While most of us are hunkering down, passports hibernating in our desks, with no glimmer of hope for international travel in the foreseeable future, Chiang Mai masseuse Chonlada ‘Nong’ Leeveekul, 51, is about to apply for her visa and getting ready to pack her bags.
Nong has adult children and an ex-husband who is out of the picture, “which means I can do whatever I want”. For many years she worked at Golden Massage on Soi 3 Nimmanhaemin Road. Three years ago a friend invited her to work at a Thai traditional massage spa in Istanbul.
“I had never left Thailand before and I was so excited and nervous,” she said of her first trip abroad. “I was also worried about the legitimacy of this offer as it sounded so good. But thankfully it was what we call a ‘white’ job; legit.”
Three years ago Nong arrived in Istanbul and immediately felt at home.
“There is a massive Thai community there,” she said of her time in Turkey. “Thousands, maybe tens of thousands,” she added.
Nong worked, saved money, and enjoyed travelling to Greece and other surrounding countries, saying that her favourite part of living in Turkey was the cold, especially the snow, which she says she misses.
“After the first year our employers bought plane tickets for us to come home for the holiday,” she said. “They treated us all so very well. When I returned to Turkey after my visit I decided to work for two years solid and not come home because I wanted to buy a house.”
Last year Nong became a first time home owner.
Then the pandemic hit.
“Everything shut down immediately and there was no job, no income and we were all very worried,” she said. “But you can ask every Thai person in Istanbul and they will agree with me, the Thai embassy was amazing. They kept us informed, they had hotlines to support us, they had all of our names and they would (through sponsorship from CP) send out lists of our names and times and places where we could pick up supplies.”
Nong said that over the months of the shutdown the embassy reached out to each Thai individual many times with information how they could collect their food parcels which comprised, “Grade A jasmine rice, whole chickens, oil and other necessities. We didn’t feel as though we were alone.”
Nong finally decided to return in November after many months of living off her savings, though she said that the Thai community was very supportive and shared their resources.
“When it was time to leave, the Thai embassy sent over a dozen or so staff to the airport to help facilitate our departure and help many of us with documents as most of us were overwhelmed by the process. There were also many who had overstayed their visas and had fines to pay. The embassy sorted it all out.”
Upon return to Thailand Nong went into quarantine in Chonburi province in what she called an excellent resort serving delicious food. After two weeks the Istanbul arrivals were put onto a bus which wended its way north, dropping off people at various provinces along the way. She spent a week resting and catching up with friends and family before returning to her old job at Golden Massage.
Just a few weeks ago Nong heard from her employers in Turkey; they were ready to have her back.
“I loved living there and I think I am going to go back in the next few weeks,” Nong said. “I had a real problem with the men in Istanbul, many of we Thai women did. Our smiles were often misinterpreted as come-ons, so we had to stop smiling. But other than that I loved the cold, I loved how much money I could save and I really love all the cream products which I bought wholesale to sell back in Thailand.”
Nong is now happy to be home, but she said that she is also ready to leave.
“What I love is the fact that all my earnings have come from my – literal – two hands,” Nong grins with pride while showing off photos of her life in Istanbul. “I don’t need any man to help me, my two hands can support me and mine and that is a great feeling. I am ready to get back there to work and play in the snow!”