Visitors to Thailand, especially those going to one of the resorts, are advised to learn a foreign language before going. Not something common like French, German, or Spanish and not one of the north European languages with so few native speakers that they are all fluent in English. Something like Russian, Hungarian, or Korean will do. Here’s why.
Walking the streets of Thailand will see you accosted by a hawker, trader, or rip-off merchant every ten paces. Shouting out six or seven saleable items in the time it takes you to walk past them – a distance of two metres – is their preferred method of advertising, with the wares of the last stall fading only once those of the next are at maximum pitch. It’s kind of like a linear barbershop quartet, only with a couple of hundred members instead of four. This is a place where not being able to speak English, or being able to feign such ignorance, is a distinct advantage. Looking straight ahead with a baffled but purposeful expression will get you through provided you don’t utter a word of English. Unfortunately some, especially the Indians trying to flog you suits, will step in front of you, hand outstretched in greeting like your brother would if you showed up at his house to watch the football. There are several ways to deal with this, one of which is to ignore him completely leaving him standing in the pavement as if he’s trying to greet the invisible man. If Indians understood the concept of embarrassment they’d soon quit doing this, but then they’d also not be trying to flog suits to strangers on the side of the road. And ignoring annoying pests is only possible for a while, and eventually you have to say something. Such as “Who the fuck are you?”, but they’ll probably chalk this up as a foot in the door and claim a sales commission. Occasionally I stop and ask excitedly if they sell suits, waiting for the beaming “Yes sir, come inside please sir!” before I say “I don’t want one” and walk off briskly. Mean, but fair. Or you can speak to them in a language they don’t understand, causing them to follow you down the road for twenty yards trying to figure you out, thus wasting their time whilst amusing you. Obviously, my language of choice – or rather, I have no choice in the matter – is Russian. Somebody steps out, a quick “Nyet!” and keep walking. Within seconds the hawker will be bounding alongside you asking, in English, where you’re from. Ignore him, and he’ll ask again, having to walk awkwardly sideways, dodging other salespeople who are by now shouting out their wares as you pass by. And I walk at the speed that the Light Infantry march, which makes it even harder for him. By the time he’s asked you twice, he’ll be as annoyed as you were when he first blocked your path and tried to shake your hand. Reply, in your foreign language, that you don’t understand English. Chances are (in fact it’s almost certain if he’s Indian) the hawker will identify it. “Russia! Russia!” he will shout, which gets his hopes up and he carries on after you, still having to step over rows of jewellery laid out on cardboard sheets on the pavement and the odd cart with a sizzling wok and ratmeat kebabs hanging from hooks. “Da, Russia!” I say, and keep walking. “Moscow! Moscow!” he will say, eagerly running beside you, sometimes falling behind as another seller blocks his path. “Nyet, not Moscow” I say in an implausible mix of English and Russian. “Moscow! Moscow! “ he will say again, hoping you’ve somehow forgotten where you’re from. “Nyet, not Moscow.” By now he’ll be a good 50m from his shop, and you’ve said all of a dozen words. He’ll then start throwing random Russian words at you – “Privet! Pozhalusta! Do svidaniya!” – as a last desperate measure before giving up and having to walk all the way back to his shop.
People who think this may be a bit harsh obviously haven’t been caught speaking English on a busy Thai street. A common favourite, again especially with the Indian suit sellers, is to immediately repeat what you have just said whilst trying to mimic your accent. If anyone was daft enough to go to Asia expecting manners, they might consider this pretty fucking rude. I might try it with the next Indian I see on a trip to London and see how it goes down. Leaving the manners aside, it is pretty damned annoying when you are walking with a companion and some dickhead starts parroting your last sentence every ten yards. As are the continuous questions: where are you from sir, where are you going sir, what do you need sir? They have no idea how to place my accent, it being as neutral British as it’s possible to get, so they start shouting out random cities. “Sydney sir, you from Sydney?” and then put on an Australian accent. Saying you’re from Kyrgyzstan usually shuts them up long enough for you to have moved passed them. In fact, deferring to all things Russian is a good idea in general. “You need taxi?” asked when walking past a queue of about forty of them all lined up bright red right beside the pavement. “Where you go? Where you going, sir? Where you go?” they ask, as if it’s any of their business. “Home” I say. “Oh, oh, where you live? I take you.” “Me? Moscow.” Yes, yes, they’re trying to do their job, but two things. Firstly, it’s blatantly obvious that somebody walking past a row of taxis is not in need of being hassled; if he needs a taxi, he’ll ask for one. Secondly, the taxi drivers are rip-off merchants in Patong. A minimum charge for the shortest journey is 200 Baht (about $6) in the back of a tuk-tuk, and in the evening they try to fleece you even further by first quoting you anywhere up to 350 Baht. If they see you are carrying heavy bags, they charge you 50% more and radio all their mates to ensure you have to walk a fair way to get the normal price. I have no sympathy for them whatsoever, and as soon as somebody in the local government has the balls to take on the mafia who monopolise them, the better.
And whilst I’m on the subject of Thai street hawkers, contrary to what I said when I first went to Thailand in 2007, they aren’t great traders. Sure, they’ll push a strong sales pitch to sell you the mountains of crap that are available in another hundred stalls on the same road, stuff that pretty much sells itself. If they could figure out how to make it fit in vending machines they’d not lose any revenue. But ask them for anything which might be of some use, something which any decent trader would at least have some idea of where and how to get, and you get the “No, no have” response, which is about as common in Thailand as “You want t-shirt?” And these aren’t just the tourist shops selling souvenirs either, this is anywhere. They get a pile of products delivered and they sell whatever is on the shelves, a process wholly independent of any product which a customer might want but they don’t have in stock right then. By contrast, you ask a Lebanese for a pink hippopotamus and he’ll tie you to a lamppost while he goes and finds one, switching effortlessly from mobile phone seller to dealer in African mega fauna.
They also have an annoying habit of trawling the bars trying to sell you fake sunglasses, crap plastic beads intertwined with orchids that will be withered by nightfall, silly hats, and half-dead roses. Being asked once to buy fake Oakleys – as you have a real pair sitting on your head – is okay; being prodded in the back by the same bloke every twenty minutes is fucking annoying. Either they think farangs all look alike and they can’t tell us apart or they think we’ve for some reason realised that we need a second pair of sunglasses some three hours after sunset and changed our minds since the last time. Or they are too hopeless at commerce to recognise that fine line between a sales pitch and annoying the hell out of somebody. The kids are even worse, because they are pushed by their lazy, greedy parents into hassling every customer as often as possible and have no concept of how damned annoying they are to somebody who is sitting in a bar and, like me, doesn’t much like children at the best of times. Whereas most of the patrons encourage the little brats with lavish attention, I’ve been on the hunt for a tough seven year old Australian or British kid I can pay $5 an hour to keep the Thai children away from me.
I suppose I’m complaining, which is unusual for a British blog I know. But I’ll carry on anyway. Last week I flew to London where I’ll be spending a week or two getting my Nigerian visa before flying almost straight down the Prime Meridian – no doubt marked on the ground to aid aircraft navigation – to Port Harcourt to start my 2-3 year assignment with my new company. I’ve spent most of the last 6 months unemployed in Patong which, it must be said, is a pretty damned good place to spend 6 months unemployed. But I’m glad I am going, and I’ll probably not go back for 3-4 months depending on when I can get leave. Phuket is a resort island and Patong is a resort town, as the first part of this post made pretty clear. Everybody, and I mean everybody, is after your money. Random Thais come up to you in a supermarket or on the street, starting off with a smile and friendly greeting; it didn’t take long to realise that in their eyes, every foreigner is a walking ATM. I’ve had some clot in the supermarket queue start reading the stuff off my t-shirt (i.e. Levi’s) before asking me where I was from, thinking I would be fooled into starting some conversation at the end of which he would leaving with some of my cash. Ya ne govoryu po-angliski. Was Russia any different? Yes, it was. Certain people would hassle you for money, but not everyone. And it was quite possible to get into conversation with a Russian in some location and it would not be a contrived effort on his part to get money from you. True, he might be looking for a drinking partner and you might well end up blind drunk having paid for and finished a bottle of vodka or two, but at least there is some sort of social interaction which doesn’t consist solely of chancing for money.
I found that living without working in Thailand is a lot different from visiting there on holiday. I’m probably being a bit unfair in this post, as it is in general a great place. But for me Thailand was a rest station after Sakhalin, a place where I needed six months off to reboot and prepare myself for the next phase of my career in Nigeria. I enjoyed it a lot, but I’m glad I’m going somewhere to work for a while.
That said, give me a week in Nigeria and I’ll be wishing I was back in Phuket. That’s how it works, I’m afraid.