I came to Thailand in 1990 and when I look back on 30 years of living here, I still consider the 90's as my 'toughest' decade.
Life in Bangkok has changed a lot but whether it's actually improved or not is open to debate.
Thailand expats always find plenty to moan about (me included!) but for those who were not around during the 90's, and for those who were and perhaps just fancy a reminisce, I put together a collection of random observations on Twitter, which many folks seemed to get a kick out of.
So let's take a walk down memory lane and after you've finished reading, you can judge for yourself - where things really better in the good old days?
- Thailand's roads have always been dangerous but in the days before social media, you only ever read about the most horrific collisions on the front page of the daily newspapers. Whenever there was a bad road accident in Thailand, usually involving a bus, the driver would always be reported as having 'fled the scene'. They generally never stuck around to see what damage they'd caused or for the cops to slap on the bracelets. Bangkok Post journalist, Roger Crutchley, told the story of one bus driver who upon discovering his brakes had failed, leaped from the cab and did a runner across the rice-fields, with the vehicle still moving. A rare example of a driver fleeing the scene before the accident even occurred.
- If you had been living in Thailand for over six months (or it may have been three), whenever you left the country, you had to first obtain a pointless document called a 'tax clearance form'. Whether you had been working here or just on holiday, without this piece of paper, you couldn't exit the country. The tax clearance form could only be obtained from one place - a pokey office on the ground floor of a dingy building in Banglampoo, not far from the Democracy Monument. There was no queue system - just a handful of jaded and overworked civil servants sat behind grubby windows, all trying to keep the mob at bay. It was absolute chaos and you dreaded going there. If you got there at 9.00 am and came away with your form before midday, you had done well.
- Almost every long-term expat you spoke to (certainly in the apartment building I lived in) was an English teacher, and to work at AUA on Ratchadamri Road was one of the most prestigious jobs. When you told a Thai person that you were a teacher at AUA, you commanded instant respect. AUA was by far the biggest player in the TEFL game, with the likes of Siam Computer and Language, ECC and British American also worth a mention.
- A trip to either of the two McDonalds branches (opposite Patpong and near The Erawan Shrine) was a real treat! There was also the odd Popeyes, Wendys and Chesters Grill but of course there were nothing like the fast food options you have today.
- It's hard to believe that Don Muang Airport was once Bangkok's one and only aviation hub, considering the chaotic terminal it's become today, but back then it actually coped very well. There always seemed to be plenty of space and a decent selection of eating options and check-in was never that time-consuming. Of course this was well before low-cost airlines arrived on the scene. However, as Bob Van Es reminded me - "prior to the opening of the Don Muang Tollway, it could sometimes take three hours (or more) to get there, especially during the rainy season. Planning to actually make it for one’s flight was an art form"
- And we paid a departure tax in those days as well. Was it about 200-250 Baht if I remember right?
- In those pre-internet days, the highlight of the week was the Saturday edition of the Bangkok Post and the Bernard Trink 'Night Owl' column. Love him or hate him - you always read it!
- The main immigration office was in Soi Suan Phlu, off Sathorn Road. Opposite the office was a row of shop-houses all rented by visa agents, who for a fee could get you whatever visa you wanted. Oh, those were the days!
- If you wanted to phone home, you either went into a Sukhumwit Rd hotel to make an expensive international call or booked a phone booth at the central Post office on Charoenkrung Rd. I talk to my Mum on Skype and still can't believe how far we've come.
- There wasn't a day went by when you didn't see a tourist wandering around clutching The Lonely Planet's 'South East Asia on a Shoestring' - a meaty tome that became known as 'the yellow bible'
- There was something adventurous and exotic about a weekend in Hua Hin because so few people went there. You had a choice of 5 places to stay and 3 bars to drink in. By 10.00 pm you were in bed with a good book having completely exhausted Hua Hin's nightlife options.
- The first branch of Boots opening in Bangkok was an unforgettable milestone. No longer would I have to ask relatives and friends to bring me life-saving cans of deodorant from the UK.
- Taxis didn't have meters so you had to negotiate fares, buses had passengers hanging out of the windows and there was no sky-train or metro system. If you made an appointment with someone, it was nothing for them to turn up 1-2 hours late.
- One of the hotel heavyweights was The Ambassador on Sukhumwit. This legendary hotel had a food court the size of Wembley Stadium. It was the first time I had experienced this strange Asian concept of buying coupons to order food - and I hated it.
- Soi Cowboy was where all the cash-strapped teachers and frugal expats went. Nana Plaza was a grubby, downmarket version of the Cowboy and Patpong was for tourists. There were other clusters of bars around town but most were a bit sad. Cowboy was the place!
- You would spend a very pleasant hour browsing in a branch of Asia Books or negotiating the narrow aisles of the Elite Bookshop near Sukhumwit 33. I don't know how many years ago I bought my first Kindle but that was probably the last time I went into Asia Books.
- Chiang Mai was a place you had to experience once even though it meant enduring the 12-hour sleeper train. You booked into a cheap guest house, had a banana pancake and a fruit smoothie, hired a moped and pissed about in a few hill-tribe villages. Chiang Mai. Done!
- Bobby's Arms was the king of the Brit Pubs. In fact, other than the tiny Toby Jug on Silom Road, it's the only place I remember that offered proper fish and chips or sausage and mash. If you weren't a regular at Bobby's and had your own beer-glass behind the bar, you were an outsider and by and large ignored. I loathed the cliquishness of the place but loved the food.
- There were no 7-11s in them days (certainly not at the start of the decade), in fact one of the first mini-marts was Nud's on Sukhumwit Soi 22. I can't describe the joy of being able to buy a loaf of bread and a pack of 4 ham slices and devouring butterless ham sandwiches back at my bedsit.
- There were of course fewer movie theatres and they were nothing like the air-conditioned multiplexes of today. I used to go to Washington Square on Sukhumwit and half way through the film, the cinema cat would brush against your leg and you'd jump out of your skin.
- Another character you often saw wandering around Sukhumwit in this era was a professional magician by the name of Dr Penguin (anyone remember him?) Clad in magician's cape and top hat, he would sometimes perform tricks in various bars.
- You either drank Singha, Kloster or Amarit. Those were your three beer choices. However, if you ordered a Kloster, the rest of your drinking group considered you slightly weird. Amarit was much harder to find. You drank Singha. End of.
- Almost everyone did their visa run to Penang by overnight train. Then for a brief period, the sleepy town of Sungai Golok on the Malaysian border became a popular alternative. Hardly anyone went to the likes of Laos or Burma because getting the visa was far too much hassle and far too expensive.
- As my old pal, Mike White, pointed out - "in those days, there seemed to be a snooker hall on every street corner". And he's right. Thai superstar, James Wattana, reached about number four in the world rankings during this decade and really put snooker on the map.
- We wrote letters home. As Dr Jessica said - "I lived in Hatyai in the mid-90s. Making a phone call home was an expensive ordeal, which made calling home a monthly treat. I used to write aerograms because email didn’t exist. Hatyai had one ATM at Central Department Store and luckily it always worked! (Not that I had money to withdraw😂)
Were you around during the 90's? Perhaps even before that? If so, what are your memories?