A Farang’s Trip to Thailand
After separating with my ex-wife of twenty miserable years, I decided to take a vacation, a break from the incessant complaining and lack of appreciation that had defined my married life. Given the choice of between stewing in the wreckage of divorce, dating my best friend’s ex-wife, or the reverse evolution of online personals, running away seemed a better choice. So, as I sat on the Bangkok bound United Airways 747, I felt as if despite only flying away from my own reflection I was freeing myself from my own identity. There’s no reflection on the Pacific when the pilot announced the International Date Line. The ocean was a blank slate as today became yesterday and we crossed into tomorrow. It was the closest I will ever get to time travel. I loved the idea of going into the future and was already lamenting my imminent return to the past. But when today’s gone, where did it go? And where did the big dufus in the red sports jersey think he’s going?
He sauntered into first class and slid into a leather recliner. He didn’t look the part: shaved head, sailor’s ear ring, neck tattoo, baggy satin shorts and all. A fashion statement so awful repulsive was an understatement. What kind of jersey was that anyway? It sported a big white seven above which said Rooney. The chair groaned under his considerable weight as he leaned back and pretended to sleep. Damn, it looked good. Maybe I should try it.
A passing flight attendant stopped next to him, looked down and waved to someone in the cockpit. She tapped his shoulder. “Excuse me, sir.” He kept the charade up, but she didn’t buy it. “Excuse me, sir, I need to ask you to please return to your seat.”
He opened his eyes and cooed, “C’mon love, I am just getting comfortable.”
He’s English. Must be a soccer jersey.
“These seats are for paying first-class customers only, sir.”
His attitude changed in a flash. “So the lot of me aren’t good enough?”
“That’s not what I am saying, sir. It is airline policy…”
“Bullocks! This seat’s empty, why can’t I sit here?”
“Sir, please calm down, I don’t want to make this difficult.”
Rooney crossed his arms. “Then piss off, bird. I am not budging.”
“Sir, the other passengers would appreciate it if you lowered your voice and returned to your seat.”
“Tell the other passengers to kiss my hairy arse!”
The flight attendant shook her head and stride toward the cockpit. Rooney settled back into fictitious slumber, victorious for the moment. He’s got nerve I will give him, but the battle was far from over. Reinforcements arrived in the form of the co-pilot. “What seems to be the problem here, sir?”
Rooney reverted to sweet-talk. “No problem guv’nor. Just catching a wee nap.”
“Sir, I need you to return to your assigned seat right now.”
“I am not going.”
The pilot’s eyes widened in disbelief. “I would advise you to reconsider, sir.”
“Or what? You are going to boot me off? Huh?”
A hush fell over the plane, heads popped into the aisle to hear the response.
“No, sir. What I am going to do is to return to the cockpit and do the job I was trained to do. And if Miss Scoot reports to me that we have an unruly passenger on board who refuses to cooperate, that job entails notifying the airport police at our destination. They will also do their job, which means they will most likely detain the troublemaker for questioning, and quite possibly send him back to wherever he came from under police custody. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to the cockpit. Enjoy the rest of your flight, sir. Miss Scott, please report to me in five minutes.”
The pilot walked back to the cockpit with the stewardess at the tail. Rooney stayed put. He had lost and unless he’s incredibly dull, he’ll know. After an interminable wait as we peered on, he curled slowly out of leather luxury and strolled back to livestock class. He disappeared behind me and I was sorry to see him go. If nothing else, he was entertaining.
The food carts made the rounds and the anticipation of being fed settled the cabin down. I peeled back the pre-fab meal’s foil cover and tried to figure out what it was. Two rows back, a familiar voice said, “Ello luv. What have we got here then?”
“Would you like a meal sir?”
“It is about fookin’ time. What are my choices, bird?”
“Your choices are yes, or no.”
As the 747 rocked under a strong turbulence, testament to God’s might and whims, I picked up the Thai Customs and Immigration form. Lightning flashed across the clouds as I got to the line that asked: Do you have anything to declare? I did not know. I agreed to deliver this package for the woman who suggested this trip, in exchange for her brother-in-law picking me up at the airport. I could just check the box ‘Nothing to declare’, but what if there was something inside like cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana or heroin. Perhaps I was just being paranoid, but the last trip to Singapore and their welcome greeting promising death penalty for traffickers had me worried about monolithic Asian governments.
A little further down, the form said ‘Failure to check items may result in a fine or imprisonment. Check ‘Items to declare’ if you are not sure.’ That would be me so I checked the box, but was unable to list the items in the bag as per requested. My Thai phrase book didn’t have anything for: ‘This bag doesn’t belong to me, please do not jail me.’ I could say ‘You have the most beautiful eyes’ but I doubt flattery would help, so I pieced together grabpow dam Thai puan pee chai norng chai, which I hoped meant black bag Thai friend’s brother.
The plane touched down with a slight bump and I made a silent prayer that I will soon be in a hotel bed. It had been nineteen hours in this claustrophobic flying tube and twenty five since I had slept. I filed into the musty terminal with the crowd and a frowning customs officer beneath a Land of Smiles poster stamped my passport. I was tempted to open the mysterious black bag I was delivering but even if there was something incriminating like heroin, flushing it down the toilet would probably be even worse. I cruised to the ‘Items to Declare’ line while the rest of the horde jostled for positions in the other lines.
The customs officer was a stern little man with shoulder boards. He watched my lips as I read my pieced-together explanation. His squint said ‘What the heck are you talking about?’ But his lips said, “Open bag.”
As I stared at his holstered pistol worriedly he slid the zipper open. Shoes, books, CD’s and a coffee maker in an unopened box. He kept digging but didn’t find anything of interest, so he pointed to the coffee maker and asked, “How much cost?”
I guessed, “Thirty dollars?”
He gave a hearty laugh and said, “You go now.”
I walked through slowly to the lobby entrance into the crowd. People shouted for attention and waved signs with names on them. I looked through them for mine and whenever I made eye contact, I was offered a taxi. I kept on looking for the brother-in-law but kept collecting taxi drivers. They swarmed around me until my repeated rejections made it clear as they gave up and moved on to the next bewildered looking arrival.
I stood in the middle of the open lobby so that I could easily be seen. I scanned the people leaning against the tinted lobby windows and some looked back, but none showed any signs of recognition. Apple had said he knew what I looked like so I waited. Ten minutes, twenty minutes.
A woman sporting a bright yellow blazer and matching pumps walked past me and looked me over. I tried to ignore her, but she appeared at my side and offered a stick of gum. I accepted and she asked, “You need a taxi?”
I wished I hadn’t taken the gum, “No thanks. Someone is picking me up.”
She said, “You wait a long time, no one come.”
“Maybe they’re stuck in traffic.”
“Maybe she forgets? What she look like?”
“It’s a man.”
Her head jerked back a little and then she smiled. “Oh, you like boys?”
“What? No, no, no. I like girls, but a man is supposed to pick me up.”
She tapped her clipboard. “If he no come, I give you a ride, okay?”
“Okay, I will give him ten more minutes.”
“What’s your name?”
“My name’s ***”
She didn’t write it down. She said, “Me Pisamai.”
There was no reason I needed to know her name, but all I could say was, “Nice to meet you, Pisamee.”
“No, no, no, not Pisamee, my name is Pisamai. You come to Thailand before?”
“Me see your hand?”
“You’re the great fortune-telling taxi oracle huh?”
She nodded knowingly, “Yes, yes.” Took my hand and traced its lines with her plum colored fingernails. Some of the people against the window looked up to watch. Pisamai said, “Four demons wait for you Thailand. One you already know.”
“How can that be? This is my first trip?”
I tried to take my hand back, but she held it firmly. “Maybe follow you. Not worry. You safe. Five guardian angels protect you.”
“Five? Will that be enough?”
“Enough for anyone. Only need one if you are smart.” She continued studying my palm with her deep brown eyes. “You want something. You have wish.”
“What is it?”
“Me not know. You not know. Not yet.” She looked up and released my hand, her round iris peering into my eyes and I was momentarily dazed by her look. “Your wish be granted, but not right away.”
“How do you know that?”
“Me Pisamai. Me know everything. Your hand lucky and you have five angel help you.”
“How many angels does Bangkok have?”
“Ha! More that you can count. Bangkok City of Angels.”
I wished one would show up now and gave me a ride. I asked, “Do you know where a pay phone is?”
She twisted her head and smirked, “Why? You call angel?”
“Something like that.”
I got to Apple’s answering machine and told her to tell the brother-in-law to contact me at my hotel.
“Pisamee, I am ready to go.”
She crossed her arms and glared. “I am Pisamai.”
“Oops, sorry.” I wondered if my mispronunciation was a bad word in Thai.
She led me to a service garage and asked, “Where you go vacation?”
“Bangkok, then Koh Samet.”
“Samet very beautiful,” She slipped her arm in mine and waved her finger between us. “Me go vacation with you, okay?”
I laughed at her joke, “Okay, we go.”
She didn’t laugh. She’s serious. I didn’t have the heart to break it to her so I pretended to go along with the idea as she scrawled out her name and her number on a piece of paper. “You remember call me?”
I got into the back of the minivan and agreed.
She peered in at me, holding her clipboard tight. Before the driver swung his door shut, she asked, “What you call me?”
“Yes, yes, very good.”
We cruised down the freeway and except for the Thai words on the large billboards, I could hardly tell I was in another country. When we exited the freeway, then the difference became apparent.
A chicken crossed the road. I had no idea why. I thought it was only a riddle, I didn’t know chickens actually crossed roads, least of all in the City of Angels. Perhaps it was running from the woman cooking on the sidewalk.
Boiling pots steamed on top of a small cart lit by a single bulb. Fold out chairs sat next to a vacant lot fenced with barbed wire. Our progress was lit only by the glistening of headlights off the rain-slicked streets. The buildings, three or four story walk-ups were old and crumbling, with peeling paint and boarded up windows. And everywhere, stray dogs: running, sleeping, waiting – for a chicken perhaps?
We swerved through a maze of back streets and I wondered if the seemingly random route was leading us to anywhere when the car lurched to a stop and the driver said, “Hotel, sah.”
The driver opened my door and the night air enveloped me like a hot towel, scented with a complex blend of exhaust fumes, sewer gas, barbecue chicken, garbage and flowers. The rotting air filled my lungs and burned me from inside. Scooters blew clouds of smoke and crackled as they passed. My senses were overloaded with unfamiliarity at such an intense level and I quickly stepped into the lobby to check in.
The next day started with a hearty meal of breakfast buffet, a mix of familiarity and unknown consisting of scrambled eggs, fried tomatoes, steamed ham and bologna, Thai veggie and meat curry, corn flakes and mysterious green goop. I had seconds and then thirds; the goop wasn’t bad.
Full and out of excuses to remain in the familiar comfort of the hotel, I stepped into the day’s liquid fire from the arctic cold lobby. As I passed the encampments of sidewalk vendors huddling under makeshift shelters, a scruffy punk stood up from his gang of cigarette puffing friends and blocked my path. I sensed hostility, but instead his face lighted up with a wide smile. “You need taxi, sah?”
“Uhh, no thanks, I am going to walk.”
“Taxi better, sah, where you go?”
“The Grand Palace.”
“Is very far. I take you.”
He continued his sale, “We go tuk tuk, sah, very fast.”
I walked away, puzzled by the unrecognizable food the street vendors displayed on their grills, smiling hopefully as I strolled by. A legless man appeared, dragging his belly down the sidewalk, pushing his alms bowl forward with the top of his head. I dropped a couple of dollars in but was more astounded by the collective apathy of those around him than his profuse thanking.
An attractive woman’s calves captured my attention, but her hand confused me. It was attached to another farang, an elderly bald, fat white man. I had seen older men with young women, but this was ridiculous. He must be forty years her senior. They made a very odd couple. If it was a monetary relationship they made no effort to conceal the arrangement. They seemed genuinely happy, teasing and laughing like teenagers. My life was like that, once upon a time I think.
No one paid them any notice, until a western couple walking in the other direction appeared. I had never seen them before, but I knew them: wife out shopping with husband in tow. My life was like that too, being that shopping dummy which was mind-numbingly bored. And for the first time I was happy to be divorced. Well, almost divorced.
Hubby saw the babe first, but only this eyeballs move discreetly, scanning her from top to bottom, like a trapped animal seeing food just out of reach. The wife looked at their joined hands and seethed, “That’s disgusting.” She slapped his shoulder. “Did you see that?”
He feigned ignorance. “See what?”
She motioned to the departing couple, either oblivious or perhaps just expert at ignoring their unwanted attention. “It’s disgusting.” She stared at her husband, coercing an answer.
He wisely echoed, “Yeah, disgusting.”
I came to a junction and waited to cross the road. The traffic light changed, but the traffic didn’t stop. I put a foot cautiously forward, but leaped back immediately as a car sped past. The signal changed again and again while I remained firmly stuck to the sidewalk. Perhaps the chicken crossed the road because it could.
An attractive young woman wearing a smart suit appeared next to me. Now I had to cross, traffic or no traffic, fear or no fear. I had got to look cool for the babe, though I supposed I won’t look cool if I got run over. The signal changed and I matched her stride for stride, wondering how many tourists had died trying to impress girls crossing the street. She stepped into a gap between a taxi and a Mercedes. I stepped into it a millisecond later. Two seconds later, the Benz’s bumper ruffled her skirt as she stepped onto the curb. She didn’t notice. I quickly jumped onto the curb. Not very cool, but relieved and exhilarated to be alive. She didn’t notice that either.
Reaching Chao Praya river, I noticed a man in a pink shirt who bounced excitedly towards me. “Hello sah, you need boat today? Go Grand Palace, five hundred baht, sah.”
Hmm, about ten dollars, seemed a little steep, but what did I know about boat fares here? I followed him down a flank to a hybrid tugboat / golf cart painted in every color in complete randomness, driven by a toothless old woman. I didn’t know what I was expecting, but this certainly wasn’t it. The boat groaned under my weight and started, bobbing in the waves and hardly outpacing the oncoming current throughout the journey. After an interminable journey, we reached. The passengers hanging off the side of an overcrowded boat smiled at me. The fishermen tending their nets smiled at me. The people I passed on the way smiled at me. Perhaps they thought I was someone important, to have arrived on my own private boat. I smiled back with the benevolence of a king to his loyal subjects.
I followed a herd of tourists to what I assumed was the Grand Palace. A young man in a shirt and tie, spotting me from the gate rushed towards me.
“Hello sah, you need help?”
“Yes, I want to go to the Grand Palace and Wat Pra Keo.”
“Grand Palace closed until 2.30 for ceremony.”
“Oh, what about Wat Pra Keo?”
“Same same. Wat and palace together.”
A haggard old man joined us as I pondered how to kill an hour and a half. The kid explained, “This man takes you tour other temples, many temples to see not just Wat Pra Keo. See Wat Indara Vihan Lucang Pho To. World’s largest standing Buddha, thirty two meters, you want to go?”
I liked the idea of seeing some sights off the guidebook’s tourist red line. Anyone can see the Grand Palace but how many got to see Wat Indara whatever he said? “What about Wat Saket?”
“No problem, he takes you Wat Saket too.” He pointed to the curb. “You go with him, tuk-tuk.”
“For you sah, forty baht.”
What a deal? It costed me ten times that to come here. I climbed eagerly onto the thinly padded bench as the tuk-tuk started.
The temple was about the size of a detached garage. Small pieces of reflective glass and porcelain trimmed the windows and a gracefully curved tile roof capped its white plaster walls. Pretty, in a country church kind of way. The world’s largest standing Buddha towered over the courtyard behind. It might have been impressive if it was truly standing, but there were support beams on either side giving it a portable amusement park quality. No wonder it was not on the guidebook’s red line tour.
As I sat in the shade, an Asian man in a three piece suit, approached me. With a slight British accent he said, “Do you need any help, sir?”
“No, I am fine.”
“Very good, sir. My name is Min.”
“Hello Min, I am Jon.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Mister Jon. What brings you to Bangkok?”
“You are a lucky man. I am always working when I come here.”
“What kind of work do you do?”
“I am a jewelry exporter. I buy all my gemstones in Bangkok, the best market in the world, especially this week?”
“Why this week?”
“The Thai government lowered the tariffs, so you can export gemstones without taxes, but only this week.”
“That sounds like a good deal for you.”
“It is. I am surprised more people don’t take advantage of it.”
“How would they do that?”
“Buy low, sell high, of course. Basic business. Here, you take card me, you want to buy something, you come see me. Big sale today, diamond, ruby, gold…”
As he left, the tuk-tuk driver came to me and asked, “Where, sah?”
“Let’s go to Wat Saket.”
The driver nodded and we moved on, but at the next red light he asked “You want to see the suit factory?”
“Big factory, make Armani suits, not open to public, only this week, you want to look?”
“Isn’t Armani made in Italy?”
“Made in Bangkok.”
I wondered if it was kind of a sweat shop. “Okay, let’s go.” He snaked through a labyrinth of back alleys and stopped in front of the Mr. Elegant Tailor Shop. I said, “This isn’t a factory.”
“Take a look sah, no have to buy, just look.”
“But I don’t want a suit.”
He squatted on the sidewalk and lighted a cigarette. “Five minutes, sah, just look no have to buy, sah.”
I was not even mildly interested, but stepped in anyway. An Indian tailor greeted me warmly, “Hello, sir, welcome, welcome. We be with you shortly.”
“That’s okay, I am not.”
He yelled into the back room in Hindi. A young man appeared, scooped up a binder and thrusted it into my hands. “We be making a very fine suit for you, sir.”
“I don’t need a suit.”
“Please be looking sir, you will see many fine styles.” As I flipped through the binder, he started measuring me, and I said, “I am just looking.”
He motioned to the wall of fabrics, “Be looking at our fine materials, sir.”
I scanned the wall of deep blues and subtle grays. “Very good choice, sir,” he said as I paused upon a sky blue piece, “Please be choosing a lining material.”
“I am not buying a…”
“We be making very fine suits for you. Two for the price of one and two shirts free.” I had enough suits in my closet that I didn’t even touch. I didn’t care how good the deal was. I walked for the door as he chased, “Sir, sir, you need to be choosing a lining…”
My driver was only halfway through his cigarette. He pointed to the business card Min gave me, in my pocket and asked, “Where we go now, sah?”
I ignored the implied suggestion and said, “Wat Saket.”
I was thinking it was good to be mobile again when he stopped and turned around. “You want to look at jewel, sah?”
“Only look, no have to buy, sah?”
“I don’t want to look at jewels.”
“Only five minutes, sah, then Wat Saket.”
“I am not interested.”
“Government store, sah, very good price. You buy here, sell big money later.”
I wished he weren’t so damn cheerful about it so I could get mad at him, but I had rather wasted five minutes than continued this inane conversation. “Alright, five minutes, then Wat Saket. No stops after this.”
“No more stops, sah.”
He drove around the block to a warehouse, the Royal Export Center. Two farangs in tailored suits stepped out. One said, “You’re too late. We bought everything.”
“That’s okay. I am just looking.”
“You’re not a dealer? I am surprised they’ll even let you in here.”
The other chimed in, “Don’t listen to him, it’s open to the public all week. It’s the last day though.”
“I am not planning to buy anything anyway.”
“At these prices you would be crazy not to. You could pay for your whole trip.”
“Buy low, sell high, simple as that.”
That sounded familiar. As I walked through the tinted glass, I was greeted by a well-dressed Thai lady. She wai-ed me by pressing her palms together and bowing deeply. This was the first wai I had received and it made me feel like a king receiving it from her. She was a real angel, early twenties, shiny straight black hair, and the kind of smile that rarely heard ‘no’. “What’s your name, sah?”
“I am Jon.”
“My pleasure to meet you, Mistah Jon. My name is Soonee. You married, Mistah Jon?”
Why the hell did I say that? I was still legally married, but no one was waiting for me at home, aware of where I was, or even cared. But I couldn’t explain that now to my sales-angel. I should have lied. “Let me show you earrings for your wife, Mistah Jon.” Great, now I was pretending to shop for an imaginary wife to impress my imaginary girlfriend. “These rubies very beautiful.”
“Yes, they are.”
“Only five thousand dollars.”
Only five thousand? I contained my shock as Soonee asked. “How much you want to spend for your wife?” The truth was, nothing. She continued onto different jewelry as I inched towards the door.
“She likes gold?”
No, no and no. The closer I got to the door the lower the price got. I started off with ruby earrings and now I was down to twenty dollar sterling. I was tempted to buy one just to please her, but I didn’t see how buying something cheap was going to get me a date. I made a move for the door. “Thank you, Soonee.”
Her lips quivered. “You, you, you not buy something?” She’s on the verge of phony tears or a real tantrum. An older woman laid a guilt trap on me with the click of her tongue and I was out.
After another block later, and the driver turned to me again. “You like to look at carpets, sah?”
“What? You said no more stops.”
“Only five minutes, sah, just look.”
“I do not want a carpet, I do not want any more stops.”
“Just look, sah, not buy.”
I can’t believe this guy. “Why do you want me to look at carpet?”
“Beautiful carpet sah.”
“Whatever, but why do you want me to look?”
“They give me gas money. I can feed wife, feed baby.”
I got it now. All these stores paid him a commission for each sucker he delivered. He looked at me despondently, like a forty year old UNICEF poster child. “Just five minutes, sah. Help feed family. Good for me, good for you.”
First, I was king of the river, then a big shot diamond exporter, and now I am Mother Theresa? I was feeling really pissed off, but if I objected, what was I gonna say? Your family can starve, because I was too busy to look at carpets. “No more stops after this?”
“I mean it. No more.”
“No more sah. Thank you sah, just look…”
“I know, I know, not have to buy.”
As I stepped into the shop, an Indian man walked briefly towards me. Before he could say a word, I blurted out, “I am not buying anything.”
“Of course, sir. You are not the type of man who makes decisions lightly.” Great, now I had a carpet-selling psychologist to deal with. “Allow me to just show you some of our finest pieces.” I didn’t respond, but he started unrolling one at my feet. “This is a very fine weave, sir. Surely a man of your high standards can recognize it.”