It’s fair to say Udon Thani is a city of extreme contrasts. The bus dropped me off at a brand new shopping mall, with a 4 star hotel attached to it but just a stone’s throw from this multi billion Baht development is a street full of dingy bars where local ladies and ladyboys parade their wears for an elderly expat clientele.
The street is sandwiched directly between Central Plaza and Bangkok Hospital and it seems incongruous to have such a salacious part of the city (think this type of place) intersecting landmark developments by two of Thailand’s most prestigious business brands.
Still, if any customers at the Tiffy Bar have a heart attack or meet a new friend that they want to take shopping at least they won’t have to travel far. What I really like about Udon Thani is that I get to use my Thai because people there aren’t particularly ambitious when it comes to using English, at least compared to places like Bangkok or Phuket.
In Bangkok no-one wants a westerner to try and speak Thai, with the exception of taxi drivers who generally don’t try learning English. If someone has taken the time to learn a few words in my native tongue then my policy is to stick with the language they are trying to practise, even if they aren’t very good at it.
I know from personal experience how frustrating it is when you are unable to make yourself understood in a language you’ve put a lot of effort into learning. One of the reasons my Thai has not progressed as rapidly as it should have done is that I use English nearly all the time for this very reason.
If someone speaks no English whatsoever then I will revert back to Thai. But language plays a big part in the class divide in Thailand, I get the impression that Thai people can actually be insulted when you try to address them in their own language as if you are insinuating they are not educated enough to speak English.
One solution is to get to the stage where your Thai is absolutely perfect. If you are speaking fluently then the conversation is going to flow naturally but my development has been stunted because I don’t get to practise enough. That’s why I’ve enjoyed being in Udon, where I have to use Thai for absolutely everything.
There’s a certain sense of satisfaction that comes from successfully finding out which bus leaves for the airport, or which banks will exchange Kip for Baht (FYI: Bangkok Bank at the airport seems to be the only one). If I lived in Udon I think my Thai would improve dramatically because I would be so reliant on it.
I don’t really want to live in Udon although when I saw the big groups of expats sitting together in the bars I could definitely understand the appeal. Getting to live in a cheap, sunny city with a bunch of your mates is not a bad way to spend your retirement.