Recently I came across a file containing part of a novel I started writing a number of years ago, then put away and more or less forgot. Since re-reading it I’ve been trying to continue the story, which has allowed me to “travel” in this time of Covid, since the novel is set in northeast Thailand near the Cambodian and Vietnamese borders.
I pulled out books of faded photographs, guide books, one of Thai phrases and even a journal and settled down to recall the excitements and challenges I experienced travelling alone to an unknown place, where I didn’t know the language and where I had committed to teaching English at a teachers’ college for six months…
Thais are a wonderfully hospitable people. I was assigned a house on the campus and frequently taken to town to shop and eat out and on explorations of the countryside, as well as to parties, weddings, special events like the Elephant Festival in Surin and to teachers’ conferences in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, where my colleagues made sure I saw all the sights.
Every morning I woke about five o’clock to a delicate pink dawn, and the harsh but cheerful sound of the local roosters crowing. It was the coolest part of the day and often a little breeze would be shaking the papaya and tamarind trees in my yard. It was a pleasure to stand behind the shutters of my bedroom listening for the musical clinking which preceded the appearance of orange-robed young monks, tapping on the bowls they carried. Marching along the narrow road, they were met by my neighbours who knelt at the sides of the street to “make merit,” tak bat, by offering up food taken back to the temple to be shared with the monks’ elders. The smell of the dust kicked up by their bare feet mixed with that of the food created a unique odour, both dry and spicy.
Food came in every sort of variation from a basic pad thai of rice, vegetables and fish sauce, or morning glory stir-fry at the night market, to elaborate banquets where vegetables and fruit were sculpted into flowers and every dish was a piece of art. When I was invited to visit the nearby town, we commonly ate at the duck and sticky rice bar, sitting on high stools, the sides of the bar open to let in the breeze.
Students liked to picnic in the park around the town’s reservoir. Sitting on the dry spiky grass under flame trees covered in scarlet blossom, they played stringed and wind instruments. At parties everyone took a turn singing, and some, trained as classical dancers, gave performances at college events.
In the villages, rice was still cut with scythes, the harvesters moving across the fields like dancers, the water buffalo allowed to wander, sometimes into my garden, and intricately patterned silks and cottons woven on hand looms. In the town, the well-off and educated had every possible mod con and technical device to hand and transport ran the gamut from overloaded bicycles, often carrying whole families, to chauffeured limousines.
Wonderful memory! Once stimulated, I am back in that place where plumbago and bougainvillea pour over walls and lotus float on a pond as I walk to my morning class.