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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Third Postcard from the Kingdom of Thailand



Promptly upon my most recent arrival in Bangkok, I made for the most surprisingly obscure destination of Roi Et, a mostly rural municipality in northeastern Thailand close to the border with Lao and that exhibits a quaint charm all of its own, a world away from the steaming slums and gleaming skyscrapers of Bangkok. The reason for my departure to those unusual place was a lady I met almost immediately upon arriving in in Bangkok, by the name of M—, who despite barely speaking a word of English (and I barely speaking a word of Thai) found ourselves in curious harmony standing outside one of Bangkok’s many sleazy nightlife establishments. We had enough language in common to establish that from a first glance leads to love approach, we wanted to see one-another again; and so we arranged a couple of dates - one of which I missed because it was supposed to begin at 3am and the other of which started at 2am. These potty nightlife stories in Bangkok are typical - the city literally never sleeps and people make social arrangements for the most unusual of times. I am amazed Thais can operate this way but really they do.


The beginnings of our visit to see M—’s family for the onset of Songkran, the Thai New Year, were not particularly auspicious. She sent me a series of bewildering messages using the instant messaging service Line, which I commend to the reader if ever you get the chance to use it just because it is so incredibly bizarre. Designed in China primarily for the Thai market, it has a habit of turning every keystroke into a series of suggested emojis: so that if you type the letters “sh” consecutively, for example, then a picture of a giant pile of faeces (with a smiling face) appears on your screen. The quirky humour and irreverence behind Line underlies all things Thai, and the Thais are wonderfully fun people once you get away from the tourist rip-offs in the major centres. Through her messages I established that I was to meet her with my Ukrainian military rucksack at one of the megalopolis’s many “skytrain” (elevated metro) stations, which involved a surprisingly non-fractious taxi ride: I noticed that the authorities in Thailand (which is essentially a Police state now that order has been restored after some unusual elections last year) have clamped down on every sort of tourist rip-off. The taxi drivers now charge you exactly the fare on the metre and they even give you change, as a tourist, whereas before they were notorious. A sense of order is being brought by the authorities to Thailand, much overdue, but very much to the country’s credit.


Then we had to get another taxi to a gargantuan bus station, possibly the largest bus station in the world, and I was told that we would be taking the 7pm to Roi Et and it would take six hours; but this proved to be wildly over-optimistic. Although as the only farang (Thai word for western foreigner; not unambiguously abusive) M— and I were granted the best VIP seats on the bus (at a VIP premium), large spacious seats overhanging the bas driver on the upper deck, the estimated arrival time ended up being woefully inaccurate. Instead we staggered, haggard, off the bus at about 9am the next morning, feeling like the living death and I was suddenly exposed to overwhelming Thai regional hospitality in the form of various pieces of diced intestine in chill sauce. I should add to this the bus station canteen meal I had enjoyed which was pig knuckle plus fish bone in chilli sauce, another Thai delicacy. The one common theme in all Thai cooking is chilli sauce.



After some urgent sleep (I had become virtually rabid through lack of sleep during the extended bus trip, even with the luscious and calming M— for company), the family went to study a giant upside down musical instrument forged into an enormous concrete block of flats and upturned in the centre of the urban district in Roi Et. We ascended the 34th floors by elevator and foot, and stared down in a vertigo-inducing drop to the  ground. Then we went back to celebrate the eve of Songkran at the family home, which involved more extraordinary pieces of meat (including lungs and intestines) spread with yet more chilli sauce, copious quantities of beer and something out of a glass bottle that M—’s brother in law gave me that looked and tasted distinctly like battery acid. Nevertheless I duly got on with drinking it and it was at this moment that I noticed the Songkran tradition of everyone throwing water over each other, the water being covered in a film of white chalk dust to create the maximum muck and stains everywhere. Everyone is up to this. Neighbours throw this water all over one-another, and every pedestrian throws it over all passing cars and motorcycles (most Thais in the provinces travel by motorbike notwithstanding the blistering heat) so expect to get extremely wet. Finally we went to the neighbours for a near identical meal of genitals and organs with chilli sauce before going to a sort of pub or nightclub with live music of a kind. By this time I had drunk so much Chang beer and battery acid that I could barely stand up and I demanded to be driven home. M— lovingly dropped me off and went to collapse herself.




At 2pm today it started all over again. I was collected with next-to-no notice and M— was there pounding on my door and a telling me I look sexy as I answered it in the nude due to the rapaciousness of her knocking. Then we drove out to a brown filthy river with a series of insanely precarious rafts dangling over the water and I was forced to sit in a cross-legged position for a couple of hours while being served with more intestines with chilli sauce and faintly butchered chicken and other indescribable pieces of seafood all of which seemed to come in inedible crusty shells. I am far too old to sit in this hunched position for any period and after an hour or so I had to readjust myself every twenty minutes. The agony building into my limbs was just too much, as my ankles and muscles in my feet were contorted in directions never known before. I feigned need to the toilet to get back on dry land, almost slipping and dunking myself in the deep brown river along with everyone else who didn’t seem to mind at all getting thoroughly damp and wet in the Thai equivalent of their “Sunday best”. M— sweetly told me that she just wanted to make me happy and it is our mutual love of nightclubs and lout music that binds us together. Personally I think it is our smiles. She is a kind person and her family are obviously lovely people from remote provincial Thailand including her sweet son D—- who smiles always at me.




After my false toilet trip I refused to re-embark the deathtrap set of rafts connected with pokey floorboards floating in the river in the baking sun and I took an iced coffee of a most unusual kind while the rest of the family pulled themselves together and finished eating their organs and their intestines with all that chill sauce. I had to pick up the check for this New Year’s Day extravaganza but at barely 50 Euros equivalent in local currency for a family of four adults and three children to eat in what was by all accounts a rather upmarket establishment for the region struck me as well within reason. Whether it included the three massive bottles of Chang beer that M—’s father brought along I shall never know. I then made my excuses to come back to write this text and to have a few moments to myself to reminisce over all the reasons I like Thailand so much. Its generous people are some of the softest and kindest you can meet, their commitment to courtesy and making their guests feel welcome overwhelming even British standards of courtesy and propriety. I think the Thais have a soft spot for the British, even though their economy now may be mostly driven by the Middle Kingdom - Chinese-built grand dual highways and municipal buildings stand out at every corner. Although many Thais live simply, the huge influx of Chinese money has given Thailand’s infrastructure a semblance of munificence to rival a number of corners of the European Union. M— tells me she is learning Chinese to help with her work; I of course want to encourage her to learn more English. By her efforts in Bangkok she supports her entire family here in Roi Et and this is testament to the Thai attitude towards hard work and industry.


The sweltering heat and culinary affection for chilli-laced internal organs of animals aside, Thailand is easily a country one can fall in love with. The affection of its people is overwhelming and even if they have not a word in common with you the typical Thai will try to help you. It is always just important to remember periodically to escape Bangkok, because it is truly a monster of a city that represents Thailand’s skyrocketing levels of wealth and deep abasement of poverty in equal measure. Go into the provinces for a few days and see what I did, and have chalky water thrown all over you. Tonight I am not sure quite what we are doing but apparently M— is working and I think she works as a dancer in some tacky nightclub or bar but I am going along with her so I am going to find out. Before we do that there will be another round of giant bottles of Chang beer (invariably served with ice cubes) and probably another round of battery acid and chilli-laced intestines. I am looking forward to all those things, and I am regretting the need to head back to the steamy capital of Bangkok in the next few days.


—-


This is the third in a series of articles about politics, society, culture and tourism in Thailand. The first Postcard from the Kingdom of Thailand can be found here and the Second Postcard from the Kingdom of Thailand can be found here.

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