really good blues numbers done by a Thai band. I mean, these guys were pretty solid. I was quite surprised as even the singing was dead on.

As the night rolled on more and more friends began showing up and Phil began promoting the idea that we save on drinks by just going in on a bottle of Jim Beam and buying the mixers. It sounded like a good idea at the time but when it was only me, Phil and Mark drinking the entire bottle I guess it started becoming less of a good idea. Well, Rado’s friend, a Thai-Chinese lady (who’s name escapes me at the moment), did join us for a few but I wouldn’t say that she put a huge dent in the bottle.

Another band came on and played all sorts of tunes. They were actually pretty good and kept the crowd pretty pumped up. There was a lot of energy in the room. My only real complaint is that there was no area big enough for dancing. I would have loved to have seen some of the ladies get out there on the dance floor.

Closing time unfortunately came too early and Phil and I end up sharing a cab back to Sukhumvit since he’s on Soi 10 and I’m on Soi 11. We start scrounging the food stalls for a late night out drinking food fix and end up getting some fried rice from one of the street vendors.

As we’re sitting there eating at some unknown time in the am, we watch the show of various misfits walking down Sukhumvit either on their way home from work or drunks not yet convinced all the bars are closed.

Later we decided to go check out if Fa’s mobile bar was operating and headed up to Asok. Near the BTS a few dog sized rats were on the sidewalk and I saw Phil stop in his tracks. He asked if that didn’t bother me and I told him as long as they keep moving and don’t try to hold their ground I’m okay with the rats.

We made it up to Asok and Fa was indeed in business so we had a few nightcaps and called it a night.

Starting them off young

As you approach the intersection of Asok and Sukhumvit at night there’s a mother and daughter begging team. They’ve been there the last few times I’ve been in Bangkok so they’ve been operating there a long time. They’re always in the same spot to catch people coming off the train and to catch people at one of the busier intersections in BKK.

The girl couldn’t be any more than 10. She’s a cute kid and when she’s not trying to shake a few baht out of a passerby she is always hopping around barefoot and playing like a kid pumped up on sugar.

I can’t help but think of the life that’s ahead for her as she is ultra-aggressive in her panhandling. She will follow you for a half a block or more constantly running into your path and holding her hands out. Either that or she starts tugging on your arm or clothes and gives you the puppy dog look trying to guilt you out of a donation.

I say that I can’t help but think of the life that’s ahead for her as she seems to be quite at ease shaking people down for cash. I mean, when she’s 18 years old and she’s been shaking down tourists for spare change since she was 7 (I’ve seen her as far back as 3 years ago), something tells me she’s going to be bad news.

She’s already mastered her craft of doing the puppy dog eyes and looking either cute or pitiful depending on which she thinks will tug at the heartstrings more. And if you resist her begging she usually walks off in a huff yelling something in Thai which means that she can turn it on and off at will.

That’s got sociopath written all over it and, as I said, she’s a cute kid who will likely grow up to be a cute/beautiful young lady. A few years from now some guy is going to cross her path and walk away with an emptied out bank account, for sure.

They never seem to learn

I was panhandled by a lady who had two kids and was obviously pregnant. My first instinct was to feel sorry for her plight and then I start thinking to myself “How in the hell do you let yourself get pregnant when you have two kids and you’re living on the street?”

I know that sounds mean. I know because I felt mean in thinking it but it seems like in many tourist areas the panhandlers try to outdo each other in terms of being more pitiful than the other person and in my cynical mind I couldn’t help but think of what might have gone through her mind.

There’s the guy with all his toes gone which he overtly displays on the Sukhumvit overpass, there’s the guy missing the leg who lies prostrated on the sidewalk, the mothers with small children, the blind man who walks down the street singing while some other man helps him, etc.

There’s one lady I always gave my spare change to though. She was an older lady who sat on Soi 11. She never attempted to bother anyone walking by. She didn’t try to tug at heartstrings. She sat there bowed with her head down, holding a wai pose, with her cup held between her hands. She never looked at anyone or even looked up when someone gave her a donation. She just chanted in Thai and left people alone. I appreciated that because it let me feel like I was donating to her anonymously.

I have no problem donating to recognized charities but I think giving to most people on the street only encourages a sort of one-upmanship and increased panhandling aggression that doesn’t serve anyone’s interests.

They don’t hate us

Being American I’m used to hearing people give me their unsolicited views on US foreign policy, US domestic policy, Americans, and many other topics that, surprisingly, I could care less about their views on. Thailand is one of the few places that I never hear an ill word about the US. A large part of it is that I think they tend to view the person rather than the country though they do lump people into nationalities and form their opinions. Also since so few Thais really follow their own politics they certainly don’t follow all the intricacies of global politics other than how it impacts their lives directly.

For instance, I’ve heard many Thais say they don’t like Italians because they’re cheap. On the other hand, saying that you’re American only gets wide-eyed curiosity. Many have friends or family who have either gone to live in the US or have studied there and so they have only the most positive views on the people and the country. They want to know about places they’ve heard about like New York, Florida, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, etc.

Better yet, not only do they not have any pent up rants to share they, often defend Americans. Sitting at a bar a Aussie or Brit might start joking around about the Yanks and it’s not uncommon for a Thai to jump in and tell them that Americans have good hearts and are very generous people.

Greatest job in the world

I met this US Army guy in a pub at the end of Soi Cowboy. I forget the name of the bar but I called it the Tiger Bar because the guy who ran the place was nicknamed Tiger. It’s a quiet sort of place that’s nice to slip into if you want to see all the craziness that is on Soi Cowboy without having to get involved in it.

Anyway, I met this guy who works in food services for the US Army. He’s been stationed in Guam for the last 11 years in what I could only term the dream job. His job is to source food from throughout Southeast Asia. He goes around Thailand, Malaysia, and so on contracting companies to supply beef, vegetables, dairy products, and fruits for the soldiers station on Guam.

Really nice guy though and I wish him all the luck as there’s a chance he may be deployed for more hostile parts of the world in the near future.

The saddest day

The worst day you will ever have in Thailand is your last day in Thailand. You make the rounds at your favourite haunts and everybody gives you hugs and kisses. You always remember those one or two things you wanted to do but didn’t get around to. You kick yourself for not spending more time with certain people or making time to head out to other parts of the city to see people you haven’t seen in a long time.

Bangkok has more people living there than Manhattan but I’ve walked into places after a two or three year absence and they know you by name when you walk in the door. With 10+ million people living there someone might say “Hey, you know Lek who works over at the Roadhouse?” and you know exactly who he’s talking about.

People remember what you drink. They remember where you’re from. They remember when you were last in BKK and whether or not you were truthful on when you said you would return. BKK is a big city that feels like a small town.

It’s even more pronounced in smaller places like Phuket. I’m like family in some places there. They not only remember every detail of your life that you’ve revealed to them but they take care of you above and beyond the call of what you would expect.

I’ve been in pubs every night for a week on business trips to London and then returned six months later and not recognized a single face. I grew up and live in Los Angeles most of my life and been in nightclubs that I frequented weekly for years and the staff couldn’t pick me out of line-up (thank goodness).

That’s one of the things that make Thailand special. You bond with people. You might only know someone for three days in Thailand but they’ll remember more about your personal life than someone who you work side by side with for three years.

The biggest mistake you could ever make

One night at Fa’s bar on Asok I ran into another American. He was a young guy who you might be able to label “Young dumb and full of . . . ” Basically he was your typical, narrow minded American with more bravado than brains.

He was boasting to me how this katoey (lady boy) had been hitting on him and that he almost kicked her/his ass. I leaned over towards him and told him that the two dumbest things he could ever do in his life were to hit a lady boy and to hit a Thai cop. If I was pushed to make a choice I would probably swing at a cop before I did a lady boy though. At least the cop knows he has to fill out paperwork when he kills you.

I tried to explain to him that the first thing you have to take into account is that she used to be a he and in Thailand boys spend a lot of their youth learning to kickbox (Muay Thai). The second thing to be considered is that Thais never fight one on one. If you hit a Thai they might smile and walk away but that doesn’t mean that the fight is over. You’ll likely find yourself walking down a street one night and walking into half a dozen Thais who will beat you into a coma. I mean that seriously. Thais are hard to provoke but once provoked they aim to maim and/or kill. Third is that in Thailand your word against a Thai’s is as good as spit. Unless you have a bunch of Thai people willing to vouch for your version of the story you can expect to find yourself in a police interrogation room getting whacked with phone books until you sign a statement admitting full responsibility.

Surprisingly he seemed to understand it. I told him that they’re cool as long as you’re cool. Treat them like human beings and they’ll respect you as a human being. They’re not going to rape you and if you tell them lady boys aren’t your thing they’ll leave you alone. Buy her a drink, ask her where she got her tits done, and she’ll be your best friend.

As karma would have it I was walking down Soi 11 the next night and there was a group of lady boys looking for some business. I walked past as I normally do and said “Ah, you gals look lovely tonight. It’s going to be a good night for you.” Usually that gets a lot of giggles and thank you’s as most people don’t treat them at face value.

But one gal kept walking alongside me. She grabbed the sleeve on my shirt. I sort of pulled my arm away and nicely told her I’m not interested in lady boys. She kept walking with me and grabbed my sleeve again. I stopped in my tracks. I turned to her and said, “Listen, I’ve told you that I’m not interested. I’ve told you to let go of my shirt. You are out of line now. Please leave me alone.”

She immediately let go of my shirt, apologized and I walked away.

The path to enlightenment

I’ve had two different but very similar conversations with both a farang friend of mine and a Thai friend of mine about the change that takes place as you spend more and more time in the Kingdom of Thailand. We all seemed to agree on the key points though my Thai friend was probably less aware of how Westerners actually feel about the change in views. She could only see it as an outsider looking in while my farang friend, having spent several years in the country, experienced things first-hand.

First trip or two to Thailand is like a kid going to Disneyland. The food is great, the weather is warm, the people are always smiling, you can strike up a conversation with anybody (providing they speak some English) anywhere, and the place itself is just overwhelming to the senses. You see things you’ve never seen before and none of it seems to raise an eyebrow. Maybe it’s an elephant walking down Sukhumvit road or maybe it’s a group of girls buying up 50 baht worth of fried bugs from a street vendor. Anything goes. It’s all so foreign yet instead of feeling out of place the constant smiling of everyone you meet makes you feel so at peace with it.

The first thing a newbie does when they a get home is dream of returning. Thoughts of chucking it all and moving to Thailand are not as far fetched as non-visitors might think. Some even strike up the courage to do it. They take whatever they’ve saved up and move to Bangkok to teach English for 40,000 baht a month (about $1350 USD). They find an apartment for a few grand, eat from the street vendors for under 200 baht per meal, and become part of the thriving community of expats in Thailand. For them giving up their life in the West is an easy decision because they think they’ve found nirvana.

As you spend more time in Thailand you start to notice that a lot of what you thought was great about it in the beginning is simply an illusion. When you peel back the outer layers you begin to notice that what lies underneath isn’t exactly what you thought it was. It would sort of like being a kid and getting a backstage tour of Disneyland only to see Mickey Mouse pull the head off his costume and light up a smoke.

You start to notice the poverty. Maybe you’ve been burned in a scam once or twice and you begin to realize that the Thai smile doesn’t always signal good intentions. The inefficiencies of both the government and the culture compared to the West begin to annoy more than they amuse. Most of all, they begin to realize that being a farang means that they will always be an outsider. And being an outsider means never quite fitting in.

One may even begin to realize that there is a nasty underbelly to Thailand. Police, judges, and politicians all have a price. The Thai mafia run a vibrant underground economy in plain view because as long as the cops, judges, and politicians are getting a cut there’s no need to rock the boat. You realize that life is cheap here and for 20,000 baht (about $650 USD) you can hire someone to settle any personal or business dispute by having some guy on the back of a motorcycle pump a spray of automatic gunfire into someone’s taxi cab.

This is really a key emotional trigger point for some people. Some leave in disgust. Their illusions have been shattered and they feel betrayed. You see these people on blogs or message boards all the time ranting at how corrupt the Thai people are or that none of them can be trusted. They become very bitter especially if money or one’s heart was involved.

Of course, not everyone has that particular reaction. Personally, ever being the cynic, I always expected that things were not as they seem. Maybe I’ve spent too much time in other Disneylands for adults (Las Vegas would obviously come to mind) and long ago realized there is no nirvana. While some aspects came as a surprise to me they struck me more as a “Wow, I never considered that angle before. That’s actually quite brilliant.”

Those who push through the initial shock of learning that all that glitters is not gold tend to see that there is order in all of this chaos. And that first big epiphany happens when the person realizes that despite many, many similarities Thai and Western cultures are very different.

In fact, it’s those similarities which make it so hard to put one’s mind around some of the differences. When one quits projecting their own cultural filters on the actions of others they begin to understand that it really is a different and distinct mindset that Thai people operate in. It’s not better or worse but it is different and until you understand what cultural filters they see the world through you really don’t understand the people.

I think the best way to describe it is to relate it to our concepts of right and wrong. The Western world is primarily Universalist. We believe that there is a right and wrong. We believe that there exist knowable and true morals and ethics which should apply to everyone. This type of thinking is very ingrained in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is at the very core of our legal systems and our culture.

Thais and many Buddhists think of the world more from a Particularistic frame of view. In other words there is not necessarily a universal right and wrong but a more intricate truth that involves relationships and immediate circumstances. What may be clearly wrong in one circumstance might not be wrong given different people.

This website has an interesting take on the Universalist vs. Particularistic conflict in business settings. Basically a Universalist will always think the Particularist cannot be trusted because they only help their friends. Meanwhile a Particularist would have trouble trusting a Universalist because they would not even help a friend.

Anyway, it was an interesting series of conversations and it’s one of the reasons I like travelling there so much. You start to appreciate that things you thought were undeniable truths may not be so undeniable. And whereas it is easy to take the Thai smile and easy going attitude and fool yourself into thinking they’re just happier, more laid back versions of Westerners they are far more complex than that. For those who refuse to explore that complexity and question their own values and ideals Thailand can be a very confusing place. If you’re willing to open your mind a little and put a little time and effort into getting to understand more than what’s on the surface it can be a very enlightening experience.

You can’t be serious

One of the fun things I like to do in Thailand is read the local English press. Both The Bangkok Post and The Nation can give you some amusing insights into Thai society. Sometimes I become a little irritated when I read Western press and they simply accept some BS answer from a politician but in Thailand it can almost be comical.

Case in point is an army general who is retiring this year. He just approved the purchase of billions of baht worth of military equipment. Now the problem here is that even the interim government recognized that this was a complete scam so he could take some massive kick-backs and had warned him against approving the purchase until the matter could be fully investigated. Of course, he went ahead and did it anyway knowing the current government is on the way out and that once the new government came in he would be gone himself. His explanation to the press was priceless. He basically said that it seemed unfair to burden the incoming government with making the decision so he was doing the country a service.

Another story that’s been attracting a lot of attention lately is of three men who gunned down some police officers on New Year’s Eve. All three suspects were found shot to death the other day. Obviously the facts are somewhat in dispute but supposedly at least one of the men had called and arranged with police to turn himself in. In fact, some Thai language press even reported that he had in fact turned himself in and had been taken into police custody. All three were found shot in the back at close range with the main suspect (the guy who tried to turn himself in) receiving three shotgun blasts. Police, who deny this was a revenge killing, speculate that maybe they were killed by colleagues in order to silence them. Police promise a full investigation

Do crowds draw out the stupid in people?

Be it Sukhumvit in Bangkok or Beach Rd in Phuket, any major walking area where vendors set up shop tends to draw out the stupid in people. The one that tests my nerves the most is the couple who can’t seem to work out the physics that two people can’t walk hand in hand down a pathway that is only wide enough for two people if there’s opposing traffic. So in love they walk past the makeshift sidewalk storefronts hand in hand. You approach from the other direction and you can literally see the blankness in their heads as they try to figure out this Sudoku like problem. Sometimes you have to give them a hint and wave one of them over so they can get the correct answer which is, of course, a walking in a single file line.

Mexican food in Bangkok

I talked earlier about my find in Phuket but I also ran across two Mexican joints in Bangkok that I thought deserve a shout out. First is Sunrise Tacos on Sukhumvit between Soi 12 and Soi 14. Really good tacos. I wasn’t impressed with the taco salad that I ordered one day but the tacos were good and the chips and salsa were excellent. The place definitely says fast food and the interior and menu reminds me a bit of La Salsa though I can’t say the food is up to that quality. All in all not bad Mex food though.

Second place is Charlie Brown’s off of Soi 11 on your left hand side but around the corner in the back. It’s a little hard to find but there is a sign on Soi 11 a few blocks up. Nice selection and the place is decorated American Southwest style with old US license plates on the walls and hubcaps of 1950’s cars on the ceiling. Food is good, staff is very friendly, and being on a side soi in the back it’s away from any of the hustle and bustle that is Bangkok.

Did either restaurant blow me away and make me say it’s the best Mexican I’ve ever had? No. Is it the best Mexican I’ve had outside of North America? Yeah, it probably is. You find a lot of stuff they try to pass off as Mexican in Europe and it’s crap. This was actually pretty decent Mexican food. I wouldn’t drive across town for one of the tacos like I might for Tito’s Tacos but pretty good all the same.

Cause and effect

There was a story recently in the Thai press about a bomb attack on a group of soldiers in the south of Thailand by Muslim separatists. The bomb hit one of the trucks causing 15 injuries (no fatalities). Part of the investigation into the incident included collecting data on who was wearing “Luang Poo Jiam” amulets (a Buddhist talisman). Although all of the men on the bus owned an amulet only the 15 injured were not wearing them. The military thus concluded that the other men had been spared injury by wearing the amulet and the commander of the troops ordered all soldiers to wear their amulets in order to protect them from harm.

Now, when the story hit the press in Thailand a lot of the more educated Thai people flipped out. First they found the idea of an amulet protecting someone from bullets or bomb blasts as absurd and the fact that the military promoted the idea as irresponsible. Second they knew that such a story might be viewed by the rest of the world as an indication that Thailand was a backwards, idol worshiping, third-world country and were concerned about what impact it would have on investment and trade.

I think the outraged Thai’s were right in criticizing the military for promoting such an absurd idea. People who think they are safe from harm might end up doing extra-stupid things putting themselves and others at increased risk. I also think they were right to be concerned about what outsiders might think if they read such a story but what they shouldn’t forget is that there is a large segment of the population that still very superstitious.

You still see the fortune tellers in all the major street shopping centers. At night the fortune tellers are always busy reading the fortunes of Thai girls and the intensity with which they listen to every word of the fortune teller serves as a good indicator as to how serious they are taking his words.

But just because many in this newly post-agrarian society still believe in such things doesn’t make it right for the military to not only endorse such superstitions but to promote them to soldiers who might be inclined to walk in front of a bullet thinking some lucky talisman is going to shield them.

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