In a moment of madness, or perhaps just a `senior moment’, Grandad suggested in a reply to a comment of mine that perhaps I should submit a guest post about my current location, which for the past few weeks has been Thailand and Laos. He probably thought that he was safe in the knowledge that I’m an inherently lazy bastard and wouldn’t get my arse into gear to write anything. Ha! He was nearly right!
I don’t profess to be an expert on Thailand (or anything else, for that matter), but I have spent quite a lot of time in the country, and I’m familiar with its quirks. They promote themselves as `The Land of Smiles’, but I think it would be more accurate to describe the country as `The Land of Contradictions’.
On the one hand, it’s a relaxed, easy-going place where the most commonly used expression is “mai pen rai” (no problem, it doesn’t matter). On the other hand, it is an unremittingly nanny state, imposing mostly pointless and ineffective regulations on anything that smacks of enjoyment, particularly (but not only) smoking and drinking. And they were way ahead of the curve with smoking bans and regulations.
Alcohol advertising on TV is banned, shops aren’t allowed to sell booze between 2pm and 5pm, and in a recent bit of fuckwittery, nowhere within 300 metres of a school is allowed to sell alcohol. This latest idiocy will of course make not one iota of difference to any kids that decide they want to get hold of some booze, but will be a complete pain in the arse to anyone who lives in a house or condo near a school and wants to nip out to his local 7/11 to buy a couple of bottles of beer. As I found myself when staying with the in-laws – what used to be a two minute walk to grab some beers is now a half-hour round trip, as the local 7/11 round the corner is opposite a school, so can no longer sell alcohol. Duh! Yesterday while flipping through the channels on the hotel TV, I came across some European football (UEFA? I’m not a football person), and I couldn’t understand why the screen had a blurred band running right across the screen. It dawned on me after a few seconds that the blurring was deliberate, to hide the `Heineken’ advert on those rolling, changeable displays at the bottom of the stands. As soon as the beer advert changed to one for insurance or something, the blurring disappeared.
Ye Gods, how much longer are we going to have to put up with this stupidity before a semblance of sanity returns?
I can remember a time, not so many years ago, when air travel was really rather enjoyable; part of the whole travel experience. You could turn up at the airport half an hour before your flight and at check-in you would be asked “smoking or non-smoking?” You could sit in the departure lounge waiting to board with a beer and a cigarette, and once in the air, you would have a seat which had a reasonable pitch, allowing you to stretch your legs a bit while you relaxed with a drink and a smoke. It was all very civilised. Even the boredom of spending hours in an oversized cigar tube was alleviated simply by being able to indulge in a ciggy and glass of wine while contemplating your plan of action on arrival at your destination.
These days, it is something that must be endured rather than enjoyed. You have to turn up three hours before your flight so you have time to be subjected to the pointless and intrusive theatre of `security’, and many airports don’t have any facilities airside for smoking. Smoking is banned completely on all flights now, and in the aircraft you are pinned to your seat by the close proximity of the seat in front. And heaven forbid that you find yourself behind some selfish bastard who insists of fully reclining his seat for the duration of the flight. And the final indignity (for me, anyway) is that I nearly always get a streaming cold or similar thanks to the mostly recycled air in the plane; something that never happened when smoking was allowed. And I almost never get colds. It only seems to happen to me after a long flight.
For smokers, long-haul is a real trial, and deliberately so. The anti-smoking lobby has persuaded the authorities to make life as uncomfortable as possible for 25% of the travelling public.
How have they got away with that?
And the surge in cases of `air rage’ as a result of this assault on the liberties of a large proportion of their customers seems not to have impinged on the consciousness of the aviation authorities who, at the behest of the WHO et al, impose these draconian (and unnecessary) restrictions. It’s an unfortunate fact that people who need to travel long distances have no choice but to fly, so as far as Tobacco Control are concerned these smokers make a perfect target for their intentionally spiteful rules and regulations, as they, like hospital patients and mental health patients have no choice but to accede to the demands. There are no alternatives.
Heh! What was going to be a short preamble to this post turned into a bit of a rant! Sorry, but I am continuously angry about having to put up with the unreasonable demands of a small coterie of fanatical, lying zealots purely because they have obscene amounts of money with which to buy power and influence.
Anyway, I am, as I said, a fairly regular visitor to Thailand and countries around it, and have been for years. Initially just because I liked being in SE Asia, but now predominantly because for the past ten years I’ve been married to a Thai woman, and so we make regular trips so she can visit her parents.
Thailand, like air travel, has unfortunately been degraded over the years through the machinations of the WHO and their FCTC. In fact Thailand has become a cheerleader and poster boy for the FCTC, enthusiastically adopting and gold-plating its discriminatory agenda. Smoking is banned everywhere indoors, and has been for more than twelve years. Outdoor areas are increasingly being added to the list of `no-smoking’ places.
Sign at Thonburi (Bangkok Noi) railway station
Cigarette advertising was banned years before that. About the same time as the bans, they mandated `shutters of shame’ for cigarette displays, and several years ago they started plastering medico-porn all over cigarette packs (last time I was there, the grotesquery covered about 70% of the pack. Now it’s up to about 95%).
`Gold City’ cigarettes
And although you can find many outdoor seating areas where you can eat, drink and smoke, there is a tendency in many places to never provide ashtrays unless you specifically ask for them, even when they see you smoking. The indoctrination is well established here.
That said, there is still much to recommend the country. The Thai people are mostly polite, friendly and helpful. The people (as opposed to the authorities) are very laid-back.
There is a huge gulf between the `haves’ and the `have-nots’, and this has had a considerable impact on the politics of the country, particularly as recent generations of `have-nots’ have become more educated and politically aware. So we have a situation where a few years back a billionaire businessman (but `new money’ in a country where `old money’ calls the shots) called Thaksin Shinawatra became head of a populist political party, ran for government and won a landslide victory. He then started to introduce policies which benefited the hitherto ignored rural population; the workers and the farmers who supplied the cities. Naturally, this didn’t go down well with the elite urbanites of Bangkok (sound familiar?), whose instinct is to keep the peasants barefoot, poor and pregnant, so he was summarily ousted by a military coup.
[The Thai army, it should be noted, takes its orders and gives its loyalty not to the government in power, but to the royal family, who despite being part of what is nominally a constitutional monarchy nevertheless wield a great deal of political clout, and are regarded as semi-divine to boot. The lese-majeste laws here are fiercely prosecuted, and anyone thought to have insulted the royals in any way can expect fifteen years in the slammer. Yes, really. Fifteen years! I kid you not!]
After a couple of years during which the military authorities had managed to ban Thaksin’s party, convict him of (mostly) trumped up corruption charges (corruption is endemic in Thailand, and runs through officialdom from top to bottom), confiscate a large chunk of his fortune and force him into self-imposed exile to escape a lengthy prison sentence, they decided it was safe to have elections again. Unfortunately for them, another party rose from the ashes of Thakin’s original party, with his daughter, Yingluk, at its head. And once again, predictably despite the efforts of the urban elite wanting to disenfranchise the bulk of the rural population `because they’re too stupid to vote’ (sound familiar, again?), the re-born populist party with Yingluk at its head found itself in power once more. Of course there was only going to be one outcome from this rise in populism, and so a couple of years later there was yet another military coup, with all the attendant excuses of corruption etc as justification. This last military government has for the past three years been busy entrenching its power and re-writing the constitution with the aim of ensuring that the Shinawatra family never get a sniff of influence again, and that their populist party will find it nigh on impossible to win an election. How this will pan out in the future I have no idea, but when you talk to people on the street; the taxi drivers, food sellers etc, they are getting mightily pissed off with this authoritarian military regime.
We arrived in Bangkok in mid-February, and spent a few days getting over the jet-lag. I seem to suffer much more from jet-lag when I travel west to east. Going back the other way doesn’t really bother me, and I adjust very quickly. I love Bangkok, traffic pollution notwithstanding. It’s a maelstrom of colours, sounds and smells; a full-on assault on the senses from every direction. It’s a shopper’s paradise (not that I like shopping, particularly), where you can choose from up-market malls which sell such brands as Rolex, YSL, Dior etc; Rolls-Royce, Maserati, Ferrari, Aston Martin and similar. Or you can hit the street markets (more my territory) and haggle over fake RayBans, fake sports brands (Adidas, Nike) and various other baubles like locally produced silks and ceramics. Likewise the food scene. If you go up-market, you will pay top end western prices. If you hit the street stalls, you can eat your fill for a couple of Euros. And the choice is huge. Anything from fried cockroaches to Peking Duck or soft-shell crabs.
Some of Thailand’s street food
This essential part of Bangkok, however, is being targeted by the elites, who think it `lowers the tone’ of the place.
Taxis are cheap, too. Flagfall is 35 Baht (about €1), and for a 15 minute ride you can expect to pay a couple of Euros. The drivers have to be watched, though, particularly if there’s a `westerner’ (which translates roughly as `wealthy beyond the driver’s wildest dreams and ripe for scamming’) on board, and they will try to take off without starting the meter on the assumption that they’ll be able to charge triple price for the ride when you arrive at the destination. Even if there’s an argument, they figure that they will probably get double the fare. It’s a calculated risk based on the fact that most people don’t like making a big scene about it. My wife, however, being eagle eyed and an accountant to boot, is on to them like a shot if they don’t start the meter. “Oh sorry, sorry, I forgot” they say, hastily starting the clock. Yeah, right. We’d use taxis all the time if it wasn’t for the almost permanent gridlock in the city.
One of the things Thailand is renowned for is its `katoey’, or ladyboys..They seem to fall into two main categories; the glamourous and the, er, not so glamourous.
The glamourous ones can be really stunning, and it takes an experienced eye to discern that the amazingly beautiful woman standing at the bar has in fact got some distinctly male tackle tucked up between her legs. It really can be very difficult to know if you’re looking at a man or a woman, but generally the things to look out for are above average height, large hands and / or feet, and an Adam’s Apple. But even that’s not foolproof by any means. About fifteen years ago, when I was footloose and fancy free, I came within an ace of having a very close encounter with a ladyboy (I was drunk at the time) in Hua Hin. I fortunately realised my mistake at the last minute (almost literally), and made a hasty exit. But he/she was stunningly attractive, there’s no denying. Had I been a bit drunker than I was?..No, maybe not?.
The not so glamourous ones are great. They make no effort really to disguise the fact that they are guys, but grow long hair, and go out wearing full make-up, jewellery, high heels and women’s clothes. And they all use the suffix `Kha’. (In the Thai language, one uses this suffix after most sentences according to one’s own gender; so for instance to say `thank you’ in Thai, if you are a man, you would say `kopkhun khap’, but if you are a woman, you would say `kopkhun kha’. So by using `kha’, you are identifying as a female.)
Ladyboys tend to be a lot of fun, and if they are trading (I don’t mean selling sex) on the street or hawking stuff on the train, they will invariably indulge in a lot of banter with their customers (particularly the women), teasing and joking with them in a way that straight guys would never get away with. The customers love it.
The Thai people are indifferent to the sexual orientation of those around them, and seem to make no judgements at all. So you encounter ladyboys and toms (masculine lesbians) in all walks of life, doing all sorts of jobs, and no-one gives a damn. And it’s been that way since I first travelled in Thailand in 1971, and doubtless for years before that.
We tend usually to stay in an area of Bangkok called Saphan Kwai, which is pretty downmarket (a bit like me), but very convenient. In fact, it’s positively grotty, in a friendly sort of way. Lots of street stalls selling all sorts of food, and a `Big C’ supermarket (sort of Thai Asda) just up the road, where you can get anything from washing machines to salted fish. The place we stay – it’s an apartment block which has a few short-stay rooms – is a five minute walk from the BTS (Skytrain) station, from which we can quickly and easily access most of Bangkok. The Skytrain is an elevated rail system which is very clean and efficient, but not cheap by local standards. Although a great city transit system, it has unfortunately turned many once wide and pleasant avenues into semi-subterranean ghettos, with little sunlight and a massive concrete canopy which rumbles regularly as the trains pass overhead.
Not attractive at all, but very useful, so I have mixed feelings.
Anyway, this was going to be a brief “This is Thailand Calling” guest post, and I seem to have digressed somewhat into a disjointed, rambling monologue. In fact, it took so long (I started a couple of days before I left doing 20 minutes here and 20 minutes there), I’m not even in Thailand anymore – I got back to Greece last Thursday, and I’ve only just found the time to sort of finish it off. I was going to touch on my travels within Thailand and Laos, but I think I’ve said more than enough already. I feel like I’m subjecting someone to my holiday snaps.
Me: “And here’s one of me on the beach!”
You: “Oh. How interesting (yawn).”
The flight back was a real pain – long-haul flights always are these days, for the reasons I outlined at the start of this piece. Doha airport, where we transited, did however have some comfortable smoking lounges dotted around the terminal, which alleviated the tedium of a long flight a bit. As did buying 10 x 50g packs of Golden Virginia for about €4.50 a pack in duty free. I also found a smoking lounge near our departure gate in Bangkok airport, which came as a pleasant surprise. But from door to door it took 24 hours, and I’m not very good at sleeping on planes – never have been – so I was buggered when we got home. Still, needs must where the devil drives and all that. At least the house hadn’t burned down while we were away. Or been reduced to a pile of rubble by an earthquake (not infrequent in this area). I did, however, have to make the right sympathetic sounds to the lady who lives opposite, whose mother (they lived together) passed away while we were abroad. She was a nice old biddy, too. A bit scatty, but very friendly. I seem to be getting these constant reminders of my own mortality as I approach three score years and ten. Still, taking into account my hedonistic youth (and not-so-youth), every day that’s passed since I was forty has been a bonus really, so I should be grateful for that, I guess.