Thai’s are great believers in ghosts. They are also terrified of them for some reason and to a Westerner the prospect of staying alone generally holds no great fears, but to a Thai?
Well, who knows who or what might come visiting in the night?
The only positive ghostly sighting that I had ever heard of in Thailand came from a lady from the compound in Soi Zero who won the lottery, and, even that wasn’t a Thai ghost!.
One of the various sections of our company was dedicated to the production of small hovercraft and airboats. These were marketed in the direction of dams inspection and flood relief and whilst government approval for these products was high, the economic collapse of 97’ had scuppered any budgets for them to buy the bloody things.
But, we managed to get on TV. a few times and even had a full length documentary made about our public spirited enterprise in trying to help out the great unwashed in times of disaster.
Making money had nothing to do with it naturally…
These items were manufactured in Ayuthya, (see,' Wife’), by a slightly deranged maritime professor and his equally deranged rag tag crew who in all reality would have become much richer by adopting the role of amenable pirates in the South
One Friday it was put to me to have a run ashore to the manufacturing facility, (sounds good that, eh?), and spend the day goofing off and eating the catch from the river that Ayuthya is so justly proud of.
And maybe I could get to create havoc by blasting around on an airboat. Har-har.
On the Saturday morning, Nu and I boarded his Merc and after a stop at the gas station to ensure that we had enough refreshments to keep us alive until arrival, we headed off.
The road unwound at a steady and comfortable rate behind us as we sang along badly to a Beatles C.D., the Singha beer and Sarapow providing sustenance as I pretended to be a someone being driven in a big shiny German import. The inlookers didn’t know that it was Nu’s car did they?
All they saw was a farang wearing sunglasses in a Merc holding a can of beer and being driven by a Thai chap. I can’t help their assumptions that all farang are loaded can I?
We hove into Ayuhttaya went over the river then turned right into a lane then spent an age wandering around a multitude of narrow Sois as his Lordship tried to find his bearings.
“How about”, I suggested, ”That we drive to the river then you can work out if we have to travel upstream or downstream?" Easy innit?
Nu raised his eyebrows and bowed to my logic then turned the motor in the direction of the river. We came to a halt on the grassy verge then got out of the car carrying our cans whereby Nu looked at the river, left then right, then wrinkled his forehead
The wide brown river slowly idled past as he continued to survey left and right and it became pretty clear that he didn’t have a damn clue where he was. Then he pulled his hand phone from his pocket and called Korat.
Thai logic mye?
Call someone in Korat 300 km away to get directions to travel a further 300 metres.
After much shouting, yelling and waving of arms he snapped the case shut and pronounced himself assured of his location.
“Should have brought a bloody map,”, I thought.
Handphones became so popular in Thailand largely because your average Thai has a complete inability to read a map. What they do is to point themselves and car in the vague direction of which they wish to travel and as the route signs begin to count down the distance, they get on the phone and start to point out things they can recognise at the side of the road.
Hopefully the person receiving the call will recognise something and be able to offer the appropriate directions…
This makes for some hilarious conversations, extremely dangerous driving habits and guarantees the sale of replacement battery packs.
(I have actually heard this whilst bombing along at 90 km/h with a lunatic woman driving and a phone jammed against her ear trying to obtain directions, ”I’ve just passed a shop selling Khao Maan Gai and there’s an old lady standing across the street”.).
Anyway, a Thai holding a map is an oddity or a practical joke; one or the other.
We duly motored off once more, (upstream), and after negotiating a few more narrow Sois and a 90 degree turn to the left came to an open set of gates through which could be seen a grassy area, a large boathouse and some beached boats. Needless to say that the river looked much the same.
Activity could be seen beside the boathouse as we bumped our way over the uneven grass and it appeared that people were sitting up to observe the visitors from their spot overlooking the river.
We halted, Nu cut the engine as I opened my door and emerged into the noontime sunshine, which was pleasantly warm after the air conditioning of the car.
It was quiet: No traffic noise, just the far away shrieks of laughter of some kids playing disturbed the heavy air. A sweet smell seemed to fill the immediate area, a smell which seemed oddly familiar but I couldn’t put my finger on it just at that moment.
I walked across to the gang and they grinned in welcome as they recognised who it was and I noted that they had been in positions of recline whilst busy getting around a bottle of Mekhong.
Lie in the grass beside the river in the sun and down a bottle of grog. Some people have all the luck…..
It seemed a fairly idyllic way of beginning a weekend and though the crew might have been permanently broke at least their quality of life was relaxed with a stress quotient of zero.
Handshakes and slaps on the back were exchanged, friendly jibes and insults traded as our boatbuilder pals took us for a tour of their facility which seemed to be in as similar a state of disrepair as they were.
The beached boats were of interest to me, so I wandered across to them and had an eyeball at the construction details: They looked like they’d cope with a medium sea state without much bother but would roll like a drunken pig in any sort of a swell. About 40 or 50 feet in length, fairly wide in the beam they carried two passenger decks which were completely enclosed with the wheelhouse being about two thirds forward.
As I clambered up the gantry for a full in-depth nosey, a hand passed me up a can of beer which I sipped from as I made my way along the deck with the intention of redesigning the thing and my wife and I motoring around the coastlines of Thailand and S.E. Asia.
Pirates weren’t a problem as no self respecting pirate would dare to put his mucky boots on my wife’s well scrubbed deck. The silent wrath of an Ayuthya wench is a sight to behold, and indeed is confusing in it’s silence.
My reverie was interrupted by Cha clambering up to the wheelhouse who indicated that I should follow him back to the bank. A muttered “Sai dtye”, from me caused him to smile as we walked together, arms over shoulders to the ladder and thence to the rest of the gang who were sitting in a huddle in the shade of the boathouse.
That smell was getting to me- It was sweetly cloying in the enclosed area that we found ourselves sitting in and as Nu explained that there was no way in this life that I was going to be zipping around in any airboats on that particular day, my mind was unconsciously raking through the card- index to find an entry under the heading, “Sweet cloying smells, herbal in origin.”.
Nu continued his spiel, as always having to come, ‘the boss’, and therefore to be listened to with due graveness then reminded me that it was Saturday, (I replied, ”Well done-so it is”), and that it was a quiet day in Ayuthya, (I replied, "It appears so”), and that in the interests of the community we had best keep the noise down.
He then drank deeply from his can and tried to look like a very important person who was not going to let blind insolence phase him one iota.
Not that I am insolent, indeed my Thai nickname is “Saeb”, and you can look up your own dictionaries to see what that means.
I decided that it wasn’t worth arguing further and in any event, I didn’t want to invoke the wrath of the indigenous population who would no doubt be less than amused by some farang zipping around on an airboat in a style only seen on Hollywood
movies that contain crocodiles.
Nu was still wittering on about something of world importance when I butted in: “What’s that smell?"
The crew laughed, no doubt glad of the diversion, and opened their eyes in mock surprise as Cha motioned me to stand up and follow him.
We walked to the fence that marked the boundary of the property where the smell was almost overpowering and then slipped through a gap there. After walking a few more metres we came to a lean-to partly hidden in the foliage whereupon Cha stopped, pointed then said, ”Kanja!.
Sure enough there seemed to be bales of some agricultural product piled inside and on closer examination it sure looked like grass, smelled like grass and in all probability, was grass.
Enough grass in fact to see mere mortals such as us in jail for a very goodly part of our life line.
Big thoughts of chains and fetters and no beer filled my head, so feeling that we had perhaps seen enough I turned around and began walking back towards the fence.
Rejoining the mob I grabbed a can then sat then asked the obvious question, ”Who owns that lot then?”
The pursed lips and shaken heads that were my reply that this was one question that wasn’t going to be answered as the Thai vernacular contains a couple of wonderful expressions when the media or politicos aren’t willing to name names.
These are, ’Influential figures’, and ‘Dark influences’.
These idioms are interchangeable and are best used when aware of some nefarious activity by a more affluent member of society. Someone who is, in another Thai-ism, ’Unusually rich’.
Like, the next life might be better right? But is anyone really in any hurry to find out?
Obviously some local wheel had an interest in this cargo so it was best that a tacit understanding existed that no-one knew nuthin’ at all ever your Honour.
I lay back on the warm grass, got comfortable then closed my eyes to listen to the murmur of the conversation and the soft swish of the river rolling by. I thought of the dope and smiled, I thought that nobody would believe me, then was asleep.
Groggily I came to, aware that it was still warm but without anyone nearby.
On getting to my feet I looked around blearily and on checking my watch saw that it was gone 2pm.
Dozing seemed to have claimed an hour and all around was silent as the locals enjoyed their mid afternoon snooze. The car was still in the yard so wherever the mob had gone, it wasn’t far.
Nu’s concept of walking being one of that it was something best avoided if you could con someone into carrying you. And nice though the gang were, they were unlikely to do that.
There appeared to be a note on the windscreen so I walked across to the motor to see what it said and read, ”Gone eating not far”.
Thai shorthand for, ’If you want to get hold of us, ask around’.
Great ‘asker arounders’ are Thais.
Hunger wasn’t a problem just at that moment so I walked back to the cooler and saw that there was still some beer in it, which I then carried to a bench positioned overlooking the river and sat down.
After getting comfortable, I lit a cigarette, popped a can, had a slug then let out a nice relaxed sigh.
The river, brown with upcountry silt rolled softly past undisturbed by river traffic and the houses built in the traditional style and nicely shaded by the trees on the opposite bank could have been deserted for all that I knew.
Not a sound disturbed the warm peace of the afternoon as I slowly sipped myself into a waking dream of winning the lottery and retiring here to grow a long white beard.
After swallowing a couple of cans my reverie was disturbed by the realisation that people had returned to the boatyard but as I heard no voices, (especially our Prof’s raucous giggle), I didn’t bother to turn to look. If they’d wanted me they’d have let me know.
My watch read 4 when I eventually rose and stood for a moment to get the blood supply to my feet sorted out. My stomach indicated an urgent desire for food and as it was still silent the boys must have got well stuck into a session in some eatery so I thought it best to go track them down and see what morsels were on offer.
As I turned to go I caught sight of the folks who’d arrived whilst I’d been lost on the planet Zog.
To my right, standing at the rivers edge stood a young woman dressed in unfamiliar clothes. She was looking across the river and the thought crossed my mind for some reason that she was lonely as she stood there with her arms hanging limply by her sides.
She was small for a Thai, her dress was unusual in that it hung straight from shoulder to ankle and I noticed that she was barefoot.
Waist length jet black hair accentuated the paleness of her skin which caused me to think that she was of the Northern provinces.
Standing about twenty metres behind her stood two young men in their early twenties dressed in costume which reminded me of the museum displays representing the Ayuthya period of Thai history before the Burmese laid seige to the place then levelled it
some 300 years previously.
It occurred to me that they perhaps worked in one of the museums or cultural display companies and maybe it was a boyfriend – girlfriend thing.
Both the young men stared at the girl in silence.
I lit a cigarette and debated whether to go across and talk to the woman, after all she was rather cute, she seemed upset and here’s me always got a shoulder for a maiden to cry on.
Sanity prevailed though as infringing in a lovers tiff in Thailand is generally a bad idea – the dynamics of the situation tending to leave scars at best. On you.
As I began to walk towards the gate of the yard I caught sight of a fourth figure: An old woman shabbily dressed but standing in a posture of some authority where she stood somewhat to the left of and behind the young men.
She too, stared at the young woman and I felt sorry for the girl. Poor bissum, she had the whole family on her back it appeared.
On reaching the gate I turned for a last look at the tableau in the yard and was struck by the awful feeling of longing and loneliness that the girl portrayed; that girl wanted to be anywhere but there.
The silence was palpable as I nodded at the old woman, which elicited no response, and further reinforced my opinion that it was a family thing; irate mothers in law are the same in any culture.
The heat struck me as I reached the tarmac of the Soi then wondered whether to turn left or right into the maze. Logic decreed left, after all, nearer the river would be cooler and chances were that the majority of local eateries would be located along
the river bank.
All I had to do was keep my ears open, listen for the racket of raised voices and chinking glasses…..That would be my lot.
As I trudged along the hot, hot, hot and deserted Soi, I looked for a local who wasn’t actually asleep whom I could ask if they’d seen various demented boatyard type people along the way.
I duly came across an old chap sitting under a brolly with a home rolled cigarette and a glass of Lao Khao in hand who seemed at peace with the world and nature.
I excused myself and asked him if he’d seen my friends. Thai friends, not farangs I explained.
Twinkling eyes set above a toothless smile carefully took stock of the foreigner before he replied in the standard fashion.”Khun passa Tai”. (”You speak Thai”.)
(Drives me up the wall that does:- I asked the question in Thai, not expecting an ancient to understand English).
After agreeing that I did indeed speak Thai and how was he?, he offered me his glass with a smile before saying that he hadn’t seen anyone along for a while. But he’d been asleep anyway so if anyone had come past then he wouldn’t know would he?
I laughed and agreed, then taking ever such a little sip of the Lao bade him good day then left him smiling away his retirement.
As I walked along I wondered if he knew who the girl was who was so sad and lonely back at the yard and who it seemed was so unpopular with her in laws.
Strange how they’d stood for the best part of two hours but never spoken I mused, perhaps the heady scent of the kanja had dulled my hearing somewhat?
The sound of laughter put these thoughts out of my head as I tried to locate the source of the noise and presently came upon a wee joint down beside the river where our lot were in full flow around a table crowded with bottles, glasses and plates of munchies.
(I refuse to start writing about particular Thai foods. There’s always a bit of a lot of different things on the table which alter depending where you are).
Grabbing a glass our Prof, (Ajarn), filled it with ice, Mekhong and coke, handed me a plate and the glass then got hilariously stuck into me. I often think that his PHD was in taking the piss.
How come, he wanted to know, that here were all these great upstanding Ayuthya guys working and living in Ayuthya and a farang wanders in and starts nicking the wimin?
My arguments of , “Only one”, were hooted down with derision as they suggested that this was only the beginning or there was perhaps something that I hadn’t let on?
Well, the afternoon progressed with much hilarity, ribald humour and as always, a full belly at the end of it until evening drew and it became time to return to the bright lights of Bangkok.
As we sat in the car for a moment to say our goodbyes, I casually mentioned to the gang that their visitors seemed to have gone somewhere.
Nu looked at me curiously so I explained the events of the afternoon to him and watched in surprise as his face slowly went pale.
He then turned to Ajarn and Cha then explained my story to them as I pointed out the location of the persons there that afternoon. Ajarn and Cha turned to the rest of the team and explained that to them. It seemed a bit strange to me as they all went quiet.
Had someone nicked the kanja or something?
Nothing more was said about it and after the obligatory, ”See you next life,”, cries from all to all we motored off in a Big Mango direction.
Later as we cruised along in the darkness Nu asked me, ”How you see them?" “Who?”, I replied.
He concentrated on driving for a few more minutes and after a few more sips from his can said, ”What you saw was ghosts. Very famous ghosts for that place….”.
Then he told me the story of the Vietnamese slave girl who pined for her family across the distance and of how the two sons of a wealthy Ayuthya merchant woman had come to love her and fought to the death over who could possess her.
Leaving their mother bereft and childless with no chance of an heir to her dynasty.
Flippant to the last, I laughed, ”That explains her sense of humour failure then!”.
Nu looked ahead into the darkness as we sped along, taking mouthfuls of his beer as he drove and muttering an occasional exclamation that I had seen such a thing and me a farang as well.
I leaned forward, slipped a Van Morrison tape into the deck and as ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, began to play, settled back into my seat and began to watch the cats eyes approach from the road ahead.
Later that night, ”She who must be obeyed”, arrived home from work, announcing her arrival as per normal whilst still in the corridor outside, ”Meester Jame-ee-sun I am home”, then bounced into the room like a sort of a Thai female Tigger before pulling an ice cream and a bottle of beer out of the bag in her hand as she asked how my day had been.
“It was good Sweetpea, why, I even got to see some ghosts in the boatyard”.
She opened the beer, handed it to me then said, ”Yes, many ghosts in Ayuthya from before. Did you see anyone that maybe I know?"
The logic is inescapable….Thailand…
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