Yes to everything: Thailand Part Four (Draft chapter for book)
Photograph: My husband saved this cat from some dogs and got scratched, luckily the scratches healed up with no ill effects.
THAILAND PART FOUR
Thong Sala, Koh Phangan
Just around the corner from where we were staying was a street market. We bought nice little pastries; savoury vegetable and sweet pineapple and banana. There were lots of clothes stalls both new and second hand. I tried a free size summer dress on, it fitted and looked nice. I tried a short skirt on, it fitted exactly. I tried on another top, it didn’t fit. I can try things, some fit, some don’t. That man in the shop in Haad Rin was wrong. Maybe nothing would have fitted, but it wasn’t ridiculous to want to have tried.
One night I was on WordPress, looking at which blog posts had been read that month. See yourself as beautiful, from earlier in the year before we left the UK appeared in the list. Later that line came into my mind in bed. It’s a mind game, I thought and that includes what you look like or how you feel about what you look like.
Away from the day glo hordes, albeit friendly enough, I can begin to be still and catch the quiet moments again. They are so distracted, there’s so much to see and do and so many people around.
J and my husband had gone out for a second breakfast. I stayed home and did a full, proper yoga session outside on the veranda undistracted with unlimited time; invigorating for mind and body. I had my period and reminded myself this is the time when ‘the veil is thin.’ I did the warrior pose (where your fingertips are outstretched and your gaze follows the path of your fingers). On the index finger of my left hand was my blue ring, I followed it to the exact place the stone was pointing at: a tree, its roots and branches and hidden behind the tree, the exact tip of a little red boat.
We chatted to the manager of the place at the bar-restaurant. He told us that he’d been to UK to see his friend who was at university in Portsmouth; while he was there he’d been to watch Leicester City play and been to Stonehenge. ‘Did you like Stonehenge?’ My husband asked. ‘Noooo!’ The man said and laughed; the barman laughed too and we all joined in. ‘Its not Wat Po is it?’ I said. ‘And so expensive,’ the man said, shaking his head.
The paving in Thong Sala was like the paving in some places in India, most memorably Pondicherry; tessellations, paving bricks with curves and diagonal lines, shocked parallelograms.
Like in Goa in India there was gasoline for sale everywhere for the scooters, sitting outside in sun but this time in glass bottles not plastic.
Walking into town from our place we heard What’s going on playing from one of the bars.
Thai pop music was very fast, lots of sounds, upbeat, playful, almost discordant to our ears.
We saw a sign saying ‘F***ing good bakery.’ Again we wondered, is that what they think we want?
The three of us went to a pub, above the bar were three big screens, all showing something different, luckily without sound: a film or documentary about Nazis, a football programme, and the BBC news. On the BBC news the politics looked so trivial, so grey, and the news seemed so alien, so far away. An advertisement came on the middle screen, or the end one, football or Nazis I can’t remember. I caught the final seconds: ‘Incredible India, find the Incredible you.’
One evening my husband went into a shop, I waited outside, not being bothered to undo my shoes. A turn of phrase the man used made me prick up my ears, ‘Indian,’ I thought. I looked at him, he looked Indian but before I said anything, he said to me, ‘You’ve been to India,’ recognising my dress-made-out-of-a-lungi. He was from Delhi, he said he had come to Thailand because it is much easier to run a business there. ‘It’s (India) alright for you, just visiting, but to live there and run a business…’ he said.
I was super excited, I said pleased to meet you and thank you in Hindi. He however wasted little time before trying to sell us something: as well as the shop clothes, fortune telling, meditation and chakra unblocking sessions, but my husband was hungry so we made our apologies and left. It made us realise that Thailand isn’t so pushy and that we’d probably got a bit soft! Nonetheless, I was as excited, possibly more, to meet and talk to an Indian person as J was to find an English bar that sold her favourite brand of cider for a taste of home.
One day my husband was sorting coins out, going what’s this, what’s that, that’s such and such, Thai, that’s a rupee, Indian. ‘I don’t know what that one is,’ he said, holding one up. ‘That’s a 10p!’ J said laughing, ‘I can’t believe you don’t know your own money!’ It really was true, and after only five months away.
There was a food market in Thong Sala which consisted of lots of stalls outside and inside a food court with permanent stalls and seating. From the stalls outside I bought fresh spring rolls filled with avocado. Inside there was a vegan place, we had huge portions of green lentil curry and brown rice, a solid substantial lentil dish like we would make at home. And brown rice! I couldn’t eat it all, but I felt really nourished.
There was a weird trek outside and beyond to the toilet, it reminded me of a car boot, walking down a muddy deserted track to a kind of run down prefab building where the loos were. On the inside of the loo doors were stickers, photos of pigs. Each individual pig was encased in an oval tunnel made from what looked like green garden wire. Totally encased, to the size of the pig. Rows and rows of them. ‘You don’t eat, this won’t happen,’ said the writing. I feel sick even writing it, weeks later. J, who eats meat, probably didn’t even notice them, if she did she didn’t mention it, whereas I’m still haunted by those images.
Another sad sight was all the birds in cages, outside homes and shops and at pet shops.
On a happier note, one evening we were walking past a house, their door was open and we could see inside; a man was ‘training’ a black and white cat in the centre of the room, holding up some food for it while two women looked on smiling. We all caught each others eyes and laughed.
It seemed people had a high tolerance for noise, like in India. We went past a kid on a toy bike which was making an awful noise, playing a really loud nursery rhyme; no one seemed to mind. The 7/11 door triggered a tinny automated ‘Sawadi-ka’ every time anyone came in, it would be enough to drive me insane, again the shop staff seemed able to ignore it.
At a restaurant one night, we watched a big metal pot of dinner being carried out to a scooter. One man got on the back side saddle, a second man put the steaming hot pot of food on him, got on the front and rode off. We often saw kids standing up on scooters. Health and safety wasn’t such a big thing as it is in the UK. It was nice to see that work and home life seemed mixed up altogether. We often saw kids with their families at massage places and at restaurants, and sometimes boys shyly served us or brought menus.
Often the family home was on the same site as the restaurant and to go to the loo you had to go into the family home. At one place they got the boy out of bath, covered in soap suds, I protested but it was too late. The bathroom floor was wet, a child’s version of a baby bath full of soap suds and clothes, washing clothes at same time, which made sense. There was a big water butt full, catching drips from a tap. The whole set up just struck me as so totally functional. Outside the bathroom the curve of the concrete floor was icy slippery under my wet bare feet and my feet slid although fortunately I kept my balance.
But apart from these odd glimpses, things you have to look really hard to see or be lucky to encounter, apart from these occasional glimpses, the real Thai culture seemed drowned out by the tourism. I’m not saying it’s not there, I mean I couldn’t see it for Westerners and for them having opened bars, started businesses, taken over, in a way you couldn’t imagine them doing in India. We only went to Koh Phangan though, and to Ko Samui to extend our visa, and Bangkok, maybe the rest of Thailand is different. On the ferry to Ko Samui there was almost all Westerners. A group of hungover Brits behind us were talking and swearing loudly. At the immigration office, where they expressly ask people to dress respectfully and not wear beach clothes, we saw several tourists in tiny shorts and tops, and I heard a woman getting annoyed at the counter. Keeping your cool is really important in Thailand, it is confusing and offensive to get angry.
Near our place, out for a walk on my own, I met a man who used to be a monk (it is common in Thailand for men to have spent some time as a monk). The conversation started with him offering me motorbike hire and tour guide services, but we ended up talking about meditation and enlightenment. ‘I can’t get there,’ (enlightenment), he said, because, ‘I can’t do it, one meal a day,’ the life of a monk. As far as he was concerned, there was only one route there. I felt sad for him but I didn’t want to risk offending his religious beliefs by disagreeing with him. He told me about the local temples, about how important it was to be in nature, and how if only we could roll back all the development of the island by twenty years….
During our stay in Thong Sala I felt that I had all the time in the world to do anything. It didn’t matter what time I got up or went to bed, as long as I wrote and got some exercise, I had no guilt and I was happy. I wrote, did some yoga, and spent time with J and my husband. It was the opposite of, ‘I don’t know where the day went.’
Just meters from our door amongst the trees was a log to sit on. Sometimes late at night before bed I sat there and looked out at the lights out at sea and in the town and the pretty coloured boats on the shore. It was a moment of peace and quiet to close the day with.
Sometimes we’d be woken up by the national anthem or loud Thai pop music, and often go back to sleep until later. We ate breakfast in the little on site restaurant. We bought little cartons of soya and almond milk from the 7/11 and put them in their fridge and ordered bowls of muesli with fresh fruit, and good black coffee.
The variety of milks in Thailand was incredible, soya milk with green tea, soya milk with chai seeds in, the seeds had obviously soaked so drinking or rather eating was almost like eating tapioca. We also enjoyed eating packets of dried seaweed instead of crisps. One day we went to a Tescos, it was the first supermarket resembling the ones in the UK that we’d been to since leaving and it felt quite exciting. There were huge bottles of Pantene shampoo and conditioner, popular in Thailand, and packs of regular cotton knickers which I was excited to buy, although unfortunately they didn’t fit, Thai sizes were too small for me.
I did my writing sat on a bench at a big wooden table facing out to sea. Around me on the sand floor were cane chairs and tables and beyond that the decking area. To my left, the wall of the bar, to my right the grass, the coconut palms and the bungalows and behind me the bar. When I took a break I had a Red Bull and a cigarette with J.
In Thailand, the home of Red Bull, it comes in little cans or in even smaller glass bottles which look like medicine bottles. It contains B12 and all sorts of other vitamins, different bottles and cans have different combinations, one has Zinc, another has Vitamin C; and it tastes significantly better than the stuff you get in the UK. It was possible to buy the big UK style cans in Thailand but it was much more expensive. The barman told me the Red Bull man used to be the richest man in Thailand, but he’s dead and now it is the man who owns Chang, a brand of beer and water. I spent a few days writing fuelled by Red Bull, before just, stopping…
The restaurant had a simple and limited vegetarian menu, for lunch I almost always ordered rice with tofu and vegetables, it was a small portion, just right for lunch and came with little side salad, big slanted thick slices of cucumber with tomato and lettuce.
J talked to me about her life and I talked to her about what my life used to be like. She’s twenty years younger than me and I related to a lot of what she said from the point of view of having been there and how I’ve changed.
There’s a tender balance though, between using all this as a way to reflect on how far I’ve come in twenty years, what I’ve learned, and thinking that if only J follows some of what I’ve done it will help her, rather than accepting that people have to find their own way.
So I probably did push my opinions more that I ought to have done, on the benefits of having a television and smart phone free life, sticking to a vegan or at least vegetarian diet, not drinking (mostly), not being in touch much with home whilst away in order to have a fuller experience, doing yoga and meditation, and my belief that all this reduces the chaos and drama within one’s life.
Putting draft chapters up on the blog, the comments make me realise where I need to explain more, often where I kind of knew but didn’t know how to fix, and the comments I do back help or even write it the additions for me. I love it when people say they can picture it, or feel like they are there, that they feel it through the senses. That was my intention, I stated in Panaji, Goa, ‘use the senses.’ I used to actually write it at the top of the chapter, use the senses: sight, sound, touch/feel, taste, smell. Now it just comes naturally. India made it easy for me though, of course.
Outside our bungalows we heard hard fruits dropping on ground just like at Osho’s. Near the restaurant we saw a coconut fall to the ground right in front of us, reminding us to avoid sitting underneath the coconut palms. Around the restaurant were sweet little birds with yellow beaks, just like at the Haad Rin restaurant, they made a pretty cheep cheep sound. Another bird made a sound a bit like an English wood pigeon. All around were the sound of voices, mostly quiet, sometimes loud, conversations in German, French and Thai.
In the evenings our neighbour played The Beatles. One night, after we had gone to bed, I heard Let it be coming from next door. If this was a film, I thought, we’d all start singing. Us, J next door, the people in the bungalows opposite would join in, and before you knew it the whole site would be singing along in imperfect yet beautiful harmony… But my husband was almost asleep and it was just a little too quiet to follow the words, and in any case, we’re not in a film.
My son’s dental surgery has been rescheduled to tomorrow Saturday 13th. Thank you so much for all your good wishes which as well as helping him afterwards will I am sure help him get there tomorrow.
Had six nights in Varanasi then an exhausting overnight train journey to Delhi last night (Thursday). Now in Delhi, we’ve had breakfast, and now I’m sitting on the hotel bed posting this. All is well.
Just the draft of Thailand Part 4 (of 5) this week, as well as handwriting and some typing up of ‘India Part Two.’ I’ve clumped this bit, Kolkata and Varanasi and at least for a while onwards, into one document with subheadings. This feels more manageable than a separate document for each place. We will be moving to a new place on average once a week until the beginning of December so tricks that stop the writing task feeling overwhelming during this time are going to be helpful.
Thank you very much for reading
See you next week
For pictures of Tokyo see followingthebrownrabbit
For pictures of Kolkata and Varanasi see travelswithanthony