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Down Home with Jimmy

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, aromatic,
crammed-together life. Food is served everywhere, from storefronts, market
stalls, and rickety carts. Streets are jammed with cars, motorbikes, samlors
(tuk tuks), trucks, and bicycles-most bulging with people, produce, and
parcels of all shapes and sizes. Tourists make quick forays into this world.
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 mighty
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 soon
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 discouraging insects.

Don't despair if you don't get the air-conditioned room. A delicately pretty
mosquito net gave our second floor room a tropical feel, and fans drew the
fragrance and sounds of the night through open door and windows. Long before
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 to
float beside you and hold your catch as you wade through the rice paddies
catching fish. Another holds your catch of frogs. There is a basket for
sticky rice, one for mulberry leaves and hungry silkworms, and one for eggs
from the odd long-legged chickens that roam the yards. The baskets are
lovely, but the basket maker sells or trades his baskets to the villagers
and there were none available for frivolous tourists to lug home.  An aunt
raises silk worms and weaves colorful fabric, while a 94-year-old granny
takes in work turning collars for a nearby factory.

A new canal slices through the family rice fields. Lamai's mother was
tending the vegetables she planted along the sides of the canal, while her
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 dry and
cracked around tender young plants. The plants were showing signs of stress,
and other fields were awaiting water before they could be planted. The new
canal helps, but the drought has affected it as well-it is only one elephant
deep when it should be two.

As we walked the fields, Jimmy told us how the fields are seeded with tiny
fish as well as rice. When the dikes are broken at harvest time, the excess
fish harvest is captured in nets and put in jars to age and ferment. The
resulting mess is a favorite snack locally, but the smell alone is enough to
push most westerners away from the table.

A highlight of the homestay was a visit to a nearby silk village. Baskets of
silkworms munched on mulberry leaves, and others had already spun themselves
into fuzzy yellow and white cocoons. The cocoons are boiled to soften them
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, the little
blokes chomp their way out, and instead of A 15 meter strand of silk you get
30 half meters." Nothing is wasted here. When the precious silk has been
unwound, the boiled body of the chrysalis or pupa is enjoyed as a tasty
treat. Jimmy said they taste like almonds. He lied. I tried one later at the
market.

The weavers spin the fiber into thread on primitive spinning wheels, then
dye and weave it on handmade wooden looms. Northeast Thailand, or Isan, is
known for its high quality silk and especially for mudmee, or tie dyed,
silk. The women wrap sections of the thread with straw or banana plant fiber
before dying it. Only the exposed parts take the dye. They use the resulting
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 throw urns
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 a corner
of the warehouse-sized shed. Though primitive in technique, Dan Kwian is a
large operation. Wood burning kilns harden and finish hundreds of pots a
day. Pots-man-sized to flower vase sized, ornately decorated, colorfully
glazed, or simple and stately-are shipped all over the world. Tiny hand
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 beer at
the onsite restaurant and watched our dinner being netted from the pond. The
next morning we dropped in at Lizzie's school, then visited the market at
the nearby village of Bua Yai. The Ko Phet villagers seldom buy food, but
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 last night
in Thailand encapsulated in elegant glass fronted rooms, nibbling on fancy
tidbits and sipping imported wine. But, we brought to the table a new
humility, a new appreciation for another lifestyle, and fresh memories of
warm Isan smiles.

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