A few years ago I was sent to work in Pattaya for three months. As a regular visitor I knew a few people there but had never really lived there. But after a little research I decided to live on the other side of Sukhumwit Road where I had a few mates living as well as being close to the office. This area on the other side of Sukhumwit is known as "The Dark Side" amongst local expats (in spite of the fact that most who apply this name actually live there themselves). Most people there tend to be on a budget, taking advantage of the excellent value accommodation to be found there. 4 to 5000 Baht a month can get you a reasonably pleasant house, a little more and you can get a bit of garden too if you're lucky.
Around this cheap accommodation is a small industry of surprisingly good cheap bars, restaurants and cafes that have sprung up to suit the pockets of the local expats. Not many visitors get to see these bars but they have always surprised me that at times the quality of fanny to be had there often matches and sometimes surpasses that of the town itself.
It would be fair to say that most people there don't have a great deal of money to throw around. Many there are retired, on a pension and settled with their long term Thai partners (often ex-bargirls) and they find time weighs heavy on their hands. For most, days consist of drinking cheap beers at someone's house or outside one of the many mini marts - which all seem have tables set up outside - gossiping about their fellow expats and recalling their glorious younger days.
Most of these retirees are decent blokes with their own incomes and are quite self-sufficient. One or two may struggle towards the end of the month but on the whole they burden no one. Then you get your younger guys. One of the aforementioned older lads once summed them up nicely for me.
"If they're aged between 25 and 45, have no visible means of income or job either here or at home then you can guarantee that they're either "waiting" for some lump sum of money, they have some house or property waiting to be sold, some legal wrangle waiting to be settled or some business deal about to go through "once the other guy" has got his act together. In reality though they are chancing their arms for a fuck and haven't a pot to piss in, a window to throw it out of, nor a garden for it to land in so give them a wide berth and don't lend them money unless you can afford to lose it"
Now I have pretty decent Thai language skills but for me it's no big deal. It's a means of communication and that's it. In places where most speak English then I use English. If English fails in these places I'll discreetly use Thai to clarify that all has been understood - discreetly because many people's jobs can hinge on their English language skills and people have been sacked for having shortcomings in this field. If there is no English spoken at all then I use Thai. I for one have never understood why so many expats here seem to love to show off their language 'skills' at the top of their voices especially when it is usually either basic or just plain bloody awful. What makes it even sadder is that most of the people their Thai is aimed at speak English several levels higher than their Thai which makes it even more pointless.
I can't think of another country in the world where the expat community makes such a song and dance about knowing a bit of the local lingo as they do here. Fuck me, basic Thai is so simple that a 8 year old child could learn enough to get by in a few hours (my own nephew is evidence of this). In most expat circles there is usually a Thai Language 'Expert', more often than not being the person who has learned a few phrases from his wife and gone on to manage to string them together. Sometimes though one does find someone who really knows their onions but on the whole it's seldom you find any real knowledge of the language amongst the expat community.
The local expert here was a guy called Steve. I'd seen him around the place but frankly he seemed to fit firmly into the category of 'ones to avoid' that I'd been warned about so I'd never really spoken to him. He was rather unpopular among both the local Thais and the expat community but his language skills had made him something of an asset and given him a level of status that usually a struggling TEFL 'teacher' with a reputation for short changing bar girls and having bar tabs run up all over the place would usually never get. In my book that made him best avoided especially as I'd never need his services.
I managed to ascertain however, that he actually made a few quid on the side by interpreting for the local expats so I assumed his language skills must be pretty decent. As I love nothing more than meeting non-Thai's with a proficiency in Thai and comparing notes, seeing if I could learn anything from them, I decided that next time our paths crossed I'd introduce myself.
I didn't have to wait too long for that first meeting and it was far from auspicious. I was sat in a local bar, a nice respectable place with nice air con and some nice lasses working there. One or two of them knew my Thai was pretty good as I'd taken one of my dollies in there who had spilled the beans to them.
The bar was dead. I was the only person in on a wet, stormy Tuesday night. I was chatting with a couple of the girls in Thai as there was no one else in and as a relative newcomer they were testing me out. I passed their test with flying colours to the extent that they kept on saying over and over again (amongst themselves) as to how my Thai was way, way better than Steve's and they should watch what they talk about around me. They were also amazed that I could read and write as well and this was also put to the test. I wowed them as I translated the few bits of (admittedly easy) Thai they flung at me and even passed their spelling test with flying colours. They all kept asking me why I never spoke Thai in the bar and my reply that they all spoke good English so there was no need won me more brownie points.
We then chatted away for a while, me trying to switch to English to no avail, when after about 20 minutes the door swung open and in came Steve with a couple of his deadbeat mates who I knew from sight but they went around the other side of the bar to the pool tables. The first thing I heard was Steve talking to the girls.
I got the vibe from the girls that he was far from popular among them and from the atonal nature of his Thai, as well as the fact that it was fairly coarse in its overall timbre, I could see why. He then began to make small talk to them and it became clear to me that his expertise had been grossly exaggerated. The phrase 'Fluent Thai' must be one of the most overused in expat circles. Those who tend to describe someone as being 'fluent' in Thai wouldn't know fluent Thai if it bit them on the arsehole for one thing.
I know of only a handful of non-Thais who are truly 'fluent' in Thai. To be fluent in a language one needs to be able to talk freely on any subject at the drop of a hat. The true test of one's fluency in Thai would be to be able to flick through the TV channels and be able to understand EVERYTHING effortlessly. I have even met a few self-proclaimed 'fluent' speakers all of whom have failed this test with flying colours. So beware when you hear someone being described as 'fluent' in Thai. I would say assume at best it will be "proficient".
With a sense of disappointment it soon became clear that Steve's language abilities really had been overplayed by the ignorance of the expats. At best it was reasonable conversational stuff. There was nothing to be learned here but I'd guessed at that already from the fact that he couldn't read or write, so I scratched the idea of wanting to meet him especially after some of the things I'd heard about him. I decided to have one more and head off into town if the rain had stopped or go and see my current local fancy in a closer bar if it hadn't.
As I was drinking my last pint I could hear the girls all singing my praises to Steve whose mates had now left and was sat at the bar opposite me but hidden by the till area and fridges. This made me uneasy. I'd experienced envy and even hostility at times in the past because of my language skills, usually from some self-proclaimed 'expert' who felt their status was threatened by my presence. I once had some sad twat on Samui challenge me to an oral (oral because he could neither read nor write) translation contest which I refused several times until his braying that I was 'all mouth and no trousers' riled me to the extent that it would give me no greater pleasure than to see this twat utterly humiliated, which he was. However, the last thing I wanted was to make an enemy so I called the girls over and asked them to wind it in a bit.
I was too late. Steve, his pals now departed, was coming unsteadily around the bar. I braced myself for some unpleasantness but as he sat he introduced himself and we made pleasant enough small talk for a while even though he was clearly the worse for wear having started drinking in the afternoon as many do there to snap the tedium. I could also tell he was baiting to be able to hear me speak Thai so he could make an assessment so I began to drink away at my beer and thought to get away ASAP.
To my dismay though Steve bought me a beer which meant I'd have to do the courtesy of getting him one which even at my fast rate of supping meant another 30 minutes. Desperate to get off the Thai angle I asked him about his teaching. Here was clearly another field of his 'expertise' but it seemed to have done the trick as he drunkenly rambled on and on about how he was a 'real' teacher and couldn't stand these jokers you found in Thailand. I was content to let him ramble on and on as I bought my round and paid up, meaning to get the fuck out of there ASAP and be out of this iffy situation. There was a lull in the conversation and desperate to not let things move towards language I casually mentioned that I admired a lot of teachers, having done a little bit of teaching myself when I've had to make ends meet.
Without knowing it I'd lit the blue touch paper. He exploded into a rant about how jokers like me were fucking it up for 'real' teachers like him. Now I know a good few 'real' teachers i.e. people with a B.Ed. and this guy didn't strike me as one of their ilk as they all tend to be employed in International schools and not scraping around for a living in the back streets of Pattaya. I didn't say anything though. He'd made a real idiot of himself and when he began banging on about 'Methodology' (which any educator worth their salt has disclaimed for a decade) I went for a piss, made my excuses and trapped.
The next day I went for coffee at one of the old timer's houses, who by pure chance had been a teacher in his working life. I told him of my experience. He chuckled all the way through my story and told me that Steve was no more a teacher than he was an Astronaut but because he had taken his TEFL in the UK at a university, thought it was akin to a degree. I made a mental note to avoid the fool from now on at all costs. He'd be sure to be sore that his position as 'Thai expert' had been ruined, for now the girls in the pub had found out about the extent of my language skills, it was only a matter of time until it became common knowledge. My mates there knew all about me, but knew me well enough that I liked to keep it under wraps and had kept quiet but now my secret was out.
Later that day I was sat at outside the local shop having a beer waiting to see who would turn up when I saw Steve driving past me on his motorbike. He glanced at me but carried on by much to my relief. Maybe he had been so pissed the night before that he'd forgotten all about it so I carried with my beer and book. To my surprise though, less than a minute later he had turned around and was pulling up at the shop. My beer was almost done and so I was ready to leave had he started any shite or even to flatten the prat if need be. I can take care of myself but I'd heard a few iffy things, not so much about Steve but certainly about a few of his mates, and frankly I'd sooner just walk away than get involved with such idiots over the petty jealousy of one fool but even someone as mellow as me has their limits. To my utter surprise though he walked right up to me and made a genuine apology for his outburst the previous night. To say I was taken aback was an understatement especially after I'd heard he was pretty much a total low lifer, but I was relieved that I'd not made an enemy out of him. I accepted his offer of a beer and we sat and had a chat over a few beers.
He seemed OK to me when he was sober. He was from my part of the world and we had a few places in common so the small talk flowed. He came across as an intelligent enough bloke albeit one with that odd expat slant on Thailand, but seemed reasonable enough company for a beer. All the time though, as we chatted, I was aware that he was getting uncomplimentary looks from the few Thais around the place including some of the girlfriends and wives of some of the lads who'd come out for a beer. While I was grateful for his apology, I really thought that this wasn't a good guy to be associated with too closely so on finishing my beer I made my excuses and left for the pub.
Over the next few weeks I ran into Steve here and there. Things were always civil, yet I never lingered too much in his company. I even went so far as to feel that maybe he was victim to a bit of envy from his fellow expats as well a victim of suspicion of their spouses (who, as we all know, don't like it when someone close to their meal ticket 'know too mut'). The mild animosity felt towards him seemed widespread enough that there had to have been some truth in it all though so arms-length was the way to go with this one but it did seem a little over the top.
I'd heard stories of how he had unpaid bar bills all over the place which he often cajoled his better off cronies to settle up for him or as to how he would take women home but never pay them what they had agreed in the bar, if at all, yet he always paid his way when our paths crossed, however I could more than see that many of the girls seemed less than pleased to see him.
Bitterness and jealousy are common poisons in expat communities especially towards the successful or knowledgeable. As poor as Steve's Thai was; for that community, it was streets above the rest of the Thai I heard there and that was a sure foundation for both poisons. My rule of thumb is always to take things with a pinch of salt and read between the lines until I can make up my own mind and I applied this rule to Steve. I surmised that seeing as he wasn't a well off bloke, living hand to mouth, he was bound to have the odd outstanding tab around the area. Most people did as there were few millionaires around there but it was unlikely that he had them in every place as he would surely have been chased down for it when he visited them. That said however it was also noticeable as to how he rotated his bars from week to week yet he wasn't barred from anywhere therefore he couldn't be as bad as people made out. As for the girls, it's well known that they don't like men who are in the know. My guess was that maybe as he had the language skills to at least eliminate some of the hassles that can come with whoring, he probably held firm against most of the little 'add-ons' that ladies can spring on a chap much to their chagrin, as well as be able to maybe get a better rate than some. That would be enough in itself to get the vixens snarling about you.
I had begun to read between the lines as to what I had heard about him and form my own, hopefully fair opinion, when he approached me one day asking if I would be interested in joining him in starting a translation service. I wanted no part of it. I explained that I was going to be leaving in a few months as it was, plus I find translation work tedious and dull and most of all I didn't need the money or the extra hassle. He took my suitably explained refusal well... or so I thought.
A few days after I was called upon by one of the lads, Brian, who drank outside the supermarket accompanied by a pal of mine. To cut a long story short the guy was on the verge of having his new squeeze moving in with him and needed my services as a translator to make sure that all ground rules were fully understood before she moved in. As I sat there listening to what he wanted me to do I had to stop him in his tracks. I told him that he'd be better off with Steve. I knew full well that this was his gig and how he made a few bob on the side. The last thing I wanted was to be seen taking the money out of his hands (even though I'd do this for nothing or maybe a few beers as I'm always too happy to help). He shuffled uncomfortably and told me that he'd tried Steve already but his lass couldn't understand his Thai and she'd lost him totally when she'd tried to explain a few things to him. I asked how good her English was and he explained that it was pretty good but having been burned before wanted nothing left to chance this time and wanted everything crystal clear in English and Thai.
Reluctantly I agreed to help however only if it was done behind closed doors and it was kept under wraps. He agreed and we arranged that I'd go around to his house in an hour. I went and did as he asked easily enough so that both parties were fully satisfied with each other's terms. A nice meal and a few drinks in town on him followed and that seemed to be that until a week later.
Unbeknown to me, a few nights after I'd done this, Brian had been on a rare foray to some of the bars up the road where he'd run into Steve who was with a few of his deadbeat mates and somewhat the worse for wear. An argument ensued between them with Steve demanding payment for his services and Brian telling him to get fucked as he'd not been able to do the job. As things got heated Brian told him that he'd got a 'professional' to do it in the end who speaks better Thai than Steve ever would and had got the job done in 20 minutes. It didn't take Steve long to work it out and Brian realising that he'd dropped me in it, placated Steve with 500B and that seemed to be that. A few days later I was sat outside the shop with a couple of mates when Steve pulled up outside. Instead of joining us as he would have done he made a pointed show of sitting away from us. Kev, the guy who'd introduced me to Brian, read things right away and being a former bouncer, called over to Steve and asked why he was sat on his own. Steve looked up and remarked that he didn't drink with backstabbers. Deciding to bite the bullet I asked him if he was talking about me doing a favour for a mate seeing as he couldn't do the job. By now my dander was up and the time for walking on eggshells around this self-important prick was gone. I'd been there a few months now and wasn't going to hide my own abilities anymore to spare the blushes of this lowlife pisshead and pretty much said that much.
He said nothing and finished his beer and left. Kev told me to watch my back but assured me that if I got any bother there'd be a lot of weight behind me as many people, local Thais included, were only waiting for a decent reason to drum Steve and some of his lowlife mates out of town.
An hour later as my mates went home for their evening meals, I went down to the pub. Sure enough Steve was there and as I walked in the sight of him irked me. He looked at me and I went right over to him and sat down. He went to speak but I raised a hand to silence him as I was going to have my say. I quietly informed him that I had nothing against him per se, indeed I thought that his reputation was unfairly deserved from what I had seen in my time there. I went on to reiterate that Brian had come to me in desperation, I'd even told Brian to go to see him but I never let anyone down when I can help them and if he didn't like that then that was his tough luck. By now though it was obvious that he was in obnoxious drunk mode and he began to make silly threats to me. He began waffling as to how he knew the big coppers and the mayor etc. basically all the usual pub wanker bullshit you hear all the time in Pattaya.
That's when I struck. I pulled out my passport and showed him my current Work Permit stamp, my current one year visa, plus all the others from my long working past. If he wanted to make silly threats, then I in turn, could and would, see through some very real threats. I pulled out my phone showing him some of the numbers of influential figures I'd met through my work in Pattaya (including senior police and immigration officials). I could see him visibly shrinking as he realised that I could really make things very nasty for him especially when I dropped in the fact that he wouldn't get too many supporters in that vicinity. Sensing I had him over a barrel, I said that if he just wound his neck in and realised that one of the facts of life is that no matter how good you think you are at something, there's always someone around the next corner who's better and learned to live with that fact, then I'd leave it, but if I heard another word on the whole affair, I'd have to take some action over it.
I left it there. I was only around for another month or so and every now and again I'd hear a little bit of bullshit about me, which thankfully nobody ever believed anyway, and know full well where it had come from but I left it. As soon as the word was out about my skills, I had a constant stream of people coming to me for my help which I freely gave, if not to utterly remove Steve's influence, but to reduce it greatly, and to bring him down off that bloody high horse.