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A foreigner doesn’t realize how much he needs solitude until it is denied him. That is to be expected in a crowded city where it is impossible to escape public scrutiny of one's comings and goings. But to flee to a remote region and still be approached by passersby is distressing. Yet, hope reigns. Despite years of living in Asia, I keep dreaming I might find a deserted bridge railing on which to perch and enjoy an uninterrupted think.

For a brief moment, as I slowed my motorcycle on a bridge just outside Hot, I thought I’d found it. It was a beautiful winter afternoon with the sun sparkling off the waters of the Ping River flowing beneath the bridge. What better place to eat the sticky rice and roasted pork the headman's wife had handed me as I left her village.

Turn my back on the world, pretend it isn't there and perhaps it will leave me alone, I thought. Ignore the young men shouting greetings as they roll by in a pick-up truck on their way to Doi Tao. Shut it out and let my mind float downstream, as they used to say. So I sat, feet dangling over the parapet and watched the river flow idly south.

Behind me, a motorcycle crossed the bridge, slowed, turned around and muttered to a stop. Damn.

I turned to see a wiry young man, short and muscular like most
Northern men, striding comfortably at a diagonal across the two lanes, making a slow beeline for me. Tight black pants, no shirt, and rubber boots that scuffed the asphalt as he walked.

“Sawasdee, khrap,” he said without slowing.

“Sawasdee,” I replied, “pen yunggai?” (how are you?).

“Ah, phuut Thai dai,” he said. “You can speak Thai.”

This question often baffles me because I wonder what would happen if I feigned complete incomprehension of his greeting. Would he go away? Perhaps a bit sooner than if I spoke Thai, but not much. He'd hang around just watching me doing nothing and, just as abruptly as he'd arrived, he'd wave and walk off.

It sounds like I'm being unsociable and it is logical to ask why, if that's my attitude, do I bother living in Thailand. It isn't that I had been under deadline pressure, and just wanted to get away from anything with two legs, and that just isn’t possible in Asia where a foreigner is always public property, always on stage and expected to perform. Being on display is tiring. A Westerner does not realize how much solitude he requires until he is denied it; and then he discovers he needs a lot of it.

This need for solitude, of course, is inconceivable to a Thai. The idea that anyone would want to be on his own is anathema. Tell a Thai you are going up-country alone and he is appalled. “Khon diew, (one person),” he says “mai sanuk (not fun), mai sanuk thaorai (not fun at all).” A city Thai's idea of up-country fun is to travel with a big gang of friends or relatives, a radio and all the accouterments of city life.

It is easy to conclude that the urban Thai is incapable of venturing into the country with the cushion of friends and familiar objects. This perception is not altogether incorrect. Urban Thais do perceive danger lurking in the countryside but it is also a city conceit that there is nothing of interest in the countryside, and he can’t believe the foreigner who suggests differently. I believe the Thai just feels more comfortable in a group, be it a group of city Thais heading into the countryside or a group of rural Thais visiting the city. Each is suspicious of the other’s terrain.

And I was being entirely impractical and perhaps a bit unfair to expect it to be otherwise. I wanted to experience the beauty of the countryside the way I would in my own country: without interruption. Yet, would I respond negatively to someone approaching me were I sitting on a bridge in rural England? Probably not. So what was different? Perhaps it was the work involved in conversing. No matter how fluent one is in a foreign language, it is laborious to speak it all the time. One needs a time out and in the countryside one is not permitted to have it without seeming churlish. “Bugger off!” is impolite in any language, tempting though it is to say it once in a while. Yes, I am the intruder into their countryside and they are kind to permit me to be there. Should I then refuse them their intrusion of my space? No, but when craves peace and is denied it, such rationalizations go by the board. One wants peace and one isn’t getting it.

This string of thoughts didn't go through my head until later. For the moment, I embarked on a course I often adopt in such situations: inventing a persona for myself. It's a childish game but it keeps the fun in what can often be a grueling half hour of rote answers to a litany of questions I've heard ten thousand times: Where are you going, what is your name, what country are you from, how long have you lived in Thailand — followed by the one I find incomprehensible after I've answered that I've lived here for 20 years — do you like Thailand? On the heels of this is: are you married, why not, where do you live in Thailand and so on until I've revealed my entire personal history and can then start asking the questions to which I'd like answers.

And so it began.

“Where are you going?”

“Here. There.”

“What is your name?”

“Bill.”

“Bill. Bill,” he said, trying it out for the sound of it. He paused.

“Do you want to buy a lamyai farm??

I stopped in mid-bite. A what?

“A lamyai farm. It's a good one.”

I've been offered many things before but never a farm and never while sitting on a bridge in the middle of nowhere chewing sticky rice and certainly not an offer filled with trees bearing the luscious tan longan fruit I love to eat.

I looked at him as he stared at me with small eyes and slightly askew smile. It occurred to me he was serious.

“Tell me more,” I said, at a loss for anything else to say.

“It belongs to an old man. He's had it all his life but his children have gone to the town to become government officials. He's got no one to farm it for him.”

“Why don't you buy it?”

“No money.”

He wasn't really pushing the sale. It was as though the idea had just occurred to him, a conversational gambit to establish rapport.

“What's your name?” I asked, wondering if he would play the same game with me.

“Pa Sut,” he said with a broader smile, leaning forward, confident we were now engaged in more than a tentative conversation.

Pivoting on the parapet so my back was now to the river, I offered him some sticky rice but he held up his hand and took a step back, shaking his head in smiling refusal, rubbing his stomach while saying “Im laew (already full).”

“How big is this farm?” I asked.

“Seven rai (about 2.5 acres). The trees are all young, only three years old.”

“How much.”

“300,000 baht ($12,000). No bargaining,” he said and then added
hastily, “I'm not making any money on it. This is for my friend.”

“What else is on the property?”

“Nothing, just lamyai.”

“Nothing?”

“Well, a hand pump to bring the water from the irrigation ditch.”

“Anything else?”

“Yeah,” he said, thinking hard, “one or two small buildings to
keep tools in.”

“That's it?”

“Well, and it has a house. Two stories.”

This guy had to be on the level. Any real salesman would have mentioned the house straight off. I soon discovered, however, that he had a fixation about lamyai which blinkered his vision to anything else.

“Hmmm,” I said, for want of anything more intelligent to say.
"I'll think about it."

“Ummm,” he replied.

I was beginning to like him. He didn't seem a terribly complex person, just a friendly guy leaning against a bridge railing. And he seemed to have nothing else to do on this lazy afternoon which seemed ideally suited to...well...leaning against bridge railings. As we talked, he would occasionally break off to flag down a passing pick-up truck or a tractor and engage in a serious conversation with the driver. Although he could not have been more than 30, it was obvious he was a person of some consequence in the area.

He waved down a young woman, and spent several minutes talking with her on what I would have expected would be frivolous matters except that her eyes were locked on his the whole time. She was attractive and I caught myself musing that a tryst was being arranged. She kicked her motorcycle to life, flashed me a big Northern smile as she accelerated, and roared off down the road.

“My sister,” Pa Sut said as he walked back to me.

“What is the Malay word for khap khun maak (thank you)?” he asked, and then, without waiting for a reply, began trying to sort it out, muttering several possibilities to himself. This conversation just wasn't going according to the script. He finally shook his head in disgust with himself for his faulty memory.

“Do you speak Malay?” I asked.

“A little,” he replied. “I got a job in Malay (the Thai pronunciation of Malaysia) about four years ago. In a factory. I learned a bit of Malay.”

“Where were you in Malaysia?”

He paused, surprised by the question. “I don't know.” And then he brightened. “It was a good job. Paid 100 baht a day. Here you can only make 50 baht a day. I was there 12 days.”

“Only 12 days? Why?”

“Oh, I had a 15-day visa but they couldn't make it for longer and anyway, I wanted to come home.”

“Did you ever think of going to Sa-Oo?” I asked, using the cryptic Thai rendering of “Saudi Arabia”. Nearly every village has at least one male who has spent a year or two as a construction worker in Mideast, earning riches he never could in Thailand. One can usually pick them out from among the rest of the villagers; they are a bit quieter, have a bit more worldly air about them, and a habit of looking towards the horizon from time to time.

“I didn't want to. I was gone to Malay for only 12 days and I missed my lamyai orchard,” he said. He paused a moment before adding, almost as an afterthought, “and my wife and child. That was only 12 days; how could I go away for a year?” he snorted in disbelief.

Another moment of silence passed and suddenly he said “Serima Kasi. That's it. Serima kasi” His brows furrowed. “Or something like that. That's the Malay word for 'thank you.”

Now I remembered. “Terima kasi” I thought, not wanting to correct him.

“How do you say ‘sawasdee’ (the Thai greeting) in English?” he asked.

“Hello,” I replied.

“Oh yeah,” he said, brightening. “Hello, Hello. One, Two, Three, Four. Hello, Hello,” he said, holding an imaginary microphone to his mouth as he'd undoubtedly seen a technician do as he tested the ear-splitting p.a. system that seemed an integral part of village temple fairs.

“I have cows. A lot of them. Do you have cows?” he asked.

“I don't but my family did when I was a boy.”

“Are the cows the same as here?” he said, turning to look up at me.

“Pretty much the same. Bigger and heavier, though.”

“Like you,” he said, flashing a mischievous grin and then chuckling to himself.

“I like my wife,” he volunteered. “Didn't like the first one, though. Bossy. I have a 13-year-old son by her. He is a novice in a wat (Buddhist temple) in Chiang Mai. My new wife. I really love her. We have two children, one eight and one six. I miss her right now and I saw her just this morning.”

The pangs of separation must have begun tugging at him because he stood for a moment more, then began shifting his feet. He straightened from his leaning position, nodded to me and then began walking across the bridge. He swung a leg over his ancient headlight--less motorcycle with electrical wiring leaking from half a dozen ports. It took several kicks to stir it to life. He turned, waved to me, said “hello” and rode away.

It was then that I remembered that in Thai, “sawasdee” means both hello and goodbye.

 
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