There are carrots, spring onions, lettuce and cabbage. Also string beans. I plant the vegetables in November. I sell them at the local market. I also have lemon trees and big papaya fruit!
Even if she wasn’t playing Western pop tunes or sad Thai love sonnets, the woman would stand out amongst the prowling ladyboys and friendly streetwalkers of the late Bangkok evenings. Her dresses are always full length and the blouses long-sleeved, revealing little of her figure. On occasion she dons a brown beret. As you approach, she offers up a pleasant smile as she plays and if you linger, will launch into a special selection from her repertoire. Her case sits open at her feet and contains a splattering of coins and crumpled notes tossed in by wandering tourists, few of whom stop to listen for more than a couple minutes.
The woman’s name is Cat and she can sometimes be found after 10 p.m. on the corner of Soi 6 & Sukhumvit, below the Nana Skytrain Station. Occasionally I go home that way after a night of playing pool in order to be regaled with Yesterday Once More and Jambalaya (I grew up on the Carpenters) followed by a local song of yearning and loss, which is explained to me afterwards. Sometimes Cat also brings a bamboo flute and I end up singing to strains of Puff the Magic Dragon while the Bangkok traffic rumbles by but a few yards away. It’s a slightly surreal experience, but I appreciate the contrast.
If you ever find yourself strolling near Nana Station late some night, keep an eye out for a lonely figure playing a white, garland-tipped violin, serenading the darkness. Stop and listen for a song or two and don’t forget to leave a generous tip — it will be much appreciated and deserved.
Special Notice: Finito
After twelve months of diligently recording my experiences and impressions in Thailand’s capital city, I’ve decided the time has come to wrap up this blog. In 2015, I plan to launch a new one, possibly focusing on my travels outside of Bangkok. Those of you that are following my efforts (fifty-one and counting!) should get the usual email notifications once I’ve begun. In the meantime, I thank you all for your interest so far. It has involved some hard work, publishing every Sunday, but there was a gratifying sense of accomplishment, which in turn has motivated me to continue my blogging efforts.
The women working at the pool halls in the entertainment district are often very tough players, as I have learned through innumerable defeats. Since I am quite competitive myself, I’ve had to come up with a few special tricks to give me an advantage. To help other unfortunates who may one day find themselves going up against these felt felines, I will share them here.
2. Once play begins, ply the damsels with plenty of alcohol while you stick to water. Though experience has shown that booze can inspire wild and unexpected four or five ball runs, it also induces happier, more carefree behavior as you remain sharp and focused.
Although I have decided against purchasing an iPhone, fearing it would demand too much of my time and attention, I’ve nevertheless found a use for Apple’s technology: to enhance my leisure hours at home.
In many respects, my apartment is a bulwark against the occasions when this country becomes a bit much. The taxi driver who won’t pick up me and my date because the drive requires a ticklish right-hand turn at a busy intersection (the Thais drive on the left side of the road); the ladyboy who won’t let go of me even after I tell him (her?) no thanks; the crowds and the sapping humidity. There are days when all I want is to stay huddled inside and indulge in my favorite means of relaxation: books and movies.
Unfortunately, the films offered on cable here have been a major disappointment. HBO Asia, like it’s counterpart in the U.S., feeds the natives a largely insipid collection of simple-minded formula flicks, blow-em-up action movies, or goofy animation. The ultimate purpose seems to be to dumb down the Thais and other peoples of this region to the level of the Americans — no mean feat. (In fairness, there are a few quality movies shown, but like a solar eclipse they require a real effort to track down as they occur on rare occasions and at weird hours.)
To escape the frustration of this entertainment cesspool, I decided to purchase a DVD player. For over a year this alternative worked fine. But then I started running out of places to store all the DVDs I’d bought. They began spilling out of the drawers and cupboards, making a middle-of-the-night grope to the bathroom hazardous. In desperation, I turned to my MacBook Air laptop. I had been downloading music from the iTunes Store practically from the day I bought it. However, I’d always ignored the accompanying movie selections since the ones being advertised had no appeal. But then I got the idea of trying a search of iTunes to see what else might be out there. Brushing DVDs off the sofa, I cleared a narrow space to sit down in and went to work, using a list of my all-time best-loved films.
The results were mixed. At times iTunes would whine that it was offline and unable to process my search request. (Imagine Google having this problem.) Nor did there seem to be any foreign movies. However, plenty of my English language favorites were available, which I quickly purchased and downloaded into my machine: Brazil, Lone Star and Rocky Horror Picture Show for starters. To these I added two TV shows from my long-ago youth: Twilight Zone and Outer Limits. And for any items I did not actually care to own, there’s a rental option. Wow! Welcome to the twenty-first century.
Since those wondrous discoveries, I’ve become a more contented person (especially since I now have the sofa all to myself). In addition to the iTunes products, I’ve downloaded some thirty tomes from iBooks. After a stressful day of edging around street vendors and dodging motorbikes, I now have some pleasing means of unwinding. For those planning to be away for an extended period of time, the lesson should be clear: Don’t leave the laptop at home!
One of the rewards of foreign travel are the good people you sometimes chance upon. The last time I was in South Korea, a woman showed me how to shop at a local bakery (“First, you take this tray…”). In Taiwan, a girl noticing my struggles with my backpack offered me her seat on the Taipei subway. Yet in my three-plus years in Thailand, I’ve experienced this kind of no-strings-attached generosity perhaps a handful of times. There seems to be something in the Thai DNA that prevents them from having empathy for anyone outside their immediate circle of family and friends.
It’s little wonder then that the “haves” of this nation (the so-called Yellow Shirts, a political minority centered in Bangkok) have so little sympathy for the rural folk (the Red Shirts), seeing them not as fellow countrymen, equally deserving of a say in how the nation is to be governed, but as undeserving rubes living off rice subsidies and other handouts. Dirty tricks such as judicial fiats and army takeovers are therefore perfectly acceptable means of nullifying the power the Reds wield at the voting booth.
Which brings us to the latest struggle. After a second coup in less than a decade, the latest Generalissimo In Charge has announced it will be at least fifteen months before another election can be held. In the meantime, there will be a focus on “security and reconciliation” (rather strange bedfellows) followed by a temporary constitution drawn up by legal experts. To expect that the current bitter animosities between the Yellows and the Reds can be somehow tamed, then papered over (pun intended) with a fancy new legal document is an exercise in wishful thinking. One wonders if the ruling junta is truly serious, or simply using this as a ruse to blunt criticism and stay in power.
Ironically, it has been the Royal Thai Army that has allowed the tensions to escalate to the current boiling point. Back in January, when the Yellow Shirts blockaded major intersections in Bangkok, demanding an overthrow of the elected, legitimate government, the army did not lift a finger against them as the anger on both sides rose. It was only after the prime minister’s forced removal almost four months later, when the Red Shirts began threatening counter-demonstrations, that the soldiers actually took to the streets and martial law was declared. For the generals to now be portraying themselves to the outside world as fair and impartial rulers is laughable.
It was the French Prime Minister of almost a century ago, Georges Clemenceau, who is credited with saying that war is too serious a matter to entrust to military men. If that is the case — and there is ample evidence to support the thesis — then it is even more true that the military should restrain itself from the management of civilian affairs. Thailand today is a country in name only; whose people fail to see themselves as part of a greater whole. No army is going to be able change that.
The new bankbook I got back in March has proven to be a real pain. Specifically, the bar code — a wide, black band located at the bottom of the front cover — cannot always be read by the machine that prints the transactions. In the past couple of weeks this trouble had gotten noticeably worse. With a heavy heart, I realized I’d have to make another visit to my beloved Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) to ask for a new bankbook. It was not going to be an easy task, explaining what was going wrong and persuading them that I had a genuine grievance.
Though there had a misunderstanding involving her birthday party last December, I’d let that slide and had continued to stop by Nicky’s place of business every once in awhile. She’d proven herself to be a very useful translator whenever I’d had important bank business to attend to, and I didn’t want to lose her services. You see, the Thais working at the local SCB branch seem to think the foreigners in this area are sloppy and rather obtuse. (Walk past the Soi 4 sports bars some night with the mobs of obese, beer-guzzling, bawling soccer fans and you’d come to the same conclusion.) If I have to deal with them — the Thais, not the fans — it would be far better to have one of their own with me in order to be taken more seriously. A kind of defense lawyer to present my case.
Nicky was initially concerned she might not fully understand was in essence a technical malfunction. Once we got to the bank, however, I easily brought her up to speed by twice putting my bankbook into the print machine and having her read the resulting error messages. To her edification — and my relief, since I wanted a realistic demonstration — the device first whined that it could not read the bar code, then complained about the book’s transactions being misaligned. A real mess.
Entering the bank, Nicky explained our problem to the “greeter girl” who had us take a seat out front. After a bit of waiting, we were then ushered not to one of the tellers, who had been of marginal competence the last time I had this trouble, but to one of the wide, important-looking desks next to the teller stalls. The woman seated behind it was young, but knew exactly what to do. Although I had to sign my name in four places (the Thais are fanatics about foreigner signatures), in less than ten minutes’ time I was issued a new bankbook that worked perfectly.
As we got up to leave, the desk lady mentioned the importance of always keeping the bankbook in the shiny plastic envelope that it came in — much the same way the bar girls demand their customers use condoms. Though I unfailingly employ both means of protection, I bowed my head in humble subservience. Who knows, I may need that banker’s assistance again someday!Related Posts You May Enjoy
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In the past few days, the military takeover here in Thailand has grabbed worldwide headlines. The official rational for the move is to put an end to the political turbulence of the past six months, which has seen endless street protests, the forced resignation of the prime minister and some of her cabinet, and increasing fatalities as the violence threatens to boil over.
Although the images coming out of Bangkok are replete with grim-faced soldiers and policemen, they are not actually guarding every street corner. When I had dinner Friday evening at the Terminal 21 Mall next to the very busy Asoke Skytrain Station, there were no uniforms or rifles to be seen. Just the typical crowd of commuters and shoppers along with wandering tourists deciding on where to eat. The only unusual scenes were the throngs of Thais waiting to ride the city buses, there being far fewer taxis available.
As part of the crackdown, a nighttime curfew has been imposed, requiring everyone to be off the streets by 10:00 PM. I have not found this to be a personal imposition — being fifty-seven years old, I tend to be home by that hour regardless of what the authorities are ordering. For others, however, this is both frustrating and inconvenient. Strolling back to my apartment Friday night at 9:30 along Sukhumvit Road, there was a definite tension in the air as people scrambled to find a way to get home in a hurry. I made it to my comfy studio with fifteen minutes to spare as an eerie quiet descended upon my street, broken only by the occasional car. Rather than being under martial law, it felt like the capital city had been abandoned. In a strange way, I kind of enjoyed it.
Another move the army has made is to close down various media outlets. For the first couple of days, about one third of the cable channels I used to get showed only a colorful display from the “National Peace and Order Maintaining Council”. This included CNN, though I could still get news from the BBC channel and my apartment’s internet connection was not affected.
For the time being, I am not going to make any drastic moves such as a harried midnight flight out of the country. Instead, I’ll continue to keep a low profile and follow the rules, quietly going about my daily routines like everyone else. I do not feel threatened or even inconvenienced — at least not yet — and my feeling here is that it’s best to wait and see what unfolds in the next couple of weeks.
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