A gentle roller coaster ride in Phayao

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Editor's 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 as the sun was just peeking over the horizon, because the bus for Phayao, the next stop on my trip, left Lampang early in the morning.

I asked the owner of the Riverside to call the sawng tae ou.  As I waited by the gate, I remembered how, in my opinion, the driver had overcharged me the day before.  I suspected that he and the guesthouse owner were colluding.

When he arrived, I asked him, “Tao rai satahnee rot may?”(How much do you charge to the bus station?)

“200 baht,” he answered.

I hadn’t planned on saying what came out of mouth next.  “100 baht,” I replied with a firmness and authority I had picked up from teaching school for three years.  I think what happened is that this feeling of being taken advantage of had built up enough that I found myself taking a stand.

“125 baht,” he said immediately.

“OK,” I said as I crawled into the back of the red pick up.  The ride only took ten minutes, confirming the rightness of my bargaining stand.  “The turkeys,” I kept thinking all the way to the bus station.  “Those turkeys were taking advantage of me the other day.”

I thought about a woman on the mission trip I was helping to lead a month before who had said that she just couldn’t make herself bargain at the night bazaar with these people who make so much less money than we Americans do.  Bargaining to her was reducing their already low earnings.

I felt a twinge of guilt, but then I thought, “I didn’t make the rules.  They did.  This is their game, not mine, and in their game they were exploiting me, and they knew it.”

When we arrived at the bus station, I wound up giving the guy 150 baht.  The amount of money wasn’t the issue.  I wasn’t an ugly American imposing my values on them.  They had been messing with me.  What felt good was the realization that I was no longer a completely naïve rookie in this game of navigating through Thai culture.  I had, after all, a little control of how things went on this adventure. 

The four hour bus trip from Lampang to Phayao followed routes 1035 and 120 for 130 km in basically a northeasterly direction.  We went through two small towns, Chae Hom and Wang Nuea, and passed thousands of rice paddies in the countryside.  It was between the harvest and planting seasons, so many of the paddies were tan with stubble.

Some farmers could be seen turning the ground over in preparation for planting with a plow pulled by a water buffalo or more commonly by a two wheeled tractor.  I allowed my western eyes to view the scenes as romantic—salt of the earth people working the land in harmony with nature and all of that.  In my head I knew better.  My reading of Thai stories had made it clear that rice farming was hard, back breaking work.

Phayao has population of 21,000.  The first two Lonely Planet guidebooks I had bought in years past didn’t even mention it.  That’s what I wanted, a small town with few tourists and a taste of the “real Thailand.”

I soon discovered why it hadn’t been included in the travel books until recently. There wasn’t much to see.  And I thought Lampang was boring.  I checked in at the Tharn Thong Hotel and paid my 170 baht ($6) bill up front.  My room was a windowless cement box decorated by graduates of the Alcatraz school of home decorating.  The shower had no hot water, which was not a surprise since several of the lower rent places I’ve stayed at had the same set up.

Since it was early afternoon, I had time to explore one wat before dinner.  Lonely Planet said that Wat Sri Khom Kham was worth a visit, so I asked the young lady at the desk to get me a tuk tuk.  What arrived was a 100 cc motor bike with a side car driven by a guy way older than me who spoke no English.  Thankfully, I was able to communicate where I wanted to go.  Even though he couldn’t get his rig to go faster than 20 mph, it only took ten minutes to get from the hotel’s side of town to the wat.

What I saw when the old guy dropped me off was a wat which looked like every other small town wat I’d ever seen.  The one exception was that this one looked a little newer than most which meant it didn’t have much character and there were no shade trees to rest under.

I had to admit that the forty foot tall golden Buddha in the wihan was impressive, but I’d seen larger.  One nice thing was that none of the visitors to the temple were farang.  All seemed to be Thai.  I was getting a taste of the “real” Thailand, but so far it wasn’t very interested.

After taking a picture of the gleaming golden statue, I poked around the wihan where, in a corner, I discovered some coin operated machines.  Each one had the picture of an older monk printed on the direction panel.  As I was trying to figure out what they were for, I saw a women insert three ten baht coins in one of the gizmos and push a button.  As she knelt with her hands together in a prayerful wai, I heard a voice coming out of the machine in what sounded like a blessing.  A minute later, the voice stopped, the woman stood up, waied again and left the wihan.

“So this is the real Thailand,” I muttered to myself.  “I wonder what the Buddha would say about what I had just seen.”  I thought for a moment and remembered what Bhikkhu Buddha Dhatu, the monk I had talked to in the Bangkok train station, had said.  He had been critical of the way many monks were behaving, not strictly following the 227 precepts they were supposed to observe. 

In The Truth Of The Messengers he had written, “Many temples have become marketplaces where Sangha members sell prayer beads, images of the Buddhas. . .and even decorations for the altar at home.”(p. 22)

I decided that I had had enough exploring for the day and walked out of the wihan to temple gate where I waited for a tuk tuk, or whatever you call that motorbike which had brought me here.  After fifteen minutes, a police officer approached me and asked if I needed a ride.  He spoke about as much English as I spoke Thai but that turned out to be enough.  He ran across the street to a market and returned in five minutes followed another motor bike taxi.

I tried to make him understand that I wanted to go to ran ahan Chuechan which the Lonely Planet had recommended as a good place to eat.  Nothing worked.  Finally I said, “Thanon Kwan Phayao,” the road on which the restaurant was located, and that rang a bell.

Turns out that Thanon Kwan Phayao is a miniature version of Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.  Instead of running along Lake Michigan this thanon took us past Lake Phayao.  No buildings spoiled the view along theside of the road by the water, while the inland side was lined with seafood restaurants for four blocks.

When we arrived at the end of restaurant row, I hadn’t seen any sign of a place called Chuechan, so I had the driver let me off at the one across the road from where we were parked.  My guide book said that the highlight of a day in Phayao was watching the sun set over the kwan with the mountains in the background.  This one had a view, but the longer I sat there alone, the more a bad feeling grew inside me.

I decided to move on and find another place.  What I really wanted, I realized, was a big glass of Thai iced coffee.  After three blocks of waddling, I found Thawan Coffee and Restaurant.  It looked more American than I would have liked, but it served the drink I wanted.

As I sat on the open air deck of the restaurant, I felt the same sense of solitude wash over me which I had experienced the day before at the Riverside Bar in Lampang.  The best iced coffee I had tasted thus far on my trip didn’t hurt anything.  I wrote in my journal and watched the people at the other tables.

After awhile I realized that in the hour I had been there, I hadn’t seen one farang, not one Westerner.  The place had a farang ambience, but it was young Thais who were the patrons.  This, I figured out, was a part of the real Thailand, too—young educated Thais with cosmopolitan tastes, even in a small town like Phayao.

The sunset was indeed spectacular, making the water on the kwan sparkle and giving the mountains in the background a golden aura.  I wished that my friends back home were there to share it with me, but I didn’t feel lonely. 

I decided to head for the Tharn Thong Hotel at around 7:00 pm.  The bus for Chiang Rai was leaving at 8:00 the next morning, so I wanted to get to bed early.  I paid my bill, walked down the stairs to the street and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  One man who spoke a little English shrugged his shoulders and said, “Phayao.  Small town. No taxi.”

At the half hour mark, most of the feeling of well being that I had felt just thirty minutes earlier had evaporated.  “OK. OK,” I thought.  “What would the Buddha do?”

“Detach and keep a cool heart,” was the answer I heard inside my head.

“And what would Jesus do?” I asked myself next.

“Believe that the Father hears your prayer and will take care of you,” was the response.

Two very different approaches to the problem of anxiety.  Could I somehow combine them?  I tried to remain calm.  I prayed for any kind of transportation back to my $6 a night concrete cell. 

Just then a man, who had been hanging out on the sidewalk for fifteen minutes and watching this little drama play out, approached and asked, “Where you stay?”

“Tharn Thong,” I replied with what seemed to be the right tones because he immediately repeated what I had said.

“I take you,” he said and pointed to his motorbike, sans side car.

The ride back took only five minutes, but the whole way I kept whispering, “Thank you.” 

I burned my ankle on the exhaust pipe as I struggled to get off, gave my Good Samaritan driver a hundred baht note which seemed to please him, and hobbled to my cell.  I flopped on the bed and luxuriated for a few minutes in the feeling that I had made it back “home” safely.  The day had been a gentle emotional roller coaster ride.  The highs had not been intoxicating and the lows had never approached despair.

I thought about the guy who had just given me a lift to the Tharn Thong.  My agnostic friend back home would call his offer “good luck.”  The way I looked at the world, it was an answer to prayer.  The Buddha, I decided, would say that it really doesn’t matter.

I thought about a Buddhist writer named Thich Naht Hanh who, in one of his books, told a story about a group of Vietnamese boat people.  As long as the overcrowded boat moved inside the harbor, it proceeded without a problem, but when the little boat got out  into the swells of the open sea, it eventually swamped and sank.  The Zen master concluded his story by saying that it wasn’t the waves that swamped the boat.  What made it sink was that the people inside panicked, causing their small craft to rock and ship water.

Waking up at midnight I realized that I had fallen asleep with my clothes on.

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Helen Kossler @ Reading Between the Lines from Oak Park  

Posted: June 17th, 2011 4:49 PM

You are really adventuresome to travel alone knowing so little Thai.

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