Andrew and I set off at an ungodly hour, after an equally unholy breakfast for the bus station in Phitsanulok on Thailand’s northern plains. I say ‘in’ Phitsanulok yet Thailand’s bus stations have an annoying habit of placing themselves away from the towns they represent. Sometimes by miles. It’s akin to Victoria Coach Station being situated in Watford ! One invariably needs a long tuk-tuk ride from the terminus to get to the city one was looking for in the first place. Perhaps this is quite intended. A kind of trade union. The drivers of the larger vehicles passing their passengers on to the smaller ones in order to share the wealth. Very socialist. Incredibly ‘Buddha’. Also, incredibly irritating for the selfish traveller!
After shelling out another tuk-tuk fare and being set down in the dirty place, we were informed that our bus heading west, to the ancient city of Sukothai, was ready to depart. We hurriedly bought our tickets and struggled onto the tiny vehicle which was actually not much bigger than ‘The Mystery Machine’ in Scooby Doo.
Some of the passengers were equally as mystifying, and that was excluding Andrew and I !
We did as we were told by the driver and placed our rucksacks at the front of the dodgy vehicle on a purple velveteen bench near to the driver. An incredibly officious woman, at least, I think she was a woman, clambered onboard making full use of her grandiose grey uniform and screamed at us to move our luggage. Of course, Andrew and I, whose Thai is shamefully limited to ordering beer and saying thank you, had no idea what the woman was saying, and she continued to rant until a helpful English teacher seated at the back translated for us. Mama Morton wanted us to shift our stuff.
So I then struggled to lift all the bags through to the back of the bus and placed them in a pile as instructed. When the uniformed harridan had made her exit, the bus driver immediately asked if I would move the bags again. This time back to the front of the bus.
I sighed, inwardly, as it is never a good idea to show displeasure in this country, not without risk of physical attack, and then lugged our belongings back to where I had initially placed them. Already in a harried sweat, I perched with one buttock on the only remaining seat in the van, next to a small elderly man with a terribly wide gait and a sour demeanour.
Two minutes later Eva Braun was back, this time screaming at the driver, who then screamed at me to move the offending baggage back to where it had whence came. I held my composure and awkwardly lifted the heavy backpacks once more to the rear of the aisle. By this time I was perspiring like a Grand National outsider, what with the heat and the heavy furnishings inside the bus.
I was exhausted and we hadn’t even moved anywhere yet!
I retook my seat, only with even less buttock, as now the little peasant man had managed to take up even more space and had grown even moodier. I looked towards Andrew, who had found himself a comfortable seat at the front with extra leg-room just behind the driver. I wanted to throw him a disconcerted look but he wouldn’t have understood, just as those bastards in club class never do.
We then lurched backwards, performed a seven point turn, and began our journey back in time to Sukothai, the original capital of Siam. It is from this city that what we now know as Thailand, her architecture, the intricacy of her culture, the piety of her people first blossomed. It is in Sukothai that the teachings of Prince Siddhartha, or The Buddha, became cemented into Thai life. Sukothai provided the mud in which the lotus of religions grew strong. But I digress from my meditation on our bus journey, and in true Buddhist style, that would never do.
So after several terrifying heavy braking incidents, when most of the passengers were flung forward violently in polite silence, we were on our way. I edged myself slowly onto the seat for which I’d paid, closing the scruffy pensioner’s legs with a little more force. (Surely such a small man can’t have such enormous testicles I was thinking). I pushed a little harder with my knee, it was then I noticed his crutch, the kind one walks with, wedged between himself and the window. A large metal affair, and worn with heavy use. Shame swept over me and I immediately struggled to pull myself away from him to allow him room for his complaint. I turned to him with condescension and smiled apologetically, as only an ignorant foreigner can. He beamed back – I felt even more terrible. I opened my packet of chewing gum, this time checking they were not nicotine flavoured, and offered him one. I assumed he would refuse due to his age and superior culture, but to my surprise he accepted my patronising offer and popped one in his gob – most pleased.
I was glad. We had made friends, and as the spearmint released it’s vapour I felt relaxed for the first time since climbing aboard. If, a tad uncomfortable.
I began to drift off for a moment, but was suddenly disturbed by a dreadful choking noise from my fellow passenger with whom I’d been chewing the fat. He coughed alarmingly and began to snort in a porcine fashion. I turned to face him but he was facing downwards, his whole body rattling with the obvious attempt to dispel the gum he had inadvertently swallowed. No one else on the bus seemed to be alarmed.
I have noticed before on transport in the east, that one could be sacrificing a goat on the back seat and nobody would bat an eyelid!
I wondered if I should bash him on the back, or call the driver. As we both began to panic the shrivelled man-made a terrific whistling wheeze and wallop, the gum shot out of his mouth with such explosive force that it bounced audibly against the back of the neck of the woman in front. She didn’t flinch. Nor did the gentleman who’d emitted the missile I’d proferred. They both remained upright, heads aloft and facing straight ahead.
I believe this is in the Buddhist nature, as the head is considered a very sacred part of the body and should never me touched.
I was also rigid, only with fear. It had been a narrow escape. I’d briefly imagined myself having a lengthy stay at the ‘Bangkok Hilton’ for manslaughter using a spearmint gum!
Eventually I drifted off into an almost contemplative state, not before removing my own chewy so as not to suffer a similar fate. I was again woken suddenly, this time by the sound of my head hitting the metal bar on the seat in front, as our driver came to another sharp halt. I looked hazily through the windows, expecting to see a dog, or worse, lying on the highway, but there was nothing. The way was clear.
Our driver jumped out from his door and made his way nimbly across four lanes of traffic, negotiating the central reservation like an Olympic hurdler he made his way into some far scrub land. Minutes later he returned waving a large scimitar, climbed back into the driving seat and restarted the engine. Again, nobody batted an eyelid.
Andrew turned to me from Club Class and raised an eyebrow, I stared back expressionless. The driver could see me in his rear view mirror and I was afraid if I showed any disrespect it might be me on the end of his sword.
Eventually we hit Sukothai bus station, which unsurprisingly happened to be at least ten miles from our final destination. We, or rather, Andrew, had a protracted row with a charabanc driver who wanted to charge us ten times the usual fare to take us to our guest house, until my other half skilfully spotted a local Song-thaw, whose chauffeur did it it for less than a pound.
The charming man even drove us to the door.
Although it happened to be the wrong door!
When the smiling hotelier of the wrong hotel explained this mistake he made us get back into his vehicle and drove us to where we were meant to be.
And with a smile that gleamed like silver – no weaponry in sight.
The next day we hired what were described as bicycles and hit the old city.
Fourteenth century and crumbling.
Our wheels probably hailed from the same era, only the decrepit UNESCO site was in better nick. But at least they had smoother brakes than the bus the previous day.
There was certainly an atmosphere in the park. Amongst the giant serene Buddhas and the huge moats studded pink with lotus flowers, gargantuan trees spread their emerald limbs providing welcome shade of which we partook readily.
The noonday sun searing our occidental skin like a laser beam, we were more than happy to pedal out of sight of the ever present pedlars and into the relative cool of the wood’s peaceful boughs.
A gorgeous mix of Buddha and nature.
It was most relaxing.
I would mention old Siam and ‘The King And I’ at this point, only I have discovered that Thais generally loathe the book and the musical. The idea of their beloved monarch, be it way in the past, cavorting with a ‘falang’ in such an undignified manner is most unappealing to them.
Should Deborah Kerr have ever made it to the real Siam I think she may have been hung drawn and clawtered!
The following day we climbed onto our torturous wheels again and made for some of the more outlying ruins of this truly magical place.
We came across a stunning standing Buddha, majestically perched on a hill which was over three hundred metres. We climbed, what was described in our guidebook as a shady stone walkway to the summit. We arrived with near sunstroke – the only thing shady about the ascent had been the guidebook’s description.
After a brief moment of contemplative perspiration we took the much easier route down and continued on our bikes through sunlit paddy fields, thankfully most of it downhill.
Andrew then stopped for a crafty smoke next to another ancient temple and I alighted from my saddle to take the weight off my perineum. I’m quite sure the machines we had hired were invented for eunuchs. I felt as if I’d completed the Tour de France in record time, minus the ubiquitous dope the pros use. It was then I heard a familiar sentence.
“Shit” Andrew exclaimed, “I’ve lost my sunglasses!”
“Where” I growled softly, wishing I’d borrowed the sword from the bus driver the previous day.
“ I don’t know, back at the first place – never mind, they were only twenty quid”.
“ I got you those for Christmas” I said indignantly, “they’re originals, and they were much more than twenty quid”.
“Were they?” Andrew asked soulfully.
“Yes” I maintained.
They were actually twenty-five quid from TK Maxx but now wasn’t the time to quibble. My innate Buddha nature told me that.
“We’ll have to go back for them” I said, with the enthusiasm of one of ‘The Famous Five’. Probably Anne. Sadly!
With that we were back in the saddle and pedalling furiously, retracing our tracks until we came to the giant Prince Siddhartha, still standing still on his hill. Unfortunately most of our route back had been uphill – we were now dripping.
We searched for a few minutes around the area and nothing. I was beginning to think we would need to re-climb the mini mountain in the midday heat to see if Andrew had mistakenly left them as an offering at the Buddha’s feet. Where was that scimitar?
Before we could begin our ascent, a group of park workers, who had seen us scouring the undergrowth called us over. And after a brief conversation, incomprehensible to all of us, one of them, with an oriental flourish of the hand, presented us with two pairs of spectacles. The sunglasses and the reading lenses Andrew had obviously dropped there.
We were both thrilled.
The honesty of the moment was truly touching, and Andrew was, I knew, secretly delighted that he’d held on to a pair of new shades for at least a week, and so felt compelled to tip. So did I,
“Don’t put them on your head next time – they always slip off!”
With that we were on our way again, cycling through the enchanted forest with optical protection and feeling optimistic about mankind.
We both knew it wouldn’t last.
Humans are not, after all, infallible – even when they believe in Karma. But for a moment, we were calmer, and we revelled in the knowledge that good people roam this great globe of ours too.
And in Thailand, one seems to bump into a lot of them.
So be kind. Look behind the obvious. Be Buddha.
Just don’t offer them a chewing gum!