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By Tom Holmes
Editors note: In a series of blog posts, OakPark.com spirituality, ethics and religion blogger Tom Holmes recounts his experiences while travelling alone in Thailand towards the end of 2010. For links to all of the blog posts in this series, visit OakPark.com/ThailandTravels
I woke up refreshed. Temperatures at night in Chiang Mai in "winter" dip into the sixties. The breakfast at the Riverside B and B consisted of coffee, toast and fresh fruit: mango, pineapple and two of those short, fat bananas which taste so good.
I had the day all planned out. I was going to pick up where I left off on my train ride from Bangkok. I would get back to testing myself by trying to function alone in this foreign country.
After breakfast I would begin by hailing a tuk tuk. Tuk tuks are three wheeled open air taxis in which the driver sits in front with the stick shift between his legs and the two passengers—three if they are slender Thais—sit on a bench in the back. They make a sound like a loud baritone mosquito which burps, coughs and sputters when the driver lets up on the throttle.
As far as exhaust fumes go, let's just say tuk tuks would not pass EPA standards back in the US. They are loud and not very comfortable. Riders breathe in fumes for the whole trip, but they're great fun and a cheap way to get around.
I had my little speech memorized. "Pom bpai Wat Phra Sihng." Hooray! The tuk tuk driver understood me, so I tried some more Thai. "Thao rai? (how much)?" I asked.
"Hok sip baht (Sixty baht)," he replied.
"OK," I said, and we were off to the temple complex I had been to one other time on a previous trip. I remembered it being less overrun by tourists, which is what I wanted. I love hanging out at the temple complexes known as wats. They provide a feast of color for the amateur photographer in me, and they always have gardens or at least shady areas where it is pleasant to read, pray or just hang out.
"Wat Phra Sihng," announced my driver as we entered the temple complex. Anxious that he be patient with me as I struggled to find a way to get out of the back seat, I said, "Cha cha (slowly)."
"Cha cha," he repeated with a smile. He understood me again! Yes!
After hanging out at the temple for an hour or so, I found another tuk tuk waiting for a rider under a tree by the temple gate. "Pom bpai Suriwong Book Center," I said, this time with a little confidence. "Tao rai?"
"Hok sip baht," he replied.
"Am I bi-lingual or what?" I thought as I slowly climbed into the back seat saying, "Cha cha."
"Cha cha." He smiled.
I like shopping at Suriwong, because it seems to have the largest section of books in Chiang Mai in English about Thailand or by Thai authors. I loaded my back pack with eight new titles.
Back outside, I caught another tuk tuk, this time to the Anusan Market which is part of Chiang Mai's huge night bazaar. There I pigged out on an order of mango and sticky rice at my favorite open air restaurant and followed that up with a banana rotee from the Muslim lady who fries them up at a stand right next to the restaurant.
A final five minute tuk tuk ride and I was back at the Riverside guesthouse. I had made it through the whole day using, for the most part, only Thai. I felt in control. I felt on top of my game. I felt like I had prepared myself well for this adventure, practiced my Thai, was realistic in my expectations and now was experiencing the "thrill of victory". . .or something a little more modest than that.
The degree to which I feel in control determines, to a great extent, my internal emotional weather. When I feel in control, my spirits rise. Out of control and powerless, I get depressed. As I crawled under the blanket in my bed with the window above me open to let in the cool night air, I felt the same way I had felt on the overnight train from Bangkok. I had faced a challenge by myself and passed the test.
Two days later I tried more or less the same program, except this time the tuk tuk driver had a hard time understanding where I wanted to go. "Wat Suan Dok," I kept repeating.
Finally after about six tries on my part, his face brightened in recognition. "Wat Suan Dok!" he exclaimed, nodding his head.
"That's what I said," I thought to myself, knowing full well that I had mispronounced the name of the temple. It's hard enough for farang (westerners) to get the pronunciations right when trying to speak Thai, because it's a tonal language. The word mai, for example, can mean new, mile, right?, silk or no depending on if the tone is low, mid, high, rising or falling.
What makes pronouncing Thai words doubly difficult for me is my slurred speech caused by my PLS. Some folks even have a hard time understanding me when I'm trying to speak English!
When I got to Wat Suan Dok, I was disappointed. I couldn't see why Lonely Planet had recommended it. No photogenic scenes. No garden or even a shade tree to loaf under. I was hungry. The tuk tuk trip getting there had been long. I had gotten a late start, and in an hour the sun would be down.
I did my penguin waddle with my cane out to the road outside the gate and waited for a tuk tuk. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. This was a main road, Thanon Suthep, but no tuk tuk.
Finally a sawng taa ou (a pick up truck with two benches in the rear and a roof) came by, and I waved for it to stop. "Thanon Nawarat," I said to the driver, and after the fourth try he nodded. I crawled into the back of the truck and smiled at the other two passengers already on board. I didn't feel like smiling just then, but it is the Thai thing to do.
The sawng taa ou drove around Chiang Mai for half an hour, dropping the two passengers off and picking others up along the way. Sometimes I recognized landmarks. At other times I didn't. Minute by minute I was losing trust that the driver really understood where I wanted to go. Finally, in a panic, I decided to cut my losses and get out before traveling even further away from the Riverside B and B.
After crawling out cha cha and paying the driver, I looked around and realized that I had chosen to get out at a spot where there was little traffic. I stood at a corner, praying for a sawng taa ou or tuk tuk to pass by whose driver could understand my Thai.
After twenty minutes of solitary waiting, I began thinking of worst case scenarios. "I suppose I could curl up on the sidewalk for the night," I thought. "I have my jacket along in my back pack."
At that point a lady crossed the street and approached me. In Thai she asked me how she could help, and, in response, I repeated the same memorized speech I had given the sawng taa ou driver almost an hour before. No matter how slowly I spoke, she could not understand what I was saying. Then another woman crossed the street and tried to help. In a short time I was surrounded by six earnest Thais, all doing their best to help this stranded farang get to where he wanted to go.
When a sawng taa ou finally appeared, all six jumped in the road in front of the truck to make it stop. I repeated "Thanon Nawarat" to the driver with the same result.
Then the thought crossed my mind: "What would the Buddha tell me to do?"
"Calm down and detach," was the answer I came up with. Well, calming down couldn't hurt anything, so I gave it a try. All the while, seven Thais and I were playing charades and talking slowly trying to solve my problem
Then I had another thought. "What would Jesus do?" He certainly wouldn't be against calming down, I thought, and would probably tell me to trust him.
It was then that I had an inspiration. Instead of trying to tell the driver that I wanted to go to Thanon Nawarat—a strategy that was clearly not working—why don't I say a location that was very well known and was at least a lot closer to the Riverside B and B than I was now, so I said, "Night Bazaar. Pom bpai Night Bazaar."
An international break through immediately occurred. "Night Bazaar," everyone said in chorus in a mutual flash of understanding. The driver smiled and nodded. I crawled in the back, and within five minutes was at a place in the night market where I knew the tuk tuk drivers were familiar with the location of the Riverside guesthouse.
As I crawled under the covers, a wave of relief swept over me. I was home. Well, not exactly home, but at least a place where I felt I had regained a little control. I wasn't feeling down, exactly, but certainly didn't feel the buzz I felt the night before. More like humbled and sobered. A pattern seemed to be getting established.