A Summer in Siam —Travelogue
By Mizaru Pt. 1 The Urban Plunge.
Even just off the plane Bangkok opens up right away with its invigorating smells and un-mitigating heat. And then getting through immigration in the BKK airport combines a slow eruption of base procedures mixed with traveler’s expectations that can only be let loose at any and all destinations here: just south of the Tropic of Cancer. It’s a hot July in Bangkok; free-fall city where your first thought is the best thought.
John Hara, who is Thai and a former cook at a French restaurant, now the manager of Discovery Lodge, plus part-time quasi rep. for Chichester College and full-time hash head is waiting in arrivals in a shirt of white palm trees silk-screened onto a navy blue back ground. Resting on his beer belly is a cardboard airport placard with my name on it and under that the call letters 3WM. He is my “pick-up” and cranks his friend’s taxi into auto-pilot and heads south to Discovery Lodge which will be my Hotel Yorba for the next six weeks. You see the very reputable Chichester College has just accepted me into its intensive four week TESOL Teacher Training program in Bangkok.
Chi College -as the short form goes– is an English post-secondary school in the rather English-sounding idyll county of West Sussex. It has to be mentioned that Rolls Royce is one of the chief employers in that area, and without trying to sound like a suck-ass for hire Chichester College in a round-a-bout way has the same sterling reputation in the Thailand TESOL world as Rolls Royce does in the luxury auto domain. But as anyone who has spent time in Southeast Asia knows the center of gravity in BKK (Bangkok) is located close to the same beltline where the wallet is, but a little more so at the charged areas where the inner pleats of the pants meet. You can think about that for a second but I am not sure what to think as John Hara keeps banging on the buttons of the car’s programmed radio looking to turn his friend’s mor lam music to something else. The music sounds great to me, reminds of a good Steely Dan song, as he turns his friend’s clunker off Ratchadaphisek Rd on to Soi (Street) 17 and up the broad turning driveway of Discovery Lodge. There was no way to know right then what would happen later, yet, I will admit for now that after I left the airport and got here some kind of threshold was crossed and I did not see one common-as-dirt backpacker the whole time I was in Bangkok.
Discovery Lodge is the budget hotel that Chichester suggests with the softest of touch as suitable accommodation while doing the intensive TESOL course. To no one’s surprise it was a bordello of the 1970’s. Each guestroom is exactly the same– a nice small porch in front with two chairs and a table—all plastic. A heavy wood front door which when it swings open or closed unloosens the local cockroach, mosquito and gecko wars. The front room is plain enough as it is a recent add-on and then it’s into the back claustrophobic sex parlor.
The look and smell comes from the 1970’s-in-the-Poconos aesthetic when plastic and vinyl were meeting for the first time and finding each other’s comfort zone. The campy bed—which I never slept on- is a large circle which only seems comfortable for three or more, so of course the walls and ceilings are all fit with mirrors. It is a Bangkok bordello in a time warp and as I’ve been told most Chichester students just stay here only for a cheap laugh. There is a constant stream of white noise that surrounds ‘Discolodge’, comes from the incessant air con and the layout of the 3rd story floor which is just away off the urban zoom sounds of “Ratcha Rd.” Outside in the BBQ area of Discolodge a group of 6 or 7 former and newbie TESOL teacher trainers are cautiously hanging out and carrying full beer condoms as the final World Cup match between Holland and Spain is about to kick off. I want to be a good sports’ fan plus meet the new teacher trainees but the Sunday night is wearing thin: the alarm is set and I have checked it three times. One note about that first night. In just getting the layout of Discolodge, I can’t stop walking past my room 321. I always end up moving past it and get to the early 330’s before I realize it. And when I do realize it and stop it’s always around room 332. I just smirked it up to being travel weary and didn’t think much about it or anything that night except how many 7-Elevans there are in Thailand.
Now it’s 8 A. M. BKK time and you know you have woken up south of the equator when the music playing out of the kitchen at The Discovery Lodge connects the dots between traveler, lover and conspiracy theorist. The 1960’s and 70’s have produced all of the music that non-tourist Bangkok needs. Songs like: King of the Road, Two Tickets to Paradise and Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress are the first day’s breakfast and jukebox. I am looking for John Hara to make the back-to-school coffee; he is not here but at least I now know what kind of music he was searching to hear in the taxi last night. And really, it is a kind of cultural time-warp that fits, where the sounds of thirsty-for-something rock and roll is actually the accompaniment and life force to most experiences in Bangkok, well, besides shopping. Again, I had no idea what was to happen with the “Reds” protesters, and later in the police station and then the immigration holding cell and finally at Discovery Lodge inside room 332, yet I feel it that for all that happened this summer I need the good karma and will give advice about what I can and just for starters: showing up for a first day of back-to-school training at Chichester College wearing New Balance tennis shoes and Dominican Rep. baggy clown-pants is not a good idea. The heat is the only harness that Bangkok really lays on you but man you got to button up if you’re going to teach English in this part of the world. It’s something about signifying yourself as an urban professional and not another sidewalk scooter dog or run of the mill sex tourist with a funny accent and jaundiced yellow eyes. Changing your surrounding tableau from mouth breathing tourist to a temporary foreign resident in Thailand requires a little copycatting of Asian protocol and always wearing slacks and a tie is how to start.
In Thailand it’s all about class and looks. Everything else is just a horizontal distraction. I mean that the ladder of respect runs completely up and down vertical. Many Thais, for example, who live at Discolodge, will actually drive high-market sports vehicles and dress like everyday is the final interview for a job day. Likewise Thais will react and treat all farangs firstly by dress and hygiene performance and then connect their own dots of an opinion by what color you are. Teachers and especially foreign ones are high on the ladder of respect and if you concur with that, then it’s that footing in society that you must maintain at all times. Walking into Chichester College unfashionably later than everyone else, the first native English speaking I heard in Thailand came from South Africans and fellow teacher trainees Lulu and Bart, “Bangkok is the only city in the world where you can get run over by a shop.” They have allot to say about how fucked up South Africa is right now and will do so later in this story. The head teacher Steve also from South Africa was meeting and greeting. He welcomed me and handed over a course packet weighty enough to be the blueprints of any nation’s health care overhaul. Over the next 4 hours broken up by just two ten-minute breaks something occurred to me that hadn’t often and certainly not regularly during the last five years of teaching TESOL in Korea. That teaching is a real job! This is a diary about TESOL training in BKK and not teaching English in Korea, so I won’t clarify that, but never did I actually consider that even if an instructor has a certain amount of natural talent in a classroom, that teaching remedial English to non-native speakers could be such an involved process that requires hard work and real planning. What balanced this tough reality check was the co-efficient ego boost that after a couple of days of the rigorous Chi-College TESOL program everyone involved with it feels like a newly minted Bangkoker, and that is a skin that one can only slip into once.
The professional demeanor and ability that the Chichester Training staff demonstrate and maintain is one thing, but it is the learning processes and materials that they “Put in your bag”, as Steve says that really open a veteran teacher’s eyes and expand pedagogical horizons. Can you get the same TESOL training elsewhere? I am really not sure as this is the course I have taken and the only one I think I need to take. So instead, let me tell you about one of the trainers Sue. She is a Thai and comes across as a veteran of all things Thai so she dresses a bit on the casual side which suggests that she is somewhat unconcerned with representing one side over the other in Bangkok’s class wars nor does she seem at all interested in city vs. country personas. During the first week of the course she talked in general ways with a bit of put-on mystique which might suggest that she really considers us tourists. She gave us a guideline for teaching and living in Thailand.
Here are my notes:
–Asia is as Asia does so no one should ever lose face- can’t call people on their shit.
— If something unpleasant happens when walking around BKK just say, “Mai-pen-Rai” = Never mind.
— Do the “WAI” bow whenever you want there are 5/6 positions depending on your status.
–Talking with Any Students about politics, religion or the Royal Family.
–Whistling after Dark: It invites spirits into the area and can get worse.
She did start to loosen up when she talked about the spiritual side to Thai life. It’s like she was almost waiting for that part of her talk to do a little whistling herself. According to the other trainees she “liked me” and “liked me” in any use of the word that was in it. I suppose she did glance at me while writing her telephone number on the board. And that’s just how the tourist-sex-with-the-locals game is played all over the world. But why did she just whistle herself in class? I remembered then how all this week I was still inadvertently walking past my room 321 and not realizing it until I got to room 332. And I sometimes remember hearing whistling when I was going back correctly to 321. I felt that being the class clown might draw away from my embarrassment on how much attention she was giving me; plus I wanted to add to the mystery and lore that we were experiencing in the classroom and tell Sue about my wandering always to room 331 and then hearing some whistling. But when I thought again about the room number this strange-ass thought came on to the paper right in the middle where I was taking notes, “Cosmological releases are based on Sexual violence.” I couldn’t decipher if that meant anything or if it was just the remains of the jet lag, plus culture change and a very intensive first week in Bangkok talking.
Either way I knew that mentioning anything about it to Sue might be an invite for her to show up later at Discolodge and in no way was I into the ‘buffing the antique’ sexual experience with her… even though this is Bangkok.
That first Friday night after the end of a long and enlightening week I spent in a part run, part man-walk on Ratcha Rd. – past three of the biggest bordellos in the world, not including The Discovery Lodge.
To Be Continued…
Mizaru is the Creator and Founding Editor of 3WM. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org