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Pla’s Elephant

  • Written by Thai Ties
  • May 19th, 2005
  • 12 min read


Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok

In Thai, ’Pla’, means ‘fish’. However, Thais being as lazy as anyone else about pronunciation, then you can often hear it as ‘Pra’, and that’s my excuse.

The great majority of Thais have a nickname which is given at birth, though if they feel that it isn’t working for them at a later date then they may well change it which to be honest, can cause confusion when you bump into an old mate and introduce them to find that you’ve got the name wrong. But, that’s life in the Land of Smiles.

Don’t then be surprised if your lovely companions have names which translate as ‘Pig, Sheep, Duck, Crab, Fish’. It’s nothing personal and they don’t mind.

I even had a language instructress once called ‘Juub’, and on asking what that meant was surprised to find that she wouldn’t tell me. So, I asked my wife who did tell me: Err, it means a chap’s appendage. Strange name for a daughter don’t you think?

And here’s my wife called Pla or Pra. Charming lady with the patience of a saint, obviously, because she puts up with me…..

The elephant is the national symbol of Thailand and indeed used to be on the national flag, though alas there are few left now in the wild. Thais view them as something to share land mass with and not to get too close to, after all, these things are big and have a habit of pleasing themselves in their behavioural patterns.

One day on a visit to my wife’s home which is in the boondocks in Sana province, (get to Ayutthaya and keep going..), and which is surrounded by trees and scrub though built beside the river in a lovely quiet location, access being by an unpaved road or in the rainy season, by boat.

I was sitting on the porch enjoying the peace and a cold beer as the river idled slowly by when the most fearful crashing and ripping noise disturbed my reverie.

I hastily looked around to try and ascertain the source of the noise and saw trees and bushes swaying and rocking in the near distance, the distance between whatever it was and the house slowly lessening as I watched.

Wondering if it was perhaps a runaway tank or something I strained to hear engine noise which would back up that theory and so stood to try and gain a better view of the action.
It was almost like something out of ‘The Hobbit’; The middle of nowhere in a hot green country with a river behind me to block escape and this thunderous racket slowly approaching and it’s source unseen.

As the house I was in was built on top of two metre high stilts due to the proximity of the river I had visions of the whole lot crashing to the ground around my ears when Pla appeared across the gangway from her Auntie’s place next door.

She looked at the expression on my face and giggled before taking a drink of the beer and saying, “It’s only the elephants.”

This was confusing as I’d been there many times and had seen no evidence of elephants in the past and if truth be told, no-one had ever mentioned elephants to me as lived in the proximity. “Pla, what bloody elephants?" I asked as I sat down again and looked up to the sun. The rip-crackle-crunch-thump, noises were coming closer as I watched a sapling bend to an angle of sixty degrees before snapping upright.

Taking my arm, she pulled me to my feet then through the house to the kitchen porch and stood to point at the large clearing behind the house which was bordered by dense woodland and scrub.

“Look”, she said, ”Elephants."

And so there were; two elephants, old elephants. Don’t ask me how I knew that they were old, but I just knew, after all everything around Ayutthaya is old isn’t it?

(Don’t tell my wife that I said that.)

A male and a female had emerged from the tangled cane and stood looking around as though unsure of what to do next, a trail of smashed undergrowth behind them as evidence of their passing.

I know for a fact that my missus dislikes elephants, tending to look upon them as a house-proud woman would view a naughty puppy leaving muddy footprints on a freshly cleaned floor.

There to be tolerated but not necessarily appreciated.

Elephants are big, noisy and sometimes dirty and cannot be conveniently folded up and placed into a cupboard. Neither can they be sent to the shop to buy ice cream like husbands for instance.

My immediate cause for concern was that they might decide to investigate the house, which could cause a collapse and thus break the cooling beer bottles inside the fridge. This was serious.

I mentioned my fears to Pla and received in return that look which implies, ”Don’t be bloody stupid" Then she replied, ”Why should they come here?”

Well, yes, quite. No argument to be brooked there.

“But Sweetpea, you don’t like elephants-where do they live?"

She sipped my beer again and had a think before replying, ”Yeeesssss, but they’ve always been here and they know that this house has always been here so they live alongside the river and people give them food or they take food from the farms and around here."

I looked at the elephants who remained at the edge of the clearing, still unsure of what to do next, almost like a couple of church elders walking into an upstairs joint in Patpong.

“Don’t the farmers get angry?”, I asked.

“No, because they mostly eat grass and anyway, my dad’s the owner.”

I surmised that they had all come to some agreement and smiled at the picture of two elephants and Pinyachote senior sitting in some smokey dive wearing shades and doing the deal over a pineapple ration…….” Awright, we won’t be a crashing around all hours of the night, but that’s a half ton a week extra, geddit?”

A neighbour came a pop-popping down the path on some model of vintage moped held together with binder twine, electrical tape and string and barely slowed as without a care in the world, passed between the two pachyderms who in turn seemed to take no notice of the mechanical irritant.

We returned to the porch at the front of the house to wait until it was time to return to Bangkok, and if truth be told, to allow me time to finish another beer.

A faint tremor ran through my buttocks and alerted us to the fact that our friends were on the move again, this time appearing across the cleared ground at the end of the house beside towards the river.

As they passed beside us I raised my glass and said, ”Afternoon elephants”, and until the day I die I will swear that Mr Elephant dipped his head just a little bit in agreement.

We watched as they immersed themselves in the river and then I watched in amazement as they began a slow but dignified swim in the direction of the far bank. ”Bugger me”, I exclaimed. Swimming elephants!" Pla snorted, ”Don’t speak bad…….didn’t you know that elephants can swim?”

I admitted my ignorance of this fact as we don’t tend to see too many elephants where I come from and these tend to be of the pink variety in drying out clinics.

Anyway, it got to be that time, and after saying our ’bye-byes’, we walked down the steps and pulled on our shoes before heading for the path leading to the road and bus stop.

As we walked through the trees I asked Pla if there were any more surprises lurking in the undergrowth, like tigers maybe? There had been no tigers for a couple of hundred years which was comforting to know, but someone had been bitten by a snake a few years ago and had died.

Suddenly the concrete jungle took on a more friendly aspect as I peered into the undergrowth each side of the path.

That night back in our room I was sitting on the floor beside the balcony with the door open and idly smoking a cigarette whilst drinking a beer.

The door had to remain open as smoking in the room was verboten by ‘her who must be obeyed’, and anyway, everyone left their doors open which created a nice cooling draught for the length of the building.

She was eating a french fry and peanut butter sandwich whilst watching the Thai version of ‘Millionaire’ on TV, and as the questions were asked she would quickly read the answers, translate them into English to which I would answer then translate them back again. In this we were pretty successful as she was good at the cultural questions and my useless stock of general knowledge helped with the rest. If they’d only had a mixed nationality pairs version of the show….

As the adverts came on I stubbed my cigarette and wondered how anyone could enjoy a sandwich like that then considered that she probably felt the same way about cigarettes.
The doorway darkened as a lanky frame hove into view, clad in a tee shirt and knee length shorts with a prematurely bald head giving him the appearance of a vaguely unhinged rocket scientist. The John Lennon specs didn’t help much either.

It was David. Or ‘David the ever decreasing circle’, as a mutual friend had renamed him.
David was a great guy but being an American he suffered from a massive inferiority complex in that all his problems could and would be laid at the feet of the locals.

His habit of taking succor in the arms of various lovelies had led to many a vengeful scene with his irate wife, a normally placid and peaceful lady who only wanted a quiet life.

Like I said, a great lad but unemployable as the team ideal and Dave just didn’t see eye to eye at all which had led him into a diverse series of jobs.

Our apartment at the time was fairly large by Thai standards and shone like a new pin, my missus being one of these people who just have to pick things up and tidy them away. Sometimes I dreamed about waking up inside a cupboard.

As you entered the room there was a walk in wardrobe on your right and the bathroom to your left. Mounted on the wall above the light switch for the bathroom was a clay depiction of two elephants which was in turn, mounted on a hardwood base.

Pla had found it in some antiques shop and was suitably chuffed with it having negotiated a suitable discount off of the asking price. It also looked quite nice.

“Hi Dave,” I said, ”Enter my boy and tell me of your latest woes-there’s nothing on the TV."

Pla sitting on the bed and being out of his sight made a face then turned the volume down.
He had that agitated look on his face which gave the game away and in anticipation of a, ‘Why me?’, session I reached into the fridge and withdrew two beers.

These diatribes were always great fun, being as they were presented with great emotion and drama, and after removing his shoes Dave entered, but instead of walking across the room to where I was sitting, he stopped by the bathroom wall and began to rhythmically bang his forehead on it.

I smiled as I watched the scene and noted that he hadn’t uttered a word up to that point, but if truth be told, actions do often speak louder than words.

As Pla was sitting on the bed she was unsighted and couldn’t see what was happening, all she knew was that David hadn’t entered the room, I was grinning and there was a dull ‘bumping’ sound vibrating through the wall behind her.

Puzzled by this she leaned forward for a look and as she saw what was happening immediately leapt to her feet and shouted, ”No David, No…….!"

David then stopped bashing his head and stood with a small smile on his lips, obviously touched by her concern for his welfare and I noticed a lovely red circle on his forehead where it had been making contact with the wall.

“Painful”, I thought.

Standing beside him, Pla swept her arm and pointed in my direction. Then taking him by the arm led him across to me and pointing at the floor said, ”You want to bang your head-do it there. Don’t bang the wall because my elephants might fall down and break!"

For a second a look of pure incomprehension crossed his face as the realisation that he was not going to get a sympathetic hearing struck home, then kneeling he put his forehead to the floor and continued banging it on the spot indicated.

I sipped some beer as Dave thumped away like a Muslim on speed and Pla opened a bar of chocolate and began to munch before asking, ”What country is PDRK?"

David never paused but said, ”Colin’s mates."

“North Korea”, I shouted to get a yell in reply, ”Wheyyy, now we’ve won half a million."
Dave paused, raised his head and looked at me: ”Telepathic TV then?"

I laughed and asked if he had finished trying to turn my floor into a golf course and if so what disaster had befallen him this time.

“Well”, he said, "First thing………are those elephants really that valuable?"

Before I could answer a small voice piped up from the background, ”Worth more than your head David. Much more."

Stickman's thoughts:

What would the wife've done if they'd fallen?