Sunday, 29 April 2007

Always Label Your Photos!

Anyone know where this big old rock is?

Yes, it's a nice one of a big rock somewhere, but I forgot to label where it was. Maybe it's off the east coast of Koh Samet, my favourite jewel of an island only a few hours by bus from Bangkok.

Or was it?

What I do remember is that we were walking round the base of the rock when black clouds rolled in and a torrential thunderstorm hit us. The dry, hot ground gave off a pungent, earthy aroma as the rock changed colour from pale pink to a deep red and white rivulets came coursing down its crevices and valleys. We were incredibly lucky to be there for one of the most dramatic moments of the year, but more was still to come.

We legged it back to the car park to get a bigger view and as we did so, the fates contrived to fix a spectacular rainbow for us, right across the centre of the rock. It was a bewitching moment, out there in the vastness of the outback, facing one of nature’s great monuments as rarely ever seen. The eerie silence was broken only by the oohs and aahs of the spectators and the constant clicking of camera shutters, mine included.

Of course, I remember now... it wasn’t Koh Samet. I must have been thinking of when I was having a sleepy massage there on the beach with a sturdy farmer’s wife, quite unlike the lovely young Fon in my 'Thai Girl' story. Waking up, I looked out to sea and in front of me was Ayers Rock itself, Uluru.

I kid thee not! I’d have sworn that the Thais, fearing their beautiful island has no world class attractions… no casino, no pyramids, no majestic herds of wildebeests, had towed a replica of Uluru and sunk it in the sea a few miles off the coast for nostalgic Aussies and me to gawp at.

No seriously, if you sit on the beach at Ao Wong Duern and stare out to sea, you’ll see an islet with an uncanny resemblance to Uluru. Admittedly it’s the wrong colour but if you get tanked up for long enough, like imaginary elephants, it may even turn pink for you. It’s certainly worth a try!

Saturday, 21 April 2007

A Blogger Confesses

Lawrence of Aberystwyth

I’ve read that in this strange new world of ours, 68.9 million people are active bloggers, while a survey of 1,000 British teenagers found that 47% of British teenagers blog on a regular basis. I think I read this on a blog somewhere.

I’ve also read that the world’s oldest blogger is Olive Riley aged 107 of Woy Woy near Sydney, Australia. Yes, and this time I remember where I read it. It was in a blog on, written by Eric Shackle. Eric’s only 87 and like me, he has, I guess, a soft spot for older women.

I’m always been intrigued by the life-force that keeps these survivors clinging on so long after all their contemporaries have fallen off their perches. Often there’s something special in their lives, blogging perhaps in Eric’s case, but they often come up with bizarre reasons for their good health. The South China Morning Post has just reported the story of Chan Chi, a Hong Kong villager who, like Olive is aged 107. Asked why he thinks he’s lived so long, he said, ‘Maybe it’s because I haven’t had sex since I was thirty.’

There’s a Chinese belief that every loss of semen is a nail in your coffin… though if that’s how to live to a hundred, I’ll exit earlier and go out with a bang. As for Chan Chi, maybe it’s not too late even after seventy seven years to get him into the chat rooms or even better, to give him Olive’s email address.

So what of me and blogging? I’ve only blogged for a few months but I’m hoping to beat Olive as the world’s oldest blogger… by the time I’m 107, she’ll be 154.

But what of this peculiar word, ‘blog’? I know where it comes from, but it isn’t very elegant. ‘I blog, you blog, he blogs.’ ‘You see that wierdo over there in the red shorts with that thing round his head? He looks a dirty blogger!’

The word, ‘blog’ has a coarse feel to it… maybe it’s Anglo-Saxon or old Norse. Runt and muck, turd and cock, shit and sod, clod and blog… these and other unmentionables, have a certain earthy directness to them… but I think I like it.

Anyway, I, an ex-professor, existentialist and expat, am now also a ‘blogger’. I’m not a closet blogger though, as I always use my own name. Most blogs are anonymous but I don’t want to hide. Fame, notoriety, whatever… like all writers, I just want my stuff to be read, and if sometimes it offends, then I should be answerable. I hate this modern trend towards anonymity on the net. What if George Eliot or Mark Twain had used a pseudonym?

One thing troubles me though. I’m worried people think that as a blogger I’ve got too much time on my hands, that I’m a lonely individual with red eyes, sitting in a solitary garret staring at a screen, a sad, sad introvert with no life at all. Is that how it is for me? Is that why I blog?

But no, that’s the opposite of the truth. I blog because my life is very full and because I’m keen to communicate something of it to others. Where better than on the internet, an unparalleled means of communication surpassing even the submarine telegraph cable.

Though on being solitary, I do have to concede an inch or two to my friend Iain. My friend Iain always says to me, how can you marry someone you can’t have an intellectual conversation with? I always reply that Cat’s in no way my intellectual inferior… it’s just a language gap. And anyway, why do you have to get intellectual stimulus from your wife? There’s lots of other people around to talk to. I remind Iain that marriage is about who’s going to do the Tescos shop or cook tonight and tutting over what happened when Dilys jumped the queue for the photocopier at work yesterday. But then I admit to Iain that here in Isaan, Cat is the only one I can talk to and the old man with his buffalo isn’t much good when it comes to supplying my English language defecit. Perhaps in this respect, blogging does fill a gap for me.

Most of all though, I blog simply because I enjoy blogging. What can equal the buzz of clicking on ‘publish’ and then viewing my blog on screen, knowing that it can now be read by someone in Islamabad or Saskatchewan, Tunbridge Wells or Lisbon. With my photos, it looks so good too, and creating it gives me a bizarre sense of achievement. Any other publishing process (remember paper?) takes painful months of waiting, but the immediacy of the internet is extraordinary.

I blog primarily because I enjoy the process of writing itself. Recently I was pleased when my novel, “Thai Girl” was featured in an article in the Bangkok Post together with three other more distinguished authors (23 February 2007). We were asked to, ‘describe your writing in three words’, and I said it’s, ‘my greatest joy’.

One of the other authors, Jack Needham, the author of ‘The Green Mango’ (names changed to avoid a defamation suit) said of his writing, ‘Really hard work. Not for readers, I hope but for me.’ He then went on to describe what for him is the painful, isolated, solitary work of writing. How extraordinary that is, to be a writer and to so hate writing!

Why ever would he hate writing his novel so much? Could it be something to do with the book itself? Ages ago I managed to read the first quarter of ‘The Green Mango’, but I gave it away to a friend who'd been trying to seduce my wife.

Now I'm wondering… maybe I’d feel the same as Jack if it was ‘The Green Mango’ I was writing. Nonetheless, I do find it surprising. I enjoyed every moment writing ‘Thai Girl’, as the story swept me along, emerging spontaneously from the personalities and predicament of my characters. Yes, writing is my greatest joy which is precisely why I now write my blog.

There’s so much pleasure to be had in the plotting, the planning, the writing and the polishing of a blog and as I send it into cyberspace I dream that some bloke in Woy Woy or Wooloomooloo is just sitting down at his computer, six pack at his side… My sitemeter, tells me that a few of you have read some of my blogs so I shall not slink away and put a rope round my neck but keep on blogging regardless. If there’s a chorus of comments telling me to blog off, only then shall I desist.

I mentioned a blog or two earlier that I’ve been toying with the idea of a sunset career as a song writer and as I lay awake last night listening to the dog barking, an idea came to me for a song. I want my songs to be totally original and in no way derivative, which isn’t going to be easy, but this one’s going to be called, ‘Thank You For the Writing.’

I haven’t written all of it yet, but here’s the bit I wrote when I got up this morning. The envelope was too small to write more than this, but anyway, I hope you like it.

'Thank You For The Writing' goes something like this.

“Cos’ I’ve wrote a novel, I hope it’s not trite,
And everyone reads it when I start to write.
I’m so happy and proud… I just want to read it out loud.
So I say thank you all for “Thai Girl”, the book I’ve written.
I’m not shy although once bitten.
And as I write another, I ask in all honesty,
What would life be, without one final chance what are we!
So I say thank you for the writing… for giving it to me!”

I suppose if I become a full-time song writer, I won’t have time to write any more blogs, which is a pity, so maybe I won’t be a song writer after all. Unless of course they make me an offer I can’t refuse…

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

'The Hair of the Dog'

Soda, our shi-dzoodle

Sometimes with tragic-comic overtones, here in the ricefields of Surin, our joint lives take on broad-brush elements of comedy and farce. Crazy things seem to happen to us every day and quite often they’re caused by animals.

Perhaps this is no surprise as there seem to be animals everywhere. We have an ever-changing population of cats and dogs, rats and lizards in the house and there’s a big local populus of cows and buffaloes owned by neighbouring families too. Every day the old men take them out to find grazing, only returning as the sun falls in the west. Sometimes the buffaloes walk close to our newly white-painted wall and flick abstract designs onto it with their muddy tails, which probably serves us right for trying to be so suburban.

Then the rats come into the kitchen from the coconut trees and eat the electric cables for the rice cooker and the washing machine, while the lizards constantly leave their traces everywhere, none of which is remotely funny. Nature is rampant here and trying to control one’s environment is always an uphill struggle.

Until recently there used to be plenty of pigs in the village but the falling price of pork seems to have made this uneconomic. Cat and her Mama had a long and profitable experiment raising pigs and at one time we had five or six, including some wild black ones and several litters of piglets. For myself, I found it pretty unprofitable as although I paid for everything, when the pigs were killed for family celebrations and occasionally sold, no money ever found its way back into my pocket. As with many such farang financed affairs, it proved to be highly profitable for everyone except the financier. Mai pen rai. I was happy that Mama should want to work hard and run a little business for herself and I found a certain ironic humour in the whole debacle.

The first two pigs were kept in a wooden pen with no door but soon they got too big for it. Cat then spent a couple of days personally building a new pig house with blocks and cement and soon the day came for them to move in. Letting them out was easy but immediately they ran away in great excitement, not with escape in mind but rooting around for undreamed of food.

How do you now get two pigs, each of them bigger than a man, into their new pig house? Nobody seemed to have the first idea.

There then began a farmyard farce in which the pigs were chased and harried, and everyone ended up sprawled in the dirt, hot, bothered and breathless. The first round definitely went to the pigs. Nobody had a rope so I went and got one and managed to lassoo one of the pigs round the neck, though I wasn’t allowed to hang on to it in case I strangled the damned thing.

If food is the main motivation for a pig, then that has to be the way to recapture them. Eventually after much scratching of heads, our superior intelligence drew the first pig into its new home, snuffling greedily at a bucket of pig food, while the other one soon followed suit.

In Isaan there are no wolves to huff and to puff and to blow the house down, but Cat hadn’t reckoned with the itchy rumps of our two not so little piggies. Rough concrete blocks are great for rubbing yourself against if you’re a pig and that’s just what they really loved doing. Trouble was, the concrete was not man enough and soon a wall fell down and the pigs escaped once more.

Despite repairs, this was to became a regular occurrence and the two Houdinis were often to be seen crossing a neighbour’s land looking for the best morsels they could find. Every time, a hue and cry was raised and the farce of catching them started all over again. Finally Cat gave up on concrete blocks and the day resounded to the ring of her hammer as she built a new house of wood and bamboo. From this the pigs never again managed to escape.

Last night there was farce of an even more ludicrous kind which followed the minor tragedy of me and Cat not being able to sleep a wink because of unscripted and very loud noises ‘off’.

Our two dogs are called Pepsi and Soda, Pepsi being a delightful, quiet dog bought at the next village for twenty baht. Soda was forty times more expensive, eight hundred baht being added to a bill at the local builders merchants when I wasn’t quick enough to veto the pleas of my always persistent wife. A bit like Cat, despite her small size, Soda is forty times noisier than Pepsi.

Soda is a toy dog of a rare breed called a shi’-dzoodle, a cross between a shi’tzu and a poodle. She’s a fussy little dog who always greets you on her back with her feet in the air and barks loudly at all known threats which is a good thing, though sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.

Cat’s sister, Yut, husband Ben and children Benz and Best have been staying with us for Songkhran. Last night Best, who’s only one, was bawling loudly, keeping it up for hours. Added to this, Soda then began barking incessantly at the mysterious goings on in a neighbouring household. Handling cut wood for building is almost as illegal here as handling drugs and as people still want to build things, it’s often done at dead of night when the policemen are drunk or fast asleep in bed. Thus, in the early hours, there were low noises and lights a few hundred yards away and Soda was not a happy shi’dzoodle. As she led the local dogs in a loud chorus of barking, we lay awake, unable to sleep and after a while it really began to bug us.

In my heady, soporific state, I was hazily considering every possible approach to this problem of barking dogs and bawling babies, including both direct and lateral solutions. Locking the baby and the dog in the garage wasn’t that good an idea, so I soon came up with a cunning plan. How do you make a noisy person fall asleep if you want to shut them up? Well, you either give them a sleeping pill or, much easier, you get them drunk. So that’s what I decided to do, starting with the dog.

Careful not to disturb Cat, I slipped downstairs, filled a bowl with rice and topped it up with a quarter bottle of lao sato, a sweet moonshine rice wine that someone had given us. Closing the door behind me, I put the bowl on the ground and Soda gratefully wolfed down what was to be a very special midnight feast.

As I was going back up the stairs again, I passed Cat running down two steps at a time in a state of silent agitation. I then watched from the upstairs verandah as she began a fine display of the direct action approach to unruly dogs, Isaan style. If you are Thai and a dog offends you, what do you do? You terrorise it!

Peering down into the darkness, I could see Cat hopping around as she took off one shoe and hurled it at Soda as hard as she could. The shoe bounced high in the air, while the next one hit the steel lid of the water butt with an almighty clang that rang through the night air. Then she grabbed a stick and yelling words in Suay whose drift was easy to follow, ran after Soda, lashing out at everything around her as hard as she could.

Quickly getting the picture, Soda fled round the back of the house but immediately appeared again from the other side, with Cat noisily giving chase. Oh, how inscrutable, sweet and temperate our Thai ladies are! Here was an avenging fury! Several times the two of them circled the house at high speed, with Cat in hot pursuit of a terrified dog.

Lights came on in the next house, no doubt complaining of the family of the disreputable farang… must be fighting from all the racket that’s going on! Dare we now show our faces in the village again, I ask myself?

Well, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, as they say, but whose was the right way to deal with a barking dog like Soda... the Euro-lateral approach or Isaan direct? The experiment was spoiled for me by Cat’s intervention and now I shall never know.

The little boy, Best, settled down and slept quietly after that and Soda hid under the car, no doubt with feet in air, fitfully dreaming of being chased by or chasing cats. As for us, we slept soundly for what remained of the night.

This morning Soda seems okay, though I guess she’s been experiencing her very first hangover. I’d better give her some food to help her get over it, I suppose, but should I give it to her with or without the sato? What is it they call a remedy for a hangover when you add a tot of the alcohol that caused the problem in the first place? If I remember correctly, I think it’s called, ‘the hair of the dog’!

Saturday, 14 April 2007

Why? Why? Why?

Why, why, why this picture?? Read on and see below.

People always seem to say to me that Thai culture is different and impenetrable and that you’ll never understand it, however long you live here. I sometimes respond that human life’s the same everywhere and with my long decades in Asia, I don’t find it too difficult to understand the Thais.

But then I keep hitting on more whys and wherefores and I have to admit that sometimes I’m as puzzled as the other farang Thai-gazers.

It often seems to be the little things you don't understand that are the most important and that grate and irritate the most.

I’ll try to think of a few of these and wise you up a bit about them. Here goes!

Why is the fresh orange juice as salty as the Dead Sea?

Why do they eat mango and papaya, hard and bitter, long before it’s ripe?

Why do they damage my eardrums with loud music at four in the morning?

Why do they phone me in the middle of the night?

Why when I ask them when they’re coming, they say six, though they’ve no idea if they’re coming at all?

Why do they always order twice as much food as we need when I’m picking up the bill?

Why do they serve a massive farang style steak with only six chips?

And why do they make me walk in bare feet on their dirty floors and paddle through murky floods in their toilet?

Okay so it's not the end of the world, but there's quite a few less irritating things that simply puzzle me.

Why do they offer me beer at six in the morning?

Why do policemens’ uniforms always shrink in the wash?

Why’s there loo paper on the table when we eat but none in the loo?

Why do they simultaneously stroke and hit their nice little dog?

Why do they tolerate an incompetent official just because he looks good in his uniform?

And why do they allow the traffic police to rip them off so outrageously?

It’s not usually my problem, but they also seem to tolerate acute discomfort without complaint and they often court death with equanimity.

Why on the overnight bus and everyone’s dying of cold in the air conditioning does somebody not ask the driver to adjust the thermostat?

And why when the bus driver is a raving, psychopathic lunatic on speed does everyone politely go to their deaths and say nothing for fear of hurting his feelings?

Why do they put on a padded jacket when it’s thirty five degrees in the shade?

Why do they like to destroy the food and their taste buds with a volcanic excess of chili?

Why are they so casual about killing themselves and their babies on their motorcycles?

And why for that matter do the girls sit side saddle, risking death rather than a marginal loss of modesty?

Finally, there’s a number of niggling little things that do sometimes bug me.

Why do they say they love their country but then trash it with plastic bags and other gratuitous pollution?

Why do they so hate their wonderful honey coloured skin?

Why are they so hung up about the spirits?

And why do they line up for photos as if they’re facing a firing squad?

Why, oh why indeed!

Maybe I can accept, even if not fully understand all of these things, both trivial and not so trivial. But I leave perhaps the greatest mystery to last, which is one I find deeply disturbing as it reflects on the attitude of Thai people to me.

Why do they treat with such grace and charm all the ugly farang I see around me who seem even more obtuse, uncomprehending and obnoxious than I am? Are they nice to all of us, however we are?

It’s when I ask myself this last one that I’m no longer sure if I understand anything at all about the Thais and Thailand.

My last resort is always to ask Cat, my ever-present consultant on Thai affairs.

‘Why? Why? Why?’ she says. ‘Stop asking questions. Why farang talk too much?’

Maybe we farang do talk too much, but so do the Thais. The difference perhaps is that though the Thais talk all the time, they rarely if ever say anything at all. We foreigners are far more offensive as we always want to analyse everything... we're intrusive, confrontational, questioning.

We expect to be able to understand the Thais, and maybe that’s the problem. Yes, why ever should we? Why?


The picture at the top shows Hanuman II racing at the Goodwood Revival in the south of England in summer 2005. This 1936 ERA B-Type R12B was raced successfully by "B. Bira" whose full name was Prince Birabongse Bhanutej Bhanubandh of Thailand. (At least I'm pretty sure this was his car.) So why this picture? Because I like it and that's a bad enough reason, isn't it.

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Losing My Religion

Our spirit house

There have been some horrific bus crashes in the news in Thailand recently which is hardly something new, though the death toll of thirty one dead in one accident near Korat was exceptional. What did catch my eye though, following this accident, was a headline in the Bangkok Post... ‘Bus drivers swear oath to drive safely, check vehicles.’ (30 March 2007.)

As part of an official road safety campaign, ‘bus drivers are being made to swear an oath to sacred deities in the latest attempt to persuade them to drive carefully and ensure passengers’ safety.’ It may seem a bit bizarre, but if a provincial transport officer taking bus drivers to the wat to see the monks reinforces the importance of safe driving, then why not.

It’s always said that Buddhism is a powerful and cohesive force in Thai society and I for one hope that’s true. Religious ritual is a major part of life here and while monks may take part, in reality the rites often have more to do with animism than with Buddhism. A recent craze to acquire a special type of lucky amulet, the Jatukam Ramathep, is an example of the powerful hold that these older beliefs in a terrifying assortment of spirits still have.

There has recently been a heated public debate as to whether the proposed new constitution that is now being drafted following the coup should name Buddhism as the national religion. Citing a decline in public faith in the monastic order, Sanitsuda Ekachai, an outspoken and articulate columnist in the Bangkok Post concludes, ‘If we really need a national religion, animism should be the one. At least it can help us stop fooling ourselves that we are still Buddhist and see who we really are.’ (Commentary, 5 April 2007.) So is Buddhism in Thailand now declining and what’s the current health of religion in other countries?

A few days earlier the Bangkok Post reported a Newsweek poll saying that in America 91% of people said they believe in God, while 87% follow a formal religion. The poll found that 48% reject the scientific theory of human evolution, while around 62% of those polled said they would not vote for a political candidate who ‘confessed’ to being an atheist.

Wowee, now ain’t that something! George Dubya! You’re just gonna have to get down on your knees and pray!

Political leaders who claim to be driven by religious conviction scare me rigid, as either they’re not wholly rational or they’re fraudulently manipulating the electorate. Bush is probably a fraud, but what about my own PM, Tony Blair? The former Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra was probably honest in this one respect... he publicly admitted that when his stars were unfavourable, he’d avoid taking any decisions at all.

The current Thai prime minister seems to have his feet firmly on the ground but some senior members of the Council for National Security have recently traveled to Chiang Mai at official expense to see a renowned fortune teller for ‘a ceremony to ward off bad luck for the coup makers’. (Bangkok Post, 2 April 2007.) Give me political leaders that are fully rational any day.

Even religions that are declining still have huge influence over the faithful and it’s hard not to notice the movement within the Catholic church to make the late Pope John Paul II a saint. Of course he richly deserves to be sanctified as, in Gilbertian style, he made more saints during his papacy then any pope before him. When his own saints come marching in, I’m sure he’ll get all the celestial support he needs.

Trouble is, the rules say that the sanctification process cannot begin until five years after death, and Pope John Paul has only been dead for two years. Then you need proof of at least two miracles, such as mystery cures of sick Catholics. So, in the words of John and Paul (Lennon and Macartney of course), "Roll up, roll up for the mystery cure!" A French nun, Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre has now conveniently surfaced, claiming that the said Pope cured her of Parkinson’s disease.

If it was me sifting the medical reports on what might have caused her magical mystery cure, what would trouble me more than a little is that at the time, Pope John Paul was already an ex-pope and stone cold dead. Okay, Sister M-S-P prayed to him, yes, but the nexus of causation does seem to be a little bit thin for so dramatic a conclusion. Perhaps her prayers were in fact forwarded on to God and it was he who fixed things for her.

Anyway, it’s reported that centuries-old sacred rituals have now been held completing the first phase of a fast-track beatification of Acting Saint John Paul. The evidence was handed over, appropriately at the Basilica of St John, and three black leather trunks were sealed with ribbon and red wax as church officials and thousands of faithful applauded. (Bangkok Post, 3 April 2007.)

I’m sure they all had a great time, but it strikes me that using a belief in the spirits to urge bus drivers not to kill their passengers is infinitely more beneficial. On the other hand it’s nice having a few saints kicking around the place. Talking of which, along with having my eye on the Nobel Prize for Literature, I think I could be in the running myself.

Can you download an application form off the internet, do you know? You see, I’ve got one miracle already under my belt because I can change wine into water... so now I’m going to have to dream up another one. Of course Pope JP was dead when he was supposed to have cured Sister M-S-P and I wasn’t, so I’m just wondering... Trouble is, to be a saint I suppose one of the qualifications is being very, very dead which takes the gloss off it a bit.

I think I’d better shut up now before I offend anyone else, so finally I’m going to set an exam question for you and all my final year students in the Combined Honours School of Philosophy and Comparative Religion with Media Studies. Here goes!

“Have the monotheistic religions materially added to the sum of human happiness and do they provide good material for great movies? Discuss, giving examples of any such movies that were not totally ridiculous. Do you think that in MGM’s ‘The Creation’, Adam’s navel should have been filled in with flesh-coloured putty?”

My God, what rubbish I’ve been writing! Is there any point to all this? Yes, maybe there is. I think I’m saying that like seat belts and mechanical inspections, spirit worship really is quite handy when it comes to keeping death off the roads.

Sunday, 8 April 2007

The Land of Similies

"Like a ritual, never-ending fire dance, a perpetual Full Moon Party..."

What’s it like living in Thailand, they all ask me. Thailand’s the Land of Smiles isn’t it?

Yes, it’s smiley okay, I reply, but that means you never know what’s going on under the surface… if there is anything under the surface. Is it all superficial illusion, seductive imagery like the ripples on a pond?

So why does an old farang come here like a fish out of water and what can he expect when he arrives in Thailand? Well, I was like a rolling stone, taking tentative steps like a virgin, for the very first time, expecting the unexpected.

What’s it all about then, this heady, romantic world and where’s it leading to? Nowhere of course I assured myself, but then after shyly holding out for a few years, the inevitable happened. ‘Met a girl crazy for me.’

But why and what’s she like anyway, they all asked me. Metaphor what?

After a few more years here, Thailand’s now all too familiar, but sometimes it’s still a roller-coaster, a fantasy world where the girls in MK Mart giggle and chat me up shamelessly, the sirens of the checkout. This just can’t be for real!

So is it like going to heaven then, living here, or is it purgatory? Are these Thai ladies ministering angels or are will they,like Dracula, sink their fangs into your wallet at the first opportunity?

There are constant reality checks living here, like the horror of applying for visas, when my precious internet refuses to work, or when I have to use sign language to tell the girl I urgently need some toilet paper. And it’s always, always as hot as hell.

It’s like a fantastic dream, a reverie, like floating on a soft cloud… though sometimes Thailand does drive you mad. You can’t read or understand a word they say and getting anything done is like swimming in treacle. Somehow, it’s like going back forty years because everything’s tortoise slow, but more positively, because they make you think you’re still a spring chicken.

It’s a bit like the sixties here, a kind of crazy world where everyone’s killing themselves to buy their new motor scooter, a Honda Dream or Suzuki Smash, the latest television or mobile phone. Credit flows like water before repossession hits like a juggernaut, but militant materialism brings happiness so they go for it at all costs.

The ship of state sometimes rolls violently but the steerage passengers sit back and take a tot of lao khao and ignore the shocks. For us farang, prices are low like years ago, so you can spend like a prince, though sometimes it all feels like an illusion, a charade... nothing’s substantial and everything’s impermanent, unsatisfactory, changeable.

For nothing in Thailand is ever what it seems. The admiral in the street is a bus driver, the prettiest girls and designer goods are fellas and fakes. It’s said that half the women in Bangkok are pros and half the men cons, that the Thais are the nicest people money can buy.

Thailand’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, like a mirage... though was it a real mirage or did I just imagine it?

It’s like nowhere else in the world… like a self-fulfilling fantasy, a shadow play, like a ritual never-ending fire dance, a perpetual, hedonistic Full Moon Party.

Amazing Thailand!

It truly is The Land of Similies.

Saturday, 7 April 2007

Back to Koh Chang Again!

We've just got back to the village after another week on Koh Chang. What more can I say about this island in words, so this time I'm trying to say it with photos. The images are corny, classic tropical scenes often coming close to cliche, but then why not when beauty is in such abundance here.

Anyway,the pictures reflect our holiday... driving to the far end of the island by day to find the places it's hard for tourism to despoil, confronting a wooden plea for personal hygiene on a jungle path to a water-free waterfall, taking boat trips snorkelling to see 'bplah cartoon'... and actually finding Nemo, the clown fish... and finally every evening, lazing horizontal at Sabay Bar listening to the Phillipino band while drinking Leo beer out of the bottle and watching the waiters strip down to their loin cloths and become inexhaustible fire dancers in the surf.

It was an exhausting holiday and now we're busy de-sanding everything and getting back to normal life, if ever life here can be normal.

But then perhaps normality is rare in the things that happen to me. A few days ago I was pleased to bump into an engaging farang who sings at one of the bars behind the beach. Last time we were there, he'd taken a copy of 'Thai Girl' off me and nervously as always, I now asked for the verdict. He told me two things... that he'd spent many years on and off in Thailand and had never tangled with Thai women until recently, and that 'Thai Girl' had taught him just so much about that mysterious and important subject. His compliments added a warm glow to the Leo beer, though I find all of what he said quite amazing, incredible even. With rewards like this, my life is brilliant but certainly it could hardly be called normal.

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

"You Can Score on Route 24!"

Lower Isaan, the five provinces just north of the Cambodian border, is dry and dirt
poor. The land is degraded and the increasing population can no longer live off the land. Families are split apart as the young and energetic leave home to find work elsewhere. If you ever see a decent home in this part of the world, unless they’re Chinese merchants or police, the money has come from elsewhere… from construction work in Taiwan, from sweated shoe factories in Samut Prakan or the girlie bars of Bangkok and Pattaya.

If you’ve holidayed in Koh Samet or Phuket, Krabi or Samui, you’ll know that the sleepy girl who gets your order wrong with such charm is probably from Si Saket or Surin in Isaan, just like the vamp who fixes your eye on the dark, rutted sidewalks of Sukhumvit and whispers, ‘Handsome Man! Bai duay.’

So how do you get to Isaan if you want to see what it’s like and why so many of these ladies have left home? Well, you can travel east as far as Ubon, the land of the light skinned Isaan ladies and it’s a long and dusty road through hundreds of miles of dry rice fields, taking you swiftly across endless oceans of unremitting toil. Little wonder is it that the ablest and the prettiest young women make an escape in the hope winning for themselves their walking jackpot lottery ticket with a well-stocked wallet.

For the adventurous farang, this road runs east first through Korat, then Buriram where Fon, the heroine of my novel “Thai Girl” comes from, through Surin where I now live, then across the parched plains of Si Saket and finally to Ubon.

It may seem a coincidence that whenever Cat and I meet a Thai/farang couple in England, surprisingly the lady often comes from quite near our village in Surin. But then it’s not that strange as this is where so many of these economic migrants come from.

The long, straight road that links these provinces, which runs for hundreds of miles not far from the border with Cambodia, is famously known as Route 24. Along it, heading west, these optimistic young things go in search of a new life, and back along it they nervously return with long-nose in tow, he of tatty shorts and tattoos, to present him triumphantly to their families and friends.

To these happy men, this road has great significance too. It’s a bounteous place and from its unpromising soil spring women of great beauty and charm. Nor are they always unattainable, and many a dumpy Joe soon discovers that he’s an attractive guy and much in demand. Yes, you can score on Route 24!

There’s a great old song by Nat King Cole which has the worst lyrics in history but somehow still hits the spot. ‘Get your kicks on Route Sixty Six.’ And I’m thinking that if in my sixtieth decade I can write a successful novel about kids a third my age, then why can’t I be a song-writer.

If you like pastiche (microwaved for three minutes), then try the following for starters. It’s reasonably close to and not much worse than the original so don’t blame me for all of it.

“If you ever plan to motor east,
Of Thai girls you’ll soon find a feast.
In Buriram and Sisaket, there’s many waiting for you yet.
You can score on Route 24.

It runs dead fast right through Korat,
Though Ubon’s where it’s really at.
And if you choose the darker skin, then sip a Singha in Surin.
You’ll find more on Route 24.

Won’t you get hip to this timely tip,
When you make an Isaan trip.
And if you love that rotten fish, then som tam Lao is just your dish.
You can score on Route 24.”

There you have it! So put it on the karaoke screens and take it away! As far as possible! My prize for the worst line goes to, ‘Won’t you get hip to this timely tip,’ and that one comes from the original!

It has a useful message, my song does... though do you think Route 24 is really where you want to score? Are you sure this is where you want to hang up your coat?

It’s said that when you marry your Si Saket lady, you marry her whole family, but in a way you marry her village too, her province even. You’ll have to build her a house in the village as a necessary rite of passage and if you’re to spend any amount of time in Thailand with her, then you’ll find yourself spending a fair bit of your life in the proximity of Route 24.

As I sit at my computer writing this rubbish, Route 24 is seven kilometers to the south... and my elbows are sticking to my desk, burned by it almost. Everything I touch is hot. Hells’ teeth it’s hot. And dry, and dusty and noisy and alive with rampant insects. The dogs and cockerels wake me at three and there’s nothing much here other than buffaloes. Is this really where I’ve chosen to spend the rest of my life?

Waiting at Immigration in Suan Plu, I recently sat next to an American who told me he lives in Petchabun. It’s high there and the daytimes are never too hot, he said. The scenery is mountainous, there are meadow flowers everywhere and it’s always green on his side of the hill. It sounded wonderful and I hated him for it. How had he got it all so horribly right while I was exiled out on Route 24?

When you fall amorous with your ‘Thai girl’, you soon give up all free will and you have to abandon yourself to a passive state of limbo as she rows you across the Styx to heaven or hell. If it’s ever possible though for you to resist the sirens long enough and to make decisions with your brain rather than with another part of your anatomy, I’d recommend a few additional courtship questions to the standard ones before you finally give in.

When she opens with, ‘Hansome’ man! Where you come from?’ you should reciprocate with, ‘And where do you come from?’ Next you casually add, ‘What’s the elevation and the average daytime temperature for April in your village? Is it high up? Where’s the nearest Big C, the nearest airport and the nearest immigration office?’

Only if the answers to your questions are favourable, should you let off the brakes and note whether she’s truly beautiful and worthy of your attention. For remember, a beautiful flower in a desert’s all well and good, but not if you’re going to have to live there with her!

For sure you can score and get your kicks, but you may end up kicking yourself too on Route 24. If you end up with a life sentence locked in the aircon, grumbling to the forum on Thai Visa and reading Stickman, while home life revolves around Thai soaps and som tam parties, you have only yourself to blame. But if sometimes it’s a dog’s life, you’ve just got to hang in there, matey and not do anything desperate. So what’s the score now, my friend?

Just kidding! I love it hot really.