Thailand 2013: To Korat and Beyond
Part 2 of 3
So far on my journey through southern Thailand, I have survived gout and the never-ending playing of bad Filipina music every time I got into a car. Now in Bangkok, we are getting ready to travel to Korat, the gateway to Isaan, and what would be my best and worst times on this trip to Thailand.
We are driving to Korat is to visit G’s family for a few days. After which we will make our way to Udon Thani and then to Nong Khai. We don’t leave until the afternoon and arrive late in the evening at her sister’s house. We go right to bed. When we awake, we meet G’s sister, a genial but business-like lady, who feeds us coffee and rolls. My wife tells me she once had a husband but he got in the way of business, probably with gambling and other women. She shows us around her house which is pretty big with lots of rooms but tt’s a typical modern Thai style dwelling with an ill-designed floor plan with weird furnishings. Afterwards we venture next door to visit G’s other two sisters and her mom. This house is much different as it appears to be well built and very well designed. It has plaster walls with teak edging and marble tile floors. We walk up a teak staircase to the second floor where there are two more bedrooms and bathrooms. The flooring here was all teak. I am really impressed and ask G who had built it. She said her sister had bought it from an architect who was on hard times. Ten years ago it cost 5 million baht to build, so I can’t imagine what it would cost to build today, even in Korat. As I would discover, G’s family had a knack for buying underpriced things. But as strange as this family seems, they were gracious hosts and could not have been nicer to us.
At this point I did a quick tally of assets. G’s sisters own these two houses, a condo at Cha Am, and two condos in Bangkok. Pretty impressive considering that there are no men around, only a group of strong-willed women. I guess men were optional in this family, with one lesbian sister and G relying on a string of geks for sexual comfort. But there is a hidden revenue stream that I never got a straight answer to. I believe it has something to do with gambling, but whatever it is, they were raking it in without having to do much work. I would later find out that my tally of assets were but the tip of an ice berg that includes farms, businesses, and many other investments. For cash-strapped farangs trying to live in Thailand on dwindling retirement funds, have I got some Thai women for you!
Now refreshed from a good breakfast and a shower, I assume we are off to Udon Thani. Instead, it is decided that the gals needed a touch-up at the beauty salon. I will tag along and get my nails done or something. We pile into G’s car for the beauty salon but instead, we go to a large market in the middle of town where we shop for a few items needed for the trip. Then we stop to pick up G’s friend who, as I later find out, will be driving us on our trip through Isaan. I didn’t ask why. This gal, a pleasant and talkative tomboy, drives us to – where else – a small restaurant for something to eat. No good journey in Thailand begins on an empty stomach. But the food is actually quite good for a small outdoor restaurant, especially the chicken wings which are lightly fried to perfection.
Now fortified for our journey, I again wrongly assume we are headed for the salon. Instead, our destination turns out to be a surprise G was saving for me. She knows I liked historical sites in Thailand so our first stop is to the Ban Prasat Museum and archeological site. Unfortunately, the museum is closed but the archeological pit is open. The pit contains pottery, skeletons, and other items from the original Thais settlers over 3,000 years ago. They were rice planters and the artifacts they used were amazingly similar to those used in the same area 100 years ago. At about the 1,000 year level, Buddha images start to appear, confirming that Buddhist philosophy has been shaping Thai culture for a very long time.
After that we travel to the Buddhist temple complex at Prasat Phimai. This Khmer temple was first started in the 11th century and was the prototype for the much larger Angkor Wat. It is an amazing site that has been remarkably restored and preserved. The only problem is the weather. With clear skies and temperatures approaching 40 degrees, it is dreadful to be anywhere outside of the shade. At about the time I reach my limit and am ready to go, the girls decide it is time for another fashion show with me as photographer. I perform my job reluctantly and when it is over, the sweat is pouring from me. The cold bottled water we get from a nearby stand tastes like champagne.
By the time we get back to the car, it is mid-afternoon so I assume the solon visit is out and we and our on our way to Udon Thani. But you know what they say about “assume” – it makes an ass out of you and me. Instead we are heading back to Korat for reasons not revealed. As it was getting on in the afternoon, I wonder why we are doing this. When we enter the city, I realize that in a car of strong women we will have to make at least one visit to Korat’s famous monument of Thao Suranari, the heroine who saved the city from a Laos invasion in 1825. Normally, this sort of side trip would be of interest to me but it means another hour in the heat and open space around the monument. Now late afternoon, we pile back into the car where I say a silent prayer in hope we are finally heading to Udon Thani. Buddha must been occupied with greater matters as instead we drive to the same spot where we picked up the driver. She promptly gets out of the car and waves goodbye.
“Sweetie”, I say to my wife, “I thought she was our driver to Udon Thani.”
“Oh no”, she replied, “She’s just for today. Now we go get another driver for Udon Thani.”
Now that familiar feeling of helplessness comes over me. Plans are being made and changed willy-nilly without any explanation (at least in English) to me. I feel like a jellyfish in a swirling ocean. I have written about this before, how I hate feeling completely dependent on someone else. When I first starting flying in commercial jets, I used to get very anxious for this very same reason – my life depended on a complete stranger in the cockpit. Now my rising anxiety is made worse as I am hot and hungry, and dying for a cold beer. A little anger is creeping in as well. A couple of jai yen yen’s under my breath and I started to calm down. I also relax with the knowledge that if I am hungry, my Thai companions most certainly are as well.
G drives to another part Korat where we pick up a middle-aged Thai man called Pee Dtum. He is somehow related to G’s family, once married to a sister or a cousin or something. He is normally a city bus driver but is taking leave from this job to drive us on this important journey to Isaan. He seems a nice enough fellow and so off we go. I pray again that we are finally on our way to Udon Thani and, Buddha be praised, we are.
In the ensuing Thai conversation, I do not hear those magical words of gin khao, so I decide that after days of abstention and with my foot near normal, I want a cold beer for our long trip to Udon Thani. This will also help numb the effects of a couple of hours of Thai quacking. I ask my wife to tell Pee Dtum to stop at the next shop that sold beer before we get on the highway. She relays the message and everyone nods in agreement. Only we don’t stop but quickly make our way on to the highway. I gently remind my wife so we stop at the next 7-11 gas station. We load up on snacks but I notice they don’t sell beer. My wife asks the clerk and she says there is a new law in Thailand that says if you sell gas along a highway, you can’t sell alcohol. That seems odd as I clearly remember the gas stations in the south of Thailand all had beer sales. No matter, Pee Dtum says he will stop someplace else.
And so we do at another gas station further up the highway where we are given the same story. So back on road again and I now remember my wife’s lesson from two years ago, “find another way.” I start to notice the small roadside shops with Chang signs. I suspect this draconian law restricting beer sales is only being observed by the big boys. I think G and the driver would pick up on this and stop at one of the small shops. Instead, they continue on their merry way. I start to count the shops and when I get to six, I ask my wife if we can please stop at the next shop with a Chang beer sign. She relays this to Pee Dtum. He looks to the side of the highway and realizes he has just passed one. He screeches on his brakes and does a major Bat-turn off the highway into the parking lot. He is still a few stores away so he makes a circuitous route through the parking lots to the Chang shop. My wife insists I stay in the car and but gives me one of those “wife looks” as she slams the door. She soon comes out of the shop with two large Changs. Now the car is silent as we make our way back onto the highway. I had done it again. My simple request had turned into a demand and now I had disrupted the karma of the car. I try to liven up the car up with a couple of funny stories and even stooped to complement G on such a wonderful trip we are having so far. It didn’t work very well, so I drink my beer in silence with my ear buds on.
I know this type of situation is, and will be, my problem in Thailand. Once a group gets a vibe going, a Thai would never think to disrupt it with a personal request. Thais would hold it in, like having to pee, until the time was right. It’s also like the old Buddhist story; it is both good and bad that so many of my wife’s friends want to help us when we come to Thailand. But sometimes it becomes their trip and not ours. My wife understands this much better than I ever will, but it is the way Thai groups work and if I want to get along in Thailand, I have to learn how to manage these situations better.
As we got closer to Udon Thani, the vibe in the car gets better and soon everyone is happy again. We arrive in the city around 8 PM and check in at the Prajaktra Hotel. This is a pretty nice Thai hotel with lots of staff on hand. We drop the bags off in the room and set off into the night. The girls announce they have some shopping to do so they drop us guys off at the Chom Chan Beer Garden. This huge open air facility has lots of tables with a stage designed for small to medium sized concerts. There is nothing going on this evening except the usual loud music being piped through the large speakers. Not many patrons either. Pee Dtum and I order some food and beer. He speaks a little English but mostly we just smile at each other as we look around the pavilion. Later on I start chatting with the waitress. She tells me that on weekends it’s much busier with lots of farang men. Then she makes it very clear that she is available to “take a walk” with me. I politely decline but if the lovely Chang Beer lady had made the same offer … just kidding. But the wife and G arrive on cue to chase the unchaste waitress away. We head back to the hotel and retire.
At this point in my story, it’s a good time for a foot update. Since taking the steroids, drinking 3 liters of water a day and reducing my beer intake, the foot is looking quite nice. I am now able to wear regular sandals instead the rubber flip-flops I have been wearing since the gout flare up. I decide I am ready to resume daily beer intake but only a limited amount, probably a couple of pints, along with a lot of water and the anti-inflammatory medicine.
The next morning we linger over breakfast as we prepare for our next destination, Nong Khai. It is less than an hour away so we make a quick stop at a small silk market along the way. We buy a lot of gifts for our friends at really low prices. After we leave, I am suddenly struck with a huge déjà vu stick. These are the streets and highways from earlier days, 10 years to be exact, when I traveled them with my old girlfriend. It floods my mind with memories, some good and some bad, of when I was in love with a greedy Isaan princess. Now revisiting these same places, only this time with an equally lovely but good-hearted woman, I relax back into my seat and thank my lucky stars.
After we enter the city of Nong Khai, we immediately go to Wat Pho Chai. This is a really beautiful Thai temple with lots of wonderful Buddhist images and murals. I don’t know exactly why, but I feel like there is something special about Isaan temples. The Buddha statues appear more reverent and the pictures more pious. It’s the same with the monks and people at the temples; their strong devotion to the Buddha seems almost palpable. Is it because of their poverty or isolation from the rest of Thailand that has made them more devout? Even with a growing Thai economy, Isaan still lags behind. Does this cause them to lean much more on their religion? Or is Khmer culture more devoted to Buddhism than Thai culture? I really don’t know.
Our lodging for the next two days in Nong Khai is a guesthouse owned by a friend of G’s sister – Pee Noi. She is a breast cancer survivor with an air of imperturbability that makes me immediately like her. She will need it with this problem-prone farang around. Her guesthouse, Baan Mae Rim Nam, is right on the promenade along the Mekong River and less than 20 meters from an entrance to the famous Sadet market. It is also within easy walking distance to the many restaurants along the promenade. The rooms are spacious with free coffee and Wi-Fi. If you are on the 2nd floor, like we are, the room has a small balcony which affords you a beautiful view of the river. Pee Noi has a small staff that keeps the place very clean and they are always on the lookout for any requests you might have. One lady did my laundry and ironed my clothes in record time. In all, it’s a wonderful place to stay and very convenient to a lot of Nong Khai attractions.
After we unpack, we spend a very sweaty afternoon in the Sadet market. Even though it is covered, we feel every bit of the 40 degree weather. It has many small shops but it is very underwhelming, especially in the variety of things to buy. We did find an excellent bakery and later, while trying to find a place to sit down to wait for the wife to finish shopping; I find a small beer shop. After a quick shower in the room, we head for the well-known riverboat dinner, less than 100 meters from the guesthouse. At the floating dock we chat with a lovely Thai woman who apparently owns it along with her German husband. They have recently revamped the boat, a long process she said, and had only recently re-opened for business. I was last on it 10 years ago and back then, I had second thoughts as to whether I would survive the night without a swim in the Mekong. Now it is very much improved so I had no such concerns this evening. As I would later find out, I should have been more worried about another problem on the boat.
Since we are the first party to arrive, the owner asks if we could wait a little for more guests. We order drinks and the girls start another fashion show on the dock. As I sit watching, I notice a western woman bounding down the stairs. She immediately starts talking to the owner. A few minutes later, she notices me and makes a beeline right for us. She’s a middle-aged American, wearing scruffy shorts and shirt, and carrying a large backpack. In all, she looks like a school teacher on a backpack trip. She tells me she has been in and out of Thailand for many years. She claims to speak Thai and is now looking for NGO work. I ask what skills she has but I don’t a clear answer back. I mention I had recently worked for IBM and she says she once knew the IBM country manager for Thailand, an American friend of hers. Now my bullshit radar starts beeping. IBM, like many multinational companies, always uses host country citizens as their country managers for their local customer contacts and political connections.
Now we were ready to cast off our boat for our floating dinner. We find a good table in the middle of the boat and after we sit down, she approaches us and invites herself to our party. She is nice at first but later becomes a real pain-in-the-ass as she talks constantly about herself. I notice her Thai is pretty basic at best, as she struggles with the few questions my wife asks her. After she eats our food, she drifts off to harass another group and we are able to enjoy ourselves. All the different dishes we order are actually quite tasty, so it was a nice night out except for the pest. As the sun starts to set, the air cools and the light reflects off the water to create a wonderful atmosphere as we cruise the Mekong. After we dock, the pest makes a lame attempt to contribute to the meal after I had already paid the bill. We say our good-byes and I say “good riddance” under my breath.
Now walking slowly along the promenade in the cool evening air, we stop at a café and talk to an elderly lady who is obviously very wealthy. She is a friend of G’s family and owns several businesses in Thailand as well as Laos. She is another strong and wealthy Thai woman sans husband. When she hears we will be going to Vientiane the next day, she says she will make a few phone calls for us. I am not sure what that means but I guess she had some friends high up in the Laos government.
I am really excited about our trip to Laos the next day. I have never been there before but I hear it is slowly pulling itself out of poverty via the Vietnamese model of limited capitalism with a strong communist hand at the helm. As I would soon find out, it will be a trip back in time to what Bangkok may have been like during the Vietnam War. At least, that’s what it felt like to me based on the stories I read.