Some Thai Encounters from 30 Years in LOS
To provide some ‘meat on the bones’ for your very special website in these very special times, here is an assortment of short glimpses into encounters with Thai people and situations over the last 30 years. Enjoy!
> The Overburdened Crone
1989/90 it was, I had spent my first week in Bangkok, walking around along Pechaburi Road from the First Hotel. The last day before my flight back I found a bustling market hall close by. Oh the sights, the things offered, the people milling around – I enjoyed that thoroughly, unfortunately at that time my Thai vocabulary could be counted with the fingers of one hand. My enjoyment of the ambience stopped when I oversaw a very old woman, clearly a long way past 60 years, trying futilely to navigate a hand truck with two gigantic rice(?) sacks up one of the perhaps 12-inch high steps in the walkway through the market. Just could not do. Walked over to her, smiled, bowed, tried a shy attempt of a wai – she did not in the last expect help from a farang. She just held on to the hand truck even harder.
Well, I was 40 years old then and in pretty decent shape. So I took a deep breath, set my feet a bit apart, grabbed the hand truck – and lifted it, the rice sacks, and her (clinging to the contraption) up that recalcitrant step. Absolutely astonished she was. Would never have believed a farang stranger would help her. Sat the whole load down, smiled and bowed again, and left. Continued enjoying the market ambience. From some 30 feet distance, I turned and saw her getting a new grip on her load, nodding to me with an ‘I still do not believe this’-expression and continuing off. Probably changed her concept of ‘farangs’ a bit…
> The Unexpected Picnic
1994/5 it was, and we were skipping some weeks of the European winter in Thailand. My wife and our son, 6 months old, plus our daughter-in-coming (born later, 3rd of May, 95) were relaxing at her family’s home near Surat Thani. I was taking a slight ‘detour’ via Chiang Mai, with a somewhat older friend from Kiel. By now, Helmut has been married to my wife’s sister for 24 years, but that was then only a vague concept in my wife’s and her sister’s minds. We two older ‘longnoses’ took some tourist tours around Chiang Mai, one of them with a lunchbreak in the extensive grounds of a ‘NamTok’, a waterfall. By that time, I had made some progress with the Thai language, could understand 25% of a normal conversation and get some simple facts across. Navigating around the naturally slippery site, I did manage to slip on a rock and more or less glide not too-gracefully into the outskirts of a Thai family group. My excuses ‘Sorry! KowtootKhrap’ and some Thai words were countered with a question why I spoke Thai with a southern accent – ‘Well, my wife comes from Bandon!’ (That being one phrase I knew real well). An open and very nice conversation ensued, somewhat haltingly on my side, with one of the older sons pitching in with some English when necessary. In no time my friend and I were treated to rice, some chicken sticks and boiled eggs, to go with our ‘NamSoda’. The elder family mother commented, she had been wondering about these two older foreigners, not the ‘standard’ combination of an old westerner with a young slightly short-skirted Thai ‘lady?’. They sure enjoyed my story of ‘how I met my wife’, and that I now wanted my friend to get an impression of Thailand and of my wife’s family – because he might by interested in my wife’s sister. Told all that in Thai, so Helmut did not understand it – no matter, he was very impressed by the friendliness and acceptance of that family, once they had seen we were a rather positive brand of tourists.
> The Language Barrier
That same winter, after a week at the family home near Surat, I accompanied Helmut back to Bangkok and the plane to Europe, he did not have as long a holiday as I enjoyed. And he was glad to have the help, because his Thai was (and is still) non-existent and his command of English very rudimentary, very much neglected in a German ‘Middle School’ around 1960. For my efforts, he offered to invite me to a nice ‘farewell dinner’ the evening before his flight. I suggested the Indra Hotel, had heard that they served a pretty good dinner along with an authentic ‘RamThai’ traditional dance performance. Well, he sure liked that idea and I set off to make a booking for the evening, while he rested in our hotel after the overnight train ride from Surat Thani.
Got to the Indra real quickly, obtained our dinner reservation and decided to browse the souvenir shop in the basement of the building, wanted to get a handful of postcards – such were not available in Surat without a lengthy excursion to Samui, good old ‘Bandon’ being no touristic hotspot. Two young Thai ladies of perhaps 19 to 22 years were in charge of that shop, all bows and smiles, this is Thailand. I just kept my mouth shut, nodded politely for a greeting and smiled too, taking a relaxed account of the souvenirs available and the many postcards on display. But soon I had to concentrate on maintaining my innocent smile – because these oh so friendly girls started commenting about that slightly older tourist. Speaking Thai, naturally, with a big friendly unwavering smile. Not the slightest suspicion I might be able to understand them, however. Their comments started slowly but soon became extremely ‘graphic’ (Short slightly sanitized version here): ‘How old may he be?’ – ‘What may he have done last night?’ – ‘How many working girls did he ****?’ – ‘How often and how?’ – ‘How BIG is HE?’ – Alas, I had found my postcards. Smiling I walked up to these two oh so innocently smiling beauties at the cashier. And I started to slowly count the postcards – in THAI! ‘Nyng, song, sam, … zipha, pom kitwa jetzip-ha baht, khrap?’ (‘One, two, up to 15, I think that will be 75 Baht, thank you’)…
If I had rapidly turned into a flame-spitting dragon their reaction during that sentence could not have been more drastic. Surprise, shock, flushing red faces, turning almost purple – utter panic, if they had been Japanese they would have committed double Seppuku with the letter-opener right where they stood. When I counted my money on the cashier’s desk, one of the girls managed to control her voice, stammered something like ‘How can you speak Thai? We never thought…’
I answered, very politely, told about my Thai wife, our son and the daughter-in-coming. And that what they had assumed about me was not my thing at all. Guess these two never under-estimated a tourist again. The evening dinner later and the ‘RamThai’-show were pretty good, but the first thing I will always remember about that day is the rapid transition of these two faces from graceful yet false smiles to abject but true horror…
> The Ragged Lady
1998 it was, Thailand again, and we had ‘dragged’ an older friend from our North-German village along, ‘Manny’ a farmer about six years older than me, but he had only celebrated his 16th birthday on that trip, as the 29th of February only surfaces every 4th year. He got along nicely with grandpa without a word of Thai, enjoyed the ‘time on the farm’ no end and took a short trip with me to Hadjai, 200 km to the south. One evening, shaking off the uncomfortable drizzling rain on our way from the hotel to find some dinner, we almost stumbled over a beggar woman in a wall recess. She was, unsuccessfully, sheltering a small child from the rain.
Surprised she was, no end, about the two older farangs who even shared an umbrella with her, more so when she found one could speak some Thai, her eyes lit up, especially when we gave her quite a generous handful of Baht for some meals and perhaps some shelter. I estimated her to be about 35 to 40 years old. Almost reluctant she was when we left, surely not just because we only had one umbrella.
One-two street corners away, when I sat down with Manny for a dinner, I asked him. ‘Manny, why do we not go back to that woman and invite her for a dinner. See what comes of it. I know you are very much alone. Not rich but abundant, sure. She has nothing. Maybe you could be each other’s rescue. I know you to be sometimes grumpy, sometimes difficult but a really good and decent soul. That counts here. I can be your translator. If necessary my wife can look at her and tell what can and what can not be. Seven years ago I dared to ask my wife after knowing her for three days. Sometimes there are crucial points in lives when you can switch tracks and change things!
Manny: Sorry. I am too old. She is too young. All the differences. Would be nice but, no I do not dare that…
About three years after that, Manny shot himself, alone in a hospital in Germany where he was treated after a breakdown. Loneliness can kill.
> The Mourning Friends
2005 it was, and my wife, I and our children spent some days on a Samui Beach. After a phone call to the family home, however my wife announced we had to cut our island time short by one day. The neighbor had died and the family wanted the pickup back to help with the logistics of the funeral. OK back to ThaRua it was, then. No problem.
That neighbor, on the other side of ‘SoiHa’ just 100 meters from the family home, I knew him since the first day I arrived in ThaRua, just for a quick visit some Thursday in January 1992, when I knew my wife for five days, had asked her to become my wife on Tuesday and booked a flight to her parents that same afternoon. His very young daughter (17 then) had married the day before and we met him while he was busy taking decorations and a stage for that wedding down, joking he could help our family when they would be preparing OUR wedding. Lucky I was there when a rather substantial bamboo construction crashed down and hit me on my head, which fortunately is rather solid. No problem. Over the years, I had been talking with this man and his family often, slowly increasing my command of Thai, many times he had joined me when I was fishing in Lung Jack’s pond just across SoiHa from his home. In 1999, however, he had a bad stroke and spend the rest of his life almost completely incapacitated. So sad to be absolutely unable to help him except with words and memories.
The first evening of the funeral week found me sitting on a table with three of his old friends, men from the village all around 60+ years. I was 55 then. Maybe my two ‘Beer Chang’ helped me to talk to them, in Thai, without any inhibitions – how I met him, laughing about that bamboo log banging my farang head, our talks about fishing and even about his daughter’s wedding and about how lucky I felt about my wife and her family. Never a sick buffalo or such there. And then I dared to tell these old men, long-time friends of the deceased, that I deeply hoped that Buddha, watching over the Great Wheel, would grant our friend a happy new life after the dismal six years as an almost-helpless stroke victim. Think I succeeded. Well, for the rest of the evening I did not have to get another beer myself. And perhaps that was the moment when I ‘graduated’ in the village from ‘Phorn’s farang’ to ‘OUR farang’. About an hour later, my wife made me return to the family home, ‘I should not drink these older gentlemen under the table!’
Well, when they bade me farewell, that really made me feel deeply and truly accepted there. Special. Another instance where working to become somewhat proficient in the Thai language can make a world of difference.
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