This week I am blessed to be writing this column from the town of Hat Yai, Songkhla, in the far South.
I have opened the very first branch of Thailand's premier language school, Andrew Biggs Academy.
(Please excuse the ''premier'', shameless self-promotion I know, and entirely a value judgement unsupported by any scientific fact, although the unopened whisky/vodka bottles quietly shoved into the back corners of our brand new office equipment have that written on their labels.)
My school is situated on Juti-Anusorn Road opposite the well known Hansa JB Hotel. That's inner city Hat Yai and a busy place on the weekends, since it is an area not unlike Bangkok's Siam Square.
The place is dotted with what we call ''cram schools'', or places where teenagers pay to sit in front of PC screens and listen to Thai teachers rush through the rules of English grammar so that students can spew out the information onto examination papers at a later date. The result? A pass. Able to speak? A fail.
There in the middle of it all is Andrew Biggs Academy. Today, we are going to take a leisurely walk from my school east towards the fountain on the main road. No need to pack a suitcase; it's not even a kilometre.
Three shophouses down from me is the ''B Khaen Wedding Studio''. In those glistening shop windows are dangerously white farang wedding gowns that would put Kate Middleton to shame.
Continue walking past ''B Khaen'', and another three doors down is the ''Imperail'' Wedding Studio. Oh dear. Didn't anybody check the sign before sending it off? Sounds like a wedding on a train or something.
Nevertheless, the shopfront window features an array of white wedding gowns and once again, there is enough chiffon and taffeta and satin to suffocate the entire cast of Tiffany's.
Keep walking, dear reader.
Another three doors down and there's ''Bangkok Studio''.
A recording studio, perhaps, for Hat Yai's budding superstars? A photographic studio, maybe?
No. A wedding studio.
That's right, dear reader. In the space of 100m if that, you have walked past three wedding studios.
I guess it would be pretty normal to think wow, three wedding studios in the space of 100m (or about 300 feet for my metrically-challenged North American readers). There is some serious matrimony goin' on here.
I would agree with you; three wedding studios in a row is pretty bizarre.
Well listen to this; if I told you there were another six on the same side of the street if you kept walking, would you believe me?
Right after ''Bangkok Studio'' there is ''Forever Studio'', followed by ''Dao Siam'', which is just before ''Lovely Wedding Studio'', which comes prior to ''Noo-Kaew Wedding Dresses'', which heralds ''Khun Tiew'', which is situated in front of ''Rin's Palace''.
That's the end of the road, and a good thing, too, because I can't for the life of me think of any more ways of saying ''which comes before''. Nine bridal studios on one street.
I beg your pardon _ on one side of the street. I dare not cross the road for fear of you hurling Brunch in the direction of your family pet while shouting: ''OH COME ON ANDREW! THERE ARE MORE? NOW YOU'RE GOING TOO FAR!''
There are, indeed, more. Three more. Forget about their names. I have unintentionally opened my school in bridal heaven.
Or hell, perhaps? Have you ever wandered down a street with 12 bridal studios? Imagine the poor boys of Hat Yai; they must hate going anywhere near that road!
Their girlfriends must have a field day. ''Oh look, Somchai, a wedding studio! And another! And another! How long have we been going out together for now?''
The other problem is this: How does a bride choose which one to patronise? Let's face it; taffeta is taffeta. There are only so many ways one can drape chiffon before it starts repeating on you and, believe me, on Juti-Anusorn Road, it repeats on you more than baked beans or onions ever have.
I am assuming one of these dresses costs a fortune, but for each of these studios to survive, they have to be servicing one or two brides a week, right? Let's put a conservative estimate at five a month.
This means in any given month there are 60 brides popping into Juti-Anusorn Road. Are there that many weddings in Hat Yai? Have I stumbled across the matrimonial hub of Thailand? Of Asean, perhaps?
''Khun Andrew, you don't understand,'' one of my Thai staff said to me this week, a sentence I all-too-often hear when I pronounce judgement on Thai culture. It's not that I disagree with the sentence; it's just I don't like hearing it, and I did make a mental reminder not to increase that staff member's salary this year.
''You have Malaysians coming here for their wedding dresses, because the cost of labour is cheaper and Thais have a reputation for craftsmanship,'' she explained.
''Then you have people from all over southern Thailand coming down here to get their dresses done. It's not just Hat Yai city.''
Yes but why bunched up so close together?
Once before in this column I made mention of this. Drive anywhere in the Thai countryside and you will come across a little farmer's stall with a wizened farmer selling, say, mangoes.
A few hundred metres down and there is an exact replica of that little stall with what appears to be the twin of that wizened farmer, also selling mangoes.
And on it goes. Another stall suggests they are indeed triplets, then quadruplets, then quintuplets and so on.
I used to lament the lack of imagination on the part of these stalls, all looking exactly the same and selling exactly the same thing, until I discovered the truth.
They are all owned by the same person, who spaces out the stalls so that you have time to think about how delicious a fresh mango may be. Now that's a clever imagination!
This scenario is repeated all over the country with whatever product is favoured in that area.
Just last week, driving from Suphan Buri to Bangkok, there were a dozen ''Grilled Field Mice'' stalls on the left (ewwww, though descending from a European culture that has for centuries feasted on haggis, frog's legs and tripe, I have absolutely no right to cast the first stone).
Surely, Juti-Anusorn Road is not the same. Here are 12 separate owners in competition with one another, vying to pair a virginal white dress with a bride.
I will be interested to monitor the situation over the next 12 months, to see if all 12 stay in business. I have been reliably informed all 12 have been around for ages.
Meanwhile, I am exercising my clever imagination, too. I am designing a sign to prop up outside my school: ''Special Class: ENGLISH FOR BRIDES''.
I do fear the cram schools nearby may steal my idea, like 11 wedding studios have done on Juti-Anusorn Road, but what the heck. I gotta give it a try.
We have come to the end of our walk down Juti-Anusorn Road, which finishes with the fountain on the main road. It is a walk entirely fitting for upcoming Valentine's Day.
But before you go, take a glance to the left.
There's a shophouse with an altogether different sign out front. He's a lawyer, and he's specialising in divorce.
No competition. Just him. And with 50% of the Juti-Anusorn clients statistically bound for him, he must be doing a roaring trade.
About the author
- Writer: Andrew Biggs