ASIAN SWAN SONG: Stir-Fried, Sweet and Sour (ผัดเปรี้ยวหวาน )
May 24, 2014
I turned sixty years old today, alone as usual, lonely boy in a lonely city—Bangkok—and I could get laid from any one of thousands of beautiful women (if I could get laid by any), and yet I’d likely find comfort in none. I know; I’ve tried.
Ten years ago I turned fifty in London: same deal—couldn’t buy a friend (though I probably could have bought someone a pint). I don’t drink any more, not much anyway. Ha! That’s the secret to my longevity. It was raining that day in London; I remember distinctly.
Things could be worse. Two years ago today I had a hot date with an external beam radiation machine, ‘Ol Sparky’ I called it, humming and buzzing while turning circles around me. He was my solid friend five days a week for two months trying to kill the prostate cancer inside me, how well he succeeded I’m not sure, since elaborate testing is expensive.
I hate this city, Bangkok; I guess that’s why I’m leaving, don’t know why I’m here in the first place. Oh, wait, now I remember. It’s been the crossroads of my life for the last decade or two, just like Los Angeles before it, and after, that other city of angels that keeps cropping up in my life for some reason.
But every leaving is also a returning, too, the same event simply viewed from another perspective, every act of escape also an act of going home, a return to first sources. I wasn’t born in Thailand, of course, but I lived here a long time. I came here of my own free will in 1992 for a week or so. I didn’t really like it, that first time. The culture of ‘girls girls girls’ came as a shock.
Things were very uncertain, too, politically, that is, a country with growing pains, in the process of discovering itself, establishing political boundaries. There was a vicious coup about a week after I left, an event immortalized in Thai history. Coincidentally there was one last week, too, more than twenty years later.
I eventually warmed up to Thailand and came to live here, developing a deep and lasting affection for the people, most of them, anyway, the ordinary people, the country people. The easy lifestyle and rural roots were very soothing to my city-addled brain and over-stressed life back in the US (in Flagstaff, yeah, right, ha!).
The lilting strains of Thai country music evoked a simpler way of life and less complicated approach to the world that seemed appealing. That’s only partially true, of course, but it seemed worth a try. This is the womb in which I would be reborn.
I ended up living here some eight to nine years, depending on how you count. I’ve also been to more than 150 other countries, depending on how you count. But I don’t live here in Thailand any more, just back now for a sentimental journey, maybe my last one. So I thought I’d try to go to most of the few remaining places that I haven’t been to yet. I’ve also been to seven other countries on this six-month trip, the longest period of continuous travel in my life, staying in no one place more than a week.
I have a sentimental attachment to trains, too, so I thought I’d pull my sentiments together for this trip, and see the remaining railways and railroad towns in Thailand that I haven’t yet seen, mostly in the south and central parts of Thailand. Trains sometimes seem like a metaphor for life itself, striving for permanence and immortality, though often settling for much less. Some towns and cities are built on rail lines just like others are built on rivers or oceans. Without the rails, you can only imagine them drying up and withering away, their connection to the outside world lost.
They say that evolution favors small easily adaptable units. If so then the train may be a threatened species. Trains are always late, and slow to arrive, a fact that somehow defines the genre, in direct proportion to the distance from the source. The slowest one I’ve ever had was a one-day train ride arriving a full day late, that on a ride from Bamako, Mali, to Dakar, Senegal. Today I’m going from Bangkok to Phet(cha)buri in central Thailand, less than half a day by train, if I’m lucky, and first stop on the way south.
Hopefully Thailand will be luckier than the railways, if it can ever get itself sorted out politically, though the current phase will be difficult, and when the King dies, all bets are off. It’s hard to imagine there ever being another king, the current one has been on the throne for so long, and is so revered. I fear for the country’s future when He is no longer there to provide continuity and guidance.
When tourists and travelers talk about southern Thailand, they’re generally talking about the major tourist centers of Phuket, Krabi and Samui, etc, but those aren’t the places that interest me. I’m interested in the places where local people live, not tourists. Towns and villages and cities here go by every six to eight miles, every one similar to the last one, but none exactly the same. There are few or no tourists. To be continued…