Arctic explorers

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 June, 2006, 12:00am

Most Bangkokians' only experience of freezing weather will be inside a movie theatre or an office block with a broken thermostat. During the brief Bangkok winter, anything below 20 degrees Celsius is treated as a cold snap, worthy of banner headlines and bundled clothing. Street vendors stamp their feet and mutter: 'Cold! So cold!' So it's safe to say that Thais aren't naturally cut out for cold climes.

I'm always reminded of a photo of a Thai friend taken on her first trip to a snowfield in Canada. Her face is locked into an expression of awe and shock; she later confided that she thought her tears would freeze.

But, somewhere above the Arctic circle, there is a community of Thais that is learning the tricks of cold-weather survival. A Bangkok Post reporter on a vacation to Longyearbyen - a Norwegian town that's plunged into constant darkness from November until February - discovered them, and returned with breathless commentary on their brave fortitude. The town has an official population of 1,800, which is less than the number of polar bears roaming the surrounding terrain.

Presumably, that includes the almost 70 Thais who have made it their temporary home, drawn by the prospects of a decent salary, duty-free prices and virtually no visa restrictions. In the hotels, restaurants and other service centres, you can converse in English, Norwegian or Thai.

One hotel maid explained that she arrived in 2000 after her friend married a Norwegian and invited her to visit. At that time, you couldn't buy rice in Longyearbyen. That was just the start of the hardships. It was too cold to leave the house, and it took her a year to save enough to move into her own apartment. Her husband then followed her, and more relatives and friends heeded the call of the Arctic. One was a cook, who now oversees the Thai menu at the local Polar Hotel.

The reporter could hardly believe that she had stumbled onto this tight-knit community, and was stunned to hear about the generous incentives on offer for immigrant workers. 'No visa or work permit required and 100,000 baht ($20,000) [salary] a month? More Thais would find a way to come here if they knew about it,' she wrote.

Still, when it's below freezing outside and there's no sign of the sun - let alone a warm day to remind you of home - her hyperbole could be a bit out of place. Thailand isn't the Philippines, and far fewer workers from here go overseas to seek their fortune or support their family.

Even Thai friends who love to travel often get homesick, and find it odd how expatriates in Bangkok can spend so much time abroad without feeling the same tug. So I don't expect to see a flood of inquiries to the Norwegian immigration services about jobs in the Arctic circle, unless global warming is much worse than I thought.