Letter from Bali – XV
This letter from Bali comes from Bangkok, Thailand. I didn’t mean to be in old Siam, I’m here at the behest of the government of Indonesia that every sixty days kicks its foreigners out.
A curiosity of Indonesian immigration law is that it makes every foreigner with a resident visa leave the country during its validity period and not, as you might expect, at its end. I have a one year visa therefore I have to go every two months. Perfect sense. This is a true stroke of bureaucratic genius if ever there was one. Why does this happen, perhaps you are wondering? I regret to inform you that I have no answer to your question, gentle reader, I can only report that eventually (and that time has come for me) Indonesia wears you down. Six months ago when I was young and naive I’d submit such an insanity to conjecture, trying to pick apart the reason that a logical universe implied must exist. A frustrated me might have pondered (perhaps over a Campari!): “It’s the ‘war on terror’ and security related”, or “it’s to make sure I’m not working and stealing a job at $7 a day”, or “it’s more graft for the poor oppressed government”… since none of these answers makes any sense, they are all real contenders. There is a story going around that when the Indonesian government ordered the ink and stamps for their border control they got a deal, but the wheel only rolled as far as 60 days, and thus they lose millions in revenue ever since – families like ours spending their foreign capital on airlines and hotels and travel outside the very country that they are trying to live in… brilliant! As someone once put it,
“The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.”
I have adapted to Indonesia as you eventually do. It is evolution – adapt or perish. Now I simply accept and it washes over me. In Indonesia these immigration curiosities are like the rolling power cuts or the afternoon thunderstorms – endlessly repetitive and constantly disruptive but after a while they all pass and ‘normality’ returns. And this is why things in Bali never get better – because to resolve a problem you need to see it as one. After a while ‘fucked up’ around here just is.
Bangkok, if you haven’t been, is an odd place. A cheery little hamlet of 12 million souls at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River, it looks east to Cambodia and Vietnam. When it was first settled it was on the river, quite literally. Back in the good old days the king owned all the land and you needed royal consent to build a house, so the folks pounded pile into the stream and its tributaries and set up shop(s). The river is meant to be one of Bangkok’s ‘things’, I’ll let you know when I see it. Right now, as one of the 9 million tourists that come here each year, all I can do is smell it. It is rank. A brackish canal bobs with garbage right outside our hotel window. It provides a pleasant foreground to the skyscrapers of downtown that are cloaked in an attractive orange smog which affords a sunset view while the honking drone of a thousand ‘tuk tuks’ stream past like migrating birds. It’s truly lovely. If you could bottle it you could sell romance. Romance or ammonia, one of the two.
The language is odd too. Now when it comes to language I’m a bit of an Orientalist. Everything about Asian dialects I learned from a wise old guy called Al. He happened to be Thai. Phuk was his first name. Phuk Al taught me everything I know. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, you can’t read Thai unless you are a) Thai or b) a computer. Thai, you see, while an abugidas or alphasyllabric language is also binary; there are only two letters – ‘u’ and ‘n’. Repetition of these in a sufficiently long chain will complete any word or sentence you care to dream up. An example: ‘Unnnuuuunnuunnnuuuuunu’ is Thai for ‘Greetings freckled one, have you brought your wallet today?’, but is also ‘Would you like to warm your hands on my tender yet innocent bottom, kind sir?’ You have to be careful, you see. The confusion is easily explained, not content with the elegant simplicity of two letters in their alphabet, the Thai’s like many Asian cultures adopted a phonetic distressing to help confuse purpose. And how do they show this? Well, do you remember how in school, young girls would put circles over their ‘i”s instead of a dot, or even love hearts? (or was that just me!) The Thai’s do the same, they scatter them like rain drops and that makes reading street names and maps a bugger around here, quite literally sometimes, so watch your pronunciation!
Yet the Thai’s have a sense of humour. You can tell this because they helpfully translate Thai into a latin alphabet to make it ‘easier’. ‘u’ and ‘n’ become ‘ph’ and ‘th’ and this is pronounced like a stutterer with a lisp. Route signs are gigantic. A street map reads like it is smothered in ants. Underneath “unnnuuununnuunuu” you now get “pho tho phtho thpho”. Well that’s much better, thanks Mr. Phuk!
From every country I visit I usually try to take three words. I do ‘hello’, ‘thank you’ and ‘beer’. I used to try for ‘goodbye’ and a couple of numbers too, but who was I kidding? I can do ‘hello’, ‘thank you’ and ‘beer’ in quite a few languages now. I write them down on a bit of paper that sits in my breast pocket and I cheat and peek at this before going into shops. As a system it works a treat.
Them: “Hola! bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla! Bla bla!”
Me: “Ha ha ha, si si! Cerveza, gracias!”
Thai? They have different words for ‘thank you’ depending on your sex and the sex of the person you are talking to. Think that is easy? This is Bangkok! But of course they do, and they probably have six names for beer depending on the time of day. I’ve given up.
I’m in Bangkok with my two small children. Do you know what you do in Bangkok with two small children? Sell them? Herd? No, you strangle them is what you usually end up doing. Young children in big cities is just a bastard. This is Bangkok! You can buy kegs of beer on the street here, the bars are open twenty four hours a day. No other shops are open before ten to give people a chance to get home from the clubs. Me? I went to the aquarium. And so I wish to extend a big thank you to the government of Indonesia. It was a swell day, and I had a lovely time.