Asia | South East Asia | Thailand | North Thailand | Chiang Mai – A letter from Maa’ya
3.12.2003, Wednesday, Chiang Mai
If not for this diary I would lose the track of time completely. After a mad ride back to Bangkok and fourteen hours on the train to Chiang Mai, I had a hard time telling if it was still day or night.
I was astonished at how wonderful it was to be saying goodbye to the people in Kanchanaburi and how fond of them I’d become in a single week. The woman from the travel office’s desk and the waitress who had spent that week laughing every time she saw me, shouting ‘papaya milkshake’ and laughing even harder when I nodded frantically to confirm. And the ‘girl’ who sent me the birthday cake, of course… I felt so utterly silly when the truth was revealed to me. ‘She’ calls ‘herself’ Sally and is a ‘lady-boy’ and kill me if I knew what it meant before coming to Thailand. Everybody around seemed to know and called ‘her’ like that instead of using ‘her’ assumed name, but the only assumption I made was that mabe it’s their broken English and what they really meant was that Sally, with her aggresive self-promotion, high heels, garish jewellery and skimpy clothes, liked to change boyfriends too often. Especially that she came for holidays from Pattaya, where, I thought, this kind of dress and behaviour were more accepted.
How mistaken I’d been!
The clothing and in-your-face behaviour I might have guessed quite correctly, but I would have never suspected that the most ‘natural’ (for somebody from Pattaya, as I was told) thing about Sally was that she was a man. A guy. A lady-boy, to be precise. The girl from the travel office waited till Sally went to the toilet, leaned across the table and whispered to me:
– But it’s ok, she cut the thing. She ok now – and made a low motion with her hand to indicate which part of her body Sally had actually gotten rid of. Then she leaned back, smiled broadly and went on to explain that in Thailand it’s quite ok and the king had even given the most successful lady-boy the right to change ‘her’ real name to a feminine one. Good decision, considering that ‘she’ had just won a beauty contest, beating all the other honestly female contestants. Sally ‘herself’ is a fashion model, but in ‘her’ papers still a man.
Having just finished reading ‘Mosaic’ and being fresh back from a country with a significant Muslim community, I couldn’t stop wondering at how differently some cultures react to the same problem, despite the fact that both Mozambicans as well as Thais are supposed to be so-called traditional peoples. In Mozambique a Muslim father would rather disown a son than accept the fact that he was gay. In Thailand Buddhist-animist Sally was a celebrity.
Both Sally and the ‘travel office girl’ hugged me goodbye as if we were the best friends ever and had known each other for ages. In fact, I still couldn’t remember their Thai names, with their unique melody and sounds that were completely unfamilar to me. But my own simple name, Marta, was also a challenge for them. A challenge they couldn’t take, complaining that the sound was too flat and harsh, and resolved to call me the way my name first rolled out from their mouths: Maa’ya. That was the closest they could get. And the way they spoke it, it was a sweet, melodious sound. I nearly wished it was my real name.
But the one who surpised me the most was the waitress, who was a woman in her thirties and with whom I had little contact besides her laughing at my love for papaya milkshakes and asking me how I was. The evening of my departure though she came out of the restaurant and gave me a long hug, after which we exchanged ‘khawp khun kha’s’ with our hands put together in front of our faces. In my travel guide I’d read that there was no need to respond in kind if the gesture was performed by a ‘servant’ – a waitress or room service person, but knowing that the gesture conveyed respect, I knew that declining to make it would make me feel as if I was being patronising. And that instant I felt a great deal of gratitude towards that mature woman who hugged me and wished me luck, sounding as if she really meant it.
I woke up on the train at sunrise, sat on my feet the Japanese way to protect them from the morning chill and spent the remaining four hours of the journey just staring out of the window. We were heading north, the air was cooler and the landscape more green and hilly. We were riding along a river, the mists rising slowly and in opaque veils hiding the faces of the hills, which were bamboo-overgrown and immaculately round like jade-coloured bubbles on the yellowy water.
Breakfast in bed, haven’t had that for ages… But on the train the conductor walked across the aisle with a list in his hand, asking with a smile what would I like to eat. So I chose and ate sitting on the bed, pulling the warm white blanket more tightly over myself, waiting for the rising sun to heat the air. As it filled with light, I saw the people in cone hats walking towards the rice fields, the cows being led onto their pastures, the jungle creeping over the hills and crowding at the banks of the river and the edges of the fields. I grew more and more excited.
Getting out of the train station in Chiang Mai proved impossible. A crowd of touts like an oncoming avalanche blocked the way and herded us towards the ‘tourist information’ point, offering places in one guesthouse only. Once we’d managed to get past that, we came upon the second line of defence. It was formed by the representatives of different hostels, with their prospects and banners standing dutifully in our way. They promised gardens, swimming pools, seven windows in the room, central location and free transport. I went for the seven windows. The picture looked promising.
After arriving at the guesthouse, we asked for the rooms. In response, we were asked to sit at the restaurant table and wait. After fifteen minutes I started joking with an English guy who came on the same pick-up truck that maybe there were only six windows in the room and right now the girl who promised me seven was knocking the missing one out. Finally she came and showed us the rooms. There were six windows. I laughed. I stopped when the girl said the room was available only for one night and after that all were booked. So the plan for the rest of the day was to book the cooking course and find a new accomodation. The best place proved to be just next door – slightly more expensive, but with a nicer common area, a swimming pool and sockets in the room, so I could plug my notebook in and write.
I’m a bit disappointed with Thailand. Maybe it’s the fact that I’d spent such a long time before in a country with virtually no tourists, where my appearance had always been a novelty and sometimes a shock. Here, believing that who I’m meeting are the ‘traditional’ people is difficult. I cannot be sure if they cling to their culture because they love it or because it pays. This morning, while I was having breakfast, two elderly English women at a table behind me were arranging for a trek to the jungle. The girl who was selling it to them was promising unspoilt nature, wild unfrequented tracks, waterfalls and traditional hill-tribe villages.
– That is wonderful – one of the women said – but what guarantee do we have that we will not come across other tourists? Jungle here seems to be hiving with them!
The girl said nothing and later on, while going to the town to sell the ‘Mosaic’ and get something more ambitious (I had more than enough of the descriptions of fancy meals the characters were eating in several fancy restaurants, with no consequence to the plot whatsoever except I suppose that they were no longer hungry), I thought that I had to stop hoping for what I wouldn’t find here and enjoy what I could – a trek in the jungle, cooking classes, long sandy beaches and the ease with which one can get a new book. This is not a country where one could find wilderness and culture unaffected by civilisation. Tourists are everywhere and the tourist industry fluorishes. Therefore I will go for a trek, ride an elephant, go for white-water rafting maybe, but I will not lie myself that the hill-tribe village I’m visiting is authentic (what with the museum-like labels on all the furniture and tools although the house is inhabited!). How could it be with nine million tourists coming to Thailand every year, practically all of them arriving in Chiang Mai for the sole purpose of going on a trek and visiting a hill-tribe village?
I sold ‘Mosaic’ for pennies and bought ‘Alias Grace’ for a lot more. And now I will take my new book to the swimming pool and enjoy a very lazy evening, spoiling myself to the bone. That’s what Thailand is for. Great climate, nice people, fantastic food. I sit and wonder where all the ‘normal’ Thais are. Hiding? Extinct?… Or maybe in the tourist industry…
(A label on a bottle of water from SA: ‘Great country, Nice people, Come visit’. I miss Africa.)