Christmas and New Year in Thailand

As Christmas approached i felt the presence of ghosts from the past: frosty mornings and purple hands, light snow (if we were lucky), a decorated tree and a crib, robins eating crumbs at the back door, grandmother in her chair talking about the good old days and no one paying attention, the cats curled up by the fire and piping hot heavy food at every meal – all that made the Dickensian winter scene for one who grew up in the upper latitudes of the northern hemisphere.
Perhaps i should’ve gone back to celebrate.

Two of my new Singapore friends came up to Bangkok for Christmas. They timed it nicely to arrive on Friday, 20th, the day i got holidays. We spent the first weekend in town and i showed them around. They’d never visited this den of iniquity before and were interested in seeing as much reality as possible so the first night i took them to a bar in Patpong which stages a live sex show, very live. They were disappointed and didn’t enjoy it much and neither did i. Live shows are only as good as the enthusiasm and talents of the participants and on this occasion the men and women performed with little interest and no passion, it was all far too perfunctory to be stimulating. It’s the height of the tourist season, or should be at any rate, and i expected the bar to be jam packed but it wasn’t; fullish, yes, but nothing like the crowds of old, and these days that’s typical of most places of entertainment..or what passes for entertainment.

Singaporeans have two preoccupations, eating and shopping, and on saturday we went shopping and my guests bought gifts and souvenirs for family and friends back home. They enjoyed the shops very much as most things, even if they’re not always top quality, are cheaper here than in Singapore. On saturday night we were at a dinner party hosted by Earle, an American working for one of the government ministries. He rents a house with a garden and as it was a cool dry night we were able to eat outside.
Sunday included a trip to the flea market where there was a lot to view but very little of quality to buy but it was worth the visit even if a major section of the market is disturbing – far too many animals in small cages.

By sunday night my guests had had enough of the city so on monday morning we took a train south and three hours later rolled into the sleepy town of Hua Hin, the resort where i often go at weekends. Well, not so sleepy actually as the place was crawling with Swedish tourists all speaking hurdy-gurdy and looking like burned yetis. We stayed at Verity’s beach house which gave us direct access to the sea. Verity, a good friend i’ve made, has a ‘country house’ as well so we weren’t causing her inconvenience but of course it was nice of her to offer us the beach house in the first place. It was bliss there and we had four days of peace and quiet away from the madness of Bkk. We didn’t do much and that was the intention, spent the evenings with Verity, Robert, a Canadian who works in a bar till he ‘can find himself’, and Jim, a senior citizen from West Virginia who has now made Hua Hin his retirement home. We talked, had a few drinks and played a lot of scrabble.

January, the depth of winter in Europe and America, is the cool season here. We’ve had a few unusually cold days and a couple of nights at New Year were almost icy. I never thought i’d feel so cold in the tropics and on two nights at least i could’ve done with a warm coat.

When my Singapore friends flew home i returned to Hua Hin to celebrate the arrival of 1992 with my scrabble pals. We sat outdoors in Friendship, our adopted haunt and watering hole, and watched the fireworks display at the Sofitel, the best hotel in town. This year the show was less spectacular than last but still worthwhile.
Just as the fireworks ended and we’d wished one another health and happiness a fatal accident took place under our very noses. Two nurses on their way home from duty were riding their unlit motorcycle across the road when they were flattened by a speeding and equally unlit Bedford truck. It was no contest. One of the women died on the spot and the other a short while later in hospital. The second woman might have had a chance had not the locals rushed out and gathered around her and begun shaking her violently (in an attempt to bring her round?) which caused her to bleed more than she was already bleeding. We didn’t intervene because we weren’t supposed to but i’m sure such practice isn’t at all correct and i feel the poor woman’s chances were cancelled by literally shaking her to death. The accident put a complete damper on festivities and all went quiet after that. Those two women saw little of 1992, five minutes at most. The truck driver didn’t stop, they never do after an accident, and Jim pointed out the law here is such that stopping at the scene of an accident isn’t taken into consideration and isn’t interpreted as a sign of good faith or of innocence. Staying at the scene isn’t worth the driver’s while so he continues on his way.

The Christmas lights on the hotels, banks and offices were as good as last year’s but despite the glitter and hype and the almost constant singing of ‘Ginger Ben’ in supermarkets and shopping malls, it still didn’t feel like Christmas. What’s Christmas supposed to feel like? Hard to define but easy to detect its absence. For me, it’s back to bare branches, robins and Dickens.

At school we’ve begun the second half of the academic year, the shorter of the two halves psychologically. After New Year, the rest of the year up to may seems to move much faster than the august to december stretch. The worst is over, every teacher feels. Right now, i’m busy applying to centres of learning in Singapore and hope to do interviews in february.

Chinese New Year will be the next big celebration and this year it falls on the first four days of february and for three days at least this city will become virtually deserted as everyone moves out to return to family and loved ones. I wouldn’t dream of travelling as the world and his mother become mobile; i’ll stay put and enjoy ease of movement in the city for a change. I’m not going to repeat last year’s painful behaviour when i ended up with JJ (he of the ‘beautiful people’) and his friends in Chinatown drinking brandy till the wee hours and suffering an excruciating hangover for two days after.

Clive, my Gandhi friend, passed through in early december en route to London and Edinburgh and spent a week with me. Since returning to the UK he’s landed a job on yet another ship, he’s freelance these days, and his letter yesterday tells me he’s now afloat in the fjords of Norway and off the coast of Finland and about to be covered in pack ice. Not his kind of scene.

19 thoughts on “Christmas and New Year in Thailand

  1. These snippets of life are engaging. It’s odd how we can recall exactly where we were and what we were doing at particular dates of importance. It did remind me a bit of the “neighbors” card at the holidays with the two page print out wedged inside the envelope with the years highlights.

    This unfolds well, john.

  2. Love the ruminations here, John, thoughts of home at what is for most people a special time of year. Terrible what you all had to witness right at the start of the New Year – poor unfortunate women victims of hit and run.
    Another great read.

  3. Love your experiential posts. We get to know you through your recollection and perspective in ways we would not through poetry alone.

    • Yes, Pepper, my two years living in Thailand now seem like one long holiday. I did enjoy the experience very much but eventually I had to get out, couldn’t take any more of the pollution in Bkk.
      Thank you so much for reading and commenting.
      My best to you

  4. I really enjoy these looks at life in the Far East, so different from anything I’ve known, entertainingly observed and written. The beach house interlude sounds like it was heavenly! The accident on New Year’s certainly struck a somber note–we never know how long we have. I know that feeling of Christmas not feeling like Christmas–last year I didn’t “do” Christmas, and while it was a pleasant day, I realized I missed the decorated tree and the music–this year I’ll make the effort.

    • Thank you so much, Dear Willow, for sharing your views, I appreciate that hugely.
      I’ve not ‘done’ Christmas for a few years now and it’s likely will never again so it’s brave of you to want to make the effort this year.
      Yes, we never know how quickly and unexpectedly it might all end, those two women were so so unfortunate.
      Thank you again for your interest and for your tremendous support.
      Ever with my best

  5. Good one.
    Thailand is very high on list for vacationing Swedes. I hope I get to go there once again. I want to see the tigers at that Buddhist place – can’t recall the name now.
    Pat pong was really something. I spent 2 minutes at a sex show. They started to lock the door behind me and I went right back out.
    Re: accident – As Willow said, we are not guaranteed even our next breath. Interesting about driver not stopping.
    Good read. I always enjoy your memoir posts.

    • Bruce, thank you. Once they start locking the doors it’s time to scoot, I had one or two of those moments as well, one in Bkk and the other in Athens one time.
      That Tiger Temple (see Wikipedia) is at Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua in Saiyok about 40kms from Kanchanaburi and now has about 140 tigers so quite the experience!
      Thank you again for your great interest and support

  6. The Far East has always seemed to exotic to me, so foreign to anything I’ve ever experienced. Thanks for sharing this with us, John. I very much enjoyed reading about the Christmas holidays shared in a part of the world so very different from my own.

    • Thank you, Kate. It was strange to me, too, at first but now here is home and any time I go back west for a visit I feel out of place because I’m no longer part of what I once was.


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