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Posts Tagged ‘Thailand’

35 years ago today

I came home from school to find the house strangely silent, my parents uncharacteristically sitting in the sitting room in the middle of the afternoon. It was mid-summer. February 13th 1980. I remember the sun streaming through the windows, Mum and Dad sitting still, like statues.

The letter on the kitchen table was from AFS New Zealand.  It told me I would be going to live in Bangkok, Thailand, for a year.  It told me I would be leaving in just a few weeks.

And so, in the wink of an eye, in the opening of an envelope, the direction of my life changed forever.

I didn’t know then that as a result, I’d change all plans of what I’d study at university. I didn’t know then that my parents and sister would host a girl from Thailand for a year in 1982. I didn’t know then that ten years later I’d take my husband to live in Thailand, as I worked at the New Zealand Embassy for three years. I didn’t know that my husband and I would adopt Thai as our secret language. I didn’t know that I’d enjoy learning Thai, and would attempt two other Asian languages as a result. I didn’t know that much of my career would be focused on south-east Asia. I didn’t know that one day the favourite compliment I’ve ever received would be, “you must have been a Thai in a former life.” I didn’t know that 35 years later, I’d still be in touch with the friends I made that year, and the family I lived with.

I just knew that I was off on an adventure. Excited and terrified at the same time.

(With a nod to my first post on Mali’s A to Z – Alphablog, back in 2007.)

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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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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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Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon, chicken shawarma and kathi kebabs, ferries on the river, Turkish bread and dips, manicure and pedicure, prawn fettucine, temple serenity, khao mun gai (hainanese chicken rice), penang curry, batangkor (Thai churros), foot massage bliss, kuai tdeeo naam (noodle soup with pork balls), another foot massage, Chatuchak weekend market and shopping at Paragon and CentralWorld, aroma massage, more khao neeo gai yang and somdum, a facial, street market chaos, high tea and chocolates on the 52nd floor lounge every afternoon, passionfruit martini and berrytinis in the bar on the 64th floor at sunset, buffet dinner and a mango cocktail on the terrace of the Oriental Hotel beside the river, and fried bananas cooked and bought on the street.

Postscript – home without exploding (thanks Helen for your concern) to start a diet.

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Thirty years ago today

It seems extraordinary that thirty years ago today my life changed irrevocably. It doesn’t seem very long ago. The emotions of shock and excitement and fear are still strong. The relief that I had not been rejected by the exchange programme. The shock of my parents. After the initial speechlessness subsided, I looked up from reading the acceptance letter, and said “Thailand? Are we sure we know where that is?”

We all traipsed into the other room, and peered at the world map on the wall. Till now, its primary purpose had been to cover up a hole in the wallpaper, but we had seen it every day, and knew where countries were. But this time, we really needed to see, to understand. That world map suddenly meant something.

Then we looked in the old encyclopaedia. I remember it said “primary means of transport are elephant and bullock cart.” We all burst out laughing at that; the thought of me doing either of those seemed too ridiculous. Then I looked at the edition date of the encyclopaedia. I don’t recall exactly, but it was at least early 60s, and potentially early 50s. I breathed a sigh of relief. The odds of me riding a bullock to school had reduced dramatically.

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