IT’S ‘DÉJÀ VU’ ALL OVER AGAIN!

by Leonard H. Le Blanc III

  This year marks 45 years since I first came to Thailand. There have been a few changes over the decades. But remarkably there have been more than a few things that haven’t changed at all. Some random thoughts.

     I instantly fell in love with the country as soon as I got off the plane. I was mesmerised with the people, the lush scenery, the exotic scents, the warm weather and warmer hospitality, the gilded temples, the ancient history, the charming customs, and the delicious food. I knew this was place where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. I have been in over 70 countries since I arrived here. I have not changed my opinion.  Bangkok has been my permanent base of operations since 1991 when not doing U.S. government contracts in the hottest of hot spots including Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kuwait, Nigeria and Houston.

The exchange rate then was steady one U.S. dollar to 20 Baht. Gold was USD$35.00 per ounce. A handmade, finely crafted, personally fitted Italian pair of leather dress shoes were USD$20. A whole closet full the top quality European styled designer suits were a few hundred dollars. I had a steak dinner one evening back then at the Chokchai Steak House. At the time the restaurant was in the Chokchai Building – the tallest skyscraper in Thailand at 26 stories. It had a spectacular view on the 23rd floor. You could look out and only see a few dim houselights to the southern and western horizons and nothing else of note. Most of the scenery was just trees.  

The place to shop back then was the newly opened the Siam Center. But I noted with dismay over the years that there was a growing gap between the lowest step of the entrance on the street and the pavement. All due to subsidence caused by underground water pumping. So they periodically kept adding wooden steps each time to close the growing gap. Behind the Siam Center was the elegant, shaded Intercontinental Hotel.  The lobby was the perfect place to have some tea while teams of handsome pilots and glamours stewardesses from Pan-Am, SAS, British Airways, Lufthansa and other international airlines that housed their crews there on layovers waltzed through the lobby area.

Long tail boat on tropical beach, Krabi, Thailand

Bangkok’s roads were all literally parking lots. Hiring a taxi cab was all hard bargaining. They were always not in the best of condition, mainly rusty jalopies ready for the scrapyard. Now as then tuk-tuks were too expensive for a ‘farang’ to use. Most of the city’s landscape has changed radically. But certain areas of the city, like Charoen Krung Road, the residential areas of Huay Kwang and Din Daeng and right around the Grand Palace, seem not to have changed at all (except for a few hundred thousand 7-11s stores). Patpong existed, but not Soi Cowboy.

The highway to Pattaya was just a two lane road with heavy traffic. During the rainy season the roadway washed out several times and had to be repaired each time.  If you got caught behind a slow-moving lorry it might be some time before an open spot between oncoming traffic let you safely pass, but that opportunity seldom came. South Pattaya Beach Road was just an unpaved track through the jungle with a few scattered ramshackle thatch covered wooden houses. If you wanted any entertainment you had to bring it along with you. Pattaya was the beach road and the back road and nothing more. A bungalow on the beach could be rented for 120B month. The road to Jomtien was also an unpaved track over the hill from Pattaya. It was a pristine stretch of beach and jungle foliage as a backdrop. Few people cared to venture over there. If they did they had the whole beach to themselves.

     Unlike some other East Asian nations that long barred ‘farangs’, Thailand rolled the red carpet out since the first European visitors arrived over five centuries ago. Thailand has been described as a ‘crossroads’. What I like about Thailand most is if you want to have fun then there will always be Thais around to help you do exactly that. If you want to be left alone then the Thais will do that too. Thailand is what you make of it.

     The world keeps giving me new reasons every day to stay here. As long as the proverbial welcome mat remains out for myself and my family we will.

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