HOW I GOT TO THAILAND
By Andrew Biggs
One of my earliest observances of Bangkok life was made from the second floor of a Khlong Toey guest house, from the window of a room festooned with linoleum and cockroach.
Looking down upon the street, there was a group of Thais sitting on a frayed bamboo mat in a rough circle, and inside that circle were plates of food with forks and spoons sticking out of them. There was an ice bucket and soda water bottles and a bottle of local whiskey, probably Mekhong, in one of those small flat bottles called a baen which is convenient since one can slip it into a trouser pocket while working or driving.
Conversation was animated and top-ups were frequent. A dinky radio cranked out Thai hits. I sat in the darkness, watching them laughing and eating and philosophizing, thinking that perhaps this was the essence of life; good friends, good food, and a frayed old bamboo mat.
It was my second night in Bangkok.
It was on February 14 that I arrived in Thailand for the very first time for what was intended to be a two-day enforced visit before starting work on a London newspaper. That was 30 years ago. I wonder if the position, let alone the paper itself, is still in existence.
I never intended to spend my life here. Back then I was working for a Rupert Murdoch newspaper in Australia. Murdoch then bought The Sun and The Times of London, which meant I could get a job in England easily. Back in those days we had these things called “travel agents” and my agent found the cheapest ticket was Thai Airways International. But there was a catch.
Thai Airways demanded the passenger break his or her journey in Thailand for at least two nights. That didn’t go down well, as I wanted to get to the UK as quickly as possible (and when was the last time you heard an Australian say that?).
And so, on February 14, 1989, at Brisbane airport I bought a novel I intended to read in my hotel room for the duration of my two-day stay in Thailand. That novel was Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as popular at the time as it was pretentious, but in my defence I was going through my Naive Philosophical Phase.
Everything changed upon arrival.
First, I’d never been to an airport before where there were counters selling sex tours right next to the money exchange — in the restricted zone. Also, it was the first place on earth I’d been to where a battered 1980 Toyota Celica qualified as a “Limousine”. I bet even visiting Toyota executives guffawed at that.
The driver was a wizened old guy who reminded me of Munch’s The Scream.
“Pai nai?” he barked at me, as if it were a given every newly-arrived tourist was fluent in Thai. I made an educated guess and said the name of my lodgings and he barked back: “Okay!”
He jettisoned us out of that airport with a g-force only seasoned fighter pilots would relate to. Upon regaining consciousness I reached for my seatbelt; there was none.
He proceeded to chop and change lanes every four to six seconds, as I sat there in the passenger seat mortified, trying to remember some soothing philosophical passage from Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to calm me down, forgetting I was yet to start the damned novel.
Along the way, another shock — as we flew down that highway, a motorcycle came hurtling towards us on the wrong side of the road. I couldn’t believe it! How could such a flagrant violation of international driving laws be tolerated? Where were the police when you needed them? It wasn’t until we got closer that I saw for myself … it was a police motorcycle.
The following day I visited the amazing Grand Palace. Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance would have to wait; I bought the Lonely Planet guide to Bangkok instead. In a sense Joe Cummings dictated the direction of my life for the next three decades, since I was intrigued by the ancient Siamese capitals explained in that book. I decided to extend my stay.
The Bangkok of 1989 was a vastly different place. There were more brothels than fast food restaurants for a start.
I’m not making that up. There was a MacDonald’s at Siam Square and one at Silom. That was the extent of American fast food. The most popular restaurant chain was a local one boasting North-Eastern, or Isan food. Its name was “Isn’t Classic,” since “isn’t” allegedly sounds like “Isan.” No wonder it died out.
KFC would open a year or two later and I remember at the time proclaiming: It’ll never last. Why would Thais patronize an American fried chicken chain when they already have the most delicious grilled chicken on earth? As usual, I was wrong.
Things weren’t quite so cosmopolitan back then. Everybody drank Singha beer, Mekhong whiskey or Johnnie Walker. Nothing else. The most popular toothpaste was called Darkie featuring the grinning face of a black man. Local music flagrantly copied western stuff, which is kind of interesting since today those very same local music labels are cracking down on copyright infringements on those very same tracks.
There was no skytrain. Traffic was gridlocked day and night. You visited one place per day. One of the big sellers at the time was a device called Comfort 100, a container that allowed you to pee into a plastic container whilst in traffic. It came with a special attachment for women; 60 Minutes did a segment about it.
Every street had a brothel. This was towards the end of the era where good Thai girls kept their virginity until their wedding day, while good Thai boys were expected to lose theirs on a weekly basis.
HIV and AIDS were prevalent and new. A trailblazing politician by the name of Mechai Viravaidya was so strident in his campaign to use condoms, for the first few years I was here a condom was referred to as a “meechai”.
Thanks to curiosity and Joe Cummings, my two days in Thailand extended to two weeks, which extended to two years, and now, three decades.
The changes in Bangkok have been creeping but stark. It is now a funkier, sassier metropolis with soaring condominiums where bustling markets used to be. And yet two weeks ago, as I was standing on the fifth floor balcony of one of those market-obliterating condos, I got this amazing sense of deja-vu.
Enjoying a little night air, I looked down onto the street and was transported back in time.
There was a group of people sitting in a rough circle on a frayed bamboo mat. In the middle were plates of food with forks and spoons sticking out of them. There was an ice bucket, a small baen of whiskey and soda bottles.
Seven Thais in a circle. I know because I counted the seven small rectangular screens, lit up in the darkness, in the palms of the seven participants. From where I stood I could make out the green of Line and the blue of Facebook. Not a word was being spoken among them. Not a radio in sight, since three of the four were wearing headphones.
Such a scene begs an insightful philosophical observation but alas, my Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, like the Bangkok of 1989, is lost in time.