Fifty fascinating years in Wonderland
Having first arrived in Thailand a few days before Songkran, each year the festival approaches it sparks memories of those early days in the Kingdom. This year is slightly more significant because earlier this week marked my 50th year in Thailand, or to put it another way, roughly 18,250 days. That sounds decidedly scary. The frightening thing is that I can remember those early days better than the events of last week. The immature youth is now an immature wrinkly.
I must admit to not being a fan of Songkran these days, but the first experience in 1969 was quite an eye-opener. I was walking in Makkasan with friend and fellow traveller Clarence Shettlesworth when we were ambushed by middle-aged ladies dancing the ramwong in the street. They proceeded to throw water all over us in good-natured fashion. Neither of us had ever heard of Songkran and we had absolutely no idea what was going on. After a few more hours of walking around Pratunam and getting absolutely drenched, we realised we had arrived in a place somewhat different to England.
Back in 1969, most budget travellers headed for the Thai Son Greet, a busy little hostelry on Rama 4 Road, around the corner from Hua Lamphong railway station. A room with a fan cost 20 baht. The Thai Son Greet was full when we arrived, but we found a similar place, the Jeep Singh, opposite the station. There was a communal bathroom and you would meet all sorts of bizarre characters while queuing up for a shower. Still, compared to "hotels" we had experienced in Afghanistan, the Thai Son Greet and Jeep Singh were unashamed luxury.
The first couple of days I spent some time wandering around the adjacent railway station. The concourse was throbbing with life as hundreds of rural folks daily piled off the trains, most seeking work and not having a clue where to go. Many would sleep there for days on end.
The new arrivals were easy targets for assorted shady characters lurking in the area. Some found work roaming the streets selling soft toys or souvenir tuk-tuks to tourists, a practice which still goes on. The less fortunate ended up in grim back-street sweatshops being paid a pittance, working Dickensian hours.
The station's forecourt was also home to plenty of vendors, beggars, fortune tellers and "painted ladies" who offered more exotic activities. Inevitably there were lots of kids running around all fluent in four words of English, "Hey you, one baht". And I must not forget the stray dogs sniffing around for scraps.
If not quite a microcosm of Thailand, it certainly gave newcomers like myself an early taste of things to come.
The tiara coup
I am sometimes asked how many coups I have experienced and admit to having actually lost count. Whatever the number, it's far too many. I prefer to remember the lighter side of such happenings. Possibly the most absurd moment came in a 1980s coup. The Bangkok Post office was very tense trying to find out the latest situation, when suddenly, amidst much commotion, the newly–crowned Miss Thailand World and her entourage waltzed into the office unannounced. Actually, "wafted in" is perhaps more accurate because there was an overwhelming smell of expensive perfumes that accompanied the grand entrance. She was even wearing her tiara and seemed blissfully unaware of all the drama that was unfolding outside on Bangkok's streets. Amazing Thailand indeed.
A man needs a maid
I've met a lot of terrific people in Thailand over the past five decades, but one who deserves special mention is my former maid Tong, who some readers will know as Ms Yasothon. She had been my maid for 30 years and was a wonderful character, but sadly died in 2003. However, husband Noi still after us and he is a smashing fellow.
Tong was never aware that her exploits, which sporadically appeared in PostScript, had a considerable following amongst readers. I wrote a tribute to her after she died and was overwhelmed by condolence messages from around the world.
One of my lasting memories of Tong came in her later years when she attended my wife's birthday party at an Isan restaurant in the Sukhumvit area. An Englishman at the restaurant happened to be a great fan of the Ms Yasothon tales. I'll never forget the look of bewilderment on her face as he went up to her and asked for her autograph, like she was a film star. It was a lovely moment.
The question I am asked most frequently concerns changes in Thailand over the past 50 years and I have absolutely failed to answer that in today's column. So much has changed yet so much has stayed the same. You could write a book on it. Which leads to a shameless plug.
If you would like a first-hand account (aka "rambling reminiscences") about life and changes in Thailand during the past five decades, you can always try my book The Long Winding Road to Nakhon Nowhere, available at Asia Books and Amazon.com. Actually, it is not that long, but maybe a little bit winding. A final word on living in Thailand. If you are in a situation where you are totally confused by what's happening, just grin and look stupid and you will be fine.
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Bangkok Post columnist
A long time popular Bangkok Post columnist. In 1994 he won the Ayumongkol Literary Award. For many years he was Sports Editor at the Bangkok Post.
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