Arriving in Thailand

I guess most people’s first vision of Thailand is arriving at the airport in Bangkok and driving into the city. Not me.

I filled out some forms and was stamped out of Malaysia and into Thailand, crossing the Sadao border checkpoint in Thailand’s far south. The difference with Malaysia was distinct. The big wide road with dusty shop fronts either side was much busier and more chaotic than Malaysia. Big trucks and cars pumping down the street, motorcycles weaving in between, some with side-cars selling food, all of them kicking up big clouds of dust and smoke from the street.

It seemed like a wild, crazy, lawless place, full of chancers and bandits, like some vision of an Oriental Wild West. I liked it. This was the Wild East. It seemed like a land full of promise and adventure, not as orderly and efficient as Malaysia. I knew little about the place other than it was famous on the travellers’ circuit for its beautiful beaches, islands and legendary parties.

I picked a white bottle out a shop’s fridge, a strange-tasting soy milk, and looked at my guidebook. I decided to head for the city of Hat Yai not far to the north. Taxi to the bus station and onto a songtaew, literally meaning ‘two rows’ my book told me – a truck with two benches on the back for passengers to sit facing each other, covered by a thin metal roof.

It was a prosperous bustling border town, lots of Malays and ethnic Chinese doing business with the local Thais. Walking the streets was a far more hectic experience than Malaysia. Vehicles zooming past in every direction, people jostling through dark, covered markets, before coming out into the blazing bright Sun again and avoiding hitting a speeding motorcycle or food hawker. Exotic spicy fumes emanated from Muslim, Chinese and Thai restaurants everywhere. Lots of well-used, old shop houses and freezing cold 7-Eleven convenience stores on every street corner. Inside, an automatic ‘dingding’ sound and a chorus of young women behind the counter all saying hello in Thai, “Sawasdee kaa.”

I went to some dank old backpacker centre. The receptionist handed me a key for a dorm room. “This your room.” In the room was an English guy Martin. He was 30-something; been teaching English in Bangkok for a few years, and was now in Hat Yai. He seemed happy for me to tag along with him around town, as I listened to his torrent of advice, piss-takes and Thai language with the locals. “That’s a squat toilet. After you take a shit, pour water down your back and scrub it off your arse . . . Don’t live down here mate there’s nothing to do, you’re better off starting in Bangkok . . . This place is full of Malay blokes getting their end away from over the border . . . Moo daeng thao rai? . . . Watch out for the local blokes, they’re all trained in Thai boxing and five of them’ll gang up on you if you start anything . . . You’re a farang now mate.” “What’s that?” I wondered. Farang was the Thai word for Westerners I learned, and they used it a lot to talk about any they came across.

Martin had this gaunt frame, harrowed face and slightly mad look in his eyes like he’d been here too long. But he was doing what I wanted to do, so I stayed with him as we hit the beers and he ran around trying to sort out various problems with his girlfriend, old school, guesthouse, money and so on. He didn’t seem too happy in his current predicament living in a shit-hole guesthouse in Hat Yai, but at the same time I was drawn to his street swagger and experience amongst the people of this foreign land. I wanted a slice of the action for myself – to be able to swing through the trees and vines of the jungle freely like him. He told me there was lots of work for foreigners teaching English in Thailand. 

There was certainly much less English written and spoken here compared to Malaysia, the local language looking like an incomprehensible maze of squiggles. I could tell you needed experience to get by here, and I had none. The place had an electric urgency to it, a mad buzz that had me hooked. Stumbling from bar to bar, we met a young Swedish guy who’d been bumming round town for three weeks, some funky-looking Japanese guys, pretty bar waitresses and plump sunburnt Irish girls, before stumbling home happy after my first night in Thailand.

The above was an Extract from ‘I of the Sun’ by Richard Arthur.

‘I of the Sun’ is available in ebook and paperback formats from Amazon and all other online retailers, and available to order from all UK bookstores. For more information check out www.iofthesun.com