Moving country, moving house, changing job, divorce and the death of a partner are reported to be some of the biggest causes of stress. The first three mentioned on that list, I’ve experienced with far too much regularity.
I’d love to say that I’m so accustomed to moving country, ergo house and job that it doesn’t take a feather out of me, but I’d be telling lies. I don’t even move countries, but continents; from Indonesia (South East Asia), to Sierra Leone (West Africa), to Afghanistan (Central Asia), Iraq (the Middle East), Kenya (East Africa) and back to South East Asia, the Philippines and Thailand.
Because the nature of my work involves humanitarian response I have rarely stayed anywhere for longer than a year. Picture if you will the number of ironing boards, clothes irons, clothes hangers, wine glasses and coffee pots that were bought on arrival and distributed on departure from each country.
My last sojourn involved being based in Bangkok, which is a great city, when you’re well paid and can afford the lifestyle it has to offer. For the more fortunate ex-pats the choice of really good accommodation close to the city is extensive and the high prices reflect the quality of what’s on offer. I may as well be living in a caravan if I don’t have an oven in the kitchen and when I lived in Manila I had a two-ring stove and a microwave that never worked. After some time I found it just plain depressing not to have access to a decent oven, especially when I didn’t consider Filipina food up to my gourmet standards. My stipulation that the apartment must have an oven in the kitchen guided me on what was available for the price range. The Thais like to eat out and as most non-salad food is fried, there are few apartments even in the high-end range that offer an oven in the kitchen.
I got lucky in my quest for living accommodation and ended up in a very large 2-bed apartment located just off the main shopping area. It was situated on a minor soi (side street), sufficiently out of the way so as not to feel overwhelmed by tourists but removed from the noise and the bustle of a big Asian city like Bangkok.
Before Bangkok became the big bustling Asian city that it is, it was made up of a series of lanes and alleyways that defined the city. All human life lived in these lanes and alleys. You could buy anything you needed from fruit to fridges, sinks to sofas; have a haircut; enjoy a massage or eat your dinner on the side of the road.
When I moved into the apartment in Bangkok, you could take a ‘shortcut’ to Luan Suan, an upmarket street, which is home to Gagan Restaurant one of the top three restaurants in Asia (and serving the most fantastic Indian-fusion food). There are also some decent restaurants on the street and access to the Bangkok Transit System (BTS). The shortcut was a series of small narrow lanes, with a huge tree almost similar to a willow tree more common in Europe, whose branches hung low, forming a semi-circle, marking the entrance to the laneway. You felt as if you were stepping into another world, and indeed you did step in to some unique culture, that’s not found in many other cities or places.
Motorcycle taxis weaved between the street food-sellers, the cyclists and the pedestrians who frequented the street. There were several massage parlours and the women would sit outside on the steps when there were no customers, often eating meals there. There was one or two hair salons, a house where English lessons were conducted from the open carport at weekends, small grocery stores and a variety of eateries from a colonial style house converted to a restaurant, to small family run restaurants. The small restaurants usually entailed some plastic chairs and tables on the street and a mobile kitchen with open fire and boiling pots of fat for cooking – little regard for safety there. The plastic dishes from the restaurants were placed into large buckets and in the evenings as I took the shortcut home, the owners would wash the dishes on the street with water from an unidentified source. Sitting among cockroaches one evening while eating at one of these restaurants guaranteed a lost of appetite and I didn’t repeat the experience. I was also turned off from eating local when travelling by car one day, I noticed two restaurant workers, during a quiet period sitting beside the kitchen and one woman was scouring the other’s hair for head lice.
Luan Suan itself is an upmarket street with lots of ongoing building construction at the top of the street towards Lumpini Park. I had a few friends who lived off Luan Suan and would frequently walk over to them for dinner. Garbage from the restaurants would be left out in plastic bags on the sidewalk, ready for the bin collectors to come at night and clean the streets. As you walked up the road, rats would scurry out and of the bags of rubbish and scatter at the sound of voices or footsteps. I had never seen so many rats in my life and the open drains gave them easy access to scurry up and down the road. I took to walking down the street clapping my hands like some mentally deranged eccentric, but it worked and I once spotted seven rats scurrying out of some plastic bags, down the open drains.
The number of rats around food helped my decision to shop in the supermarket. The other option was to spend the day going from market to market to buy vegetables and then trying to find transport to do so. The variety of vegetables and fruit is remarkable but then you have to know how to cook the local food to really experience the scale and variety of food on offer. I tended to stick to what I knew, but paying Irish prices in a country where labour is cheap is upsetting added to the fact that there is some conglomerate capitalist rubbing his greasy palms at the prospect of massive profit.
Bangkok has many expats living in the city and the supermarkets cater to all nationalities. There’s nothing (well, maybe Helmanns mayonnaise) that you can’t find in the big supermarket from smoked salmon to salami, but I frequently chocked on the prices I paid. For some reason instant coffee is a premium produce with security tags on jars of Nescafe, the way you’d see them on bottles of whiskey elsewhere. A 100 gramme jar of coffee costs about €20. The cost of wine in the country is outrageous and after India, Thailand has the second highest taxes on wine in the world. A bottle of Carlo Rossi (the cheapest, most awful wine in the world) is about €20 a pop, so I would use every opportunity when travelling to bring an extra large suitcase and lots of towels to wrap enough wine to open a small shop.
Members of high society in Thailand like to be seen drinking wine in the roof top bars of the fancy hotels dotted around Bangkok. It’s considered a status symbol and gives these posers, a sense of sophistication. You can’t buy booze in the afternoons, apparently because children get out of school during this time and the king thinks it may influence the younger generation.
Any public criticisms of the king of Thailand, no matter how minor, will ensure a long jail term. It is difficult to access if he is genuinely as popular as the media make him out to be, as saying otherwise would ensure time behind bars. According to the media, there is a fierce public loyalty to a man who is reputed to be one of the wealthiest in the world and whose family behave like feudal overlords in the 17th century. At the cinema the national anthem is played before every movie and if you don’t stand to attention, then I dread to think of the consequences. If you happen to be walking in Lumphini Park at 6 p.m. or past a military establishment, then you must stop while the anthem is blasted over megaphones. The city is littered with enormous posters of the king and queen over many years. In one poster, himself is dripping in sweat and when I asked one day why would you use such a picture, I was told that it reflected how hard he worked for the Thai people. The notorious traffic jams in Bangkok are frequently caused by military escorts forcing the traffic to stop as a motorcade containing members of the royal family, going to or coming back from shopping sprees!
Happily there is one unmarried princess, who works tirelessly for the poor and marginalized in a deeply divided country. The 87-year old king is crippled with failing health and lives in his own personal hospital. His queen is similarly in bad health after a stroke in 2012.
The heir apparent, the Crown Prince (63) is surrounded in controversy. His dog Foo Foo was promoted to the rank of Air Marshal and on his death received a four-day Buddhist funeral followed by a cremation. On the dog’s birthday, photos were released of the Prince’s naked third wife and the dog at a birthday celebration (he is now on his fourth wife, according to reports). Many Thais, who would prefer to see his 60-year old sister, known for her altruistic and charitable work, accede the throne.
The support for whoever accedes to the throne very much depends on the military who are the real power kingpins in Thailand. The first woman prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra was removed through a military coup in 2014 and there are no signs of any early return to democracy, despite promises of reform. Shinawatra, is a wealthy businesswoman whose eldest brother Thaksin was also a previous prime minister. Reports accuse her brother, who fled the country when he was deposed, of ruling through his sister and using power to further business interests. It’s very much an urban/rural divide with the Shinawatras’ being voted in by and representing the rural population. When there was a water shortage due to El Niño in 2015, the government cut off the water supply to the farmers while car washing and water for plants was still available in Bangkok.
It will be interesting to see what will happen when the king dies and many believe that the military will use his death as an excuse to remain in power, until things settle down. An Irish friend who believes the king’s death is imminent is stacking up on bottles of gin for over a year now, as he believes there will be a ban on the sale of booze in the kingdom for at least six months after the royal death!
Another form of Chinese torture
Unlike the price of booze, the Thai massage is famous and costs as little as €10 for an hour’s therapy. The local massage comprises of slight women walking on your back and yanking limbs and muscles you never knew existed. Language can also be a problem and much to my shame my Thai was limited to giving instructions to taxi drivers and some basic words for hello, thank you and wrong number etc. This made finding a decent masseuse a hit-and-miss affair, trying to explain that I have an arthritic hip and it shouldn’t be yanked or I’ll scream the house down with pain. Indeed a greater challenge was finding therapists who had some kind of qualification.
A Japanese friend who previously lived in Bangkok, pointed me in the direction of the Chinese massage spa just off the BTS. The place fascinated me and was just a 10-minute train ride from where I was living. It was on a minor soi and when you turned into the compound a couple of dogs lazed under the trees to escape from the heat of the day. This was no luxury spa – there were two rooms and a row of uncomfortable wicker chairs in both rooms. There was a third room with a plastic sliding door that was almost permanently pulled shut, which fascinated me; well at least what was behind it interested me. It was like some form of religious temple and there were days when lying on the wicker chair and for the want of something to look at, I would strain to get a glimpse of what was going on inside. Some days when it sounded as if there was chanting and on one particular day tens of young people poured out, as the door was firmly pulled behind them. There were very few foreign clients, but some pretty fancy cars with Thais or Chinese would pull up outside for this no frills establishment. Lots of certificates covered the walls and like most other places there were some therapists who were better than others.
You couldn’t make an appointment because of the language barrier and I’m not sure they even took appointments, so you ended up with whatever therapist was next in line. Like most places there were good and not so good therapists, but I hated when I arrived and it was ‘Granny’s’ turn. The woman must have been in her 80’s and she had a habit of holding my foot under her armpit while working on the other leg. Another woman, who appeared to be the boss, spent most of her time watching Chinese soap operas on her smart phone. They must have been short of staff one day when I ended up with her as a therapist and she had some English. Without doing anything else she touched my feet and told me my knees were inflamed and then pointed to my hip. She pointed out some other ailments by just touching my feet; I have to say I was fairly impressed by her skills.
The type of massage practiced by the Chinese was Rwo Shr, brought from Taiwan by a Swiss priest Father Josef Eugster, who introduced that particular method to many countries in Asia. Many people like to be cosseted in a spa with essential oil and have a massage that makes them fall asleep. I much prefer to have a medical massage that sorts out some of the pains and aches I have developed with increasing age and I have to admit, despite the excruciating pain experienced during the massage, I came out walking on air and feeling fantastic.
I recommended the Chinese massage to a few friends, some of whom are yet to forgive me for the pain they endured and who have never returned to these gifted Chinese therapists. I eventually found something nearer home, practicing the same method of reflexology, but with much more comfortable chairs and soothing music in the background to take my mind off the pain.
Bangkok is a big, brash South Asian city where everything and anything goes. It’s exciting and exhausting, it’s hot and sweaty; it’s rich and poor. But whatever it is and however it wears you down at times, it’s an exciting place and there’s always something new on the horizon – it just depends on how you look at it.
Photography by Orla Fagan
Until next time