The Bee's South East Asia Correspondent Justin Hill shares some impressions of his life in Thailand. (The photographs are Justin's, too: you can see more of his work here.)
Before I witter on with my thoughts, musings and experiences I'd like to make a statement. I adore the people of Thailand and am in love with the Kingdom itself. My first trip out here was way back in 1999. I'd never flown before and had no idea what I was about to find. Sights, sounds, smells and smiles surrounded me from the minute I touched down in Bangkok. It was a veritable feast for the eyes, ears and nose, and I didn't know which way to turn next as I gazed out the window whilst riding in the Taxi to the hotel. Moving many years on I find I now have a Thai wife, a beautiful step daughter and still no idea quite what's going on here. Thai life catches you out daily; you're always the last to find out or know anything, whilst being expected to be a step ahead. It's an impossible task!
Right, now that I have cleared myself for literary take off and if you are sitting comfortably and taken note of all the emergency exits I shall begin. I warn you beforehand that it is quite a ramble...
Chaos theory is alive and kicking throughout the 'Land of Smiles'. Without it I think the Kingdom would simply dissapear in one enormous bang created by everyone colliding with each other. If someone is signalling right then there's a great chance they are going to turn left. One way signs are pretty much ignored, laws are 'flexible' and you can often find an elephant to run into parked outside a bar at night. Nothing seems to get done quickly here, but before you know it everything is completed. In contrast to that you can go to a store one day for a newspaper only to find it's not there the next day as it's been demolished overnight! The country keeps you on your toes, guessing its next move.
Their grasp of the English language can also throw you at times. I have often been greeted with the phrase "How are you tomorrow?" and have found myself replying "I am fine yesterday, thanks for asking". If you've had too much to drink the night before then you will have an 'Over Hang' in the morning, which could be fixed by eating 'Fried Rice with crap' which can be found on the menu (typo's here are excellent). Talking of food, the Thai language sometimes comes up with wonderful coincidences when thought of as English. "Fried rice with pork" when ordered in Thai comes out as "Cow Pat Moo". All Thai's have nicknames and once we were in a bar and the bargirl 'Som' was asked by 'Anggun' for some limes to put in our drinks. Som is Thai for Orange, Anggun is Thai for Grape so ... the Grape asked the Orange for some Limes. Simply wonderful.
There are many times I have watched a 'live' game of 'Buckaroo' take place as a couple of Thais see how much stuff they can pile onto a Honda Dream motorbike before both getting on and wobbling and weaving off into the distance. We once had a double bed, wardrobe and dressing table delivered to our apartment by motorbike! The craziest and most unbelievable thing I have seen was on the super highway just outside the city of Chiang Mai (Northern Thailand). We could see a motorbike being erratically driven some distance off and it wasn't until we got near we realised why. One Thai up front in 'control' of the bike, one Thai sitting on the back with a live cow with it's feet bound together on his lap. Would not have like to have seen that accident!
"Health & Safety" is a phrase that you seldom hear or see in use. It's certainly not evident when wandering around the city. Bamboo strapped together is used as scaffolding and it's ok to wear flip flops as long as you've got your hard hat on when using a pick axe to break up the tarmac! It's fascinating and terrifying all at the same time. Electric cables stick out of walls at head height, and sometimes you are forced to walk in the road as the local council have put a phone box smack in the middle of the pavement - which is also full of dangerous holes.
In amongst all this mayhem there are the temples. Wonderful bejewelled structures glistening in the sunlight, each one an oasis of tranquility that somehow seems to cut out the noise from outside in order to aid enlightenment. Saffron robed monks pad about the temple grounds barefoot, fulfilling chores, whilst others simply sit in silence, or give out water blessings to visitors. I remember being quite shocked when I first saw a monk smoking a cigarette whilst making a phone call. I was also amused when I came across a queue of monks at a mobile ice cream stall that had pulled up outside their temple.
The arts & crafts (especially in Chiang Mai) are incredible. Beautiful works of art can be found in the markets along with ancient Lanna style bowls, vases or wall hangings. Detail is exquisite and the colours simply breathtaking. In stark contrast to that, there's the everyday workmanship. I once watched three Thai men take an entire day to weld an iron gate back onto its hinges in the bar opposite our apartment, only for it to fall off into the Soi (Thai for street) again one week later. The 'CLANG!' was deaffening and highly amusing. Like most things in Thailand you can wait days or even weeks for the electrician or handyman to finaly arrive. It can work the other way too. If you've been told to be up bright and early and ready to go out somewhere at 09:00 am you can bet your bottom dollar that they'll be ready themselves to go out by 12:30! Thailand is a waiting game; procrastination is a pastime.
It's the land of paradox. Gambling and prostitution are illegal throughout the country and yet they are both rife, especially in the cities. The go-go bars and strip joints are well known and out in the open, with no attempt to hide the goings on from the law. Pool games are bet on, card games are bet on and football is bet on. The kick boxing rings are a den of activity whilst a fight is on. The place is full of Thais waving their hands in the air and all shouting, all trying to put a wager on at the same time.
And not one of these things put me off. Thailand is a wonderful place and it's taught me a lot. It's a kingdom full of dramatic scenery, incredible flora and fauna, great food and good beer. They love to laugh, to party and above all smile. The recent political upheaval and trouble in Bangkok has darkened its name dramatically, but things are slowly returning to normal. We were under curfew for a week or so in Chiang Mai while the dust settled, but life is ticking over as it always did now. Tourism is still thin on the ground, but hopefully people will start to venture here again and discover the delights for themselves.
And that, as they say, is that! I hope I have raised a few smiles or even the odd eyebrow for those of you who've managed to make it through to the end. Hope you've enjoyed the journey and please check your belongings before you leave.