Off To Isaan
Back in 1998 Thai Airways still had flights between Bangkok and Korat. This was my first domestic flight within Thailand, and was favorably impressed. It was quick, easy, and cheap. (Less than 1,000 baht!) It definitely beats the long rides I’ve had in the years that followed on buses where the A/C was hit or miss!
After a few weeks of indulging my carnal desires, and living the life of a tourist, I was looking forward to seeing “the real Thailand”, with my pen pal. At this time, I didn’t know Isaan, from any other region, but I was about to get quite an education!
Som (I don’t think she would like to have her real name used) and I had exchanged photographs, so we recognized each other when I emerged into the arrival lounge of the airport. I don’t know what she thought of the “old man” standing in front of her, grinning like an idiot, but she certainly made an impression on me! She was a remarkably pretty girl with shoulder length hair and a sweet innocent face.
She had booked me a room at the Korat Princess Hotel, so we headed over in a taxi to drop off my luggage. On the way we had a chance to start to get to know each other. Her English, while hardly perfect, was very good, and we were able to communicate easily. After “talking” on ICQ (remember ICQ?) for so many months, we already knew quite a lot about each other. Her family had a good sized rice farm in Nongki, a small village in Buriram. She had two older sisters, one younger and two older brothers. She was the only one of her family to get a higher education. Some of her siblings had not gone beyond elementary school. She was getting ready to start her final semester of school, and was looking forward to getting a good paying job, so she could help her family. She pretty much embodied traditional Thai values, though well tempered with a modern education. (Or what sadly passes for a modern education in LOS!)
After getting settled into the hotel, Som took me on my first Thai motorcycle ride. After a few “near-death experiences”, I just decided to forget worrying and take in the bustling scene around me. Korat, or Nakhon Rachatsima to give it its other name, is a large city, without any special charm or character. This first impression hasn’t changed much nearly ten years later. That’s not to say that I haven’t had any fun there, but I wouldn’t put it high on anyone’s “must see” list when visiting Thailand.
We ended up over at Som’s dormitory at Rajabhat University, so she could “show me off” to all of her friends. Everyone it seemed was eager to “see the farang from America”. So I spent a few hours visiting with a gaggle of pretty giggling schoolgirls, which is not a bad way to spend an afternoon! They had a chance to practice their English, and I had a chance to practice my Thai. The later inevitably brought on peels of laughter. (To this day, Thai coming out of my mouth still does!) I wound up taking a large group of them out for dinner at a vegetarian restaurant. A nice time was had by all.
We spent the next few days being chauffeured all over Isaan, an older friend of Som’s , who had sort of “adopted her” while she was at school. We visited many wats, the names of which I cannot remember, but enjoyed thoroughly. I know that for some people “if you’ve seen one wat you’ve seen them all”, but I enjoy the individual character of each.
We stopped in Lopburi during the annual monkey festival. It was quite colorful, but I wouldn’t want to live, surrounded by these monkeys, who have become quite aggressive. Frankly, I think they are dirty little buggers!
We visited the Khmer ruins of Prasat Hin Phimai and Prasat Hin Khao Phnom Rung, which were very impressive, at least to me, since I’m a history buff.
We stopped at a little roadside restaurant along the Lam Thakong reservoir, where I had the best Tom Yom Koong I have ever had, before or since! (It took me some years, but eventually I relocated that restaurant, and they still have the best! IMHO)
During this time, Som and I became good friends, sharing smiles along with delicious Thai fruit, and cool drinks of coconut juice. Nothing of a romantic nature occurred. I certainly wasn’t looking for a serious relationship with a girl young enough to be my daughter, no matter how charming, and I definitely don’t think she was looking for one with someone old enough to be her father! We both wanted to be “just friends”.
Eventually we drove to visit her family in Nongki. It wasn’t long before I was ready to cut and run. The welcome mat was definitely not rolled out on my behalf! Som’s mother was not just cool to me, she was positively glacial! I knew she had no use for this old buffalo showing up on her doorstep with her youngest daughter. In a way I can’t really blame her. For many conservative Thais, a young Thai girl in the company of a farang man, especially an older one, can only mean one thing....and that is that she has become a prostitute.
I didn’t need to understand Thai to know what was being said about me. There was much crying and shouting, but eventually I was given temporary permission to enter the family home. As an uneasy truce held sway, Som showed me around where she had grown up.
Her home was the real Thailand, not the one you see in TAT brochures. Their family was poor, and her home reflected their lack of money. It was a basic cinderblock structure with a tin roof. There was no running water, although there was a tap outside. There was no telephone. The toilet was your basic squatter in a not too clean “bathroom”. The yard was strewn with heaps of garbage where mangy looking dogs scrounged for food. The sanitary conditions in the outdoor kitchen did not inspire gastric health. Since there were no screens in the windows, at night the place was mosquito heaven, with me being the main feeding trough! Lots of fun for a middle class farang, right? Well not right away I must admit, but aside from the “mother from hell”, the rest of the family seemed to enjoy meeting me.
After a few beers, some Thai “whisky” and a rather tasty meal, everyone was in a good mood. I played with some of Som’s numerous nieces and nephews, washed some dishes, sang some karaoke, and did my best to prove that I was not a complete wanker. (Actually, in the years that followed, we all became good friends, including mama, who now brags about her farang son-in law, but that’s farther on in this narrative)
There is no polite way to discuss Nongki. I suppose if you were born and raised there, you might be fond of it, but for me, nearly ten years later, it is still a dirty little town. Anyone who has spent some time in Thailand knows that the Thai definition of a garbage can is “wherever a Thai person throws his garbage”... which means anywhere and everywhere. Nonki. Som decided to take me to a small park that she described to me as a “special place”. There was not a square foot that was fit to sit down on! I know I’m going to get email chastising me for my “western” prejudices, but I don’t care. Too many Thais simply would rather throw garbage on the ground than walk two feet and throw the refuse into a garbage can. They don’t seem to mind the stink of rotting food and attendant flies. On several occasions I decided to clean her parent’s yard from top to bottom. Within hours, it has returned to its former state. Not all Thais are like this. Som’s oldest brother’s home is a model of cleanliness. But others...
Last year some of Som’s family was visiting us in Lampang, and I took them to a lovely National Park with hot springs, waterfalls, nature trails, etc. Things are much cleaner here in the North than in Isaan, and in fact, there was not a single piece of litter to be seen. When one of my “nephews” tossed a soft drink container on the ground, I marched his butt over and made him pick it up. I explained carefully how we must keep everything beautiful for everyone who will visit. Needless to say, when my back was turned, the kid pitched it in the river! His father couldn’t understand why I was making a fuss! Oh well I digress...so back to the story in progress.
By the time I boarded my plane back to Bangkok, the friendship between Som and I had begun to blossom, but I certainly did not envision wedding bells (or the Thai equivalent) in my future. We promised to stay in touch and said goodbye, without even a hug. Then it was back to Bangkok for a few more days before returning to the U.S.
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