Saturday, September 17, 2011

24: Thailand

I'm pretty sure the one country I have spent the most time in that isn't:
  • my country of birth
  • my country of normal residence
  • home to relatives or very close friends
  • occasional work location
is Thailand.

All through my childhood, my family travelled there about once a year on average. Not just my immediate family, but often my mother's siblings and mother as well. If you were ever in Haadyai in the 80s and nearly got run over by nine adults and seven children trotting along at a brisk clip, I apologise on everyone's behalf. There was always so little time, so much to [eat, shop for, discuss loudly in Northern Malaysian hokkien while drinking fresh-pressed sugarcane juice by the street].

And then there were my parents' company outings. I am suddenly curious as I write this. Why was Haadyai (Hat Yai? Had Yai?) the destination of choice for so many in the 80s?

Or was the so many just us?


Add to these at-least-once-a-year-to-buy-clothes-and-school-supplies Haadyai trips the occasional time in Phuket or Koh Samui and the still more occasional trip to Bangkok and I grew up with an unlikely familiarity, for a non-Thai living way too far south of the border for that to be a factor, with the Thai language and pop music. Which isn't to say I understood any of it; it just wasn't foreign.

I was always the moody, pensive kid in the extended family, and once I got old enough to do more than eat and nap in between markets and shopping malls, I started to ask questions. Mostly in my mind, these questions, because my parents and other elders had their minds on other things. When it's one for 80 baht, six for 250 and there are more than six colours/designs available, who on earth has time to answer a seven-year-old's queries about why so many of the street people are missing legs, how come you see beggar families with a young mother and three children but no fathers, and why did the lady in the nightclub last night sing in such a deep voice?

With my mother's death in 1999 came the end of the extended family's yearly trips to Thailand.

(Actually, it was the end of the extended family as we knew it, but I am not going to talk about that now.)

But by that time I'd already grown to love the country, regardless of whether I got to see it yearly or not. Despite only having the opportunity to visit twice in the past decade, I still think of it often: its heartrendingly high number of people living with AIDS. Its equal status as home of pristine island hideouts and hub of Southeast Asian child trafficking. Its shops. Its sweatshops. The smiles that inspired its unofficial tourism tagline. The disparity between swish air-conditioned department stores and the peddlers surviving on subsistence just outside.

My memory still holds countless stores contributed to by all my senses: the sweet singsong lilt of shopgirls calculating the final tally on my mother and aunts' purchases after more, more, more discount give for them. The dull tap of a dozen bronze coins in an aged plastic begging bowl, times several for each street corner we passed. The roar of tuk-tuk engines, the only way to transport such a large group from one place to the next without losing anybody or wasting precious retail time. The sensation of travelling very fast in an open-sided van whose driver, more often than not, favoured taking corners on one wheel. The sizzle and snap of street foods fried and fried again in oil so dark you don't want to know: spicy battered chicken pieces, glazed chili cuttlefish, pigeons. Soft, fluffy batter spheres filled with green kaya and baked in purpose-built moulds. Setting off from the hotel in the early morning, the thought of all of us together in some semblance of relationship so strange to my mind of today -- all 15 or 16 pairs of legs, various lengths, various levels of fitness, all trooping together to the corner Chinese restaurant two blocks away that served dim sum in the morning and shark's fin at night. The discovery of a pau variety we were not to find in Malaysia for over two decades to come. Strange now that I think about it, but we didn't eat a lot of Thai food in Thailand. The stockpiling of clothes, school shoes, good Japanese lingerie at a fraction of the Malaysian prices. Nissin cup noodles by the 24-cup carton, at least two cartons per family if everyone was feeling restrained.

Thinking of all that, with fond regard for everyone on those trips -- for the parents who cared to give us overseas travel in whatever ways they could afford, for the cousins who were my earliest playmates, for the countless Thais who drove us, served us food, showed us clothes, took up hems, taught us to count in Thai, offered us kids durian and coconut candies, showed us how to spot fake leather (of which, of course, none in their own shops), I have to concede that there are things we saw on those trips that I'd never expose a child to, places we went where I'd be happy never to go again, "entertainment" that I doubt I will ever find entertaining. On the whole I'm thankful to have seen what I have of Thailand, and to feel what I now feel: I still want to go back, and I know as a country it still offers me so much. But now, I have more to look forward to that stuffing my suitcase and my stomach. Now that I'm not a tot on someone else's time and budget, I can think of what I can bring to it, too.

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