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 oc-casion 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 splat-tering 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 ex-plained 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, sere-nading 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 also 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 spe-cial 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 care-free 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 disap-pointment. 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 pur-chase 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 pur-chased 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 un-deserving rubes living off rice subsidies and other hand-outs. Dirty tricks such as judicial fiats and army takeovers are therefore perfectly accept-able 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 bed-fellows) 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 won-ders 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 over-throw 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 Cle-menceau, 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. Spe-cifically, 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 trans-actions. 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.
It was time to bring in Nicky.
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 es-sence 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 edifi-cation — 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 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!
Nicky’s Company: Patpong Visa Service located on Soi 4 a couple hundred meters beyond Nana Plaza. Left side of the street, adjacent to a 7-11. Also does hotel and flight bookings and has internet.
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 cor-ner. 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 night-time curfew has been imposed, requir-ing 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 def-inite 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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Last week a mild thunderstorm hit just as I was getting ready for bed. I have always enjoyed the soothing patter (or in this case, the pounding) of rain, so I opened the patio door to take it in. Of course this also let in the sharp sounds of the street traffic, but most of those annoying motorbike drivers were opting to stay home and dry.
These storms are much appreciated at this time of the year as they pass through every few days, fracturing the glassy heat which has encased the city since early April. For a few hours at least, one no longer feels like they are living on the surface of Venus. It’s easier to breathe, and a per-son can cut back on the five-showers-a-day routine.
I’ve heard the locals refer to this the Rainy Season, but for me it’s far too patchy and benign to be worthy of the title. For one thing, the mon-soon deluges — when the water comes down in buckets — are still a good four months off. The rains occurring now are more like half-hour outdoor fresheners, leaving behind blue, scrubbed skies and more bear-able temperatures. Certainly not causing any real discomfort, especially when compared to what the climate of my old home of Seattle offers up each winter.
If the heavy portion of the Rainy Season here in Thailand is a physical assault, the one that invades the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. around mid-to-late October strikes at a person’s psyche. For some five months, thick layers of unending grey clouds roll in from the coast, reducing the sun to a rumor and blurring the landscape in a monotonous drizzle. As an added punishment, the days become brutally shorter: by early December one will be commuting to and from work in partial to total darkness. The holiday cheer is tinged with melancholy. Prozac consumption skyrockets. When, at the far end of the tunnel, the bright days of late spring appear, they greeted with near rapture.
Sometimes when I awaken early and cannot get back to sleep, I get up and do a short, pre-dawn walk. The roar of city life receeds during these hours to a distant growl and my pace is slow and relaxed. When in the mood for a challenge, I stop and try to identify an overhead star or planet. On other occasions I stroll down to the convenience store for bread and milk — two items always in short supply at my place.
In hindsight, I should have found the sight of people sweeping my street at 5:00 a.m. unusual. While the Thais are generally neat and clean, they are far less fastidious in their attitude towards their general environment. A Thai home might be well-scrubbed with everything in its place while the canal but a few meters away is blighted with floating islands of dis-carded plastic bottles and candy wrappers. The idea that anyone would care about refuse blowing down an empty Bangkok street makes sense only when one notices the plethora of tourist hotels in my area — having tourists stepping over garbage whenever they go out is not the best way to advertise the city.
So there is a definite need to employ an early morning broom brigade to tidy things up. At first glance, this would not appear to be a desirable profession, getting up in the middle of the night for the purpose of clean-ing up after others. But in a nation saturated with menial jobs, one could do far worse. For one thing, the sweepers do not have to handle the bulg-ing plastic bags of reeking garbage, nor are they laboring in the intense mid-day heat. Their dark uniforms, overlaid with green Day-Glo jackets, even lend them an air of respectability.
Saow is one of the female members of the cleaning crew whom I some-times run across during my insomnia-induced meanderings. I believe she begins her night down near Nana Plaza and slowly works her way up to the end of Soi 4, a couple blocks beyond my apartment (a total of five hundred meters or so). There’s an understated prettiness to her and when-ever we meet, I give her one hundred baht ($3), telling her (with a smile) that it’s for breakfast. We cannot converse to any degree, but I always en-joy making a kind gesture, and although somewhat reserved (shy?), she’s happy to see me.
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Honest Working Women
Residing in a foreign country is an entirely different affair compared to taking a two or three week vacation there. Experiences that were initially fresh and exciting quickly become a grind when repeated day after day. Yes, that taxi driver was certainly friendly — especially after a generous tip — but to be importuned by his ilk even when stepping out to get a breath of what passes for fresh air soon becomes an irritation, then an an-noyance.
I had lived in both Japan and South Korea before coming to Thailand. Amongst other things, I’d learned the importance of maintaining a degree of contact with my home culture to stave off the loneliness (not to men-tion weirdness) that often descends upon foreign residents. In Japan, in what was the prehistoric, pre-internet days, this involved a weekly call to my parents and taking in the latest blockbuster movie from the U.S., ig-noring the Japanese subtitles. In Korea, I swapped detective and science fiction paperbacks with my fellow English teachers and did an occasional drinking outing.
But Thailand has turned out to be a rather different place than the prim, orderly societies of Northeast Asia. Less developed and far less predict-able. Walking along a Bangkok sidewalk, I’d be dodging a motorbike one minute while being propositioned by a ladyboy the next — encounters heard of in Seoul or Tokyo. Nor could my reaction to these affronts be assuaged anymore by a call home to mom and dad. It was an entirely new set of challenges that was to prove resistant to the old solutions from my Japan and Korea days.
A new approach was clearly needed. For starters, I had to train myself to better deal with aggravating or uncomfortable situations I had no control over, calmly standing aside for the motorbikes and giving the Thai men in dresses a wide berth. At the same time, I started taking advantage of the nighttime fun Bangkok has to offer in order to have some positive, counterbalancing experiences. Nothing short of a baseball bat was going to deter the sidewalk Easy Riders, but if I’d just finished an enjoyable evening playing pool and drinking wine with some fun-loving Thai girls, I’d be far less likely to let those unruly drivers get to me.
In short, Thailand has made me a more interactive person. I had been in the habit of steering clear of life’s surprises and unpleasantries, safely en-sconced in my own private little world (behavior that comes naturally to IT people). This country will not allow me to get away with that.
The procession of makeshift booths that line the odd-numbered side of Sukhumvit begin at the busy intersection near Nana Plaza and continue for some five or six long blocks, almost to the Asoke Skytrain Station. A bewildering array of goods can be found there starting with the usual t-shirts, thongs and sparkling trinkets, then moving on to such exotic items as fake pistols and erotic salt and pepper shakers. For those elderly con-noisseurs of the fairer sex who have more ambitious plans, street Viagra is also available — with stalls offering porno DVDs and battery powered vibrators conveniently located a few feet away.
Most of the vendors begin setting up during the late morning, a compact pickup truck parked by the curb with mom and pop working to assemble the stand and get the merchandise out and on display. Often a couple of the children are also there, pitching in. At least one of the family will be manning their tiny patch of concrete until ten or eleven o-clock at night, when everything will then be neatly re-packed and taken home. While the hours may vary, the routine is the same six days a week.
The preferred target of these hardy entrepreneurs are jet-lagged tourists on their first trip to Bangkok, still fumbling with the local currency and maybe a bit overwhelmed by the sights. If a gold Buddha amulet catches their eye, they are unlikely to haggle much over the price. Those that do prefer to negotiate will find the vendors, who of course know what the wares really cost, quite happy to engage in some give-and-take. It can be a mutually beneficial exchange, with the customer walking away feeling he or she got a very good deal and the seller, having made a tidy profit, smiling to herself.
My experiences in this colorful, gritty environment have been mixed, in part because I am a finicky shopper who prefers to maintain a degree of control over the transaction. One evening, while inspecting a pair of san-dals hung on a sheet of cardboard in front of a shoe store, I got into a mild standoff with the owner, who wanted me to go inside where there was a wide selection. Sensing I would lose some of my bargaining power — and being very interested in the pair out front — I demurred. When it became clear I wasn’t for some reason going to be allowed to purchase them, I casually walked away, costing the fellow a potential sale.
But that is only me. For anyone coming to visit, I recommend an evening stroll along this part of Sukhumvit. To be sure, it lacks the allure of the more sophisticated parts of the city, but it’s an authentic slice of Bang-kok.