Archive for the ‘Thailand’ Category

A friend (Amy) is currently on holiday in Thailand. We were AFS students together when we were 17 or so, and she has returned this time with her husband and her parents for the first time. I have been loving seeing her photographs on social media, and I share in her joy in sharing this place that is so special with the people she loves.

It made me remember hosting my parents in Thailand just ten years after I was a student there. We were living there as diplomats, and it was the first time my parents left New Zealand. Thailand would not have been their first choice as an overseas destination, but we were living there, they were temporarily homeless (having retired from the farm, they were waiting for their little retirement house to be built), and they actually had a little cash in their pockets to make the trip. They travelled later – to Europe, and a couple of times to tour different parts of Australia (they saw more of it than I have, despite our numerous trips) – but regularly said that their trip to Thailand was the one that stood out. Frankly, it blew their minds. Europe, Australia and America all feel familiar – people look like us, the food isn’t that different, and we are accustomed to seeing these countries on our screens and in our books. But Thailand – its sights, sounds, food, temple, people, language, and size – has no reference point in rural New Zealand where they spent their lives.

They came because I had spent a year there instead of finishing my last year of secondary school. They came too because a few years later, they hosted a young Thai exchange student, their fourth “daughter.” (My friend Amy did this several years ago too.) I remember walking with them out of the airport in Bangkok. My mother sniffed the foggy air, and looked at me in horror. “Do we have to breathe that?” she asked incredulously. My father looked around in fascination, and uttered a very 1960s comment. “The teeming millions of Asia,” he said, as he had probably never seen so many people in one place. These things are so familiar to me today, it’s good to remember their reactions.

They stayed for a month, and we took them around Bangkok (or rather my husband did, while I worked), and on excursions out of Bangkok, day-trips in our car, or a few weekends at the beach, and on a longer trip on a sleeper train, which they loved. (There’s a funny photo of them on the train here.) They were still young, newly retired, and adventurous. They explored the local streets and foods on the non-excursion days, got to know our maid, relaxed by and in the pool, met my Thai host family, went on adventures with their Thai AFS daughter, and did many things they never would have imagined. My father, who had always been very active (as a farmer he really had no choice), sat under a palm tree at the beach, feeling the soft, warm wind, and just relaxed. “This is just wonderful,” he said, looking around. It was certainly a far cry from the cold prevailing wind on the stony beach near the farm where he spent almost all of his life.

I remember coming home from work one day, and hearing of my mother’s trip to a market. She had visited it with my husband and father a few days earlier, but they had just walked through it, and didn’t give her time or space to explore, or shop. She was determined to go back, and insisted that day that she was going alone. My husband had nervously summoned a tuk-tuk, and gave the driver instructions of where to take her. Noisily it drove off, and he wondered if a) he’d ever see her again, and b) how he would explain that to me when I got home! There were no cellphones. She didn’t speak a word of Thai. She’d never taken a taxi in her life. But she had money, she had the address of our apartment with her, and she wasn’t scared. Of course, she made it home safely, much to the relief of my husband, who swears he lost a couple of months of his life from the stress.

I loved rediscovering Thailand through their eyes and ears and nose and tastebuds. I am equally sure Amy is enjoying doing this with her parents and her husband. And I know we both feel so lucky we’ve been able to do this with those we love.



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(Photo Blogging Day 21)

I can’t really understand people who take photographs and never do anything with them, or look at them. Photographs are taken to be seen, after all. Sure, they can be records. But what use are records if they’re never referred to?

I have photos of my family scattered around my house. To mention just a couple, a favourite photo of my father, standing on a chair when he was 2-3 years old, is a precious possession, and I have one of Charlie a bit younger, sitting on the shelf behind my computer. I made a photobook for my father-in-law after a family Christmas. He cried when I gave it to him. I hope he looks at it from time to time. I do!

My favourite giraffe

My favourite giraffe

Most of our photographs though are travel photos. I have the African sunrise photo on my wall, as well as two smaller canvases of a leopard and an elephant respectively. I printed out a photo of my favourite giraffe, and have it in a frame in my living room. And of course, there is the black-and-white wall. Never to be forgotten are my photobooks. I will quite frequently pick up one of these books and flip through it. I like remembering.

A favourite way, though, to make sure I can take pleasure from photographs is to have a folder set up as a screensaver on my computer.  I love turning to my screen after a phone call, or returning to my chair after doing something else, and being surprised – in the nicest possible way – with a photo that I might even have forgotten I’d taken, but that I love. It always makes me smile. This is one I saw today.

Thai dresses

So, tell me, how often do you look at photos you’ve taken?

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When I turned 30, we lived in Bangkok, one of the great cities of the world.  Work was stimulating; I was watching and taking part in world events, and we lived in one of the great cities of the world.  There was Thai food, and a maid.  Life was good.

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The news this week of the attacks on the US Embassies, and the murder of the US Ambassador to Libya and some of his staff, was shocking to me. It has been about 18 years since I left our own diplomatic service, after only one posting in Bangkok. Even with such very brief experience as part of the global diplomatic family, I felt this deeply. When you’re away overseas, representing your country, you feel an affinity with those other diplomats. Because they too are overseas representing their countries, living in a strange land, learning (often) a strange new language and culture, missing their families and friends at home, setting up home wherever their government decides to send them.  So often the similarities between us all – whether we are from New Zealand, the US or China – outweigh the differences. We become friends and colleagues. And things that affect our friends and colleagues affect us too.

I was on the phone this afternoon to another friend who has only recently left the diplomatic service, and we chatted about this.  She has had a more than 20 year career serving in three different countries.  She has a friend and colleague in the US Embassy here who she met somewhere offshore years ago. This often happens. Friendships develop, rekindle, and deepen over the years as diplomats crisscross the planet.  And in the process, we become a family. A huge, disparate, diverse family. And almost 20 years later, I still feel part of that family. And I feel for those diplomats who were threatened, injured, and killed overseas.  I feel for the diplomats all over the world who will now be on heightened alert.  I remember walking past the gun-bearing guards and the small cannons outside the US Embassy in Bangkok during the first Gulf War.  I remember their vulnerability.  I remember my grief at the death of the head of the Red Cross, and international diplomat who I had met ten years earlier in Cambodia.  And I grieve for them all.

It reminds me of the AFS motto, taken from Sanskrit:

Walk together, talk together,
All ye people of the earth,
Then and only then
Shall ye have Peace.

If only …

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These days, the closest I get to foraging for food is wandering up and down the lanes at the supermarket without a shopping list.  Even growing up on our farm, we never foraged.  Food was farmed or hunted, whether it was meat, fish or the vegetables grown in our large garden.  And so I was intrigued with Lali’s experience of foraging for mushrooms and lambs’ quarters.

And then I remembered.  Next to my host family’s house in Thailand was a large vacant section, one of only a few in the wealthy, gated community.  As with any vacant space in Thailand, it was lush and green.  The plants grew profusely – but looked like (and probably were) weeds.  One day I looked out my bedroom window and saw my Thai mother, and one of the drivers, wandering through the section looking for something.  I called in my sister, and asked her what they were doing.

“Getting dinner,” Dao said, matter-of-factly.  I was appalled.  What on earth did she mean?  The lot was full of weeds that to my foreign mind all looked as if they’d be poisonous.  The only other things out there would be some impossibly large and creepy insects – not appetising at all – snakes (argh!), and maybe even some ubiquitous rats.  “Vegetables,” said Dao, sighing at the ignorant farang.

Yes, my Thai mother and a helper would regularly forage through this area to find greenery to be thrown into the wok.  I have no idea what she found.  I never knew whether the vegetables I was eating came from the market, or the vacant lot.  So even upper-class wives of senators in a gated community in Thailand forage.  With some Help, of course.

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I’m not going back. We visited in March 2008, again at Christmas 2010/11, and now February 2012. This time it wasn’t really our choice. My niece decided to get married in Phuket, and we weren’t letting the rest of the family go without us! But you know, revisiting places can be tough. It’ll be a while before I can face it again.

We first visited Thailand together Christmas 1988 (give or take a year – my memory fails me). We flew in to Phuket, and stayed at Patong Beach. Phuket was only just opening up in those days. We stayed in the one hotel (still the ONLY hotel) on the beach – there were a few across the road though – and there was only the street parallel to the beach, and one other turning off diagonally with a few bars and restaurants. I remember the beach was wide and deep and had perfectly white sand. The sea was warm – so delightfully warm – and swimming every day was a delight. We enjoyed dinner that first night at a restaurant right on the beach – we tossed off our jandals and buried our feet in the sand, as we shared a whole fish. A perfect introduction to Thailand for my husband. Patong Beach was beautiful, pristine, and serene.

This is Patong Beach now.

Can you hear me screaming?

Words can’t express my horror. It looks like something on the Costa del Sol. But this is my beloved Thailand, not a crass Spanish beach! There is nothing – NOTHING – like this in New Zealand. Or I think Australia, or the Pacific. I have no idea about beaches in the US. Most of the people on this beach are Europeans. You can tell by all the men in Speedos, and women in bikinis, regardless of their shape. (My sister called it “The place where you will always find someone who looks worse in a bathing suit than you.”) We, in the Southern Hemisphere – or perhaps the New World – don’t know how lucky we are to have space. Space to go to the beach and to enjoy privacy, or at the very least not to have complete strangers just a few feet away.

Looking at Patong Beach in 2012 made me want to cry.

PS. I have to note we didn’t stay in Patong, but about 45 minutes away, in a very peaceful spot, and it was great.

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We came. We saw. We sweated. We gathered. Waves lapped. Sun beat down. Palms swayed. We smiled. Bartenders shook. And stirred. We drank. Fans cooled. Almost naked tourists stared. Music played. She descended. Dad proud. Mum cried. I cried too. He vowed. So did she. They kissed. We cheered. We hugged. Flowers thrown. Baby elephant Nadia arrived. Nadia kissed. Cameras clicked. Sun set. Guests swam. Dresses changed. Stars twinkled. Lanterns lit. Cocktails consumed. Speeches made. Eyes wiped. Cake cut. Dances danced. Lobster eaten. Tide advanced. Mango met sticky end. Sparklers sparkled. Boom! Fireworks enthralled. Fire dancer amazed. Moon rose. Band played. Shoes discarded. Bride glowed. Groom beamed. Moonlight shone. Surf gleamed. Palms swayed. Stars twinkled.

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