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The Friendly Thai

Posted By Nora Dunn, Monday, June 1, 2015
Updated: Thursday, September 9, 2010

When we left Chiang Mai, Thailand, TJ and Ou drove us to the train station, and even waited with us while we readied our bags. It was an awkward parting; we had become friends with these two Thai gentlemen in the last four weeks, learning to laugh and enjoy each other’s company without the need for complicated semantics. But all of us knew very well that we may never see each other again, and we didn’t know how to say goodbye. Thankfully, our friends were already ahead of us: they pushed a wooden picture frame with a photo of the four of us into our hands. We still see their friendly Thai faces, every day.

My boyfriend and I weren’t always so sad to leave Thailand. Upon arrival in Bangkok (the main hub of this geographically long country), our sen-ses were assaulted with all manner of sounds and smells, and we were blatantly ripped off more times in the first day than we had been in our entire lives. We had come to Thailand with the perception that Thai people are incredibly friendly, and we felt betrayed by the reality we initially saw.

It was not until we slowed down and adopted a way of life in Thailand that we saw its beauty, and met our Friendly Thai friends.

Reeling from Bangkok’s noisy tourist districts with touts scamming us at every turn, we questioned our desire to stay in Thailand for the full 10 days as planned. In an effort to salvage the trip, we hopped on an overnight train to the northern city of Chiang Mai. We secretively stored our bags in the tiny bunks with us (which took up half of the cramped sleeping space) instead of leaving them on the luggage racks, where we were convinced they would be stolen. We felt so jaded, and were going to extremes apparently in the name of street smarts, but more accurately (and unwittingly) in the name of culture shock.

Our first salvation came the next morning in the form of a smartly dressed older Thai woman who sat near us. She spoke just enough English to tell us about her family, who she missed and was returning home to after being in Bangkok for a conference. She generously gave us the cake she packed for her breakfast, insisting that she was arriving at her stop soon and would eat then. We weren’t sure why she even thought to engage us in conversation (much less give us her breakfast), but we didn’t question this blessing. Wide eyed and thankful, we said goodbye to our first Thai friend.

With renewed faith in humanity, we disembarked in Chiang Mai with a bounce in our step. Now, it was easier to deal with the taxi drivers fighting for our fares as we left the train station with the other passengers; "They are simply trying to make a decent wage,” we figured. We agreed on a price for a driver to take us to our guesthouse; the price was probably too high, but at least we were comfortable with paying it, and we had relegated ourselves to the idea that we will never pay the lower local rates.

But even with this new attitude towards our Thai vacation, some of the pitfalls that await many unsuspecting tourists were inescapable. For example, the "authentic” Muay Thai boxing championship match we attended was little more than a practice session for some local kids, as was evidenced by the sea of white faces and complete lack of Thai fans around the ring. We were hassled by massage parlors, taxi drivers, and tour guides. It seemed that everybody wanted a piece of us, and we questioned everything.

We were again growing disappointed with our choice to visit Thailand. We saw little evidence of the world-renowned friendliness of Thai people. Instead, we encountered higher-than-local prices, untrustworthy tour guides, and obstacles to the tours we wanted to book. We had an agenda to "do Thailand” in 10 days, and time was running out.

Things came to a crashing halt in our travel agenda when Cyclone Nargis hit the neighboring country of Burma, devastating the land and compromis-ing the lives of millions, a mere few hundred kilometers away. Knowing that we had a talent for fundraising, we decided to cancel the rest of our Southeast Asian trip in order to lend a helping hand. Given our mediocre experience thus far, we felt no loss in canning our plans.

We wandered into an internet shop, where we had been a few times. We asked the owner – whose name was TJ – where we could buy a map of the area so we could determine how to get supplies to the Burmese border. Before we knew it, he was driving us to the shopping centre himself. When he discovered that we are Rotarians in Canada, he exclaimed "My father was a Rotarian! I will call the president of the Chiang Mai Rotary Club; he is a very powerful man, and he will help you”.

Over the ensuing weeks, TJ gave us unmitigated access to his shop to use the internet and telephone for our cause. TJ also became our driver, our translator, our friend, and even our cultural buffer. Here we were, starting an international NGO on the fly in Asia, where we couldn’t speak the language and only had the slightest of grasps on cultural etiquette. We felt we were constantly tiptoeing around making huge cultural blunders, and TJ became our honest guide during this time.

TJ asked for nothing in return for his generosity. And if we tried to save him time by taking a taxi somewhere ourselves, he actually became angry with us for not letting him drive! We were learning what it is to receive – and accept – the kindness that is typical of so many Thai people.

Through TJ, we met Ou - his college buddy, co-worker, and best friend. Ou was a round jolly man, who loved to crack really bad jokes and laughed heartily at them every time. As a self-confessed expert on Chiang Mai cuisine ("with a belly to prove it,” he would say, proudly rubbing his tummy), we enjoyed discovering foreign foods in restaurants that we would never have found on our own.

Over time, we developed a daily routine: TJ’s wife and young daughter came to the internet shop each morning and we all enjoyed a hearty breakfast of stir-fried rice and chicken or tofu, prepared by a lady with a nondescript food stall down the street. We marveled at the number of tourists who left their guesthouses each morning for a day of sightseeing, very few of whom ever noticed our tiny and inexpensive breakfast establishment.

Every afternoon at around 2pm, the bubble tea lady came by, pushing her large blue cart along the street. As a bubble tea addict, I was enrapt when I first saw TJ and Ou sipping on what could only be taro-flavored bubble tea – my favorite. I raced out to the bubble tea lady outside TJ’s shop, eager to order my own. She spoke no English, so I was relegated to choosing my flavor of the day by selecting a jar from the three rows of pastel colored powder, hoping that green meant apple and not spinach, and that yellow meant lemon and not the popular (but stinky) durian fruit. TJ came outside in hot pursuit, speaking with the bubble tea lady in rapid fire Thai before pressing a few bills in her hand. He had not only bought me a bubble tea, but had also negotiated the future price of bubble tea for me from then on.

I enjoyed a different flavor of bubble tea every day for the rest of my stay in Chiang Mai.

The laundry girl down the street became another staple in our diet of routine in Chiang Mai. Laundry services abound in most Thai cities near guesthouse districts. You pay by weight, and leave your clothes there overnight, receiving them the following morning, neatly folded and packed into a plastic bag. I constantly marveled at how they kept tabs on the steady stream of clothing going through, as I peeked into the back one day and saw rows upon rows of clothing all mixed up together and drying on racks.

Our laundry girl’s name was also Ou (but she had a much different way of pronouncing her name that it was virtually indistinguishable to our unrefined ears). We said hello to her every time we passed by, and she always enthusiastically stopped her singing and washing to wave and say hello – "hello” being the only En-glish word she had truly mastered. When I approached her one day with a button that had fallen off my shirt, she immediately dropped everything to sew it back on, and instead of accepting money for her services, she gave me a big hug and giggled.

The bubble tea lady and the laundry girl were not our only new Thai friends. Local business owners noticed that we weren’t moving on from the area, as most tourists do. The more we became regular faces to the locals, the more we were engaged. I had developed enough Thai to stumble through basic pleasantries and full negotiations with shopkeepers, who found my Thai accent laughable but my attempts honorable.

When I told TJ and Ou of a recent shopping trip, describing what I purchased and how much it cost, they simultaneously raised their eyebrows. Apparently we had crossed a line from tourist to local, as we were now fetching local prices on certain goods.

After three weeks of living in Chiang Mai, we had settled into a comfortable daily routine of fundraising and quietly living like the locals. But we still wanted to see the attractions, so we took an evening off to discover the night market with a group of travelers who had recently arrived. While pushing through the tightly woven crowds, my boyfriend spotted a group of elderly Thai men sitting aside and listening to country music blaring from a small radio. He smiled at this odd sight, and in making eye contact was waved over to join them. Our traveler friends were focused on shopping and kept moving, confused as to why we stopped so enthusiastically in front of a group of old men listening to bad country music.

Twenty minutes later, my boyfriend had just enjoyed some "guy time” with these Thai men. Not a word of English was spoken, but many smiles were exchanged, and the music (and booze) was a common ground that bonded the boys together. In those twenty minutes, not one market shopper even glanced their way, much less joined them in their camaraderie.

Once our fundraising project was wrapped up, we surveyed the time remaining on our six week Southeast Asian adventure. Six weeks initially seemed like a long time to see this part of the world, but we were nearing the end of our trip and had seen little more than Bangkok and Chiang Mai. We no longer had time to go trekking in the mountains, climbing and sunbathing in the Thai beach corridor to the south, nor did we have the time to see much of Malaysia or Singapore, as planned.

But we also had accomplished much more than we had anticipated. We met locals, who were more interested in our friendship than our money. We were taken to remote waterfalls where we frolicked in the water with children who had never seen white people. We took TJ and Ou and their families out for dinner to thank them for their friendship and support, where we discovered a beautiful restaurant on a lake with no English on the menu and some of the best food we have ever eaten. We bought hot roti for dessert each night from a beautiful woman with long hair and a funny hat, whose daughter sold us mangosteens by weight – without actually weighing them (and I always knew we got more than we paid for).

Slowing down our travels was the best thing to happen to our Thai vacation. We spent less money, and saw so much more. We made friends, and learned a way of life. I am happy to confirm that the conceptual image of the Friendly Thai is still a beautiful reality – if you slow down long enough to look.

Nora Dunn is a writer living in Australia. No, she is not THAT Nora Dunn.

Tags:  Asia  Bangkok  Thailand 

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