My first time in Thailand
In 1973, I visited Thailand for the first time as a stopover on my way to Singapore. On the plane I read a book of its history.
In 1942, the Japanese forced Thailand to formally declare war on Britain and the United States. General Phiboon, the crafty Thai Prime Minister, sent a nod and a wink to his ambassadors in the USA and Britain suggesting they should refuse to recognize their own government’s declaration of war on the Allies. General Phiboon then allowed his arch political rival, Pridi Phanomyong, to slip out of the country to go and see Churchill and Roosevelt. Mr Phanomyong explained to them that the Thais were only siding with the Japanese through necessity; they really wanted to fight with the allies. He then went to India and formed a Free Thai force, which trained and fought alongside the British.
In one slick move, General Phiboon had rid himself of his greatest political rival and also saved himself from retribution by the allies should they win the war. Two centuries earlier, it had been the same mastery of playing one side against the other that had kept Thailand from ever being colonised. The king had played a magnificent double game with the French and English, ceding them small unimportant parts of the country over which they could argue between themselves rather than attacking Thailand.
The Thai’s mastery of this style of diplomacy was riveting. I became an avid fan. It seemed extraordinarily similar to the way I’d always managed difficult situations and people. Previously I’d thought Thailand was nothing but golden palaces and smiling dancing girls. Now I was thoroughly won over.
I arrived in Bangkok round midday and got to my hotel in mid-afternoon. I slept for a while then woke up and read some more of the history book. I now learnt that Thai’s transition to a tourist destination started with the Vietnam war. The Americans used Bangkok as a centre for ‘rest and recreation’. Bangkok soon had the reputation as a ‘sex paradise’. But - the book emphasised - this was a title unfairly given. To Thai people it was more a matter of giving the visitors what they wanted. Had the Americans wanted cream teas or snooker bars in which to play pool, the Thais would have been just as adept at providing them. Prostitution was simply a matter of showing kindness to a tired visitor, not a lowering of moral standards.
By now it was nearly 9pm. I half wanted to get up and go out to see Bangkok’s famous night life, half wanted room service and some more sleep. My sense of adventure won and I dragged myself into the shower for a bit of reviving.
It was Friday night and the streets in Patpong, the nightlife area, were lined with noisy bars and blaring music. But rather than investigate I kept walking. Inside, I was sure there would be paunchy, beer-swilling men boasting about girls they’d screwed and arguing over football. Everything I hated most, so I pushed on along the pavement.
Having walked the length and breadth of Patpong I found a row of outside cafés, rather Parisian, in a small alleyway. This looked better, so I sat and ordered a glass of wine. The waitress was delightful but had never heard of wine. “You want beer?” she asked.
I suggested whiskey.
“Whiskey, no have,” she said, “only Chivas.”
I nodded rather than discuss the matter and she bought me whisky on the rocks. It was Scotch, but not Chivas, though it didn’t seem worth arguing about.
A young man at the next table smiled at me and pressed his hands together in a greeting. ‘Sawadee krup. Where you from?”
One of the travel books I’d been reading had warned me that most Thais speak very little English but have a charming repertoire of a dozen or so phrases that leave you convinced they’re almost fluent. And everyone has the very same stock phrases.
“I’m from England,” I told him.
“Oh, England. Very good people. What’s your name?”
I didn’t bother telling him that Pong wasn’t such a great name in English.
“What you do in Thailand?”
“I’m here on a stopover. Tomorrow I’m going to Singapore.”
“You like Thai food?”
“To be honest, I’ve never eaten any. I was planning to tonight.”
“I take you to good restaurant.”
It was a slide into inevitability; I now had a tour guide. But why not? I was only there for 36 hours and although I’d intended to see Bangkok night life I’d so far been unsuccessful due to my reticence about plunging in.
“Have a drink first,” I suggested. “What do you want?”
“Chivas coke,” he replied.
“Why Chivas?” I asked.
Later, I was to learn that in the early seventies Chivas did a big push into the Thai market. The end result was that Thai’s thought Chivas was the name for Scotch, like Hoover is used as the word for vacuum cleaner in Britain.
But back to Pong.
I guessed he was about thirty, but with the smooth skin that all Thais have, and sparkling smiling eyes. To Westerners he would pass as late teens.
“Do you like boy or lady?” he asked rather unexpectedly.
“I’m gay,” I said right out. “But I’m not looking for anyone. I have a boyfriend at home and I’m here in Bangkok just to have a look around. Not for sex.”
“Never mind,” he said, which I found a rather strange answer. “How old is your boyfriend?”
“Oh – same same me.”
“And you,” I asked. “Are you gay or straight. Do you like boys or girls?”
“Up to you,” said Pong, and gave me another alluring Thai smile.
And there I had it. I’d just been through the classic beginner’s course of talking with Thais. You are charmed but learn nothing.
Pong asked if I’d mind if he stopped off to see a friend on the way to dinner. Of course I didn’t mind, so he took me to a ladyboy bar on the way.
There was a drag show, but unlike British drag shows where there’s always an element of humour in men dressing as women, these Thai ladyboys did it with deadly seriousness. Not that they didn’t giggle and tease each other onstage, but the actual dressing as a woman part was not to be made fun of. These boys wanted to look like ladies. And did.
It was a series of songs mimed with hopeless charm by gorgeously pretty girls, who were actually boys. In one performance, a girl of about eighteen, as pretty as a chocolate box walked onstage with an uncontrollable giggle as she caught sight of her friends in the audience, then launched into a mime of Aretha Franklin with such lip-syncing perfection, and such bodily bravura, that it was impossible to believe she wasn’t actually doing the singing. If she had been, that huge Aretha voice coming from a such an innocent face and body would have immediately jumped her into the top class of world pop stars. As a person in the music business it reminded me once again what a lottery it is for us all.
After her show, the dazzling teenage girl who’d blitzed the Aretha song came and sat next to us.
“This is my older brother, Pin,” Pong told me.
Pong had already told me he was 26 so the girl I’d thought was eighteen must have been older than that.
“Twenty-eight,” she said.
But even sitting right next to me she still looked eighteen. It wasn’t the skin, for that was well-covered with make-up, it was the youthfulness of personality, the lack of bored worldliness that creeps into Caucasians from the end of their teens and makes them look world-weary by twenty-five. She was dazzling, fresh and giggly. Or rather….
Pong asked, “Is it OK if Pin and his friend come to eat with us?”
Five minutes later we were walking back through Patpong, me leading a small entourage. Pong’s brother had changed back into men’s clothes and had to all intents and purposes become a man. He still had a dazzling innocence about him but no femininity, which I found strange. Without his dress and make-up, it left him completely. On the other hand, the friend he’d bought with him, another ladyboy from the show, looked as much like a girl in her ordinary clothes as she had onstage.
“Where will we eat?” I asked.
“In the night market at Pratunam,” Pong told me, but first Pin wants to see his friend.”
I soon learned that in Thai the use of the singular is meaningless. ‘My friend’ could mean one person or ten.
In the heart of Patpong, between pubs and girlie bars, was a large open-fronted bar, but this time onstage there were neither girls nor boys nor ladyboys but Thai boxers, two of them, sinewy young men banging their knees into each other’s kidneys.
After a brief wait while the bout finished, I was introduced to one of the fighters. “This is Poon,” Pong explained. “He my younger brother. He’s 23.”
Pong, Pin and Poon made a charming trio, and now they were altogether looked surprisingly triplet-like despite five years difference in their ages.
“Pin was a boxer too,” Poon told me, pointing at his ladyboy brother. “But because I’m better he give up and do ladyboy show instead.”
In the West, to move from being a Thai boxer to a ladyboy dancer would be an impressive change of occupation; to these boys it was as small a shift in career as, say, waiter to barman.
In the event, dinner ended up with eight of us. There was Pong, Poon and Pin, with his ladyboy friend, who were then joined by three more people – another boxer, who Pong said was a Thai national champion, his sister, who was in the police, and her ‘fan’ (her girlfriend).
‘Fan’ is a multi-purpose word in Thai. It’s from the English word fan, like a football fan, and applies to anyone with whom you’re having an ongoing intimate relationship - your wife, husband, boyfriend, girlfriend, fiancée, mistress, sugar daddy or favourite rent boy. Pong told me that the policewoman’s ‘fan’ worked for an ‘agency’ as a call-girl, making up-market hotel visits, something she was able to do because she spoke good English.
In a procession of three tuk-tuks we whizzed round the city to the market at Pratunam. It wasn’t like the neatly laid out hawker stall areas of Singapore, or the garden restaurants of Jakarta, it was an area of messy alleyways where during the day time there were food shops and wholesalers. Now, at night, the narrow streets were scattered with plastic tables and chairs and stalls on wheels stacked with food and primus stoves and smiling old ladies doing the cooking.
Pong led us through the maize of alleys. “Everyone come here after work. This place is relax.”
He knew a particular place to head for and when we got there the lady who ran it knew him too. Soon we were sitting at a table, four aside - a ladyboy, a Thai boxing champ, a policewoman and her call-girl ‘fan’, plus Pin, Pong, Poon and me.
“What you want eat?” Pong asked. “Maybe we go look.”
So I went with him to a large trellis table at the side of the pavement on which the lady who ran the place had laid out her bits and pieces of food.
“This is Khun Air,” Pong told me. “What you want her cook for you?”
There were chicken pieces, bits of meat, two or three fish, a scrawny duck, a fat crab, heaps of prawns, a large squid, a pile of vegetables.
Next to this was a charcoal grill, a cooker with a gas jet wooshing ferociously and a cauldron of boiling water.
“Tell her to cook the lot,” I told Pong. “In as many different ways as she can think of.”
Hygiene was best not thought about. Everything – plates cutlery bowls, cooking utensils – was washed on the pavement beside the cooking stall in a big bucket of cold water with lots of detergent, then rinsed in a second bucket.
Around our table, there was not a single faltering appetite; they ate voraciously and the meal was delightful. But the conversation didn’t rise to the same standard. The only one who spoke good English was the policewoman’s girlfriend, the one who worked as a call-girl. Even Pong, once he was tested by anything outside his stock set of tourist phrases fizzled into uninteresting repetition.
“Where does your family live?” I asked.
“Only my mother now, She live in Isan, in our village. She’s very poor.”
“How does she live?”
“We send money.”
“Does she live alone or with relatives?”
“Live with auntie. Also very poor.”
In retrospect, perhaps his English conveyed it all perfectly, but he was completely unable to answer questions of any more depth.
Since the call-girl spoke good English and was living with a policewoman she seemed a suitable person to ask something more complicated, “As a tourist do you think it’s possible for me to get a real feel of what life in Thailand is like for the ordinary person?”
But she went straight back to one of the three stock phrases. “Up to you.”
“How do you feel when you see people living so well in the city when your families back in the countryside are so poor?”
“Do you think Buddhism makes Thai people think differently from Westerners.”
“Same-same like you.”
“You mean they do, or they don’t?”
“Up to you.”
Short of learning Thai it seemed I was never going to have a conversation with any of these people. Around me everyone chattered happily and sent me endless happy smiles.
“What time do you start work in the morning,” I asked the policewoman.
She didn’t understand me so the call-girl translated for her.
“Sic-o-clock,” the policewoman said with another dazzling smile.
I looked at my watch. It was already nearly three. “Won’t you be tired?”
I asked the hooker, “Where did you learn English?”
“How come you went to University and ended up a call-girl.”
“And your father and mother – what do they think about it?”
Even this literate educated girl slipped into the same set pattern of speech and I realised it was not to do with a lack of English. ‘Never mind’ was not so much a Thai phrase as a summation of the Thai mind set.
“What does your father do?”
“He owns movie theatre in Udon Thani. But I like to be free – same-same like you.”
“I’m not that free,” I assured her. “I have business commitments. I have employees. I have a boy-friend in England to whom I’m committed to personally. Would you call that being free?”
“Up to you.”
And despite another hour of delightful eating and smiling and small talk, that was about it.
I was sitting with a policewoman, a call-girl, a ladyboy, a Thai boxing champ, and three nightlife triplets. That should be enough material for three novels yet all I could get out of them was ‘Up to you’ ‘Never mind’ and ‘Same-same like you.’ I vowed, if I was going to come back to Thailand I would have to learn Thai.
Later, I did. But after thirty years of knowing Thailand I’ve moved no further in understanding their underlying philosophy. Basically, whether it’s the Prime Minister talking to the media or the local noodle stall selling me duck soup, just three phrases are the basic conversation and philosophy of all Thais, not just with foreigners but with each other. It’s called the politics of passivity.
One of the best-known examples takes us back to the famous wartime Prime Minister, General Phiboon. In December 1941, the Japanese arrived at the Thai-Cambodia border and started firing mortars and machine guns into the country, General Phiboon sent an emissary to ask them wouldn’t it be easier just to come into the country as his guests.
The Japanese sent a general to Bangkok to discuss the matter with him. The Japanese general asked Phiboon, “Which side are you on – the allies or us?”
“Up to you.”
“We Japanese will not accept any underground resistance against us. We are a proud country with our own traditions.”
“Same-same like us.”
“We want to set up a prison camp, import English POWs, force them to build a bridge and starve them to death into the bargain.
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