The Arkansas of Thailand

On Friday I was invited out for food and drinks by my colleague, who, helpfully, goes by the English name “Sandwich.” Sandwich goes out on Fridays with his buddies, and he invited me along, deep and wide language barrier notwithstanding. Fortunately for me, one of his pals, a guy named Gai, had spent some time in the U.S., and spoke a bit of English. “What did you do in America,” I asked?

Gai lived in Springdale, Arkansas, working as an ice cream truck driver. He’s in the desserts business here in Kamphaeng Phet, running the black grass jelly factory (Made from twigs! Tastes… like twigs!) he inherited from his father, so peddling Chaco Tacos could perhaps be construed as relevant work experience. He and four other drivers covered the whole tri-state area (that would be northwest Arkansas, southwest Missouri and eastern Oklahoma) and Gai learned two great truths about America during his time. The first, and more enduring, is that the jingle of the ice cream truck is effective at luring nubile teenage girls from poolside to sidewalk wearing naught but their bikinis and the glimmering sheen of perspiration. This was something of a revelation for Gai, and a while a great boost to his enthusiasm for the work, caused major interference with his focus on the bottom line, and led to declining sales as he cruised through certain particularly fruitful neighborhoods hour after hour, day after day, his ice cream truck jingle turned up to eleven.

The second revelation he put to me this way:

“Sam, have you ever peed in a bottle?”

“No, Gai, I don’t believe I have.”

“I think all Americans pee in bottles because stopping at the gas station is a waste of time.”

And now we all know something more about what goes on inside ice cream trucks.

He worked at this job for four months. Then he spent three days in New York, two days in Las Vegas, and then he came home to Kamphaeng Phet.

Returning the quizzical look I had given him, Gai asked: “What are YOU doing in Kamphaeng Phet?” Not selling SnoCones, no, but my six month interlude in the one of Thailand’s flyover states is perhaps no more absurd than Gai’s adventure. If you sat down to match up the Thai states with their U.S. analogues– Phuket is the Florida of Thailand, Mae Hong Son is surely the Alaska, maybe Ayutthaya is Massachusetts– Kamphaeng Phet would be lucky to be paired up with Arkansas. More likely, it would be left off the list, among the 26 leftover Thai provinces after the fifty slots were filled.

To the tourist, this town is notable only for its location alongside Highway 1, exactly halfway between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. A convenient stopover, says Lonely Planet, which halfheartedly describes Kamphaeng Phet as “one of the more pleasant provincial capitals,” makes brief mention of this city’s ancient ruins, and leaves it, more or less, at that. A hundred kilometers to the east is Sukhothai, also about halfway between Thailand’s two big tourist destinations, and home to the spectacular ruins of Thailand’s ancient capital. That, needless to say, is where the tourists stop over on their north-south journeys. Visit the ancient temples in the Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park any weekday, and you’re liable to have the entire park (“A UNESCO World Heritage Site!,” screams every government billboard in the province.) entirely to yourself.

If you’re Thai, though, those ruins actually mean something. Kamphaeng Phet, which means “Diamond Wall,” was installed on the banks of the River Ping sometime in the 15th century as the northeastern outpost of the Sukhothai Kingdom. This diamond wall was built to keep out the Burmese, and with only a few lapses (e.g. the 1767 sacking of Ayutthaya– oops), Kamphaeng Phet got the job done. So I feel stirrings of pride when I board the bus in Bangkok and tell my fellow travelers that, no, I’m not headed to Chiang Mai, I’ll be getting off in Kamphaeng Phet.  “Ah, Kamphaeng,” they say, with the same steely nostalgia of a Civil War buff recalling Pickett’s Charge. “The wall.”

The Thais Have Always Been United

Each day at 6pm, life pauses momentarily in the Kingdom of Thailand. As I sit in Kamphaeng Phet’s bustling night market, enjoying my daily bowl of noodles, machetes fly, chopping pork, plates of rice hit the steel tables, people squeeze past each other in the narrow lanes between stalls, and the vendors chatter with their regular customers as they ladle curries green and brown into plastic bags. At six o’clock sharp, out of otherwise undetectable speakers, a burly voice makes a brief, brusque announcement, and then, marking the end of another day in the Kingdom, the Thai national anthem begins.

The commotion halts and it’s as though someone pressed pause on the market’s activity. The customers stop their perusal and stand still, the cooks stop serving up dishes. The volume drops and the soaring chorus of the anthem fills the lull.  There’s nothing weird or oppressive about it: nobody sitting stands up, nobody bursts into song; the man at the grill keeps turning his squid, and conversations continue in quiet tones. And it helps that the song itself is merciful: a brief 45 seconds of stirring patriotic ardor, and then it’s over, and everything starts moving and making noise again.

The TV stations all take this 6pm pause, too, and before any movie is shown in a cinema, the audience stands to hear the anthem. When I’m in Bangkok on a Sunday afternoon, I’ll regularly make my way to a Thai army base, where the military is so generous as to let a group of foreigners play frisbee on their playing fields. At 6pm sharp, though, the game comes to an abrupt halt, the flag is lowered, the anthem is played, and only when it’s all over does everyone start running again while the officers fold the flag.

It’s a nice observance, I find. I’m not sure I’d want to listen to the endless, maudlin Star Spangled Banner every evening, but I appreciate the momentary pause Thais take each evening to reflect on the great good fortune to be born a Thai. Though I can’t help but wonder if, while they’re at it, they’re also delivering a coded threat to people like me, right there in the lyrics:

Every inch of Thailand belongs to the Thais.
It has long maintained its sovereignty,
Because the Thais have always been united.
The Thai people are peace-loving, But they are no cowards at war.
Nor shall they suffer tyranny.
All Thais are ready to give up every drop of blood
For the nation’s safety, freedom and progress.

Halloween in Kamphaeng Phet

After a bowl of noodles at the night market, I stopped off at one of my favorite watering holes (cafe by day, patio bar by night) for their Halloween party, advertised by a whole bunch of orange balloons and waiters wearing multicolor blinking devil horns. It turned out those were about the only “Halloween” aspects to the evening– otherwise it just seemed like the usual sparse Monday crowd gathered for dinner and a bucket of Chang beers.  That is, until an elephant showed up. And I’m not talking about a fat man in gray spandex, I’m talking about an honest-to-betsy five ton pachyderm that took a bowling ball-sized poop right there on the patio and proceeded to obliterate the tastefully landscaped greenery abutting the road in search of something delicious before his mahout managed to coax him on down the road.  Not a minute later, the (hands down, no question) most beautiful woman in Kamphaeng Phet (who, it so happens, is a man… a little secret that doesn’t reveal itself until she starts talking in her gravelly tenor) arrived in full costume (she dressed up– get this– as a man) with a toolbox full of cosmetics to do everyone’s makeup.

And that’s about when I left.  Happy Halloween!

My Name is Farang

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. Continue reading “My Name is Farang”