I was at a park in Chiang Mai, Thailand, running with Max. The weather was 19C — in what we call ‘Thailand’s winter.’
I was in the city on business and, earlier that week had been waiting for the weather to cool down. Max talked about the opening of the brand-new shopping mall in Bangkok — The Icon Siam — which features the first Apple Store in Thailand. He showed me a picture of the invitation card for the grand opening event that basically strung a lot of expensive-sounding words together it ended up making me want to throw up a rainbow.
‘The Icon of Eternal Prosperity’ it says. This is the mall that has a cinema named ‘Icon Cineconic.’ It was the words smart and i (ironically makes important by the use of its lowercase) that made the products with the same functionalities more desirable than others. If you want to make anything more relevant now, you need the word icon (or plus) somewhere in your business name or products.
Max works for a small architecture firm that specializes in interior design for brand outlets. “I want to visit that mall one day. Not for the shopping, just to see the design.” He said as we slowed our pace and passed a white man running without his shirt. I wanted to protest his idea; I’m not one of those people who got excited when a new shopping mall pops up instead of a public park, or worse, in place of a public park. “Maybe we don’t need more shopping malls or more public parks either. What we need is the weather just like this so we can all enjoy the parks we already have.”
Max’s phone on his arm strap was ringing, and he picked it up. I could hear the man on the other end was riding a motorcycle listening to his shivery voice I could see his breath coming out of the speaker. “I’m sorry Mister Max. We couldn’t find any girls that come up to your criteria.”
Instead of being mad when things didn’t go as smoothly as planned, Max began to see his emotions as objects and can decide which one he would let in to overcome himself. So, he took a deep breath and responded “Well, maybe my criteria are too high. I know you’re not a modeling agency but can you please just get any girls available — not any girls — sorry, someone suitable for the event?”
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“Oh,” Max looked at me as if I was asking something totally obvious, “that’s Ram Man.”
“They’re like the delivery service LINE Man that you have in Bangkok. But here you don’t have to place your order through the app.” He explained. “All you have to do is to message them on their Facebook page and tell them what you want them to do for you. Trust me it’s better than LINE Man because you can ask them to do anything, everything you want.”
I pictured what it would be like to order a private stripper via Ram Man. I checked the rings on my Apple Watch and noticed my heart rate has gone up to 109 bpm. It usually happens when a) I was exercising b) I was watching porn or c) I have an exciting idea.
Because I live in the center of Bangkok with easy access to the elevated train stations and a subway, I don’t own a car. Some people would be judgmental about a twenty-something who doesn’t have a car, but those are people who live in the suburbs and have to endure long traffic and find a parking spot in the city. Everything on the road is a total mess here, and I have nothing to be jealous about. Because of that, I am a big fan of online delivery services.
Later that day I looked up Ram Man on Facebook and placed my first order. An HDMI cable to connect my laptop with the TV in my hotel room. They assigned my order to a delivery man, and he called me shortly to confirm the order. “How long do you want?” He asked. I didn’t know the exact length of an HDMI cable available, so I just told him to buy the longest and drop it at the front desk. A short time later, the Ram Man informed me that the cable was at the front desk. Everything was great with Ram Man, and to satisfy my insane need for a servant I decided to ask them to take care of a slightly difficult job the next day.
“All right.” The Ram Man at the other end of the line said it as if it was his automated response to answer every inquiry with a positive, all-in, word like ‘okay,’ ‘sure,’ ‘right away.’
The task was to survey the advertising billboards around the city area, get the phone numbers of the owners, a quotation, and then compare the rental prices. Report in PowerPoint format and include photos of the billboards. “That’s basically your job!” My friend Hai whose work was to create 3D rendered images for an architecture firm in Singapore said. “Well, what about that time you hired a fourth-year architecture student to render a whole project for you?”
Since someone was doing my job for me for the day, I went on a day trip to an organic farm with my colleague who, later, when I sent out the email with her cc in it, wondered how I found time to round up the information on billboards. Ram Man didn’t fail to impress me, and it is my best-kept secret. Next task; I might have to ask them to buy a box of condoms for me and say, simply, meet me at Starbucks.
I love the feeling when I’m at a Starbucks, and a man is walking in my direction to collect an important-looking envelope from me. It’s like I am in a spy-thriller movie while in fact, he’s a delivery man. I pretend to sip my coffee like nothing is happening when a secret agent picks up a nuclear launch code from my coffee table. We don’t make eye contact and I will pretend not to move. To the eyes of an outsider, it looks like a man just walking past my table.
Online delivery services have become part of my daily life. The candy-colored apps from various brands on my phone are evidence that money can solve any problems, or at least makes my life a lot easier.
It all started in the mornings back when Uber still delivered food in Thailand. I would place my order from whichever restaurant opened the earliest, that happened to sell pork satay. It’s a thing with me; once I get addicted to something — I will surely continue that something until I’m bored of it. Like a new song I heard from Radio 1 that I would play 30 times a day for an entire week until I find a new song. But the pork satay was delicious, and I think I ordered from that restaurant every other day until Uber went out of business in Thailand. The restaurant knew me so well and probably prepared the pork satay in advance. “Oh that Sam again. He likes his satay with rice porridge. And with two eggs!” I think that would be the kind of code used in the kitchen — my name, my the-usual — when they received my order. They knew what I wanted since it was always the same damn thing every time.
There was one stormy night, and I was desperately in need of porridge, so I placed an order on UberEats at a restaurant named after a neighborhood near me. Turned out that the order went to another branch with the same name on the other side of the city. I didn’t want my delivery guy to drive all the way across the city through the storm just to deliver one rice porridge. But since the order has been placed, there was nothing I could do to cancel that order. I called the delivery guy and told him that he could have my rice porridge. The problem was he was still riding his bike to my place, so I called him again. “It’s the app,” he said, “I can only end this task when I arrive at your location.” So there I was, having to come down to pick up my rice congee I thought it would come from a nearby neighborhood so the guy would be able to make another order.
That guilty feeling didn’t last very long especially when a colleague made the point that the delivery man would be happier if I ordered less stuff, so he didn’t have to carry too much while earning the same income.
For months, I shed any guilty feelings I have and started to embrace the undeniably convenient life so comfortable I could be a living soul in my room wearing the same old pajamas for three damn days, with help of my online delivery frenzy. When I felt the need to get ice cream with bread toast, there’s a LINE Man for it. Running out of drinking water? LINE Man. You’d go crazy if you have to wait in line to get a Xiao Long Bao from Din Tai Fung? Worry not, just order via LINE Man. In retrospect, this was also how I treated people I met online… All I had to do was to go downstairs to pick them up.
They send you notifications to inform you about the delivery status. ‘Your driver is on the way to the restaurant.’ ‘Order placed.’ And my favorite, ‘Hang tight! I will be there soon.’ There was always small talk when I picked up my food.
“Coming in hot, Mister Sam.”
“Yummy chicken curry is here!”
But I liked it better when two of my delivery guys from different courier services arrived at the same time, and they talked to each other, so I just pick up my stuff and smile politely without talking. It was like when two trains meet. The difference was that was harmless, and I am still alive.
My colleague was right. I didn’t have to worry about the amount of food I order online. Until one day something happened. The order was a large no sugar bubble milk tea from a nearby shopping mall, and the delivery guy from Grab was on his way. “Hang tight! I will be there soon” was the last communication between us.
I hung on so tightly when what should be five minutes delivery time turned into fifteen minutes I was worried and launched the app to check his real-time location, but he was gone from my screen. ‘Has something happened to him?” I thought of the risks these guys have to take working as delivery guy on a motorcycle in Bangkok.
I contacted the support agent who informed me that the delivery man tapped on the wrong button that marks ‘delivered’ and he is now waiting for me downstairs. I just wanted to make sure my delivery man hadn’t died in a car crash while he was on duty — delivering my bubble tea.
It never occurred to me that one day I might pass the restaurant I always order food from online and see what the actual shop looks like, “Is this where my pork satay came from?”
“Damn it, they really shout the name of their online customers they’ve never met,” I remembered myself thinking as the traffic lights turned green. “Am I too busy to even go out and get my own food?”
It was really annoying when I went back to my hometown in southern Thailand where many of these delivery services are unavailable. I would miss waiting for meals from the comfort of my home office while working on my projects and a bunch of freelance writing gigs for the internet.
Most times I didn’t even google the real restaurant or read the reviews of the place I ordered from. I trusted the couriers that they wouldn’t partner with a place that would end up making their customers sick.
Seeing the restaurant where my pork satay came from — a shophouse between two slums — with my own eyes was kind of a wake-up call that I might be missing out on a lot of opportunities. Instead of sticking to the pork satay, how many more menus could I have tried because they were on the other tables and they look good? What kind of amazing things could happen while you were waiting for your table at Din Tai Fung? Or what is it like to spend some time alone at a dessert shop instead of spending time eating dessert alone in a condo room?
I look back on the days I ordered food whenever I felt like it and think, My God, was I really busy or just lazy? When there was a load of unread emails and items on my to-dos that were waiting for me to attend to — the line was blurred. “That’s what happens when you have no idea how busy you are,” Max told me when we met again in Chiang Mai. “Funny how technology tricks us into thinking that it is making our lives less busy.”
A few days after that I flew back to Bangkok on an empty stomach. Instead of jumping into a Grab car right away and ordering food online, I strolled with my heavy luggage toward a cheese tart stand and bought a few pieces. I stuffed a cheese tart in my mouth in the middle of the crowded arrival hall, and then I ate one more and one more. The kind of childish and uncultured action that makes people, regardless of their nationalities, wonder where have I been.