I arrived in Bangkok in January, 2005. I thought it would be a two-year assignment. Almost exactly eight years later, I left Thailand deeply affected by the country and its people.
I shed tears as we locked our apartment door for the last time. That door had secured us for nearly 3,000 nights, welcomed me home from over 600 business trips. Our apartment had repeatedly hosted my three sons, my mom, my sister, in-laws, nieces, countless friends.
We were the longest-staying tenants in a condominium tower that saw waves of Japanese and American expatriates come and go. We were a fixture – nobody had been there longer. We knew several generations of security guards, the delivery men’s routines, the Thai millionaire landlord himself.
As I turned away from my door for the last time, a foreign expatriate came out of the the condominium unit next door. He got into the elevator with me.
“Where are you being assigned now,” he asked.
I told him, Singapore.
“Congratulations! I heard that Singapore is blooming! And there is no rubbish in the streets. And they actually have footpaths!”
He had been in Thailand eight months. Clearly, he had not yet unlocked the code. I had lived in Thailand one year for every month he had been there.
As the elevator started down, I wanted to tell him about the most beautiful beaches in the world, just an hour away from where we stood. Hua Hin, Phuket, Phi-Phi, Krabi, Koh Chang. I wanted to tell him about the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi in Chiang Mai, rated the #1 resort hotel in the world. Where you got a two-story cottage with a grand piano and your own lap pool, a huge bedroom, a bathroom the size of a studio with a traditional stand-alone bath tub in the center of the room. Even your own personal rice paddy.
I wanted to talk about Songkran, the Thai New Year water festival, the biggest holiday in Thailand. When everyone considers it a blessing to be sprinkled or soaked. I told my visiting son David to get me a double-barreled 2-liter super soaker from a street vendor – and he got himself a massive four-barreled cannon! Shirl had a water pistol … fed by a hose from a 3-liter backpack. We leaned out the windows and sun roof of our hybrid van, strafing pedestrians, buses, even policemen. They waved cheerfully and heaved buckets of water back at us. At a stop light, we blasted a cab driver who had his window open. He beamed, did a respectful ‘wai’, took two water pistols from his seat and blew us away.
One of the best images I have of Songkran, is a ticket clerk at an MRT station, surrounded by coins and token cards, with a water pistol on the counter beside her. Locked and loaded.
I wanted to tell my foreign neighbor about Loi Kratong. The light festival when Thais send flower boats with lighted candles down the Chao Praya river, loaded with wishes for health and happiness. Imagine millions of floating flowers bearing millions of lighted candles and millions of earnest wishes, twinkling down one of the biggest rivers in Asia.
I was looking forward to new adventures in Singapore, but I could not help wanting to tell my foreign expat neighbor – “See this map? That’s the Kingdom of Thailand. The places to go to are Chiang Mai, Hua Hin, Koh Samui, Krabi, Phuket, Koh Chang. There are 70 million Thais, each with his own life story.
“And you see that dot? That’s Singapore. It’s a dot. With footpaths. Enjoy your time in Thailand.”
But I never got to say anything. How do you compress eight years in an elevator ride?
Posted from Bangkok, Jan 19, 2012. Sawasdee krub!