Readers' Submissions

On The Road Again



Three days after arriving back in Bangkok from Europe we, spouse and I, visit our country estate, a 1.1 rai patch of Isarn. There is land behind and beside it that I am interested in buying, so I can plant my own personal forest, but once they know a farang is interested the price goes up so no sale is made. They lose out more than me.

We take the VIP bus from Mor Chit, an interesting experience. Foreigners are clearly not expected to travel by bus. All foreigners are rich so they take the plane. I was at the bus station for about an hour and saw no foreigners there to my knowledge – certainly no westerners. To buy a ticket and discover where your bus leaves from would be a challenge for non-Thai speakers (99.9 percent of Earth’s population). There are dozens of booths set up, each for a different route, with all destinations written only in Thai. Definitely not tourist-friendly.

The bus was a surprise. Two seats one side, one on the other, they were not unlike some business-class seats on a plane. Large and comfortable, and a hostess served up a meagre snack and water. On the return, a can of coke was also included. The bus stopped on-route for 15 minutes for bladder relief, stretching, and for VIP bus passengers a free hot snack that probably few have time to queue for and consume. The number of busses on the road at night is staggering. Another surprise – the driver didn’t race, but instead drove so slowly we arrived over 30 minutes late, still okay for an 8.5 hour journey.

Our destination was Somdet (go to Kalasin and keep going for another 40 kilometres), or to be more precise, a small village called Kok Sri nine kilometres down the road to Mukdahan. I love that I can come out of the house, turn right and keep going on the same road for an hour and forty minutes, and reach the Laos border. For someone brought up in London, that’s pretty cool. For the future, when I move there, there’s a Tesco Lotus to shop at and an immigration office to report to, like a criminal reporting to his probation officer. I thought I could just report myself to my brother-in-law, as he is a policeman living close by, but I’m told I can’t do it that way.

I learned this from a Swede who has moved to my wife’s village, a couple of kilometres along the road to Laos. He drove a petroleum lorry back home, and one morning woke up unable to use his legs. He had MS and now uses a wheelchair, but has spent 70,000 baht adapting his pick-up to drive feet-free. He married a cousin of my wife (the family appears to populate and own most of the village), meeting her over a drink at a bar she worked at in Koh Samui. Why she was there is a story in itself. They have built a house, have satellite tv and a computer, but no internet. I would have thought internet access would be a huge asset for someone in his position, but his English isn’t great and that is his excuse for not exploring the digital world.

The Swede tells me that MS does not exist in Asia, but he is wrong. The jungle drums have not told him there is another in the village, my wife’s uncle, who was a farmer and also one morning woke up unable to use his legs. It’s worrying that a life, maybe mine or yours, could be turned around so drastically and so suddenly. We visited briefly. He lays on a huge, crudely-made wooden bed in what is essentially the only room in his home, with a bare concrete floor and breeze block walls, and cries when anyone takes the time to visit. There is a smell in there of stale milk, so I go outside and wait.

On the way, we have been to visit some land owned by my father-in-law, 16 rai he bought an age ago for 200 baht. For those not familiar with these figures, a rai is approximately the size of a football field, and 200 baht is around $5, or two pounds fifty, or about 4 Euros. Staggering, isn’t it. With low humidity and warm sunshine, no more than a perfect 30 degrees, it was an ideal setting, the grass and vista not unlike walking on the cliffs in England on a rare hot summers day. The land is rented out for growing cane, and we happen upon, deep inside the ‘forest’, a large pond. Once the rental deal has expired in a couple of years, the land will be divided among my wife, her three sisters and her brother, and they will grow trees to make paper, a 10-year project.

My wife will receive a double share of the land, for looking after her father. He is living in our house, acting really as caretaker, after he was thrown out by his wife when someone said he was seen giving a woman a lift in his pickup. The neighbour was believed over him, the wife and one of the daughters commandeered his pickup, and they claimed they had destroyed all his clothes. My wife and I bought him some more, but then found out his clothes were still intact. My father-in-law is 65, and a quiet and gentle man. If it wasn’t so sad, the way he was treated, it would be funny. Village life, not so far removed from Taliban attitudes really. Interesting.

Now, he’s happy living alone. He always has been a bit of a loner, enjoying nights in his fields, and he admits to sometimes singing along to the karaoke player we gave him. There are frequent visitors, family (including the daughter who took his truck, but not his wife), and friends as ancient as him who sit around and smoke and drink beer if they can afford it. His life has just been improved by the addition of a hot shower to the bathroom. A flush toilet might be the final step to giving him (and me on my occasional visits) an even more comfortable life. And he has a small motor bike to get around on, to go visiting.

I stand outside the house sniffing the clean air that is so alien to Bangkok, and early in the morning it is so cold I put on a jacket. Never have to do that in the Big Mango. A mist covers some of the ground, or smoke from bonfires rises from the fields that adjoin our property. But I am still something to be stared at, deep in the countryside, and locals passing by on bikes or pickups call out. Sometimes, I find their ignorance annoying and childish, but they mean well so now and then I respond with a wave.

Moving some wood to another place, I disturb a large lizard – green, black and with a trace of yellow, the skin is as smooth as a snakes. I later find a couple of smaller ones of the same type. That night, a huge lizard, a tuk gae, is hanging around near the ceiling. It’s about a foot long, a third of a metre, and a rather washed-out grey with orange hoops. It ignores us. My father-in-law says he’s a familiar visitor, and I wonder where he hides during the heat of the day.

We go up the road to Somdet so I can check my e-mail. Somdet is the administrative centre for the region, but is in fact little more than a busy crossroads. The cultural centre of Somdet is the 7-11, and the social centre probably the Somdet Hotel. (by the way, did you know that 7-11 is so-called because they used to trade from 7am to 11pm. If you did, sorry for wasting your time. If you didn’t, you go to bed a little wiser than when you woke up, always a good thing to do).

We had a meal at the Somdet Hotel once, when I was still raw to Thailand. I noticed there were several girls putting on make-up and assumed they were singers with a band that would appear later. My wife told me I had mis-read the situation, and I learned how widespread Thailand’s legendary night life and love of P4P really is. We also stayed there once, before we bought the house, preferring that to sleeping on the floor at her parents house. I think we had a deluxe room because there was a sofa there which was actually more comfortable than the bed. The hotel gives a new meaning to the term ‘basic’, although Michael Palin has stayed in worse in countries that don’t pretend they are anything else than third world.

We finish the visit with a meal with the family at a Somdet restaurant. Eight people, 810 baht, including drinks. A little over $20. As Stick has said, many people don’t live here for the class and infrastructure, they live here because it’s cheap. We have with us two kids, although one is 26. She looks and acts like a western 14-year old might. I call her Little Voice, after one of Michael Caine’s best and most under-rated movies. She can’t sing like the character in the movie, as far as I know, but she rarely says a word, and even then it is barely above a whisper. Her brothers are the same. I swear they came and stayed with us in Bangkok for a long weekend, and I don’t remember them saying a word. Spooky, and for some reason unsettling and annoying. It would be easy to blame their parents for not instilling any personality in them, but the parents are outgoing enough and the father is even a school teacher and surely knows how to handle kids. Strange.

Packing to leave, I find a dragonfly’s wing stuck on the soap.