Bangkok Phil

Thailand? yes we went there last weekend

When one man's tropical paradise becomes everybody else's


I've been reconnecting with a few old school-friends on Facebook. We're talking pals from secondary school and even as far back as infant school here folks.

These are guys I haven't seen since the days of short trousers, cowboys and indians, and finding ways to keep your conkers hard (British people will know what I mean)

Macka the Dunce

So who have I been rolling back the years with? Firstly there's 'Macka'. I was friends with Macka purely on account of the fact we both shared the same birthday - and our respective grandmothers went to bingo together. Other than that, we didn't have a great deal in common.

Macka never aspired to be anything other than the class dunce and while the majority of the class got to grips with basic maths, Macka would sit quietly in a corner licking Lego bricks and dribbling.

Wally the Scrapper

Wally was another one of my junior school pals. This time, sport was the common denominator. Wally and I both represented the school at football and cricket.

Wally was also what was commonly referred to in those working-class days as ‘the cock of the school'. I never once saw him lose a playground fight or a ‘scrap' - those ten minute sessions of unarmed combat invariably broken up by a ferocious-looking dinner lady.

Wally was short and wiry - and he was a tough nut. When it came to knocking seven shades out of another poor guy, size didn't matter. Wally just put his fists up and got on with it.

In later years, he became one of the respected leaders of the notorious Zulus, a group of working-class football hooligans who followed Birmingham City Football Club.

Wally's photograph and interviews appear prominently in several books on the topic of football violence. So as you can imagine, it was with some trepidation that I accepted Wally's friend request on Facebook.

Would the passing years have mellowed him - or would he still have old scores to settle?

We chatted a while about our schooldays and the paths our lives had taken since then. He asked if I still followed the same football team and I confessed that I was indeed still a big United fan.

But naturally Wally was most interested in my life in Thailand. So I filled him in on a few details and generally made light of the subject. I didn't want to play the ‘top-it' game and make life sound over-exotic or interesting to someone who probably only left the neighborhood on Saturdays when there was a chance to duff up rival gangs of football supporters.

However, I thought best be polite and ask Wally if he'd ever ventured out this way before.

"Oh yes" came the immediate reply. "I was in Thailand about six years ago with a girlfriend and we spent a few days in Pattaya. We didn't care much for Pattaya though so we moved on to Koh Samui and spent some time there. At least a month if I remember right"

Let's leave Wally aside for a second and go back to Macka, the Lego-licking dunce from infant school who finally got his life together, emigrated to The U.S, met a nice local girl and started his own meals-on-wheels business.

I had very much the same on-line conversation with Macka - except this time my old school-friend had travelled to parts of Thailand I'd never even heard of.

He'd also gambled in the casinos of Macau, rode stallions bareback in Mongolia and got into the odd bar brawl in downtown Jakarta.

The bugger had travel stories to keep you up all night.

You're probably thinking by now - well, what's your point Phil? A few people have been to Thailand. So what? And in response I would say but it's not just a few is it. The bloody world and his uncle have been here. 

Kirsty the Dentist

On my last trip back to the UK, who should I bump into but my old dentist. I used to see this lovely lady twice a year in the days when British people could afford to have their teeth checked. Or I should say the days when British people could even find a dentist.

Anyway, over several appointments, Kirsty fitted a false tooth for me shortly before I left England to start a new life in Thailand. And for the next five years that damn tooth flew out every time I sneezed. And every time I would curse the dentist as I scrambled around in tall grass looking for my missing molar.

But I was willing to let bygones be bygones and listened as Kirsty told me in great detail about the six trips she had made to Thailand over the last ten years. "Oh Tony and I just love it there" she said

Mick the Gaffer

Even my old boss and his wife had been to Thailand. And when I met up with them in Birmingham for a football match, they were thinking of booking up for a second trip.

This was a guy who used to have a caravan in Towyn, the dullest and most boring seaside resort in Wales. Possibly the world. There are people who have lived all their lives in Towyn and still dream of days when it stops raining. 

Years ago, going to Thailand was a trip into the unknown. And naturally family members were concerned. My Aunt Jean - not, it must be said, the most well-traveled woman - called me on the phone as I was packing a suitcase to remind me to take a few bars of soap.

Earlier that week, she'd seen a documentary which included footage of Thai kids bathing and splashing about in the local river - and she thought that's what we all had to do.

For crying out loud, I had booked into a four-star hotel on the Sukhumwit Road.

Would the porter accompany me to the room, point out the switch for the bedside light, go over the TV channels and then with a swish of the curtain say "and there's the nearest canal if you fancy freshening up before dinner"

Exotic

But back then Thailand was truly a destination on the other side of the world. There was something unutterably tropical and unexplored about it.

Getting there involved a fifteen-hour flight with stop-offs in Frankfurt and Karachi. Then after Bangkok, the plane went on to Manila in The Philippines. I didn't even know what a bloody archipelago was. I'd only ever been to Majorca - prononced with a hard J of course. 

Even the free local newspaper got wind that there was a man in the community going to live in Thailand. They sent a photographer to my house to take snaps of yours truly holding up a Thailand guidebook. OK, it was probably a slow news day.

WARD END MAN JETS OFF TO PARADISE screamed the following day's front page headline and accompanying photograph.

It was directly above PENSIONER LOSES TOE IN COUNCIL DUSTBIN FIASCO and to the left of CAT SWALLOWS DIABETIC OWNER'S LOTTERY TICKET

And what about when I got to Thailand itself? What magical things would I see? Perhaps gigantic poisonous snakes being chased around a temple by co-joined twins wearing floppy trousers.

Whatever happened, it promised to be a far cry from a chalkboard outside a pub in Majorca announcing half-price sangria and Sunderland versus Stoke City on a great big telly.

Be prepared

Everyone told me I would need inoculations - otherwise I might die. So I trotted off to the local health center to get a syringe-full of everything available. I had jabs for hepatitis A to hepatitis Zee and felt weak and dizzy for a fortnight. I had arms like pin cushions.

I lapped up every bit of information I could uncover. Dehydration might be a serious problem - or so I read in one Sunday magazine article.

The next day I was in the local pharmacy looking for salt tablets. I was the first customer to ever go in there to ask for something so utterly ridiculous.

The pharmacist overheard the conversation, stuck his head through a serving hatch and sarcastically asked if I was going to run in a marathon. I told him I was going to Thailand and had read that dehydration was a potential killer - so let's have less of your lip.

"Thailand eh?"

"Yes, Bangkok"

The pharmacist beckoned me to enter his private domain at the back of the shop. I could sense straight away that this was a man with dark secrets he wanted to share. I sat down on a chair surrounded by plastic bottles and pill scoops.

‘Thailand eh?"

"Yes, Bangkok"

"Would love to go myself but got married last year. Not exactly a place you would take the wife to if you get my drift" He laughed at me through a mouthful of yellow teeth.

I don't suppose I'll ever get the chance now" he said ruefully.

It's been well over twenty years since I last saw that pharmacist - but I'll bet he's been here at least a dozen times by now!

 




Comments

Well the rest of the world may be thoroughly globalized and cosmopolitan, but the piney woods of North Florida are still as insular and introspective as ever. I don't live in Thailand, but I've travelled there on vacation a number of times, and it's enough of an oddity here that my boss actually asked me to give a presentation on Thailand to the rest of our section.

Admittedly, this may be more of a commentary on public employment than on the global awareness of my coworkers. In any case, I had enough people ask me about my trip to Taiwan before the presentation that I included a Powerpoint slide of the eastern hemisphere of the globe, which featured an animated plane coming on to the screen which briefly seemed as if it were descending to the island of Taiwan.

Just before it 'landed' on the map representation of Taiwan the animation abruptly ascended again, then moved across the map to descend, and rest, at it's final destination at approximately the map location of Bangkok. I accompanied this with some patter to the effect that this was where I had gone on my vacation, to no, not Taiwan, but Thailand.

By John, North Florida, USA (12th March 2010)

Great article! Very funny and true....I was a trailbreaker, leaving behind a solid $75,000 a year job in the USA teaching to come to exotic Thailand to teach. At first people would ask "how are things in Taiwan?", and "are you close to Beijing, you must be going to the Olympics!". Now my visitor friends do more in 3 weeks here than I do in a year. I can't afford to go places with them, and I don't have the time. Someone on Ajarn said Thailand is only inexpensive if you live like a Thai person. How true! Now my friends that live in the States do everything here I would like to do but can't. Maybe I should return to the US and start living a life of adventure, visiting Thailand too..!

By Daniel, BKK (20th February 2010)

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