THE WITLESS FARANG
PART ONE: The From Away Getaway
Mainers use the expression “from away” to describe people like me. It is a mildly derisive colloquialism, applied to those who bear the misfortune of being born somewhere other than Maine. There are implied tendencies of this misfortune, such as interloping or carpet bagging–not to mention a veiled inference that all who originate “from away” lack the fortitude and stamina to withstand the long Maine winter. I definitely fit this profile.
It snows a lot in Maine–not just during the winter months, but also during a good chunk of the autumn and spring. I knew this before I came here in 1980, to work as a chef at a lakeside resort in the Belgrade Lakes region. Employment–and the fond memories of family summer vacations taken in my father’s native state–were my initial attractions to Maine. Over the years, many other attractions have been availed, none of which include snow. I hate the stuff. It is burdensome and depressing to me.
Fleeing the state before the first snowfall was my habit for fifteen years. For five of those years, Thailand was my chosen destination. It was an easy choice to make back in the early nineties. Thai cuisine was the up-and-coming trend of the foodie world, and airfare and living expenses for three to four months in paradise was only about twenty-five hundred bucks . More importantly, Thailand has a tropical climate. There is no snow.
For various reasons, hordes of budget travelers from all over the world were descending on Thailand at this time. Most of them were from Europe–primarily backpacking neo-hippie types under thirty years old, breezing through Thailand en route to other destinations, self-styling themselves as “travelers”, not as “tourists”.
They were, of course, tourists–as were the shameless horn dogs who had come to explore Thailand’s infamous and prospering prostitution and human trafficking industry…as were the Aussies and Kiwis who were on two-week-long Mekong whiskey benders…as were the ganja and opium connoisseurs who had spent years in Thailand on a three-month tourist visa…as were all who came as an exodus from snow or on a witless pilgrimage of cultural enlightenment. Tourists or not, to the Thais they were all Farangs…neither ethnically Thai or possessing the good fortune of being born in Thailand.
Farang (pronounced, fuh-rong) is a corruption of the word, Farancet, the Thai word for the French people. It originates from the French colonial influence in Southeast Asia, primarily in Vietnam–a country which eventually violently expelled them.
Thailand never expelled the French from their country because the French never dared to invade it. The Thais don’t take too kindly to foreign invasion or occupation…the exception to this being peaceful invasions of stoned, back-packing Westerners who provide multiple opportunities for profit. The Thais are hard-bargaining, opportunistic capitalists. Farangs–provided they spent money and behaved themselves–were welcome.
Welcome or not, I possessed the typical American fears and suspicions of traveling abroad, particularly for the first time to a country on the other side of the planet. Certainly, I speculated, the natives would rob me blind or, worse, set me up in a scheme whereby I would be falsely accused of something, imprisoned, and left to languish in a shitty Bangkok jail, fending off rapists, enduring torture and withering away to nothing on a daily diet of rice and cockroaches.
Disease was a distinct possibility also, one which the regimen of shots I had to have prior to traveling were unlikely to prevent. If nothing else, I might commit some heinous cultural faux pas, sparking an international incident which, barring extrication by American military forces, might also land me in that same, dreaded, shitty Bangkok jail.
Numerous travel guides of Thailand I purchased preceding my first trip, as well as the sage advice proffered by my travel guru, The Weevil, allayed most of my irrational fears.
The Weevil and I had been drunks together in Baltimore during the 1970′s. By the mid-eighties, the prolonged notions of adolescent immortality had diminished in both of us. The Weevil–always the pioneer–quit drinking a year before me. He also possessed an innovative pioneer acumen for low budget travel, a fine art in which he gladly tutored me during several cross-country camping trips we took together after I sobered up. He had explored Thailand a year before my first trip, and he was my initial inspiration to travel there.
Always the guru and soother of irrational fears, The Weevil counseled me wisely. ”You worry too much, Joe”, he advised. “It’s so easy, man. I’ll meet you over there to show you how to get around. In the meantime, read your travel guides, believe about half of what you read in them, buy a Thai phrase book, don’t drink anything but bottled water over there, and remember to smile a lot. That’s it, really”.
“I think that you’ll find”, he further advised, “that the flight over there is the hardest part of the trip”.
Air flight is not one of my favorite things. My dislike for it has less to do with a fear of flying and more to do with boredom and claustrophobia–both of which evolve runaway, irrational thoughts in me. Medication might help–but I suspect that years of self-medication probably helped start this problem in the first place. Professional counselling might also help–except such sessions are expensive, as well as making me feel bored and claustrophobic.
Landings and take-offs are fine. It’s the in-between part that is troublesome to me. There is a lot of in-between time on flights to Thailand. San Francisco to a Hong Kong is a fourteen-hour flight, with a three-hour layover; Hong Kong to Bangkok is another three-and-a-half hours of flight.
Not having slept for more than twenty-four hours before my first trip made my pre-flight anxiety more acute than usual. I knew that I would only get edgier, too, because I can’t sleep in an upright position in a moving vehicle–particularly one that is moving at six hundred miles per hour, seven miles above the planet.
During the first leg of the flight, I busied myself reading the Thai travel guides and phrase book, walking up and down the aisles, smoking cigarettes (it was still allowed back then), refusing the free cocktails offered on international flights, eating the micro-waved plastic meals I was served, drinking gallons of water and flavorless coffee, and peeing a lot. No other passengers sat near me, which was fine–the last thing I needed was a talkative stranger bending my ear for 14 hours or, worse, falling asleep next to me and obstructing my passage to the rest room.
This regimen of distraction lasted effectively for only the first six hours of the flight. By then, I had begun to feel like a lab rat in an airborne sensory deprivation chamber. I would repeat each activity with obsessive regularity, periodically being rewarded by the indifferent flight attendants with the treat of a hot, steamy towel or another round of flavorless food.
Consumption of this food began to produce a seemingly endless–but noiseless– flatulence…something from which I could neither flee nor withhold. Obviously, the other passengers suffered from this same affliction also. The entire plane smelled of farts, cigarette smoke and sweat. At this point, few of the passengers noticed any of this. Most of them had gone to sleep in every section of the darkened aircraft.
Given these circumstances, I decided it was time to at least try to get some sleep. I tilted my seat back, put on a set of headphones and dialed into a classical music station. I had actually begun dozing off when a loud crackling of static snapped me awake, and the cheerful, booming voice of the pilot announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have crossed the International Dateline. It is now twenty-four hours later than it was just moments ago”.
The fact that pilot had jostled me awake from much needed sleep was cause enough for anger. That he did so issuing a ridiculous statement regarding our location seemed like some sort of malicious mischief. The International Dateline is a zig-zagging invisible line, running from pole to pole, primarily through the Pacific Ocean. Even if it was a visible landmark, mentioning it to a planeload of sleeping passengers with nothing but seven miles of darkness below them seemed downright cruel. Were they bored or drunk up in that cockpit?
Apparently, though, this announcement was a light-hearted wake up call, to soften the blow of the next announcement, issued a few minutes later.
“Uh, folks, this is–uh–your captain again”, the pilot began, “we–uh–have a little turbulence–uh–coming up ahead…Could–uh–get a little bumpy for a while…please–uh–please fasten your seat belts and observe the no smoking signs”.
Throughout this very halting, terse announcement, the flight attendants hurried up and down the aisles, awaking those who were still asleep, making sure everyone complied with the pilot’s order. No sooner had the attendants successfully done this–and safely buckled themselves into seats–it became more than just “a little bumpy”.
The first wave of turbulence felt and sounded as if the plane was doing a belly-landing in a minefield. Overhead compartments flew open, carry-on luggage spilled out of them, lights blinked off and on, as passengers gasped and shrieked with every whack and bang of the powerful air currents slamming into the jet. It continued at this level of intensity for about ten minutes, easing to a level more akin to a car travelling over a bumpy road with no shock-absorbers, pitching and yawing, continuing this way for another half-hour. Throughout, the “Fasten Seat Belt” signs remained lit.
Coffee, terror and the jolting ride availed the painful necessity of me needing to pee. I unbuckled my seat belt and began to stagger and reel towards the rest room. A short, angry looking flight attendant attempted to stop me–unable to fully finish her admonishment of “sir, please return to your seat!”, before another jolt of turbulence knocked her back into her seat, allowing me to stumble past her into the rest room.
Later, when the turbulence had subsided, she made a of point of giving me a thorough scolding…all of which I took politely, resisting the urge to describe the repercussions of pissing my pants–suggesting, rather, that maybe I should be thrown off of the plane. She saw no humor in that at all. I was a troublemaker and a smart ass–quite possibly just a hair-width away from being dangerous.
“I’m going to keep my eye on you, sir”, she warned, “and I would appreciate it if we don’t have any more trouble. Think you can help me out with that, sir?” ’You bet’, I responded weakly.
Within a half-hour after this ordeal, when the plane had resettled into smoother flight, I considered making another attempt at sleep. At this point, I had been awake for almost forty hours. I was unpleasantly giddy, edgy and it seemed as if I was on the verge of lapsing into hallucinations. My body felt as if it was coated in some sort of filmy substance, the cabin pressure had made me virtually deaf and, for whatever reason, my feet had swollen to the size of small picnic hams. I was miserable and exhausted–silently lamenting the injustice of being a recovering alcoholic unable to partake in all of the free booze that was circulating throughout the aircraft.
I was distracted from this misery and self-pity by a commotion that had begun six rows forward of me in the center section of seats. There was an urgent coming and going of flight attendants and flight officers; passengers were being guided from this section to other sections; a few other passengers were being guided to this section and seemed to be engaged in serious discussions with the flight crew. Eventually, all seats to the immediate front, back and sides of this row of seats were emptied. Mysteriously, flight attendants held up what appeared to be sheets all around this single row of seats.
Naturally, I was both curious and alarmed. I was tempted to sneak up to where all of this mysterious hubbub was occurring, but thought better of it. I had already caused enough trouble for the flight attendant earlier. She had her eye on me. She was probably dying to have the sky marshal pistol-whip and cuff me. I stayed in my seat– where claustrophobia, boredom and fatigue overtook rational thoughts.
It occurred to me that maybe a bomb had been discovered, that it was now being disarmed, and that perhaps this device was just one snip of a wire away from detonating. This was actually both a comforting and a scary thought–comforting in that I knew that if it exploded I would get some rest…and scary in that I knew that if exploded I would be dead. Sleeplessness had reduced me to this sorry state.
Eventually, word got back to me via other concerned passengers that some poor woman had had a miscarriage. She was okay, and had been moved up to the First Class section to be made more comfortable. My empathy and concern for her were genuine. Nevertheless, I was also genuinely relieved that a blinding flash of light and a loud explosion would probably not be the last things I would see and hear in this life, and that bits and pieces of me would not end up as shark chum in the South China Sea.
Eventually, the flight landed in Hong Kong, where I had a three-hour layover prior to boarding the connecting flight to Bangkok. It was a dull and uneventful wait. I poked around the “duty-free” shop for a while, but spent most of my time at the departure gate watching horrible Chinese cartoons on a wide screen television. The place smelled of mildew–a welcome respite from the fourteen hours I had just spent in a pressurized airborne fart factory.
The flight to Bangkok, too, was dull and uneventful. By the time it arrived at Don Mueang International Airport, it was three A.M., Thai time. I had been without sleep for over forty-eight hours. I was completely brain dead. Everything around me in the bustling airport was a blur.
I have no recollection of going through customs, or of retrieving my luggage (a large backpack) or exchanging traveler’s checks for Thai Baht at the airport currency exchange. Nor do I recall how I found my way to an exit where, when the door opened, I was blasted with suffocating, smoggy tropical air and throngs of taxi touts descending on me, shouting, “Where you go? Where you stay?”
There were dozens of cabs lining the street outside of the airport, the drivers leaning against them, waiting patiently for fares. Exhausted, I headed to the nearest cab and driver, ignoring the beggars, touts and tourist agents who were vigorously trying to get my attention for either business or a handout. The driver, seeing that I had chosen him by mere eye contact, grabbed my heavy backpack as he asked me, “Where you go?”. ’Banglumpoo..Khao San Road’, I responded wearily, ‘tao rai?’ (how much?).
I had rehearsed this line repeatedly in the weeks prior to my trip. Banglumpoo was a district in Bangkok where all of the Farang tourists and expatriates hung out. Khao San Road was the hub of it all. Asking how much was a simple inquiry of the proposed price–a prelude to what typically involves several minutes of haggling and negotiations, involving the purchase of any of a number of goods and services. It is customary in Thailand. The travel guides and The Weevil both stressed the exercise of this custom. ”Bargain hard,” The Weevil had stressed, “or they will never respect you.”
“Five hundred baht”, the cabbie responded in English. At the time, five hundred baht was about twenty bucks. It was about a forty-five minute drive from the airport to Banglumpoo. I was tired. Culture shock was setting in. Twenty bucks sounded like a bargain. ’Okay’, I replied, agreeing to a price which, subsequently, I learned was three times the going rate.
As the driver stuffed my heavy back pack into the trunk of his tiny, ancient Toyota, I attempted to open the front passenger-side door, not wanting to wedge my six-foot-two-inch frame into the cramped back seat. It was locked, and the driver had a minor melt-down, jabbering in Thai and brusquely pushing me away from the door. Neither the Weevil or the travel guides had informed me that, like the British, the driver’s side is on the right.
The driver opened the back door of the cab and beckoned me to get in, which–not wishing to piss him off further–I did. It was a tight squeeze. There was barely enough room for me to buckle up the seat belt, which looked to be the only thing inside of the cab that hadn’t been used. “Hotel where?” , the driver asked as he pulled out past the long queue of other cabs. ’ViengTai Hotel’, I answered.
I thought of saying something like, ‘…and step on it’, but doubted that he would have understood that expression in English–and it was not among any of the few Thai phrases I had taught myself and rehearsed. Besides this, within moments of stating my destination, he had already stepped on it…to a point where the G-forces slammed me back into the seat, and the roar of the diesel engine was deafening. This came as little surprise, since The Weevil had told me long, terrifying stories regarding Thai drivers, stating that there were no laws, rules or regulations other than driving very fast, honking the horn constantly, and avoiding collisions with anything. The latter of these things seemed the least likely to happen, as we darted and zipped through four lanes of Thai highway traffic which, at 4:30 AM, was very busy. (Jesus, I thought, don’t these people ever sleep).
The driver said nothing during the first fifteen minutes of the ride. Breaking the silence, looking into the rear-view mirror at me, he shouted over the roar of the engine, “You want woman tonight?” Since I doubted that he would understand words in English like “shithead” or “pandering swine”, I opted to respond politely and diplomatically in Thai–’I am tired. I want to go to the hotel’, I responded. He seemed both puzzled and disgusted by my response. (Weeks later, I realized what I actually had said was, ‘I am beef. I pain go hotel’. By that time, I realized that the Thai phrase book I had paid twenty bucks for was a useless piece of crap… and I tossed it).
There was no more conversation. The driver deposited me at the ViengTai Hotel–a worn down relic from Thai post-World War Two urban projects–more of an attraction to vacationing Thais than to back packing Farangs. The Weevil had made reservations for me there, so that I could spend the night in the relative comfort and luxury of a twelve-dollar-a-night air-conditioned room.
Surprisingly, the hotel seemed fairly nice, considering the low cost. It was a little shabby, but sparkling clean. The desk clerk spoke perfect English; he was smiling, friendly and extremely helpful. He summoned a smartly dressed bell hop who carried my back pack to my room. I tipped him twenty baht (about eighty cents) for which he showed effusive gratitude.
Almost immediately, I took a shower. The hot water was only tepid–but it was enough to wash away the film and ache of more than two days of anxiety, stress and sleeplessness.
Clean and more relaxed than I had been in days, I sat on the end of my bed and lit a cigarette. There were water stains on the ceiling. A picture of the King and Queen of Thailand hung on the wall above a small television set that didn’t work. A gecko scurried from inside the air conditioner when it kicked on with a clang. It was time to sleep. The Weevil would be meeting me here in a few hours.
I slept like a dead man. I know that I have dreams, but I seldom remember them. That night, I had a dream that I partially remembered. There were no characters, plot or dialogue in the dream. I only remembered that it snowed. And it was very warm.
All photographs in this entry courtesy of Roger “The Weevil” Brooke.