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Archive for the ‘Thailand’ Category

Blogging isn’t always easy on the road. So usually I write something in advance, and schedule it to post when I’m away. Facebook is easier to deal with – they’re like mini-blogs. A blog in a two sentences or less. I wish all my readers could see my Facebook updates – it would take the pressure off posting here. But even keeping up with Facebook can be a chore. So, in anticipation, here are the Facebook Status Updates I am most likely to post over the next 12 days. But now I don’t have to.

Day :

  1. I am seriously allergic to economy class. 10 hours is more than enough. Any more might kill me.
  2. On this day in 198X, I did. He did too. I’m glad.
  3. Sawatdee kha, prateyt tee ruk! (Happy happy happy).
  4. Mangoes, warm seas, white sand. Who needs summer in NZ?
  5. Another foot massage. Is there much more blissful than that?
  6. This. Here. On this island. This is where I’d retire if we won the lottery. Sabai Sabai.
  7. So funny introducing my sister to the joys of a road-side food stall, complete with the ubiquitous dogs, and chilli. Wish other sister was here with us for the fun.
  8. Felt very old today, watching my niece get married. We were all very happy – yes I cried – and there was a funny incident with the baby elephant which I can’t repeat.
  9. Sticky rice, barbecued chicken, and green papaya salad. Still the best picnic EVER.
  10. Hate leaving. Hate anticipating long flights. Why can’t you beam me up, Scotty?
  11. Gasp. Allergic … gasp … economy class … gasp … (And it’s even worse when you have to read Board papers on the flight.)
  12. But it’s only 1 am in Thailand. WHY do I have to get up now? Oh right, holiday’s over.
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13 January 1981

Our year in Bangkok was nearing an end. We only had a few more weeks left, and we were feeling that acutely. We’d spent most of the year relaxed, seeing things when we could, taking pictures when we felt like it. But by now, we had realised that it was now or never. So Fe and I decided we needed to explore and take photos. And in particular, we wanted to go to Wat Pho – The Temple of the Reclining Buddha. Cee and Madeline decided to come too, and we were happy for their company.

It was a Tuesday, but by now, we’d well and truly given up on school. Time was running out, we weren’t getting any credits for our time in school, and the amazing city of Bangkok was quite literally on our doorsteps. Besides, we’d made some wonderful friendships over the year, and who knew if we’d ever see each other again? Time spent together was important. We felt it, even if we didn’t say it.

We headed off to the temple. It was quiet, tranquil, with lots of pigeons, and – for 1981 – lots of tourists. On my last visit (a year ago), I remembered how peaceful it had been in 1981. In those days, a busy temple probably meant 10-20 tourists in the compound. There had been no queues for photos of the Buddha’s feet, or to put coins in the bowls which line one side of the temple. Wat Pho in 2011 was still pleasant, and is always interesting, but can no longer be described as tranquil, though there were still spots you could find yourself alone for a short time.


Wat Pho is one of Bangkok’s most ancient temples, and has always been a seat of learning, in particular for traditional Thai medicine and massage. It is still very much a working temple, despite the tourists, and you frequently see monks hurrying across the courtyards, on some business or other. We encountered two young monks, and must have said something – presumably something polite and respectful – to them in Thai. Astonished, they disappeared then quickly reappeared with their teacher (also a monk) telling him over and over again that “they can speak Thai!”

Soon we were surrounded by over a dozen young monks wanting to talk to us, keen to meet these strange young foreign teenagers who could speak Thai. We chatted for about 30 minutes, and then their teacher gave us a fascinating tour of the Temple. We went home happy, after yet another unique AFS experience.

Friends chatting with monks 31 years ago

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As suggested by Helen (be careful what you wish for!) in a comment to my Ten Favourite Smells, here is a list of ten bad ones. Not necessarily the worst, and not necessarily smells that bring bad memories – in fact, most of these bring good memories. But they’re by no means pleasant.

  1. Shearing shed. Hundreds of sheep, kept inside in close confines, over the hours it takes to shear them. You know what sheep do when they’re slightly stressed. Or if you don’t, I’m sure you can guess. It doesn’t help if it was raining before the sheep came in. The smell of the wet wool mingled with their droppings. Eau de mouton.
  2. Mutton fat. Roast lamb or mutton, once it has been cooking for a while, makes me want to drool. But when it first starts cooking, and the fat just starts to melt, it explains why a) the Thais say sheepmeat smells, and b) why northern Africans and Middle Eastern cuisines add lots of spices to their sheepmeat. I have a leg of lamb in the fridge for dinner tomorrow night. I think I’ll be adding lots of spice.
  3. Taiwanese fish markets. Probably not helped by the 4 am wake up call, but hundreds if not thousands of kilos of fish, squid, shrimp and anything else hauled from the sea to be eaten with gusto by the Chinese has a unique aroma which I wouldn’t want to bottle.
  4. Everything smells worse at 6 am

    Everything smells worse at 6 am

  5. Dried squid. The Thais like dried squid. Fortunately it is usually displayed open air, and so breezes can disperse the aroma. I just don’t see how they can eat it.
  6. At least photos don't smell bad!

  7. Cat pee. Though I do miss Cleo and Gershwin, I don’t miss their incontinence. Some wine writers say sauvignon blanc has an aroma like cat pee. That’s just wrong.
  8. Vomit. Enough said. Good thing I don’t have kids.
  9. Bangkok canals. Some Bangkok canals are so polluted that nothing could survive in them. Deep, black and oily, they look awful. They smell worse.
  10. Shrimp paste is one of the reasons why you should buy your Thai curries already made up. Frying shrimp paste helps you understand why Asians cook outside.
  11. Durian. This large, rugby-ball sized fruit with a spiky green skin emits a pungent aroma that you can smell from miles around. My Thai father – like most Thais – loved durian with a passion. He would take forever choosing just the right fruit, picking it up and sniffing it, tapping it, listening to the sound, presumably to tell if it was ripe or not. The durian (also known as the king of fruit) needed to be opened with a large knife, to cut through the green skin and the clear white flesh in order to reach the desired goal – the luscious yellow pods of gooey unctuousness. The Thais would “ooh” and “aah” at the sight of this favoured fruit. After my first taste, overcome with the stench and disgusted at the taste (soapy, pungent, hideous), I would shudder at the sight of the large yellow pods. Khun por was resigned to my ignorance. Other Thais thought my horror at the durian was funny. They knew that we farangs (foreigners) just didn’t understand. They knew that we were missing out on gourmet heaven.
  12. Rotorua. A city set around a beautiful lake, in what has been described as a geothermal wonderland. Unfortunately, all that sulphuric activity bubbling up from the centre of the earth means it smells like rotten duck eggs.

    Ducks on Lake Rotorua. Not the culprits.

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When words don’t come …

… heliconias help.

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Last night we had book club. We skyped with a friend and fellow book-lover in France , who is laid up in bed, after emergency surgery on her back, after she woke up unable to walk, after breaking a disc in her back from vomiting, after food poisoning. Blame chicken, she said last night. She is in pain, and a month later still struggles to walk, with a foot with no feeling, and can only ride short distances in a car. Her rehabilitation will be long, and she is now beset with visa issues, the last thing she needs.

On Monday we woke up to the news that a young Wellingtonian had died in Thailand. They think it was food poisoning, and her two friends were also hospitalised, one needing emergency heart surgery, the other fortunately less severely affected.

Another friend yesterday told me that a dear friend of hers was, it seemed, without brain function, after a car accident. His wife is undergoing radiation therapy after surgery after chemotherapy for breast cancer.

And I read Bridgett’s post.

Yesterday reminded me to appreciate the good in my life while I still have it, and to eat carefully.

Last night, after a lovely book club where we gossiped and skyped and listened to plans of an escape to Mexico more than any talk about books (except for agreeing that we loved The Sound of Butterflies by Rachel King, a period piece set in England and the Amazon by the daughter of a famous NZ historian), I drove home from the seaside town of Eastbourne, the sky clear, the city glittering in the distance, and the big yellow moon shining the way home across the harbour.

This afternoon I can hear the cicadas outside our door, the sky is blue, the chardonnay is cool (I’m making up for being a responsible driver last night on what was supposed to be Chardonnay Thursday), the steak will be tender, it is hot hot hot, and the weekend begins NOW.

Today I smiled as I waited at an intersection. A young Pacific Island driver in front of me in his beat up car stopped at a pedestrian crossing for a father carrying a baby, and the little sister running across after him. She skipped, and turned to the driver, and waved a thankyou at him. His smile of pleasure made me smile.
Two cars later, another driver – obviously happy it is the weekend – waited and waved me into the traffic stream. I waved my thanks, and smiled.

The lady in the pharmacy where I collected an order made me laugh. And now, home with my order, I am smiling again, because I took a risk and got some of my photos printed off on canvas. Here’s my favourite one:

My 1.5m x 0.5m photo of an African sunrise, now on canvas

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First I was a resident, living in a Thai family, going to a Thai school, clad in the ubiquitous blue skirt and white shirt and Mary Jane shoes that branded me a Thai teenager (despite my towering height and pale skin). Ten years later, I was a diplomat, living the life of an expatriate, a life that I fitted (unlike the Thai school uniform) perhaps more appropriately, a life I loved. Over the next decade or so, I visited as a businessperson, and as a returning resident. But as time passes, the returning resident label wears thin. It has been 18 years since we left Thailand. I can’t believe I am writing that. And now when I return to Thailand, I fear that the former Thai teenager, former resident, former legitimate business visitor, is now simply becoming a tourist. A common-as-muck, everyday, annoying tourist. I’m getting to know Thailand in reverse. And that is not without pain.

Still, I’m not quite a tourist. I still find real joy in seeing the strange, and knowing it is familiar, even if I’m scratching to remember its Thai name these days. Walking down the street, past so much Thai life there sharing the pavement with us all, was a joy. Recognising things I’d forgotten I ever knew: the strange, neon-coloured desserts, the stalls filled with dried fish, each variety a worse stench than the other, the green spinach-like cakes, batangkor, fried bananas, candy floss and crepes, all the different varieties of noodles, banana cupcakes, the queues for the lottery tickets, the pushing as the bus comes. I loved that it all felt so familiar.

We stayed in an area of town we rarely frequented when we lived there as diplomats (or when we did we drove), but as students, we visited regularly, usually on the way to our weird, Austrian doctor or to the GPO. I was telling my husband about the Indian restaurant where we occasionally stopped for lunch, enjoying my first experiences of naan bread and dhal for just a few baht. A few days later I just about jumped for joy as we walked past that same restaurant on Charoen Krung Road. Still there, and 30 years later, it had changed little.

But there was something different this visit. Thailand has changed. In Bangkok, the pavements were well-maintained, easier to walk down. Even many of the roadside stalls now had concrete floors and low concrete block walls. Bangkok isn’t the horror it used to be to travel around. We stayed at the bottom of Silom Road by the river, and yet within minutes could whizz to Siam Square on the Skytrain, a journey that would have taken at least an hour or more (depending on the time of day) if we had driven it (remembering that most of that time would be spent at the traffic lights at the Lumpini Park/Dusit Thai intersection, the slowest-changing lights I’ve ever been stuck at). The Paragon shopping centre had good coffee, cheap English language books at Kinokuniya, a floor displaying luxury cars (BMW or Mercedes Benz looked cheap compared to the Lotus, Maserati and Lamborghini!). Local Thai favourite snacks and lunches could now be enjoyed at the food court, not on the street. I slurped on guay tdeeo naam (noodle soup) in the crisp, air-conditioned environment of the CentralWorld food court. It was delicious but lacked the atmosphere that once made it so special. For a start, Sharon, Madeline and Cee were missing. So too were the rickety chairs and tables, the din of the traffic, and the bus fumes.

Realising that I was getting to know Bangkok in reverse – from local pseudo-Thai to foreign tourist – was hard. The changes to the city I love bring the knowledge I don’t have a place here anymore and that, well, that hurts.

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(2nd) home sweet home

The little plane flew in over the island. We peered out the windows, trying to pick which resort was ours. We came into land. The plane bounced and bounced along the uneven runway. There’s a reason they make you keep your seatbelts on.

We looked eagerly out the window. Almost 19 years ago it been a picturesque airport, lined with grass and gardens, with one small thatched roof terminal. The airport had grown, but we were charmed to see that it had kept its character, now with several thatched roof terminals to cope with the many domestic and international flights. The flowers were still there, and the little, brightly painted, open air buses that transport passengers to the terminals were reminiscent of the little trains we’d experienced back in Easter 1992. It is still the most beautiful little airport in the world.

It was Christmas Day. As we made our way through to Baggage Claim, we were greeted with a Christmas tree in this Buddhist nation. Not just any Christmas tree though. Someone had carefully chosen this tree; its fluorescent pink plastic needles waved in the breeze. Thailand always makes us laugh.

Our transfer was smooth, and we jumped into the back of the resort’s car for the short drive to our home for the next nine days. Within minutes we had seen a water buffalo under coconut palms, passed any number of men and women and entire families on scooters, drooled over the noodle stalls already doing a good business, and observed a family sitting outside their tiny house, at a concrete table on concrete chairs with their poodle, enjoying a lazy Saturday morning. We were back in Thailand, and tears came to my eyes. I felt ridiculously happy.

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