"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.
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.
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.