If musical notes came complete with fool-proof instructions and carrying handles, this expatriate Geordie would still find it impossible to hold one. When it comes to the musical gene pool, I was definitely born in the shallow end. Thankfully for me, here in Thailand supper is cheap and no matter how badly you sing, you’re very unlikely to starve.
The travel voucher arrived, there would be no flight confirmations but the promise of available seats on a turn up and wait in line basis was good enough for me. A suitcase with wheels for everything weighing more than a few ounces and a pair of multi-pocketed combat trousers for everything else that I might need for the journey. A night at Heathrow’s terminal three, an abundance of empty benches but any prospect of reclining along them for the night had been destroyed by the addition of needless armrests between each seat. The trolley suitcase, a prefect height for my inclined feet, the early morning alarm set and all things considered, a very good nights sleep. One thing did surprise me however was the number of drunks wandering around the airport in the early hours of the morning,… surely there must be more comfortable and inexpensive venues in which to get hammered?
A security officers curious eye takes a second look at the strips of tablets that I’ve taken out my pocket for the walk-through metal detector, no boxes, nothing to identify their purpose or legality, he frowns and lets me pass. The flight to Bangkok, no delays, no interruptions and plenty of seats for all. It lands on time, immigration is a formality and thirty minutes later I’m sharing a taxi with three previous strangers towards Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport and a flight onwards to Khon Kaen. Thai Airways take some convincing that my ticket is valid for ninety days, they point out that I didn’t use the ticket on the specified date back in November 2008, I explain that at the time their fine airport was being held hostage by a few thousand pro democracy supporters, ‘not flying‘ wasn‘t a choice that I‘d made, it had been a choice that had been made for me. They concede and after paying a fee of 500 Thai Baht, they issue me with a new ticket to Khon Kaen,…. which brings me back to the ‘singing‘.
Three hundred students aged sixteen to nineteen, it’s the end of the school year and everybody is in jubilant mood. I’d understood that I’d be ‘Teaching’, but once again I’d either misinterpreted the situation or I’d arrived later than expected,… or more likely, the staff had simply been winding me up. The assembly hall of Kranuan Industrial & Community College was ringing to the sounds of constant chatter and karaoke, everybody was singing, dancing and having fun. What is it about Asia, everybody across this vast continent seems to be able to sing in almost perfect key, except for the visitor? There was no distinction between students and staff, there was no embarrassment, everybody joined in, it was the only thing to do. I find it hard to imagine this atmosphere at home in a High School or College, there is no attitude, no segregation or separation, the students respect the teachers and in turn the teachers respect the students. There seems to be no form of discipline but there are no disciplinary problems, no disruptive kids, no truancy, no exclusions. The teachers teach, the students learn and everything seems to work exactly as it should. From the stage, the monk gives a blessing for the students and makes a joke about the single ‘farang’ guest, everybody looks at me and laughs. Apart from saying something about not riding a motorbike, I have no idea what else he’s said and afterwards, nobody seems to remember or they‘re too embarrassed to tell. The students take photographs of everybody, they exchanged gifts and friendship bands and as the day draws to a close, a row of silk and cotton ties has stretched almost to my elbow.
In the evening, I go to dinner with twenty of the oldest students who are leaving College and five of the teaching staff. An open-air restaurant where we cook food on small grills and boiling bowls in the centre of the tables. We start on water and slowly progress to beer,…. and then to whiskey. The teachers control the flow of alcohol down the long tables towards the students and as the evening wears on their generosity increases,… but everybody seems to be drinking responsibly. Nobody gets hammered, but in Thailand when people are out celebrating, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between drunk and sober, they just enjoy never fail to themselves.
I’ve been here for four days now and I’m helping out where I can, it’s fun and it’s relaxing. Away from the college I write in an open air café where they provide me with power and keep adjusting the sun shades to keep me cool. I eat constantly and the flow of LEO Beer seems endless. They laugh at my attempts to speak Bangkok Thai and I laugh at their responses, they try to teach me more of this Laos based language but it’s along and difficult journey. I’ve been given an exercise regime to follow, it involves a lot of swimming and sitting in a semi-lotus position. It seems to be working, life’s a lot more comfortable than it had been at home, I can walk, I can sit,… and an average daily temperature of 97 degrees does wonders to relax muscles in the offending region. At the end of each day at the café I pay my bill and check their arithmetic; three good meals, two pitchers of beer, hundreds of glasses of iced tea and I‘m never charged more than £3. I feel guilty, if only as a reflection of the time that the staff dedicate to me, the bill should surely be far higher,…. but that’s just the economics of the area. There is no minimum hourly wage, there is no statutory maximum working day, business opens when customers are available and it closes only once they’ve left. Few people here are rich but all of the people are fed and without exception,… are constantly smiling and seemingly happy with their lives.
I’m not sure how long I’ll stay here, economically it makes no sense to leave but with a million things that I want to be doing and a few things that I simply can’t avoid doing, I’ll have to make my plans soon. One good thing about being away from home is that each morning I avoid looking at a bike that I can’t ride, being here makes me enjoy doing the things that I can do and avoid thinking about the things that I can’t,… to a point. If the therapy keeps working it’s miracles then I might try riding a scooter in the next couple of days and if that works out,… I’ll decide then. I’m not missing home at all but I am missing doing the things that I’d planned and of course I’m missing the people.