A Backpacker’s Lament
I have learned that The Tourism Authority of Thailand has set aside its enthusiasm for travellers (backpackers) in favour of a splendid and lucrative future. It is as it were as though they have given up hope of achieving the Right Honourable Thaksin’s dream of raising rich hi so tourist numbers to ten millions of people a year. The reality is becoming clear in that the numbers of high rolling farang are in decline and seemingly replaced by the Chinese, who favour ‘out of town’ budget hotels that provide bussing services into the nightlife areas free of charge. The Chinese also seem to favour large establishments with huge discounts, whether they be hostelries, massage parlours or restaurants. The fact is that the farang happily pay 250 baht for a massage, and goes alone. Whereas the Chinese tourists go mob handed and find that their nationals seem think that a hundred baht per head is plenty and much more acceptable. Who suffers most? Well it depends on your point of view; certainly the small bars, restaurants and massage parlours are losing out big time already.
Why lament? Well you see it was the backpackers and travellers of forty years ago, and those that followed them, that opened up Thailand, hot on the heels of the Air America personnel and American troops that were being repatriated after losing the war in Vietnam and failing to stop the communists winning power in Laos. And so as hoards of Americans were returning home in shame (that’s how the American public saw it anyway) so the backpackers that were blazing the ‘Hippie Trail’ around the World were including Thailand in their well beaten path. Yes the American troops used places like Bangkok, Pattaya, and Udon Thani as their playground. And yes Uncle Sam did build the freedom highways, yet it was the humble backpacker that opened up the airways of commercial flights to Bangkok.
Minutia of a backpacker in Thailand
I finally arrived at Ayutthaya and checked in at the unimaginatively named Ayutthaya Guest House. I was not sorry to leave Bangkok. After six days in the Khao San Road travellers district you feel that you have had enough. I travelled to Ayutthaya by public bus service which I caught a short walk from Khao San Road. Later I reach the Northern bus station and transferred to the intercity bus service. Blissfully this bus had air-conditioning. I sat back and felt the relief as my over heated body cooled down. It had been 40 degrees centigrade on the local public bus. I just sat and fried whilst my perspiration formed a puddle on the floor. The native passengers were visibly amused. However, I found their plight funny too. Many of them had covered their face and no doubt other parts of their bodies with prickly heat powder which gave them faces like clowns all white save for the brown of their eye sockets.
We arrived at Ayutthaya around 2.30 in the afternoon. I trudged through the streets looking for digs. It was hot, sweltering heat that bounces right off the pavement into your face. At last I found the Thong family. This humble Chinese family offered a room with a bed for 120 baht per night. The room was basic, eight foot square, one window with a dirty sheet nailed over it, a bedstead fashioned from scrap wood upon which there was a straw mattress covered with a clean white sheet. The cement floor bore the stains of many before me. A frayed twisted cable hung from the ceiling sporting a lamp which gave off a pale yellow light. There was no catch on the battered door which had once been painted. Some faded patches of green hinting at its original colour. Outside there was a cement patio though which a deep trough passed. The patio boasted two standpipes, a tap on each. The whole ensemble made up the bathroom, laundry and kitchen sink. Above the patio someone had stretched several strands of string, presumably to hang washing on. Beyond this multi-purpose ablution arrangement there was a shed with two half stable doors behind which there was a hole in the floor to receive unwanted body waste.
Later I smiled to myself as I knelt on the patio cement washing my smalls like a coolie. I soaked the clothing at one of the taps, rubbed my block of soap all over and then bashed them about a bit on the side of the trough, just like I’d seen native women doing in so many parts of the third World, but this is Thailand, it isn’t the third World, is it? Next I rinsed them under the tap and hung them on one of the many strands of string, that other before me had strung. Satisfied with my labour I went to the front of the building. There, raised above the road, was a wooden platform which was furnished with six tables and perhaps a dozen or so chairs. At the back of the platform was a rusty coke-cola machine. Its mechanism had long since seized up. A key was in the lock and a hand written notice in Pidgin English, invited visitors to help themselves and enter what they had taken in ‘The Book’. It was dark now and the mosquitoes were up and biting furiously. I rummaged in my backpack and withdrew some fragments of mosquito smoke coil. I carefully lit the largest piece and placed underneath one of the rickety chairs upon which I sat with some relief. Now, secure in my territory I looked around waiting for another guest to appear. I’d not long to wait.
A young man teetered on the platform and fell into a chair beside me. We started to chat and I soon discovered that his outward appearance told no lie; indeed he was a real ‘Cheech & Chong’ type. He told me in a thick southern accent that he was American and that his name was Joseph. He couldn’t remember how long he’d lived in Thailand. As he drawled away my lids became heavy with boredom and an ever pressing need to sleep. That’s when Mike arrived on the scene. Mike was English. Well mannered and well spoken. That is, he was until the tubes of beer got the better of him. I did discover that his full name was Mike Heffer, or at least that was the name he was using then. It dawned on me that these two were not strangers to one another. I said nothing about this insight. Now that I’d seen these guys getting beer from the antique coke machine I knew where the book was. As I withdrew a coke from the machine a tall blonde women appeared and sat at a vacant table. Soon she was joined by an equally tall blond man. I walked over to the stable door counter and wrote carefully 7.50pm, David, One can of Coke. I turned and decided that I would sit at the table with the new arrivals.
As it turned out they were Norwegian doctors. The woman told me that her name was Turid and that she and her husband were on a budget holiday exploring Thailand. She told me that her hobby was anthropology and that she had spent many moths in the North of Norway studying the native tribes that follow a nomadic life there. She was surprised to hear that I was aware of the ‘Sami’ tribe’s people and their constant struggle to protect their customs and language. This has been particularly difficult in modern times due to the Norwegian government insisting that all Norwegian children be schooled in the Norwegian language. The ‘Sami’ are related to the Laplanders and subsist by herding reindeer. These strange and isolated people speak a tongue that is derived from Finno-Ugric. Ugric is very similar to Hungarian. Today the Norwegian government recognises their culture and their right to raise their children in the Sami traditions. We talked into the night and only paused when Joseph fell off his chair and was helped away to his room by Mike. She chatted on with great enthusiasm, though her husband had only interceded occasionally, and with some reluctance. I related my experiences in the Canadian Arctic with the Inuit people. How the Inuit hate to be called Eskimos and how jealously they protect their ancient lands, language and customs. At last we had to end the discussion and retire. I was saddened because this was the first intelligent conversation that I’d had since I arrived in Thailand.
Mysterious Lady in a green dress
During the long conversation with Turid and as I listened intently my eyes were fixed on the dusty road leading up to our guesthouse. She appeared from nowhere. Right out of the setting sun. I shuddered as she negotiated the pack of wild soi dogs that had pursued me when I’d passed by a few hours earlier. She was young, tall and slim. Her long red hair fell about her shoulders. As she drew near I could see that her back pack was very heavy yet she did not bend under its weight. Her long green dress reached to her ankles and as it swung with her stride I could see her walking boots were caked with mud. She climbed the steps straight up onto the platform where we sat her green eyes flashing a weak smile as their owner appeared to take her reservation. She spoke with an Irish lilt, dancing through her enquires of Mr. Thong as though she were dating a graduate. Her face was blushed with exposure and her lips a little cracked. She was no more than twenty-five, perhaps younger. Now that she was closer I could see that the long green dress clung to her perspiring body, and that the shoulder straps of her backpack were biting cruelly into her shoulders. I saw Mr. Thong nodding gently as she handed him the paltry sum that it costs to stay in such humble establishments. With that she disappeared into the building her sylph-like form barely disturbing the air as she brushed by. What is her story I wondered, enchanted by the mystery of her arrival and the eroticism instilled in me by her. I relished the thought of asking her on the ‘morrow.
I went to my room and removed my boots trying hard not to break anymore of my blisters. It was no good my feet were a mess, there’d be no walking tomorrow. I deployed my mossy net over the bed, having great difficulty completing this simple act before I felling asleep.
When I woke the sun was already high. It was late. I washed at the trough and went to breakfast on the balcony. In the distance I could see the mysterious woman walking away in determined stride. Now I’d never know her secret, I mused to myself. The soup was barely warm, the rice stone cold. I ate all anyway. At least the tea was hot, though it could be much improved with the addition of milk. As I ate I considered my dilemma. There were three objectives that I’d planned to fulfil before moving on down the Thai peninsula. I wanted to see the ruins of this ancient city of Ayutthaya; that would be easy because they were nearby. I wanted to visit Chiang Mai and I wanted to visit Kanchanaburi to see the bridge over the river Kwai. The problem was that Chiang Mai and Kanchanaburi are in opposite directions from Ayutthaya. Due to my delay in Bangkok time was now a problem. I flipped a coin and decided that Chiang Mai would have to wait for the future. Satisfied that with the trip to the North out of the schedule I could now catch up; I planned my departure for Kanchanaburi and set about a tour of the Ayutthaya ruins. I finished my hot sweet tea a pondered how to get round five square miles of ruins with my blistered feet. Mike appeared and suggested that I rent a bicycle. Apparently Mr. Thong had a couple of bikes that he rented out to guests. I claimed my two wheeled steed and set off toward the ruins. But my thoughts now were of moving on and perhaps crossing paths with the girl in the green dress again.
This took me back to 4 days I spent in a guesthouse a few sois away from the main Khao Sarn Road. What an absolute hole it was!