cops & robbers in the Big Mango part 2

Spring 1992

When money is scarce at the end of the month the boys in brown
and black boots pay particular attention to bikers.
Not hundreds but thousands of bikers ply the streets and lanes
of this city; some are couriers, some taxis – one passenger but on occasion
i’ve seen two – and others use their bikes to get to and from work, the quickest
way to travel here as they can weave among the cars and always be on the front
row of the grid when the lights turn green. At any major intersection the noise is
deafening as they roar away and the fumes overwhelming.
Two nights each month the boys in brown set up roadblocks to check for
broken lights and faulty brakes but their main interest is driving licences.
The bikers do their best to dodge the blocks but with so many of them on the
streets and no warning where the blocks are going to be hundreds of them
get stopped.
I have a regular bike taxi who takes me to the train station in double
quick time whenever i’m going south and he tells me he’s been stopped
five times in two years and considers that very good odds. Some of his friends
haven’t been as lucky and one in particular has been stopped more than twenty
times. He now takes the bus at the end of the month.
My taximan says the easiest way to handle being stopped is to keep a 100 baht
note in his licence. It saves time. Once when i asked him if the boys in brown
actually check lights and brakes he looked at me and smiled. He told me, too,
he’s sure the boys in brown have a strict rule among themselves – all fines are
divided equally. Honour…

It was three in the morning, in fact a bit after three, and i was sitting at a mobile
soup kitchen on Silom Road having a bowl of hot ‘n’ sour, a great tonic after
a night on the town. The road was quiet, only a few tuc-tuc cruising up and down
on the lookout for late night stragglers like myself who wanted to go home at last
but the footpath had a fair share of passers-by even at that hour and they included
a few ring-through-the-nose packpackers who must’ve fallen off a cheap flight
from somewhere in Europe. How they ended up on Silom Road at that hour is
beyond me but they were there.
I was enjoying the soup and entering recovery mode when i noticed two ladies
of the night, one tall and the other not so tall, had stopped close to my table and
were eyeing me. This is all i need, i said to myself.
They came over and the tall one said, ‘Excuse me, Sir, we like ask something,’ and
the two of them sat. The voice was deep, the faces strong and heavily made up and i realised they were special ladies. I said and did nothing and the tall one drew from his cleavage a one-hundred dollar bill and showed it to me.
‘A nice man pay us,’ he said, ‘for going his hotel with him. He is generous, yes?’
I nodded because i knew he wanted me to agree.
‘But we sit with you, Sir, not to tell this but for another reason, we need your help,’ and he took from his cleavage wads of notes and handed them to me.
‘Can you tell, Sir, what these are and how much they are. We not see this money before. You see it before, Sir? Is good money?’
I flattened the notes out and said, ‘They’re dirhams.’
‘Dirhams, the currency of the UAE.’
‘You see this money before and it is good?’
‘Yes, it’s the money they use in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.’
‘And it is good?’
‘It’s perfectly good money.’
He smiled and said, ‘The man say he is from Dubai. He is a nice man, Sir,
and nice in bed, he like the two of us very much.’
I ignored the too much information and counted the money.
‘How much is it, Sir? In US dollar, how much?’
I made a rough calculation and said, ‘A lot.’
‘How much?’
‘About three thousand dollars.’
‘Three hundred, no?’
‘No, about three thousand.’
‘You sure?’
‘Yes, sure. Three thousand.’
He translated for his not so tall companion and the two of them let out a series of whoops that caused the soup lady to leap out of her flip-flops and every window
on Silom Road to rattle and a few to crack. When they calmed down the tall one
asked me, ‘And this money is good?’
‘Yes, it’s good money.’
‘If we take it to the bank we have a problem? Will the bank change to baht?’
‘I don’t see why not.’
‘No problem?’
‘No problem. The banks here are used to changing dirhams and Saudi riyals
and Kuwaiti dinars, they handle Middle East money all the time.’
‘You sure?’
‘Absolutely sure.’
He took the dirhams very gently from my hands, folded them and put them back
in his cleavage. I was tempted to ask how he got hold of them but i didn’t have to.
‘We take from the drawer at his bed when he have a shower,’ he said ‘and we run.
He is a nice man, a good kisser and we feel bad but we need money.’
He stood up and his companion stood, too.
‘Thank you very much, Sir, for your help. You a nice man, too.’
The pair brought their hands together in that loveliest of Thai gestures, a wai,
and bowed their heads. In a few strides they were on the road, had flagged
a tuc-tuc and were gone.
I went back to my now cold soup and only then did i notice the one hundred
dollar bill under the bowl. How he managed to put it there without my
seeing i’ll never know. But he did. Payment i suppose for financial services

cops & robbers in the Big Mango part 1

Spring 1992

A stone’s throw from my building are three streetside eating places – restaurants is too fancy a word for them – that serve authentic Thai food at reasonable prices and despite the closeness of the passing traffic and the fumes i breathe and consume in the food i like eating there.
Each has its own set of tables separated from the next by a small but noticeable space and three women do the cooking in their flimsy kitchens and do the serving as well. The one i come to first is my favourite because the food is the best: spicy fried beef, hot and sour soup and yam wunsen khung – spicy salad with glass noodles and prawns – among many dishes. From such a small kitchen how does she manage to offer so much and such variety? I eat there three evenings a week.
Over the months i’ve come to know the faces of her regulars and though we seldom greet one another by word we do exchange nods and smiles and that’s all that’s needed. Among her regulars are two policemen who share a bike, standard police issue. They’re members of Bkk’s street patrols these boys in brown uniforms and black boots. I’ve never been fond of black boots. I’m not sure what else these cops do other than ride up and down their assigned turf for only twice have i seen them in action, on one occasion breaking up a fight between two urchins and on another trying to resolve a dispute between motorists; other than that, they ride their bikes up and down. I suppose their presence is enough to assure the citizenry and to offer protection of a kind.
On monday evenings our local duo eat at ‘my’ woman’s place. They park the bike and stroll to a table and sit. No one makes eye contact with them and they don’t look at anyone. The woman lets them sit a while before bringing two large bottles of beer and two glasses. Not a word is said. She returns to her kitchen, cooks for them and serves. Again, not a word and no smiles. They eat the food, finish the beer and leave.
On tuesday they eat at another place a hundred yards down the street. Same ritual. Wednesday they’re at the second of my eating places; thursday up the street at another..and so it goes.
These women show no sign they like or dislike the boys in brown. They serve them beer and food and in their minds probably write it off as the price they have to pay for keeping on the right side of the law.

If i’m at the bus-stop and a #4 happens to come along i’ll take it because it has comfortable seats (if i’m lucky to get one) and air-conditioning, a gentler travel experience than the rattly #15 or #73 with runningboard availability only and unkind suspension.
The one drawback of the #4 is that a seat or standing room at the front is no value because
the drivers in coats Arctic explorers would covet don’t like the a/c and always leave the front door wide open so they can be warmed by the polluted city air.
On a recent ride i was standing close to the front next to a little old lady and a wiry kid of about fifteen. The little old lady was in a pretty blue dress, carried a black leather handbag and around her neck hung a gold chain and from her wrist dangled a gold bracelet, a well-heeled little old lady.
As the bus crawled down Silom Road i noticed that standing was difficult for her and she had a look of anguish on her face and i was hoping someone seated would get off at the next stop and she could have their place. And just as i was thinking that the poor little dear keeled over, down she went like a felled ox. The wiry kid pushed past me and bent over her and i said to myself good boy, helping a little old lady is a kind deed. In a flash he had the gold chain off her neck and the bracelet off her arm – what nimble fingers! – and was out the open front door and on the street. A man sitting in the front seat behind the Arctic explorer shouted after him and Artful Dodger stopped, turned and smiled – very Thai! – before disappearing with the loot. While i in no way admired his theft i had to grudgingly acknowledge the little bugger’s opportunism.

chancers in the Big Mango

Spring 1992: when you’ve lived in this city for 20 months as i have
you develop a hard or at least a hardish edge – it’s part of the art of survival.

The new World Trade Centre is a glass and marble hulk within walking distance of my place. It’s all shiny and well finished but largely unoccupied as yet except for a security desk at the main entrance, a small anonymous office next to that and on the fourth floor a bar cum coffee house. The attraction is the place is quiet and the coffee, though expensive, (the rental is steep, i’d say) is excellent. And strange as it may seem good coffee is hard to come by in this city.
Two saturdays back i was sitting there around noon reading The Bangkok Post and enjoying my brew when a young man in his early twenties i reckon came from nowhere it would seem, strolled over to my table and said sweetly, ‘Hello, nice see you again, long time.’
I put the paper down and looked at him. I’m not always the best with names but a face i never forget and this man i’d never seen before.
‘You look good,’ he went on. ‘You still work same place?’
I smiled.
‘I sit, OK?’ he said and that was intended as my invitation to him. He sat and i was now his host.
The waiter came and the young man ordered a bottle of the most expensive beer on the menu. The waiter was back a minute later with the beer, a glass and a bill. He poured the beer for the young man and then looked at me to see if i would take the bill. The young man indicated to him to put the bill on the table next to my cup. The waiter put it on top of my bill for the coffee.
No sooner had my ‘guest’ taken a sip of his beer than two other young men appeared out of nowhere and came to the table.
‘These my friend, you remember?’ said the ‘guest’ to me.
I smiled and he motioned to them to sit.
The waiter came again, took the order for two more bottles of the most expensive beer and they were duly brought as was another bill, again placed on top of my bill.
The three sipped their beers, chatted away in Thai and ignored me. Why engage me in conversation when i was there for only one thing?
I waited a minute before deciding to speak plainly. I stood up and said, ‘Excuse one second, i go toilet.’
‘OK’ the three chimed.
The toilets in that place are to the left of the bar and slightly behind it and next to the toilets is a down escalator. I hopped on and in no time was at street level and on my way home. I didn’t give a toss whether the trio had enough money to pay for their expensive beers and for my excellent coffee.

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.

from an A for Mr Anand and Loy Kratong to gunfire and a king’s birthday

Where are former colleagues from days in Kuwait? One in Karachi, two in Oman, Roger and ‘pleath thoo meeth you’ Arnold living virtually cheek by jowl in Jiddah, others back home in India, Australia, Kenya, France and America. Wherever we go, whatever places we venture to, we’ll always regard the eighties in Kuwait as our formative years as expats. We can never get away from those days nor in lots of ways do we want to.

From this tropical outpost, this far from barren frontier, there’s much to relate and then again so little when looked at from the perspective of World Order. A summary of conditions here is captured in the following: a gentleman driving down Silom Road, heart of the clogged city, espied a friend walking along and pulled over and offered him a lift. ‘No thanks,’ came the quick refusal, ‘i’m in a hurry.’

I was out of town while the IMF circus was performing. I gather from those who were here that hardly a genuine Thai was to be seen anywhere, peasants of all persuasions were relocated together with their stalls, trolleys and assorted paraphernalia to the north and north-east and ordered to stay there till the shooting match was over.Visiting delegates encountering free-flowing traffic and unblocked streets must have assumed their flights had been diverted to the Channel Isles.
When I got back to town on the night of October 16th, the show hadn’t quite finished but certainly the worst was over. A climax of sorts, however, awaited me on return. The night I got back there was live on Channel 9 TV, the government channel, an address by the current Prime Minister to the world press at a lavish reception in the newly-opened and frightfully expensive Hyatt Regency on Rajadamri Road. The PM spoke in English the entire time and his command of the language is excellent. In the question-and-answer session afterwards he answered searching questions by some quite sharp reporters from England, Holland, Australia and France; they didn’t spare him or the country. His frankness was astounding and he went up in the estimation of everyone watching. He was asked head on – confrontational tone – about police corruption, drugs, prostitution and social and economic inequality and in reply admitted freely these were major problems. When he was asked why the people over so many years have allowed the military to dictate politics and government he was in a tight corner but acquitted himself well though not with the same candour as earlier. After all, a bullet could have found him the next day. Overall, an A for Mr Anand.

The rains that threatened to swamp us in September and October fell on places other than the city and we were spared having to wade and disappear down holes. Two weeks ago, however, we had the most spectacular downpour of the entire season and everywhere went under water for a few hours. The accompanying thunder was so fierce my windows vibrated with each clap. Now the cool season has arrived. That doesn’t mean the rains are finished entirely, but almost, and the mornings and evenings before and after sunset are delightful. I must be getting used to the tropics, yesterday i had to wear a sweater on the way to work, and in Bkk a sweater on a non-Thai is pretty rare.

Off to Singapore next week for the SEATTCO conference; nice when the school is picking up the tab. Ten of us are travelling and we’ll be staying at the Mandarin, no hole in the wall. Looking forward to a spot of pampering.

The 21st sees the celebration of what i consider the most beautiful of all Thai festivals, Loy Kratong, the day when Thais send their sins floating away. They craft elaborate miniature boats and floats and decorate them exquisitely, and place small flowers and pieces of fruit inside. The centrepiece is a lighted candle shielded from the wind and as dusk falls they float their creations down the rivers and canals. The sight on the Chao Phya is breathtaking, hundreds and hundreds of tiny glowing barges floating downstream carrying with them the sins of the people.

Had a letter from Clive, my Gandhi lookalike friend who sails around the world for a living. At present, he’s radio officer on a vessel plying the high seas between China and New Zealand. His comments on a short stay in Kiwiland hit the spot: ‘We had a few days during which we took a car to the volcanic area of Rotorua: steaming mineral lakes, mud pools, 100-foot high geysers and lush vegetation. It’s such a green and beautiful country and yet it’s socially sterile and has none of the buzz or energy of the Orient, it’s typical traditional British. The most exotic meals are steak ‘n’ kidney pie and chips.’
His most interesting comments come when he talks about the Dutch crew of the ship:
‘I have nothing in common with these guys and find them spiritually dead, it’s much more stimulating to sail with Arabs, Indians, Malays and Filipinos than with these guys. It’s the old story common to most North European countries where the guys consider themselves all-knowing and lack any curiosity about other cultures and consider others inferior because of their comparatively low level of material prosperity. You and i have different considerations because our values are different. If i had to summarise that difference i’d say they are overly yang and as a consequence they’re inhibited and fail to perceive the more subtle things around them and can’t admire beauty. Each port we visit is assessed by the price of beer and how modern the buildings are.’

The vulgar fun of the incident where some persons of the night got into a tizzy and in the ensuing affray lost a wig or two and decapped the security guards was topped by a much less funny incident exactly a week ago. I was woken up at 4:00am by gunfire upstairs. It was a frightening experience, one to be missed. I counted ten shots accompanied and followed by shouting and screaming and people running up and down the fire escape and then the arrival of wailing police cars. Pandemonium for about five minutes and then two gentlemen were escorted handcuffed from the building by the boys in brown, dumped in a cop truck and taken away. No one knew the real story for twelve hours and the place was buzzing with rumours of the most fantastic nature. Nok (Little Bird), our best receptionist downstairs, gave me the true version of events the next afternoon. An Indian gentleman who lives on the 11th floor with his wife and two children had a row with his brother who was visiting from New Delhi. The dispute was over money (what else?) and the man, it seems, lost the cool and started firing his gun – out the window, thankfully – to intimidate his guest. All quite bizarre. The two men have since returned from the cop shop and have been given their marching orders by the building superintendent. Everyone feels sorry for the wife and children as they are particularly nice. Testosterone-fuelled ego is a curse.

Didn’t do anything special on my birthday but i did celebrate in a quiet way the night before with half a dozen friends who came round for drinks and then dinner at a local restaurant, a modest place with clean white tablecloths, heavy cutlery and excellent Thai food. We could afford to stay out late as 23rd October is a national holiday in Thailand, not i assure you in honour of my birth but to honour the man considered the greatest monarch this country has ever had, King Chulalongkhorn. He was indeed a great and wise king and almost singlehandedly brought Thailand into the 20th century. It just happens we share a birthday.

the rains the rains runningboards IMF school golf and a ginger wig

The rains come down, how the september rains come down! From drizzles and mists to wind-driven blinding sheets, mostly blinding sheets. Saturday afternoon was spectacular with such driving rain i feared the balcony was going to be washed away and me with it. Worse is expected and not looked forward to. Bangkok’s governor warns that heavy rains due at the end of the month will coincide with the annual high tides and severe flooding is unavoidable, flooding similar to what the city experienced in 1983. If that happens then it will be quite serious as the ’83 floods put the place out of whack for several days. I don’t fancy wading everywhere. A seasoned colleague tells me that during the ’83 flooding he disappeared down a manhole outside the Indra Hotel and barely survived and since that’s where my local supermarket is i’m now making careful mental notes of the terrain to ensure the surface is sealed before the murky waters obliterate all.

The Ministry of Education has sent us a note at school asking us to leave half an hour earlier in the morning (as if we weren’t leaving early enough already) to beat the traffic. In a city of regular traffic, i’d be able to get to work by bus in ten minutes but as it is i have to leave the house at 5:45 to be able to get standing room on my bus. I get to work at 6:00 for a 7:30 start. If i leave the house after six i can’t get on any bus going by as each has anything from eight to twelve people hanging onto the doors and i can’t get a foot on the runningboard. The alternative, to walk, is too much to contemplate as i’d arrive in the rain and humidity worse than a drowned rat and completely worn out before the day’s work started. So it’s up at five every morning and to bed no later than ten each night. If you thought you could work in this city and enjoy the nightlife as well, think again.

Thailand is hosting the annual IMF conference this year and to celebrate the event the government’s giving all schools and ministries a four-day break. The real reason for time off is to ease traffic congestion, to show foreign dignitaries and delegates the city doesn’t have a problem. Well, it doesn’t if you let motorists stay at home while you have visitors in town. They’ve also built a new conference centre for the occasion, something like the Kuwaitis used to do in the good old days, and it has cost a mind-boggling sum. It was built next to one of the city’s largest slums and the authorities have erected a thirty-foot high wall around the slum for the time being, a barrier which will be removed once the delegates have left. The slum will pour out onto the streets once more and onto the grounds of the conference hall for sure. A cosmetic remedy of the first order.

Minor details such as that aside, Bkk rolls on. My new brief at school as speech and writing co-ordinator – how fancy! – is presenting challenges but i’m enjoying it even if i’m not getting the response i’m really looking for. The students have been studying an American curriculum for years, a curriculum too packaged and as dull as dried noodles and when i try to get them away from the text and into free thinking they flounder and look lost as their diet in the past has lacked fibre. It’s a struggle but i’ll keep plugging.

We’ve had an intake of twenty new teachers this year and i can’t say i like or dislike any of them: two are all right just about but the rest are featureless. The one truly interesting character was a large American who lasted a week. He stood out from the pack not for his flair or dash but for his awkwardness and obesity; he poured out of a black-and-yellow track suit at embarrassing flesh points and had cleavage in unusual places especially when he stood up after being seated for a while. The effete and terribly precious Chinese and Japanese ladies he was assigned to instruct were disconcerted by his outpourings but that wasn’t the reason for his dismissal after five working days, the poor man was found to be semi-literate at best. Since he left there hasn’t been a squeak out of the others and i’m reliably informed some of them are taking private tuition in numeracy and basic literacy in case they, too, fall foul of the supervisors. We have one young man who’s a grade eight homeroom (form) teacher and as a form man he must teach Mathematics for which he freely admits he has no aptitude whatsoever. That drawback hasn’t deterred him, he gets the brightest Taiwanese boy in the class to teach the maths for him and it’s working.

Each night before i retire i stand on my balcony and take a look across the city. All around me i see construction and construction, the yuppies are determined to put an office block or a hotel on every available space in the city centre. What they don’t realise or seem to foresee is the impossibility of the boom continuing. The Stock Exchange is nervous at the best of times and tourism has dropped and may never again reach the dizzy heights of the late eighties. There are too many visitors going back to Europe, America and Australia carrying tales of cheating, poor treatment and rip-offs for the industry here to prosper as in the past. The best days are over and yet, contrary to international opinion, the local travel agents keep forecasting record tourism in the future. They did so this year and are now eating their words as it’s just been revealed that the latest season was the worst in fifteen years. At the Shangri-La, a 600-room hotel, i spoke to one of the managers who told me they had thirty guests staying and all thirty were businessmen on discounted rates.

To solve the nightmarish traffic congestion the government has introduced legislation reducing the import duty on new cars. A Nissan that was 700,000 baht ($28,000) two months ago now sells for about 450,000. As a result, there’s been a rush to buy, 25,000 new vehicles have joined the queues in the past few weeks and that of course solves the traffic problem. For this wise move some influential businessmen and a moxy of ministers have received generous ‘compliments’ from delighted Japanese exporters.

Golf is all nowadays. The pursuit of the small white ball has led to the clearing of arable land and forest for the building of 18-hole courses – no one here would be seen dead on a 9-hole course – and the dams and reservoirs are under pressure to supply water for the greens. The biggest reservoir in the country, the Sirikit, is at an all-time low despite the heavy rains because 30% of its reserves are channelled to water golf courses and the local farmers don’t have sufficient supply to plant their quotas of rice. Let them eat golf balls.

A delightful scene this morning. I was brewing coffee at 5:00am in my kitchen on the balcony when much shouting erupted down below… and whooping and shrieking too. A bevy of ladies of indeterminate quality and gender was engaging in a violent fracas. There was dislodging of teeth, pulling of hair and torrents of swearing in both Thai and English – the f word is universal. Two of the building’s security guards stepped in to separate the opposing parties and were promptly set upon and decapped. Some of these ladies occupy adjacent studios on the second floor and are on notice from management for their loud music and intemperate language. In fact they’re on final warning and after this latest outburst eviction may follow. By the time i set out to get standing room on my bus there wasn’t a trace of any of them save for a ginger wig dangling from the flowering hibiscus and not a security man to be seen either. Perhaps all were spirited away by the mysterious forces occupying the shrine in the garden.

of crowns the trip south three Kuwaitis and rune sore bees

It’s 9:30am, a civilised hour in the Big Mango and it’s a sunny morning in late july. The sun is a welcome change after five overcast days in a row but i’m feeling a little sore and sorry for myself after yesterday’s trauma. Had four crowns fitted and since the fittings were done without the comfort of anaesthesia i felt every push on and yank off the lady administered to my sensitive stumps in her efforts to get the crowns to fit right; ‘bite, bite!’ was all i heard for forty-five minutes. But they didn’t cost the small fortune they would have in Europe and she has done a good job. She wants me back in a month for more pushing and yanking but i’ll fall off that bridge when i come to it.

Have fully recovered from the trip to places south. It was memorable and now that i’ve decided Singapore is where i want to be i shall be moving there as soon as my current contract expires.
When i left Bkk by train in early June the first port of call was Penang in West Malaysia. Penang has an easygoing, congenial atmosphere and with its traditional Chinese hotels, trishaws on the streets and its old colonial buildings and monuments the town has a true flavour of the Orient.
I moved on to Kuala Lumpur and as i’d expected it has changed considerably since my last visit. It’s a busy, noisy commercial city with a well-restored and impressive city centre. The government has gone to the trouble of laying out properly landscaped gardens and parks and it’s a joy to stroll through so much greenery but even the greenery and the elegant city centre aren’t enough to make you want to love the city, it’s just too big and too busy.
Singapore has changed even more and is booming in a controlled and disciplined way. The cleanliness is impressive and although the city’s rather soulless i’m attracted to its order and efficiency, a stark contrast to Bkk. I want to live there and already i’m making plans to move.

Today’s paper reveals that 900,000 people in Bangkok suffer from respiratory illnesses caused by traffic pollution, a frightening number and growing all the time. When i went out to buy the Bangkok Post this morning there was the usual jam on Rajaprarop Road and that’s traffic going out of the city. Imagine what the roads leading in are like.

Patrick phoned last night and since i’d not heard from him in a while i was worried he might have fallen into a burning well and evaporated. Seriously, he’s fine and gave me a definite date for his coming. He’s arriving August 11 and is hoping to recruit a few hundred Thais. He’ll have no bother finding them, they’ll be glad of the chance.

A few days back, i had a call from three Kuwaitis i worked with in Kuwait Airways. They’re here for a week and are staying at the Grace Hotel on Soi Nana Nua. The Grace used to be notorious for its visiting Arabs and their local molls but since its expansion and renovation it has cleaned up its act. I went there tuesday night – hadn’t been in the place for years – and was impressed by the all-round improvements and met Abdullah, Adil and Sadiq. They gave me great detail, chapter and verse stuff, on the events from August 2 till February 26. They never once left the country, stuck it out, and aren’t very proud of their fellow Kuwaitis who ran like frightened rabbits. But it’s hard to blame the ones who ran, most of us would have. Nonetheless, the three men aren’t happy with a lot of their countrymen and are certainly not happy with the ruling family and their holding on to power. These men, and they claim to speak for the majority nowadays, want real change and are going to press for the introduction of democracy. They have strong views on the subject and are fed up with the Sabah regime. It was interesting to listen to them as they were unusually candid about how they felt. We talked till late and it was significant to note that although they ordered drinks for me none of them touched a drop of alcohol nor had they plans to chase floosies but i’m pretty sure they’ve already had a few tumbles. They said the main reason for coming to Bkk was to see me – i was flattered – but it’s likely ‘a change of oil’ was a more pressing priority. After here they’re off to Beijing to see the Great Wall.
They’ve invited me to be their guest at dinner tomorrow night in the Regent Hotel. I warned them it would cost an arm and a leg even by international standards but they said it was their pleasure to invite me in appreciation of all i’d done for them when we worked together in Kuwait. Decent men and i certainly accepted their invitation; to have refused would’ve been an insult. I’ve had afternoon tea at the Regent a few times and that in itself is a lavish indulgence of seven courses so i’m looking forward to a first rate meal tomorrow night.

…and speaking of hotels, an English colleague of mine who perhaps has overstayed is responsible for the following conversation in a Bkk hotel between room service and hotel guest. He swears it happened to him when he first arrived here.

rs: Morny. Rune sore bees.
hg: Oh sorry, i thought i dialled room service.
rs: Rye. Rune sore bees. Morny. Jewish to odour sunteen?
hg: I’d like bacon and eggs.
rs: Ow july then?
hg: What?
rs: Aches, ow july then? Pry? Boy? Pooch?
hg: Oh, the eggs! How do i like the…? Sorry. Scrambled.
rs: Ow july the baycome? Crease?
hg: Crisp will be fine.
rs: Okay. An santos?
hg: What?
rs: Santos. July santos?
hg: Oh, i don’t think so.
rs: No? Judo one toes?
hg: Look, i feel bad about this, but i just don’t know what judo one toes means.
rs: Toes! Toes! Why jew don juan toes? Ow a bow senglis moppin we bother?
hg: Oh, English muffin! I’ve got it, you were saying toast. Fine. An English
muffin will be fine.
rs: We bother?
hg: No, just put the bother on the side.
rs: Wad?
hg: Sorry, i meant butter, butter on the side.
rs: Copy?
hg: I feel terrible about this but…
rs: Copy. Copy, tea, mill?
hg: Coffee! Yes, coffee please. And that’s all.
rs: Won minnie. Ass rune torino-fie, strangle aches, crease baycome,
tossy senglis mopping we bother honey sigh and copy. Rye?
hg: Whatever you say.
rs: Okay. Ten jew berry mud.

And Bkk isn’t the only place communication can be strange:

Swiss hotel room: If you have any desires during the night ring for the chambermaid
Japanese hotel room: No smoking in bed or other disgusting behaviour
Menu in Geneva: Do not leave without trying the tart of this house, she is strongly recommended
Village cafe in France: Persons are requested not to occupy seat in the cafe without consummation
Berlin hotel cloakroom: Please hang yourself here
Outside doctor’s clinic in Israel: I specialise in women and other diseases
Istanbul hotel room: To call Room Service, please open the door and call ‘Room Service’
Ankara hotel brochure: Visit our restaurant where you can eat Middle East food in a European ambulance
Mexican hotel room: Please hang your order before retiring on your doorknob
Belgrade hotel: All rooms have hot and cold flying water
Rome dry cleaners: Drop your trousers here for best results

of school rag Sri Lanka creative writing Patrick skullduggery and a non-tutu ballerina

When i got back from a holiday in Sri Lanka in mid-April i had only two weeks to get the school newspaper ready for the printers. Now that it has been put to bed – it will appear on campus in a few days – i can breathe again and do a few things for myself. It’s hard to believe such a little thing as a school rag can take so much time but when it’s in the making it’s a huge pain in the arse. The kids are co-operative and enthusiastic but not very talented, alas, when it comes to putting the paper into any kind of printable shape or form. Everything’s submitted on scraps of paper and i have to correct, edit and reject wholesale. One of the school secretaries, a charming Thai lady, is assigned to help me during the final two weeks but i spend as much time correcting her corrections – up to three errors per line – as i do censoring and re-drafting the kids’ efforts. A colleague is also in on the act but she has a way of passing the material on to me and never does anything else with it. Fat lot of help she is but she means well.

The trip to Sri Lanka went as smooth as silk, not a hitch except for a difficulty in the hill town of Kandy which scuppered my plans for visiting an old friend, Don Waters. I never got to see the man and that was disappointing. After all, we’d been colleagues in Saudi Arabia back in 1979.
Tony, a Sri Lankan who worked with me in Kuwait, lives north of Colombo in Negombo and my plan was to ferret him out. I had two addresses for him and took a taxi to the first. The people there said he’d moved so i went to the second. The second never heard of him! At a complete loss, i was down in the mouth when, miracle of miracles, i looked out the window of the taxi and there he was coming down the road on his bicycle. I jumped out of the taxi and shouted his name across the village. He literally fell off the bike and couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw me running toward him. He had no idea i was visiting Sri Lanka, we’d been out of touch since he left Kuwait in December ’87. What a re-union there was right there on the roadside with half the village watching! Things could only get better after that and indeed his kindness and hospitality made the trip memorable.
Spent five days in Ambalangoda in the south of the island. It’s a sleepy seaside town famous for its handmade masks and its lovely Rest House where i stayed. The Rest Houses all around Sri Lanka were built by the British as watering holes for travelling civil servants and in the resorts they always command the best strip of beach. They’ve fallen into some disrepair but still retain a certain old world charm. Service is friendly and the food mediocre, but i survived. Back to Negombo after that and spent a few days with Tony and his wife, Roberta, reminiscing about Kuwait and all the people we knew there. Everyone must have had burning ears the first week of April.
Then to Kandy in the hills accompanied by Tony’s younger brother, Alex. Tony couldn’t travel as he was working, he has a job at the Holiday Inn. When we reached Kandy i discovered Alex wasn’t carrying ID or passport. He lost his ID in Kuwait – didn’t get out till november – and the silly arse had left his passport at home in Negombo. No hotel would take us as he couldn’t register without ID of some sort and he a Sri Lankan travelling in his own country. Eventually, the Queen’s Hotel agreed to give us a room and charged a hefty rate to turn a blind eye; i registered, they never heard of Alex. The sly receptionist, venal to the last, said he had to charge extra so he could bribe the police when they came to check the register in the wee hours. I didn’t believe a word of it but it was nine o’clock at night, spilling rain outside and we needed a place to wash, rest and sleep after a hot, humid and delayed train ride.
Alex spent the next two days scared out of his mind the tourist police would harrass and jail him. When i mentioned i planned to travel on to Bandarawela to see Don Waters he point blankly refused to budge. Neither would he go back to Negombo without me so i was stuck with him in Kandy for two and a half days. I went out to see the sights while he stayed in the hotel room. I never got to see Don and i’m sure he’s still wondering why i never showed up.
Back to Negombo via Colombo and spent the final week doing nothing except talking to Tony and Roberta when they were around. Sat in the sun only a little, it was too hot to be on the beach for long.
The Sri Lankans have had as much exposure to tourists as the Thais have had over the past ten years but, fortunately, haven’t lost any of their charms or ways. They’re genuinely friendly and hospitable and when you’re among them you feel welcome and liked for your own sake. The Thais have developed too rapidly for their own good and have picked up many smartassed ways. The Land of Smiles nowadays is often the Land of Scowls and Pushes and Shoves with people desperate to get their hands on money at any cost; money seems to be the only ‘value’ they care about, and everything and everyone has a price. There are cases of that, too, in Sri Lanka and everywhere else, i’m sure, but there are certainly more people in Sri Lanka who care about things other than money. Having said that, i’m able to cope with the Thais and look for the best in them. The poor remain good people despite their worsening circumstances; it’s the yuppies who are less than agreeable.

The summer has been hot and humid. It started in earnest at the beginning of march and is now coming to a close. The first monsoon rains came tumbling down last week, the elements put on a dazzling show, and the temperature has already dropped a few degrees but much more rain is needed before it drops radically. The rainy season, the longest, will run till November when the cool season kicks in. So the worst is nearly over for another nine months.

The school year comes to an end on the last day of this month and we’ll resume on August 15. Quite a break for me, but not all ‘off’ however. There’s an international teachers’ conference in Jakarta from June 20-25 and i’m one of the three delegates from here. While i’m down there, i’ll do a tour of the area and visit Sumatra, Borneo, Brunei and Bali before finding my way back here via Singapore and West Malaysia. Looking forward to the odyssey. I’ve not been to Singapore or Malaysia since 1986 and i know there have been many changes.

Next academic year i’ll have an interesting post, creative writing. I intend running a series of workshops which i’ll tie in with the newspaper. I’ll also contribute to Drama as that’s a neglected area of the curriculum. Dalli Ferguson, an excellent American woman with whom i get on well, runs that department and is constantly lamenting the lack of emphasis on drama so i’ll be joining her three times a week to put potential thespians through their paces. We might even manage to stage a play at Christmas.

Patrick went back to Kuwait three weeks ago. He’s been in regular touch as telephone calls can now be made out of the country but not in as yet. He describes a scene of devastation. Also in touch has been Paul Kennedy who was the Irish representative there and who’s here in Thailand at the moment with his Thai wife. He was among the very last people to leave last December and he told me of the looting of the Muthanna Complex. The Iraqis stole all the electrical gadgets out of that shopping mall and dumped them – tvs, videos, stereos, radios – in the backs of lorries and drove the lot north. The large bookshop in the basement of the Muthanna wasn’t even forced open, every book stayed on its shelf, but the jewellery shops were ripped apart. The Sheraton hotel was gutted and will have to be re-built as will parts of SAS and the Hyatt (as was). The Hyatt’s extension, the one built for the GCC summit a few years ago, really got the treatment. Spite, absolute spite. The Kuwait Towers didn’t escape entirely, they came under fire but weren’t toppled. The Amiri Palace was shelled but the Stock Exchange building wasn’t entered at all. Weird.
Patrick adds that along the highways are dozens of burnt-out cars and several unburied bodies – two months after liberation. And then there are the burning oil wells.
‘What are you doing back there?’ i said to him. ‘Are you mad or what?’
‘They need me to help them re-stock,’ he replied, ‘the Iraqis didn’t leave as much as a spoon, they stole everything, even the napkins.’
His sense of duty, however misplaced, is in some ways admirable.

Great skullduggery being exposed on the political scene here. Since the february coup several committees have been set up to investigate the wealth acquired by certain high profile individuals. It transpires that some government ministers have been accepting bribes for years, up to ten million baht ($400,000) at a time to grant planning permission to speculators. In terms of unofficial news this is nothing new but for the first time it’s being published in the papers and causing a hell of a stir. It’s surprising how naive the poorer Thais are with regard to goings-on of this nature; the powerful aren’t questioned and haven’t been challenged or made answerable till now. Democracy, which Thailand claims to abide by, has its drawbacks but it does attempt to nail this kind of thing. For generations, the Thai preoccupation with maintaining superficial harmony at all costs has precluded any kind of investigation into wrongdoing but the current exposures are changing a lot of attitudes and stripping away blind faith in politicians. People have taken to writing to the papers to express rage at what’s being revealed; that’s a breakthrough. The expat community is pleased that ordinary people are asking questions and the newspapers are enjoying unprecedented freedom. Real changes are under way but many are nervous that another coup is imminent – to oust honesty.

Had an interesting evening last Saturday not so much for what anyone did or didn’t do but for the range and diversity of people who happened to come together under the same roof. I was having a fancy – no duck, no goose – dinner with JJ (of the ‘beautiful people’) and his wife, Tilly (a rare social outing for her as far as i can tell) when a business associate of JJ’s showed up in the company of a weightlifter and his ballerina girlfriend. Five minutes later, the weightlifter’s friend, an international footballer, dropped by and with him were an army officer, his lame sister and his very pregnant wife. To cap it all, a Chinese businessman in cream silk suit and red tie came in and he knew everyone there except me. I assume they must be some of JJ’s dress-up people.
The ballerina was by far the most interesting. She wasn’t wearing a tutu but the shortest street skirt i’ve seen in a long while, half a yard of cloth in all, if that, and a bright orange tank top and bright orange leg warmers. While her weightlifter boyfriend and his footballer pal were indulging in a testosterone-driven bout of clowning she and i managed to strike up a private conversation. Much to my relief she wasn’t interested in talking about her craft; rather, she very quickly got on to relationships and volunteered several opinions about men in general and in particular what she looked for in a mate.
‘Three things,’ she said. ‘One, he must be handsome so i’m not ashamed to introduce him to my friends; two, he must be sexy to keep the fire going and three he must be a good provider. If i can’t have one and two i’ll settle for three, a good provider makes everything right.’
Others joined us later but i didn’t dare ask what professions they belonged to or what talents or disabilities they carried, i was freaked enough for one evening. As a regular contributor to a national newspaper puts it: another case of TiT – This is Thailand.

of retreats coups reports celebrations decisions and roast duck

Many things can be said about life here but one thing’s certain, it’s never dull. Now that we’ve had the Runt of All Retreats and Kuwait is in slow recovery mode Thailand decided it was time for its own upheaval and on saturday morning we had a military coup.
The very mention of a coup usually generates a certain frisson, adds extra chili to the everyday dish but had the local radio stations not gone off the air and had there not been an increase in the number of soldiers on the streets one wouldn’t have known anything had happened. Not a shot was fired except by a passing tuc-tuc and citizens, agog with indifference, went about their business as usual. If they bothered to comment at all it was to express moderate joy that PM Chatchai Choonhaven had been removed from office. He’d been in power through the boom years, ’87 to ’90, and had done a great deal for the business community but the average salaried worker didn’t feel his lot had improved; if anything, it had deteriorated.
The new junta has been given the blessing of His Majesty who, by the way, was out of town in Chiang Mai when the troops took over Government House and arrested Chatchai at the airport. Now that the army boys are ‘legal’ they’ve sworn to hold elections within six months; meanwhile, they introduced legislation today to cut personal income tax. That move was met by cheers, including one from yours truly. Not that i pay a lot, but the less the better.

Patrick telephoned from Ireland on monday. The last time i heard from him was Christmas Day when he called from Amman. He said then he wasn’t at liberty to talk and would phone from London on Boxing Day but not a word till last monday. The reason for the silence was simple, he has been held in Jordan for two months because as the authorities there put it, ‘papers were not in order.’ When they released him last week, he said, not a scrap of paper had been deleted from or added to his collection and he’s at a loss to know why he was detained for sixty days. Maybe they didn’t like the look of him. Anyway, he’s back in Ireland and has every intention of returning to Kuwait once it’s appropriate to do so. He’s preparing to come to Bangkok and estimates he’ll be here in two weeks as he wants to start recruiting Thais for work in Kuwait. The Asians in general should do well, jobwise, in the new Kuwait as the Palestinians won’t be offered anything.

Patrick’s bad news, and there was a lot, was grim. As soon as the Iraqis invaded, some of our former Palestinian ‘friends’ joined forces with them and not only did they lead the Iraqis to the homes of prominent Kuwaitis but also to the apartments of expats. He confirmed that the apartment in Fintas where i lived for five years was raided. He sneaked into my building before he left Kuwait in December ‘just for old times sake’ and saw the mess. The Iraqis smashed down the front door and even pulled down the ceiling in the bathroom thinking they might find me above the panels, but this bird, luckily, had flown the nest. Anti-Western slogans were sprayed on the walls of the livingroom and the only living things inside the flat were mother cat and her latest litter and a colony of cockroaches. Early in the invasion, the upper part of my building was severely damaged by the Iraqis to get a sniper out but my mulhaq (ground floor apartment) survived the attack.

Reports of torture, he said, are quite true but many cases exaggerated. Some of the worst were people shot in the lower spine with a single bullet and left to die a slow death, and one or two extreme cases of men being nailed to walls by their upper arms. On the Fintas flyover he counted 6 hanged men one morning. Gruesome. Because of its strategic importance, Fintas saw some of the worst of the early fighting between the Iraqis and the Kuwait resistance.

On a much happier note, there were marvellous celebrations here in February to welcome the Chinese New Year, the Year of the Ram, Goat or Sheep, depending on which particular Chinese interpretation you want to follow. Whichever animal it is, the Chinese here really let it all hang out. JJ (he of the ‘beautiful people’) took me to Chinatown and although i had to work next morning he insisted i stay till the wee hours. In fact i didn’t get home until six and only had time for a quick shower and a change of clothes before going to work. The celebration which kept me out all night was in the company of JJ and fifteen of his Chinese friends and colleagues. The Chinese here have a tradition of drinking cognac at New Year and my hosts killed about twenty bottles in the all-night session, it was an orgy of Hennessey and Remy Martin. I couldn’t manage more than a few glasses of the stuff but they just kept pouring it for me anyway. I had a splitting headache for 48 hours after. Never again! Well, not until next New Year.

I’ve decided to stay on here next year and have given a commitment to the school; California and Taiwan are on hold. The kids are fantastic and i love them and that has swayed my decision. I’ve learned to avoid colleagues i dislike. Anyway, the place is so big it’s easy to do that so i suffer no inconvenience or distress.

Over the past few weeks, JJ and i have been doing the rounds of the Thai restaurants in the city. I’ve had the tastiest roast duck i’ve ever had in my life and the most succulent goose, and at a fraction of the price one would pay in a European or American restaurant. The roast duck, accompanied by superb duck soup and a dish of crisp asparagus and celery, came to three dollars a head. The goose cost even less. Of course these aren’t the fancy tourist restaurants but the ones where locals go. There may not be Irish linen tablecloths, newly-pressed napkins and atmospheric candles but there is excellent food and for me that does it.

Have just heard on BBC that Saddam’s decided to leave Iraq and ‘retire’ to Algeria. I’ll believe it when i see it. Can’t help but feel sorry for the good ordinary decent Iraqi people and for the thousands of unwilling soldiers who served threadbare, hungry and virtually shoeless, their notions of the land of milk and honey now a sour and bitter memory. And for the thousands who served as cannon fodder.
I can’t watch the footage Thai television puts out nightly on the devastation of Kuwait, it’s too upsetting. I want to remember Kuwait as it was.