Angels watch over me in Nan

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Editor's note: In a series of blog posts, 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

The next morning I walked with my small backpack of just ten pounds the block and a half to the bus station early in the morning.  I asked a ticket agent for a ticket to Nan, the last small town on my eight day side trip from Chiang Mai.  The ticket man said the tickets to Nan were being sold right outside the bus.

I walked over on the platform to where the bus was parked and asked for a ticket all the way to Nan.  The agent looked at her clipboard, looked up and said, “No ticket.  All full.”

I felt my heart sink.  Hadn’t even thought of the possibility of there being no room on the bus.  What was I going to do?  What would Buddha say?  I tried to find a calm place inside me so I could sort out my options.  What would Jesus do?  I prayed.

The agent must have felt some empathy for me when she saw the crestfallen look on my face, because the next thing I knew, she was calling what sounded like a supervisor on the phone.  When she finished the call, she looked up at me and said, “have one space,” and pointed to a place on her seating chart.

I did remember to pray, “thank you,” not just because I had gotten a seat, but because it was a seat all the way in the rear of the bus. . . . . .right next to the bathroom!

It turned out to be a six hour trip, partly because the distance to Nan from Chiang Rai is 228 km but also because the bus, I swear, spent half of the trip grinding in first or second gear.  The road—following routes 1020, 1021 and 1091—includes hundreds of mountain switchbacks.  The views were spectacular. 

Mountains in Thailand are jungle covered all the way to the top, unless they had been deforested by tribal people, as many were, who were trying to scratch a living out of the slopes.  The mountains felt more like the Appalachians than the Rockies.

Nan felt as small as its population, 24,000.  There were no tuk tuks or sawng tae ous waiting at the bus station.  I approached one of the two samlohrs standing by.  We agreed on a price, and after ten minutes of pedaling the “driver” let me off at the Nan Guesthouse nestled in the trees at the end of a short soi.

“Mr. Tom?”  I nodded.  “We’ve been expecting you,” said a pretty young woman in excellent English.  After I took my shoes off on the porch, she led me to a pleasant room at the end of the hall.  She said, yes, they had a laundry service and that they had a little restaurant right across the soi. 

I thanked her and took my time getting settled in.  I was tired.  It always amazed me how sitting on a bus or plane for six hours tires me out. 

After dinner, I was still hungry--mainly for something sweet—so I waddled across the soi to the small restaurant.  The owner was having dinner with her two partners, and, in typical Thai fashion, she pulled an empty chair over to their table and invited me to sit with them.

After chatting for awhile, I mentioned that I was still hungry and asked if they had any desserts in their café.  The owner said that they had none, disappointed that she couldn’t respond to my request.  That itself would have made my day—a bright, pretty young woman wanting to take care of me. 

She then brightened up.  “They have banana rote at the night market,” she said.

“Oh,” I exclaimed.  “I love banana rotee.  But. . .I don’t think I can walk all the way to the market.”  What Thais call rotee are these crepe like deserts filled with sweetened condensed milk and banana or chocolate or both.

“No, no,” she replied.  “I’ll get one for you.”  She jumped in her car and in five minutes was back with a styrofoam box containing the sweet dessert I love.

“How much was it?” I asked.

“On the house,” she answered with another smile. 

The next morning I got up and asked the owner if she knew where a certain Christian church was located.  She said she did and called a samlohr.  The old guy pedaling away in front of me found the church.  A man standing at the front door greeted me in English as I crawled out of the rickshaw.  My friend Sanit had called him from Chiang Mai and had asked him to welcome me.

Even if I had someone to translate, which I did not, the sermon would have been way too long for me.  I’m amazed at the tolerance Thai people have for long winded speeches.  Still, it was good to have a church to go to, and as usual the members outdid themselves in welcoming me.

As most Christian churches I’ve been to are in the habit of doing, this congregation served a simple lunch after the service.  I sat with ten seminary students from Chiang Mai who had travelled to Nan to nurture the relationship between their school and the church by singing during worship.  At lunch I practiced my Thai on them and they practiced their English on me.  We laughed through the whole meal at our mispronunciations.

Following the meal, the pastor dropped me off at the Nan National Museum, housed in the early 20th century palace of Nan’s last two feudal lords, each with an impressive sounding name: Pha Jao Suriyapongpalidet and Jao Mahaphrom Surathada.  When I asked the lady at the desk how much it cost to enter, she said that it was a free day.

After the museum, I decided to walk across the street to the relatively small Wat Hua Khluang.  I took off my shoes and went inside the main wihan, mainly to get out of the tropical sun and get off my feet.  I had already done, what for me, was a lot of walking at the museum.  I was grateful to be alone.  That this wihan was similar to thousands of others in Thailand didn’t matter to me at that point.  I wasn’t looking for stimulation.

After resting in the welcome solitude for twenty minutes, I waddled outside to check out what the Lonely Planet called the Lanna/Lan Xang style stupa in back of the wihan.  As I inched my way carefully over the uneven paving stones, I saw a monk across the wat’s lawn sitting in a chair and reading a newspaper.

I resumed my waddle, looking down to make sure I didn’t trip.  Ten meters later, I looked up while stopping to rest, and I saw the monk holding a plastic chair in one hand and motioning with the other to walk across the lawn and rest under a tree.

I had never had a monk help me before.  Most of the older monks seemed to not even be aware of my presence.  Hundreds of every day lay people had helped me cross streets, find a sawng tae ou for me or give me directions.  I had started to form a bias that monks lacked that virtue of compassion that the Buddha had talked so much about.  But, here, one more of my generalizations was being proved to be wrong.

I rested in the shade for another twenty minutes, and since there really wasn’t much to see at Wat Hua Khluang, I thanked the monk, khap khun krup, and began my two block trek to a kind of town square where I hoped to catch a samlohr back to the Nan Guest House.

As I approached the gate to the wat, a small black and white dog joined me and escorted me across the street.  The little guy didn’t say anything, of course, but he seemed to have the mission of getting me across the street.  I reached the opposite sidewalk safely, and the dog kept trotting along with my waddle.  While I stopped to take a picture of another temple across the street, he sat down and waited for me. 

He followed me all the way to the busy intersection which I had to cross to get to the square.  I won’t say they he waved good bye to me as I moved across the street, but I did feel like we had formed something of a bond in that two block walk we had taken together.

When I entered the square, I spotted a little coffee kiosk which I couldn’t resist.  I, of course, ordered an iced coffee and the cutest blonde—and I don’t think she had colored her hair—young Thai woman smiled as she handed me my cold drink.  Then she ran around the counter and helped me to one of the tables under umbrellas set out in the plaza.  I tell you.  There’s no tonic like these omnipresent beautiful young Thai women to make a 63 year old feel thirty years younger.

After finishing my coffee, I went back into the kiosk and asked the blonde, who was now accompanied by another equally attractive coworker, where I could find a samlohr.  Her response was to take out her mobile phone and start to make calls. 

“You sit table,” she said while closing her phone.  “Samlohr come soon.”  At this point both young women helped me back to the table. 

Five minutes later, my transportation arrived, and as I crawled into the samlohr, I looked back toward the coffee kiosk and saw the two young women waving good bye to me with, of course, big smiles on their faces.

What would Buddha say.  I’m pretty sure that he would tell me that since there are no exceptions to the law of cause and effect, I must have done several meritorious acts to have earned all the good things that had happened to me during the last two days.

Jesus, on the other hand, would talk, I think, about guardian angels and grace and God being like a mother hen who looks out for her vulnerable chicks.

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