Monday, September 27, 2010

Courtesy purchases and the dog catcher

As we live in a rural location we get visited by lots of mobile hawkers. It's mostly foodstuff but i've known entrepreneurs bring around goods ranging from plastic basins to furniture and electrical goods.     I didn't notice it at first but after a while i realized that Laong would nearly always buy something from these mobile traders. She would often buy food that she simply didn't want. It would sit untouched until it was crawling with ants and then be thrown away. After a while, i questioned Laong about what i saw as a wasteful practice. Her first explanation was a Little bit puzzling.She said something along the lines that we wouldn't get the money back for it whether we ate it or threw it away.  It took some  time for me to get across to her that what i was really wondering was why she bought it in the first place if she didn't want it. Her final explanation was only slightly less puzzling.     The reason that she bought things that she didn't really want was because the vendor had taken the time and trouble to bring their wares all the way out into the countryside for her to look at. So she felt obliged in some way to buy something. They were sort of "courtesy purchases".   It's slightly akin to Tupperware party syndrome back in England.
                                         Thankfully, she limits this philanthropic practice to food and other fairly cheap items. She has , however bought a display cabinet and a wooden bench seat in this manner. As you can imagine, we have more plastic buckets and basins than we will use in a lifetime.
                                           Another source of new plastic buckets is the dog catcher. But his buckets aren't for sale. Well, not in the traditional sense.  The dog catcher uses his buckets as currency to swap for unwanted dogs. He visits around once a month and when the dogs and buckets have been exchanged, the unfortunate canines are thrown unceremoniously into a cage on the back of his truck.They are destined to become part of the menu up on the Laos border.
A fair swap ?
                                              The dog man made one of his regular visits to our area just the other day. He had conducted some swift business with our nearest neighbor and was just pulling away when i saw Laong approaching from some distance away.  I just couldn't resist it. I ushered our dog, Ronaldo, into the kitchen at the back of the house and shut the door securely behind him. Then i took a new bucket  from the top of our ever growing stack and placed it in a position of prominence on our porch way. I dropped back into my chair and resumed reading my copy of the Bangkok Post as Laong brought her motorcycle to a halt beneath the shop awning. I had already noticed her throw a couple of worried glances over her shoulder in the direction of the disappearing dog catcher. I feigned disinterest in her presence and continued with my newspaper. Her eyes widened with her opening statement. "Ronaldo stay where"?   I said nothing in reply but instead allowed my gaze to fall upon the new bucket close by.
                                             Laongs eyes narrowed and her face began to tighten around clenched teeth. Volcano mode was imminent. I've seen it many times. So before Vesuvius erupted i strode hastily to the kitchen and released Ronaldo from his incarceration. He scampered through the house and prostrated himself at Laongs feet with his paws in the air and his tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth.
                                             I looked up in time to see, but not to avoid, the bucket as it bounced off the side of my head.
                                            In the best traditions of Buddhist karma, the very next day i was bitten by a friends dog. It was quite a savage bite and left me with some deep holes in my leg, just above the ankle. Of course, i got no sympathy from Laong. She really enjoyed pouring the alcohol based solution into the holes over the next couple of days to prevent infection.  On more than one occasion, as i winced in pain, she muttered "som nam nah". Roughly translated it means "serves you right". On reflection, i must admit that i had played a cruel and heartless prank so i guess it did serve me right.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Good luck, money come

Even if you don't know very much about Buddhism you will have undoubtedly heard about karma. Buddhists believe that we all deserve whatever happens to us whether it be good or bad. We create good karma for ourselves by doing good things and,of course, the converse is true for creating bad karma. I think that a religion that advocates everyone going around doing good things has got to be positive by it's practice. Unfortunately, if you start to dig deeper,then, like most religions, there are more questions than answers. OK, I accept that if we do bad things then bad karma is the result. But what i don't accept,digging a little deeper, is the tariff applied to bad karma........  A couple of weeks ago one of my students was involved in an accident. A drunk driver ploughed into her and her family leaving her mother and father both dead. She was taken to hospital with her life hanging in the balance. Just for good measure the family dog was also killed. She won her fight for life but sustained massive brain damage and multiple injuries.    This is where it all falls down.  What could a fun loving, mild mannered, 9 year old child possibly have done to deserve such horrific bad karma?       I'm sure you will all have your own interpretations of good and bad karma and i welcome your views in the form of comment.  

the lucky log

      There seems to be a definite pattern in Thailand.  Good karma = good luck = money. Nowhere does this take more definite form than in the national lottery. Although gambling is illegal in Thailand and goes against Buddhist precepts, the government run lottery plays a big part in Thai society. Some people go to extraordinary lengths to predict the lucky numbers for the next draw.
              We used to have a tabby cat and Laong would subject her to daily inspections. She would work her way around the unfortunate feline in the hope that irregular patterns in her fur would throw up something that looked like a number.   Indeed, there are lucky trees and lucky rocks in various places all over Thailand. People flock to these sites hoping to see a lucky number emerge from the patterns in the bark or the cracks and grains of the rocks. These sites are revered and have taken on a religious/spiritual guise. They are usually festooned with brightly coloured ribbon and garlands. Devotees light candles and burn incense. They leave offerings in the form of fresh fruit and soft drinks.
                                    Last Monday, in pursuit of the elusive lucky number, we made the journey to Wat Punoy in Nong Muang, Lopburi. This temple complex is given over, almost entirely, to the pursuit of the lucky number. On the run up to a lottery draw it is visited by literally thousands of people. The main attraction is the lucky log.
                                        This is a 30 foot long section of tree trunk laid on supporting trestles. It is suitably decked out in the usual ribbons and garlands. The method here is to part the ribbons, exposing a small section of the trunk. Then, talcum powder is lightly sprinkled on the wood. The powder is then worked into the grain with circular motions of an index finger. The hope is that the patterns in the grain will throw up a shape that can be interpreted as a number. As a testament to the popularity of this method the entire length of the trunk has been worn quite smooth by years of devoted rubbing.   Laong spent 20 minutes or so prospecting a few different sections of the trunk. The log was unwilling to give up any secrets so we moved on. However, before leaving i observed a woman of senior years working furiously at her own section of the log. She was obviously semi-professional in the method as she had brought with her a 750g container of talc and a bag of back up containers. She was still beavering away at the same spot when we passed her on the way out nearly 2 hours later.  
                  We spent the next couple of hours ringing bells, banging gongs, burning incense, and rubbing gold leaf onto every conceivable surface of Buddhist deities.  If gold leaf poisoning exists as an ailment then Laong gave herself every chance of contracting the condition. She was covered in flecks of gold. It was in her hair and all over her hands, arms and face.  I spent a short while staring at an enormous gold leaf covered ball from lots of different angles. I narrowed and widened my gaze and squinted with each eye shut in turn. Still , no numbers revealed themselves.         There was a lengthy Que at the lucky water. This was a large earthenware stone pot three quarters full with a mixture of stagnant water, gold leaf, congealed candle wax and a generous helping of dead insects. Laong sprinkled us both with a small amount amid a mumbled incantation. I noticed that some people were keen enough believers to dunk silver cups into the pot and actually drink the stuff.        
                                       After a tasty and inexpensive lunch we decided to call it a day. Laong thought she had seen a "5" on the log and maybe a "4"  in the pattern of the congealed wax in the lucky water but nothing really concrete. I was considering one last look at the golden ball when i noticed that Laong had fallen into conversation with a monk at the entrance to the car park. By the time i joined them she was scribbling furiously on the small notepad that she always keeps in her bag for just such an occasion. A few seconds later she was back in the central courtyard scouring the rows of tickets for sale by the dozens of vendors that had set up their trestles at every turn. After a detailed search, a ticket ending in the digits 782 could not be found. Undeterred, Laong spent the next 45 minutes on the phone in conversation with her various lottery contacts and managed to secure a ticket.   She hedged her bets with a few of her standard numbers ( birthdays, car reg, etc ) and after yesterdays draw came out 2,400 Baht in front.  It's hardly a life changing windfall but it's better than the proverbial poke in the eye and it might just cover the cost of the talcum powder and gold leaf !           

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Angkor Wat, Cambodia and the worst toilet

It may not be the sort of thing that comes up in everyday conversation but everyone has a toilet story and this is mine.
               A pre-dawn arrival at Angkor Wat is by no means essential but it would certainly enhance the experience. Myself and three friends had fully intended to rise early the previous day but we only arrived back at the guest house from the night out before as everyone was making preparations to leave. We were suitably admonished by staff and guests alike and trailed off to bed.
               The next day we were up early and made the short journey to the Angkor Wat site by pedal rickshaw. After paying $20 for a day pass our driver/guide took us to the main temple site. Having seen lots of temple ruins on my travels i must admit that i'm not usually that easily impressed. But Angkor Wat really was worth the pre-dawn departure. The main temple looked quite stunning as it took shape in the still light of another dawning day. It's mirrored reflection on the small lake in the foreground was quite breathtaking.
We spent the rest of the morning exploring the endless supply of temple ruins at the complex. There was so much to see but, to be honest, by midday, as impressed as i was, i was feeling pretty much "templed out". The early start and the rising temperature were beginning to take their toll on everyone. Our helpful driver suggested that we take a break in a small restaurant,where he was obviously on commission, as it turned out to be all the way back at the main temple.  However, we couldn't depart immediately as one of our party had a slight problem.  The poor lad had been "caught short" as they say. Our driver indicated a cluster of buildings about 200 yards away across some scrub land. We decided to escort our friend as he looked to be in real trouble. This also increased the chances of one of us stepping on a landmine but "when you've got to go"!     By the time we got to the buildings he was clutching his stomach and having difficulty standing upright. The place was deserted and worse still, the toilet block was locked up. After some time(an eternity for my friend) a monk appeared and demanded $1 to unlock the door. My friend hurriedly thrust a $5 bill into his hand and started to hop from one foot to another while the monk casually fumbled with a bunch of keys.   I remember laughing and feeling quite glad that it wasn't me. Well, just 45 minutes later, it was!
                            Our driver dropped us at a makeshift restaurant,constructed of bamboo and rusty tin. I wasn't really hungry but respite from the heat and a cold drink were most welcome.  I had just cracked the seal on my plastic water bottle when, from nowhere, i was hit by a searing pain across my lower abdomen. Sweat burst from my forehead in a torrent and i was filled with a feeling of dread. I knew i had only a matter of moments before the unthinkable would happen. I snatched the last remaining piece of tissue from the holder on the table and ran towards the kitchen. Not stopping to ask for directions i blundered through the bamboo cane curtain. My path to the rear was blocked by racks of vegetables and pots and pans which i sent crashing in my wake as i raced frantically against my body clock. Luckily, the back door opened outwards or i'm sure i would have demolished it. The area behind the kitchen was filthy but i hardly noticed as my attention was taken by the small tin shed that was obviously the toilet.
                          A loop of dirty frayed string served as the door handle. As i yanked on the string the door opened allowing daylight to penetrate the dark interior. The toilet itself was of the "squat" variety. It was located in the centre and set into a square concrete block. The block was tiled with cracked and broken ceramic and was at a height of about 8 inches above the ankle deep water that covered the rest of the floorspace.   The sudden shock of daylight sent frogs, at least 1 snake and various other creatures scuttling for the darker recesses. I removed my flip-flops and hung my shorts and shirt on the rusty nail that stuck out of the back of the door. As i began to wade towards the centre, the door swung slowly shut behind me plunging the shed back into darkness. I stood as motionless as my stomach spasms would allow and i didn't have to strain my ears too much to hear all the creatures venturing back out into the body of the room with darkness fuelled confidence. I reached behind me and eased the door ajar once more. Again, the shaft of daylight sent the toilets inhabitants scurrying for cover. I was drenched in sweat. The temperature inside the tin box was off the scale.  I looked down at the pathetic piece of sodden tissue in my hand. It was inadequate for the task before. It was now more than useless! I cursed the fact that i had taken so much amusement from my friends desperate plight just a short while ago.
                                                     I wedged the door open with a flip-flop so that just enough light came in to deter the critters inside and still preserve a little privacy.   I won't bother to describe the next few minutes in too much detail but you can be assured that they will live in my memory as one of the worst experiences of my life on the road.
                                  Angkor Wat and its surrounding temple ruins is a must see if you go into Cambodia. Over the next few weeks we travelled around the kingdom and saw some incredible things but my abiding memory of Cambodia will be my brief visit to the rusty tin toilet.

Monday, August 30, 2010

An accident waiting to happen

Quite recently i purchased a motorcycle. Like most people where i live i didn't have the cash but managed to find an outlet offering favourable monthly terms. So i'm now the proud owner of a Honda Click 125. No gears,just twist and go. Perfect!
                                The journey to work takes about 20 minutes or even less if it looks like its going to rain. All things considered i think of myself as a safe and observant road user.
                                There is a stretch of road on the way home that i call a "fast road". It's straight and free from potholes and it's quite easy to find yourself afflicted with "throttle creep". Before you know it you can be going along at quite a lick. Returning home from work one afternoon i found myself in just such a situation.
                                 I was fast approaching a point where a small dirt track joins the road. The track runs alongside the main road at something like a 30 degree angle before joining it at an almost blind junction. So it's just as well that anyone travelling along the track has a perfect view of the main road for about 200 yards before they join it.    I was scooting along the main road at a fair rate of knots when i looked over and saw a middle aged women bouncing along the dirt track at a similar speed. As we both approached the blind junction it was fairly obvious that we would arrive there at the same time. I saw her look directly at me on 3 or 4 occasions so she had definitely seen me and would slow down to a stop at the junction. Wouldn't she?
                            Not a bit of it! She looked right at me and pulled straight out. There was oncoming traffic so the only way to avoid her was to perform a deft out-in swerve. Everything happened so quickly at the last second that i was more angry than scared but i knew i had used up another life as i missed her by inches. As i looked in my mirror i saw her perform a u-turn and head back up the dirt track.
                           The very next day i was coming home along the same stretch at pretty much the same time. I looked to my left and saw the same woman on the dirt track..... You've guessed it. She did exactly the same thing as the day before. I couldn't believe it but this time i was ready and simply glided out to the centre of the road and passed her easily.
                         When i got home i told Laong about the two incidents. She was quite certain that the woman had tried to "stage" an accident in order to gain financially from the situation. If she had succeeded on the first day , i would almost certainly have been killed. Laong wanted to lay in wait at the junction the next day and "have a word with her". I knew that this wouldn't be a good idea. I remember Laong "having a word" with a girl who was purposely standing in front of a karaoke screen to prevent Laong from seeing the words. Laong smashed an unopened bottle of whiskey over her head!
                      I persuaded Laong to stay at home and the next day,sure enough, the women was there again. This time she was hiding behind the small tin shed that made the junction blind. But i saw her front wheel sticking out and slowed to a stop in front of her.  I challenged her in Thai and asked her what her problem was and what she wanted every day. She looked sheepishly at the floor and with a tight lipped expression she turned and headed back up the dirt track from whence she came.
                             I suppose it was just another case of trying to extract money from a farang. She hadn't worked out that i don't have any money. That's why i have to work. But i expect that my meagre salary probably represents 3 or 4 times the amount of her monthly income.   I haven't seen her since. I don't really blame her for trying to do what she did and i bear her no malice.   Laong, on the other hand, would still like to "have a word " with her.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A tale about a tail.

This is the meat stall in Takhli where Laong buys meat to re-sell in her shop. As we are such valued customers we were given this buffalo tail free of charge as a token of thanks for our patronage. At first i thought they were just dumping it on us as they didn't know what else to do with the thing! But Laong explained to me that it was quite an honour to be given such a gift of thanks. In fact, she had gone out of her way to find it and was really pleased to be handing it over. She made quite a show of presenting it to us so that all the other traders in the area could see how well her business must be doing for her to be giving away buffalo tails free of charge.
                                         So what are we going to do with it? I'm not really sure as that's Laong's department but i think i will be eating out for the next few days!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

No winning post

I've come across many people in Thailand who tell me that one of the reasons for them being here is to try and understand Thai culture and society. Try and make sense of it all. Well, in my humble opinion, there's nothing wrong with trying. That is that as long as you realize from the outset that in the game of trying to make sense of it all there is no winning post. Because just when you think you've got a handle on things here you see something that just blows everything away. Something that just knocks you for six.
                                              I was born and brought up in a country 6000 miles away. So, of course, i have different values,understanding and a view of life far removed, and not just by distance, from that of my wife and family. In an effort to better understand the way of things here i've often asked Laong the eternal question, why?  Things like: Why do young Thai boys carry a 10 baht coin lodged in one of their ears when they have perfectly good pockets? Why do people in Thailand think it's ok to drive on the wrong side of the road  as long as they are only going a few hundred yards? Why do sparks crack and fly out of the socket every time i plug the kettle in? Why do young Thai mothers think it's ok to do the school run while still wearing pajamas?
                                          Laong has quite often never given me a suitable answer to most of my questions. Her replies are usually no more expansive than"up to him" or "up to her". On the other side of the coin, Laong has been to England 3 times and asked me about things that she doesn't understand. Things like: Why does the whole country grind to a standstill in bad weather? Why do we have to prove to a bank that we have a vast income in order to obtain a loan that we have just proved we shouldn't need? Why do we complain about how expensive something is but but still buy it anyway? I've found myself unable to give reasonable answers to lots of her questions.
                                       Maybe the best way to understand a foreign culture is first to accept it before you try to understand and become a part of it. For myself, i've come to realize never really being able to make sense of it all, never really reaching the winning post is what makes every day living in Thailand such an adventure.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Another journey from hell.

While i'm in a journey from hell vein it would be fitting to mention a flight i took with Jordanian airways some time ago.
                 The stopover in Amman was scheduled for nearly 30 hours. Myself, and 2 friends had purposely booked a flight with such a long stopover because our intention was to get out and about and see a brief glimpse of Jordan.
                             We arrived in Amman quite late in the evening and were bused out to our complimentary hotel. After a couple of warm beers from the fridge with no plug we retired to recharge our batteries for the whirlwind sightseeing trip the next day.
                             Up early and after feasting on hard boiled eggs, stale bread and strong coffee we secured the services of a taxi driver outside the hotel entrance. The other stopover passengers thought it would be far too dangerous to venture outside and passed the next 18 hours wrestling with self-inflicted boredom.    We spent a pleasant day taking in such places as the site for the sermon on the mount, the walls of Jericho, the dead sea and the town of Madaba.  We swam in the dead sea. This was a strange experience due to the massive salt content of the water. Things turned altogether unpleasant when we emerged , coated in oily water and became human fly paper for the blanket of insects that rose from the debris strewn shoreline and stuck themselves to our greasy flesh. A local entrepreneur was selling buckets of unsalted wash down water at a hugely inflated price which we gladly paid for.
                                                  There was a Jordanian wedding procession in Madaba which is something that you don't get the chance to see every day. I thought it somewhat amusing to watch the bride and the rest of the wedding party stepping carefully around small rivers of blood that were flowing from the freshly slaughtered goats outside a local butchers. The goats heads had been severed and skinned and took their grisly place alongside the rest of the fly infested carcasses.
                                                 Back at the hotel the other passengers were surprised that we returned safely without being taken hostage or shot at. They were even more surprised later that evening when we shunned the shuttle service and, shouldering our rucksacks, set off on foot across the desert towards the lights of the Queen Alia Airport in the distance.
                                                 The transit process was much more confusing than it needed to be. Essentially we had to check in again to receive a new boarding card. All transit boarding cards were issued from the same desk. It seemed to take forever but we needn't have worried as our flight to Colombo in Sri Lanka was delayed for another 3 hours. So, there was nothing else to do but hit the duty free shop. The shop had 3 choices. Whiskey, vodka and marshmallows. (don't ask)   I boarded the flight just over 3 hours later having consumed at least half a litre of neat vodka.  I wasn't drunk, in the sense of the word, but the alcohol was certainly going to do it's job. Namely, make me sleep.   With heavy eyelids and laboured motions i managed to buckle myself into my seat. I didn't even pay any attention to the group of leggy models from the Czech Republic who were on their way to do a photo shoot in Sri Lanka. I was going to sleep. And sleep i did!
                                The flight time down to Colombo was roughly 8 hours. When i awoke to discover i had been asleep for nearly 5 hours i was really pleased with myself. I had cut the flight time by more than half. The slight headache and gummy taste in my mouth were a small price to pay. As i stretched and yawned i started to take in more of what was going on around me. Hardly anyone was seated. The aisles were filled with people milling around. Some people hung over the headrests behind them and i noticed that a lot of the overhead lockers were open. I turned and looked along the row towards my 2 friends and they returned my gaze with tight lipped expressions and a slow shake of their heads. A dull sickening feeling took hold of the pit of my stomach. I turned and looked at the small plexi-glass cabin window away to my left.
                               Confirmation!   We were still at a standstill on the tarmac in Jordan.  The dull throb in my temples began to gather momentum and my lower back began to ache in sympathy. I felt sick. I could easily have cried.    It turns out that a young Turkish couple had boarded the aircraft and announced that their bag in the hold contained a bomb. They were bundled off and the baggage handlers had to remove every item of luggage from the hold to be searched.   It was just a stupid prank but it may have cost them their liberty for some time.
                                       I spent the next 8 hours or so in the depths of depression. I still don't understand, to this day, why we were not evacuated from an aircraft that potentially contained a bomb in the hold.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Mumbai to Bangkok

By now i had been a guest of Jetairways for what seemed like an eternity. I had watched all the movies and features that were of interest to me. I had played "who wants to be a millionaire" to the point where i knew all the answers before they appeared on the screen.  I squirmed in my seat to find a position of comfort. I looked on in envy as everyone around me seemed to be sleeping the miles away while i wrestled with back and leg pains. I watched the small screen in front of me that displayed our flightpath and other information. The only meaningful statistic was "time to destination". I tried to pay no attention to it for as long as i could in the hope that the next time i looked the time would have dwindled down at least 45 minutes. I think my record for not looking was about 8 minutes!
                                       I've never been to India, except in transit, but i feel as though i know it better than i do as i've spent countless hours watching it pass beneath me on these screens. Obscure place names of towns that are full of people in nowhere near the discomfort that i'm suffering. At this hour most of them will be sound asleep.
                                    The in-flight meal was served with little event. However, a well spoken middle aged gentleman a few rows forward, was complaining about something. From what i could make out he was somewhat disgruntled at the ice in his drink not being cold enough. Was i hearing this correctly or was sleep deprivation really taking a grip of my mind?  (or his ?)
                                     Finally, Myanmar and Thailand crept into view on the far right of the screen. Some of the small plastic window blinds were open allowing shafts of dust filled sunlight to pierce the gloom here and there. Eventually, the P.A. system crackled into life with the captain telling us about the weather conditions in Bangkok and thanking us for choosing Jetairways blah, blah, blah. It was then that i realised i had not been issued with an arrival card. I didn't worry to much thinking it would only take a minute to scribble one out at immigration.
                                             Wrong!   I had to stand in line for 20 minutes before i was issued with one.
Some of the people in front of me were being asked all sorts of questions, like, what is the purpose of your visit ? and , How long do you intend to stay? I wondered if a wrong answer might mean that they didn't give you a card. When my turn came the young girl handed over my card without looking at me.  I had a pen but most people didn't. More chaos. Every inch of available flat surface was taken up by dozens of people scratching out their details on their arrival cards. They were flanked by dozens more waiting to use their pens. I drew some open mouthed disgusted looks from the people waiting behind me as i slipped my Homer Simpson pen back into my pocket and headed over to passport control.
                                           When you join one of these lines of people waiting to be stamped through you have just moments to decide which will be the fastest mover.   Travel Tip :  Do not join the shortest line. This is because it's short for a reason. Usually there is a hold up at the front and people have abandoned their position in favour of a different line. Also, try to avoid lines containing Arabs. They never seem to have the proper documentation which leads to a stewards enquiry and another delay.
                                            I scanned the lines quickly and joined the one that i judged would be the quickest.   Wrong again!  My line contained two French backpackers. Probably boyfriend and girlfriend. They seemed unable to grasp the fact that one of them had to remain behind the red line while the other one was dealt with. They insisted on being joined at the hip and this held things up for some time as they were unwilling to be separated even by a distance of just 3 yards for just a couple of minutes.
                                           By the time i emerged from these tribulations i was so tired i just couldn't face the stress of a bus journey into town. At 500 baht it's ten times the price of the bus but i was happy to stump up the taxi fare for a quiet life. The taxi dropped me at the Morchit bus terminal and i paid 158 baht for the sleepless 3 hour journey to Takhli.
                                             Laong met me off the bus with a hug and my favourite iced coffee. By now i had been awake for nearly 30 hours. Just when i was beginning to fantasize about stretching out full length in my own bed, Laong informed me that her brother had taken the truck to Tak Fa to purchase some pig feed and wouldn't be back to pick us up for at least another 2 hours......Welcome home!
Footnote: I'm sure there must be lots of Arabians who travel with the correct documentation and have no problems as a result so i apologize in advance to anyone who thinks my observation is an over generalization.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Mumbai transit.

I had already experienced the chaos of the security check in Mumbai the week before. So i waited patiently while the Indian officials turned a simple screening procedure into a complicated and stressful hour of everyones life. The real problems, however, only really started on the other side of the metal detectors and x-ray machines.
                          There was no information about onward connecting flights. No screens, no announcements, nothing. Being a fairly seasoned traveler i can usually work these situations through without having to ask anyone. I was just about to doubt my own capabilities when i was approached by an airport official. He sidled up to me, and with a couple of furtive glances in each direction, asked me if i was traveling on to Bangkok. I said that i was. With that, he leaned forward and scratched "gate 12" on my boarding pass with a well chewed biro. Then he leaned in even closer and told me not to tell any other passengers as it could lead to a situation of overcrowding down at the gate. I nodded in a conspiratorial manner and assured him that i would keep his secret. Tapping the side of his nose with an index finger he melted back into the crowd.
                          As i neared the bottom of the escalator to gate 12, i could see that the airport authorities fears had already been realized. There were hundreds of people milling around in a state of confusion. I slipped into the only vacant seat i could find and as i did so the portly Indian lady next to me sprang up and threw me a nasty glare. Gathering her pashmina about herself she stormed off.  Strange..   Her seat was immediately taken by a forty something English guy with a strong west country accent.
                        "First time in Thailand is it"? was his opening gambit.  I've never really thought of myself as being overly gregarious but at this time and place i just didn't want to get into conversation with my new friend. I decided to let him prattle on and just punctuate matters with the occasional word and a nod here and there.  It turns out he was on his way to Thailand to marry a girl that he had met on the final night of his last visit to Pattaya. They had kept in touch and ,at her suggestion , had decided to get married.  He motioned towards a Joe 90 style executive briefcase between his legs and informed me that it contained twelve thousand pounds. He was giving it to the girls mother as a sort of "fee" for her daughters hand in marriage. His young lady would be taking the money to her mother and returning to meet him in Pattaya in a couple of days. My heart sank. I was filled with a mixture of sadness and anger towards this lonely, gullible individual. He had been spun and fallen for every line in the book. Over the next 10 minutes he droned on about family eye operations and sick buffaloes.
                                         I was beginning to hatch a plan in my mind for snatching the case in Bangkok and jumping into the nearest taxi when a garbled announcement came over the P.A. I didn't catch a single word of it but the gate was now open and everyone was pushing towards the fleet of buses waiting out on the apron.  The cause of all the confusion now became clear. Jetairways were trying to embark 4 separate flights through the same gate at the same time. One to Muscat, one to Munich and two to Bangkok. It was just pot luck if you ended up on the right bus. Maybe i was just lucky but lots of people were not. It took ages to round everyone up and deliver them to the correct aircraft. I had been buckled into my seat for well over an hour before we finally started the slow taxi out to the runway for take off.
                                     I have no way of knowing what became of the hapless guy from Devon but i'm pretty certain of what became of the contents of his briefcase. Should i have given him some cautionary advice? Maybe, but he wouldn't have listened. I've seen it so many times before. He had a terminal dose of Thai fever and was on a collision course with heartbreak and possible financial ruin. I wish him luck but for some people there is no cure.
                                   We rose slowly into the night sky. Then, banking left, we headed inland leaving the lights of Mumbai blinking far below. Next stop Bangkok. But i wasn't home free yet!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

London to Mumbai

I had occasion to return to the UK for a week at the end of June this year. The events of the journey back to Thailand have given me enough material for a few posts so lets start with London to Mumbai.
                       My good friend Mark was kind enough to drive me up to Heathrow from Ramsgate in Kent. We said our farewells outside Terminal 4 just after 7am on a bright but fresh sunday morning. I made my way inside the building and headed for the Jetairways check-in. From some distance away i recognized the 70+ members of a Taiwanese school gymnastic team decked out,as they were, in their track suited red and white livery. By pure coincidence they had been on my inbound flight a week before. The leader of their party had just handed in two tall stacks of passports and wiped out the services of 3 of the 4 check-in desks in use. I took my place in the zig-zag of waiting passengers and waited patiently.
                       Just then i glanced over my shoulder and saw a portly Indian gentleman approaching with a dozen or so members of his family and a large wagon train of baggage. He, apparently, was not prepared to wait like everyone else and,with his family in tow, marched straight to the front and barged in at the last available desk. His baggage train completely log jammed the area leaving the staff with just one alternative. Namely,to check him and his family in so that they could get things moving again. It was one of the most bare faced, liberty taking cases of shoving in i had ever seen. There was mild uproar from the other outflanked passengers but i found it quite amusing. I would even go as far as to say that i harboured a quiet admiration for the fellow.
                              Some 2 hours hence i boarded the aircraft to discover that i was actually seated next to him and his wife. I nodded curtly to them as i stowed my shoulder bag and dropped into the aisle seat. The first of the 2 in-flight meals was served shortly after take off. A very tasty vegetable curry that i washed down with cold mineral water and then tried to make myself as comfortable as possible for the next 9 hours. Sleep was out of the question as it always is for me on flights.
                             I decided to forgo the second meal for no other reason than i just wasn't hungry. The Indian gentleman in the window seat devoured his meal with relish. His wife, next to me, just moved her food around with a plastic spoon but consumed very little.   Then it happened!
                           I was caught completely off guard, as anyone would be. In one swift movement he leaned across, flipped my folding table down, slid his wifes tray of leftovers onto it and slid his own tray onto his wifes table. He then stowed his own table away and nestled back in his seat.  I think the modern term is "gobsmacked". This mans audacity knew no bounds. My gaze passed between him and the pile of debris in front of me several times before he registered my concern. "It's of no matter, the attendant will be along momentarily", he said in a lilting up and down the scale tone. All the while doing that side to side head wobble that accompanies so much conversation on the Indian sub-continent. I wanted to think of something smart or clever to say but the best i could conjour up was to inform him that he had 3 seconds to fold his table down and take his tray back or i would be dropping it straight into his lap. He took back the tray but still avoided using his own table by balancing both trays in front of his long suffering wife. Unfortunately for her the attendant did not happen along "momentarily" and she was stuck holding the 2 tiers of rubbish while her husband snored gently in the unencumbered window seat.
                         We touched down in Mumbai nearly 30 minutes late on a runway lashed by monsoon rains. I decided that, as i had a few hours to kill in transit, i was in no rush . My friend in the window seat, however, was much more eager to disembark. I waited until everyone behind us had passed along the fuselage before i rose to retrieve my small bag from overhead. The Indian gentleman, for once in his life, had to wait his turn and there was nothing he could do about it.
                       I was a little annoyed at myself for behaving in such a childish and petty manor as i skipped across the puddles to the already overcrowded bus. But i already had other things on my mind. I was preparing myself mentally for the chaos of the upcoming security check.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Can i have an ugly caddie?

My wife Laong and i have been together for nearly 7 years. We've been married for nearly 6 of those years. Blissfully? For the most part,yes. We have the odd difference of opinion like any married couple. These differences are born mainly from the diversity and separation of our two cultures. But we've never really had any serious fall outs.    Save one!
                      I decided to squeeze in a round of golf at the Chao Praya Dam golf course before the monsoon rains really too a hold. I was quite surprised when Laong announced her intention to accompany me. On arrival at the course i paid my green fees and was making preparations to start a double circuit of the very pleasant 9 hole layout. My caddie was fastening my golf bag to her trolley and making her own preparations when Laong went straight into volcano mode. "Who's that"? she exploded, pointing towards the young girl next to me. It was only then that i noticed how attractive my assistant for the next few hours was.
                          She was in her mid-twenties with soft brown eyes and a ready smile. She wore her hair up which revealed a perfect facial bone structure and a slender shapely neck. "That's my caddie" came my stunned reply. "Your what"? said Laong. I tried to explain that it was her job to transport my clubs and advise me on shot selection.  Laong stomped over to a notice board that showed numerous passport sized photographs of all the caddies employed at the course. She pointed to the image of a rather plump lady in her mid to late forties and said , "she help you".  The girl on the desk explained that my current caddie was the only one available. After several embarrassing heated exchanges Laong conceded to allow the young girl to remain in my employ but insisted on walking round with us.
                            The sun was at it's zenith in a cloudless sky and beat down without mercy. I applied a generous amount of sunblock to my neck and forearms and handed Laong my large golfing umbrella. Standing on the first tee, trying to visualize the upcoming shot,i was still reeling from the incident that had just transpired and in a frame of mind a million miles away from focused and concentrated.
                            I sliced my tee shot into the far right treeline. It turned out to be the best shot i played all day as i hacked my way round the first 9 holes. Laong stayed with us for the first 4 holes before succumbing to the effects of heat and thirst and returning to the clubhouse. She muttered some words, i know not what, to the caddie as she was leaving. The poor young girl looked in fear for her life and trailed at least 25 yards behind me for the rest of the round.
                              I gave up at the turn since i had run up an enormous amount of strokes and i was in no mood to continue. The unfortunate caddie even had to forgo her tip as she handed back my clubs under Laong's poisonous gaze.
                                  The course at Chao Praya Dam is short (2697 yards for 9 holes) but well maintained with some tight challenging holes. The third hole tees off from an elevated platform built in the shallows of the river. The par 5 fifth runs parallel to the river and finishes on a green with a great close up view of the dam itself. You can contact the course directly by telephone(0 5641 1559) to arrange the services of an ugly caddie should you so require!
                                                  The young lady shown in the photograph is not my caddie. In fact, i can't even take credit for the shot as i "lifted" it from a photo bank. I included it as it fitted in well with the story.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Don't drink the water.

Living out in the sticks we have more than our fair share of over sized rats. The crops of rice keep them well fed and my mother-in-law makes sure that they don't go without by throwing left over and unwanted food straight out of the kitchen window.  My young nephew, Jem, sets traps for them a couple of times a week. The traps consist of a metal gauze box with a spring loaded trap door at one end. A small piece of food is suspended inside and when Roland patters inside for a free meal the door springs shut behind him and his fate is sealed.
                            As with most things, with any calorific value, in rural Thailand the unfortunate rodents are destined for the wok. But before they can be prepared they have to be sent to meet their maker. Young Jem does this by hooking the traps onto a piece of cord and dropping them into the river that runs by outside our house. The river is dry at the moment so Jem has been "dispatching" the rats by dropping the traps into a large plastic dustbin of water that is located directly by the entrance to the shop that takes up the downstairs part of our house. The bin is kept topped up from a nearby hosepipe.    Customers visiting the shop will often use the half submerged plastic ladle to wash their hands and face and generally freshen up. On occasion, i've even seen them drink the contents without a second thought.
                          You're probably ahead of me by now but i will continue.
The other day Jem retrieved his latest victims from the bin and took the proverbial drowned rats out to the kitchen for preparation. Just then, a customer alighted from his motorcycle and ordered some ice. While he was waiting for his order to be bagged up he lifted the ladle from the dustbin and ,leaning forward, poured some of the water over the back of his neck and head. He lifted a second ladle and, to my horror, took half a dozen long pulls to slake his thirst.   I watched wide eyed and open mouthed as he collected his purchase, pocketed his change and kick started his steed.
                          I would have thought that drinking untreated water is probably taking a chance at the best of times. I'm almost certain that drinking untreated water that has just been used to drown rats in a rusty cage is really asking for trouble.    I went into the shop and told Laong what her last customer had unwittingly done. She just shrugged and said "up to him".

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

That Monday morning feeling

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Back in the UK i suffered badly from that Monday morning feeling for as long as i can remember. One of the sad facts of life about living in England is that most people spend a lifetime doing a job from which they take no enjoyment.  Spending at least 5 days a week doing something that we don't like can't be good for the soul. As we progress in years, if the employment is in any way physical, then it's not good for the body either.
                                      That Monday morning feeling starts with the same journey to work every day of your working life. The same monotonous route, seeing the same sad, depressed people at the same time in the same place every day. Every one of them shuffling along with shoulders slouched and a hunted look of unavoidable captivity about them. It's enough to bring you back down to the dumps even if you are in semi-good spirits yourself.

                                   Thankfully, things are a little different for me now. Sure, i see the same people every day but they greet me with a cheery wave and a genuinely happy smile. And it's worth remembering that these are people on their way to do a really tough days toil in hot, muddy fields for very little financial reward.                                    My route to work is also the same every day. But it's no longer through cold, grey, windswept streets. My journey to work now takes me on a road that runs parallel to a branch of the Chao Praya river. I often have to pinch myself back to reality as i drink in the vision of the sun beginning a new arc and the tendrils of early morning mist rising from the still waters beside me. As i cross the river and head towards town, the enormous golden Buddha on the hillside above Wat Takhli Yai keeps a constant silent vigil on the countryside for miles around.
                                   I still experience that Monday morning feeling but a sense of depressed loathing has been replaced with one of feeling good to be alive and very lucky to be where i am and doing what i'm doing.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Three wheels on my wagon

Just about every road user in Thailand must of had a near death experience involving one of the vehicles shown in the photograph. If you haven't then you are very much in the minority.
           There are a number of reasons why this mode of transport is so dangerous. Most of them don't seem to be equipped with rear view mirrors. The ones that are usually have them angled so that the driver has a prime view of the road beneath them rather than give him any clue as to what might be going on behind him.
            Very few have lights or indicators of any description and none of their drivers seem to be familiar with the concept of hand signals.  In fact, it's the drivers that seem to be the main problem.  It would appear that to qualify as an owner of such a vehicle you must be at least 75 years old. You must also carry, whenever possible, a passenger in the front portion who is a minimum of 10 years older than yourself. If such a passenger isn't available then they can be substituted for at least 7 small children and babies. A good working knowledge of how to break every rule in the highway code is also a distinct advantage.
                              I had my closest call just the other day with one of these 3 wheeled wrecks and it's brain dead driver. I was unable to second guess his intentions at a busy junction and i used up another one of my dwindling stock of 9 lives. I managed a quick out-in swerve at the last moment and avoided a collision by inches. If we had indeed collided then he would have been well protected by the contents of his cart. Namely, at least a half a ton of scrap cardboard stacked improbably high and only just held down with some pink frayed string.
                                    It was only when i stole a quick glance in my mirror that my suspicions were confirmed. He couldn't see over or around his cargo!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The bridge over the river dry

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view from my balcony

Directly outside our house is a small river. Since i arrived here 7 years ago it had been spanned by an ancient wooden bridge. It was in a state of disrepair when i came and now it's condition is positively dangerous. It was a tricky mission to walk across it let alone attempt the traverse on a motorcycle. Some people used what i refer to as the momentum method whereby they would zoom across at high speed in the hope that if the creaky wooden structure did in fact collapse then they would be across before it crumbled beneath them.
                                        The recent drought in Thailand has meant that the river has actually run dry. Therefore, an unfortunate fall from the bridge would leave you with a 14 foot drop to the dry stony river bed below and almost certain injury. So everyone was quite pleased when contractors arrived last week to erect a new bridge. The old wooden deathtrap was replaced with a solid construction of metal and concrete.
                                       The new bridge was set in absolutely dead level. This would have been perfect but for the fact that the banks of the river are nowhere near level themselves. I for one, could have lived with a new solid bridge with a slight slope but we now have a dead level bridge with a smooth entry and exit at one side and a 4 foot drop over on the other bank!
                                     The contractors shuttered the drop with blocks and filled it in with hardcore and concrete and then cemented it smooth. The gradient is so steep that to cross by motorcycle you have to swing onto the other side of the road and take a measured run up. It simply can't be done if there is anyone standing on the narrow bridge at the time.    It seems to be only me that thinks that the whole concept is flawed. Everyone else thinks it's an engineering miracle of the modern age!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The price of being a farang

A short while ago my wife and i decided to visit the bird park at Chainat. Although it's only 20 minutes drive from where we live, i just haven't found the time to go down there. So i was quite looking forward to visiting what the area boasts as it's best attraction.
                                    On arrival at the entrance my eyes were drawn straight away to a huge sign above the ticket office. The sign was displaying the cost of entry. The cost of entry for a Thai national was just 20 Baht but foreign nationals were expected to pay ten times the price at 200 Baht. While 200 Baht wouldn't seem to be an awful lot of money, let's just try and put things into perspective.
                            The same situation back in the UK would be like paying maybe 10 Pounds to enter a bird park and being expected to pay 100 Pounds to take my foreign wife in with me. Well, back in the UK i just wouldn't pay it and i wasn't too keen to pay the foreign surcharge in Chainat. I was quite prepared to sit outside sulking. But in the end it was another case of shut up and pay up.
                              I am pleased to report that it was actually quite a pleasant morning wandering around the clean, well maintained grounds.  I'm even more pleased to report that since the time of our visit the entry price for farangs is the same as Thai nationals.  It only takes half a day at the most to see everything that there is to see but it's full value for 20 Baht. So if you're in the area it's well worth checking out what i'm told is the largest bird park in South East Asia.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Make a small fortune in Thailand

If you are looking to make a small fortune in Thailand then i have some solid gold advice.........Start off with a big one!!!!!

Looking for love in Thailand ??

Thought for the day.........If you're looking for love in Thailand......Buy a dog!!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Welcome to my world.

Ask yourself a couple of questions. Are you an ex-pat living in Thailand? Do you wish you were an ex-pat living in Thailand? If you answer yes to either of these questions then my blog will certainly be of interest to you.
                    Those of you who already live here will be able to identify with my experiences and those of you who don't, but would like to, will  maybe benefit from the lessons i have learnt along the way.
                          I'm 48 years old and i've been living in amazing Thailand for nearly 7 years. I spent the first 2 years in sin city (Pattaya) This is a destination that has spawned plenty of tales. Some amusing and some cautionary. However, for the last 5 yers i've been living up country in central Thailand near the town of Takhli in Nakon Sawan province. I live here with my Thai wife of 6 years and her mum and dad. Laong runs a small shop in the downstairs part of our home and also farms rice on a modest scale.  For my sins i'm employed as an english teacher for a teaching franchise called Smart Brain.
                            My time spent in country has allowed me to observe, comment and give advice on many aspects of this unique country and its people. From the ever changing visa regulations to affairs of the heart and the wallet, i have a thousand stories
                            Those of you who follow my blog in the future may well form the opinion that i don't look apon my adopted home with much favour. This just isn't true but may be reflected as such in the anecdotes.
                               I very much look forward to everyones comments, both positive and negative. Please feel free to e-mail me at   tom_yam41@yahoo.co.uk or leave a comment directly on the blog page.
                          So let the journey begin.........................