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.
On Mondays, before the cleaning ladies arrived to do my apartment, I used to leave a pair of two hundred baht tips ($6 apiece), placed under-neath the widescreen TV, where it was sure to be noticed. This routine went smoothly for a long time, but then — to my surprise — compli-cations arose.
It had to do with the number of maids involved. The two regulars, Lek and Pong, showed up every week, scrubbed the bathroom, changed the sheets and swept the room. They were very grateful for the money. But sometimes a third woman, Saenga, helped out. Because she was more shy than the other two, I felt a certain sympathy and wanted to be sure she also received something.
The easiest solution would have been for me to have three tips laid out so Saenga could be compensated whenever she was part of the crew. But when I suggested this to Lek and Pong, they reacted with something akin to horror. No, they said, Saenga could never know about the tips. For that matter, I should not even be mentioning the money in any setting where someone could overhear us. When I asked why, Lek struggled with an explanation. But as I thought about the ramifications later, a degree of understanding began to dawn.
First of all, two hundred baht, while a mere pocket change to me, is a nice little sum to the girls. Enough that if the other maids were to find out about my generosity, it could cause some jealousy, maybe even anger at the way they had been excluded (by not getting to clean my room). Were I to begin tipping Saenga, the entire arrangement would be exposed with unpredictable consequences. The cat would be out of the bag.
Not wanting to risk setting off a squabble, I decided to devise a more co-vert method of tipping my two regulars. It was a simple solution: I would place the money in the left-hand drawer of what I like to call the “make-up niche”, a small enclosed area with a long mirror that my streetwalker dates use to pretty themselves up before going back out to troll for more customers. Since the drawer makes a grinding noise, I demonstrated to the girls how they should cover it by emitting a loud cough. This gave them a good laugh and now when I run across them, I sometimes make a deliberate cough of my own as a reminder of our shared little secret.
My clever little scheme so far has gone undetected by the other maids. I just hope none of them ever become followers of this blog!
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Honest Working Women
This past week I’ve made multiple visits to my grocery store to stock up on supplies to sustain me through this long, wild, holiday weekend. I do not want a repeat of last year when I was reduced to peanut butter sand-wiches by the third day.
The Songkran Festival is the traditional New Year’s Day in Thailand. It can be confusing to a foreigner as the calendar and the Lunar New Year are also celebrated in this country. Sometimes it seems like every new week brings another reason to sing Auld Lang Syne.
Where Songkran differs from the other two dates is in the deployment of generous amounts of water. Because this takes place at the height of the hot season, the idea of having a few drops sprinkling upon oneself can be refreshing and perhaps in the past that was as far as things went. But times have changed and now much of the country is consumed with enthusiastic water fights. In cities such as Udon Thani, it can involve the entire clan: A tub containing a huge block of ice is loaded onto the back of the family pickup along with bowls and containers. The gunnery crew (mom and the kids, maybe a cousin or two) then seat themselves around the tub as the truck heads downtown to do battle. Cruising slowly along the main street, stunningly cold water is hurled at the people in the back of the oncoming vehicles, who are of course returning the fire. I parti-cipated in the festivities up there a few years ago and had a blast.
Not so much anymore, however. In my Bangkok neighborhood, the water throwing is more a brutal form of guerrilla warfare than some family out-ing. Thais and foreigners alike scamper about armed with monster squirt guns — sold everywhere, even in the 7-Elevens — soaking anyone who comes within range. All in good fun, or course, unless you are trying to go somewhere and wish to stay dry. Get caught in someone’s crosshairs, and you are in for a bath. There’s also an element of borderline craziness, such as the fellow last year who stood out near the apartment gate for al-most three hours as the rumpus raged, screeching the same unintelligible phrase over and over. It was more than a desire to avoid a drenching that kept me inside: I did not want to go anywhere near that weirdo.
Therefore I am hunkered down for a few days. This is not a huge impo-sition. There are always little things to do around my apartment, such as defrosting the ice box, that I’m forever putting off. Should I need to go out, I’ll wear an old t-shirt with a swimming suit and keep my money dry by folding it into a large condom — a kind of dual-purpose wallet.
I’ll also try to duck.
My body is encased in sweat and aches in places I never knew I had. My legs are wobbly. A lightheadedness threatens to engulf me. One step at a time, I keep telling myself.
Getting out of bed is no easy feat anymore for me and my fifty-six years. (Make that fifty-seven as of today!) Especially now that the tropical sum-mer has arrived. Even worse, I have promised myself that once the grog-giness dissipates, I will get ready for my morning walk; a superhuman effort given my current state.
The first order of business is answering Mother Nature’s call, an obli-gation that restores some confidence in my ability — as a member of the Homo Sapiens race — to walk upright. Then it’s time for the morning exercises which get the blood pumping, making the idea of venturing outside somewhat less daunting. As I work though my sit-ups and push-ups, grunting and panting, the force of habit, born from a lifetime of re-petition, finally kicks in. Before I know it, I am tying my tennis shoes, tucking in my t-shirt and heading out the door into the sauna-like heat to begin my little adventure.
Although it is but a few minutes shy of 9:00 a.m., the temperature has al-ready reached twenty-nine degrees Celsius (eighty-four Fahrenheit). And we are not talking a dry heat, either. But I grew up in the American Mid-west and am therefore no stranger to overbearing heat and humidity. For the first five or so minutes, in fact, I feel pretty good.
My destination is a recently discovered entry ramp that connects to the middle of an overhead walking path — a strange, disjointed trail that originates next to a nondescript, narrow street, parallels a debris-littered canal, then dead-ends at busy Wireless Road a couple kilometers away. In America, such projects usually connect parks, Universities or downtown areas, giving people a reason to use them. But this walkway, situated in the middle of Bangkok, is an orphan and doesn’t see many users, making it a perfect place for a brisk, heads-down walk. No street vendors to navi-gate around; no motorbikes bearing down on the sidewalk to dodge. I am unshackled from the daily grunge of the city.
I ascend the ramp in high spirits, cross over a congested highway (are there any other kinds in Bangkok?), then descend the stairs to the canal. Seemingly unaffected by the Hot Season weather, I am cocky. Why, this feels far less miserable than the muggy, late-July rounds of golf I once endured back in the state of Iowa.
The problem, as I soon discover, is the extended exposure to the punish-ing heat. The enclosed path elevates as it crosses over Soi 4 (my home street), becoming a taxing mound of steps that I easily tackle on the way out. But on the return leg, I labor over it like a climber on Kilimanjaro. By the time I’ve made it back to the entry ramp, my mind is beginning to drift and I briefly pause to re-focus on the task at hand. I feel like I’m breathing molasses.
I won’t confess to staggering the final few blocks, but I do keep an eye out for fences and buildings I can lean (collapse) against should the need arise. Finally reaching the shady sanctuary of my apartment complex, I bend over with my hands on my hips, panting, feeling like I did back in high school cross country after completing a two mile run. But unlike those long-lost days, there is no sense of accomplishment, only survival.
I lurch into my apartment, peel off my clothes, and take an uncomfort-ably warm shower to scour away the equally warm sweat. I also make a note to myself to look up the symptoms for heat stroke on the internet. For tomorrow, unvanquished, I’ll go at it again.
One of the few obligations for foreigners living in this country, right up there with paying our bar tabs, is to visit Immigration every three months to tell them where we are living. This is the Thai government’s way of keeping tabs on its “guests”, many of whom come from countries who are glad to be rid of them for awhile. It’s not a cumbersome affair; you simply go in, fill out a short address form, then hand it and your passport over to a clerk to process. I’ve never had any real trouble, at least until now.
It all arose from the Immigration Bureau having been relocated to temp-orary offices because of the protests here in Bangkok, which closed many government facilities. One of the new locations was in the Big C Super-center Mall on Ladprao Road. A printed map from the Bureau’s website provided what appeared to be simple directions for getting to the mall from the Ladprao Subway Station. But once I arrived there to begin my quest, the map did not agree with the local one posted near the ticket ma-chines. One was telling me to go right on Ladprao Road, the other left. Deciding to trust Immigration’s directions, I turned right as I exited the station. Within twenty minutes my efforts were apparently rewarded as I stumbled upon a Big C Supercenter.
Oops, wrong Big C Supercenter. I should have turned left on Ladprao. This meant I had to re-turn to my starting point, then begin a new hike. And the day was growing uncomfortably hot.
Most people in this situation would have thrown in the towel and hailed a cab. I, however, have had a number of less-than-satisfactory experien-ces with Bangkok taxis and prefer to get around on my own whenever possible. Besides, the Immigration map seemed to indicate I only had about an eight-to-ten-block walk beyond the subway station.
Or maybe not. Some forty-five minutes later, with my breathing hot and labored and my pace slowed to a near-crawl, it began to dawn on me that the stupid map was not drawn to scale and what I had assumed was a moderate stroll was in fact a death march for anyone foolhardy enough to attempt it. (5 kilometers, or over 3 miles, when I looked it up later.) Surrendering to the inevitable, I stepped off the curb and flagged down a taxi.
This should have marked the end of my sufferings. The driver seemed to understand that my desired destination was the Big C Mall on Ladprao 81 (I’d figured out the address by now) and within ten minutes we were turning into the main entrance. But then the guy kept going, all the way down the right side of the huge complex, then out onto a small side street, leaving the mall behind. Heaven knows where he thought I wanted to go. I finally got the cab to stop, paid the fare, then slammed the door extra hard before trudging back.
It was a blessing that things went smoothly at Immigration. It had taken me a good three hours to get there — in no small part due to their goofy map — and I was sweaty, worn out and in a very bad mood. If I’d had to deal with some overly officious clerk, they would have needed at least two security guards to pry my hands from her throat. Yet one final frus-tration remained. After I’d finished the paperwork, navigated my way out of the mall and summoned another cab to take me home, the driver re-fused, saying it was too far back to the center of the city. Realizing that the next taxi operator who disappointed me might not live to tell about it, I elected to ride a city bus — for the first time — back to Ladprao Station where, after initially getting on a train going in the wrong direction, I eventually made it back to my apartment. It felt like I had run the Boston Marathon.
Thank heavens I only have to do this every three months.
One of the few good things I got from my last Thai girlfriend was a small Nokia cell phone. It wasn’t fancy, but it did the job. Thanks to it I learned how to text message, thus allowing me to finally join the 21st Century. After about a year, however, problems began cropping up. The device would turn off for no reason and the battery charge would last only a few hours. It became frustrating to deal with — just like my old Thai sweet-heart. I decided to employ the same solution: say goodbye and move on, the only difference being that I needed a new cell phone far more than a new girlfriend.
Being the happy owner of a MacBook Air laptop and an iPod shuffle (and knowing that Steve Jobs was looking down from Apple Heaven), my initial impulse was to see if the world-famous iPhone would suit my needs. The Apple Online Store even has an option allowing phone mor-ons like myself to compare the latest models. But browsing through some of the common features, I became confused. For starters, there’s an iSight Camera and a FaceTime Camera. I already have a Canon A2500, which works fine for me. Did I really need two more cameras? And why would I want to watch TV or learn how to use something called a “Sensor”? By the time I began browsing the hundreds of available iPhone applications, an uneasy realization had begun to dawn. This was not just another clever Apple product, this was an immersion. No wonder you see so many peo-ple wandering around totally absorbed in their smartphones, oblivious to anything short of a major earthquake. The devices’ allure is irresistible. Did I really want something like that in my life?
I decided I did not. I’d spent over a quarter century as a computer pro-grammer, sitting in a small cube every day staring at an IBM terminal or PC. Interacting with a machine for hours on end is not a healthy activity. It can lead to rigid thinking, atrophying social skills and perhaps worst of all, a declining interest in the world at large as one becomes ensconced in their own little one. But whereas in the old days I could happily turn off my machine and go home at four, smartphones are a constant companion; technology as a relationship instead of a tool.
Once I’d gotten my cell phone philosophy hammered out, the actual pur-chase was an anticlimax: I went to a modest phone store in a mall near Nana Plaza and bought another Nokia. Same size and color as before, but with easier-to-use features and a hopefully more robust battery. New and improved. This being Thailand, I half expected some kind of problem to rear its ugly head within a couple hours of the purchase, but that didn’t happen — for a change. The phone has met all my expectations. Oh sure, it doesn’t give me the Nairobi weather forecast, or allow me to book a flight on Turkish Airlines, but I’ve so far managed to use it without the need of any of those “killer” applications.
This doesn’t mean I’ve decided against ever owning an iPhone. If I ever suffer a major stroke, or am involved in a tuk tuk accident that leaves me a paraplegic, this will be a welcome little partner. Until then, I’m going to try to maintain my tenuous links with the human race, in particular the female members.
Forgive me, Steve…
It wasn’t easy finding out about Ui’s upcoming birthday. The language barrier between us makes it hard to communicate even basic information and it took a few tries of her repeating her age and the date for me to un-derstand. But once I’d finally gotten things figured out — and confirmed she had no plans — I invited her out for dinner on her special day.
Though the last time I was involved with a Thai woman’s birthday had not quite worked out, I was confident that this time around — with me in charge — things would go smoothly. Given Ui’s occupation as a street-walker, it seemed to me she might appreciate going out on an honest-to-goodness date. It would be a charming, romantic dinner followed by red wine and a DVD movie back at my apartment. At least that was the plan.
We met in front of one of the ubiquitous 7-Elevens that dot Soi 4 and be-gan walking up the street until we came to one of the fancier restaurants. One with pleasant music and outdoor seating underneath colorful (though slightly grimy) illuminated globes. The kind of place where one can find middle-aged Western men anxiously talking to their bored-looking Thai dates, the women surreptitiously glancing at their smartphones. Studying the worn menu book out front (Thai cuisine of course), Ui signaled her approval and we got a table.
We decided to order three simple dishes to share between us. Waiting for the food to arrive, I presented my dinner companion with a dark green birthday card that seemed to surprise her — perhaps Thais are not into the Hallmark scene. I also attempted to brighten the mood by taking a few pictures. These didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped. Ui is not a bad-looking woman for her age, but I was not able to capture that and after showing her my amateur results, she requested I stop shooting.
It was an awkward meal, further hampered by our inability to converse to any degree. While this did not seem to upset the birthday girl — Ui isn’t complaining type — neither was she bubbling over with happiness. Nor did the evening improve once we went to my apartment where I quickly poured her a glass of the red wine. After only a couple of swallows, she didn’t want any more and after sampling it I understood why: the opened bottle had been in my fridge for too long and had turned sour.
As a final attempt to salvage the occasion, I popped in a promising sci-fi/horror DVD I’d recently purchased. But this turned out to be so crappy I ended up tossing it into the trash. In the meantime, my date had fallen asleep (we were watching the movie while lying on the bed). She briefly roused herself for the start of the second feature — An American Were-wolf in London — but soon had returned to slumberland. Ether she was very tired or very bored. Having exhausted all my attempts to make her 40th birthday an enchanted one, I let her rest.
Ui ended up leaving shortly after 3 a.m, explaining that her mother was coming into town that morning, possibly a made-up excuse to escape the clutches of her birthday “celebration”. Not that I blamed her; I had bum-bled the affair every step of the way. In fact, I now suspect Ui agreed to the evening more to please me in my attempt to do something special for her than from any great desire to commemorate turning forty.
The lesson from all this is to be wary of what I’ve come to recognize as “the arrogance of good intentions”. I had assumed I knew how to make Ui genuinely happy, a notion that in hindsight was rather presumptuous. In the future I’ll try to be more realistic — and not use last month’s wine.
At least the birthday card was a good idea.
When I last wrote about my streetwalker friend Gai some nine months ago, we had gotten re-acquainted after a year’s hiatus and I had given her money to help out her ailing mother. This was intended only to get the family through a rough spot. What I did not fully realize then is that for too many of these girls, their entire life is a rough spot. Gai’s mom ended up having to make weekly visits to the hospital, causing the medical bills to pile up and forcing the family to postpone paying their rent.
This put me in the classic Nice Guy Dilemma: either continue my gen-erosity, or turn off the spigot and let their life become inexorably worse. For someone like me, the latter would have been unbearable. Since I was going to be out of the country for awhile, I therefore endowed Gail with enough money for four to five months, at least by my reckoning. Yet this did not go nearly as far as I had hoped. When I returned to Bangkok — after seven weeks — I was shocked to discover she was down to her last one thousand baht ($30)!
What the hell happened? Well, there more medical bills, school tuition for Gai’s daughter, plus one-time purchases to try and make her mother’s life more comfortable such as a small air conditioner and a special bed. Yet this didn’t quite add up and my strong suspicion is that the rest went to help out some of her many siblings — to which Thais feel a strong obligation. I might as well have put the money in a wheelbarrow, gone to a family gathering, and dumped it out on the dinner table.
The good news was that the mother was feeling better. The bad news was that Gai was now unwell and needed to visit the hospital — for “woman problems” related to her profession. (She provided me with an English translation of what exactly was wrong, which I don’t believe I’ll share.) After enduring an unpleasant and painful procedure, she was released af-ter two nights.
The doctor’s advice was that Gai now needed three months of rest, then should find a new, healthier occupation. This was taken to heart and Gai began making plans to join her sister working as a hotel maid. Seeing a chance to help nudge her in a new direction, I volunteered to continue my support during the recuperation period. This was an easy offer to make. Gai is an admirable woman who continued to take care of her mother and raise her daughter during this time and deserved the help.
I made my final “payment” to Gai in mid-January, completing my three month commitment. (Actually three months and two weeks.) I also used the occasion to make my exit, telling her I did not want a Thai girlfriend — which was most emphatically true. I know this hurt — she had told me on occasion that she loved me — but even if I was interested, there would be more family crises and financial needs awaiting down the road and I’d growing weary of playing the hero.
I am now steeling myself for the next time I run into Gai down on Suk-humvit Road, once again out waiting for customers, the hotel cleaning gig having not worked out. In this country, improving one’s lot is extra-ordinarily difficult. However, in this case I can at least console myself that I did my best for a good person.
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Guess Who’s Coming After Dinner?
Obtaining a new passbook should be a relatively straightforward affair. But I have learned that having a Thai perform anything halfway compli-cated for you may involve unexpected surprises.
I came to my bank fully prepared. Besides my old booklet, I also had a note from a Thai friend explaining what I wanted. Showing both items to a teller, it appeared she understood and after five or ten minutes of her bouncing from one computer terminal to another, I was presented with a bright new passbook in the distinctive shades of purple that Siam Com-mercial Bank (SCB) likes to use. Everything had gone smoothly and I started back home.
I was about four blocks from the bank when I realized I had forgotten to try my new passbook in the special machine that does the printing of the withdrawals and deposits. It is easy enough to use: you open your book, carefully slide it into a slot, and any new transactions are recorded. The device even has the smarts to turn pages when one becomes full. More than a little annoyed at my oversight, I turned around and marched back to do the test.
At first, nothing happened. While the machine’s screen continued to flash annoying SCB advertisements, my booklet lay passively inside it like a Soi 4 streetwalker servicing her fourth customer of the night. Finally, al-most as an afterthought, the machine informed me it could not read the book’s magnetic strip, and contemptuously spit it back out.
Of course I tried it again…then a third time. Along the way I employed my standard attempt at persuasion when confronted with a balky device, pounding it once with my fist. Loosing one’s cool is considered very bad form in Thailand, but it cleared my thinking.
Now the real fun began. I went back into the bank and got in line. When I reached a teller, I pointed to the magnetic strip on my book and waved my hand over it, trying to convey that it wasn’t working. The girl took the passbook, huddled with the one who had originally helped me, and together they fiddled around for a few minutes. Then they handed it back saying there was no trouble, that I didn’t get a response from the machine because there weren’t any transactions to print.
This simplistic — and incorrect — explanation shifted the burden of proof back onto me, someone whose level of Thai resembles that of a rather slow three-year-old. My only recourse was action. Stepping out to an ATM, I withdrew a pair of thousand-baht notes using my debit card. Re-confirming that the magnetic strip was still bad, I returned to the teller holding the two bills in one hand and my purple passbook in another, shaking my head. The point I was trying to make was that there was now a transaction pending, and I could not get it to print.
Yet despite the visual aids, I still was not getting anywhere. The tellers seemed to be tolerating me more than anything. With my audience slip-ping away, I suddenly had an inspiration. The security guard posted out front had been witnessing my struggles against the wicked print machine. After I’d punched it, he’d come over and had seen the error message re-garding the magnetic stip. This meant I had a Thai witness to back up my story! Getting his attention, I gestured for him to come in and explain to the girls what the problem really was. This finally got the point across and a seemingly magical operation was done on my passbook which — lo and behold — then worked smoothly when I went out and did yet another test. Re-entering the bank one final time, I thanked everyone: the tellers (cordially) and the guard (sincerely). However, it was my tenacity and resourcefulness that had actually made the difference. Some days you need that in a foreign country.