By: Anne Ake, Lynn Haven, USA 2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant
Bangkok is a city on two levels. For the tourist, life is encapsulated
in skyscrapers where glass fronted rooms showcase a tall city changing
with each nuance of light. Sophisticated restaurants offer the finest
haute cuisine-French, Italian, Chinese, and, of course, Thai. Delicious
tidbits, presented with an artist's flair for color and eye appeal,
are served on orchid adorned plates. The fiery Thai dishes are tempered
to the delicate western palette. Little side dishes of chilies and
sauces allow visitors to gingerly rev up the heat enough to believe
they are experiencing Thailand.
At street level a different city thrums with life-noisy, kinetic,
crammed-together life. Food is served everywhere, from storefronts,
stalls, and rickety carts. Streets are jammed with cars, motorbikes,
(tuk tuks), trucks, and bicycles-most bulging with people, produce,
parcels of all shapes and sizes. Tourists make quick forays into this
They pass through in a taxi on the way to visit the proclaimed tourist
sites, or, nervously clutching handbags, they scoot into the shops
seeking bargain jewels and silk. Expats and backpackers may come closer
to street level Bangkok, but most seek the security of like souls
at MacDonald's and the Hard Rock Café.
Street level Bangkok is a bit scary. The uninitiated wonder: Will
I die of
dysentery, if I eat this food? Will I be mugged, if I venture into
this ally? Am I asking for trouble, if I smile and make eye contact?
Dare I ride in a tuk tuk, and risk suffering bodily injury or being
scammed by slick men trying to gain my trust by claiming to be schoolteachers
and basketball fans.
Turn to the river to escape the chaos, and the size and power of the
Chao Praya, suddenly looms large from a water level seat in a rickety,
speeding long-tail boat. Life is almost as frenetic on the river as
on land-big boats, little boats, speed boats, row boats-the river
teems with work and play. You find yourself longing for the security
of life jackets and seat belts.
Bangkok is exciting, but can quickly become overwhelming. And, you
realize that you have not come close to touching the gentle heart
of Thailand. Then along comes Jimmy. Jimmy White, a jockey shaped
Welshman, his beautiful Thai wife Lamai, and the queen of their household,
six-year-old Lizzie, open their home to visiting westerners. Their
two-story home and garden provide an oasis of peace and charm within
the tiny rice farming village of Ko Phet in Isan. Flowering plants
populated with birds and butterflies surround the house, a large bullfrog
reigns over a tiny lily pond, and beside the open air dining area
a fountain bubbles out soapsuds. Jimmy said something about the soap
Don't despair if you don't get the air-conditioned room. A delicately
mosquito net gave our second floor room a tropical feel, and fans
fragrance and sounds of the night through open door and windows. Long
morning I pulled the covers up to my shoulders. Jimmy loves to talk.
His nonstop monologue on the joys and frustrations of rural life in
Isan is insightful and colored with wry humor. With his limited Thai
and Lamai's excellent English, Jimmy has managed to learn a great
deal about the local culture and people, and shares his knowledge
with his guests through individualized tours. Our time was short and
we wanted to see and do everything. I strongly recommend allowing
enough time to spend part of each day touring with Jimmy and Lamai,
and part relaxing in the
garden or strolling the village roads.
On our first day, we visited with several of Lamai's relatives.
At first glance, most seem to live in shocking poverty, but on closer
examination you see people who may lack luxuries, but have what they
need. Food, clothing, shelter, and a laid back lifestyle in a community
of friends and relatives are enough to make life good. The famous
Thai smile and love of sanuck (fun) beams from every face.
Lamai's uncle makes beautifully woven baskets. There is a basket designed
float beside you and hold your catch as you wade through the rice
catching fish. Another holds your catch of frogs. There is a basket
sticky rice, one for mulberry leaves and hungry silkworms, and one
from the odd long-legged chickens that roam the yards. The baskets
lovely, but the basket maker sells or trades his baskets to the villagers
and there were none available for frivolous tourists to lug home.
raises silk worms and weaves colorful fabric, while a 94-year-old
takes in work turning collars for a nearby factory.
A new canal slices through the family rice fields. Lamai's mother
tending the vegetables she planted along the sides of the canal, while
father took a break from the plowing to have a smoke on a dike between
fields. The rains have been slow coming this year and the soil was
cracked around tender young plants. The plants were showing signs
and other fields were awaiting water before they could be planted.
canal helps, but the drought has affected it as well-it is only one
deep when it should be two.
As we walked the fields, Jimmy told us how the fields are seeded with
fish as well as rice. When the dikes are broken at harvest time, the
fish harvest is captured in nets and put in jars to age and ferment.
resulting mess is a favorite snack locally, but the smell alone is
push most westerners away from the table.
A highlight of the homestay was a visit to a nearby silk village.
silkworms munched on mulberry leaves, and others had already spun
into fuzzy yellow and white cocoons. The cocoons are boiled to soften
for unwinding the silk fiber. Jimmy explained that step in the process,
saying, "The timing has to be just right. If they wait too long,
blokes chomp their way out, and instead of A 15 meter strand of silk
30 half meters." Nothing is wasted here. When the precious silk
unwound, the boiled body of the chrysalis or pupa is enjoyed as a
treat. Jimmy said they taste like almonds. He lied. I tried one later
The weavers spin the fiber into thread on primitive spinning wheels,
dye and weave it on handmade wooden looms. Northeast Thailand, or
known for its high quality silk and especially for mudmee, or tie
silk. The women wrap sections of the thread with straw or banana plant
before dying it. Only the exposed parts take the dye. They use the
multicolored thread to weave intricate patterns into the silk fabric.
Our last stop in the village was a building recently provided by the
government. One section has several big metal looms. A couple of women
followed us in and began working at the looms, but Jimmy said they
prefer their old home looms and rarely use the new ones. We took off
our shoes to go into the room where the silk is stored. We were offered
cokes, and straw mats were rolled out on the floor. We sat on the
floor with the Thai weavers and admired their handiwork-red-orange,
royal blue, patterns and stripes, subtle blends of two colors that
produce an iridescent glow. The vibrant colors and intricate patterns
have won many awards for these talented weavers. In markets across
Thailand, part of the fun is haggling over price,
but we could not offend the dignity and skill of these women by suggesting
that their already low price should be lower.
In Dan Kwian, about an hours drive from the silk village, potters
as tall as they are and carve intricate designs in the finished pieces.
Nearby, babies nap in hammocks and women prepare meals over primitive
stoves. Jimmy explained that the potters and their families live in
of the warehouse-sized shed. Though primitive in technique, Dan Kwian
large operation. Wood burning kilns harden and finish hundreds of
day. Pots-man-sized to flower vase sized, ornately decorated, colorfully
glazed, or simple and stately-are shipped all over the world. Tiny
rolled clay beads and pendants are also fired and strung into necklaces,
belts, and tinkling wind chimes.
On the way home we stopped at a fresh water prawn farm. We sipped
the onsite restaurant and watched our dinner being netted from the
next morning we dropped in at Lizzie's school, then visited the market
the nearby village of Bua Yai. The Ko Phet villagers seldom buy food,
should they need to, it is all there at Bua Yai. Fish, turtles, and
crabs swim in pans of water, while un-refrigerated beef, pork, and
sausages attract a multitude of flies. Your taste buds will be tempted
by putrefied fish in jars, huge water beetles, scorpions, ants, and
of course boiled silkworm pupas. Fresh fruits and vegetables-some
familiar, some not-glow red, green and yellow. To wind down your day-the
fixin's for a good betel nut chew are also available.
Lunch from a street vendor and back to Bangkok where we spent our
in Thailand encapsulated in elegant glass fronted rooms, nibbling
tidbits and sipping imported wine. But, we brought to the table a
humility, a new appreciation for another lifestyle, and fresh memories
warm Isan smiles.