It Seems Like Yesterday

By Neil Hutchison
I still remember my first trip to Thailand some 18 years ago.  There were ups and downs during that visit but the ups certainly outweighed the downs.  You could say it was love at first sight; love for a country and people so different to everything I was used to.  I also remember my second and third trips and wrote about one particular incident in my book A Fool in Paradise.  Although it was long ago and far away, it seems like yesterday.
I was on a flight from the Philippines to Australia after having spent a few days in Manila.  With my twelve month valid return air ticket about to expire, it was time for a pilgrimage to Brisbane to visit my children, catch up with some old friends and visit the Thai Embassy for a new visa.  The whole process takes about a week. Due to my late arrival at Manila airport check-in I was squeezed into one of the most uncomfortable of the economy class seats. Standard punishment for late arrival.  This particular airline had gone to the extra trouble of making all the economy seats an inch or two narrower so they could cram more people in.  The other passengers were obviously fully aware that my particular seat was the worst on the aircraft and I was sure I could hear the sniggering as I adjusted my seat belt.  “That’ll teach him to be late!”  I won’t mention the name of the airline as I may have to travel with them again and I don’t fancy sitting on the wing, even though after six hours in my seat, the wing began to look somewhat appealing.
It happened as I was making the two hour time adjustment on my wristwatch.  The pin holding the band to the face of the watch snapped.This was of no major concern, merely annoying. My watch had a gold-plated metal band with four pins holding it all together. I’d had it for two years and it seemed that the pins, made from some highly corrosive metal, took it in turns to break.  In the heat and humidity of South East Asia, my sweat must take on toxic properties with devastating effect.  Two years – six pins.  Not a real problem.  Easy to fix.  I placed the watch in my top pocket and went back to squirming in my seat.
My time in Australia was busier than anticipated but by the following Friday I was ready and keen to leave.  I made my way into the city to pick up my return ticket to Bangkok (no e-tickets in those days) after having collected my Thai visa the previous day.With my airline ticket safely in my pocket I stopped for some lunch.  It was only when someone asked me the time that I remembered my watch needed fixing.  I had never needed to have my watch fixed in Australia before but since I was in the heart of Brisbane City, it seemed an appropriate place.  There were several watchmakers and jewellers around and my first stop was one of the biggest name jewellers in Brisbane.
“Can I help you, sir?”“Yes, the pin in my watch band has broken and I need it replaced.”
“Oh, sorry sir, our watchmaker is off sick so we can not do it today.  Can you bring it back in tomorrow?”“No.  I can’t come back tomorrow.  It is only a simple job, isn’t there someone else who can do it?”“No, sir, we leave that to our professionals.”“Thanks.”
Fifty metres down the mall there was another big name jewellery store.  Inside, there were no other customers about so it should not take very long.“Certainly sir, we can fix it for you.  Leave it with us and you can pick it up tomorrow afternoon after four o’clock.”“I can’t pick it up tomorrow.  I’m leaving the country at eleven in the morning.  It’s not a big job.  Can’t you do it now?”
“No sir.  That watch requires a special pin and we don’t have one in stock.  We can’t do it today.”
I had long suspected that the pins in my watch band were special and now it had been confirmed.  There was another watchmaker across the street so I decided on one last try.“Yes, sir, not a problem.  Leave it here and it will be ready tomorrow morning after nine.”“But it is only a simple job and I need it now,” I pleaded.“Oh no, sir, this watch requires a special pin.”Again with the “special pin” routine.“Why is it so special?  It is just an ordinary watch.”“Where did you buy it, sir?”
“In Hong Kong.  It was only one of twenty thousand I had to choose from.”
“Aaaaaah, I see.”The condescending ‘you’re a Cheap Charlie’ look on his face said it all as he handed me back the watch.“Ok, so if I pick it up tomorrow morning, how much will it be?”
“Twenty-five dollars, sir.”“Goodbye.”There was no alternative but to wait until I got to Thailand to see if anyone there could repair my special watch that three professional jewellers in Australia could not.
The flight to Bangkok was uneventful.  Different airline.  Better seat.  The taxi trip to Pattaya afforded the perfect opportunity to get some shuteye because I find it impossible to sleep on airplanes and, unless you are the driver, it is too frightening to watch the road ahead while motoring in Thailand.  I woke up just as we reached my hotel.It was eight o’clock by the time I finished unpacking and drowning myself under a nice, warm shower.  I decided to go out and meet up with some friends for a soothing ale to ward off jetlag and berri berri.  Crossing Pattaya Central Road I noticed a lady sitting on a plastic stool behind a wooden bench.  A glass case on the bench proudly displayed a diverse array of watch bands, locks and keys.  Taking my watch from my pocket, I handed it to the lady asking, in bamboo English, “You can fix?”
With a nod of her head she laid the watch on the bench then took out a petite hammer and a thin nail-like object.  A tap-tap here, a crimp there, and it was done.  Four minutes later she handed me the repaired article.“How much,” I asked.“Twenty baht,” she replied looking rather apologetic.
I would have paid her two hundred baht I was so grateful.  This lovely lady, using rudimentary equipment, did in four minutes and for ninety Australian cents, what the three biggest jewellers in Brisbane could not do in under twenty-four hours and for under twenty-five dollars.
And they have the hide to call Thailand a Third World country.