Thursday, 29 November 2007

Thai Kids Are a Picture!

Something every child raised in a Thai rice growing village will always remember is harvest time. It's a wonderful occasion as in all farming communities.

Mama Papa are out in the fields cutting the rice and you go out early with them and play all day long in the warm sunshine. It's not too hot and its dry and you get to ride on Papa's little tractor and to sit and eat with all the workers... uncles, aunts and cousins, while granny chews betel and keeps an eye on you.

The grown ups are drinking lao khao and are very happy. The hard cycle of the rice crop is nearly over and there'll be some money coming in, good food, celebration. The dry season is long, featureless and hot but now is the time to be out in the fields with the family for the great climax of the farming year.

Harvesting rice is a subject that's notoriously difficult to photograph though. It's usually a haphazard jumble of figures in a flat landscape. They wear broad brimmed hats and keep their heads down and it's hard to get any faces or to compose a decent picture. But capturing the kids is another matter. They all know me and they gaze in wonderment or even pose for me.

These shots I took yesterday and I couldn't wait to post them. We're off to Koh Chang for a holiday tomorrow. Cat's going with the village school. For the first time ever the school's got some money from Surin and they're renting buses and all 95kids plus some parents are off to see some museums and have a first ever glimpse of the sea. The children have hardly left the village before, likewise many of the parents. I'm driving down to Koh with Peter, and Cat and Laylai are going to leave the bus in Chantaburi join us on the island.

I'll be posting some descriptions of the rice harvest a little later when I've written them and I might even manage something more about Koh Chang.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

The Venice of the East?

Cities can be horrible and Bangkok is no exception, though a century ago it was known as the Venice of the East. That was before they filled in its network of canals and replaced them with traffic jams.

To my mind the Chao Phraya River in the heart of Bangkok is still one of the great city riverscapes of the world. I never tire of taking the ferry for a few baht and going upstream from Saphan Thaksin past the great hotels, the Oriental and Peninsular and along the shore lined with temples, wharves and markets. I then get off at Tha Chang where they used to bathe the King’s elephants to visit the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Gaeo.

Apart from the fact that the character of the river has changed little from the days of Joseph Conrad, it is special because it is still so vibrant. In London or Paris for example the rivers are dead but for a few plastic tourist boats, but Bangkok’s river is a key thoroughfare taking thousands of people to work every day, with long barge trains carrying cement, rice, farm produce and all the needs of a big city. The boats are old and wooden and the river’s crowded, bustling, and alive.

I love it and am relieved that the twentieth century has not ripped the heart out of it and that it still is much as it always was.

Sadly though the Bangkok canals are as good as gone, all except for one. From where we stay in Sukhumvit soi 71, it’s only a short walk to Klong San Saeb, perhaps the smelliest canal in the history of mankind. The water is a dark grey and it stinks, and as the boat surges through the churned up water, the spray hits your face despite the blue and white canvas dodgers along the side. I love it for its wild craziness. It’s just so very Thai.

The canal is well placed to take me deeper into Bangkok to Asoke, Pratunam, Ploenchit and wherever I want to go and if you change boats it goes further to Wat Saket near Rajadamnoen Avenue and the Democracy Monument not far from the river itself. It’s an important artery and a great means of avoiding traffic jams for only a few baht.

The boats are long and narrow and carry several hundred people. They come storming into the jetty at speed, the water heaving around them. The boy clinging onto the gunwhale throws a rope over the bollard as the boat overshoots. Its engine is then thrown into reverse and the hull comes crashing against the jetty. This is a sure time to leave the world if you miss your footing and fall into the water as you scramble ashore.

Health and Safety would close the service immediately anywhere but in Thailand as in all respects it’s incredibly dangerous. The water is a glutinous poison. In a narrow canal and with a high closing speed, there have been fatal collisions. The deck hands wear helmets as a sop to safety consciousness as they take your money clinging onto the side of the boat, but you have to be agile getting aboard so it’s definitely not for the faint hearted. That’s exactly why I so love it.

The boats are full of commuters on their daily grind, young men and girls, the wind in their hair, a hand over their mouths to stop the spray. Silent, stoic, jammed in together on the seats or standing like sardines at the back, they do this twice every day. It’s normal, it’s tolerable and they know how to climb up over the gunwhale and ropes in short skirt and spikey heels to get ashore. Yes, it’s a great place for tourists and for people watchers too.

As I stand beside the massive diesel engine, engulfed in the noise and heat and the smell of oil, the tight press of bodies means I couldn’t fall down even if I tried. I feel the rush of hot air and sense the raw power of the propeller as it thrusts the boat forwards, the long wooden hull ahead of me flexing as it hits the waves. The tower blocks slip quickly past, followed by an older era of crooked wooden houses, all festooned with drying clothes, pot plants and the junk and chaos that is so very Bangkok, so very Thai.

This is the unseen Thailand that I always show to my visitors if I can. It’s amazing, it’s ugly, dirty, dangerous, alive and vibrant and I love it for all of that.

This small corner of Bangkok still is the Venice of the East, but Venice was never half as fun. It’s Klong San Saeb and nowhere in the world can ever be quite like it.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

No Spitting, No Global Warming

These signs were snapped quite close to each other on the skywalk near to Central World Plaza and Mahboon Krong on Bangkok's spectacular Skytrain.

The Thais are not very conscious of environmental issues; it's more important just to get by, so it's good to see somebody pushing the point here about global warming.

There's a traditional habit based on a Chinese belief that as phlegm is a noxious effusion, you should never swallow it but should eject it accordingly. Frankly I've never seen urban Thais spitting publicly so the injunction not to spit seems hardly necessary. I like the notice though.

As for sitting, it should definitely be stamped out. Bangkok's a busy place and in perpetual motion, so sitting should clearly be discouraged.

There's plenty of opportunity for sitting back home in the village in the North East. For some people, that's about all they ever seem to do!

A Serious Attempt On My Life

Coming back from the zoo in Bangkok the other day we saw a most amazing zebra crossing. There’s lots of elephants in Bangkok and Thailand’s supposed to be amazing but this time the zebra had no legs. It was just that the Highways Department and Parks and Gardens were clearly not communicating with each other. Someone hadn’t replied to the other’s memo.

On a broad two lane avenue the left hand had painted a zebra crossing but in the central refuge the right hand had carefully planted a substantial hedge to stop pedestrians crossing. The zebra crossing was almost unusable.

You can see it near the Suan Lum night bazaar which has recently become a big hit with foreign tourists. While the crossing and the hedge will probably endure, Suan Lum is soon to be closed so that billions can be spent on another glittering shopping mall, on yet more retail space and lonely vistas of marble floor.

Bangkok seems a little ambivalent about zebra crossings. The other day I was using one on the way to the Phra Khanong Skytrain station when I had a near death experience. I looked left and it was perfectly safe to cross as I was well clear of a distant taxi. The taxi driver only had to maintain his speed and direction and I could cross safely without inconveniencing him.

But did he maintain his speed? Oh no! Seeing a long-nose on the crossing ahead he accelerated hard, switched lanes and came straight at me, flashing his lights and hooting loudly. Had I not been agile enough to run for it, he’d have got me.

I’m really not sure what the law says about zebra crossings. Talking about traffic rules in Bangkok’s hardly relevant, I know, but drivers here do totally and absolutely disregard them. The pedestrian has no more priority than crossing anywhere else, only a fast-track stairway to heaven.

But why was that particular taxi driver so aggressive? What had he got against me? Were there extra points for knocking off a farang on a pedestrian crossing?

It’s said that tens of tourists die here every year from as they don't understand the dangerous reality of Thai zebras. Americans in particular with their high regard for jay walkers and the cost of liability insurance must get cut down in droves. They must wonder what exactly zebras in Thailand are for.

I guess somebody important once said that as of now Bangkok should have lots of pedestrian crossings, just as someone has recently decided that there should be cycle lanes. Sadly it appears they’ve failed to address the question of where to put them.

I have several mad tourist friends who cycle around Bangkok who've so far all survived to tell the tale, but being a long-term cyclist here is a death wish. At least you needn't bother about the pollution though… cyclists won’t live long enough for it to be a problem.

They’ve now painted some rather nice cycle lanes along the pavement in Sukhumvit Road where it’s swamped by the stalls of the tourist market. The bicycle motifs painted on the pavement are quite pretty when not covered with stalls or pushcarts and yes, it’s a lovely idea. Go green, get on yer bike, go bananas. Bangkok freestyle! I suppose it looks good on some departmental director’s annual report.

Trouble is, much of the time it’s difficult enough making headway through the market along Sukhumvit on foot and it’d be a real laugh to try it on a bicycle.

I’d thus like to ask the desk-based drongo who claims the credit for the extra miles of new cycle lane to come and ride them himself. He could also try jumping over the hedge at Suan Lum, if he survives the cycling that is.

No, Bangkok’s certainly amazing and never pedestrian. Bangkok, I truly love you. Well, I do when people aren’t trying to kill me and when I don’t truly loathe and detest you, that is!

As well as the zebras, there are elephants in this urban jungle and at night they have a flashing red light attached to their tails which you can see up ahead swaying from side to side. A year or two back new regulations were boldly announced that in the interest of the elephants, they were banning them all from Bangkok but strangely they’re all still here!

And so of course are the zebras.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Traffic Jam Now, Apocalypse Tomorrow

If you ask anyone from anywhere in the world what they most associate with Bangkok, they’ll probably say torrid women, temples and traffic jams. What a terrific reputation that is for a city to have!

I profess no knowledge of the first, but I do know that when I came here with my wife in the seventies the Bangkok traffic was horrendous. I remember one long stop-over on our way to Hong Kong when we decided to spend the day in the city centre. By the time the taxi had got us to the Grand Palace, there was about half an hour before we had to head back to the airport.

Would you believe it, a lot has been achieved since then and things are not nearly as bad as they were then. There’s plenty of ladies in Bangkok still but today the traffic sometimes actually moves and it’s not always total gridlock.

The traffic police deserve some of the credit for this achievement. Their suicide squads are always out there in the middle of the road facing the heat and fumes in their tight uniforms, waving their arms around to some effect. And at major intersections they manually operate the lights, stopping the traffic only after long intervals, thus maximizing the flow quite effectively.

I like the digital countdown displays too that are at big junctions telling you how long you’ll have to wait, thus alerting drivers to move off quickly when the lights change. The idea of having extra lanes going into town in the morning rush hour and only one coming out and vice versa in the evening also seems to work pretty well.

There’s plenty of new infrastructure since the seventies. The many expressways and overhead flyovers, sometimes creating eight lane highways, are quite phenomenal, and the new mass rapid transits are first rate. I love the Skytrain which whisks me silently above the toiling traffic on Sukhumvit road and the new underground railway is as slick and glossy as any in the world. It would now be chaos and the city intolerable without them!

Out towards the airport the stark gantries of a never to be completed rail link, a joint venture with Hopewell Holdings of Hong Kong, that fell victim to the ‘Asian crisis’ and currency collapse of 1997 stand witness to the fragility of progress in Bangkok. The political turmoil and coup of 2006 also threatened the new transport mega-projects that the former Thaksin regime hoped would power the economy through its second electoral term. Nonetheless the interim government has approved a number of these, so things have not totally ground to a halt.

One interesting new scheme, a plan that long ago was proposed by an Australian project manager but rejected at that time, is the so-called BRT or Bus Rapid Transit. Air conditioned buses will run on ‘dedicated lanes’, some of them newly constructed on overhead lanes at points of congestion. The buses are like a Skytrain but come down to earth in places where traffic flow permits, offering considerable flexibility at a much reduced cost.

Sadly it is reported (Bangkok Post, 12 November 2007) that of the eighteen companies expressing an interest in supplying 45 new buses for the scheme, not a single one in the event submitted a tender. Bangkok’s deputy governor expressed surprise at the lack of response, saying that perhaps the bidding terms were too strict or ‘someone does not want the project to succeed’.

While the BRT is much cheaper per mile than both the underground and the Skytrain which is currently being extended, all these mega-projects absorb vast sums of public money. The crux is that Bangkok is constantly growing and however much money is thrown at the problem, it will only get worse and worse. There may be traffic jams now but tomorrow it could be apocalyptic and the city near paralysis.

What is needed is some lateral thinking and an attempt to curb the monstrous growth of this unruly city. Could they not spend a little money on decentralizing government offices to the provinces? A policy of regional development offering incentives to setting up factories in provincial centres, would also relieve the pressure on Bangkok and help solve the problem of urban drift and migration from the countryside. Fundamental changes are surely essential even though inevitably such policies are only ever partially successful.

Then again one thinks of the need for traffic management schemes such as in Singapore and in London. Allowing citizens to drive alone into dense urban areas in a large metallic capsule of a ton or more is sheer madness. Driving into the Central Business District in Singapore incurs a charge unless there is more than one person in the car. On top of this, they long ago discouraged car ownership with penal taxation of new cars and tough incentives to scrap or export cars when they reach ten years.

London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone has more recently required all cars to pay a ‘congestion charge’ to drive into the city centre and while not solving all traffic problems at a stroke, this has generally been regarded as a success. It certainly took a lot of political courage and strength.

Bangkok needs something of the same though the odds are always against. It’s all about politics as the disruption caused by such changes is unpopular and loses votes. Anyway, the Thais are tolerant and can accept life’s traffic jam. Mai pen rai! It doesn’t really matter that much if you spend several hours a day steaming in a traffic jam if there’s nothing whatsoever you can do about it.

I can now think of some slightly bizarre lateral solutions to traffic problems that would be less intrusive than traffic exclusion schemes. For example, if there are traffic jams, perhaps it’s because there are too many unnecessary journeys.

The worst traffic I’ve ever encountered was in Lagos, the capital of Nigeria. They tried banning cars with odd or even registration numbers on alternate days which didn’t work very well, though it gave a lot of new business to the shops that printed number plates.

It was argued persuasively that the problem could be alleviated most quickly by improving the appalling telephone system. If people could actually speak to each other on the phone then they wouldn’t have to make that journey.

There was also a universal culture in Nigeria, peculiar to what we euphemistically call a developing country, that business, official and otherwise, can only be done if the supplicant goes and presents himself to the man in power to ask for his patronage and favours. Unless you actually go and grovel in person, nothing will ever get done.

To me Thailand doesn’t seem much further advanced in this respect which is dreadfully inefficient in every way, particularly as it generates road traffic. If there were a culture that it was normal to reply to letters and emails and if officials and businesses could be relied upon to deal promptly with correspondance, then millions of journeys would be saved.

The bureaucracy should also review its many regulatory procedures and requirements and cut them down to the essential minimum. For example, for me as a foreigner to get married in Thailand, I had to produce a duly annointed ‘Affirmation of Freedom to Marry’, an unverified statement that I was not already married. Obtaining this piece of paper required me to make no fewer than twelve journeys to various offices in Bangkok, thus adding to the traffic jams and providing absolutely no assurance that I was not a dastardly bigamist.

Cutting red tape, streamlining regulations and official procedures, conducting more business by email and mail and the use of video-conferencing and home working where a computer is the essential tool would hugely add to efficiency and free up the roads a percentage or two. It would certainly be much cheaper than digging more undergrounds.

The present mid-century culture of business and bureaucracy in Bangkok maximizes journeys to the benefit only of the taxis, though their drivers have my admiration for surviving the traffic jams, in most cases, with such good humour.

How tough it must be to pay for fuel and the rent for the taxi and then to make a little on top, much of the time facing impenetrable traffic jams. Though of course nobody is exempt from this creeping urban sclerosis. The buses rattle by, old and smoky, the passengers standing shoulder to shoulder, the lucky ones sitting slumped forward, exhausted after a day’s work. That’s just the way Bangkok has always been.

For the poor Bangkokian, traffic jams are a torment that must push the hard working wage slave almost beyond endurance, yet somehow Bangkok people keep smiling. Somehow they seem to accept with good humour conditions that elsewhere would be regarded as being beyond the bounds of human tolerance.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

The Paradox of Fame

What must it be like to be famous like J.K. Rawlings? Now she’s written all those Barry Potter books, she can’t even go out in the street without being mobbed. That’s why as an author I’m keeping a low profile and not pushing my own novel, “Thai Girl” too hard.

I was in Bangkok at the bottom of Soi Thonglor the other day with Cat and friends and we’d just had one of those round Italian cheese things on toast when a tall Thai man came up and asked if I was the novelist, Andrew Hicks. He then asked if he could have his photo taken with me and as he was really pleasant and friendly, how could I say no.

At least I think that’s what happened… it was all done through Cat in Thai and she never explains things to me properly. I’m not sure who he was exactly but they all seemed quite excited about the whole incident and kept talking about tennis.

It’s happened to me like that once before when I got chatting to a nice English guy called Dave in Asia Books. He took our picture together and later emailed it to me. He’s kept in touch since then and I guess you could call him my fan club.

My novel’s done pretty well so I’m a bit nervous about getting sucked into the celebrity circuit like Rawlings has. Okay, my sales aren’t in the same league as the Bible and Shakespeare and I admit Rawlings has now sold more than me, but you never know what’s about to happen in the world of literature. This year’s Booker winner was a big surprise! Instant fame!

Everyone wants to be famous nowadays but when they make it as a celebrity, they can’t always deal with the downsides, like being mobbed in public all the time. That’s the paradox of fame.

Something surprised me once though. I was crossing the concourse at Paddington station in London and realized I was behind Norman Lamont, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was running for a train. He’s pretty distinctive as he looks like a badger in a suit but not a soul seemed to recognise him or even to turn their head.

On the other hand it must be tough as a politician if you can’t even take your trousers off without people gawping at your interstices. I was once in the changing rooms of a sailing club in Cowes disrobing for a race when I realized the hairy legs next to me belonged to the then serving Conservative prime minister.

I now know I could have been at risk in this predicament. I shouldn’t mention his name, but let me give you a clue… like J.F. Kennedy and Charles de Gaulle, he was the one they named London airport after. By chance, some years later I rode with him in the back of his chauffeur driven car (true!) but I didn’t have the nerve to tell him where we’d met before.

I know for a fact that J.K. Rawlings has had similar brushes with fame. By coincidence, she was at the University of Exeter in the South West of England at the same time as me, she a lowly undergraduate, I on the Parnassus of academe. We were even working in exactly the same place as Law and English Lit. were both housed in the Amory Building.

Just think… we might have passed each other in a crowded corridor, rushing not for a train but to a lecture. And of course she didn’t know who it was she’d just brushed shoulders with… she didn’t know it was me.

But that was years ago and I hadn’t yet written “Thai Girl”!

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Suvarnabhumi Or Bust!

When I lived in Singapore in the mid-eighties there was a massive building boom which caused a big labour shortage as the economy went high-tech, buoyed up by growing prosperity.

What appalled me was the site conditions the immigrant construction workers had to endure, men and women from poorer countries who were building Singapore’s glittering towers. Many were from Thailand, employed, exploited perhaps, on short term contracts, before being sent back home with what remained of their modest savings.

It now looks to me twenty years later as if working conditions in Bangkok are still every bit as bad. City construction workers are housed in shacks built of bamboo and corrugated iron thrown up amidst the dust and filth of the building site. These iron huts must be like ovens and all but intolerable, but then the men have little or no choice or control over their lives.

Once again they’re building like crazy in Bangkok too and one of the more unusual projects is the overhead railway which will connect to the spectacular new airport that opened to flights not so long ago.

It’s called Suvarnabhumi airport, though the name’s pronounced Suvarnhapoom, just to confuse foreigners. And it’s been a bit embarrassing too because there’ve been all sorts of problems like the taxiways sinking under the weight of the aircraft, and allegations of corruption (what’s new!) and, more seriously, dirty windows and too few toilets in the passenger lounges. But soon it’ll have a world class rail link into town.

Much of the structure of the new overhead railway is now in place and it looks most impressive. I watched the work from above as a lorry mounted crane offloaded some of the massive prefabricated concrete track bed sections. At dead of night these had been miraculously threaded through the streets of Bangkok by low loader and were now placed onto the ground in the flooded site. It was scary watching them swinging through the air dramatically lit by spotlights, the men walking underneath, wading through the mud and guiding them into place. Under such conditions, the potential for accidents must be high, but then the workers come cheap and can be replaced.

As always, their working conditions look poor. In their time off they cook and eat on site, finding a quiet corner to sleep or rest and chat with their friends. It’s disturbing to see them, ant-like, leading a precarious life amidst the brutal concrete megaliths, harsh symbols of an unforgiving world.

I also think of the first airline passengers on the new rail link who will soon cruise coolly into the city high above the workers in the streets below, oblivious to the hard lives of those who have built it. Within a country such as this, first and third worlds can co-exist alongside and in total ignorance of each other.

Most of the construction workers, particularly the worst paid ones, are migrants from Isaan, the poor North East of Thailand. They stream into Bangkok in their hundreds of thousands in search of a tenuous life as there’s no longer a livelihood for them in the countryside. Here they provide a vast pool of cheap labour that is essential to maintain vested interests and keep the comfortable middle classes supplied.

Cheap labour is just as much a natural resource as a nation’s oil deposits, but unlike oil the cost of labour in Thailand is not going up. On the contrary, increasing fuel prices are making the lives of the have-nots ever more difficult day by day.

Living costs here are not so low any more and I wonder how a family with small children can survive when a monthly wage is as little as five thousand baht. Life is tough for so many ordinary Thais, a real struggle for all except the fortunate few.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Sex And The City of Angels

Count the ladies!

Bangkok is sometimes called 'The City of Angels' though you'll have one devil of a job finding any angels. It's sometimes said that in this bizarre city half the women are pros and half the men cons, but the problem's telling them apart... I mean the women from the men that is. Trouble is they always have this wonderful sweet smile.

Never mind, mai pen rai; if you can't beat'em, join em... sod'em for Gomorrah you die. Yes, it can be a fun place as me and my friend Peter recently discovered late one night somewhere in the back streets of Bangkok.

The above pictures are the world's first 'Count the Ladies' competition. After you've had a shot at it, you'll find the correct answer if you scroll down and read the blog below, 'Illusion, Fantasy, Fleeting Images'.

These pics illustrate the story of what happened to us that night, with thanks and kind acknowlegements to Pete's photographer wife, Laylai.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Illusion, Fantasy, Fleeting Images

For the Thais personal appearance is everything. They judge all foreigners by how we look, by our dress, our cleanliness, our manners. And they’re crazy about good looks too. Looking good’s really important to the Thais.

Thus, although Thailand isn’t the richest of places, it has the most developed cosmetic surgery industry anywhere in the world. All the glossy magazines are full of ads showing ‘before and after’ buttocks and boobs and many a sweet little turned up nose get’s remodelled as a bird-like beak because they don’t like their noses too flat, too ‘Lao’. Yes, they always go for the Euro-look in everything and eyelid tucks making the eyes less oriental are always popular.

Images of European faces are used everywhere in consumer advertising, unattainable images even for a European, and a high proportion of Thai soap stars, both male and female are of mixed parentage. That way the starlet gets the desirable looks of a foreigner without actually being one.

The biggest no-no is dark skin, a phobia which amounts almost to an apartheid. If there are two pretty sisters, one who’s pale skinned, the other dark, their lives will most likely follow different paths. The light skinned one is worth educating as she can go on to work as a hotel receptionist, in a smart department store, in a bank. The other will struggle at the bottom end as she looks too like a peasant farmer. Many better jobs will not be open to her and she’ll end up in the sweat shops making shoes, cooking food in the street, cutting up chicken in an ice cold factory. Her only way up could be to work in the bars of the tourist places where the farang drink as the farang seem to like these ‘ugly’ women.

The Thais always demand white skin and when it comes to image, they also like girls, not women. They adore the cuddly, the quaint, the cute plaything. They love soft toys, kids dressed to kill, fluffy toy dogs and fluffy toy females, undemanding, sweet and disposable.

You’ll see these girls in the TV soaps, impossibly pretty but equally obnoxious. You’ll see them dancing in frothy pink dresses on stage in every TV show and at every festival throughout the country. Though the music’s wild and the dancing suggestive, they’ll be there at every big wedding, at commercial promotions and even at village temples and in schools. The school kids are made up like adult dolls and gyrate and grind suggestively. It’s surprising that sexy dancing and aerobics seem to be on the national curriculum but then the rules are written by the men. Sadly Thai classical dancing has gone backstage and dancing girls are now as universal as som tam and cola.

Thailand has a clear and unbending gender hierarchy too with men on top and the women beneath, followed in third place by a huge multitude of gender benders. Thai ladyboys are tolerated as a diverting laughing stock and with this duty to entertain, they’re always out there dancing with the best of them.

While Cat and I have been in Bangkok our old friend, Peter arrived from Si Saket, so he and I got together for a drink at his hotel in Saphan Kwai. It’s a smart modern tower block with international standard hotel rooms and a dark restaurant in the subterranean style the Thais often seem to like. In the daytime it’s about as welcoming as the grave so Peter and I went and sat outside on hard seats made from dismembered ox carts, the traffic flowing past us as we emptied a bottle or three.

As expats do, we expatiated at length, catching up on what each has been doing in our parallel lives. Peter tells me he’s selling up in England without regrets, happily disposing of all the accumulated possessions of a lifetime. I say I’m more reluctant to let go of the trappings of my past life which then leads us into Buddhism which Peter’s been reading about recently.

It seems to be a very un-western philosophy, that everything in life is illusory, impermanent, unsatisfactory. Desire is the cause of human suffering and only if you renounce all worldly things, thus denying the self, can you achieve enlightenment.

What about my human rights, I ask Peter, my individuality, my own self-determination? But it’s all too serious as the alcohol’s slowing my brain and I switch off and bow to Bacchus. We westerners always get it wrong it seems. ‘I think too much, therefore am not.’

Talking of desire, Peter tells me that displayed in the hotel lobby are some photos of a troupe of ladies both wearing and not wearing flouncey pink dresses. I go to have a look and yes, they’re giving a cabaret later that night. As Peter and I are curious and have yet to renounce the world, we’re quite tempted to stay up after bed time and wait for the show.

We eat in the restaurant, stabbing forks blindly in the dark as they’ve turned off the lights, a successful policy to drive away dinner guests. The other disincentive to disturbing the cooks is that as well as not being able to see, we can’t hear anything either. On an elaborate stage at one end of the room the hotel’s ‘professional’ karaoke singers are singing dreary, repetitive songs with the volume turned up, thus precluding any further discussion of Buddhism.

The female singers are faded mutton in frilly nighties, white legs nipped by the air conditioning, the men sulky and serious in oversize suits from the sixties. Who’s listening anyway and it annoys me that they’re far, far too loud.

It seemed a very long wait but at the witching hour the dance troupe appears and bursts onto the stage in an explosion of sound and light. There are eight of them, stunning looking girls in frothy frocks, all long of limb and lash, resplendent in lip gloss and spectacular uplift.

And did they perform! It’s the show of their lives even though they outnumber the audience, and the singer, in Peter’s view, is one of the best he’d heard in Thailand.

The next act features much skimpier dresses, then followed by something completely different, a single singer, a grotesque. The girl’s as ugly as the others were sparkling. She’s in tight jeans cut short and a black bra and she looks four months pregnant, her hair in little-girl bunches, her face made up like a clown. I begin to wonder, but you can always tell a ladyboy by the voice and this girl is trilling like a teenager. Meanwhile the Thai waiters are laughing uncontrollably.

Now she’s camping it up and, gripping the cordless microphone she’s prancing off the stage still singing. Heaven forbid, she’s coming towards us! My heat misses a beat but thankfully she stops at another table and, throwing herself into the lap of a cartoon fat farang , wraps her arms around him and plants passionate kisses on his pudgy face. All the time her singing continues which is surprising as, like a ventiloquist, her lips aren’t moving and she’s glued to the man’s face.

Then there’s another dance by all the ladies, followed by a second gargoyle. And now I think I’m just beginning to get the picture.

When the troupe comes on again, it looks like the budget doesn’t stretch to any more costumes and they’re in bikinis, though some of them couldn’t afford the tops. I always thought Thai ladies were a bit short in the upstairs department but if these girls are typical, then I’ve got it very wrong. At least they’re slim hipped, though a couple are a bit hefty in the shoulders.

Now they’re all leaving the stage but the singing never stops. Yes, they’re coming round the tables and having their photos taken with the fans. I’m getting nervous again, especially when one of them leans close to my ear, puts her hand on my thigh and whispers in a surprisingly deep voice, ‘Tip, tip. Give me tip’.

It was thus an amazing evening, the ladies, the singing, the mammaries, all an illusion, a fantasy, mere fleeting images. So very Thailand!

Now suddenly they’re packing up and they’re gone, rushing on to galvanise the next sleepy hotel on their long schedule that night. Briefly there’s silence in the dark restaurant before the next tedious karaoke singer takes to the stage again and starts moaning interminably into the microphone.

I reflect that I’m lucky to have my own life and reality, even if sometimes life is a cabaret, a comedy even. For others like tonight’s dancers the illusion, the fantasy, the images are all too real. They’re at the bottom of the heap and for them cabaret is a life. Perhaps it's the best that society allows them.