Thursday, August 26, 2010

Welcome to Bangkok

I love being a tour guide.

Francois and Danielle and their daughter Zoe stopped off in Bangkok last weekend on their way home to Paris after a month in Vietnam.  Nan and I met them at the Navalai, a boutique hotel I had recommended on the Chao Phraya River not far from Khao San Road and our own apartment, and we took them to dinner at the cavernous barbecue restaurant across the river for a little different experience of Thai food, one usually left out of the cook books.  My reward comes when visitors realize that Bangkok is not just a big city with bad traffic jams and polluted air and water, but a vibrant metropolis with exotic scenes and adventures around every corner.

My tours always involve a lot of walking.  After dinner the first night we strolled down Khao San Road to see the perpetual carnival of backpackers.  The several stalls selling fake IDs surprised them by even offering a fake degree from the Sorbonne in Paris.  The next morning we walked through Thammasat University and into the amulet market where monks and laypeople examined the small wares on display with magnifying glasses as if they were valuable stamps.  Passing the walls of Wat Mahathat, we turned right at Sanam Luang, the large parade ground that is under renovation for the next year, and the magnificent Grand Palace came into view.  We looked inside one gate in the wall, large enough for an elephant to pass through, and I explained that the entrance fee of 350 baht for tourists (free for Thais) was too rich for my blood.  Besides, Wat Pho next door was more interesting.  It contains the giant gold reclining Buddha, one of the city's more spectacular icons, and a number of colorful temples and chedis or stupas.  From there we walked through the dried fish market and got on a river taxi at Tha Tian Pier.  We disembarked at Saphan Taksin Bridge and took the Skytrain, with its elevated views of the skyline of Silom and Sathorn,  to National Stadium, the BTS stop for the giant MBK shopping center.  It was time for lunch and my destination was MBK's cheaper food court where the selection was more traditional and less gourmet that the other, pricier food court.  My guests were delighted, except for Zoe who had ordered number 12 on a menu but got something completely different.  After eating, we strolled through a few of the seven MBK floors, looking for jeans for Zoe and an iPhone to replace the one Francois lost in Vietnam.  Then we walked up Phaya Thai Road and got into a boat on the Saen Saep Canal for a fast and splashy ride that few tourists take.  We got out near the Golden Mountain temple and walked across the bridge to Ratchadamnoen, the broad boulevard King Chulalongkorn modeled after the Avenue des Champs-Élysées he saw in Paris in the 19th century. The new Rattanakosin Museum was unfortunately closed, so we ended the day's tour at a secluded coffee house behind Khao San Road.

Our friends were off the next morning for the 11-hour flight home.  Before their visit, the big event of last weekend was a birthday party for a friend of Nan's from her school days in Phayao.  It was to be a reunion of people now working in Bangkok that she had not seen for several years, a party of some significance for her.   She wanted to show off her farang.  The day before, I met her after work at Central Pinklao and we went to the gold shop where we were remembered as a good customer.  I bought a ring which would match the diamond on Nan's finger to tell her friends that we were married.  When Francois asked, I told him we were married "informally," without ceremony.  Thais recognize people that live together as husband and wife.  The birthday party was held at a large karaoke center in Sukhumvit with numerous sound-proofed rooms for private parties, dozens of shoes outside each door.  We were liberally supplied with delicious Thai food, whiskey and mix, and a non-stop selection of loud sing-along videos, in Thai of course.  I'd been nervous about meeting Nan's peers but they were welcoming and friendly and several wanted to try out their English.  A couple worked for Japanese companies and one woman was a prostitute who bragged about leaving a man from Singapore at his hotel to come to the party.  Several had lovely voices and a couple could not sing on key.  After a couple of hours Nan was ready to go home, happy to have seen her friends and even happier to be my wife.

The party and the visit of my friends from France were a welcome distraction from continuing financial and legal problems.  The English class I had been teaching two nights a week at my university's Language Center in Wang Noi, an hour out of the city, was canceled because only one student had paid the fees (and a minimum of 12 were needed).  Now I am struggling to get paid for the classes I did teach.  The interview I had to teach tutorial classes to Thais applying to enter western universities did not apparently bear fruit.  Fortunately I am scheduled to teach English on four Saturdays next month to a group of graduate students in public administration.  But the hourly rate I was originally quoted has been cut in half (a clerical error, I was told).  The teacher who hired me for that job requested a curriculum vita so he could secure me a position at that school as a "special" (a euphemism for over retirement age) lecturer.  When the second school year term begins in December at the school where I have been teaching for nearly three years, I'm hopeful that I might get more classes.  All of this may help to keep the wolf away from my door for a few months.

The news that my income has been cut off far away by bureaucrats (or maybe even a blind computer) who understand little about my life has been paralyzing.  I tackle the mountainous problem in brief flurries of activity separated by long spells of lethargy and ennui.  Letters remain unwritten, phone calls go unmade.  While I think of myself as in relatively good health, a spry old man for 71, I can imagine the difficulties this situation would cause for the elderly and infirm unable to understand and incapable of setting things right.  I'm told that a court case in November may result in a decision that could end the policy of suspending earned benefits.  Former friends who are lawyers fail to respond to my emails, a referral service for attorneys has no one who can take my case pro bono.  The appeals process to challenge the cut in benefits is confusing and complicated. I hesitate to begin it by myself.

While I'm tempted to feel sorry for myself, I also read about the plunge in the housing market in the U.S. and how many are losing their homes to foreclosure.  Politicians are zeroing in on Social Security like vultures around a promising meal and it's unlikely that our children will even receive one check after they retire.  Too many are out of a job in America and some have even given up on looking as factories move their manufacturing overseas where desperate people work for slave wages.  I am surrounded by the most abject poverty in Thailand and every day see evidence of the struggles people go through to survive that make my worries seem petty by comparison.  This is the time that challenge one's faith in the future, in goodness, in interdependence, in compassion and kindness.  Here in Thailand, hundreds of people are in jail for their political views, held without trial for months, threatened with the death penalty for what the government deems "terrorism." Meanwhile, I live like a king on the 9th floor of a luxury condo, surrounded by books, music and a wealth of riches on the internet.  What me worry?


Janet Brown said...

Lovely piece, Will.

Sam Deedes said...

It is true that Thais accept as married, couples who go through the "sin sot" ceremony but they remain unmarried in Thai law (or any other, for that matter). A legal Thai marriage at a local amphur, on the other hand, is very informal and costs less that 1000 Baht. Mine had the effect of focusing my mind and pushed me into finally drawing up a proper will.

(At one stage I had two folders named "will" until I changed one to Dr Will to avoid confusion!)

The money side for people our age is a continual challenge and demands careful stewardship, for the sake of both ourselves and our families. There is no doubt that Thailand is a poor man's paradise on many levels. If we can no longer afford to live like kings we can always live like princes, and if that doesn't work then living like a streetwise Thai won't kill us.

That said, Bangkok remains an expensive slice of Thai life (and a potentially dangerous one?). Hobby's recent comment about relocating to the cheaper environs of places like Chiang Mai (or in my case Nong Khai) continues to appeal as a medium to long term strategy.

Anonymous said...

a great piece.

Having your health, loved ones, friends, a roof over your heads, and your wits/humor ... things to surely count your many blessings.

Anonymous said...

Will, where was that photo taken [of the couple soaking their feet in a pool of water] ?

Seems interesting. I perhaps would like to visit someday.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. Thanks for this.

All the best, Boonie

mark2u said...

Hey Will:

So happy to once again find your blog... which I could not for months ...and I worried about you thinking the gov't cut you off for your coverage of politics... or worse. So it's a relief to see you back in print... in spite of the setbacks you describe and the complimentary big picture view.