I enjoyed the slow train to Hua Hin, the seaside town 200 km south of Bangkok. Scheduled to get there in five hours, the train made it in six. I bought 2nd class sleeper fan tickets and got two wide seats facing each other. Travelling by day, we didn’t fold them out to create a bed. The seats were hemmed in by a metal luggage rack with ladder-like supports. A boy dressed as Spiderman climbed up and down these to expend his sugar rush. The fans didn’t provide much relief from the heat and we sweated as the train headed west for the first two hours. It cooled off when it turned south but by then we’d drunk all our water. As rice paddies and palm trees whizzed by out the window, a constant stream of vendors came through the carriage with snacks but no drinks. They announced their noodles, fruits, sweets, and nuts ending every sentence with a long kaaaaa (or kraaaap for the odd male vendor). After listening to this I can understand why some find the Thai language annoying. However, I find it more soothing than other languages in the region. Muslim Thai women and their cheeky but not too loud or annoying kids filled our carriage. I can imagine a similar journey in Vietnam being less pleasant. The Vietnamese, while friendly, have the Chinese habit of getting in the way, shouting, and not controlling their kids.
A Quiet Flame
In Hua Hin, we stayed in an apartment/condo building with, to hazard a guess, 20% occupancy. The pool was massive and the gym adequate. Our small apartment had a sliding door between the kitchen/sitting area and the toilet & bedroom. If you had the clothes horse set up, there wasn’t room to sit on the balcony. Space was at a premium but I’m used to that. I’ve heard apartments like this can be had for 300 USD a month. Apart from being situated on a busy road, I thought it ideal for a three-month stay. I saw older European and Australian couples at the pool – possibly retirees. Hua Hin could be great for a single guy. The bars and massage parlours are there but not as ubiquitous as in Sin City Pattaya or Patong. I think you’d be less inclined to give in to hedonism entirely in Hua Hin. A single woman may enjoy the town too – but let’s not pretend we don’t know about Thailand’s reputation as a paradise for males.
At the beach, we came across a guy suited to Hua Hin. Being low season, not many tourists roamed the sand. Compared with Bangkok, the heat was bearable. Touts offered horse rides and deck chairs in a polite fashion.
“You want seat, 50 baht, no time limit.”
“Maybe later we’re going for a walk.”
“OK, you remember me, my name James Bond.”
How could we not remember? Five minutes later, we were back renting two chairs, one umbrella, and two towels for 100 baht from James Bond. A great deal, but the idea was you ate and drank something too. The food was more expensive than elsewhere but not exorbitantly so. We shared garlic prawns and a papaya salad. The prawns got the ultimate compliment from M, “Saben a Mexico.” (They taste like Mexico.)
A tall Aussie of sixty also rented a deckchair from James Bond. He could have chosen any spot on the near-empty beach, so this choice of proximity suggested he wanted to talk but he didn’t say hi or look our way. As is my wont, I paid careful attention to his conversation with James Bond. Once the Aussie came back from a swim, the dialogue went something like this:
Bond: “You hurt foot?”
Aussie: “Yea, it’s nothing. Stood on a rock or something.”
“It’s nothing, just bad luck.”
“You want drink?”
“You want eat?”
“Already eaten thanks.”
“You come back and eat tomorrow?”
James Bond, his job of trying to sell done, became genuinely friendly.
“Where you go before here?”
“Came up from the South. Nice people and nice beaches down there.”
“Where you go now.”
“Many lady there.”
After this scintillating exchange, the Aussie put down his coconut, stood up, and moved toward the water. He stood there considering the ocean. What did he see? In New Zealand, I see many men standing with their arms crossed looking at the sea. I guess they’re studying the waves and wind but Hua Hin had a pancake ocean. After the Aussie was back in his seat, I went for a swim. When I was away, he bought a colourful woven blanket from a vendor. “That’s beautiful,” M said.
“Oh, just a cheap thing,” The Aussie said. (M reported this exchange to me.)
I know these utterances from the Aussie don’t tell you much. He was in good shape, probably from biking and swimming rather than the gym. I’d say he knew his way around a tool shed but didn’t work with his hands. Definitely not a government worker, maybe he managed clients for a big firm? Or perhaps he worked in insurance? I reckoned he wouldn’t fall into the trap of drinking too much if he retired in Hua Hin. He’d want a condo with a good pool and would appreciate easy access to female company from time to time…but he wouldn’t go overboard. More of an at-peace-with-the-world every man than an idealist intellectual, routine interactions with locals would nourish the social needs of this quiet flame.
After the beach, we wandered the grounds of the Centara Grand Beach Resort & Villas Hua Hin, formally The Railway Hotel. The buildings and grounds were seriously impressive. I don’t have anything original to say about the hotel so will stick to this spot-on description from Hua Hin Today:
The Hua Hin Railway Hotel officially opened to guests on January 1, 1923 and is recognised as Thailand’s first resort hotel, comparable to premier hotels in Europe at the time.
The hotel is also famous for its beautiful gardens, the centerpiece of which is “Chokdee”, a large hedgerow cut into the shape of an elephant.
The night market in Hua Hin won the battle for the best food among the strong competition on our nearly month-long trip. It was a close-run thing between the seafood of the Hua Hin night market and the Banh Mi sandwiches in Hoi An, Vietnam. We ate at the night market twice. I had a whole steamed fish on the first night, and prawns and pineapple fried rice on the second. The prices were half of those at the beach. Most of the restaurants had the same menu, but we’re talking about one with about 200 choices. The differentiation between restaurant and street food is interesting in such a place. At the restaurant, you sit inside behind the guys cooking on the street using multiple woks. For street food, you sit on the footpath in front of them. Isn’t this a better option food safety-wise than having a kitchen out back in who knows what state of cleanliness?
The Hutsadin Elephant Foundation, on the outskirts of Hua Hin, has generally good reviews online. On Trip Advisor, a (self-appointed?) representative of the foundation responds to all reviews making for interesting reading. The negative comments focus on prices and that the elephants are chained up by one leg. The chains stop the elephants from wandering off as the foundation has no fences. As for what they charge, you can imagine running the place is expensive. I’m guessing the Thai government doesn’t give them any subsidies or tax breaks. Hutsadin has a wealth of information on how they care for the elephants printed out for visitors to look through. The foreign volunteers and the local staff seem genuine in their commitment to care for the elephants – one of whom is apparently in her 70s!
We paid to take a bull elephant for a walk and feed it bananas. My only complaint was that the guide with good English, referenced in the printed material, wasn’t there. It would’ve been good to get answers to my many annoying questions. I enjoyed feeding the elephant, seeing a trunk in action up close for the first time was amazing. Looking into the elephant’s eyes, although hard to discern anything, it seemed content enough. The elephant handler – the mahout – tapped the bull from time to time with his takaw or elephant goad to keep the animal moving.
Many expats in Thailand say the key to happiness is avoiding other expats because the country attracts many bad eggs and nutters. I recalled this advice on the train back to Bangkok. We bought second-class fan seats at Hua Hin station that cost twice the price of the sleeper tickets for the trip down. I wondered why for a moment but then remembered with my limited knowledge of Thailand many things would remain mysterious. Taking photos inside the station was a short, bald, and fat foreigner in his late 40s or early 50s and his partner, a Thai woman of a similar age. On the train, in the same carriage as us, the man soon started swearing and complaining in a Southern US accent. Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana? I’ve no idea but you get the picture.
“I gave you a THOUSAND baht and you’ve put us in this shit. I can’t fucking believe how stupid you are. It’s going to be fucking hot for five hours with these stupid fans.”
Little did he know, the trip would take six hours. Had his Thai partner tried to explain that even two humble fan tickets cost more than 1000 baht, he wouldn’t have wanted to listen. The ranting continued and I feared we’d be listening to it for hours. Then the poor woman talked to a train guard and arranged to go – I assume – to seats with air-conditioning.
Next, a thin foreign man in his 50s entered our carriage, stooped in front of us, and asked, “Tourists?” Not the worst guess in the world! I was happy to talk even though looking at the numbers scrawled across his forearm I suspected him to be a nutter. A Czech, he had remarkably bad English not helped by his monologue full of non-sequiturs. He’d worked in Malaysian Borneo for years, but his wife had recently died and he was now in Thailand, “Looking for new lady,” hence the phone number written on his arm. He was sick of the Malaysians. Finding out M was Mexican he went on a rant about Mexico and the US. Eventually, I said to him, “Well it was nice to meet you.” Luckily, he got the message and left. You know if somebody says, “Well it WAS nice to meet you,” they want the conversation to stop. People have said it to me on several occasions. We had peace for the rest of the ride back to Bangkok – the Thai passengers, vendors, and railway workers proved nothing but courteous.
On the topic of Thai good manners, I find travelling there more relaxing than in other Asian countries. Why? Here are some examples: Thais don’t shout much, are considerate to other pedestrians, seem committed to their jobs, and smile a lot. Why they smile is another issue that a lot has been written about. The main conclusion being that smiling doesn’t necessarily mean happiness or goodwill. Apart from the smiling, the above examples could apply to Taiwan – and I’m sure Japan too but I haven’t been there. Taiwanese politeness is genuine but it lacks warmth and engagement. No Taiwanese hiring out beach chairs would tell you their name was James Bond.
The Thai mindfulness for the feelings of others has its foundation in a model of behaviour called greng jai. However, all bets are off crossing the road, greng jai goes out the window and motorbikes, cars, and tuk-tuks will hunt you down.
The first result in a Google search for greng jai was a Bangkok Post article written by Australian Andrew Biggs, a guru on things Thai for foreigners and things foreign (read Western) for Thais. A wingnut bald man in his 60s, he’s often on Thai television and has been in the Kingdom since the 80s. In the late 20th century, opportunities existed in monocultural Asian countries for extraverted Westerners with excellent local language skills and a bit of luck. They didn’t need to look cool like in the West. Asians see the much-maligned geeky white male differently. Mark Zuckerberg is mocked in the West but he’s admired in the East. It flabbergasted me when a young Asian woman told me he was her hero. However, Zuck’s shine dulled when he had the dumb idea to speak his halting Mandarin in public.
It’s impossible for me to rate Bigg’s Thai, his knowledge of Thai culture, or entertainment value. I’m never going to put in the time watching him or get to an intermediate level of knowledge of Thailand that would allow me to judge an expert. I do remember a similar figure from China though – who I’ve devoted some time and thought to. In 2001, I arrived in China to work in Tianjin – a city post-apocalyptic in appearance because of a nuclear winter-like cloud of construction dust. When I turned on the TV, one foreigner was ubiquitous. This Biggs equivalent was Canadian Mark Roswell, known as Dashan. His claim to fame was his mastery of the Beijing accent. As well as advertising every product under heaven, he did stand-up comedy in Chinese. In 2001, I had idea what Dashan was talking about but I knew the Chinese found him hilarious. Sure, he had a talking white monkey appeal, however, I also got the idea they found what he said funny. Canadian journalist Mitch Moxley wrote in his memoir of living in China that Dashan was a thorn in all foreigners’ sides. Typically, a Chinese person would ask, “Do you know Dashan? He speaks Chinese so well.” This seemed to come with an implied ‘unlike you.’ Not long after I moved to China, I started ignoring Dashan. But recently, maybe fifteen years since I’d last seen him, Dashan’s stand-up act about how Beijingers suck at speaking Cantonese appeared in my Youtube suggestions. I decided to watch the clip and being able to understand most of it, I laughed a lot. What a bastard Dashan is, perfect Chinese and funny.
How about that, another digression into an anecdote about China. I can’t stop myself.
Andrew Biggs has this to say about greng jai:
Greng jai is a feeling of not wanting to put another person out or hurt another person’s feelings. It’s a feeling of consideration for others. It’s not performing a certain act because somebody else might feel not good about your doing it. It’s, it’s …
Hard to explain then, and Biggs tells us how he capitalised on this.
I once wrote an entire book entitled What Does Greng Jai Mean In English? which sold nearly 100,000 copies. It paid off a significant part of my mortgage.
Good for him I guess.