Return To Thailand Part 2
• Radisson SAS Lansheng Hotel
• Tian Xiang Hotel Shanghai
• Astor House Hotel
• Bailemen Hotel
Part 1 of this story.
What is southern Thailand like? I know they wear different field hats and live close to Burma but how much different are they from the Isaan people I knew so well? If my wife is any indication they will be a gentle, smiling people that meet life head-on.
I was hardly in a mood to judge anything, though, as I had rolled in the previous night at about 3 AM and we woke up at 7 AM to get ready for the trip to see my wife’s family in Bang Saphan Noi. My wife’s friends kept making small
comments about the previous night I spent in Bangkok’s naughty bars; and then they would break out in laughter. I reassured them that my conduct had been pristine but this only brought on more laughter. Oh well; all men are painted with
the same brush in Thailand when they go out at night by themselves.
Our first stop would be Cha Am beach for one night at the vacation condo of the family that rented us the apartment we were staying at in Bangkok. Cha Am beach at first glance is a quiet beach community with its low rise buildings and an apparent easy atmosphere. My friends are driving through this looking for a restaurant that someone has told them about. I expect we will stop at any number of small restaurants; instead we drive through the beach community and back inland and then back towards the ocean again. When we stop we are at a small village and after I get out of the car, I realize it's a fishing village. It looks rather primitive with small buildings and old shrimp boats docked nearby. I can’t imagine it hosts the wonderful restaurant my friends have told me about. We are parked close to the fishing boats and enter an open air restaurant with live crabs in a small container on the floor. We order standard Thai seafood and soon out table is filled with wonderfully prepared dishes that are truly worth writing home about. After an hour of gorging and a couple of Singhas, I am ready to tackle any funeral.
After lunch we go back the way we came only this time we continue south along a road near the beach. We arrive at a large condo building overlooking an empty part of Cha Am beach. We have a condo on the 10th floor with a beautiful view of the ocean and the empty beach below. Did I say empty beach enough times because that’s what it was. Although it was a wonderful place to stay there was absolutely nothing around us. This is an ideal weekend getaway for a family but what if I wanted a beer in the middle of the night? Or a quick massage? I nearly panicked but lucky for me jet lag kicked in and I was safely ensconced in bed at 8 PM. Before closing my eyes I could see the lights of Pattaya on the horizon. This would be the first fully rested night for me in Thailand and it came at the right time. Tomorrow I would see my wife since she left for Thailand along with all of her family for the first time ever.
We started early in the morning for Bang Saphan Noi beach. As usual, my friends had not prepared for hungry farangs in the morning. Milo can only last so long and after many requests they stopped at a 7-11 which was miraculously open at 6 AM! There I bought a croissant and a choco-café. Note to Thailand: please get on-board with western style breakfasts – everything else about your country is wonderful except this. We were making good time and soon we arrived at a small group of houses along a beach near Bang Saphan. I am sorry that I do not have more details but I was a victim of “let’s only tell the farang enough information so he thinks he knows where he is but really doesn’t” scam. This resort was a Thai establishment run by a very nice Thai family. As we pulled into the driveway, a large number of Thai people came out of one of the cabins and greeted us. They were mostly relations to my wife’s ex-family and mostly children. These folks still loved my wife even after the divorce because her ex-husband was such a jerk and my wife was such a kind spirit. Anyway, they greet us and are perfectly wonderful people. Immediately, goggles and life vests are handed out as apparently we are late to meet a boat for a morning of snorkeling. Somewhere in this chaos I get to say a few words to my wife like “nice to see you” and “everyone at home misses you” but she is in the spirit of the moment. She is also with her sons who still live in Thailand so I understand that I will be in the back seat of this trip for now.
Even in this throng of people, my wife shoots a glance at my ring finger and with an uncharacteristic cold voice asks where it is. I have been dreading this moment and I had hoped for a better setting to explain, but I stammer “I didn’t know it was missing until the taxi arrived” and “I am sure it’s at home or the gym” and “I’m really sorry, sweetie”. Her blank stare doesn’t change. Then she says we can talk about this later. Uh oh; that’s the worst response I could have hoped for, as it means I will be getting the slow torture of discussing this over the course of weeks without resolution. I accept my fate without complaint and grab a pair of goggles.
Sure enough we are all hoarded into a long boat that has come ashore on the beach, which is about 100 feet wide of hard packed golden sand. As I look north and south, the beach is wonderfully undeveloped except for other scattered homes and small resorts. Coconut trees are everywhere. Behind us are the mountains that divide Thailand from Burma. Looking out into the blue-green Gulf of Thailand waters, I can see some islands in the distance. In the now hot sun I suddenly realize that this is a really beautiful setting and in other circumstances would be a nice place to relax for a few days. As the boat is pushed off the beach, I stop daydreaming and join in the fun with the others. After a few minutes of motoring it becomes clear that our destination will be islands in the distance.
The ride to the island took about 45 minutes and I passed the time looking at the scenery and chatting with my Thai companions. As we moved away from shore I saw that the coast was shaped in a half moon with the southern tip jutting out to sea as a small, rocky camel back. Staying with the animal analogy, as we neared the island it looked more and more like a turtle. The island has a mostly rocking coastline with lust vegetation. As we got closer, I could see one small beach with huts above it. My wife said they can be rented out for overnight visitors but could not explain how they got food or water. I could also see rich coral formations under the water and when we dropped anchor, I could also make out schools of fish. We gathered our goggles and jumped into the warm water. The coral was very much alive and I saw more than 20 different kinds in the clear water below. My Thai friends quickly figured out that if they threw some bread into the water close to someone, they would be surrounded by small fish. So a playful bread fight broke out for about 30 minutes much to the delight of the fish. After lunch, ours and the fish, we went to a smaller island and enjoyed the snorkeling there just as much.
When we returned to the small resort, everyone showered off and started to pack. Aren’t we were staying here? No, we are going to another resort (the farang in the dark game) that was much better. It certainly was. This resort was newer and much more beautiful. The rooms were well designed in a Japanese style, and everything worked including the TV and the shower. There was a common room so my Thai friends immediately assembled there and started playing a card game like blackjack only with Thai rules. I walked to the main building where there was a restaurant with doors and windows open. I asked the waitress for a Singha and noticed a well dressed Thai woman sitting nearby smiling at me. I walked over and greeted her in Thai but I soon ran out of words. No problem; she was still smiling as I said goodbye and I took my beer for a walk. Nearby, was a beautiful pool in front of a half completed new set of suites. Looking out on the beach I could see it had light brown sand and was over 100 feet wide. It too was empty of people and but very beautiful with large coconut trees and lush undergrowth. Looking back on the resort grounds, they were well maintained and thoughtfully gardened. This place was much different from the other resorts I had seen in the area.
Later, I spoke to Toy who is the son of the well dressed woman. Their family had owned the property for many years and had recently decided to build this resort. They had also decided not to just throw something together but instead brought in designers and architects from Bangkok. Toy was helping to manage the property even though he had studied Electrical Engineering in college; he will soon be studying real estate. Anyway, this is a great place to stay to get away from the noise of Bangkok and much quieter than other beach destinations like Pattaya or Hua Hin. It is called Ban Sai Thong and I highly recommend it.
At around 4 PM my wife got after me to shower and change into black clothes as the monks were coming soon. What? Too late, she was gone in an instant. I did as I was told and soon all of us piled into our cars and started driving west towards the mountains. Looking at all the coconut trees and empty shells and small houses, I braced myself. It would be the first time I had been to my wife’s house and met her family. Although her father had been a teacher, he made little money yet had raised six children. Expecting a similar small rural house I was surprised when we pulled into a larger but still modest house of wood clapboard. There were large tents on either side of the house and the yard was filled with coconut trees. As we got closer I noticed a small old woman sitting outside at the front of the house. It was Goong’s Mom and I gave her a deep wai and my best sawadee krap. When I raised my head she was all smiles and touching my arm as if to make sure I was real. As the next few days passed and I spent more time with her, I would realize where my wife got her gentle disposition and warm smile from.
My wife asked me to walk her mother up the hill to the larger tent. As we walked slowly I was followed by my wife and several others. The edges of the tent were draped with large cloths almost like bath towels tied in the middle, with various Buddhist images and Thai writing on them. Inside the tent there are many plastic chairs with a low level stage at the front. Off to the side of the stage is a mass of flowers and in the middle a picture of a distinguished Thai man – my wife’s father. Behind the picture is a raised box of tiled designs where his body is kept according to my wife. In front of the flowers are mats and pots of sand where many candles and joss sticks are burning. Along with the others I kneel three times and pray with lit joss sticks. My wife explains that since her dad died, the members of her temple had set up the tents and the monks had prepared her father’s body and placed it in the box. That was a week ago and since then many neighbors, friends and family have come here to pay their respects.
Khun Mere (what I now call my wife’s mother) kneels on the mat in front of the flowers and I take her picture. Soon others join in for pictures and it becomes one big photo op. We walk back to the house and then around to the other tent. Here, sitting on large raised tables are six or seven women busily preparing food. One of them has a fire going with a large metal wok on top. The smell of the fire and food is wonderful and soon I am offered food and a beer. Apparently, the women have been here all week as well helping to prepare food for all the visitors. I get to meet the rest of my wife’s family and they are all gentle, smiling people just like my wife. I finish my food while the sun sets in the mountains in front of us.
Soon we are again walking back to the other tent only this time everyone is in tow. Kuhn Mere sits in one of the chairs directly in front of the stage along with her sisters. We sit behind them and after a while the entire tent is filled with at least 100 people. Some pickup trucks arrive and nine monks pile out of the cabs, walk to the stage, and sit down facing the people. A well dressed gentleman picks up a microphone and starts to speak. After a while, the microphone is placed in from of the first monk and the chanting starts. The ceremony seems just like all other ceremonies I have experienced at Thai temples, although I am sure the words and chants are much different. At the end or the ceremony the monks leave and everyone else heads down to the other tent except for a few people who have decided to start a game of high-low behind the tent. Now all the raised tables are filled with many Thai dishes and large bowls of steamed rice. At the end are coolers full of water, fruit drinks, and beer. A line queues up at one end and everyone gets a plate of food and something to drink. We find a place to sit and eat their food, and after an hour or so most drive away.
About this time I am invited to a large table of men with beer in their glasses. I know some of them as my brothers-in-law. I smile widely and they eye me carefully. One of my BIL’s speaks a little English and offers me a glass of beer. I accept and offer up a hearty “chawp dee” before drinking. Then I keep quiet. They talk a little amongst themselves in Thai, and then my BIL asks me a question about my job. I tell them I work for XXX, Inc. in America but I like Thailand better. This causes pleasant laughter, more Thai discussions, more poring of beer, and then a new question for the farang. This goes on for two hours. I feel like I am playing a drunken game of stump-the-chump but I know this is the way it is for a newcomer in a Thai group, especially a farang. Gradually the stares and the smirks stop and the questions become much friendlier; I guess I have passed the initiation. I get poured into the car and off we go to the resort for a good night’s sleep.
The next morning I get up early as I am still not used to the time zone change. I walk around the resort and admire how well it is designed and put together. Soon the restaurant is open and we feast on rice soup, cheese toast, and coffee. After a shower and a new set of dark clothes, we are off to khun Mere’s house. Once there, I wander up to the tent and see that the flowers and the picture are being loaded into small trucks. Then, family members carry the tiled box and gently put it into another truck. Soon we are all rounded up into the cars again. This time we are going to the temple.
The temple that my father-in-law went to his entire life of 84 years is a large compound with many salas and buildings of ancient bearing. We park near one of the larger salas and walk into an area with many plastic chairs facing a large stage. The flowers and box have been placed to side in front of an elevated stage that leads to what looks like a large oven door. After a while, the monks walk into the sala and seat themselves on the stage. This time it is 30 or more monks, some of whom were at the ceremony last night. The room is filling up with people and like the monks there are many more of them. As the crowd quiets, a dog runs across the stage. This temple dog has decided to join us and his appearance causes a few of the men to try to shoo him away but it only makes the dog more determined. The dog then runs to the first monk and puts his head in his lap in what must be a familiar act. This makes the monk smile and the men retreat. The monk gently picks up the dog and puts him behind a door. No one laughs at this comic episode but they are all smiling.
The ceremony begins with the monks chanting and is similar in nature the ceremony from last night. This time when the chanting stops, the monks queue up in front of the flowers. One by one, they are handed a small package of what looks like folded clothes which they then place on a small table. This is then done by an older family member. This goes on for a while with the few packages reused each time. Then the monks queue up again only this time on the other side of the flowers and in front of a table with many small, white flowers. Each monk picks up a flower and then walks to another table in front and drops it. The close relatives queue up behind the monks only they wai before dropping the flower. Next everyone else gets in line to do this little ritual. My wife is busy handing out silver plastic bowls as each person leaves. When almost everyone has left, a group of Thai men lift the box containing the body off the stands and carry it into the oven. Soon a fire is lit and the door closes. Curiously, smoke starts to enter the sala attic as the short chimney does not go above the roof. As the sala fills with more smoke, we get into our cars and head back the resort.
The next day we meet at my wife’s family home to say goodbye to everyone. As instructed by my wife, I have brought a fair amount of Thai baht with me and now I am giving it to khun Mere with a deep wai. She smiles widely and even gives me a hug. We get back in the car and head towards Bangkok, only this time with my wife in tow.
During this entire visit to the south, except for some playful pinching under water while snorkeling, I have not touched my wife nor has she touched me. In fact, she has barely acknowledged my existence. That’s OK; I realize this is proper etiquette for Thai couples in public especially when a Thai woman is with a farang. I also know that Bangkok is one day away and a new etiquette will be in play.
As we settle back in the car for our long journey to Bangkok, my wife looks over at me and says, “Now, tell me how you lost your wedding ring”. Oh my; this is going to be a 15 round match for sure. I give her my best idiotic smile and start my story, “Well, I went to gym to keep fit so I would look good for you, sweetie, and I must have …”. Please driver, can you go a little faster, I pray.
Next: one more adventure into the naughty areas of Bangkok in part 3.
Any guy who can talk hi way out of a missing wedding band is truly a champion.