Author Jim Algie chronicles his on-and-off love affair with Thailand that still continues to this day even though he moved to Mexico in 2022.
Nothing is more common among expats than sitting around bitching about their adopted country and its inhabitants. When scholars claim that the age of colonialism ended after the British handover of Hong Kong back to the Chinese in 1997, they should really have a read of Thaivisa.com some time: a forum that takes Thai bashing and Western hubris to levels rarely seen since whoever the hell that 19th century anthropologist was who coined the term “noble savages.”
But I won’t complain too loudly, because I’ve done my unfair share of bitching too.
Sometimes we forget why we grew bored of our homelands and moved on to explore and reside in other countries, because the longer you live abroad the more jaded you become, and the less open you are to that magic which first drew you there in the first place.
But sometimes, on a rare evening, or at a new festival or in a different locale, you can recapture that sense of enchantment. I had such a night in early December 2014, which reminded me of a number of reasons why I still love Thailand.
1. SECRET SOCIETIES
Expats always moan that Bangkok is a cultural Sahara. No bands, no arts and entertainment, no theatre, big sporting events, or comedy clubs, etc. That’s not always true. Over the last few months we’ve had Mogwai, Belle and Sebastian, Thurston Moore, Temples and quite a few local indie acts flying in to put on shows.
The smallness of the scene for any creative endeavors or artistic pursuits makes the gigs and exhibitions into more intimate affairs, much like secret societies. It’s not hard to meet the main players, as it most definitely is in places like London, New York and Tokyo. So when Boaz Zippor mentioned on Facebook that he’d done some of the music for an upcoming butoh performance, I asked him for details. He generously offered me two free tickets and there they were, just as promised, for what turned out to be an exceptional performance by Terry Hatfield and company at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, which was as good as any other butoh shows I’ve seen in Europe or North America.
This was actually the ninth installment of the festival and I’d never even heard of it before.
2. ECCENTRIC EXPATS
Of course, Boaz doesn’t go out to his own events, even if he did write and record the experimental music for the performance, which worked very well with what is a series of often awkward or disturbing dances that seem to mimic states of mind, neuroses, and traumas rather than replicate the mostly physical and athletic grace of many dance forms.
I had to admire that. A musician who doesn’t even turn up for his own gigs, or seemingly go out at all from what he tells me on Facebook. But he’s a generous misanthrope, giving me and Noel two free tickets for the show.
Thailand has been endowed with many eccentric expats. I half suspect that many of their brains and DNA samples will one day wind up as specimens in an alien laboratory. Imagine that. A distant star populated by Boaz Zippor clones all trying to hide from or kill each other? At least the music and photographic evidence of the carnage will be good.
3. THE MYSTERIOUS CACOPHONY CONTINUES
After only a few weeks in Thailand I began wondering why some of the campfire or picnic guitarists didn’t bother tuning their guitars? Why were karaoke singers so frequently off-key that they’d have to catch a taxi back to the tune? Why did Thais turn the music up so loud that the speakers were distorting?
Over the years I developed all sorts of different theories, like perhaps all that sugary pop music and sappy ballads that makes up so much of the Thai musical diet had caused their eardrums to rot from the inside. But that would’ve thrown off their sense of balance too.
After more than two decades, as with so many other aspects of Thai behavior and culture, it remains a mystery. As we walked past all the different beer gardens (Singha, Chang, Leo, Heineken and their color-coded waitresses) around Siam Discovery Center and CentralWorld, with music blaring from four or five different sound systems into a cacophonous symphony of discordancy, I tried to get Noel’s opinion on this mysterious matter, but he couldn’t hear me because the music was too loud.
4. METEOROLOGICAL REFUGEES
My buddy Bruce, another Canuck journo, told me that in Barbados, where he once worked, Canadians are known by the derogatory slang term “ice niggers.”
That’s true enough. We do tend to migrate to warmer climes. And I still love the weather in Thailand. On this December evening it was 24 Celsius in Bangkok. In my hometown of Edmonton it was -20 – not including the wind chill factor – or as the “ice niggers” back home say, “It’s kinda chilly out there, eh?”
This may be a case of out of the deep freeze and into the deep fryer, but I still prefer the heat.
5. BEAUTIFULLY SHAMBOLIC
In search of a quieter place to have an after-butoh beer we finally made it to the canal-side bar and restaurant under the bridge by the ferry stop at Pratunam. We had a table outside, close enough to smell the fishy slime and diesel fumes from the black canal slithering with snakes of fluorescent light. Beside us a group of Thai boatmen were repairing an engine while smoking cigarettes and drinking beer.
In most Western countries this restaurant would have been closed down by the public health authorities before it even opened. In Thailand such places flourish – and I’ve never once gotten sick from eating at them.
So take your pick because you can’t have it both ways. A culture of transparency and accountability where everything is well regulated would never allow such outposts of lawlessness to operate. If you crave order, rules and a law-abiding citizenry, try Switzerland or Sweden.
6. THE MIRTH FACTOR
Whenever I’m back in the West or in other parts of Asia and I’m out on the town, whether in a bar, club or restaurant, I notice that the mood is much more subdued than it usually is in the kingdom. Elsewhere, there is not much jubilation in the air. There are no great gusts of laughter blowing in from other tables. Nobody seems to be having much of a good time.
In Eric Weiner’s outstanding travel book, The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Place in the World, he travels around to many different countries to see what their concept of happiness is. He starts the Thailand chapter in a go-go bar but admits he’s living in a cliché before coming up with a not very original assertion that among many Thais and expats hedonism equates to happiness.
But Weiner is a clever, well-traveled writer who worked as a broadcaster on Voice of America for many years. The original twist in this section comes when he examines that Thai saying yah kit mahk (“don’t think too much”). By contrast, the Western belief in the power and purpose of thought probably stems from Socrates and his famous adage, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Few Westerners, I suspect, would disagree with that notion.
But, as Weiner asks, do we ever question the value of thought? All these ideas, these worries, these opinions and internal dialogues – what good are they? What do they lead to besides neuroses, dissatisfaction and sessions of psychotherapy?
As the Thais would say, don’t think about it too much.
Some may mock the Thai grins as superficial and the jokes as juvenile, but I’ll take the Land of Smiles over the Land of Scowls any day. Two years ago, in a Shanghai beer garden, I thought I’d finally lucked out by sitting down next to the most boisterous and mirthful group of locals I had ever encountered in China.
After eavesdropping on their conversation for about 10 seconds, I quickly realized they were Thai tourists.
7. GATECRASHERS ARE WELCOME
Thailand is the greatest country in the world to gatecrash almost any event you can think of. At different times, I’ve gatecrashed high-so galas, a private birthday party for former Prime Minister General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who was then the deputy prime minister in the administration of Thaksin Shinawatra (the guest of honor that night). I’ve gatecrashed various religious rites (a young Thai man once let me photograph the bathing ceremony for mourners to wash the hand of his deceased father), concerts, exhibitions and all sorts of other events.
But one of the best such invasions came at the first Koh Samui Regatta some 10 years ago. The starting and finishing vessel was a Royal Thai Navy Patrol Gunboat. As journalists covering the regatta we were invited onto the boat, which was patrolled by sailors carrying AK-47s.
The Gulf of Thailand has had its piracy problems over the years. That was the real story I wanted to cover. So I walked down to the bridge where we weren’t supposed to go, but I’ve found that you can pretty much blunder your way into and out of almost any situation in Thailand with a few smiles and some choice words of polite Thai.
Not only did the captain invite me to sit down and chat with him and his men, but the chief gunnery officer offered to take me on a tour of the boat and show me the artillery room. He explained how all the different guns and explosives worked. He told me about all the different pirates and oil smugglers in the gulf. What a kind and helpful man he was.
What do you think the chances are of gaining that kind of access on an American, British or Chinese navy vessel?
Somewhere between zilch and nada, I’d say.
So, on this December evening, as we waited for a server to come and take our order it dawned on us that, not only is this Thailand where service is often slow and shit, but it was especially slow and shit because there was a Christmas party going on.
That was good news too. I love crashing Christmas parties. I especially love pillaging from them when they’re for English teachers.
Nice and polite as you please, I asked the barman for a pitcher. He served me with smiles and thanks as if I was the one doing him the favor. (Never forget the privilege that locals often treat foreigners, as long as they’re white and don’t look too poor or shabby, better than their own countrymen and women.)
That pitcher went down well and a little too quickly, so I went back for another one and helped myself to some food.
By the time our feast of freeloading had ended a shrewish ladyboy was washing the floor and screeching across the restaurant at her gal pal, though no one had bothered to kick us out yet. So we decided to take a selfie next to the party sign, much like a dog pisses on your car tire just to piss you off and to flaunt his omnipotence, as if to tell them, “We stole your beer and ate your food and best of all we won’t be hungover tomorrow morning and teaching the present continuous tense to a classroom full of yawning, disinterested dolts. Merry Christmas, assholes.”
8. BENEVOLENT PEOPLE
In search of our final port for last call we teetered down a nearby soi to see one of those genius names and signs that Thais come up with at the drop of a consonant: The Aphrodite Inn. It would have been a perfect name for a love hotel, but we were in search of frothy ales not comely wenches.
Next to the reception there was a bar area but all the lights were off. From our experience, this is never an excuse to go home in pleasure-loving Thailand.
Noel put his superior Thai skills to the test by cajoling the older Thai guy behind the desk into opening the fridge to sell us a beer, and there we sat, right in the very ovaries of the Aphrodite Inn, recounting our good fortune: free tickets from a caring misanthrope, an excellent show, the sonic bombardment of the beer gardens, the balmy weather even in December, the canal-side ‘entertainment’ of watching boat mechanics in action, the gatecrashing and freeloading, the air of conviviality throughout the night, and the final act of generosity from a man who had nothing to gain from us whatsoever.
So go ahead and keep complaining you miserable, ungrateful pricks, but when I add up all the positives of my life in Thailand, then subtract the negatives, I’m still way ahead of the game.
There’s plenty of Thailand content in the rocking novellas and music stories in Jim’s collection “On the Night Joey Ramone Died: Tales of Rock and Punk from Bangkok, New York, Cambodia and Norway.” available on Amazon. The acclaimed Thailand author, Timothy Hallinan, said, “The book captures the pop music world as well as, and in some cases better than, most actual rock autobiographies.”