Dan and I had been travelling for a few weeks in Malaysia during our first trip to Southeast Asia. In our limited experience, the country impressed us as modern and surprisingly westernized. We had flown across the world to immerse ourselves in something different, something exotic. So with that goal remaining, we looked forward to our next move, that being Thailand, for a month along its Andaman Sea coast.
We landed in Thailand through the back door, that is, by way of a forty-five minute ferry from Malaysia's Langkawi Island to the first coastal border town in the southwest. We arrived without any Thai money at the immigration office as there were no ATMs there back then. I blew this one since I did not anticipate the landing being 16 km out of town. I got frazzled.
"Gotta think. Gotta think".
What happens when you have no money is that you cannot take a taxi to town to get money. You have to have money to get money. Economics 101.
Meanwhile, Dan was having fun negotiating with the tuk tuk drivers, testing how low they would go, then pulling out his pant pockets dramatically and announcing, " but no money, no money." I was not amused and insisted that he stop telling people we had no money and I accused him of "making us a target."
There was an inherent contradiction in my logic however since if you have no money, you really can't be much of a target.
The problem was soon solved when I remembered I had an American bill stashed in my hat. Although Thai "baht" is the accepted currency, there is always someone who will take American currency.
The border town Satun is a transition place, rarely a tourist destination in itself. Mostly Muslim, the evening call to prayers singing out from a local Mosque made us both stop and go to the window. It was mezmerizing and melancholic and…. Exotic! The chant loses something though when Dan whistles it up-tempo, and I wonder who, besides the dogs in the neighbourhood, he might be offending by doing so.
Originally, we were to stay just one night in Satun to give us an opportunity to book our resort on the group of islands a few hours off this coast. But with the islands so small, and with the Germans having a cold winter, our first choice on Ko Lipe was all booked up by in-the-know foreigners. But a second choice on the island was available a few days later, on February 14. This meant we could either abandon the island idea and head north, or wait here. We decided on the latter since Dan noticed that there was a kite festival happening on February 13. That clinched it. We would stay in this beguiling town.
So here we are soaking in the "exotic". But it's hard work. Outside of resort areas, there is only fractured English. I've scratched key words in Thai on my palm and I’m starting to look like an Indian woman on her wedding day.
But a handful of words doesn't get us very far. Even Dan, so skilled in Latin-based languages is squirming. Priority words are "sorry/excuse me", being good Canadians, "thank you", and Dan's mantra, "how much”?
Neither do the Thais help you build linguistic confidence. Most of the time, their response to anything you say is to laugh.
"Sawat dee kap" (hello), says Dan.
Giggles and smiles and some one asks "Where you from?"
Howls. Then you buy something and take your change and say "Cap coon kaaaah" (thank you).
Guffaws and side-slapping.
If one is at all sensitive to criticism, you might stop trying. But I read that they simply find the sound of our words amusing. It's as if someone tried to say "good morning" in English and it came out "goat money."
On the physical level, Dan is finding it hard to walk down the street in town. There are many awnings stretching across store-fronts set at chin height for many western men. Dan needs to be alert to avoid them. But the sidewalks are often chewed up. So if he looks down to avoid tripping, he bangs his head. If he looks up to avoid the awnings, he trips into a hole. For once, I'm happy to be short.
Satun is a great place to experience an authentic Thai town rather than a resort town. In three days, we counted twelve non-Asians, us among them. Beer is cheap at $1 a bottle. A seafood dinner is around $4 in a restaurant (including tip and tax). There is much beauty to see excluding some pretty ugly dogs. One morning we fell on a woman separating squid into different sized containers. Thailand must be the squid capital of the world. You gotta love it, as I do, because their tentacles end up in just about every dish you order.
Finding the kite festival was challenging. We missed our ride there since the pre-arranged driver couldn't wait five minutes, or we misunderstood the time of departure. So we started to walk presumably in the direction of the airport where it would be held. But Dan thought he would double check on the directions so asked a clerk in a hotel along the way.
"How do you get to the kite festival?"
"Kites". "Big kites"
"Where is airport?"
"Ah. Airport. No here. Go to Hat Yai. I get taxi for you"
This was a mistake of course because Hat Yai was a town on the east coast, some 45 km away. We left.
Dan approached a gas station attendant. These people know everything.
"Where is the airport.... in Satun?"
"No airport in Satun."
"Yes there is. The kite festival is there".
I interrupted, "Dan. Quick. Make like a kite" I joined my hands over my head and swayed.
Blank from Dan. “Imbecile!”
Then Dan pulled out a pen and paper and drew a diamond on a thread.
Taking away the pen, I freehand sketched a young man holding the string of a kite with both hands.
"Ah. I know!" The attendant ran out to the street, fetched a tuk tuk, and instructed the driver. 20 baht and 5 km out of town.
We arrived in time to catch the end of the opening ceremonies. About 200 young girls were assembled on the tarmac dressed in long gowns of pink, purple, green or red with gauzy shawls. Their hair was pulled up on their heads and crowned with a magnolia-like flower. When the music began, they stepped out of their shoes and started to dance. They bent and swayed to gongs and drums piped in on the speaker. The crowd clapped enthusiastically and when it ended proud mothers collected their daughters and piled them onto motorcycle handlebars to whisk them home.
Meanwhile, Dan was running all around the airstrip looking for good photo ops and slithered in with the press and TV camera guys. We were the only non-Asians around which made us photo worthy ourselves. We spent the next hour picking around the food vendors and I used my Polaroid camera to the delight of the bug lady. She was selling deep fried crickets and slugs. I saw a guy pop them down like chips. The bug lady fills up a little bag, squirts them with juice and smothers on salt. It makes you thirsty for river sludge just watching it.
At the center of the pavement, four men were trying to launch a kite the size of a small Toyota. Suddenly, it stood up like a cobra and lunges. The men fell backwards like dominoes. One of them was dragged along the pavement and I realized that these things can be dangerous. Sailing overhead was a large orange kite but all at once it crashed, impaling the heat-softened asphalt. Another crashed but on a tuk tuk. Through all of this, the commentator was describing what's happening on a loud-speaker (not that Asians need microphones) like a Thai Don Cherry. To my ears the vowel-laden play by play sounds like:
"Ka la la WOW! Sa la la WOW! La ka. WOW."
This was Satun for us. An introduction to Thailand without tourism. A spacious, air-con hotel room with a splendid view over the mountains for $20 a night in an authentic town where the evening call to prayers is enchanting. It requires some work, but the exotic is really worth standing still for.