Ajarn Street

The return to paradise

Sand Dust: Part Two

This article is a follow up to 'Sand Dust', when I left Thailand to look for more lucrative pastures in The Middle East.

I am happy to announce that I am back living in Thailand.

I arrived here in mid-June after completing my last work contract renewal in Saudi Arabia. I was there for six years teaching English at a university in the industrial area of Jubail, not far from Dammam, the capital of the oil producing Eastern province, about a two-hour drive from Bahrain.

My wife had found a reasonable ground floor duplex in Phuket Town, not far from where we once lived before, from 2004 to 2009. Our place has two small bedrooms, living room, and bath. It has no real kitchen but we manage to cook and wash dishes.

New digs

It costs us 5,500 Baht per month (at the current exchange of 35 Baht/USD, it's about $157 USD). She had to arrive here with our children first because the Thai school year starts in May, so they moved first. In the rush, however, she chose an apartment that was in a noisy area, so she went looking for a new place, and that's where we would be headed once I was here.

The weather right now is not too hot or dry, but it can be warm, and since we are in the middle of the monsoon season, it rains torrentially for a few minutes at a time throughout the day. It's not too bad. Most people just wait it out under some awning. It does cool down at night and it's common for people to sit, drink, and eat outdoors at sidewalk cafés and open air restaurants, or outside their houses.

Even though I have an air conditioner unit from before, I haven't had it installed since we are comfortable using electric fans day and night. It's livable and we are happy.

Worlds apart

For those who have not lived in the Middle East or on desert countries, the difference is like night and day. The scenery here is a vibrant green with all kinds of foliage and plants growing everywhere. Trees, rocks, and fences, have a side covered with lichen and fungus, while buildings and walls are naturally stained from the flow of rain water.

Insects chirp constantly while mosquitoes and ants try to feed on you, but you learn to overcome these. Pests are overwhelmingly larger in numbers, but we are individually larger, smarter, and more adaptable. In the end, we win. Still, have seen rats the size of small cats, and stray dogs are better fed than combat troops. It would be difficult for most to understand why some of us sacrifice certain commodities in order to live here.

In contrast, Saudi Arabia is so dry that nothing lives on its soil unless it has its own artificial slow drip irrigating water line. Every tree, flower bed or bush is artificially watered. The sandy soil, and even the buildings, all have nearly the same beige color, and are covered with a fine layer of sand dust. The temperature outside is typically forty five Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) and can go as high as fifty four C (129 F).

As a result, few people are seen outside during the day. Most people are inside air conditioned buildings, homes, or cars. Jubail, where I lived for six years, resembles a ghost town devoid of life and activity. It is only after dusk that people venture out and go to the shopping malls, sometimes staying up very late to enjoy the coolness of the evening.

Life for an expat is but a step better than solitary confinement. After watching the same news repeat every hour on CNN, BBC, and Al-Jazeera, I spent the rest of the time pumping iron at a nearby gym. Not long after, friends were saying I was "buff."

Note that in six years, in spite of shopping for food at equivalents of "Big-C" and "Lotus," occasionally going to restaurants and shopping malls, I never saw the face of a Saudi woman. I did manage to see a few hands up to the wrist and most memorably, a foot.

Female hardship

Bringing my Thai wife was never a choice, for she would be locked in an apartment until I got off work, and only then, she could go out in my company, totally covered in a black robe, and only showing her eyes through a horizontal slit on a face veil. Note that most foreign women do not cover their faces and often walk around with their hair loose, but you should see the dirty looks they get from the men.

The self-appointed morality police for "the prevention of vice and the promotion of virtue," often harass the foreign women and force them to cover their hair. Surprisingly, restaurants, banks, coffee shops, and other public establishments have segregated sections: one for "families", where men and women who are relatives can use, and "singles", only for men but not women.

At large social functions, where men bring their families, such as a picnic at a park, the men congregate at one end of the picnic area, and the women at the other end.

Cheaper living

Thailand is not a rich country, but there seems to be an abundance of reasonably priced cooked food, and fresh fruit can be found everywhere. A typical dish of rice with two sides, vegetables, and fish or meat, costs 40 Baht ($1.17 USD) at a buffet, while shrimp fried rice goes for 60 Baht ($1.71) at a simple sidewalk restaurant, and the more expensive restaurants will charge 80-100 Baht ($2.28-2.85 USD) for a specialty dish.

A few weeks ago, I went to the famous tourist beach, Patong, had a club sandwich at an upscale restaurant by the beach, and paid 200 Baht ($5.71 USD). Incidentally, the McDonald's Big Mac was the same price. Of course, if you start asking for Australian beefsteak, or the pricier lobster, you'll end paying much more. Steak and lobster are not part of the typical Thai diet, while rice, fish, vegetables and fresh fruit are. You can also easily find chicken and pork. Thais love candy, snacks, sugar, and desserts.

On two wheels

There are lots of motorcycles on the roads. People who own cars also have motorcycles. Even my wife has and rides her own. Within a week of my arrival, and after getting all the immigration documents in order, I bought myself a Honda 110 CC model, almost similar to the one I had before. The new one is fuel injected while the older one was 125 CC with a carburetor. The fuel injected motorcycle runs and accelerates smoother.

In spite of having other motorcycles before (Kawasaki 400 CC), I find riding again more exciting and satisfying. It's like the rebirth of an old avocation. My new motorcycle cost me 42,500 Baht ($1,214 USD).

So what do I do here besides eat, sleep, and ride the motorcycle?

Actually, it is now, two months after getting here, that I find some free time to write. I regret not being more prolific in terms of writing and sending E-mail, but really, the life of a retired person is hardly a leisure one.

Arrival in Thailand

Upon arriving, first in Bangkok, I spent a couple of days sorting out what to do with a bagful of petrodollars I managed to extract out of Saudi Arabia. I then flew to Phuket where it also took me a day or two to document my new address and get permission from immigration to go shopping and buy a motorcycle. Actually, permission for a foreigner to register a vehicle.

Then took a bus from Phuket to Udon Thani in the Northeast of the country to retrieve my old car, a 1991 1.6 liter Toyota Corolla which my wife left there, two months before returning to Phuket, under a tree, and which surprisingly enough, started without CPR, defibrillator, or extra oxygen.

The bus ride was twenty hours long and it dropped me off in Udon Thani, about fifty kilometers (thirty miles) from the Mekong River, the border with Laos. Udon Thani is a very large town, the capital of the province, but since it is an agricultural rice farming area, there is no real night life to speak of. The few bars that do exist close early, so I went out and did all the damage I could before midnight.

The next morning I started at eight, but soon had to make a U-turn since I was headed north, towards the Mekong River and Laos, as opposed to South, towards Phuket and Malaysia. Thirteen hours later, driving in the right direction, past Khon Kaen, Korat, Saraburi, Bangkok, and Petchaburi, I arrived at the resort town of Hua Hin, on the Western seaboard.

After parking on the side of the main road, I swung over my shoulder my soft carry-on and headed for the bars near the beach, where I continued the damage.

After terminating three beers, well after midnight, one of the ladies working at the bar put me on the back of a motorcycle and took me to a 400 Baht ($11.40 USD) per night guesthouse. She graciously bade me farewell at the reception and left on her own after seeing my passport and learning that I was turning sixty one this year. I couldn't quite see through her heavy makeup whether she was disappointed or embarrassed. Being a senior citizen does have its advantages.

The next morning I continued south and after another thirteen hours, crossed the bridge that connects Phuket to the rest of Thailand, which I had mostly driven through by now. My 1991 Toyota did well. I needed CPR and extra oxygen, but settled for a homemade dinner with the wife, kids, and a cold beer.

The second week was spent moving from the first apartment to the new duplex. The old Toyota came in handy although the air conditioner failed a couple of days after recharging. The car A/C recharging had cost me 500 Baht ($14.28 USD) in Udon Thani, but it kept me cool during the cross-country trip.

Time catches up with us all

Now that I had car and motorcycle, it was time to get Thai licenses driving for both, so I dutifully went to the Transportation Office, with all the necessary documents. Assuming one can pass the written and driving tests, the licenses can be issued the same day. In my case, it took me two weeks, going practically every other day, for I failed the written test twice, the motorcycle test once, and the driving (parking) test three times. What happened to me? I drove large American cars in California for thirty years, ranging from Pontiac GTOs and Chevrolet Monte Carlos to Ford station wagons, and I routinely parked them in downtown San Francisco, quite often during rush hour.

Now, I can't even park my old Toyota Corolla in a test range. By the time I was done, the examiners knew me on a first name basis and I even felt as if I was quitting a job at the Transportation Office. I'm getting a hint as to why the lady from the Hua Hin bar left me at the door of the guest house she took me to.

During the days I wasn't trying to get a driving license, I had to repair a leak in the washing machine, erect the TV satellite dish antenna for the kids to watch cartoons and soap operas, install a hot water heater in the bathroom, unpack my bags and sort out the aftermath of six years living in Saudi Arabia, do maintenance on my wife's motorcycle, and go through my old belongings she had helped me stash while I was away.

Technology stress

One thing you need to know: do not try to store away a computer with the hope of using it at a later time. I had put away a Pentium II CPU running at a whopping 633 Megahertz speed, with a 20 Gigabyte hard drive and an incredible 256 Megabytes of RAM memory (remember when Bill Gates said "who would need more than 640 Kilobytes?" Note that 640 Kilobytes is 0.64 Megabytes). Granted, I had been using this computer since 2002, the days of the Windows XP operating system. It did power up and work after I unboxed and plugged it in, but new updated programs, namely antivirus, internet browsers, and other newer software ran tearfully slow on it. It took forever to power down.

I finally pulled the plug on it and bought a used computer for 8,000 Baht ($228.60 USD), which sported an Intel i5 CPU running at an incredible 3.1 Gigahertz speed, with a humongous 500 Gigabyte hard drive and 4 Gigabytes of RAM memory. Forget the Windows XP part, for we are past Windows Vista, 7, 8, and now 10 is being distributed. Just when we thought we were winning the race, along came faster running computers.

Settling in to the Thai lifestyle

So now we have adequate housing, reasonably priced food, tuned up motorcycles, a nuclear powered Toyota, cartoons on TV for the kids, hot water in the shower for the wife, cold beer in the fridge for the retiree, clean washed clothes for all , and a good working computer. The next logical thing was to find work.

It is now mid-July.

Time to find work

I spruced up my old resume, made copies of degrees, reference letters, police clearance, and other necessary documents, and applied both on-line and in person. Walked in at several schools and universities advertising myself as an English teacher with a technical background. I spent two weeks looking for teaching work and got some responses, one impromptu interview, but no offers so far. I still wonder if the girl from the Hua Hin bar saw something I didn't.

In August my youngest child came down with a fever which turned out to be a cold, and then it was my wife's turn. She also suffered an eye infection but has also recovered. We took care of both problems with antibiotics. Bugs do come in large numbers, even the microscopic ones, but we learn to overcome these too.

It is now September, and although retired, am poised to run into the remainder of my new life with all I have. Never mind the rain, bugs, rats, dogs, old computers, bargirls... The old Toyota, air con or not, is still firing on all four cylinders, and I am going after a greater future like there's no tomorrow. And here is the better part: since I have a new motorcycle and no longer commute to work, in practice, I don't ride to live, I live to ride!

Phuket is the place!

Do come and visit Phuket. It is Paradise. The weather is great and the scenery stunning. Local women here do not cover their faces unless the sun is shining directly on it, and you can routinely see what is above the foot as short pants and skirts are the norm. The food is tasty and the beer cold. I am sure help you can find reasonable accommodations to suit your budget.

The best time to come is during the dry season, from late November to early April. The rainy season, from April through November, is not too bad but the surf is rough at the beaches and red flags are often up. Most people come here because it is a popular tourist destination as there are great, unspoiled beaches, good hotels and restaurants, lively nightlife, good infrastructure such as transportation, roads, internet, medical assistance, and shopping.

For kids, there is an aquarium, a zoo, elephant rides, and for adults, there is snorkeling, motorcycle riding, boat trips to other islands such as Phi Phi, Ko Yao, and for those who like to dive, the Similan islands are famous for such.

There are also trips to nearby national parks in Phang Nga and Krabi. You can search and get a glimpse of all the above on the internet.

Get enthused. Do not wait for retirement. Life is short and you could end up in the sand dust.

Jorge Emilio Jo
Phuket, 2015


That is an interesting story. About the lack of living creatures in the desert, you can consider yourself lucky you did not encounter the Pharaoh owl.

Behind my home, there is a wadi - a valley, like a miniature Grand Canyon - winding through the moonscape of the desert plateau. It is exceptionally beautiful, and I like to hike along it to commune with nature.

The first time I did so, I heard a noise, after entering the rift, like a kettle boiling. I wondered what one earth could this be? Then this huge owl. puffed up with indignity to his most baleful proportions - about knee high, and with his feathers fully inflated large enough to put your arms around - alit atop a knoll in front of me, and started to shuffle around me in a manner that clearly indicated his displeasure.

After working himself up into a foul temper (no pun intended), the owl launched at me, and savaged my head with beak and claws. While his determination was not such I suffered any serious harm, it was a prolonged scuffle which left both of us out of breath and rather emotionally distraught. He had two little horns, like Satan, and after the fracas one of them was askew, like his hat had been knocked out of place.

He lives under a hole in a rock, in the cliff. We have now become accustomed to one another, and said owl is content to merely glare at me indignantly while I sidle through the danger zone.

By Owl Bait, Riyadh (6th January 2016)

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