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This week your columnist exchanged the order, quiet and tranquility of Bangkok for the hubbub of an upcountry village. It was my annual sojourn in the far north east of Thailand, delayed from cancelled Songkran after the pandemic hit Thailand.
I was woken at some ungodly hour every morning by the “cock-a-doodle doo” (the rather annoying ekki-ek-ek in Thai) from the crawl space underneath our elevated bedroom. Wiping the dusty residue from weary eyes I vowed vengeance and promised the cooking pot for the raucous rooster.
It made a change for another rooster to be facing grief – my readers often want to wring MY neck!
Still, I had to admit that such was the early hour we all went to bed – before the maid in the TV soap even got a good slapping – that it seemed reasonable to get up with the rising sun before 6 am.
Recalling a gay character in Little Britain, I’m the only farang in the village of Non Somboon in the district of Pha Khao (white cliff) just across the border from Nong Bua Lamphu. Loei province is off most tourist itineraries even when there ARE tourists. It is one of the most stunning areas of natural beauty in Thailand.
Arriving there by car after the long drive from Bangkok as the sun set was magical. The in-laws gave me an unpretentious, lovely big hug outside the five-bedroom house. Muggins paid for the pride of the village that was designed and built by my brother-in-law. He died earlier this year so there was much heartfelt chatter to catch up on over dinner of sticky rice, fish with more bones than flesh and some delicious freshly caught crickets.
I made do with a tin of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom supplemented with a few slices of bread I’d baked in Bangkok. Non Somboon is not overly endowed with bakeries, Euro custard cake being about the only thing in the village shop.
Gran kindly went to the neighbor’s to borrow a chair as there wasn’t one in the house. It was a bit rickety so I sat on the first step of the stairs apologizing for “sitting high” perching my soup on my lap.
None of this causes adverse comments. In our twenty year relationship, the rellos have long since accepted that my back is too bad for floor sitting and I need my own fodder. They know I understand their culture even if I don’t throw myself into it like some newbie desperate for approval. And they know they can speak to me in standard Thai because I’m as fluent as they are in Bangkok-speak.
I can interject with the odd salient remark during dialectal babble even if I can’t speak it at all. (Except for a few phrases designed to make people who don’t know me cackle at the weekly market).
It was pleasing to note that the house was in no worse state of repair than last year. The bathroom sink still leaks over the floor and the lightbulbs haven’t been replaced. Mai pen rai. Gran has come to terms with her diabetes and granddad was even going to work threshing rice after recovering from a mild stroke a while back.
He’d bought a flat screen TV with the proceeds and was watching “muay Thai”. I feigned interest and he was astounded that I knew Khaosai Galaxy and had met his twin brother. Showing him a clip I keep on my phone for such occasions with me “sparring” with Olympic gold medallist Somjit Jongjohor completed the illusion. Rooster brownie points rocket….
The sister-in-law’s kids, dumped on the grandparents after she disappeared owing a small fortune to us all, were polite and doing well at school and practiced a few words of English they’d learned in class. The nine year old brought me coffee every morning and said “thank you”. Neither child resented following the electronic device rules I place on my own two little chicks.
On walks, the villagers were as friendly as ever. Isan is legendary in this regard and Loei is no different. Except for that pesky rooster it wasn’t noisy at all. The Thaksin era loudspeakers have all gone. The village was abloom in flowers and I noticed a greater civic pride than in recent years. The weather was also much better than Songkran with a chill in the air late evening and early morning.
No one wore a mask and no one even talked about the pandemic except perhaps to refer to the state of the economy that they’d heard about on the news. There were a far greater number of flies than usual which perplexed me. This was explained after I saw a large pile of mushrooms that had been given to the family by a neighbor opposite who has set up a mildly odorous mushroom farm. The locals know how to maintain peace through donation.
I fully expect to live in Non Somboon in my dotage. While I can only survive for a week right now, in the future when I have all my stuff and the internet around me I see no reason why I can’t quit Bangkok. I live like a hermit in Ratchayothin anyway, and trips to England over the last three decades taught me that I see more of my relatives there than they see of each other. You make plans to catch up during a yearly visit, and I expect I would visit Bangkok many times a year for Scrabble.
We did side trips to the charming Erawan Cave that like most “tham” is used for “thamma”. Almost deserted except for a few folks seeking the correct lottery tickets after making their prayers. We also went to Phu Kradung water park and I feared a “conversation” after reading online that they charged more for foreigners. I needn’t have worried. They had a Covid special, adults the same price as kids, reduced to 50 baht! There were two families there and the others left because there was hardly any food. I’m one who enjoys the lack of tourists.
I returned by overnight bus from Sribunruang and despite the inevitable accident (not ours) near Khao Yai that slowed progress, I was back home at 5am after stubbornly walking the last five kilometers to avoid paying a 60 baht taxi fare. I then settled into a ten hour binge-fest of The Crown on Netflix.
Some habits never change. It was my treat for being such a good boy in Loei and marked the start of twelve days without a wife and young children. Absence will make the heart grow fonder, something Mrs R was reluctant to believe years ago, but which she now accepts whole heartedly (so long as I pay for her and the kids’ “thiaw”).
So back to work and see what I’d missed in the wilds of Loei…..
Tuesday featured some alarming scenes near Parliament House when water cannons and tear gas were used on protesters. There was also some shooting and police were brandishing weapons used to fire rubber bullets. Up in Loei Mrs Rooster had explained some of the latest shenanigans to mum (gleaned from alternative websites and the opinions of her son-in-law). Gran looked mildly concerned, even shook her head in disapproval, before taking another generous mouthful of sticky rice soaked in dried chili sauce. Priorities are important.
PM Prayut – our father who art in khaki, hollow be thy name – starting barking orders to use the full force of the law to clamp down and restore order. Lese Majeste was mentioned. The protesters vowed to fight on as the country continued to teeter on the brink. “Ice” was found in a police van but plod was exonerated by plod. The international community – as well as many of us in Thailand – scratched our heads as to the relevance of giant, inflatable rubber ducks.
Just as well that the tourists are returning though less in droves, more like the trickle that came out of my Loei tap. Hapless TAT guv’nor Yutthasak said that 681 foreigners would be arriving before December. This is slightly down on last November when it was 3 million.
December promises to be even better as 2,000 investors are queueing up, each with a million bucks in hand to buy condos and stocks and get that oh-so-coveted work permit. Am I the only one who wouldn’t worry too much about work if I had 30 million baht to play with?
STV tourists are also flocking to the country in their dozens before March. This is partly thanks to Yutthasak’s buy two nights in solitary confinement, get one free. Yes, he proudly suggested a series of “imaginative packages” that included flights on Thailand’s bankrupt national carrier who are now flogging stuff online to get back a few satang of the billions of baht they have secreted into the pockets of trough dwellers for so many decades.
We had already been told on Monday that there were more returning retirees in October than tourists. At least some are managing the hoops and requirements needed to see their long lost families and loved ones in Thailand again. I met one of them – a Brit from Chessington – in person. He was glad the quarantine was behind him.
Meanwhile others in the tourist business harped on that the pandemic was in fact a “golden opportunity” to reintroduce the wonders of Thai culture and handicrafts to “premium tourists”. Forget Patong, Walking Street and Nana, now it’s basket weaving, traditional fishing and painting on ceramics. What could possibly go wrong (mark that as a rhetorical question).
ATTA – the Association of Thai Travel Agents – suggested opening Thailand to visitors from 22 Chinese provinces. Either that or 2 million jobs would be lost. They seemed a little tardy with that observation.
The TAT’s Yutthasak might need to be careful what he says, of course. There is precedent with the news this week that a former governor had her appeal on a 50 year prison term rejected by the Supreme Court. Her daughter is also doing a 40 year stretch in connection with malfeasance in the procurement of an international film festival. I smell pressure from the US here if not in the court decision but in the fact there was a prosecution in the first place.
In international news the LOTUS – Loser of the United States – continued to claim victory in the election while president-elect Biden counted down the days. Rudy Giuliani had to admit the latest lawsuit failure as, a tad symbolically, his black hair dye started running down his sorry face. A “message to you Rudy” – “stop creating trouble in town”.
The WHO said Europe was in for “a tough six months” though news of the efficacy of various vaccines, especially among older people, continued to offer hope. Though vaccine creator Ugur Sahin of BioNTech said it would be next winter before life was back to normal.
Elon Musk apparently made $15 billion in a week after Tesla was listed on the S&P 500. Hopefully he’ll appreciate the value of philanthropy rather than defaming people in Thailand; some time ago a court denied cave rescue hero Vernon Unsworth a miniscule fraction of his wealth after Musk Melon called him a “paedo guy”.
To wit, the Boy Scouts’ Association of America is facing lawsuits from a staggering 100,000 claimants over sexual abuse. They have filed for bankruptcy in an attempt to establish a fund to pay off the maltreated boys, one of whom was already awarded $20 million after being abused by a scout leader. The case dwarfs those against members of the Roman Catholic clergy.
Iconic celebrity singer, comedian and presenter Des O’Connor died aged 88. One of my Scrabble pals, who was a multiple winner on the word game show Countdown, said he was a great guy and a total professional who had time for everyone. Fellow comedic great and friend Eric Morecambe once quipped during famous banter: “Des O’Connor’s a self-made man. Well it’s nice of him to take the blame”.
Back in Thailand it was announced that cabbies could charge 20 baht extra for bags that were 26 inches long. They could charge 100 baht for a golf bag if they told the customer beforehand. This was always going to be a disaster so it was no surprise that by Saturday the DLT announced it was only for trips to and from the airports in Bangkok.
Frankly – putting aside the rogues who don’t turn on the meter and who wait like vultures at tourist sites – most Bangkok cabbies are decent enough and a rise in the 35 baht flag fall is well overdue. (Though they might keep it well below the 130 baht charged to get in a London Black Cab – hundreds were shown returned on a deserted lot in the UK this week – my heart bled….).
In related news a friend of an airport passenger stranded abroad picked up his mate’s car at Suwannaphum (my spelling) and was slapped with a 60,000 baht parking charge as it had been left there since March. The AoT rep called it a misunderstanding saying they had already helped six people in similar circumstances.
In drug news the Thai authorities said they were relaxing laws related to cocaine and opium for medicinal purposes and where it would “benefit the Thai government”. Cue the forum drawing comparisons with the convicted heroin felon in that very government.
A Thai/German who was irked by a delay flying from Phuket to Bangkok suggested that Vietjet should be bombed. Swiftly arrested, he could well find out that there is something worse than airline meals – fish head soup in Thai clink.
Finally, back to my sojourn in Loei. As I left the north east I saw a reminder as to why I love that part of the world and Thailand in general.
It was a sign at a roadside “khao tom” stall that said simply:
The handicapped and unemployed eat free.