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See-Yaak Antarai




As reported on New Year's Day, customs released me from Don Muang on April 28th, 2006, and I was thoroughly elated when the taxi pulled into the TUB Mansion's driveway on Chaengwattana Road at 23:50, two days and ten minutes early.

The new night-shift security lad helped me drag my bags up to Room 222. Great! In pasa Thai, I could sing my room number, hong song-song-song. I took it as a sign of good luck, and remember next morning inventing a simple melody to voice to young Suphap, the day-time security guy I'd met the year before. He seemed pleased that I'd returned, and offered to ride me down to the local hairdresser on the back of his sooped-up Honda, but I'd promised my Mother I'd stay away from two or three-wheeled vehicles for a while, having been unconscious for much of the time before, when she'd sat by my bed in the hospital trying to estimate the duration of my life-expectancy. I walked down for the haircut.

THE THAI STROOP EFFECT

Suphap's friend from the in-house laundry, Mr Gai, spoke English, (little bit). Apart from getting his wife to press my work clothes every night, he also made it his job to help me remember taxi-Thai, and how to comment on fundamental weather conditions. Fon took (rain fall) hadn't become an issue at that time, but he taught me anyway. Left, right, go, stop, slow down taxi, cha cha!

I'd forgotten so much pasa Thai after being away for six months. The only two words I can remember how to read are fairly self-explanatory: one found on for-sale signs, and the other on those octagonal signs on one's left at minor intersections. It sounds like "Yoodt", but the colour of the sign is a good indication of what it's suggesting drivers do. Stop! Unless you're in a hurry, on the phone, or driving an expensive car, of course.

One of the most amusing linguistic nuances I noticed was that when catching a taxi, I would ask the driver to take a left by saying, "sai", and tended to indicate horizontally left by hand, to visually reinforce my direction. The word for "right" in pasa Thai transliterates to "kwaa" with a rising tone, as Mr Gai explained, and Benjawan Poomsan-Becker in her dictionary before him. The rising tone was what confused me.

A fellow named J.S. Stroop did some tests on human subjects in 1935, on an anomaly pertaining to names of colours written in different-coloured ink. It's known as the Stroop Effect now. According to Stroop, educated adults will significantly frequently identify the written name of the colour before the colour in which it is written, especially if you show them a deck of flash-cards in quick succession and ask them to answer what colour the ink is as quickly as they can, off the top of their head. If you can read, and you see the word "red" here, you may be inclined to think "red" before coming up with "white", the colour of normal text on the Stickman site. If you speak the lingo, but can't read it, you might look at the shapes on the web-page, determine that all three of them are white, and answer correctly, invalidating the Stroop Effect.

What I found funny, was that I couldn't help raising my arm at forty-five degrees when requesting a taxi to take a right-hand turn. The rising tone manifested into some spontaneous physical action, and I was incapable of pointing straight to the right if I was trying to speak Thai at the same time. You gotta laugh. There may be a thesis here for psychology students somewhere in this. Test whether foreigners enhance the five Thai tones with corresponding hand gestures. Gee though it really was good fun to get back to the brave old world again. I just couldn't tell right from …

TAXIS AND SCHOOL DAYS

On the Tuesday after the Labour Day holiday on May 1st, My boss's manager interviewed me again to determine whether the effects of my recent head-injury would interfere with the capacity to shout at my students. After the four-day seminar near the Victory Monument that they'd promised in 2005, I was back at the same school that I'd been assigned to that previous September, but my desk in the teacher's room was closer to the ceiling fan now. Lucky me, 22 classes of mattayom 2 to 6 per week – fourteen to eighteen year olds, rather than six and seven year olds that left me wondering how to begin in 2005.

Tuesday, May 16th was Day One on the front line. It took four taxis per day, as I was still alternating burger-gais with burger-moos from the 711 for lunch. I thought it wise to experiment with local street food only on Fridays, to digestively adjust gradually, and alleviate any need for Imodium during the school week. Getting through the school day in the hot season was enough fun without dysentery, so lunchtime meant a taxi to the 711 and back. With small tips, each fare cost 50 or 60 baht. 220 baht per day equates to 1100 per week, which equals 4400 per month, roughly. Five months of semester would add up to around 22,000 odd baht for the privilege of working three kilometres away from home. Hmmm. One could almost buy a decent second-hand motorcycle for that much, but I'd made a promise to my Mother.

In early May, I'd caught the bus down to Rayong to visit my old mate Dtey in Mabkha, and there she was, the little Suzuki I used to own, parked in the middle of the 'al fresco' restaurant while we watched the muay thai on TV and knocked back a few Chang lites before the raan-ahaan opened for the night. He'd fitted a pair of cowhide (I guess) handgrips, and replaced all of the gaudy decals I'd painstakingly removed with even more colourful ones. I didn't have the heart to accept his offer to return me the bike. Furthermore, the old, red, two-stroke Suzuki didn't look or sound quite as suitable for someone turning up to teach school in a shirt and tie, as it portrayed itself in 2005, roaming around the countryside as a backpacking, easy-riding tourist. I just wasn't comfortable with the idea of parking the old Suzy in the school carpark. It wasn't the best career move, and besides, I had promised my Mum.

I reimbursed Dtey the 2000 baht that he'd paid the police to retrieve it from the holding yard after my first crash, and true to character, he insisted on returning 1000. Haa sip haa sip (50-50), he said, recounting the loose agreement we'd often joked about, in those late-night, beer-driven, karaoke-bar conversations about how one day we'd both be rich and not too famous.

THE PROMISE BREAKS

On Thursday, May 18th, it rained. Fon took! Getting around school under my umbrella was no problem, but come 15:30, I couldn't flag a taxi to drive me home. Not quite hell, but there was high water. The three kilometres of soi between the school and my apartment had sunk beneath three or four inches of residual precipitate, and the spray from passing cars was not all that conducive to Mrs Gai successfully laundering my shirt and trousers. Off came the shoes for a barefoot walk home, for I needed them for work the next day. I'd saved fifty baht in taxi fare, but the transportation issue was starting to effect the overall objective of a normal modern working life. Hmmm.

For a few nights, I considered the need to get to Cambodia in the coming week. The problem was that no visa bus from BKK was likely to return me to Rayong for the night and then take me back to Nonthaburi in the morning. With two days off between school weeks, the idea of catching a bus from Ekamai to Ban Laem, then back to Ekamai, before hopping on another bus down to Mabkha, would really have cut into the Saturday afternoon TV time at Dtey's joint, I reckoned. I wouldn't have made it 'til midnight, which tended to defeat the purpose. Hmmm.

On Sunday 21st, taking both these issues into account, I diagnosed myself as suffering from a common case of motorcycle deficiency, and went for a walk around Pak Kret, just looking of course. Three or four kays down Tiwanon Road, I came across a Yamaha shop that was open on Sundays and met Mr Apichai. I showed him a photo of my old Suzuki and pointed out the lever on the left-hand handlebar, for I'd never bothered learning the Thai words for "manual clutch". It maybe "clutch manual", but I'd be guessing. If so, it would probably be pronounced "clut" with a silent "ch", but I wouldn't know without digging out Poomsan-Becker again.

A black, two year old Honda Wave four-stroke, four-speed, with six months of licence left on the sticker looked like the kind of machine my students would respect (in their own way) if I fronted up Monday to school on it. At 18,000 baht it was less than thrice the price of the Suzuki. The four-speed, four-stroke part of the equation made me wonder about the joys of long-distance, high-speed travel, but tonking around in Nonthaburi and Lak Si seemed to suit its design fairly well. I broke my promise and bought it.

The next five working days were a vast improvement on the first four. It probably only cost around 20 baht per day for 95 octane fuel, (which the Honda didn't need but I wanted it to feel loved), and between classes, I could put the helmet on (to set an example for students) and head off for a slow cruise down behind the school, out of sight, for a refreshing Marlboro and a breath mint. Compared with the 300 metre walk through the heat and mud puddles of the first week's smoke-breaks, the wind-factor alone, even coasting along at 20 or 30 km/h, was like cool, fresh air, and downwind of Bangkok, at that.

Come Friday night, May 26th, I'd already packed rucksacks for Cambodia. The bike had proven reliable for six days by then, and it seemed like it might make the trip down to the border at Ban Laem the next day for a visa stamp without any major mechanical dramas.

After dinner, I stopped in at a little corrugated-iron, cyclone-fenced, plastic-tabled karaoke place near the Chaengwattana-Tiwanon intersection, across the road from the Major Hollywood cinema complex. I remember dropping in there in 2005, and how the bridge construction had closed so many of those establishments down, for want of business. Who wants to relax and sing amid concrete dust, diesel fumes, carbon monoxide, and the sweet sound of jackhammers?

It's an absolute dive of a place, but that same bargirl still works there. She's the owner's mother, and I'd estimate the owner's age at late 50s. She's probably a tad older than that, being the owner's mother, but she looks after herself, and works every night until after midnight. She's the only bargirl I've ever felt it appropriate to wai to whilst sober. Pak Kret sure could teach Mabkha a few things about the art and science of karaoke mai sanuk. It's not a typical kind of fun.

By 21:30, I'd sung a bit of Dr Hook and a couple of Eagles numbers, the bottle of Chang was finished, my check-bin and respects were both paid, and it was only 800 metres home to get an early night. The plan was to set off for Chanthaburi at 06:00 on the next morning to beat the Bangkok traffic, do the visa thing, and head back to Rayong to check-in to the old apartment at Mabkha for the night, and catch up with Dtey that afternoon for a couple of beers.

I think I remember stopping at the Tiwanon intersection and waiting for the lights to change. Then I did the stupidest thing I can remember doing on a Friday night. Well, probably not THE stupidest thing, but up there on the podium. Thinking like an Australian in Thailand, (but in Australia on Friday nights, a green traffic light still means look both ways and check for oncoming idiots running through the red), the light turned green, and I looked straight up the road, setting the wheels in motion and casually glancing toward what might come flying through from the north side of the crossroad, on the left. I neglected to look down the road to the right before releasing the manual clutch, and thinking back, what a bloody stupid thing to do. Goodnight Sean, you ignoramus you.

THE SHORT-TIME HOSPITAL

Another day, another hospital. A dozen nurses were gathered around my bed, wondering if I was going to regain consciousness anytime in the near future, I suppose. I can't remember what hit me, nor even if anything actually did, but I doubt I'd even got out of first gear, so I assume that some foreign object must have struck me from the southern, right-hand side, where I'd failed to be looking. I could be wrong in my assumptions, but the dislocated right shoulder, and a rather nastily bruised right knee indicated that another vehicle hit me from the right, knocking both Honda and I diagonally forward to come to rest upon something on the left. Something hard, rigid and static, like reinforced concrete, that significantly roughed-up my forehead and face on both sides. Ouch! Knocked out cold again.

Consciousness gradually returned, and as I tried to communicate with the surrounding nurses, I noticed that I was still wearing the same jeans and shirt I'd dressed in after work – both now drenched in blood from neck to knee. I deduced that if nobody had cut the clothes off, cleaned me up and put me in an hospital gown, it may still be some time close to Friday night, suggesting that I may not yet have overstayed my visa, which was due to expire that Sunday.

Feeling quite drowsy, pasa Thai just wasn't at the forefront of my mind at the time, and I tried to explain in gentle English that I couldn't spare the time to be hospitalised that night, due to the next day's Cambodian commitments. "I go Camboh-di-yah too-mow-row". I paid the girl I assumed to be the senior nurse 2000 baht to cover the cost of picking my unconscious body up off the street and conveying it to the hospital.

Blow me down if she didn't return a few minutes later and hand back both notes. I'd say they thought I was more than a little crazy, (a fairly accurate diagnosis), but I do thank them all for their kindness, care and the honesty of whoever told her to reimburse me. Maybe it was her idea. I like to believe so. I thanked them all as gratefully as I could in my semi-conscious state, and found my way out the front doors to the carpark where surprise, surprise, the Honda was waiting patiently with the keys in the ignition and two casually-dressed young blokes were standing guard over it.

Kindergarten Thai was wandering back to my speech patterns, and I remembered how to ask which way was home, in a kindergarten kind of way. It's strange how geographically disoriented one can become at midnight in a new town after being unconscious for a few hours and taken from one place to another, unrecognisable place, just a few kilometres up the road from where one remembers being last located.

All I required was someone to point in the right direction, because all 360 of them appeared about the same to me that night. "Thanon Chaengwattana tee nai", I asked, which I suppose translates to something like "Where is Chaengwattana Road?", or else, they had a fair idea that I had finished partying for the night, and just wanted someone to show me the way to go home because I was tired and I wanted to go to bed. They pointed south in unison. Thanks guys. I wonder if they were involved in any way, back at the lights? Mai pen rai. Life goes on.

Honda carried me back home – it was not I but the Honda, which held a straight line that night. I could hardly see. Fifteen minutes later, I stumbled up the stairs to hong song-song-song and promptly passed out.

THAT BLOODY VISA RUN

The 6:00am departure was rather optimistic the next day. I slept until around nine, having a pretty strong headache, and trouble opening blackened eyes for all the congealed blood that had glued my eyelids together overnight. I just kept wanting to go back to bed, but Cambodia was waiting. After a long, cool, blind shower, I regained limited vision. The bike was covered in blood still red over black duco.

When I stopped to refuel at a station half-way toward Klaeng on Thanon 344, the driveway attendant looked me over, looked the bike over, pointed north-east and said, "Hospital." Quite a considerate bloke, I thought. I've always tried to make a point of stopping in there, even for half a tank of fuel or a bottle of green tea, when I'm down that way, but I never saw him again. That one word he said proves him a pretty good sort. He cared enough to mention something.

All three staff at the Shell station about a kilometre south of Pong Nam Rong were really kind. The manageress got some tiger-plasts and a bottle of iodine from out the back, sat me down in the office, and tended and dressed my head wounds before I had to show my face at the border. She wouldn't even take ten baht for the plasters.

I was thankful that she helped me to look as "touristy" as possible for visa purposes, and not like walking-wounded, but I wasn't exactly of immaculate appearance. A couple of the border guys on the Prum side in Cambodia were a bit curious and asked, "What happened to your face?" I'm sure the same applied to the Thai contingent, but no mention was made of it. They must have seen the blood all over the bike while I was away. Maybe they just didn't want me to lose more face.

Stopping back at that friendly Shell station, I thanked the lady who'd treated me so kindly, bought a coke from her shell-shop, gave her a very low and sincere wai, slumped down under their little gazebo, lit up a smoke, sipped on the coke, and gazed aimlessly out on the sun setting over the mountains for quite some time.

It wasn't until around 20:00 that the Honda delivered me the 200 odd kays back to Dtey's place in Rayong. So much for the muay thai show. Booking into my old room, hong see-nueng-gao, at the Natnum Service(s) Apartments, Miss Pueng, the night-manageress who'd nicknamed me Mr Kangaloo in 2005, had some really good news. Dr Kom was back from Sri Racha but now worked at the Rayong Orchid Hotel. She gave me Kom's number and I called her immediately, booked an appointment for early the next day, crawled up the three flights of stairs to my room and promptly passed out.

…..

I hope this is a good point to split the 2006 saga in half, for it's quite a read. I'll pop the continuation in Mr Stickman's inbox next week. Thank you for reading. See you in a week. PS: "see yaak" means "traffic intersection" in pasa Thai.

Stickman's thoughts:

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