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.