September 1, 2012
I can smile at the old days / I was beautiful then – Memory, Trevor Nunn and Andrew Lloyd Webber
Those looking around for affordable places to retire outside of their home countries have probably considered “Third World” countries. Originally this term referred to countries which were not the U.S. and most of Europe, countries that followed capitalism (First World), or the communist countries (Second World). The rest, which included most of the undeveloped, or to be more PC, “developing”, world got lumped together to be known as the “Third World”.
And Thailand was lumped together with them. With so many changes in the world today the terms First, Second, and Third World don’t make much sense anymore.
But when I first came here they did, and Thailand was not the country it is today. People might have the impression that Thailand is still a backward country like it was then. This impression couldn’t be more wrong. So in order to illustrate that retirees living in Thailand today aren’t living in some backwater, deep in the jungle existence, I thought a comparison of what this country was like back when it was still developing (then) and modern day Thailand (now) might give a better description of what a retired life here today would be like.
I first came to Thailand in 1969 and returned to retire here in 2001. Day and night. There are still places here that have not changed much since I first came. These are mostly in rural areas, far from metropolitan centers. Now there are Expats who choose to live out there in semi-isolation, but the majority has settled in places with larger populations and with most of the amenities of the 21st century. Back THEN there was no choice. Much of Thailand was like Dodge City, backward, lawless, cowboy towns. You can still live that way, but at least NOW you have a choice.
Here are some of the changes I have seen.
I had my first case of the “runs” a little over 24 hours after arriving in Bangkok. In fact, it hit me while I was on the reception line waiting to shake hands with the American ambassador. I never did get to meet him. As I shook his wife’s hand and as she greeted me with “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” all I could respond with was, “Can you tell me the way to the nearest bathroom?” Not exactly the coolest entry into high society.
During the next couple of years the “runs” became a lifestyle with me. And since I ate most of my meals in the open-air market places (the precursors to today’s food courts) when I came down with enteric fever (a food borne disease related to typhoid) no one seemed surprised. And there was lots of malaria and encephalitis, but for me it was dengue fever, a time of the worst headache imaginable, muscle pain like having been beat all over with a baseball bat, and super high hallucination inducing fever.
This was a time when mosquito coils burned every night as we sweltered unaircontioned under mosquito nets, and people advised even brushing your teeth with boiled water. I once knew a guy who didn’t have access to boiled or bottled water one day, so he brushed his teeth with beer to be safe. And garbage pickup was, as the old Porgy and Bess song says, “A sometime thing.”
The water that runs out of most taps in Thailand today is treated and, although I still buy water in big bottles, I am not afraid to brush my teeth or even take my medications with Chiang Mai’s tap water. Some Expats swear by it. Where ever the water is treated the incidents of gastrointestinal illnesses are way down. I haven’t had the runs in years, although eating hot food, an activity that was one of my favorites in the old days, plays havoc with my stomach today. Although things are much improved, there are lots of endemic diseases still hanging around. So one still needs to be careful and find out what people in the area do to stay safe.
But there is no need to brush your teeth with beer anymore, that is not unless you like it that way. Most modern food courts are clean but a little less exotic than in the old days. And my garbage is picked up every Thursday morning, whether I want them to or not.
Christmas 1970, and I haven’t spoken to my family back home in almost a year. The only contact I had from home were those blue air letters, three weeks to get home, three weeks to get back, about a 2 month turnaround. So why not phone home?
The only phone I had access to was in the office of our school. But international calls could not be made from regular telephones. I was told that I had to go down to the telephone exchange building downtown. So, at 2am one morning, there is a 12 hour difference from my home in New York, I went to make my call. The operator took the number I gave her and told me to take a seat and wait for an international line to open up. A half hour later she pointed me to a booth and said that my call had gone through – I had 3 minutes.
As I recall the conversation went something like this: “Hi, it’s me calling from Thailand. Me, remember, your son! How is everyone? I’m fine. Merry Christmas.” Click. The operator then gave me the bill for the call. It came to about one week’s salary.
Just this morning I got a Skype call from my son back in Washington D.C. I talked to him from my tablet; he used his iPhone. Grandpa and grandma watched and laughed as my son and my daughter-in-law gave our two grandchildren a bath. Price of call: Free.
My first house was basically a wooden shack, light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, outdoor plumbing, cold water, squat toilet; from which I could track the activities of the many red scorpions that shared the outhouse with me. But I did own a small electric fan.
Every once in a while I’d be woken by a herd of cows that would traipse through my garden. This was less than 100 yards off of Tha Phae Road in Chiang Mai, smack dap in the middle of this bustling city.
My current living room has more space than my whole house did back then. And I have four bathrooms, all inside the house, and all with western toilets. I am thankful for that since my ability to squat left me long, long ago. And the four air conditioners help me get through the hot season. The plot my old house sat on now hosts a 7 story condo.
Back then the road surfaces were mainly red clay and the highway from Chiang Mai to Bangkok was still a civil engineer’s dream. The only way here to Chiang Mai was by train, unless you had no self-preservation instincts and took the bus. I don’t worry about buses and trains anymore. Our international airport, once a wooden building accepting a flight or two a week, is okay by me.
There was one department store in Chiang Mai. It didn’t have much for sale but it did have the first escalator in the north. It was air conditioned and we’d go there on a hot evening and ride the escalator up and down. Today of course there are world class malls right here – larger and classier than the ones back in Seattle where I had come from. And on hot evenings I still go to the malls and ride the escalators up and down in air conditioned splendor.
I got a serious infection back then and because there was no treatment facility here that my doctor trusted I was air evacuated to Bangkok. Today many towns in Thailand have world class hospitals, with American and European educated doctors and nurses, serving a growing medical tourist industry.
When I first live here I knew just about every Expat in Chiang Mai. There were some missionaries, a CIA agent or two, some volunteers, a few writers and artists, and an assortment of world travelers who had run out of money. Today there are literally tens of thousands of Expats who call Chiang Mai home.
Things that haven’t changed:
Although global climate change has wrecked havoc on the timing, the hot season is still hot, the wet season is still wet and the dry season is still dry; Thai food can still be ridiculously spicy; motorcyclists still go down the wrong side of the road without the slightest inkling that they are doing anything wrong; there are still fish in the water and rice in the fields; and the smiles are still here.
So was back then the “good old days”? For some maybe. For me, I think the best for life in Thailand is still to come.
These are the good old days – Anticipation, Carly Simon
Note: I have been given the honor to speak at Chiang Mai’s Informal Northern Thai Group on September 11, 7:30pm. I’ll be talking on the subject of the U.S. Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary in Thailand. Lots of stories about what life was like for volunteers way back then. Remember, this was the 60s and we volunteers were young got into lots of situations. So I’ ll try to keep the stories on the PG level. It would be great to meet a reader or two.
The Informal Northern Thai Group (INTG) meets monthly to discuss various aspects of Thai or Southeast Asia culture. You are welcome to join. (http://www.intgcm.thehostserver.com/)