Thailand, Spring 2006
Hi boys and girls. This is my last day in Thailand for this trip. It began with a late breakfast (ok, ok, it was lunch all right?) with Rudy and John at the Sheraton. I had my usual, kow pad poo (literally, rice fried crab) and a large pot of English Breakfast tea. I love the way they serve tea here, at least at the Sheraton. You get a large pot, I'd guess about a liter in size, with the tea in a metal strainer that you can raise, lower, and lift away from the brewed tea when it has reached perfection. It's enough for about six cups and is much more civilized than the way tea drinkers are treated at restaurants in the U.S. where they bring you a cup of hot water, one tea bag, and, if your are lucky, a separate pot of semi-hot water that is about enough for one additional cup if you reuse the tea bag.
It was good to see John again. He spends most of his time at home with girlfriend, Nok, and the two boys when he's not traveling for work. He just got back from five days in Brunei. Tonight he and Nok will be going to a big Broadway Review show then to a disco afterwards. The disco sounds nice, the have a live band playing older pop music. I may join them there. Since my plane leaves at 6am and I have to be at the airport at 4am, I'll just stay up and finish my packing before leaving from here. Leaving is a bit of a logistics challenge. I will have to walk the quarter mile up to Sukhumvit, hail a cab, ride it back to the apartment and have him wait until I go upstairs to retrieve my luggage.
After lunch I decided to spend the day visiting some of my favorite nearby places. I started with a foot massage at Robinsons. Yeah, I know I didn't like them at first but they grew on me to the point where I actually enjoyed them despite the punctuation by brief moments of excruciating pain. I told the lady to be gentle with my feet and, for the most part, she was. After one of these sessions, I always feel like I'm walking on gymnastics floor exercise mat. For those of you who have not experienced that pleasure, it's like having the kind of bounce in your step that you had when you were five or perhaps like jumping on your bed.
After the massage I stopped by George's tailor shop to chat and say farewell. Alas, George was not in but I had a nice talk with Don. Don is a pleasant young Nepalese man who was raised in Myanmar. He speaks quite a few languages and has picked up George's half joking style of salesmanship (Six more shirts for you? Some more silk blend slacks, we have some new fabrics?). I don't know his real name, though he told me once on my last trip, but goes by Mr. Don in the shop. He called George at home so I could bid him adieu. George's shop is always a pleasant place to stop. There is always an offer of something to drink, coke or water. One can also count on some amusing conversation amidst the stream of customers from around the world. George's is a popular place and I have bought a lot of custom clothing from him.
I returned to Took Lae Dee for my dinner and finished off with some cut up watermelon from a street vendor as I walked back along Sukhumvit and eventually ending back at the apartment to pack. Later I called John but he and Nok had decided to return home rather than going to the disco but he said he'd come back into the city and we could have one last night on the town. We watched a show of dancing girls and had a drink. Outside, I ordered a hamburger from a street vendor and ate it while watching an entertaining parade of people going by. As my time was getting short, we hopped back on the motorcycles and left. We said our final good-byes and rode off in our respective directions. I made it just in time to shower, change, and finish the packing. As I indicated earlier, I walked to the corner to find a cab, came back to pick up my luggage, and trek to the airport for a long but wonderfully uneventful flight home.
As this trip comes to an end, I'd like to offer some observations about Bangkok and the other places I've been in Thailand. Keep in mind that there are exceptions to everything. Maintenance does not seem to be a word in the Thai vocabulary. With some notable exceptions such as the nicer hotels, stores, shopping malls, and some other places, things are seldom cleaned, rarely repaired unless absolutely necessary and then with only the minimum necessary. Sidewalks are so uneven you have to watch where you are walking all of the time lest you step in a hole or trip over a sudden uplift. Outside, almost everything is filthy. You assaulted by noise everywhere in Bangkok. Also by smells, some wonderful and mouth-watering, some vile.
Traffic is unlike anything I've seen in the U.S. and I grew up just outside Los Angeles. On my first visit, Barry met me at the airport and we took a taxi back into the city. He warned me not to watch but, in my terror, I was unable to tear my eyes from what was happening. I'm almost immune to it now and can even drive a motorcycle without wetting myself. The lanes in the road are only roughly paid attention to, sometimes drivers straddle lanes even when there is no traffic. Motorcycle taxis abound and I often see a woman riding side-saddle as the driver weaves his way between stopped cars, trucks, and busses. I've even seen these women holding young babies.
This is a culture where men and women have very different roles that go back perhaps thousands of years. Feminists in the U.S. would be appalled at how subservient the women here are and how lazy the men are. You often see groups of men who do nothing all day but sit around with their friends and play games or just talk while the women are cooking and serving in the thousands of mobile food carts and tiny outdoor restaurants. Of course, you do see lots of men working hard as well but you almost never see women hanging out doing nothing like you do the men, usually young men. I've heard second hand that many young Thai men have wives or girlfriends who support them.
Thai society is, in many ways, primitive. The people, most of whom are nominally Buddhist, are very superstitions, and seldom think about or plan for the future. If they have money today, they party today and go hungry tomorrow. Everyone is more concerned in appearance than results. Lying seems to be an expected part of life and it is not socially acceptable to call someone on it, which would make them lose face.
Corruption is rampant at all levels of government. One recent candidate for mayor of Bangkok ran on a platform – and I'm paraphrasing here that since he was a known crook, he knew where all the bodies were buried. Government is so inefficient here that one wonders how it works at all. They pass all sorts of laws without really caring whether they do any good. For example, you cannot buy beer in the grocery stores here between 2pm and 5pm because that's when children get off of school. Does that stop or even reduce teenage drinking? I think not, but it looked good for them when they did it. Hmmm, kind of reminds me of the so called lobbying reform bill passed by both houses of Congress in the U.S. It's all appearance and no substance. It looks good for the voters but doesn't stop the money train from lobbyists. But enough about the U.S. The general attitude of mai ben rai (variously translated as it doesn't matter, or never mind) might be traced to ancient times, when the stifling heat and the ready availability of food may have bred ambition out of the population.
Ok, enough of the negatives, many though they may be. This place is alive and vibrant. There are foods, customs, and sights that are new and exciting to western senses. The food is wonderful, though some caution must be exercised both because of questionable sanitation and fiery seasoning. The people are friendly and eager to please. You can actually see elephants on the streets of Bangkok though technically they must not be elephants because it's not legal to have them here.
I'll be back in six months for the next installment in my dental work. Stay tuned.