Our life in Urumqi

We’re so happy to be back in Thailand.

Ian and I didn’t smile much in the last few months. We’ve been struggling with extreme isolation and difficulties with our (now former) employers, and we both realized it had been taking a toll both physically and mentally. I’m not sure we realized just how extreme our transformation would be when we hit the ground in Bangkok.

Ian’s appetite disappeared for pretty much the entire time in China. He’s lost ten kilos from when he was last in Thailand, and he was by no means a fat bastard then.

The realization that we might have been catastrophically lied to combined with the stress of leaving was, for me, compounded by a run of bad health in the weeks up to our departure. One small malady after another has worn me down in the past month; none bad enough to keep me in bed, but just enough to run me down excessively. I look haggard.

Virtually overnight, this is gone. This is our first morning in Bangkok and I’ve woken up feeling like my old self. Ian even managed to eat two full airline meals and then pick at leftovers from mine. Airline meals! Two of them!

We’d forgotten just how friendly Thais are, and are enjoying being able to do basic things. Being able to sit down at a restaurant and order beers from a smiling waiter without the whole thing becoming an ordeal, for example, was an absolute highlight of yesterday.

The real highlight of being where we are, though, is people watching. Some of the areas of Urumqi were wonderful for people watching. The bazaar area is amazing, in fact, with its central Asian feel and vibrant street life.

But the Khao San Rd area, where we are, is entirely in a league of its own. This area is the backpacker ghetto, a white-guy slum and, although I love the more authentic Thailand which is waiting for me a few sois (lanes) away, every time I come back to Thailand, I book myself a guesthouse a few blocks away from The Road. The reason, I’ve already given you: people watching.

Firstly, there’s the backpackers. The rich western gap-year kids are an epidemic, and rather boring, but once you look past them, wow! Old-guy, drunk-guy, really-drunk-guy, gaggle-of-girls-on-first-holiday, young-guy-chasing-the-previous, proto-Asian-goth; the loud, quiet, crazy, travel-hardened, wide eyed and old timers, the respectful and the twats; they’re all here.

Then there’s the foreign workers. Bangkok’s tourist areas play host to a multitude of newly-mades from Thailand’s neighbouring countries, and there’s plenty of (I think) Turks, Indians and Nepali workers and an extremely visible minority (by dint of being about four feet taller than their Thai hosts) of African guys, of whom I can never work out if they’re sellers, hustlers or just guys who came on holidays, made friends with the locals and decided to hang around.

And then, of course, there’s the Thais who choose to make their living hosting tourists in this weird ass part of the world. I find Thais to be pretty uniformly nice, if not uniformly what they seem. Ladyboys roam these quarters and woe to the lonely tourist who drinks so much he can’t tell a girl from a guy in drag (hint: if her skirt bulges in an inappropriate place, she’s probably a boy. Ditto if she has an adam’s apple).

On our first night here, we decided to go out for a quiet beer, even though we were exhausted. It didn’t work our quite as quiet as we planned…. whoops. Towards the end of the night I said to Ian “I’m struggling, just one more and then please lets go back“. “Sure, of course,” he says, and orders a bucket of gin and tonic in a roadside street-stall-bar. (Yes, a bucket, like small buckets children use to make sandcastles, only filled with spirits, not sand.)

The stall is staffed by an older Thai lady who appears to be in charge (but I don’t think she was), a pretty younger woman clothed in what appears to be a tiny pyjama set, and another pretty woman behind us, who’s handling a sound system pumping out commercial R&B and bopping along herself. Our fellow patrons are a couple of the forementioned African guys who are absorbed in some football match, a couple of Thai guys and some European girls chatting among themselves. We all sit on tiny stools next to unstable collapsible tables on the footpath and the ‘bar’ is a fridge with liquor on top, surrounded by an explosion of brightly coloured neon signs. Neon is much loved here.

The two girls working the bar are the best word I have to describe Thailand: exuberant. The girls and the Thai customers run into the road to dance whenever a song they like comes on; they’re smiley, happy and relaxed. But, after we’ve been there for maybe 20 minutes, things change suddenly: in about 20 seconds half the tables go away, the signs come down and all the liquor goes behind the fridge. Just as I’m about to say “right, party’s over” the music-girl yells whatever the Thai equivalent of “oh fuck” is and turns off the speakers in a huge hurry. We realize a game has begun, a police car has just turned into the start of the KS Road and is roughly 50 metres ahead. Stall-bar owners on either side of us and across the road are doing the same thing. The police car cruises up the road at a glacial pace as music-girl reassures us “is ok, police go past, I put music on.”

And indeed, we can see the street bars further up the road are setting up again after the car has passes, while ahead of the police cars is an explosion of hasty activity and bemused tourists wondering if they should bugger off. The second time this happens music-girl sees how entertained we are by this little pantomine of closure and tells us the police regularly cruise the street after about half-past three, with stall-holders shutting down and then starting up again five minutes later, drinks in hand. The bar ladies, far from getting pissed off, seem to find this game quite entertaining.

Maybe we were not in the most exuberant part of China, I’ll admit that. But all this made, for us, a mind-spinning contrast to China. Everything there was so organized, controlled, regulated. When I took my trip to Tian Chi a few weeks ago, the other people in the office were surprised and concerned that I should was to do something so daft as to take public transport when there were plenty of perfectly good tour companies that who would organize and effect my visit for me. We, in turn, struggled and ultimately failed to understand the mainland Chinese requirement to be organized on behalf of. I simply cannot imagine anyone I know in China dancing in the street with strangers then giggling away as they hide booze signs from cops who so obviously know what’s going on. I think, at heart, this is why we were never really comfortable in China. Neither Ian nor I are crazy rebels, really, but neither could we adapt to the intense conformity required in People’s Republic, at least in the part of it that we saw.

Thais, I know, conform in their own way; the cultural obsession with beauty, the need to put a happy face over whatever they’re feeling, the huge respect for cultural institutions is universal and uniform among Thais. The Thais also deeply respect their authority figures. But, thank goodness, when they want to dance, they dance. And we saw more genuine smiling, dancing and joking in a few hours last night than we could have expected to see in a month in China. Bring on the rest of Thailand!

Comments on: "The happiest farangs in Thailand…" (2)

  1. Brother said:

    Sounds like a win sister dear!!

    I’m a big fan of the cut/run tactics also!! Not running back to china any time soon but hey?!

    • Most certainly not. We’re on a flight to Vietnam on the 15th of next month and then we’ll decide between Bangkok, Hanoi and Saigon as work options after Ian’s seen all of the three.

      China….. naw.

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