I’m stitching together a bunch of my Thai Travelogue odds and ends into a collection of postcard non-fiction. So you’ve read this all before. But I am polishing it up, and I invite your feedback on how you think it’s working.
Step on a plane and get off two days later.
Shanghai stopover won the day, like flying into a garage filled with exhaust. Freighters, even-spaced, into brown forever. After, the plane just stopped on the tarmac, as if it had also reached its limit of screaming infants, and passengers with no prior knowledge of Gravol.
Zero degrees. We were loaded on a bus, then driven aimlessly around the airport for 20 min. Aysia, my friend, I wished you were there so we could have sung transit show tunes, the situation demanded them. Maybe some Queen.
Teens with expensive haircuts in pseudo-paramilitary dress at Shanghai airport security, whose answer to everything is “no problem.”
“Take my shoes off too?”
“Computer out of the bag?”
“Just put the Nuke in the plastic bin then?…”
Deserted, dungeon like hallways, and an escalator that spookily ground to a halt as as I arrived at its base, then resumed its grumpy ascent seconds later. STOP WASTING ENERGY signs. Caps Lock. Sterilized water machines that play little tunes as they dispense your 25ml portion into a paper cup.
China, what’s up wit u?
If you’ve come here to drink, you may drink Hong Thong. Specified only as “local Thai spirit.” Sold in 40 oz bottles for about 400 bhat ($14). At first we think the Hong Thong is stored in a milk crate in the sun, away from the other booze, like maybe it’s contagious. Then Zander tries to buy one, and is asked whether he actually wants to buy gasoline. Thai woman says they fill the empty Hong Thong bottles with gasoline to sell to motorcycles for only slightly less than the Hong Thong itself.
“Any difference in taste?” He deadpans.
“No,” she deadpans back. She’s heard all the Farang jokes.
This booze needs representation. A slogan. I’m thinking a booty-licious girl in a thong, leaning into a car window, shot from the back (of course) with some kind of slogan like “Hong Thong: Deliciously Cheap.” I’m open to suggestions though. One liners aren’t my forte.
We decided to save a few bucks. Checked into the Serene resort, very Buddhist, in that staying there constantly reminds you that life is suffering. I could go on about the bed, the mould, the ants, the bar that is open 24 hours a day and only plays the same 6 songs, including an inane big beat remix of “Signs” by The Who…but really, all I need to say are those three little words: broken sewage line. Keep in mind, it’s 35 degrees, and I’ve had food poisoning for the last two days. Keep it in mind, but try not to picture it.
Being in the Buddhist heartland, we practiced grim acceptance until about ten minutes ago, when I fucking blew my top, pulled myself together, because getting angry at people causes them to lose face, and politely asked the owner what could be done. Over and over again. With a smile.
Now we are in a loft above his massage parlour with no view, no bamboo ambiance, no mosquito net, and ABSOLUTELY NO FESTERING SHIT. And we are DELIRIOUSLY HAPPY.
Asia, I’ve got your number.
Watch out, motherfucker.
Very good day. We’re out of the Serenity Now and back at the lovely Lipe Beach resort, where we were greeted like old friends by the staff. Thais love to welcome you back. We’ve been on Lipe nearly a month, and people at the resorts we’ve stayed at and the restaurants we frequent wave and greet us when we walk down the street. “You’re like a local now!” people say, which of course is utterly untrue, but is the highest compliment an islander in any country can bestow on you.
There’s God, the gay bartender. Loves classic Trip Hop.
Some guy with a hatchet who is endured because he hasn’t chopped anyone yet.
The kebab guy is a Greek with a mohawk that’s usually un-gelled, so it looks like a hipster side-shave. He calls me princess and teases Zander because he always pays for the food-says if women want equal rights, they should pay up. Zander told him he has the money because he has the pockets. We didn’t tell him that all of the money is ours, because that wouldn’t be as much fun, but the last time we bought some kebabs, I pulled the money out of my bikini. You can imagine the reception that got.
Frank learned bar stool
Trip for collective signs
wind renders ears deaf
Crevices sulk grey
Icicle axe slides sideways
tarred with hungry hand
O, tinder box blue
To fold souvlaki sharp, I
suspend space like flame
A Hua Hin night out, music in the center of town. Ex-pat Jazz band is shoved off the stage early to make room for a long ceremony with a 50 000 baht novelty cheque. Before he leaves the mic, the singer says they’ve never played to an audience who wasn’t dancing. Silence. 200 white people sitting in chairs with white seat covers. Behind them, a statue of Pone Kingpetch, flyweight champion of the world in 1960.
The cheque is presented to a Farang so tall he could be standing on the shoulders of a Thai. The leader of Biggles Big Band, all the way from Amsterdam. Last year they were rained out after playing only one song. He speaks Thai to polite applause. Asks if anyone is from the Netherlands, and most hands are raised. So he switches to Dutch.
Then it’s time to play: Henry Mancini and Glenn Miller, and compositions by the King himself, ภูมิพลอดุลยเดช. Two pieces: Blue day and Hungry Man Blues. Christmas lights over the heads of the Biggles Big Band, 200 Farangs, and the flyweight champion of the world. Kingpetch has one gloved hand raised in victory. Thais selling Heineken. Children and crippled Thai women selling roses, we shake our heads “no.” Thai lanterns in the canal that carries waste to the sea.
So, pesticides are generally a way of life here, and I’m trying not to judge, since I’m only a visitor. But the bees. An open air house that gets sprayed for termites, and the bees fly through and are almost instantly incapacitated, but not killed. At night they are on the floor, sometimes one or two, sometimes a dozen. Sweep them up and whisper an apology.
I’m getting to the part of my novel where the bee hives were coming into the honey house faster than our little team could keep up with. Stacks on pallets every day, and yeah, the bees were supposed to have been blown out of them, but many weren’t. And by many I mean hundreds. Bees everywhere, now exhausted or injured, crawling on the floor, the walls, the ceiling. Pieces of bee from the honey comb-filled frames gone through the de-capper, mixed with splintered wood and wax. At the end of the day, I swept them into piles, and down the drain. Our tiny co-workers. Expended. When I left that place, I didn’t ever want another bee to die by my hand.
Last night, in the open air house, I stepped on one of them. It surprised me how that indignant why me? feeling, a sense of having been bullied by nature, stung far more than the stinger itself.
Of course, every moment here is a “Thai” moment by default, as authentic as it gets. But there were the promises I unwittingly turned into expectations: the serene Buddha-moments, marigolds strung into the stories of earnest young Canadian travelers, awarded prizes by Canadian journals for their gritty but delicate portrayal of Thai life.
Well, there’s no shortage of grit. But where the hell are the marigolds?
Then it’s four in the morning and I’m banging away at the laptop and slapping at the noseeums and I hear the monks. Chanting? That’s what it sounds like.
Pad over teak floors to the window. There’s the call of cicadas and rooster zealots, and yes, definitely chanting but no- this is wrong, I need a gauzy dress and a “steaming mug” of ginger tea in my hands, I need to be on a breezy porch, or on the beach. But the air is thick and tepid-I can’t hear the chanting from the porch, and there’s no beach, so I’m catching my Buddha-moment through grimy glass slats, cement and overgrowth in my view, noseeums watching from the other side of the net, and still it’s okay, it’s only me here. And it’s right now.
Three hundred and nine steps up Doi Suthep, Theravada monks are wondering what we’re up to in the city. Terracotta under their feet. Don’t be bamboozled by the robes, or statue likenesses outside the chedi of the monks as cartoony infants. If they could see Chiang Mai through the summer haze-farmers burning fields-they’d be peeking. Sure, there are bells to ring in Wat Phrathat. There’s Farangs to ask the Buddha’s view on Cancer, and whether he’ll be there for the Rapture. A white elephant transport, for the Buddha’s shoulder bone. Climbed Doi Suthep, trumpeted three times, and died. This was a sign. Leave your elephants at the bottom of the mountain. The first chedi was built.
Teaching English in Chiang Mai in exchange for room and board. The kids probably think I’m weird, but it’s because I love them, like, I’m really crazy about them. I can’t stop smiling at them. It’s got nothing to do with biological clocks. I still don’t want a kid of my own.
But these kids.
These kids with their polite gooood mahhning teachuuh Ka-Lee and the way they let their little hand rest on your leg when they show you their drawings. Their Angry Birds themed, over-dressed, long-sleeved bathing attire, and matching bathing caps. And their smiles: shy, semi-toothless, genuine. I don’t know how to talk about smiles without getting all cliché on you, but I’d heard there was something special about the Thai brand of smile, and I heard right. It’s not just a routine tightening of facial musculature, it’s an event. A little bit of good passes into you. And you can give some back, if you remember to be present while it’s happening. This isn’t easy for me. I often forget to be present during hugs, too. I had a friend who used to get me into hug position, and then remind me to pay attention to what was happening. Hugging. He was a good friend.
Q: When is a Yoga retreat not a Yoga retreat?
A: When it’s a gathering of business professionals in a yoga-based industry, who have come together from both fitness and entertainment fields to offer you, the quiet couple from Canada who just wanted a weekend getaway in the mountains, this amazing one-time offer complete with free yoga classes, the pained general camaraderie that comes with being a sales professional and surely guarantees a slow and painful death due to diabetes or heart failure, AND a chance to test our products AT NO COST TO YOU and OH MY GOD- this is going on Facebook the moment this three day “internet cleanse” is over.
One more backpack trudge back to a cheaper hotel in a better part of town. Greener grass. Songkran water-festival scrubbed the alleys clean. Back to My Mum guesthouse, where three generations of women will greet us. Polyester tight-perm grandmothers will give up their chairs for us, and there will be nothing to do but sit. Green smoothies on the corner at the end of the alley, girl picks the basil from a pot at her feet. Avocado omelettes for breakfast. The sun’s going to be too hot, but we’re not going to sweat it any more. The street’s going to smell like shit, but we’re not going to notice. The mountains still won’t be there, not visible. Next time we pack up, it will be to catch the overnight bus to Bangkok. Overnight flight to Shanghai. Morning flight to Vancouver. We’ll arrive nearly before we’ve left.