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Sin the Buffalo Man

In the dusk light, the half-naked man stood in silhouette, blocking the trail through the thick vegetation. The moment I said a tentative “Sawasdee, Khrap?” (Hello), he pulled a longknife and set his feet in a defensive stance.

It was a logical reaction for an old man deep in the jungle where few strangers strayed, but it caught me by surprise. In the pale evening light, the longknife, freed from its bamboo sheath, glowed with deadly intent. Its owner eyed me suspiciously and barked “What do you want?” I quickly explained that a soldier upstream had told me I might find a night's accommodation in the buffalo herder's hut.

“Why'd he tell you that?” he muttered in an agitated voice. “He had no right saying that. Go away. Get out of here.”

The sight of the knife should have compelled me to “get” but there was nowhere to go. Although I towered over him, I was certain that a lifetime of hacking through everything imaginable had made him faster than me. To calm him, I explained quietly that I was on my way down the Ping river and had gotten soaked trying to wrestle my way over a three-meter-high weir. I had paddled this far in search of shelter; the herder's hut was the only thing I'd found.

His fierceness wavered a moment.

“Paddled? Paddled what?” he demanded.

“A boat. Paddled a boat,” I said, repeating the words “pai rua” (paddled).

“Nobody paddles a boat in this jungle,” he said, scoffingly. “Where is this boat?”

“Down at the riverbank,” I said, pointing down the thickly treed slope.

He peered for a long moment the direction my finger pointed but could see nothing. His attitude had changed, however. The knife was still up but now he was shifting from leg to leg, his curiosity piqued.

“Let's go see,” he said, finally. “You first.” He sheathed his knife and I breathed a little easier.

We stood on the riverbank as he ran a gnarled hand over the teak hull. Nodding approvingly, he said “Nice boat. Don't see any this far north.” Straightening up, he said, “Stuck, huh? I don't have much out here. This is the jungle. You'll have to sleep in a lean-to. I only have curry and rice, but you can have some of it.” Home free.

On the way back up the hill, he said. “You startled me. Nobody comes out here except to make trouble. I have nine water buffalo and they are worth a lot of money.” He said it, not in apology for his actions, but as a statement of fact about a hard life.

For most of the year, Sin Phoma, a Shan tribesman, lived with his wife and three grown sons in Muang Ngai two valleys away. While the garlic ripened, he spent three months in a clearing in the jungle fattening his buffalo on grass made lush by monsoon rains His eldest son often stayed with him hut had gone out hunting the day before and was not expected back until the next morning.

Like many hill men, Sin Phoma was short and sinewy, browned by years in the sun and used to taking care of himself. In a small patch he had hacked out among the tall trees, he had erected bamboo walls on posts 1.5 meters off the ground and capped it with a thatch roof. He climbed a notched log to its door. It was obvious from his exertions in climbing it that he was no longer young.

“63,” he said with a smile when I asked him. “Old already. That's why I have to be careful of strangers. There are black-hearted people in these hills,” he said, sweeping his arm across the silhouettes of the ridges. “They wouldn't hesitate to kill me to steal my water buffalo.”

Water buffalo were rapidly disappearing in the Central Plains, replaced by small tractors that didn't get sick, ate readily-available reliable fuel, and could power irrigation pumps and small farm trucks. Here in the North, buffalo were still valuable as draft, milk, and meat animals.

Across the yard from his house was a thatched hut raised a half meter off the ground and just wide enough to sleep two people in cramped comfort. Like a manger, it was filled with straw which softened the hard wooden floor and covered the cracks between the planks. It would not keep out the cold but would shelter a sleeper from the dew. Sin indicated that I would spend the night here.

On the hard dirt yard separating it from the main house a small fire was burning. Sin dumped more logs on it and I began unpacking my gear, hanging the sleeping bag to dry by the fire. It would stink of wood smoke but I didn't care; dry beat smelly. Sin fingered its material and asked what I used it for. He was intrigued by my reply. “That would be useful in the hills,” he said. “Wouldn't have to worry about the blanket slipping off in the middle of the night and exposing you,” he said. Sin adjudged everything in terms of how it would serve in the jungle; he'd obviously spent many years there.

“When we came up here years ago, it was all jungle,” he explained. “It was a long time before we had cleared sufficient land to grow enough food for a family. In the meantime, we foraged for everything. In the old days, it was easy; the forests were full of game. Today...” He looked wistfully into the blackness, “...you can still find the fruits we ate when we didn't have anything else, but the animals...I guess most of them have been shot.”

The fire was warm and I huddled close to it to dry myself. Sin squatted nearby for a long time. Then, unhinging his legs and sighing, he got up. “I guess we should have some dinner. I don't have much... Can you eat Thai food?” “Yes.” “Phet? (Spicy)”. “Can.”

Hidden by the bamboo lattice that enclosed his porch, I could here Sin clanking pans, lighting a cooking fire in a firepit. “Sticky rice?” he shouted. “Can,” I answered. “Good. Good.”

I knew it would be a meager meal but I didn't care. It had been a tough day and I was very hungry. While he was making dinner, I recorded the day's events in my journal. Eventually, Sin invited me inside to eat. The dingy interior was lit only by the glowing embers of the cooking fire and a wick stuck in a half tin can of kerosene, the typical sooty, smoky lamp that lights rural houses. In the darkness, two ragged cats prowled, the lamp occasionally illuminating a broken tail or a glinting eye. We sat on the floor to dine.

As I suspected, dinner was an unidentifiable mass of vegetables and something which crunched and from which I had to extract bones. Perhaps the dim lamp had its benefits after all. Uncertain of what to do with the bones, I set them on the floor. Sin, put down his spoon, picked up the bones and, without looking, threw them in the general vicinity of cats who immediately pounced on them, each growling at the other to keep clear. Some of the leftover sticky rice was also dumped on the floor for the cats to eat. The rest was left in the pan which was set beside the fire.

After dinner, we returned to squat by the outside fire. Sin threw a large “mai daeng” log on the fire, angling it so it would reflect its heat into my lean-to. The cats, which had been wandering around the fire, jumping nervously each time the burning log popped, curled up on my now-dry sleeping bag and seemed determined to spend the night there.

Over the next hour, in a leisurely manner Sin questioned me about my journey and my time in Thailand. Listening intently but seldom looking directly at me, he paused after each question to absorb my answers, like his buffalo ruminating before digesting a fact. At one point, he asked me what I was doing on the river. It was a question that would be asked a hundred times. Whatever answer I gave, it sounded ludicrous. I was exploring the river, I was studying the river, I was trying to understand the people who lived along it...

“Ah,” he interrupted. “Samruat.”

I'd never heard the word before but henceforth, it would answer all questions, stifle all further interrogations. My dictionary defined “Samruat” as “survey”. It was a vague word but a useful one that had the ring of officialdom to it. It stood by itself without further need for explanation, suggesting that I worked for the government. I would later realize that “samruat” carried within it a power that imbued its user with special properties. All I would have to say when asked my mission was “Samruat” and smile knowingly. I could almost see in the listener's eyes a physical backing off, the suggestion they were standing in the presence of someone performing official duties and with the authority of a far-off government, someone who should not be meddled with. I used it sparingly but with certain effect when required.

Sin said nothing for a while. A few hardy crickets provided music in the crisp air. Then, as if to himself, he said: “Farang (foreign) women,” directing his comment at the fire. What? “Farang women. They're so big.” I'd heard this before; Thai men intimidated by the height and bulk of foreign women. As in much of Asia, there was a fascination with the blondness and the — as perceived from movies — seeming sexual promiscuity of foreign women; their willingness to jump into bed in a flash. Thai males were intrigued but were hesitant about what to do with all that mass of flesh. Sin must have shared that same awe and that same uncertainty.

“Thai women.” Ah, here we go, I thought. Thai women were best, didn't I agree? “Thai women,” he repeated. “Too small, too thin,” he snorted dismissively. “Farang women. That's the size women should be,” he said chuckling to himself. Here was a man who knew no bounds, for whom size was a challenge, not a defeat. I had to smile at the intensity and certainty with which he said it. Not obscenely, not lecherously. Just plain fact.

Sin lapsed into silence again. “Jai lai (evil hearts)”, he said to the fire. He pointed with his chin to the riverbank. “When you get farther down the river, there are bad people, especially around Chiang Mai. Plains people. You'll have to be on your guard,” he warned ominously.

The antipathy between hill and plains people seems to be universal. In Nepal, I'd found that plains dwellers regarded hill people as backward and impious while hill people felt plain's people had lost touch with the important things of life and had become soft and corrupt. Moreover, farmers feared strangers, a perception I'd encountered throughout Asia, a fear based on experience. There was a sense of lawlessness of an inability to trust authority to do anything but exploit their weakness. Thus, they clustered in villages as much for protection as for a sense of community. Until they proved otherwise, outsiders were regarded with suspicion, a threat whose motives needed scrutinizing lest he present a danger to the village.

As a foreigner, I occupied a third category. Hill and Plains people alike weren't sure how to deal with me but assumed that I was benign. Traveling alone made me even less of a threat. Almost. I noted as we prepared for bed, that unlike the Lahu tribesman who had invited me to sleep in his house, Sin had placed me outside. He climbed the notched log, bade me good night, closed the door firmly behind him and shot the bolt. He wasn't taking any chances.

My journey down the Ping River had started years before on the banks of the Chao Phya River into which the Ping feeds. A chance encounter with Bangkok friends had given me possession of a house past whose door the Chao Phya flowed. Indeed, because the house was perched in stilts, the river flowed under it and, during two years of particularly bad floods, through it as well.

It sat on the river bank opposite the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and just upriver from Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, and for eleven years afforded me some of the best moments of my life. There are few pleasures greater than sitting on a porch in a wicker basket chair, rocking in rhythm with the earth and watching the world roll by.

It was a simple four-room wooden house covered by a tile roof under which the rats scampered and fought, all with great din. The few periods of silence indicated that a green pit-viper had slithered down from the mango or bottle-brush trees and was dining among them.

When I moved in, the bedroom facing the river had a small window in a high wall. I tore out the entire wall and replaced it with glass panels. Then I cut a hole in the floor and put in a window so I could watch the waves wash back and forth under the house. Finally, I built a small bay window with a glass floor. When it rained, I pulled up the floor and dropped in a fishing line without getting a drop of rain on me.

When one rocks back an forth for so many years, one begins to get curious about where all the flowing water is coming from. I asked many Thai friends about the river but got only brief answers about a river system that was so vital to their lives. The Chao Phya drained the northern and central regions of Thailand and was fed by four tributaries, the Ping, Wang, Yom, and Nan that began at the Burmese and Laotian borders and flowed south to the sea, a journey of about 1,200 kilometers. Nobody cold tell me more than that and books were even less helpful. It slowly became evident that no one had ever run the river from top to bottom. My curiosity eventually got the better of me and I decided to find out.

I picked the Ping because it was the westernmost and thus most picturesque. It begins on the border with Burma about 150 kilometers above Chiang Mai and runs south along the Tenasserim Range that forms the border with Burma, flowing through Chiang Mai and Tak where it is joined by the Wang. It then heads southwest to combine with the Nan-Yom at Nakhon Sawan and drops south again as the Chao Phya through Ayutthaya and Bangkok to the Gulf of Thailand.

After exploring the headwaters with Lahu hunters, I hired a village carpenter to build me an 11-foot teak boat for $220 and set off on a journey that would end 58 days later in the sea. Eventually, I would paddle the other three tributaries, spending five months in all, sleeping in villages, Buddhist monasteries, the jungles and occasionally in the boat when no other alternatives were available. It was after several days in the jungles and the bamboo forests that I had reached Sin's hut.

The difference between Sin's initial reception and his greeting the following morning was considerable. It had been a cold, crisp night and dawn revealed a clear yellowish sky. When I awoke, water buffalo were stamping their feet and someone was making clucking sounds as he fed them.

When he saw I was up, he came up, squatting to warm his hands by the embers of the “mai daeng” log. Barefoot, he wore short pants and a flimsy cotton shirt yet, aside from his hands, did not seem to feel the cold. With the straw beneath me, I had slept warmly, awakening only once in the night when I had difficulty breathing. In my half-coma I was aware of fur covering my face and slowly realized that both cats had snuggled up next to my head. They were probably covered in vermin and I groggily tried to push them away. Half asleep yet alert, they growled menacingly, a deep-throated warning that I thought it best to defer to. When I awoke at first light, they were stalking something in the murk beneath the house.

We talked for a few minutes and then he went inside to prepare breakfast. It was too cold for a shower, so I shaved and begin packing my gear. It was a beautiful morning and I wanted to get an early start. Sin, however, had other ideas. “I want you to meet my son. He should be here soon,” he said, peering into the jungle hopefully. In Thailand, “soon” can mean anything up to half a day. When he'd discussed it the previous evening, Sin was unclear when the son was due to arrive. I could see myself sitting impatiently for a long while.

It was apparent that Sin had been living as a bachelor for some time because his idea of preparing breakfast was to warm up the sticky rice of the night before. The cold air had congealed it to a hard mass, the grains nearly as firm as they had been before being boiled. To flavor it, he stacked the plate with slabs of salted fish the thickness of crepes, added two fresh young bananas, and handed it to me. I had only sipped the water he had given me the night before because I was unsure of its purity. But with this mass, it was going to take a great deal of liquid just to get the food to chewing consistency. As usual, I smiled as I accepted the glass which looked as though it had last held a paint brush and thinner.

During breakfast, he continued to announce his son's imminent arrival as if his words might lure the phantom to quicken his pace. By the end of the meal, the sun was just beginning to clear the hill and we were still alone. It was apparent that this man who couldn't wait to get rid of me the night before, could not bear to have me leave. He probably didn't get many visitors and certainly none as exotic as a foreigner, and paddling a boat to boot.

“Come look at my garden,” he said, and then looked at my feet. “Where are your shoes?” I explained that they had been stolen by the river. He laughed and went into the house, returning with a pair of sandals that looked like they'd barely survived a stampede. The were gouged, the thongs kept pulling loose, and they were about four sizes too short, but they would do. “Thanks,” I said and we set off behind the house.

Most of the clearing was occupied by a pen, rough-hewn, wooden-slab fence posts supporting long bamboo poles. Within it, nine black, bulky water buffalo with scimitar horns sweeping back over their broad shoulders sniffled and exhaled blasts of steam as they stamped to keep warm. Beyond the pen was the garden, a forest of papaya, a half dozen other fruit trees, and vegetables. We circled the house to reach it.

I trudged behind him as he gave me a botany test. “What's that?” he asked, walking by a tree, not even stopping to look at it. “Jackfruit,” I dutifully answered. “Um, Um,” he said, pleased. “And that?” “Teak,” "Um, Um. Geng (Clever).” We must have gone through 15 plants and still had not exhausted the possibilities. In a Thai jungle there can be 300 varieties of plants, creepers, trees, bushes, vines in addition to everything he'd planted in his garden. I could see my legs being walked off before we'd cataloged even half of them. Where in hell was that son?

After a few moments we'd completed a circuit and his pupil seemed to have passed the test. I'd mis-identified only one, probably the simplest plant in the world, and one I'd seen at least a million times. He pointed at a knee-high plant with two stems reaching up from the ground, each stem fanning out with a broad, pleated leaf.

“Uh,” I ventured, baffled. “Is it a kind of banana?”

He seemed surprised by my ignorance and almost scoffed in answering: “Coconut.” My god, I really was slipping.

We stepped from the garden to his buffalo pen where he introduced me to each of the placid beasts. They stood chewing their cuds and regarding me with what I can only describe as wary disinterest. Like a good schoolboy, I repeated each of the names as he spoke them.

Sin seemed to have run out of steam. We returned to the shed where my pack lay and he seemed bereft of conversation topics. “Where is he?” he said, looking into the pathless jungle. He was so eager to have me stay that I decided, “to heck with an early start, I'll sit and talk with him. He obviously has a lot he can tell me about the jungle and is a valuable source.”

I had slipped the pack onto my shoulder but now laid it down again. When Sin saw that I intended to stay a while longer, he perked up, entering the house to get me another glass of water. As he emerged, we heard sticks crackling among the trees.

A younger version of Sin with a shotgun barrel sticking above his shoulder and rubber boots shodding his feet strode resolutely into the yard. In his belt was an unsheathed hatchet. Had I met him in the jungle I might have run. He seemed not the least bit surprised at my presence, even after Sin had explained who I was and what I was doing there. The son set down the gun and squatted by the fire. His had been a fruitless hunt; no game to be found, not even edible birds.

He and Sin talked for a few moments. As they conversed, the son walked to the house wall and began searching along it. He stopped at one of the rough teak pillars in which several bird feathers had been stuck. Still talking quietly, he selected one, laying it against the house pillar. He pulled the hatchet from his belt and with a swift blow, chopped the long end from the feather. I was puzzled. Was he about to perform a rite to call the game to him? Replacing the hatchet in his belt, he grasped the feather in his large fingers and began twirling it to clean his ears, all the while, talking with his father.

Sin, in the meantime, pulled out a dried leaf that had been cut into a square. He flattened it with his thumb against the wooden boards of the shed. He saw me watching him and, breaking off his conversation abruptly, held it up for me to see and said “bai thong gloy”, a leaf I'd seen growing near his garden. From a small tin can whose shiny surface had long-since corroded, giving it the look of dirty silver, he extracted a few chopped tobacco leaves, also grown in his garden. From a piece of folded paper, he pinched a small amount of lighter-colored tobacco, “it's called ‘Chaiyo’ (victory). Makes the jungle tobacco burn better.”

Mixing the tobaccos, he spread them along the wrapper and then began rolling, tightening it as he went. As the finishing touch, he extracted from his pocket a small pair of rusty scissors and neatly snipped off both ends of the tube. He then made a diagonal cut along one edge of the wrapper. Finally, from yet another folded paper container, he pulled out a bamboo sliver stuck with what appeared to be wetted sticky rice. Applying it to the underside of the wrapper, he completed a cheroot.

I marveled at this bit of hill technology that made the man a walking cigarette factory. He offered it to me, reaching into the fire for a glowing brand to light it. The “Chaiyo” had done little to refine the taste of what was a very rough tobacco. Down the valley, the Thai farmers grew a fine tobacco that was prized by American connoisseurs for its mildness. Up here, it was rejected for a rough, raw tobacco; a straw fire would have produced a smoother smoke. The son borrowed his father's scissors to complete the same operation, touching a glowing stick to the end of the green wrapper and inhaling contentedly. Two men with asbestos lungs.

No sooner had we begun smoking when the son stood up, re-shouldered the gun and strode towards the river as unceremoniously as he'd arrived. Even Sin seemed startled by his son’s abruptness, looking down the trail after him as the underbrush swallowed him up.

“He wanted to get back to Muang Ngai,” he said, almost apologetically. Now, I felt almost duty-bound to stay around for a while longer. But he surprised me by saying, “Well, I guess you want to get on your way as well.”

I had planned to pay each of my hosts for the food they provided and Sin's eyes lit up when I handed him a 50-baht ($2.00) bill. He seemed exceptionally pleased, hoisting my heavy pack to his thin shoulders and almost running downhill to the river with it. As I lashed the pack to the deck, Sin said: “It was fate.”

“What was?” I asked.

“Our meeting. Fate isn’t always kind,” he said, waiing me from the bank.

I waiied in return and pushed off.


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