My Guilt Trip To Buriram
For years I made one feeble excuse after another to avoid visiting my girlfriend's family home outside Buriram. For me, a jungle shack full of biting insects and freeloaders is no holiday destination. However, last week, I finally gave in and agreed to a day-trip. It was perfect timing, as we would have the house to ourselves.
The night train was fairly comfortable but the time did drag a bit. We stopped at every station and there was no food on sale. My girlfriend admitted that the special express service would have been quicker. She said that it also had food and drink served by hostesses in short skirts – skirts so short, in fact, that gentlemen travellers are sometimes tempted to drop their cutlery in the aisle 'by accident'. Needless to say, I resolved to take personal charge of booking the return leg.
Eight hours later, we stepped out into the surprisingly cold early morning air. A long and bumpy motorcycle ride brought us to the house where, totally exhausted, we lay down on a thin, dusty mattress and fell asleep.
Fitful dreams about the ladies of the State Railway of Thailand gave way to the heat of the mid-morning sun radiating from the tin roof. A bird was fluttering somewhere in the darkness above. We pushed open the shutters to let the daylight in.
The room was large and cluttered. Its rough wooden walls were decorated with pages cut from women's magazines. Under the eyes of hundreds of nameless fashion models, we set about tidying up. The house was surprisingly spacious with a large airy living area and three partitioned bedrooms under a tall corrugated iron roof. My girlfriend showed me a small hole in the wall of her parents' bedroom through which, at night, she used to peep. This was sex education, Thai-style. The roof used to have holes too. During the rainy season, the whole family had to chew gum and then use it to plug the leaks. To this day, it remains watertight.
Outside was a small concrete annex containing the kitchen and bathroom. The 'shower' consisted of a trough of cold water and a small plastic bowl to scoop it up with. Though crude, it was actually quite a pleasant experience. The toilet was a hole in the ground – ok for a piss, but anything more ambitious would have to wait until I got back to Bangkok.
We hopped onto the family motorbike and went off in search of breakfast. On the way, my girlfriend explained the rules:
1. Don't talk to anyone
2. Don't let on that you can speak Thai
3. Don't get bitten by a snake
Some years ago, she brought her previous boyfriend home. When left on his own, he made the mistake of saying hi to some of the locals. He might have got away with it had he not used his few words of Thai. This was like pouring petrol on the fire. She returned to find the house full of strangers, drinking their way through his savings. It took three days to get rid of them.
The snake rule is obviously common sense but there are those who choose to ignore it. Rattle snakes are quite common in this region. Their bite is not always fatal but it does need attention. There is a clinic in the village, but the last guy who got bitten went to the temple instead. Having seen the state of the clinic, I'd be inclined to take my chances at the temple too.
We ate an excellent breakfast of chicken fried rice before setting off on a tour of the village. The houses looked basic but comfortable enough. The nicer ones belong to the families of girls who work in the sex industry. We passed the compound of the local big-man. Parents from all over the region bring their daughters here in the hope that he will find them jobs in one of his sex businesses. Next, we saw a house that was simply breathtaking – a huge classical villa that might have belonged to a wealthy politician. In fact, it was the home of the local primary school teacher who claims to have financed it with a bank loan. Yeah, right.
On the way back, we passed the local rubbish dump. Although not very big, it was a foul mess. Human remains turn up there quite regularly. A murder victim and an unwanted baby were the most recent discoveries. Just then, a battered pick-up truck sped past with a noisy cargo of about 20 frantic dogs – all destined for the dinner table.
Back at the house, we both felt pretty smug about getting back unnoticed. It was then that the visitors began to arrive.
First up was the unkempt old lady from next door. She had obviously lost the plot but the mangoes she brought over were quite tasty. I washed them first though. Her story was rather sad. Her only daughter had taken to glue-sniffing and cutting herself. One day, she bled to death. When the old lady lost her daughter, she also lost her marbles. She still had the presence of mind to shake us down for 100 baht though.
Next up was the old man from down the street. He said that my girlfriend's mum owed him 1,000 baht. A quick call on the cellphone revealed this to be untrue. Wrong-footed by modern technology, the sly old git left empty-handed, cursing as he went. Had he just walked in and asked for 100 baht, he would have got it.
As we watched him shuffling off, a smart new pick-up truck drew up. It was the local police officer and he seemed pleased to see us. Apparently, we had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to buy a new European-style house from him. He was sorry to learn that we were returning to Bangkok within the hour. We had just enough time to pack our things before the transport arrived.
At the train station, we had 10 minutes to kill before the Special Express was due in. I was already congratulating myself at having avoided one-to-one contact with the locals. It was when my girlfriend went off to buy a bag of corn snacks that the man in the grubby orange T-shirt made his move. His English was poor, but it soon became clear that he supported Liverpool. 'You Manchester United?' he asked. I shook my head. 'You speak Thai?' he asked. 'No' I lied. A heavy silence fell. As my girlfriend returned with the corn snacks, my new Thai friend went on his way with a cheery wave.
On boarding the train, I was shocked to see that the hostesses were wearing knee-length skirts. Apparently, their complaints to management about the indignity of wearing the short ones had been upheld. The food was good though and, in daylight, the view was marvellous. Every paddy field was home to at least two mature trees. Each one appeared to be of a different species, giving the impression that they were the remnants of an ancient forest. There were animals everywhere. Six hours later, we reached Bangkok.
Although I made the trip reluctantly, it turned out to be quite interesting. It seems to me that poverty, injustice and vice are the main forces that shape people's lives in the countryside. On the plus side, it is surprisingly beautiful, the food is good and visitors can be sure of a warm welcome. Better still; a well-timed home visit can put the smile back on a grumpy girlfriend's face. Mission accomplished.
I love the Thai countryside and yeah, the people are very nice indeed. It's funny that I read these stories about being shaken down or simply asked for money, yet never once have I been asked. Maybe I look poor?