To Bangkok and back
I tried it at work while in Wales and it didn't work there either so to be fair I wasn't hopeful until we got to Bangkok - and it was brilliant. It was a gadget worth having. I was chuffed. In the village it wasn't so good and took ages to connect but it nevertheless still worked. Odd really that my Blackberry also works better anywhere in Issan than it does in England. But when we next went home I had a Virgin media bill for £235 for excess data usage. Brits always feel we are being conned and does Britain really merit the nickname of 'Rip-off Britain'? Personally I think it does when small print is deliberately obfuscated by companies like Virgin media and when I complained I swear the girl really did say "Well you didn't ask". - No dear, it didn't occur to me to ask where I can connect to the Internet which by its suggestive name tends to be anywhere, and you didn't tell me either, which is why the ombudsman ordered you to give me the money back.
Departure was either too early or too late and now that Thai Airways is the only airline that goes to Suvarnabhumi the choice is limited. Both Nok and Air Asia have gone back to Don Muang which by the time you have got a taxi into town has cost the same money and because they both now charge for baggage works out more expensive. But only fractionally because as soon as the competition moved out Thai Airways shot their prices up from 1800B to 2250B. They blamed it on fuel prices, as did most International airlines, which also merits the category of oddity because Nok didn't need to increase their prices and Air Asia reduced theirs by 30%. The only problem with both these airlines is their baggage restrictions. Nok is 15kilos and they do not allow any excess and because my missus likes to transport the sideboard from our lounge just in case along with half my wardrobe and toolshed as gifts for the family we can't possibly get the weight down to 15kilos. Air Asia meanwhile charge for all baggage up to certain weights which you have to guess. Last time I used them I knew the weights because we had just flown from Britain and yet Air Asia's check-in scales said it was 2 kilos more on both bags. So despite having paid 450B for each bag I then had to pay another 800+ penalty. Plus a booking fee, and a check in fee, and we weren't allowed to have our bags back so we could take the weight of a bag of sugar out. Welcome to 'Rip-off Thailand'.
I took the too early option so I was now up and about before everyone else. A variety of family members were still under the mosquito nets making little zeds on two inch mattresses on the bare concrete floor. They're not poverty stricken or anything. They do have their own houses but they are not yet ready to go home even though Pa Jon's funeral is now done. For the time-being anyway, there's still a few things to be done over the coming weeks. Already packed and ready to go I stepped out the back door to the sound of dripping rainwater and muted cockerels and took in a deep breath savouring the laundered fresh air and mildly excited to be going on another adventure across Thailand.
I'm not really an excitable person and that's probably why I do like village life but whenever I go anywhere in Thailand I always seem to meet interesting people or something I didn't expect. On one occasion in the space of one flight we met Jintara Poonlarb in the terminal. OK that might make you think 'Oooh' but really, in Asia she is a mega star, with European tours under her belt and multi-million selling songs written for her by the likes of Ravi Shakri. But here in the Departure Lounge she has no bodyguards, no press surrounding her, a down to earth Issan girl and thoroughly pleasant with it. Then while sat waiting for the last passengers in walks Witwisit Hiranyawongkul, more commonly known as rap artist and actor Pchy, with his agent and zero airs and graces and sits right next to us. I had to ask our daughter to leave them in peace while they were discussing some video project they were off to Bangkok to sort out but it was too much for a teenager and it turned out there is nothing 'Gangsta Stylie' about Pitch. He is an educated lad with the manners oft missing in youth.
The dustmen must have been during the night. But for the second time this month they had emptied the 'thang khai ya', or rubbish bin, which in villages is a leather cauldron that stands on a metal frame, or sometimes like ours is made of recycled inside out tyres, but they left the full black bin liners behind. It's just like being back in England. The 'Ohng Naam' were overflowing with rain water. Waan doesn't like the rain water from the giant jars, she calls it 'yellow water', partly because it has been collected from the rusty tin roofs but mostly because of its metally taste, which I assume is what she thinks piss tastes like. Someone had left the plastic basket of empty pet bottles out last night and yet someone else must have thought it was a recycle point and left the empty Chang bottles there too, a beer that would be better suited to the moniker of piss. To be fair to Waan, rain water from these jars is probably the safest thing to drink, but it isn't clean so it has to stand in the jar for the dust to settle to the bottom. The water is then put in pet bottles and in the fridge to both cool it and to freeze the bacteria. It is safe to drink but will upset your tummy if you're not used to it so I only use it for coffee.
I was getting a bit anxious standing out the front of the house. Thai call the veranda the La Biang, it means the same thing, and in Thailand it gets used for the same purpose we would use the veranda, except more often because it is either too hot to be in doors or in the evenings you want to sit in the cool air for a change. I however was stood on it alone waiting for the bro-in-law to come with his pick up and rapidly running out of time. Then Waan's son came up the driveway with half his skin and clothing missing. With impeccable timing that you do eventually become accustomed to he had sneaked out for an early morning ride to goodness knows where and for the first time in his life managed to come off his motorbike. Seriously damaged and ready to give up on my pre-paid trip to Bangkok I insisted I take him to the hospital instead. He wouldn't go which was burning up more precious minutes as we argued and I am at a loss to appreciate why any blue-blooded male would not want to go. I'm always the first to volunteer to take anyone to our local Rhong Phaya Bahn. In all honesty I am a sucker for Thai women, I think they are gorgeous, and I swoon at a uniformed Thai woman, but as I argued with the lad 'Why would you not want to go and see the nurses', then again the Doctors are even more sexy, he answered 'I don't like hospitals'.
As Waan's brother-in-law arrived I thought 'sod it' and buggered off to the airport - late. My favourite view as you approach Udon Thani International, which is actually a converted USAF Airbase left over from the Vietnam war, is the dilapidated 747 that is occasionally robbed of the odd spare part. One engine, some turbine blades from engine number two, a couple of passenger windows, and a Krueger flap. On the side of the old jumbo says it is a charitable donation for teaching potential engineers and flight crew so what disturbs me is which aircraft in service possesses these decidedly dodgy looking missing components?
It only takes an hour to get all the way from Udon to my mates place in East Bangkok which is spitting distance from Suvarnabhumi airport. You may wonder why I refer to him only as Bleak. It isn't even his nickname but because he works in an official capacity in Thailand he is not afforded any kind of opinion and has to take care what he says publicly so I can't even mention him by his usual nickname or his real name. Besides this is the Internet surfed by numerous twats who would love to know who he is so I get a kind of sadistic satisfaction out of not letting on. Someone once told me the guy was fictitious just to back up things I explain about Thailand and I enjoyed smug sanctimoniousness because he knows the Bleak, he just doesn't know it. When I arrived however Bleak was doing his duty in his official capacity and I was left in the lurch as I stood on the rooftop of his apartment block looking at the mid-day smog over Bangkok city centre on one side and the sprawling 'Soupy' airport on the other.
I necked the ice cold beer I bought from the shop below and headed for the market for a stroll to kill some time but while crossing under the expressway a Thai shouted out "Hello sir, what can I do for you today".
It's unusual for Thais to speak English around these parts and his pronunciation was so eloquent I felt obliged to respond, "Ah you speak English".
He obviously didn't when he repeated 'hello sir, what can I do for you today' again, and again. And then a Police Patrol Officer sat opposite with some motorcycle taxi riders asked as I passed "Where you go". I stopped to chat, out of politeness and never wanting to offend an officer of the law, and explained why I was there. He insisted I join them for a cocktail of beer lao, sang som, and thom thong. Don't even try and Google that or you'll get an array of images that have nothing at all to do with the popular Thai drink that is so sweet you want to vomit when you drink it and I hate getting hijacked in Thailand, it is more often by family members who want to take you somewhere you don't want to go, or a freelance tourist guide asking if you want to see some girls. Less than a week ago a taxi had taken us to a hotel we didn't ask for which turned out to be shit but every now and again you meet people like this. The officer had stopped for lunch and the taxi boys had the usual work picnic and they wanted to share it with me. The officer was from Khon Kaen not far from Udon and one of the lads was from our home town of Kut Chap. I had a great time with them, and also got drunk. By the time Bleak showed up I needed a sleep and it wasn't even tea time yet. Not that that would be happening, we had to meet up with another mate well known on Lonely Planet's forum and go and get properly plastered in Sukhumvit Road.
Forty-eight hours later I was on a plane back home. I'd have liked longer but Waan called me and said she was missing me. We don't get up to any mischief on these boys nights out but I know it doesn't look good for Waan. Issan folk love to talk about everyone else and point fingers, just my going to Bangkok without her is embarrassing for her, so I'm happy to keep it short. Bleak asked me to get a photo of his apartment from the plane as it would make a change from photos of the planes going past so contrary to my preference I asked for a window seat. As you'd expect of Victor Meldrew's luck I was on the wrong side of the plane and couldn't see Bleak's place. But sat in the two seats next to me were two nurses. Nah I'm not that lucky, they were in civvies, and one from France and one from Poland both of whom spoke very good English. It was interesting listening to them explain where they were off to and why. They were on some cultural exchange and off to a convention in Udon but it makes the 45 minute flight go really quick when you have someone new to chat to. Usually you use the food as an excuse to break up the journey but Thai Airways domestic is not the place to try in-flight cuisine. I have had tuna sandwich with ketchup and salad cream, I have had egg custard between two slices of brown bread, processed cheese with a stale bread roll with ice in it, orange juice that was undiluted cordial, so many delicacies I can recall that I cannot help but smirk when the trolley dollies bring round the lunch boxes that even the Thais take one look inside and close it up again. My partner who seems to be able to stomach absolutely anything and once commented on I'm a celebrity get me out of here's jungle challenge that the insects looked rather nice cannot eat the food on Thai Airways domestic flights. It is epically and famously bad.
Something else I have become accustomed to is things not going to plan. Despite calling home this morning and an hour ago to say what time I would be at Udon airport there is no one here to meet me. I called Lert but he didn't answer so I called Waan to ask if he was on his way. I always ask 'if' because he may be stuck in the ring road traffic or he may no longer even exist. Apparently he was still at work, which had never been previously mentioned, and was not home yet so could I hire a car from the airport. There was no festival on in Udon, no tourist attraction, no reason for anybody to actually come here except for a nurses convention, so despite there being seven car rental companies to choose from not one of them had any kind of vehicle for hire. There must have been a hell of a lot of cultural exchange nurses in Udon right now. So I called Waan back and had to wait two hours for someone to arrive in the pick up while I sat outside watching excited couples being re-united and considering if I could have hired a car in Bangkok and driven home in the same amount of time.
The silver Isuzu Warrior pulled up with a nephew at the wheel who I didn't think was old enough to drive with a pregnant girl who I didn't realise was his wife, two other family members I didn't know were family, Waan's two children, and a couple of others in the pick up part sat on cushions. A woman I didn't recognise came at me with a big smile of obvious pleasure pushing her hair up with one hand saying "Suay Mai" and for what felt like several seconds I stared at this woman thinking 'is it Waan, nah, is it?'
She'd had her hair cut, literally, it wasn't even neck length, as I safely replied "Yes love it suits you" while thinking she had lost the plot and asked what all the passengers are for. I'm used to unexpected guests and there is always a couple of kids who will tag along just for something to do. I cannot go to the Tesco Lotus that is walking distance without a sister or two wanting to come along as well even if it means being three up on a motorbike. Once I had to take Waan's mum to the hospital because Lert didn't want to or couldn't or something so I went and fetched his pick up and carefully coaxed Mae into the passenger seat and then Lert got in the back just to come along for the ride. And it isn't that my family is dysfunctional, all Issan folk are like this. But this gang is different, it is unsolicited and tea time, which means we are going somewhere so I added that 'I want to go home'. That embellishment made no impact and I was driven, badly, scarily, around Udon for ninety minutes while the nephew looked for a moo yang that he had been told about that was really good. It didn't matter that I was stinking and needed a shower and was tired, we were going for 'jin khao', which means to 'eat food', at Penk Moo Yang.
I'll be honest here and admit it is a pet hate of mine. It irritates me beyond words when people want to do what they want to do and pretend that it is really for my benefit. Holiday photos, I think I get it from my mum, it is hereditary, because we both hate looking at other peoples holiday photos. I don't even like my own Gallery in this web site but I do it because pictures can speak volumes when you're trying to describe something and I'm not forcing anyone to look at them. I don't say to people "Where do you want to go?" and then take them somewhere else. Thais do, they do it all the time, even Thais you never met before, and they do it because it is their culture and not knowing that we do not like it. Or I don't anyway but this crowd are hungry so it doesn't matter what I want. Sometimes I think it is me and that I am inconsiderate but being hijacked is so prevalent in Thailand that everyone suffers for it. It wasn't unnoticed, or to put it another way I made sure Waan knew how I felt and so she replied "Ok sorry, we won't be long in the moo yang", that I could have gone outside the airport and waited for a taxi and been home long ago and it would have cost less than the bill I was about to receive.
When Muller Light ran their Pleasure v Pain adverts I knew from experience they were right except that it applies to being hijacked in Thailand. I was really pissed at being taken where I didn't want to go but actually Penk Moo Yang is really good. It's an 'all you can eat' buffet joint and wasn't that expensive. I'm not trying to promote it but if you ever fancy trying it, and it did seem very popular with the local farangs, you go into Udon city centre from the airport, turn right, and follow your nose until you are in the road that runs along the side of the airport runway. Or you could come out the airport and turn right to Thanon Markhaeng!
The Coke and ice bucket is also inclusive but not the beer. Probably for the best and after bottle number six I had to go and find the toilet. It wasn't illusive or anything but one had a sign at the side that said ผู้หญิง but I'd be bullshitting if I said it means Ladies. I only realised it said Phuh Ying because there was a silhouette above it. The other entrance had a hanging plastic curtain so I wasn't sure where the Men's was until a chap came out through the curtain and washed his hands in the communal sink complete with polished stainless steel sheet above pretending to be a mirror. The urinals were directly opposite when you stepped over the kerb that stops any leaks, cleaning, overflowing urinals, from flooding the kitchen area, and I was quite happily relieving myself for some considerable time when a Thai lady walked in behind me and went to the cubicles. Then another one walked in and very politely said "Sawasdee ka" which I confess is slightly off-putting despite urination requiring a low level of concentration and as she also wandered off to the cubicles. Something else you have to get used to is that ladies things, including toilets, are for ladies, men's things are anybody's.
I tried to make the light conversation to drag me out of my own childish mood and asked Waan's lad how are his legs and arms without flesh but in his usual quiet way he just nodded. The only time he ever spoke to me was when his mum bought him a new motorbike and I couldn't undo the knot in the rope holding it onto the back of Lert's pick up and he asked me "Mai gha dai". The shortest possible sentence in four years. It's not that he doesn't like me, he just doesn't have much to say. Which is more than can be said for Waan's younger sister who treats conversation as an Olympic event. I once said to her husband that I can see why he doesn't talk much because his wife does all the talking for him. He laughed furiously and replied that he is in charge because Anne says so. Thus proving jokes travel very far indeed.
By the time we got home that night everyone was already in bed.