My neighbor, Ishiro San is called ‘Ice Man” not just because he’s a cool guy from Japan, which he is. He manages a refrigerator factory in Chonburi, Thailand producing several popular brand name appliances, hence his nickname. I call him ‘Mr.Cool’ because we Canadians have a unique sense of humor all our own and people around the world seem to like it. Yesterday we were neck deep in the swimming pool discussing the weather like two water buffalo ruminating in a reservoir. Ishiro San reminded me that the ‘hot season’ had officially begun the day before. There are many kinds of hot here in the tropics, not all of them good or bad, depending on your circumstances. To the casual visitor the weather will seem perpetually hot.. hotter…. and sometimes unbearable.
There are four distinct seasons in Thailand, north east monsoon, south west monsoon , a short intermediate period referred to as ‘yen sabai’ which translates loosely as ‘comfortably cool’, followed by a ‘pre-monsoon period’. When the Thai people say it’s ‘cool’ , they are referring to conditions that only they can relate to. What is ‘hot or not’ to a local is something completely different for a westerner who has yet to fully acclimate. During the Thai ‘winter’ it is common to see quilted jackets, scarves and sweaters for sale in the malls. I settle for loose shorts and an untucked XL shirt. When I do a walk by the wardrobe mirror I think, “that’s all they’re getting out of me today”.
It is comically counter intuitive to watch the locals donning woolen clothing and wearing jackets while at the same time we are stripped down to the bare ex-pat essentials of soggy T-shirts, shorts and flip flops. Obviously I have not been in Thailand long enough to consider 90 degrees as ‘sweater weather’. People here should count themselves lucky that I am wearing pants when I leave the house if the temperature is in the 90’s and the humidity is off the charts! Once out on the street, a preconditioned acumen, sheer will and the science of geometry takes over. Observe the Thai’s and you will see that they dart past the stripes of fiery light towards any shade available. As quick as sprites they sprint like fire walkers across exposed bands of concrete. You’d think they were going to burst into flames if they let the sun linger a moment too long. Mid-day is no time for a casual wander down the sun splashed sidewalks of Bangkok.
In fact, the year round temperatures are fairly consistent at an average of 91 degrees. It may fluctuate between the high 80’s and just under 110 depending on the season and the time of day. During the very hottest time of year, which is the height of either monsoon, Thai’s flock to the higher elevations to enjoy slightly cooler temperatures and an amazing chilly fog that wraps itself around the hill towns. The national parks are favored destinations for the Thai ‘staycation’ tourists, camping has become very popular . During the monsoon is when Thai’s consider nature to be at it’s best. The rivers are swollen torrents of abundant rain, the waterfalls robust and the greenery is vibrant and lush. The Thai love four wheeling through the muddy valleys and impossible roads of the rugged interior.
From my experience, it is the rapid elevation in humidity that makes living and traveling in Thailand comfortable or not. During a monsoon the air can become as thick as tepid bath water. I have had a Thai describe this extreme condition as ‘having your face over a pot of boiling water,’ that’s about right. When we first began to travel to Thailand, we were ‘out and about’ in every kind of weather at any time of day. I had always noticed the Thai’s operated on a very different schedule. After some experience I now understand why my Thai friends always gave me that ‘are you crazy’ look when we announced that we were ‘going out’ in the middle of the day. They would say to us, ‘Rawn mak mak kah’ or ‘kahp’ as the gender may be . We would smile and wave as they shook their heads in disbelief while miming a fanning movement at their faces.
Of course it was too hot, I would come home hours later drenched with sweat looking as pale and spent as if I’d had the life sucked out of me with a liposuction hose. It wasn’t as if they didn’t try to warn me. I don’t do that much anymore except under special circumstances. Instead, we have become night owls, exiting our shady retreats after the sun has cooled in the late afternoon unless it is to go to the swimming pool. Our Thai friends have taught us to appreciate the pleasant condition of staying ‘unperspired’. Noel Coward captured the essence of a fool under the tropical sun when he penned “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid day sun”, or words to that effect.
As westerners living in an antipodal environment we have learned to adapt to conditions in such a way that we gratefully assimilate the local culture. As Canadians however, we do slavishly adhere to our habit of sun worship. The way we bath in the sun and swim uncovered during the day subsequently amuses, confounds and simultaneously astounds the Thai. They spend all their time staying out of the sun to have their skin remain unblemished while we gradually bake to an even muffin brown. We tell them that tanned skin is considered flattering and beautiful but they laugh as if we’re ‘having one over on them’.
Thailand has an entire cosmetic’s industry devoted to skin whitening in fact. The very idea of going out into the sun to become purposefully brown is quite provocative. Many times a polite comment has come to our attention that gives us the opportunity to explain our Canadian culture of infrequent and slightly desperate sun adoration after months of bleak overcast skies and generally dreary darkness. As strange as it may sound, the local people seem politely unconvinced with the explanation that snowbirds migrate towards the sun. It is in the cool of the evening when Thai families come down to the swimming pool with light snacks and children. We live in opposite worlds.
The culture of gathering by the waters edge after a days work extends far back into Thai history when Thai’s lived in stilt homes within close proximity to the running rivers. In those days floods were a welcome part of the natural cycle, they brought life. Instead of building roads, traditional Thailand relied on small but sophisticated water craft to travel and trade. Every home had several boats, like suburbanite North Americans have cars in the driveway. Don’t forget, Bangkok was once a city entirely transited by canals and was called ‘The Venice of the Orient’ by the earliest Europeans.
The images as presented are timeless and romantic. You can really see how the community works away from the frantic pace of the cities urban fundamentals. Mothers and children playing and socializing, fathers discussing daily affairs from a respectful distance. It’s akin to a village lifestyle that should have disappeared from a major city but in fact hides itself away until sundown. I count myself very fortunate to have been accepted into this community, these types of relationships are so increasingly rare in western cities. I should add that Thai people are very interested in Canada. We are an undiscovered territory and proportionately under-represented compared to other ex-pat populations. Thai people are fascinated by our stories of snowfall and free air conditioning. The women think that a life of having no sun to assail their professionally whitened skin would be a blessing , cold conditions delight them.
A visitor coming to Thailand would do best to understand the varied weather conditions that take place throughout the year. There is a season for everything. Be prepared to deal with very hot conditions by being appropriately attired. Come knowing what the conditions are going to be and plan your activities around the weather instead of your work schedule. And don’t worry, there’s lots to do in any weather. Best to buy your clothing here where the gauge of the cotton is well suited to this climate. The kind of cotton and denim you would buy in the west is invariably too thick and close knit for comfort here. Do not bring the ‘wick-away’ clothing that is ‘tropical-inspired’ clothing by design meant to be used for hiking in a western climate. My best recommendation is too bring as little as possible and spend your first days observing local traits and customs. You could a lot worse than to emulate the Thai culture of adapting to a fiery hot and humid climate with such grace and flair.
© 2011 J West Hardin aka Wayne Olson- Poet, Novelist, Travel Writer, Travel Blogger, You Tuber, Columnist for ‘The Travel Itch’ magazine