This was my ninth Christmas in Phuket and Tuesday will see my eighth New Year’s Eve (the ‘Western’ New Year is the first of three celebrated each year in Thailand, the others being Chinese New Year at the end of next month and Songkran in mid-April). Let me take the opportunity now to wish one and all a very happy Year of the Horse, 2014. On the Thai calendar, it will be the year 2557.
I have been blessed in that I have only worked two Christmases while living in Thailand. Christmas 2006 was significant as that was when my wife of six months chose to have her nine-year-old son return from the dead (she’d told me that he’d died in the tsunami) and come to live with us. In retrospect, that little event was the beginning of the end of my marriage. All of the succeeding Christmases have been increasingly merrier.
I believe it was Christmas 2007 that I attended a strange church service which it seemed the Thais were just there to get drunk. My wife brought along a gaggle of lady-boys and her son managed to knock over a tree by becoming tangled in tinsel. Somebody gave me my first (well, only) taste of Lao kao — an infamous and extremely potent rice whiskey from the northeast of Thailand. The following day, I joined a few colleagues for a proper holiday meal with all the trimmings at Don’s Mall in Nai Harn. This was the best expat eatery on the island, operated for many years by a former NASA rocket scientist but sadly now closed.
Until 2010 (when I was let go on Christmas Eve), I worked for a large privately-operated bilingual school. Many of the families were either Western or half-and-half and were quite wealthy. It was the scene of some wild Christmas parties in the classrooms as the parents competed with each other, showing off their wealth by providing the most elaborate gifts and amounts of food. As a subject teacher (and recipient of my own homeroom during my final year there), I was expected to attend the parties in each of the classes I taught in. And I was always embarrassed by the amount of food the parents and kids gave me, not to mention the presents. I still routinely re-gift neckties each year as I had over a hundred from the four Christmases I taught at this school.
What I remember the most about Christmas 2010 is how my students hugged me, crying after I told them I wouldn’t be returning after the holiday break. I’d known since being informed on my birthday a few weeks prior but chose not to tell the kids until the last possible moment (after the parties). I’d had to secretly train my replacement — they thought she was my “assistant” — and attended the wedding of my homeroom Thai teacher a week or so before the holiday. She knew something was wrong at that point and I ended up letting her know at that time. She then organized a very special farewell party with the staff once we sent the kids home.
2011 was my first year in a Thai government school, really the lowest rung on the ladder as far as education in the Kingdom is concerned. But it is still my favorite place I’ve taught. They had a tiny Christmas tree on one of the balconies and one day about a week before Christmas, the Thai teachers and university interns kidnapped me from my classroom and brought me to the tree where they had also gathered the “most worthy” kids in the school to play games and receive gifts from the only foreigner who had ever taught in the school (me). Luckily, the gifts ad been donated — along with Santa hats which we all donned. They asked if I could teach the kids a Christmas song but I couldn’t remember any lyrics so we quickly found something on YouTube (thank God for free wi-fi). This was especially special as most of the children at that school were either tsunami orphans or extremely poor.
The following year, I determined to make the most of the holiday and designed almost two week’s worth of Christmas lessons. I taught all of my 600 or so students the words to “Jingle Bells” and they received the best non-religious version of Christmas I could provide under the limited resources I had to work with. And I managed to find candy canes to give as prizes (this year, by contrast, they are easily found in all the shopping centers). Best of all, they provided an all-day Christmas assembly full of fun-and-games with plenty of gifts for all. The only flat note was they didn’t consult the sole Westerner — the person for whom Christmas is an actual part of his native culture and religion — about the answers for the Christmas quiz show. (I can accept that they think it’s Santa Claus’ birthday rather than Jesus Christ’s but Santa doesn’t come from northern Thailand and — really, the turkey is NOT considered the “sacred animal” of Christians.)
Outside of school, I hadn’t partook of a proper turkey with stuffing and mashed potatoes dinner since a second visit to Don’s Mall in 2008. My good friend Timmy (who had started at the bilingual school a week before I did and was similarly let go on Christmas Eve the year after I had in their annual purging of American reading teachers) and I celebrated a few Christmases in a liquid fashion. It also happened to be close to the birthday of my post-marriage girlfriend and we had a couple of years of full-on celebrating in the southern reaches of Phuket. 2011 was a bit more subdued as Timmy was still in shock from his sacking. He left for a different province — Phang Nga — shortly afterwards and is now even farther away, in the hinterlands of Isaan some 80 kilometers from the civilization (read, bars) of Udon Thani.
As a result, my Christmas last year and this year were largely solitary outside of my working hours. Last year, I spent Christmas Eve walking around Phuket Town — searching for signs of the holiday. There weren’t as many as this year other than the elaborate displays in the Central Festival shopping mall and a few other shops. However, I ended up outside of Phuket Town Catholic Church — a lovely place in the old Sino-Portuguese architectural style. The church was so packed for Christmas Eve Mass that many people were sitting outside in overflow chairs. What I heard of the service was completely in Thai but I still felt blessed to be there. The next day was the afore-mentioned Christmas assembly at my school but once that was over I just returned home and ate a dinner of kao pad gai.
I am currently working at two language schools, a full schedule of in-house grammar and conversation lessons with occasional substitutions in contracted government schools. This year, my day-time lessons all had last-minute cancelations but I still had my evening classes on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. As my students are all adults who are very serious in their studies, I couldn’t give them holiday-themed lessons. I did manage to make ‘shopping’ the focus of the Tuesday night conversation class, however.
As soon as that class was over, I hightailed it over to The Roxy on Phang Nga Road in Phuket Town. This is a small bar operated by an expat from California. I’d run into her at the Sunday Market last week and she invited me to her Christmas Eve dinner. By the time the turkey and side dishes had finished cooking that night, there were over 50 hungry and drooling people in the bar waiting for a portion. I was thrilled that I was the first person served (the bar staff had passed out slips for us to write our names and list our preferences for white or dark meat, mashed potatoes, stuffing, etc.). It was a wonderful night and I rekindled a number of friendships with people I hadn’t seen in several years.
Christmas Day was much like any other — I woke up around 6:00 AM and read for a few hours before falling back asleep. I went to my school in the afternoon and taught until 9:00. But after returning home I felt restless and wanted to be around people. I ended up going to Chalong Bay in southern Phuket where I met up with a few friends and sipped Sprite while watching drunks behave poorly. Not wanting to pay an exorbitant motorbike taxi fare home, I opted to rent a room in one of the new apartments along the increasingly gentrified pier road. It was a very nice room with air-conditioning and a hot shower (my first since Cambodia last April!) and a bit LESS than the fare home would have been.
I now find myself with a ‘real’ holiday. One of my language schools is closed until 2nd January, the other re-opens on the 7th. I have a fair bit of extra cash and so can do something out of the ordinary if I so choose. A receptionist at one of my schools asked me to go to Bangkok with her but I felt that it was a bit inappropriate as we’ve only just met (she seems quite enamored with me but I’m being overly cautious; actually, I quite like her as well and the only real fault I can think of is that her level of English comprehension is extremely low and at this point in my life I NEED somebody I can have long, meaningful conversations with).
For the immediate future I am planning to attend tonight’s Phuket Christmas Festival 2013 at Sirakul Sports Stadium. This is the first year for this event and I am quite curious. The ads list a concert, free food (always an enticement for yours truly), plus “miracle healing” which, knowing Thai festivals, may just be the most Christmasy part of the evening. Of course, I will post a full report with photos to the blog.
The Phuket Provincial Authority Organization (PPAO or OrBorJor in Thai) will once again host the Colorful Countdown celebration over three nights at Sanam Chai, a field in northeasten Phuket Town opposite Provincial Hall. This is a short walk from my apartment, so close that any fireworks shot off from there sound like incoming mortar-shot whizzing through the air and then rattle all the building’s windows when they explode. It’s great fun to go there just to look at the wide variety of food and wave at the many shouts of “Teacher Mark!” that I hear; my old school lies right next to the field.
It’s funny that one of the things I miss about my ex-wife is that she used to drag me to Patong because she liked to watch the action along the road as much as the guys do. It was a far cry from her native Lamphun, that’s for certain! I suppose I felt “safe” going there with her and her friends around. It might be fun to try it solo for once — the huge Junkceylon mall always puts on grand fireworks displays for New Year’s Eve (we attended the inaugural year and a couple after that) and I remember lighting lanterns on the beach and watching them drift upward, filling the sky with pin-pricks of dancing flames. Yes I think I’ll go west one night next week…
At any rate, I probably won’t be online much during the next few days. My New Year’s activities will be the subject of my first post of 2014. Until then, I did you all a very Happy New Year 2014. In Thai, that’s Sawatdee Pii Mai 2557 [Yee-Sip Ha, Ha-Sip Jet]. Stay safe!
Enjoy the photo album of assorted photos from many of my Christmases on Phuket…