Saturday, June 21, 2014

THINGS that can only happen in ASIA

It's nice, apparently, living in Phuket. My friends Simon and Belle have been there a few years now, working on their internet-based business while enjoying the affordability and never-a-dull-moment interest of living in south-east Asia.

They've got a comfortable little house. They've also got great food, given they eat out at the street markets pretty much every night. There's a guy there they call "Chicken Broth Man" who's basically being kept in business by the nightly patronage of Simon and Belle.

The easiest way for people like my friends to stay so long in Thailand without going through the hassle of a work permit is to get an education visa, which stipulates the holders should be in Thailand to learn - and for most people this involves study of the Thai language. And that's what Simon and Belle are supposed to be doing. They're enrolled in a local Thai school. Only trouble is, between their business and their nightly visits to Chicken Broth Man, there isn't much time to go to classes.


In fact, their school attendance last year was the grand total of no classes. None. Nada. Their grasp of Thai still doesn't extend much past "sawadee kap".

So you can imagine their consternation when a letter arrived at the end of last year from their Thai school. If their non-attendance was brought to the attention of the government, they thought, it could be the end of their education visa, and the end of their lives in Thailand.

The pair sat down and gingerly opened the envelope, dreading bad news. Instead, they found this: "Thank you for joining our language school. We notice you have not been able to attend many classes - however, you have been awarded a score of 83 per cent. We look forward to seeing you next year."

Eighty-three per cent! Simon and Belle hadn't just passed, they'd excelled. And this despite still lacking even the rudimentary skills to ask Chicken Broth Man his actual name. Pretty impressive, really.

Of course, this is one of those "only in Asia" moments, the type that make you shake your head at the sheer lunacy and greatness of life in Asia. Things happen there that couldn't happen anywhere else. Things that you might think should be illegal, or at least questionable, or that maybe just sound a bit silly. They happen.

In any Western country Simon and Belle's lack of education during their educational sojourn would be called into question. But in Thailand, the language school will keep its money, my friends will keep their visa, and everyone will be happy.

Only in Asia, right?

This is a continent that so many travellers love for its sense of opportunity and freedom - a sense that can occasionally descend into pure chaos.

For the casual observer or the touristy sampler, this is exactly what you want to find in another country. You want it to be different. You want to have a sense that anything could happen. You want to be amazed by the things people can carry on a clapped-out scooter, or by the way the bureaucratic wheels can spin when you take away the chocks of regulation.

A few years ago, I arrived at Phnom Penh Airport with a friend, and, after getting off the plane, we walked through to the visa-on-arrival desk to sort out our entry. However, there was a problem. My friend's passport was chockers, without a single completely blank page for her visa sticker. This, the customs official told her, meant she would be denied entry into the country.

Big trouble, right? Except my friend had an ingenious solution. "What if I paid $50 extra for a 'special visa'?" she asked. "One that could be stuck over some other stamps?"

The customs guy paused for a moment, weighed the options, and then it was miraculously decided that yes, $50 would buy her a special visa. And in we went to Cambodia.

Asia is like that. The brittle rules we're always used to following are suddenly a little more supple. And the more you travel through there, the more you realise that this teetering balance of freedom and chaos is everywhere.

It's in the hotel bookings that were given away to someone else who turned up first. It's in the fruitless search for a seatbelt in the back of a taxi. It's in the "broken" meter up the front.

It's in the unlicensed street stall that churns out the best food you've tasted. It's in the breeze on your face as you cling to the back of a motorbike taxi. It's in the $1 bottle of beer and the glass full of ice from a beachside kiosk. Asia is many things, but boring isn't one of them. Just ask Simon and Belle. Or Chicken Broth Man.


Have you experienced the supple rules that apply only in Asia? What happened and how did you get out of the situation? Would you like to see Australia be a bit more relaxed about its rules and laws? Post your comments below.

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