I live in Australia, and I visit Thailand irregularly, usually about a year between visits; I am in Thailand now, but it has been two years since my last visit. In those two years, my memory of Thai language has slipped noticeably.
I have forgotten. The Thai word for “forget” is ลืม, which is officially transliterated into English as “luem”, and when I realised the extent of my forgetfulness, I found that when I started to try to talk in Thai, it would be accurate for me to tell the Thai listener that: "sip-sahm bpee gorn, pom poot pasa Thai; wun-nee, pom luem pasa Thai...”, or “thirteen years ago, I spoke Thai [language]; today, I forget Thai [language]...”. Telling them that is about as impressive to them as it would be if I actually spoke the Thai that I have forgotten.
A few days ago, I found myself on a bus from Khon Kaen to Bangkok. Not one of those limited-stop express jobs, it was one of the ones that stops almost anywhere that there is someone waiting to be collected, or where any of the existing passengers want to alight.
I had left a small provincial Amphur town at about 4 PM on a local imitation bus – really a somewhat larger version of a songthaew – arriving at the main-line bus station at maybe 4:30, and there was the bus to Bangkok, all ready to go. The woman riding shotgun on this bus called out to me across the platform “Bai nai?” [Where you go?], and I replied “Groong Tep” [Bangkok]. Somewhat pleased at the prospect of another long-haul passenger, she signalled me to hurry over and climb aboard, directed me to a seat close to the front of the bus, and collected my fare. She doesn't know western numbers, but despite all of my forgotten Thai, I retain my memory of the numbers, and that I can understand numbers in Thai pleases her – she won't need to write it down for this foreigner to understand. Just to impress her, I count out the notes: neung, song [roi], yee-sip, see-sip, hok-sip. Two hundred and sixty Baht.
We smile at one another, she continues watching the on-board television which is showing one of those puerile slapstick comedy amusement shows, and I take out my e-book reader, which she soon notices and mistakes for one of those more advanced [and more expensive] devices. Following her questions about my reader, I tell her what it is and what it does, and we go back to our respective time-wasters.
Her TV show finished, darkness had fallen, and I grew more interested in watching the progress of the journey and counting the kilometres. I moved into the now-vacant seat behind the driver, and she started a limited conversation with me, based on her curiosity over me knowing Thai numbers, and where I came from. She soon discovers that my nearly-forgotten Thai is much better than her almost non-existent English, so I am forced to do the thinking for a change.
The conversation – for want of a more exact description of what passed between us – was not the most brilliant, but it included her asking about jing-jo [kangaroos] in Australia, and eventually, she wondered how much I remembered of my Thai. One of the Thai expressions that leapt to my mind was “bpai ying kratthai” - see http://www.thailandstories.com/article/travel-stories/non-fiction/bpai-ying-kratthai.html for that story – and she and her companion were amazed that a farang could speak some Thai and know an Isaan slang expression.
From that point, I told her that when a Thai man had a few beers, he could bpai ying kratthai, and when an Australian man had a few beers, he would bpai ying jing-jo. That cracked the pair of them up, they loved it, so I went a step further and told them that when a black African man had the beers, he would bpai ying chang, or “go shoot elephant”.
At that point, I heard a few giggles from other people on the bus, so I checked around behind us in the front four seats, and there were three rows of women behind us, all smirking or giggling. Me and my big mouth!
Eventually, the bus ride came to its expected conclusion, and later in my hotel room, My mind found an old memory of a journey through Isaan where I was the driver, and my girlfriend of the time, her mother, and three other women were the passengers. We were travelling from Khon Kaen to Mukhdahan, staying there a few nights, and returning. Typical of the Thai ladies, these five were always sampling the local foods, the stuff that I wouldn't touch with someone else's tongue. The ribbing that I gave my girlfriend about these weird delicacies was referring to all strange food as “kao pat gop”, or fried rice with frog – I would tell her that I didn't eat kao pat gop, and she would sneer at me – all in good nature.
Conveniently for me, the girlfriend developed a serious case of constipation after we were two days out, This allowed me to throw good-natured insults at her about the food that she was eating being bad for her, and the other four women were laughing themselves silly about it. Soon, during that tour, any Isaan food was referred to as “kao pat gop”. I suggested to the girlfriend that she eat a heap of fruit to get her intestinal integrity to return, and she thought that it was a good idea, and got into the markets for some supplies.
About half-way along on the return journey, I was told that we needed to find a place for her to have a pit-stop, which I dutifully did, and she disappeared into the sukaah for about 20 minutes.
When she re-appeared, I threw a few comments at her about eating too much kao pat gop, and I had told her that it was no good for her, and she came back with the comment that the kao pat gop, was now tom yum kii [hot shit soup]!
This caused everyone on that tour to break down laughing, and I'm glad that it came out before we got into the car and on the road again, because I would have been a dangerous driver, I was laughing so much.
The rest of the journey was a series of quiet minutes, then someone in the back would say 'kao pat gop”, and someone else would reply “tom yum kii”, and the laughter would start again.
To this day, one only needs to mention any of the key-words of that incident to any of the passengers to get a big smile. I've been smiling all of the time that I've been writing this...
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