The hospital where I go to work every day is sandbagged in. Big vinyl rice bags decorated with dancing elephants, filled with sand, tied off with twine, and piled two feet high against the fence around the hospital. They don’t look serious enough to hold back much, and, fortunately, it doesn’t look like they’ll have to. Prime Minister Yingluck has declared a five-day emergency holiday, and certain of the doctors– those with elderly parents in the suburbs Bangkok, mostly– walk around all day looking nervous, but the River Ping has fallen fifteen feet from its peak three weeks ago, revealing the islets that disappeared a few months ago, and the water’s surface has resumed its glassy meander by the town, after a few long months of swift, choppy water lapping at the banks.
Still, the highways to Bangkok are underwater; I only made it up the river on a marathon 13 hour bus journey, tiptoeing along narrow, rice paddy roads, trying to stay dry (with mixed results: at one point the driver was ankle-deep in sloshing brown floodwater). So I, like most people in town, consider myself more or less stuck: here I’ve been for two whole weeks, and here I’ll be for two more, uninterrupted.
Kamphaeng Phet is a pleasant town. A city, it should be properly called, as capital of its eponymous province. Think of Kamphaeng Phet as a cousin of Des Moines: the small provincial capital in the heartland, politically moderate, off the tourist circuit, where bulky women roast nuts in honey and dance to country music at the annual festival. A bit more history, here, perhaps: Kamphaeng Phet means “diamond wall” and the crumbling city walls faintly remind visitors that centuries ago, this was the northwestern-most outpost of the Sukhothai empire charged with the solemn task of fending off Burmese invaders. When I tell a fellow prisoner of the Bangkok-to-Chiang Mai bus where I’m headed, he responds with what I gladly interpret as a look of steely significance. “Ah, Kamphaeng.” The wall.
You might say I’m something of an anomaly here. Big round eyes, enormous nose, skin that is either buttery white or a tender pink, depending on the day of the week– and five awkward inches taller than anyone else around. And there’s my ingenuous, all-American smile that I employ in my own defense whenever I am addressed; did I mention that almost nobody here speaks any English, and that my Thai is hardly deserving of the title “my Thai”? I think of myself as White Man Zero. Or just “Farang,” in the lingua franca. (Actually, I’m told that the word Farang is derived from the word Frank. So think of me as Sam the Frank, if that suits you better.)
I leave the hospital for lunch with a bevy of young nurses and researchers. They’re all just out of college, they’re all giddy and giggly, and they all speak the same fifteen words of English (a nearly identical vocabulary to “my Thai”). Squatting on plastic stools around a dinged-up metal table, waiting for our lunch, Wit (“like ‘Sandwich’,” he tells me) is the one tasked with communicating to the Farang. This is partly because he doubles the average with a vocabulary of 30 solid English words, and because he’s the only BOY (that’s one of the fifteen). “Do you eat spicy?” Wit asks. “Sure,” I say. Giggles all around. “I eat spicy,” I attempt in Thai. More giggles.
Mostly they just carry on their lunchtime conversation without paying too much heed to their lumbering colleague– I get boring pretty quickly– but whenever something new happens, a hush briefly falls, and twelve eyes follow my moves. Someone will make a remark involving the vocab word “Saam.” I assume it’s something along the lines of “Oh, Saam is quite expert at removing the bones from his fish.” But it could just as easily be “Tomorrow let’s not bring Saam to lunch with us.” Regardless, giggles ensue.
I do regularly make more earnest attempts at conversation, though it tends to quickly devolve into me saying yes or no almost arbitrarily to what I blithely hope are yes/no questions. To the Thai speaker, a typical conversation probably feels like having a conversation with a nearly deaf person:
Thai Person Generous Enough to Attempt Conversation with Farang: “Oh, do you speak Thai?!”
Me: Embarrassed smile “A little bit.”
TPGEACF: “Are you staying in Kamphaeng Phet?”
Me: Irrationally emboldened “New York. America.”
TPGEACF: “No, no. I asked if you were staying here. In Kamphaeng Phet.”
Me: “Oh, Kamphaeng Phet! Very beautiful.”
TPGEACF: “Right. Ok. Well, nice to meet you.”
Me: “I eat spicy. Very delicious.”
TPGEACF: “Great. Well, I’m going to go now.”
Me: “Very sorry, Thai not good.”
TPGEACF: “You don’t say.”
Me: Ingenuous All-American Smile
I go out for a jog as the sun is setting beyond the River Ping, creating another spectacular light show of pink and orange clouds lit up on the pale blue sky (that’s the sun that’s creating the light show, not me). As I emerge onto the road, I get shouts– “Hello!”– from the motorbike that rolls by, weighed down with half the seventh grade and somebody’s older brother. Running down a side street, a mangy dog awakens from a stupor and flips its wig– even it knows something isn’t quite right here– and comes bounding, barking after me, snapping at my sneakers. I turn onto the river road, and a high school girl in her white polyester uniform sitting by the river throws an elbow into the ribs of her similarly attired friend; the friend follows her gaze, sees me panting, dripping by, and looks back at her friend, returning the jab. Giggles follow me up the river.