Friday 20 September 2013

Dead, Sexy - No 24

A primitive Idea
We were in Thailand again. The weather was hot and steamy; Bangkok was noisy and oppressive. It was a good time to take a night bus to the north of the country where it would be cooler and quieter.
     We whiled away time in the lush tropical gardens around Chiang Rai University. At its library we happened upon a recent paper written by Jon Boyce, an Englishman living among the Hmong hill tribes of northern Thailand.

     I wonder if he would welcome a visit from some fellow Brits. I thought. We decided that he would and within twenty-four hours, I had rented a motorcycle, bought a rudimentary map, packed some provisions, and were headed northeast toward the mighty Mekong River that separated Thailand from Laos.
Rural Thailand
      The feel of hot humid air rushing through ones hair made motor cycling an ideal form of transport in the tropics. We passed through a rapidly changing rural Thailand; water Buffalo in the paddi fields were being replaced by modern water tractors, houses on wooden stilt gave way to concrete stilts, most people had pickup trucks or small motorcycles, and except for very remote areas, there remained few unmade roads.
If you go down to the woods today you are sure of a big surprise.

Curiosity killed the cat

Two hours into our journey, we spotted a group of 70–80 people, gathered informally around the edge of a clearing in the forest. Being ever inquisitive, we stopped and hovered in the background. They seemed to be observing some religious formality.     
     A Buddhist monk, and two assistants, seemed to be conducting a happy and lively meeting: a large box sat on a pair of concrete trestles, under a very gaudy satin canopy tethered with lots of colourful streamers.
     We thought it might be a village council meeting. A few speeches were given, murmurs of approval made by the crowd, and incense sticks handed out to the gathered assembly, including me.
     Everyone took it in turn to go up to the canopy, light their incense stick, place it into the thick stem of a banana plant, clap their hands in greeting, and return to their place in the throng.
     As the last person came back, all eyes turned to me. Good-humoured calls were made, and I found myself being given friendly, cajoling pushes, to go up and make my greeting too. What the heck! When in Rome… I thought.
Hello and Goodbye
A Thai village meeting!
    At the canopy, I realised I was standing at an alter, the box on the trestle was an open coffin, inside of which a smiling ‘Aunt Fani’ stared benignly back at me.
     Without skipping a beat, I winked at her, lit my incense stick, clapped my hands, bowed my head in respect, said a quick ‘Sawatdee’ greeting, and turned around to make my rather embarrassed way back to the edge of the clearing, whereupon everyone broke out into smiles and spontaneous applause.
     The monk said half a dozen words, poured a bottle of spirit over the body, attached a ten-foot fuse wire to the coffin, staked it in the ground, and set light to it.
Wow! Goodbye Aunt Fani.
      Whoosh! The coffin, the tethered streamers, the canopy, and the pyre under the coffin were ablaze in seconds. 
    Wow! I don’t know who was more surprised! Poor Aunt Fani on her way to her maker, or myself for finding I had been the last to see her before she went.
     Whilst the fire raged, everyone mingled amid lively banter before drifting off to their villages.   
     I concluded that a public cremation is not an event to attend without some kind of prior warning. It had been a shock to the senses. 
Motel on the Mekong
     By late afternoon, we had reached the Mekong River. I eyed it with a certain amount of caution. I remembered my last near-death encounter with this mighty river, and had no wish to tempt fate again.
     We looked around for somewhere to stay the night and spotted a motel sign. Unusual. I thought, Motels are not normally to be found in Thailand. Warning bells sounded.
We pulled into the group of chalets called the Valentine Motel. Several young women were sitting in a group peeling and preparing vegetables. They burst into squeals of giggles when they saw me. We were well away from the tourist routes and therefore western men were something of a curiosity. 
     ‘How much is it for a room?’ I asked.
     ‘How long you want?’ replied one girl in faltering English.
     ‘Just the one night,’ I replied.
     ‘You want room all night?’ she exclaimed.
     ‘Yes,’ I said.
Preparing silk worms for spinning
     There was much chatter, laughter, and attempts to speak to Jean, whom they assumed spoke Thai because of her oriental features
     They gave us an acceptable price and took us to one of the chalets, I parked the motorbike under the carport and they immediately dropped a large bamboo roller-blind to shield it.
Thai Love Hotel
     We realised as soon as we entered the motel room that all was not as we had assumed. Everything was pink and feminine, large mirrors covered the ceiling and walls. This was a ‘love hotel’ where the local menfolk brought their mistresses; the screened carport was to hide their car from prying eyes.
     The room was clean and tidy. I checked the bedding; everything was freshly laundered. They apparently served food, which would be delivered to the room through a privacy hatch, ice cold drinks were available, what was there not to like? 
     We were at the end of the bitumen road and in need of a good night’s sleep before tackling the dirt track alongside the Mekong River. We decided to stay.
     I mused at the ease at which I had gone from being a supporting star at a funeral, to mooning at a whorehouse, all in a single day.
     Things could be worse, I supposed. I wonder what tomorrow will bring.
     Will we manage to escape unscathed from the clutches of the Mekong River …  Read more of this tale in ten days’ time - on September 30th.

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