Waan asked them what their plans are for the next few days and when does Farng go back to hi-school. She wasn't, she explained, on holiday and was being given special permission to take odd days off because of the wedding. Waan and I had planned to go to Laos so she asked them if they wanted to come with us. They jumped at the offer but we would have to wait till the weekend.
The hospital kept Mae in but nobody knew why. Nobody seemed to understand and I asked if I could talk to the Doctor. I knew I'd be ok talking to him or her because part of their medical training is that they must learn English. Apparently though you have to pay for that. Thai Doctors are underpaid and hospitals have to balance the books. That means they have to treat people for as little amount of money they think the sick and injured can afford. It may sound capitalist but someone has to pay for the health service but really? I have to pay the Doctor for a consultation?
A couple of days later and Waan's sisters Ting and Wan are complaining that their back's ache from sleeping on the floor in the hospital. Sadly you have to pay for nursing staff and though I offered the girls said it was pointless and they would rather do it themselves because that's what their mum wanted. We went to visit to see what we could do like buy them some mattresses and give them some money to buy food. While we were there Mae was on a drip to prepare her for surgery in Khon Kaen. The fluid was green and I mean proper bright green. Mae said she was going to throw up and was panicking for a bowl or something. This bit is the nurse's job and I yelled across the ward at the staff desk for one of them to come over and see to the patient. The nurse strolled across as if there was nothing to panic about and to tell us off for disturbing the rest of the ward but soon went running to find a bowl when she could see Mae convulsing. What she brought up was the fluid being intravenously fed in and in similar quantity. Something was seriously wrong and either the medical staff had no idea what or they were not telling us.
I could only feel pity for her exposure. It wasn't right that a man should be looking at her in this state and is embarrassing for her so I said I'd come back later and went out to the waiting area. While sitting there playing brick breaker on my blackberry, for the very first time, a local struck up a conversation with me in Thai. I usually find they expect me not to understand so just nod at me with a smile but this chap asked me what was wrong with our mum. I told him I don't know and also don't know why the hospital won't tell me. He replied that they hardly ever do tell you unless it is good news. Another joined in and said this was a very bad hospital. I wasn't going to join in their condemnation. Everybody thinks their hospital is bad while the truth is the staff, Doctors and nurses alike, have a thankless task and by definition of their customers being sick will almost invariably lose the war. They may win battles along the way but one day you are going to die and they will likely get the blame. The truth is hospitals in Thailand are as good as anywhere else in the world so I wasn't worried about the quality of care for Waan's ageing mum. I just wanted the hospital to tell her the truth.
The next day Waan decided to have a go at her driving test and not before time. Off we went to Ban something or other where the official test centre is located. I'll be honest I was struggling to maintain an interest in it as it is a formality. Waan can drive so she isn't going to fail the test. There is a written test first to make sure you are not blind and were paying attention to the safety video. The guy in charge was worried that his boss would think he was in our pockets if we sat in the waiting area (Yeah I know - that doesn't make any sense to me either and presumably means he had been bribed by one of the other candidates) so he instructs Lert and myself to sit in the classroom and pretend to be taking part.
I watch the examiner leave the room for twenty minutes allowing the participants to share answers and I'm sure most people would be horrified and decide that is why Thailand's roads are so dangerous but you would be mistaken. The casual approach to the driving test says more about its importance than it does about driving ability. In Germany where they have some of the strictest licensing laws, and after all they did invent the driving license, accidents are so catastrophic it seems almost mandatory for there to be a fatality and yet statistics show Thailand is worse. But that doesn't take into account that most accidents in Thailand involve motorcycles or pedestrians. When you compare pick up trucks Thailand slides to the bottom of the list. And when you compare collisions involving only motor vehicles Thailand drops off the radar so if you are going to use statistics then statistically there will be less accidents if you scrap driving licenses and introduce the Green Cross Code.
Waan passed the first part of the test with flying colours and we went for something to eat across the road from the test centre. I asked if she was nervous and she said no, I asked if she had offered the examiner some incentive and if that is why she is confident, and she said yes but the examiner turned it down. I was quite surprised at suddenly discovering a Thai official with principles. But then Waan shot the notion to bits by adding "He say I come too late, have to come early if I want to pay him, he said come back next Wednesday but stay today and try to do the test."
You can do anything for vehicle licensing in these Government test centres. They are called the One Stop Service Office's. This one is number 6 in Ban Bang Poo or something similar but the best room in the building is the toilet. For some reason, perhaps they expect all the attendees to be shitting themselves I dunno, but the toilet is where the best information is. It contains the charges for MoT's and vehicle excise licensing which increase according to weight as well as driving test fees etc. Then there is a fantastic poster with a note beneath telling you not to copy these bad drivers but the weird thing is none of them are in Thailand. Also there is a poster telling you the penalty for smoking in the toilet and putting out cigarettes on the floor.
The smoking thing got my attention because I read in 2011 on a couple of forums about 1000 baht fines for tourists and farangs living in Thailand. They were blowing it out of proportion because it was really a by-law in Bangkok used on the sky train to stop littering but all the farangs on the forums were adamant it was a stealth tax on tourists. There were stories about how foreigners were being targeted and even set up so they could be fined and of course every one of them knew someone who'd been had by this scam. Funny thing is I know a few people who live and work in Bangkok and they smoke cigarettes and none of them knew anyone who'd been fined because they know the rules and use the ash trays provided.
You tend to get this recurring theme with ex-pats in Thailand where they have no life so they make one up. They had Arcadian thoughts that living in Thailand would be bliss. Instead it is often cash starved and bouts of boredom so they spend all their time whining about how all the Thai rules, laws, by-laws, and bureaucratic red tape is only used on farangs because they are the only ones with money. It's all complete nonsense and a sign written in Thai that the vast majority of farangs cannot read is intended for Thais and besides, we can all understand this sign (and not writing it in English is a conspiracy as well according to the forum dwellers to whom it wouldn't occur that many Thais cannot read English).
After several hours we finally got to go outside and do the actual driving test. I make no excuses for the pun but this is when the wheel came off. Waan has in the UK her own car, a very nice little Toyota Yaris with her own number plate which also happens to spell wanx which is most excellent as no self-respecting thief is going to be seen dead stealing a car with wanx on the number plate, that she has learned to drive in. When I told her I wanted to export a car with her number on so we could keep it she said she didn't think we could use a non-Thai number plate in Thailand. The only time I have seen a personalised number in Thailand was on a motorbike and the number was 666. In Thailand that number is considered very lucky and so would be 999. Funny old world innit! She has also had lessons in the UK using a driving school car but through some unfathomable thought process she assumed she would be able to use a car supplied by the test centre.
Now the coming back next week and bribing the examiner became a reality because although she can point Lert's truck in the general direction of a destination she has never reversed it. There are only three exercises in the physical test and one after another potential drivers were failing miserably. This didn't bode well but first you drive into a stop point with the nose in a box and the left wheel no more than 20cm from the kerb line. Now it would have helped if Waan had not gone and fetched Lert's truck from the car park while the examiner was explaining this but I fancied Waan would find the truck too big anyway. Then you have to drive in a straight line about sixty metres between poles and stop within the hatched box and then reverse out without hitting any poles. I shook my head smiling at young girls who were knocking them down faster than the examiners could put them back up. No way was Waan going to do this. Then third is to parallel park the vehicle without touching any poles. She can't do that every time in her own car so it was obvious where this was heading.
She tried the first stop and the chap shouts "Mai Phan". The bloke who she offered money to previously told her to have another go at it and explained what she was supposed to do. And she did it, I couldn't believe it, it had to be a fluke. So she goes to the next Jeux Sans Frontières trial by poles and I watched in disbelief as she drove all the way in and reversed all the way out. She was much better at driving than I gave her credit for.
The only thing is, parallel-park, women, reverse, are three words that do not belong in the same sentence (yeah I know, I hyphenated that word or it wasn't three words) and Waan is no different so she went back on Wednesday, gave the bloke 500 baht and he said he couldn't just pass her or the boss will find out so could she do the second one of driving in a straight line and reversing out again and he'll change it to say she failed the second not the third trial. She still can't parallel park but it did mean she could drive to Nong Khai.
Thais are always ready to eat, it is the default setting for 'what shall we do next', so I showed Waan where to park near the border crossing and set off on foot to the very excellent restaurant under the friendship bridge as a treat. It is a traditional style bamboo and banana building with floor mats instead of chairs and tables with twelve inch high legs and freshly picked food that is either grown on the nutrient rich silt banks of the river or swimming in it.
There is only one draw back to Nong Khai, it is being encouraged to develop as a tourist attraction come destination, and as such they are spoiling it with modernisation. I just know that one day I will come to this restaurant and it will be a concrete building with tables and chairs outside like a nice little French bistro. They are already doing it to the waterfront by the market. It's a shame and while the honeymooners wanted their photo taken to show everyone back home 'We was here', I was looking across to the river bank in Laos and deciding that side looked a lot more attractive.
That is why, primarily, I suggested we go over that side instead. But up at the border crossing it has gone mad just the same as many of the checkpoints around Thailand. Rammed with money-grubbing bullshit visa businesses, pick-pockets, photographers asking if you want a momento to take back to England. Loud, noisy and busy with chaos, choking with exhaust fumes, confusion, and prospectors. I asked where I can get a temporary entry permit but was told I need a visa and it is four thousand baht. So I tried asking someone else and got referred back to the visa agent. All the officials are in their pockets and one uniformed bitch nodded at Waan sneering 'four thousand is not too much money for a farang'. Then another one says we are not allowed to walk across the bridge and have to use an official coach at a hundred baht each. There isn't much about Thailand that upsets me but I despise these leeches that prey on tourists so said to Waan to take the kids across and I'll wait on this side and go to the market for the afternoon.
As it happened all three of them were only crossing the bridge because I suggested it. They preferred the idea of the market. So we went shopping instead and had a really good time too. I recommend Nong Khai market. It is a bit touristy but it isn't cheap plastic crap. You can buy top quality trinkets that will remind you of cultural Thailand and the market is vast. You could kill off an entire day there. But the friendship crossing? It is the last time I will visit. Next time I want to go to Laos I will fly with Thai or Bangkok Airways because it is near the same price and you dont get scammed by muppet entrepreneurs presuming you are on a visa run.
The only drawback with the under cover market is it does get humid. You know when you've had enough when you start loitering outside stalls that have a fan blowing. A good place to go and cool down is the Sala Kaew Ku sculpture park. Outside you can get an icecream and beefburger and on the entrance are some nice little gift shops that do not charge the earth. Even the park entrance is only twenty baht. I wouldn't call it breath-taking but the statues are remarkably big and it feels casual and slowed down. It is tranquil and relaxing and there is a lot to see.
The next day I told Waan I had to think about going back to England or my boss is going to throw a wobbly. She wanted to go back with me. Her life has changed to one of a British way of life where you go to work daily and cook evening dinner and watch an hours TV before going to bed. Like me she gets bored being in the village in Issan all day relaxing, reading books, and chatting to village women. We use Waan's nephew Om's Internet to book flights back to Bangkok on the Friday so I can see my mate Bleak for a couple of days and I have to pay for that small privilege by bribing Waan with shopping trips to the new Mega Bangna shopping centre. It is also Chinese new year which should be good. But Friday comes and Mae has finally got a date for her operation in Khon Kaen. She goes in on Monday. The day we have scheduled flights from Suvarnabuhmi International to London Heathrow. I told Waan she should cancel coming home and stay here with her mum. I can see by the look in her eyes that she is torn between loyalty and doing the right thing and wanting to go back to England with me and not wasting money on cancellations. 'What's the point if you have to come right back to Thailand' I surmise but she is adamant, she has sisters that can look after Mae and besides, the operation is to make her better.
I look at Mae and can see she has paled. Her skin is almost grey and when I try to talk to her she stares into space. In the few weeks we have been here she has lost weight and her skin is dehydrated. She doesn't have sinusitis and when I speak to my sister in England who is a senior nurse she tells me that green stuff that made Mae sick is chemotherapy. I felt anger that the hospital were not telling the family what is wrong with their mother. I took Waan to one side away from listening ears and choked inside at telling her, "Your mum is dying love. She isn't going to get better."
It was a sombre flight back to Bangkok. Neither of us spoke.
"I know what," I suggested excitedly in out hotel room, "Lets go to Yowarat Road and watch the Chinese celebrations. It's a great place to eat as well."
When we got there, there was nothing, no carnival, no food, no music, nothing. I'd never seen China Town so dead. A Chinese lady stuck her head out of a door and asked if we needed help in very good English. In fact not even Chinese accented. She was British. She also explained in very good Thai that it is bank holiday for the Chinese and the celebrations wouldn't kick off until mid-night. So I stopped a taxi-meter and asked him to take us to the nearest market. We spent the day in MBK where we started off by eating really good food in a rustic American restaurant in the basement. Then off to the first floor where a bunch of Kathoey (ladyboys or what is now called the third sex) were promoting facials (and please don't make up your own jokes) and other skin products by Le Sasha. They appear everywhere, when I say they I meant Le Sasha but then again so do the ladyboys, but some of these just looked like girls.
Being heterosexual I have no inclination but then again neither am I a botanist but I still know if a flower is beautiful. So when we'd had enough of shopping and trying to sneak photos because I didn't want anyone to think I was interested in ladyboys we headed for the exit to the sky train only to discover to our amazement that it was night time. Not to our amazement because you see it all the time in city centres was some new Thai pop group trying to get off the ground in the music business so were putting on a free show on the corner of Siam. They were a bit new to it that was obvious and weren't very good at singing so they'll probably make it big. If not they'll be on the next series of Thailand's Got Talent. If you want to see some quality you are forced to drag in the old school such as Carabao because today's talent is Cowell's fault. It's still fun to watch when it's live though.
So that evening we have a quiet one on Bleak's favourite pavement café slowly ploughing through several bottles of Chang and ice before getting a taxi back to our hotel in Lat Krabang. Watching passing women coming from the Home Pro shopping complex opposite in their uniforms having done a hard day in the office. We like to admire, or perv' as Bleak prefers to call it, the beauty of the women as they go by and nudge each other when we spot a really good one. Waan is as good a partner as I could wish for and joins in with an attitude of it's better than me going off with bargirls. I'm lucky that she doesn't get offended or sulk as most women do. That's why I love her. That's why I don't go off with bargirls.
The next morning we are at Mega Bang Na a bit early. Not sure how we managed it as I should have been hung over and in need of a fry up but I wasn't. I thought the new shopping centre was a bit of an oddity. Like it's new and isn't sure what it is supposed to sell yet. It was obviously a joint Anglo-American venture with all the shops being familiar with one exception, my stomach was crying out for food so I went to MacDonald's out of desperation and bought two quarter pounders for less than a pound sterling. All the out of place 'you can look but you can't afford' designer shops were way more expensive than in England but is it better than Central Bang Na just down the road. Yes I think it probably is.
Chinese New Year wasn't finished yet and is celebrated by Thais all over. There were stands for China's Buddha with girls paying homage and an indoor market being set up to sell specialist teas and sweets. We bought loads and wasn't sure how we were going to get it back home without breakages so Waan bought yet another cabin bag big enough to put everything as well as her existing bags in. I knew who was going to end up carrying that around. And then a very noisy procession came through with a Chinese dragon and drums and very sexy looking ladies in what we westerners consider traditional Chinese dresses.
By mid afternoon we have had enough of walking in the air conditioned marble floored shopping arena and go and get a taxi to take us to Bleak's place. I don't know what it is with taxi drivers the world over that they feel they should hold a conversation with you. They can put some music on and tell me when I'm there for all I care and whilst I appreciated Waan's attempt to bring some context to what this one had to say I can't say I was impressed with him. In fact I should have manned up and given him a close up of my left metacarpophalangeals. I know Bang Pli market is a rough area, that's why we go there. I know it is a cheap area, that is why we go there. I don't need a Thai with the mental prowess to obtain a driving license to tell my missus I'm not good enough for her if I am a poor falang. And when she explained we were going to visit a friend of mine on our way home he then starts about poor falang living in Bangkok and Waan should take me to somewhere nice uptown. If there's two thing's Thai taxi drivers don't get first is that tourists want to see the real Thailand not the tourist spots and second what makes farangs angry. The stupidity is sometimes overwhelming as well. It was me who told him in Thai where we wanted to go and me who gave him some directions as to where it was but in his infinite wisdom he strikes up a conversation with Waan. Though I guess that's why he has climbed the social ladder to the dizzying heights of taxi driver.
If that wasn't bad enough a guy who manages to annoy the hell out of bleak so it beggars belief why he is willing to converse with the moron joins us for drinks. I'll drink with anyone but the moron can't remember me and enquires if we have met before when I said hello. How in the name of Pope Benedict does amoeba like this find the resources to travel to such far and wide places?
That evening we go to a music bar that Bleak has discovered where the moron later chats up a girl half his age with me telling Bleak we better get ready for when it kicks off. When I go for a drink I want to enjoy the time, I don't want to have to prepare to fight my way out the place, I'm too old for this kind of bollocks. But before that we couldn't find a seat so Waan asks very nicely of the old boy and his café next door if she gives him 500 baht can we sit at his table and we'll buy our beer from him. His reply was that if the farangs are so poor we can sit in the road and if we are not poor she can take us to Phat Pong at which point I am ready to burst. I didn't fully understand except for the Patpong reference and I had to ask Waan what he'd said as I thought he meant she was a bargirl. Even when she did explain I still wasn't happy and wish I had done something about it. But then that's the story of my life really, I wish I had done something about it! Bleak then had to spend several minutes calming me down and asking me not to do anything sudden. I cannot abide people like that as they assume you are a tourist and will not understand what is being said so they are as rude as can be. This isn't the Thai way. To be Thai is to be unecessarily polite. The music though, that was brilliant. The beer, excellent. And the company of kids out enjoying themselves, they were great.
6.30 a.m bleary eyed we are at the airport. Time to go back to blighty...