Decade of Decadence
‘November 6th 1999 – somewhere in Sarth East Landan
Find dead rat behind fridge in a house we’re demolishing from the inside out; told to remove carcass. All these Victorian houses are being modernised. How did I end up here? I suppose this week will buy me a month where I’m going. Find family photo album of deceased family: depressing. Some guy assures me I can remove asbestos without safety equipment or masks, and he wheezes badly all the time. Dark all day today, pissing it down. Worked thirteen hours. I need to get back on the road.
Thailand tomorrow . . .’
November 7th 1999, ten years ago, I arrived in Thailand, a country I had chosen over – for no other reason than an English monarch’s mullet landing face up – my second choice, Honduras. I knew nothing about Thailand, had not yet been subjected to the country’s iconic marketing clichés such as the amazing Thai food, demure and beautiful Thai women, spectacular Thai beaches and fawning hotel hospitality… I knew very little about the country I was about to spend at least ten years in. Had I been privy to all those delectable adjectives beforehand, it wouldn’t have made any difference. ‘Be wary of adjectives’, that’s my motto. An older friend of mine had visited a Bangkok massage parlour in the late eighties and had got more than he had bargained for. (Reputedly) he had failed to recognise a long established Asian tradition when choosing his massage, concerning the rubdown’s coup de grâce. I thought back then, of his ‘traditional’ massage, that he had been quite adventurous allowing it to happen. Out there alone in the tropics traipsing the streets of a city that, I imagined at fifteen years old, might look like a post-apocalyptic slum replete with viperous two-headed beggars skulking beside corrugated iron shacks with polythene roofs, all filled with blind, ulcerated kids. I had to dispel, or possibly hone, this grubby fiction, and I came to Thailand to see for myself.
Some of my childhood misconceptions were erased when I first beheld Bangkok’s glitzy skyscrapers from the plane – though many were reaffirmed later as I witnessed the city’s festering viscera from the train. A bloke from Bristol, as I stood waiting for the airport bus, told me about a place called Khao San Road where “all the travellers went”, and so I agreed to go with him and we’d share a room, cut costs. We got along well, drank Chang beer all night and played pool in Gulliver’s Pub – all the time I was acutely aware of those guys sporting cheap ties, speaking what I didn’t know was rudimentary Thai to their gals; it was somehow enviable to me, being the outsider. About five in the morning my roommate came home covered in blood and fresh bruises, with knife cuts all over his body and a melon shaped head. In an attempt to ‘acquire contraband’ he’d been attacked by three ladyboys. They’d knifed him, smashed a bottle on his head, cut him with knives as they wrestled for his money, that was almost safe in his two hidden money pouches. Despite the transsexuals’ numbers advantage, with considerable effort (a reciprocated bottling) he saved one of the pouches. He said the police, for his trouble, had taken 400 baht from him. Good fiction, in my opinion, should get to you on the first page.
Things to Do
My first night in Chiang Mai was a staggering anti-climax. I’d read in Bangkok about Chiang Mai’s vibrancy, its neo-Lannaian daintiness, it’s ‘Best City’ epithet. So you can imagine my bewilderment as I crash-landed in the Night Bazaar amongst ersatz souvenirs unashamedly peddled by morose country folk to herds of old, ponderous, lacquered-haired white women and their chain-smoking husbands from the hinterlands of places like Lapland and Estonia. Was this Thailand’s equivalent to Milton Keynes or Port Charlotte, Florida? I walked amongst the aged who chugged along the jammed alleys spangled with golden amulets and irksome croaking frogs and thought if this is the cynosure of Chiang Mai tourism, then country road, take me… away. Though not far from the madding crowds, I found beer and veiled prostitution in large drafts. Are they real-life prostitutes? I thought. I’d never met one. They seem so normal, and so innocent. I didn’t expect hookers to be playing Connect Four. I was for the first time called a ‘handsome man’. I found ‘Spicy’, then called ‘Nice Illusion’ (which is such a better name considering its aptness) and began to understand the natural, nay primal, beauty of lax laws and the mayhem of life at 4 a.m. The more I saw of the city and its peripheries, I was smitten: my own private anarchy.
Dangers and Annoyances
If you can survive your first year in Thailand without having a serious motorcycle accident, losing a humble fortune to a malignant and equally shrewd femme fatale, drowning in a river, falling off a balcony, becoming infected with a totally disastrous disease or being stung by a giant centipede you’re mortally allergic to, then consider yourself a survivor.
I was hospitalised so frequently in those first few years my insurance company must have thought I was riding the wave of a chronic scam. “He’s back again,” the svelte nurses probably mused, with my tropical fungus, tropical mucus, tropical madness: psychosomatic disorders weren’t cheap to cure. It certainly took some time adjusting, learning what made me ill, what was bad for me, conjugating the verbs of what not to eat, to take, to imbibe, to date… In your first year, you’ll be sure to become acquainted – given you don’t live in a high(-so) castle – with the array of antibiotics the Thai medical profession likes to flaunt. I’m an expert in antibiotics now, a self-professed quack with a diploma in online pathology.
Dos and Don’ts
Thailand is no exception to any other culture when it comes to matters of societal decorum: there are a plethora of ‘bad words’ not to use; rectitude – though certainly laissez-faire by western standards – concerning picking your nose, farting, spitting, etc, exists, as do constraints on personal modesty, overt promiscuity, et al. But unlike other places I’d visited, what I quickly realised was that Thailand’s Dos and Don’ts chapter was interminable. It might have been called the ‘Thai Cultural Manifesto’ (one does actually exist under another name). ‘Thou doth protest too much?’ In fact, after learning of the myriad social faux pas here, I became quite agoraphobic, fearing I may give an old lady an aneurysm by merely offering her a banana. As a newbie I was assimilated, room 101-style, ad nauseam, by most folk with a basic command of moral English, the intricacies of being good, or polite, in Thailand. The paradox was that my training and its inherent principles, was an exceptionally poor representative of reality. What I’d learned in effect was a lesson in ‘pakchee roi naa’ as a Thai expression goes, alluding to facade, a la Potemkin village, not truth. It also seemed that so often those with the most to hide were the keenest to export their self-anointed virtue. Oh the hypocrisy! The duplicity! And my futile quest for truth began, and so did my wrestle with contemporary Thai unreality.
Making friends in Thailand is not easy so many expats stick to what they know, or who they know. British exponents of agro-culture, for instance, can all usually be found – often giving it ‘ard, or more likely being karate kicked to death by 18 dwarfish tuk-tuk drivers – within a mile’s vicinity on (the) Moon Muang Road. I quickly became familiar with the catalogue of expats in Chiang Mai: the grumblers, the shambles, the men and women of leisure, French welfare junkies, Japanese karaoke singers, lonely housewives, ex-public school boys, teachers, writers, sinners, players, caregivers, husbands of strippers. There are the traditionalists in their Lanna garb with their platitudes on good culture, extolling the merits of the never never beautiful past; then there are the busy revisionists rallying against corruption and human rights abuse; expats that are red, yellow, and even – back to the first example – political firebrands portentously dressed in black. We have everything. Within this rag-tag gang of humans on the run, it seemed there was some kind of intrinsic competiveness concerning what one knew or didn’t know about Thailand and Thai culture. The rabble (as oft mentioned in Thus Spake Zarathustra) would meet at the watering hole and share their arcane knowledge of the ‘culture’. They’d compare tales, compare lovers, compare damages, and vie for ascendance in the know-it-all register. Mispronunciations of Thai words might be jumped upon; syntax errors frowned upon; a factual error, pounced upon! It was a hard-knock life being schooled as an expat.
It’s not unusual to have a Thailand mid-life crisis, a juncture, where you might ask yourself daily, even hourly, what the hell am I doing here? Should I not get back home to a normal life? But leaving Chiang Mai, never easy. And as five years pass between haircuts, you can become inextricably enmeshed in this land that time forgot. I’ve heard people say after years living here, “Can I ever be normal again, after all this, like live a normal life?” The answer of course, is no. Once you’ve contracted Thai fever, it’s terminal, and the best way to live with an illness, with an injury, is to adapt to it. I’ve seen expats smiling bovinely while being pushed in front of in queues; I’ve witnessed expat insouciance as he pays his two grand late check-in fine at immigration; I’ve seen expats phlegmatic in the face of a slow internet connection. This is barely possible in the beginning. Now whether all the angst is merely repressed and waiting to be manifested as a bullet to someone’s head, well, that’s another tale. The point is, we adapt. If we don’t, we go mad, we drink ourselves to death, or we simply go home to the ‘normal’ world. “Life is chaos,” said Buddha: you might wonder if in Thailand this has become a self-fulfilling prophecy! Thailand, to my thoughts, is like a theme park I entered a decade ago. It’s called ThaiWorld, or better still, ThaiLand, amazing for reasons I’ve never seen printed on a billboard.
Aldous Huxley in his discourses on psychotropic drugs, mainly ‘The Doors of Perception’, said we perceive not what is, but what we are programmed to see, this is a matter of survival. Remove the lens, step out of the cave (Plato), and a new world opens up to you. Life through a camera obscura: all about the images projected, not the actual objects; this for me, sums up life in Thailand. But maybe this is life everywhere – Hindu philosophy states as much – and maybe it’s taken my time here in Asia to realise my ‘unreal’ potential. I’ve learned, while living here, how to play life, play work, play relationships, not take myself too seriously, not take anything too seriously. I’m playing magazine right now, I played doctors and nurses earlier this week… Maybe I’ve been here too long, that’s what I’m often told by some of my more rational friends. Maybe I’ve been brainwashed, hoodwinked by my own propaganda; maybe I’m a casualty of a few Thai sirens’ seductive spells, or just a causality of too much easy decadence, liberating irresponsibility. All I know is I can’t get off this ride, not just yet; this is a trip I don’t want to end.