Archive for April, 2008
Today I have an appointment with my drug-dealer. A very nice lady who roasts the best coffee bean combination I have found and conveniently also owns a polo park close to Pattaya.
On the way I am buzzed by squadrons of motorcyclists sporting banners extolling the benefits of candidate number one in the upcoming elections for major. She looks very cute in a helmet that is for sure, and I decide that I would give her my vote if I had the chance.
Collect the drugs, a kilo of the best beans and they smell so good. On the way home I drive past my favourite lake which is littered with temples, there is a storm brewing.
Down to my windsurfing club to discover I have missed the wind. Pissed off, I wander around watching some guys catch what is left.
Tomorrow is an important day in the calendar, and I am not talking about the release of a service pack for Windoze XP (yawn). Tomorrow sees the release of Grand Theft Auto IV, probably the greatest game ever created. Not surprisingly, the New York Times can summarise it better than I can: “a violent, intelligent, profane, endearing, obnoxious, sly, richly textured and thoroughly compelling work of cultural satire disguised as fun. It calls to mind a rollicking R-rated version of Mad magazine…and sets a new standard for what is possible in interactive arts.” A long way from Pong and Card Patience then.
I have played the previous incarnations of GTA, to the detriment of relationships and health, and I look forward to losing months of my life to this latest offering. I have pre-ordered from Hong Kong, booked delivery by courier, and I am praying that the God of Gaming will ensure my copy is on a plane tomorrow.
My frustrated anticipation is not helped by an e-mail from my son informing me that his company has just taken delivery of six special edition copies and he has just popped out to buy a replacement Xbox 360 to ensure that his planned evening of entertainment is not spoiled. He works for Natural Motion, which sounds like a laxative company but which is responsible for the very clever Euphoria.
My very clever son has been working with the developers of GTA over the last year to implement Euphoria in the game and is now enjoying the publicity and the launch parties. If he had been a world-class brain surgeon I would have been less proud of him than I am now. And grateful too, he has promised me some stickers.
She who must be obeyed decided that today we would go to Chatuchak market in Bangkok.
Chatuchak is the largest outdoor market in the world (according to the Thais), and it is certainly big enough for me. I have visited many times over the years and failed to see all of it; and it keeps expanding so I will never catch up. More than 35 acres, more than 15,000 stalls; this is a place to visit early while it is comparatively cool and there are less people around. So I am kicked out of bed at 0600 and by 0630 we are on the road and up to Bangkok and parking at the market by 0800.
A friend of the wife had been collected along the way; so after a cup of iced Thai coffee (a real caffeine kick), I leave them to their bargain hunting and wander around with the camera. There are regions of the market which theoretically specialise in certain types of product; but you find assorted weird stuff all over the place. Some of my experiences are captured below.
I am sure these are your size sir……
A train set and a suitcase full of toys:
Reflections in an unusual mirror:
Wanna buy a loofah?
Statues and customers:
A simple act of giving:
Message and a boat and a house, in a bottle:
These are frozen lollipops which the boy rotates to aid the freezing process. In the background, a little ogling is going on…
This sounded bloody awful:
I stumbled over a cock-fight in small alley. I soon got some looks that said I should not be there.
Food and shopping, Thai heaven. This is one of the snacking areas:
Do you eat these or keep them as pets. I didn’t dare to ask:
Clearly these are for eating. The man on the right looks like it has consumed a litter recently. Notice one trying to escape:
Some small crabs in the green bucket, who would buy these? Some weird fish being haggled over:
Stick this lot in your ears and you will look beautiful:
After an agreed, absolutely firm, deadline of three hours shopping, we left Chatuchak after more than four hours and returned home with assorted bags of rubbish (from her) and some average photos (from me). Spent the evening processing, hope you like them.
The morning starts with a trip out for a cup of coffee. This should take no more than an hour. But it turns out that our trip is to take a little longer than anticipated when my wife announces, mid-cappuccino, that we are going to her university to drop off some papers, a round trip of around three hours. This is one of the occupational hazards of having a Thai wife; you are drip-fed your duties, especially if there is a suspicion that you will not greet them with enthusiasm. Which I didn’t.
Of course the trip to the University had to be combined with a stop for shopping at the local market. This was a good thing because this particular market specialises in a particularly yummy snack. Take some sticky rice, add assorted extra bits and ram the concoction down a length of bamboo. Cook it over an open fire and the results looks like guerrilla warfare munitions, but are actually tasty nutrition.
On the way home I spot some sunflowers by the side of the road and stop for some photos. Turns out that sunflowers are not really at the side of the road but are at the bottom of steep bank, and they are surrounded by high grasses. I descend cautiously and I think “snakes.” Then my foot slips on a rock and one leg disappears down a hole, and the only thing that stops the rest of me following is the trunk of a bush which takes up immediate residence in my genitals. I think “castration”, and then think that maybe I will be stuck there for hours which is a bit of a worry because the genital attack has prompted an urgent need to attend to my bowels.
Some delicate wriggling and I make the comparative safety of a rock and get a few pics. Climbing back up the bank I notice I have attracted the attention of a group of Thais who are no doubt wondering why a crazy foreigner is messing about in the infamous genital removing snake pit.
Later on I take a stroll down the beach and find a single, rotting shoe. Feeling that this is somehow indicative of the human condition, I take a photograph. Later discover that it just indicative of a very average photo of a shoe. I convert it to monochrome in the hope of appearing arty, but it still looks crap.
The concept of “face” is an important aspect of Asian cultures, and it is certainly something you have to manage when you live in Thailand. Make someone else lose face and you can gain an enemy; lose face yourself and you lose respect. The Thais, being the hospitable people that they are, do their best to make sure you don’t lose face; and this can lead to some embarrassing situations if you are not aware what is happening.
My first exposure to this was more than twenty years ago in Brunei. I was flown in, my first trip to Asia, to run a three day training course. It went really well, or at least so it seemed. Every hour or so I asked whether everyone understood and the answer was always “yes.”
At the end of the three days I gave them a series of exercises to do and it became clear that I had failed to teach them a bloody thing. But if they had told me, they would have lost face for not learning, and I would have lost face for being a crap teacher. So everyone smiled and nobody learned anything; apart from me who learned you never take “yes” for an answer in Asia.
And so to Thailand where I have been spectacularly useless at learning the language, a fact which causes me endless guilt. So my dealings with my host country have to be conducted in English and I have learned on many occasions that when you ask someone something and they say “yes”, more often than not that means that they have no idea what you just said, but that saying “yes” and smiling will certainly be the most face-saving response all round, and maybe will be enough to make you just go away.
So I was on my guard when I made a call to my insurance company today. I only have about five bills a month to pay, it really is very simple. But in spite of the inherent simplicity, I invariably manage to cock things up. In this case I was sure I had somehow managed to pay my motor insurance last month, but I had no record of doing so. There was no way out, I had to have a conversation; and it went like this:
Me: Sawadee krap (I always start with one of my few Thai expressions, just to throw them off guard). Is that the XYZ insurance company.
I would like to check whether you have received payment for my car insurance renewal?
But wait, there’s a difference. The first yes was confident, affirmative and came from someone who was quite sure I was indeed calling the XYZ insurance company. The second yes was delivered after too long a pause and was said in the manner of someone who has just been given a sealed box and was being asked whether they wanted to open it; and they suspected it just may be full of poo. Time for a re-confirmation question.
So, you have definitely received my payment?
What’s your fax number?
Aha, the usual tactic. If “yes” doesn’t work, offer back a question of your own.
Why do you want my fax number?
Silence… followed by:
hold the line please
And so to the next popular tactic, get rid of the person you don’t understand and pass him on to someone else.
After a minute or so of depressing jingles, a new voice:
Hello sir, how can I help you?
Speaking slowly and with some restraint:
I would like to check whether you have received payment for my car insurance renewal.
Pause… Yes. What’s your fax number?
Please, I just want to know if you have received the payment.
So, you really have received the payment?
Thank you, I will send you a cheque immediately.
They were just trying to be nice, and I really should speak the language; but you can see why I try to avoid phone conversations.
Apart from Go-Go bars, we have a race track. It has seen better days and is unlikely to feature on the Formula One calendar anytime soon; you are more likely to see pick-up truck racing where exhaust fumes are used to confuse the opposition.
Those who prefer their thrills to come on two wheels can sign up for a three day event with Highside Tours and thrash a racing bike round the track. For those of a pessimistic nature, you will be comforted to know that the first accident comes for free and there is an ambulance into which your remains can be loaded.
This is a good event to photograph as you can stand anywhere you like, none of this safety barrier nonsense. So today I went and poked a lens at some of the bikes.
One of those involved with Highside has become bored with the mundane activity of risking his life just driving around a track. His name is Jimmy but to protect is anonymity I will call him Jim. Jimmy, sorry, Jim has previously demonstrated the fine art of wheelies:
and the environmentally friendly practice of tyre destruction (a.k.a. burnouts):
Today he decided to do wheelies again, but to spice it up a little he put a bag over his head. He was surprised to discover that this “limited his vision” to the extent he could see his handlebars but not walls or fences or other stuff that it might be useful to be aware of before they impeded forward progress with extreme prejudice.
Clearly the bag did not do the trick in terms of adrenaline production and he is already planning his next stunt, something involving fire and recreational explosives. Watch this space.
Car wash day. Something I used to enjoy doing myself on a Sunday morning in cooler climes, but in Thailand this is definitely a task to be sub-contracted. Given that all you need to set up a car wash business is a small piece of land, a supply of water and some lads with semi-clean rags; there is a plentiful supply of establishments, all eager to throw water over your car.
Sadly they all have one thing in common; give them your car for forty minutes and they will bugger it up. The only driving that needs to be done is to move the car about three metres from the parking bay to the washing area, and then back again. Apparently this cannot be accomplished unless the seat is adjusted to suit the invariably midget sized individual tasked with moving the cars. He also finds it necessary to adjust both wing mirrors and the central rear view mirror. The radio must be re-tuned to a station playing Thai country music and the volume must be left on full to amuse the owner when he returns to the car and is blasted back in his seat when he turns on the ignition. I have even had the steering column height adjusted on occasions.
Still, it’s good to know that the boys are sitting comfortably when they drive my car for ten seconds, and it only takes me for ever to put it all back to my settings again once they are done. And in their favour, I must admit they do an excellent job. Every piece of the exterior is gleaming and the inside smells like a cheap Turkish brothel (someone told me how they smell); but at least it is clean. And the cost for this wash and tidy-up is around 140 baht (US$4). What a rip-off, I could buy five substantial meals for that.
One of the little miracles of Thailand is the efficiency with which messes are tidied up. The Songkran war results in mountains of rubbish, all of which is cleared away overnight by an unseen army of no doubt underpaid and exploited cleaners.
But just as things are looking tidy, or at least as tidy as it ever gets, along comes the next polluter of the landscape, the election campaigns for a local major. This is a very popular position as it comes with the responsibility for pitching large, ludicrous and impossibly expensive projects to central government. The resulting funds are then spent partially on the proposed projects, with most of the money then disappearing into the pockets of the major and his cronies. Allegedly.
In the run up to the elections, which take place early next month, we are treated to thousands of advertising billboards showing the faces of the hopeful candidates and their number on the voting sheet; never mind the policies, just remember the number. Actually I don’t think there are any actual policies, and whatever is promised is never delivered anyway, so in that respect they are the same as politicians worldwide.
The photographs are always heavily Photoshopped, so each candidate appears partially mummified, only the avarice gleaming in the eyes provides an indication that we are not viewing a well-presented corpse.
The current major laid much emphasis on road improvement, presumably these represent creatively lucrative contracting possibilities. One of his excellent initiatives can be seen in the photo, the widening of a fairly major road near my abode. They started the widening a couple of years ago by digging holes on either side of the road. Last year they filled them in with mud. This year they have done nothing, the mud is washing away, the road edge is crumbling, and we are left with a road which is not as wide as it was when the major came to power.
Still, the excellent new mud road provides an ideal location for planting billboards for the next major who will solve the problem by building a flyover which won’t be completed either.
Infrastructure; we have it but it ain’t quite finished yet.
Songkran is the Thai new year. For many people in the world it is 2008 but for the Thais it is already 2551. They flocked to see “2001, A Space Odyssey” expecting to see a medieval epic.
Not content with having a different year numbering system, they also decide to have their new year celebrations in April, even though the year number changes on 1st January. This was a good idea because it means that the Thais can have two new year parties every year; and there is nothing a Thai likes more than a good party.
Traditionally, Songkran was celebrated by paying respect to elders, lightly splashing some clean water over the shoulder and dabbing the face gently with talcum powder. That may still happen in some parts of the country; but in the cities we are treated to a week of aquatic warfare.
The light splashing is replaced by near drowning with buckets, hosepipes and water pistols filled with water of dubious quality, preferably iced for maximum discomfort.
The assault vehicle of choice is a pick-up truck carrying a large bucket of filthy water and a large number of dubious characters with assorted water weaponry. It is preferable that they all be drunk so that the driver of the truck does not feel that he is the only one.
Thousands of these trucks descend upon the streets from dawn to dusk to do battle with each other and with the people who line the streets to join the the “fun”. This is obviously too enjoyable to be restricted to a single day, so neighbouring towns specify specific days for their event, and the truckloads of soaking drunks attempt to travel to each town on the appropriate day. In reality, we get a full week of disruption when it is not safe to walk on the street in case some idiot mugs you with bucket; with one particular day when everything stops and water-based civil war breaks out.
It was Pattaya’s turn yesterday. We got stuck in the traffic for two hours. Saw one drunk drive his pick-up drive into another pick-up which had already been abandoned because the tyre was flat and nobody was sober enough to change it. Spotted a couple of fights and a transvestite in a very wet dress.
I think the latter was the high point of my day. That and knowing that the whole stupid affair was about to be over and we could go back to what passes for normality around here.