My little bungalow was located down the road from my duty station by about three kilometers. That meant that I had three methods of getting to and from work. 1) I could take a Baht Bus, which was the highway equivalent of a milk run train as it stopped everywhere along the road at the wave of a hand. 2) I could ride my bicycle, which was what I did most of the time. Or, 3) I could spend about five Baht (around a dollar) and take a taxi.
In a small bungalow about two doors down resided a cab driver. He could be found most all the time shining up his electric blue Toyota cab. It was a beautiful machine. He’d spent quite a bit of money on it for chrome accessories, loud pipes, window fringe, and lighting – lots of lighting. At night, his cab looked like an ocean liner with all portholes ablaze.
He and I became fairly good friends because he liked to go zooming around getting stuff for the Americans that lived on Soi Pongsak. He could also get me to work in about six seconds if I was in a hurry.
One evening, I came home from work and found his modest hovel had burned to the ground. He was pretty stressed out because he had to find a new place to live. Now, when I moved in to my bungalow, I took note that on the ground floor was an old pen where a water buffalo used to live and a little two-room place to live. I thought that if I talked to the Mama-San I might be able to let him move himself and his cab into the space.
I mentioned before that pretty much everything in Asia is run by the Mama-Sans. They wield the real power in almost any situation. If one gets on the good side of them, there is hardly any limit to what you can accomplish. I’d made very good friends with the owner of my bungalow by simply paying my rent on time improving her cash flow), taking quick showers (conserving our limited supply of fresh water), and employing several of her girls in my household (I didn’t reeeealy have to, but they worked for next to nothing).
Anyway, I asked her if this could happen and she said she saw no reason why not, so the driver backed his cab into the slot and took up residence in the little farmer’s hut under my house. After that, I don’t think I ever paid for a ride again.
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My skills at speaking Thai grew almost exponentially as I interacted with the girls around the house. None of them spoke any English at all except my Honcho (boss) housegirl, Nang. She was educated up to high school level and spoke a little English so between the two of us we taught each other our languages. One thing she was able to do was obtain some basic readers from the school her eight year old son, Supavit, attended. It might have looked a bit strange to see the three of us sitting in the living room taking turns writing on a small slate but I can’t think of a better way to learn any language than to start with children’s texts.
At first, the kids thought it was hilarious but then they devised ways of competing with me. I was always careful not to win too many times.
Before I left Thailand, her son spoke English very well but with the added skill of being able to write a lot of it also. After two months, I could pick up a newspaper and read headlines aloud. Thai is a somewhat complicated language, but fairly easy to learn if you apply yourself. It is what I call a ‘pictorial’ language. The phrase “good morning” is written thus: สวัสดี. As my comprehension of the language grew, so did my reputation. Soon, I had a lot of Army guys asking me to go along with them downtown to buy stuff.
It was interesting to go into a shop and listen to the clerks wondering among themselves how much they thought they could get from this American. In one store, we were haggling merrily away (in English) and then I started to shift into Thai. We went several rounds before they realized I was speaking their language. Surprisingly, they began laughing about it and reduced prices accordingly.
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As I said, when I moved into my bungalow, there was a vacant stall under it for a caribou (water buffalo). Once I got to know the Mama-San a bit more she told me she was planning on buying a neighboring paddy of land behind her house and planting rice there. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a buffalo to drag the skid for her. I knew where this conversation was going, especially when Nang got into the act, so I just went with the flow. After several crafty moves by mama-San, and a bit of bumbling gullibility by me, I helped buy the beast. Somehow, I had ended up part owner of a water buffalo.
On my days off, I might be found dressed in a sarong, with a reed hat on my head, riding the buffalo around as it pulled a huge, flat rake through the muddy water. Hey, it was actually a lot of fun! It also led to several other native activities of which I am still very proud.
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After about five months, Nang and I were good friends. As I said, she would accompany me downtown when I went on liberty and kept the bar girls from crowding me too much. She never drank, so she was available to make sure I got home in one piece. When I first met her, she seemed a bit shy, but began to open up more. One evening, she told me about her home town of Ban Non.
This is a tiny little hamlet of about 20 small huts on stilts, built in a square around a central meeting house. Her mother lives there as well as her various uncles and aunts. She and her son live in one of the rooms in her mother’s hut. She was pretty fired up because there was going to be a festival on the weekend and she wanted me and some of my friends to come up and visit. According to her, we would be the first Americans to ever visit her hamlet. I told her I could probably locate a few guys that would love to make the trip.
I did indeed gather six of us and luckily we were off-duty that weekend. I cautioned them that they had to be on their best behavior so we wouldn’t look like a bunch of hooligans. It was to be a formal affair; or as formal as it could get off in the hinterlands. I was not quite right about that.
Using my live-in cabbie, and four of his friends, we wound our way up the highway towards Nong Khai on the Laotian border; which was actually the Mekong River. About 8Km south of the border, we turned west on a deeply rutted and muddy track. After a kilometer or so, the track petered out into pretty much nothing. Two of the cabbies stopped and refused to go onwards so they parked and walked in. The rest of us kept going until we reached Ban Non. The two weren’t worried about their vehicles because any passerby was likely to be completely ignorant of how to drive a car.
When we arrived, the entire town gathered around our caravan. Throngs of kids were poking into every bag and box we’d brought. I found out later than there was a school just down the track that held around 60 kids ranging in age from seven to twelve. All of them had turned out to greet us. We were literally mobbed as we struggled to get stuff into Nang’s mother’s house.
The novelty of seeing us never really wore off, but it did wane somewhat. At least it was enough so we could get out of the house and wander around taking loads of pictures. The kids were fascinated by our cameras. I’d brought my Polaroid with me and around thirty packs of film. I must have gone through five packs of eight each taking pictures of kids. Lots of yelling and pushing ensured when a new picture came out of the camera as they all wanted to see themselves.
As the evening wore on, the kids were replaced by curious adults. At first, it was just ‘the guys’ that would ask questions, but between Nang and her mother, some of the wives joined the conversations. Pretty soon, after the application of about six or eight bottles of what could only be described as moonshine, we were all sitting in a big circle in the main room singing songs and having a grand old time.
Various musical instruments were brought forth and impromptu sessions sprang up. It was really amazing the sounds that three Khlui’s and two Sueng’s made. A Khlui is a vertical wind instrument that is made up of two vertical rows of hollow bamboo pipes with a central hole you blow through. Fingering holes in the pipes, various tones can be heard. A Sueng is sort of a lute and is plucked.
This is a Khlui. It’s like a giant harmonica.
What they didn’t know right at first was that I was recording them on a portable cassette player. I had about twenty minutes of their music so when they took a break, I played it back. That really got their attention. I was greatly surprised that Nang herself was a very good Mor Lam singer. Mor Lam is a kind of rural rap sung by the Lao people of northern Thailand. Every song tells a tale in conversational style of the various trials and tribulations of local folk. It isn’t unusual for each little hamlet to have their ‘own’ song. Most of them are highly romantic in nature – love won, love lost – that sort of thing.
As the night passed, more and more of the firewater was brought out and passed around. It came as four bottles to a straw bundle. To open the bottle, which was tightly corked, you held it vertical, and then struck the bottom hard with the palm of your hand. The cork would pop out and fly about the room. Sort of farmer’s nitroglycerine.
Things got a little blurry around two in the morning. We were all great friends now. I was out of Polaroid film, but by then but it didn’t matter. I have searched for a long time for those cassette tapes I made of our singing and haven’t found a one of them. It was a wonderful party. We spent the remainder of the night and woke the next morning to the sounds of crowing chickens and laughing kids. Yeah, they were back.