Bangkok Phil

Seriously, I know where the airport is.

My response to the expression that always grinds my gears


"If you don't like it, you know where the airport is"

Those famous words uttered on many an expat discussion forum or blog comment section when a relatively long-term expat dares make a negative observation or level a criticism towards this great country.

It's an expression that always grinds my gears.

I went through a long honeymoon period with Thailand myself - that period when everything in the garden is rosy. But eventually it becomes time to remove those spectacles of the rose-colored variety and face up to the reality.

This is not me becoming a chronic moaner for the sheer hell of it but what happens over time is that your perception changes and I think it probably changes wherever you live in the world.

The reality

Do I enjoy living in Thailand as much as I did 25 years ago? Almost certainly no.

Do I see myself living here forever? No idea.

Would I move to another country, if and only if the right opportunity presented itself? Quite possibly.

I was in the lower Sukhumwit Road area of Bangkok last week. I class ‘lower Sukhumwit' as that kilometer long stretch from about BTS Prompong Station to the railway tracks near Soi Nana (where Sukhumwit Road becomes Ploenchit Road I think)

I hate that part of Bangkok. I loathe every square meter. The only reason I venture into that neighborhood is for a haircut and an appointment with Khun Nat, the young lady who has looked after my barnet for as long as I can remember. It's never for the pricey restaurants, the hipster coffee joints, the street-stalls, the tailors' shops, the pool bars, the Brit theme pubs - or any of that crap!

But I stood on Sukhumwit's congested footpath and allowed my mind to wander for a second or two. Back to the 15th September 1989 and my very first day in Thailand. How it was all so different back then.

What a city!

I arrived here with John, who had been one of my closest friends since secondary school. We'd had a few travel adventures across Europe together but nothing like this. Thailand was as exotic as it got in the package tour 80s and we'd been planning our first day in Bangkok for months. Our excitement and anticipation levels were off the scale.

The plan was to check in to our hotel, attempt the walk from Sukhumwit 15 as far as Lumpini Park (and that's a hell of a walk by the way) then saunter through Lumpini Park, before ending up at Patpong on Silom Road and have lunch at what was then the only branch of McDonalds in the city.

Yes, a couple of regular Bangkok greenhorns.

After the longest flight in the world on Philippine Airlines (is it still in operation?) with short layovers in Frankfurt and Karachi, we arrived sleep-deprived and cream-crackered at the Manhattan Hotel on Sukhumwit 15 (is it still there?), dumped our suitcases in the room and hit the streets not wanting to waste a second of our trip.

There are moments in life - certainly when it comes to travel - that you can never recapture. And I'll never forget that first afternoon walk in Bangkok. This was a far cry from a fortnight in Ibiza or The Greek Islands. There was just too much to take in.

Meeting the locals

We hadn't gone fifty meters before we made our first Thai friend. A man in a boy scout uniform greeted us enthusiastically and the three of us stood around laughing and talking football. It was brilliant. Even when he shoved a donation box in front of our faces, we still liked him.

We carried on walking along the Sukhumwit Road as far as Soi Nana, passing all the pavement vendors on the way.

"Look at all these fake Lacoste polo shirts!" exclaimed John

"Never mind those" I said "what about these Hugo Boss t-shirts?"

We went through the motions of doing some casual haggling with one or two of the friendly sellers but this wasn't the time to weigh ourselves down with new threads. We'd be back later in the evening for some serious shopping.

We got into conversation with several tailor's shop owners as well. "Suit for you sir? Come inside my shop and have a beer. Looking no problem"

We couldn't get over how friendly everyone was. What a city! We were buzzing.

Feeling the heat

At the Ploenchit intersection, we started to flag. We expected it to be hot but we'd never experienced temperatures like this.

"Bangkok is like one giant sauna" my Lonely Planet guidebook said "and walking for any distance on the city's broken footpaths is only for the foolhardy"

I think Joe Cummings had a point you know.

I whipped out the fold-up tourist map that I'd procured from the kindly receptionist back at the hotel. Looking at it, we were about half-way between our starting point and Lumpini Park.

"Come on mate. Let's get a tuk-tuk!"

This was a moment we'd both looked forward to - the opportunity to zip around Bangkok on some three-wheeled buzz-saw. It doesn't get any better than that. John stuck his hand out and a tuk-tuk appeared as if by magic. We then spent forever trying to haggle the fare down from forty baht to twenty. Not because we needed to save an extra twenty baht but because we were in Asia. No one pays the asking price for anything here. It said so in the guidebooks.

The driver dropped us off at the entrance to Lumpini Park and after we'd taken the obligatory photos and given him some hearty backslaps (as if he'd become our new best mate) we enjoyed a stroll through the park, smiling inanely at every passer-by. And the prettier the passer-by, the wider the smile. What a couple of plonkers!

Patpong at last!

From there it was just a short walk down Silom Road to Patpong and Bangkok's legendary red light district.

As any Bangkok old hand will tell you though, there are fewer sights more depressing than a mid-afternoon Patpong . Even when the sun's out and the sky's blue, the area still manages a greyness all of its own. Bars are closed, the neon lights are switched off and the only sounds are the revving of engines and the rattle of beer crates being delivered. But John and I were on too much of a high to start feeling downcast.

A handful of shady touts and chancers still tried to lure us into an upstairs sex show for some afternoon tittilation but naïve as we were, our instincts told us this was a bad idea. We had some friendly banter with them and said we'd come back another time. I bet they'd heard that line before.

Moments later, we're sitting under the golden arches and munching on our Big Macs. We'd had the most amazing few hours and we were sure things could only get better.

To cut a long story short, John and I had the most amazing holiday. I hardly ate a thing during that first week in Bangkok and the weight dropped off me. I survived on pure adrenalin. That's the effect Thailand tends to have on the first-time visitor.

Back to the present day, 26 years later and I'm wondering where the magic has gone and how long did it even last?

The way things are

I lost touch with my old school friend many years ago but I still replay that first afternoon in my mind - but with the attitude I have now. The one I've developed over time.

For starters, the boy scout / charity collector's greeting would be met with a weary shake of the head.

The walk along the footpath would become tiresome as I get caught behind slow-moving holidaymakers and I'd be totally oblivious to the street vendors flogging what I now look down on as ‘tourist tat'

It's not that I've become a miserable middle-aged git. It's just that your perception changes.

The Indian tailors' shop touts are just another minor irritation in a whole series of minor irritations. Even a polite ‘no thank you' requires too much effort. Do I look like the sort of guy who wears a tuxedo for fuck's sake?

The young, tattooed, half-naked girl that stands in the street and lures punters into her pool bar doesn't even try. I've developed a facial expression that says ‘please leave me alone'.

And as for tuk-tuks, I haven't ridden in one for over a decade. Is there a more noisy, dangerous, unhealthy and uncomfortable way to get from A to B? I'll leave them to the tourists and the big fat Thai ladies hauling their sacks of vegetables back from the market.

Your perception changes - and yes, I do know where the airport is.

I still enjoy living in Thailand but I enjoy it on my terms. I like pottering around in the garden, working out at the gym and studying the Thai language online. They're things I could do anywhere in the world I know. I just don't do the ‘typically Thai' stuff anymore. That novelty wore off long ago - as it does for many long-termers. It can happen anywhere, not just in Thailand.

Times change

Next month, my Mother and Father will move back to England after sixteen by and large wonderful years in Spain. It just feels like the right thing to do in their twilight years. They've sold the house and all the furniture that goes with it. All that remains are the goodbyes.

So many of the attractions that lured them to The Mediterranean in the first place have diminished over time. Bureaucracy has become intolerable and the local services unreliable. Spanish friends and neighbors have passed away. The winters have got colder and the summers unbearable.

The days spent sitting around the swimming pool and the evening barbecues washed down with bottles of cheap Spanish plonk have all become distant memories.

Their perception has changed. And they really DO know where the airport is.




Comments

You forgot to mention that sometimes circumstances force you to leave. In my case, my mother has dementia. For others, getting older and the need for medical care/lack of health insurance , or educational opportunities for their kids that do not involve selling their body parts to fund it.

Over time we also grow older. As in the UK, what we want out of life changes over time. Remember when we first came here we were all wide eyed newbies, making newbie comments, and making newbie errors....and silently criticising long termers who were moaning about the country. One sour expat however had a comeback when some newbies got tired of his criticisms. He said "You don't understand. I criticise because I can see just how great this country could be"

By Mowlem, Ireland (10th May 2016)

1989 - same year I first visited Thailand, Phil.

I can still recall the popular song then was Thongchai "Byrd" MacIntosh's big hit "Boomerang". There were boomerang keychains, earrings, t-shirts, hats and even a Coca-Cola can sporting boomerangs."

I haven't been in Thailand all the years since, just many visits most of the years since and now recently in something like retirement the past couple of years.

Your story of how you progressed from a wide-eyed tourists to an averting-eyes longterm regular reminds me of the similar development of the main character of a novel titled "The Intrinsic Quality of Skin" by Peter A. Jackson, an Australian writer (not the same Peter Jackson of "Lord of Rings" fame.) {The ISBN, if interested, is
ISBN-13: 978-0942777109, originally published by Floating Lotus Books in 1994.}

By John M, Nothern Thailand (8th April 2016)

Let's face it lads, Thailand as a country is a 'basket case' for reasons too numerous to mention here. Just take a look at breakfast TV or read the BKK Post. Sure, there are some great things about living in Thailand. I liked the comments about treating Thailand as a tourist would even if you are living here permanently. Use a village or suburb as a base and when things get you down, go on a little holiday somewhere. We've all got cousins everywhere in Thailand. I hate the summer so for 3 months me and the wife will be going back to the old country. Old mate over the back built a 2 m fence around his place and hardly speaks to a Thai, only the missus and the out-laws. I hear him watching his 200 cable channels over the back fence. Another westerner has had enough of Thailand and as a result of the lack of opportunity for his kids he has made the decision to move back home after 13 years. The village chief probably won't give him a send off or present even though his kids spend 100 B a day at the local shop. Bitch. Another mate is building a pool and gym in the backyard! As time goes on you live and learn and take those things that really irritate you in small doses. By the way, prices to Phuket are good after Songkran. I've had 3 tradesman to the house, none of whom were reliable or honest. Buccarney! as the Thais would say. Land of "Kickbacks" I say. Sailing down the Mekong sounds great next month. Before you know it it will be raining and time to put in the crop. My wife is a great cook and doesn't use whitening cream or tablets. Don't worry about growing vegies in the market garden. Water restrictions make it too hard. Home is where the heart is. Also, the fridge. If you do have a kid by a Thai wife take them down to your embassy and get them citizenship asap. Let off some steam but "shum a carp". Don't eat sugar anymore, even drinking light beer. Not going to get sick here. Forgot, buy a ute, that is pick up. Cheers, brothers, sisters and the touring buddhas.

By Apiwat, Khon Kaen (7th April 2016)

Stumbled across this website and read your article for no particular reason.
Well thought out and show's that you live firmly in the real world.
Life is life wherever you are.
Keep speaking the truth as you see it or we will all end up in a liberal hell.

By daniel, Cyprus (5th April 2016)

It is precisely for this reason i don't fraternise with expats very often, they mostly end up being critical and sour, as we tend to do in our own countries........don't we?? When will we accept that the change of a new place keeps us distracted for a short time and then the stench of the shit we have bought with us eventually reasserts itself......and we blame where we are, or who we are with..........remember how much you used to love the things that now drive you mad about your guy/girl. Move somewhere else and observe the same pattern, i have tried many a place.....it's in the mind......'wherever you go, there you are'........maybe it's the airport.....personally i'm pretty fond of them.......55555........

By Nick, Sisaket (29th March 2016)

I wonder if the writers views would be the same if he had not been gifted ajarn.com and was still working away on the Bangkok Mouth (in the attempt to boast readership to emulate the commercial success of stickman) and hands on in the teaching side of things. I am sure the the gift of ajarn provides a nice monthly advertising income (great site that has evolved over time). Sliding doors.....

By Peter James, China (29th March 2016)

I visited Sukhumvit today, and it never gets any better, and yet, I was meeting some friends (a couple) and they had that similar buzz, he more than she it must be said. Show us MBK, we want to buy some things before we go home. Show us the good shops, how to haggle. I took them there on the BTS and made my excuses to come home. I genuinely couldnt think of anything worse, tried in vain to tell them it was crap, this place was much better etc. "Weve read online" were the only words I heard.

Thailand for tourists is an amazing, intoxicating place, for tourists only. Thailand for residents requires the knowledge that sadly, there is no Shangri La, and the grass is always greener.

However, as I came back on the BTS, and flirted in broken English and broken Thai with a beautiful, slim, fashionable early 20s girl, which after 2 minutes ended in her giving her LINE and asking me to message before she got off, I reasoned that its not all bad.

By Rob, Bangkok (27th March 2016)

Really enjoyed that Phil. I first arrived on these shores in 2001 on holiday. Came to live here in 2008 but left in 2011 a bit disappointed. Returned in late 2012 and have settled more this time. No honeymoon period 2nd time around.

I tend to take Thailand as a warm and cheapish place to see out my time. I avoid most but not all foreigners, spend my time and money on things I enjoy. I like learning to read Thai and my hobbies which I can do alone or with company if I choose.

The rural locals are ok and I have a few Thai friends just wish they would listen when I do my best to communicate with them in Thai!!

Happy to see out my time here but I know exactly where I stand and I have a plan B just like your folks if it became intolerable.

I too still remember my first impressions of Thailand which realistically and with hindsight were nothing more than beer goggles stuff.

By Mike, Phetchabun Thailand (27th March 2016)

“This is not me becoming a chronic moaner for the sheer hell of it (Phil)”

Then what turned you into a chronic moaner?

Whatever the reason, many long-term foreign residents (well me anyway) don’t want to engage with chronic Farang moaners regardless of whether the individual became a chronic moaner for the hell of it or has some "legitimate" justification for the negative attitude.

Any adjective attached to Thailand or the Thais will be a simplistic and subjective representation of a complex society and its culture and people.
What makes the chronic moaners seek out others and think I we are interested in their simplistic and subjective negative stereotypes?

Living in Thailand might be a good choice for some people at some points in their lives and might not be a good choice for other people at other points in their lives. You make your choices, I will make mine.

The last thing I want to do in my free time is listening to a chronic moaner who has lived here for years while never learning the language, attempting to understand cultural differences or appreciating the individualistic characteristics of each of the 70 million people living in the country.

While I have started to question whether I want to continue living here or if it is time to go home or move on to another location due to political and personal reasons, it is my choice driven by my own personal situation and attitudes.

I don’t mind an occasional outburst due to frustration but don’t be surprised if you turn into a chronic moaner that people who do not share your negative stereotypes will not want to be part of your social circle.

Of course, we long-time residents age and our interests change over time, and if any of us feel the disadvantages of living in Thailand outweigh the advantages, we know where the airport is.

By Jack, In front of my computer (27th March 2016)

Home i where you want it to be. After 12 years I still enjoy living here even though many things have changed. Prices are up like everywhere else but it is still affordable even on a small Canadian pension.

By Wolf, On Nut, Bangkok (27th March 2016)

Thank you very much for the comments so far guys.

I've had one or two negative comments regarding the last part of the article and as a result I decided to delete a sentence about the Spanish health service. Although the bit about my Mother and Father was never meant to be more than a 'supporting detail' I would like to put the record straight.

One or two people have jumped to the conclusion that my parents have lived in Spain for 16 years and have made no attempt to learn the language. That isn't true. My mother especially can hold a decent conversation. However, when you visit a hospital to see a doctor and conversation gets on to complex medical issues, only a fluent Spanish speaker would be able to follow the communication - and that would be the case in any country and any language. I think criticism levelled at my parents for allegedly not being able to speak the language is harsh and unfair in this instance.

My Mother and Father have nothing but great things to say about the standard of health care in Spain. but the hassle of having to hire an interpreter every time they had a hospital appointment was slowly but surely wearing them down.

On a final note, at no time did they 'take advantage' of the Spanish or any Spanish free health service. The considerable medicals bills are all paid by the UK government and the UK national health service. It's a benefit provided to expat retirees living in Spain.

By Philip, Samut Prakarn (26th March 2016)

Very well written. I think you're totally right. It's about perceptions and growing older.

After 11 years in Bangkok, I moved back to northern Europe a year ago. But it turns out the grass wasn't much greener here. Not a total surprise, to be honest.

Now I'm looking at Spain, but that's not perfect either then, it seems.

So where do we go, us middle-aged people whose perceptions change every few years? Any places left on the first manned Mars mission?

By Michael, Denmark (26th March 2016)

Great read, Phil. It's funny... I've been here a fraction of the time, but well know the daily drudges you talk about... specifically the priceless "leave me the hell alone" look. Although I still enjoy living here, I do get the grass is always greener mentality from time to time too (Spain was always a dream of mine)... although 15 hour days probably has something to do with it.

Still, you're right: now, when friends come to visit and want to go to Khao San or Nana, I silently cringe and wish I could just stay at home, sat in my pants, drinking ANYTHING but a Thai beer.

By Sam, Chatuchak, Bangkok (26th March 2016)

Good stuff. Yes, a lot of that applies to me, too. The fairground rides are looking rusty and run down now.

But Thailand has changed me in a good way so I'm thankful for that.

By Mark Newman, Thailand (26th March 2016)

After a ten year and creeping up to eleven I so connected with this blog. A must read.

By Ben, Bangkok (26th March 2016)

What an enjoyable read this afternoon. You totally hit the nail on the head with this one.

By Birdie Frost, Bangkok (26th March 2016)

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