I’ve never been one to approach travel from the planning perspective, preferring instead simply to set the basic process in motion, and then let it evolve as it will. Thus, when I arrived in Thailand, I had made no arrangements beyond the air ticket and the first night’s accommodation, figuring that as I was arriving late in the evening, the last thing I would want to do was cast about for a reasonably priced room in a foreign country, especially one in which I know only two words of the language, “hello” and “thank you”. (Technically, I suppose, that’s three words, but let’s not split hairs.)
I had been in touch with several friends who had had some experience of Thailand, and I was waiting to see who might write back to me with some suggestions that sounded too tempting to pass up. When I finally checked in at the airport-adjacent hotel, sometime around midnight, I checked my emails and found a note from author Timothy Hallinan (The Queen of Patpong, Breathing Water), suggesting that I get in touch with a couple of his fellow writers, Christopher G. Moore (Spirit House; Asia Hand), who is based in Bangkok, and Colin Cotterill (The Curse of the Pogo Stick, Killed at the Whim of a Hat), who lives on the Gulf of Siam a day’s drive south of the capital. As it happened, Christopher was leaving for Burma to do some research for his next Vincent Calvino novel, but Colin emailed me back and said if I was up for making the trip, he could offer me a bunk in his guesthouse for a couple of nights. There were a couple of caveats: his place, he said, was a long way from anywhere that could remotely be considered a tourist draw; and I would be sharing my digs with six large and rambunctious dogs (as it turned out, there were four large and two small dogs, although he was spot on about the rambunctious part). Still, he allowed, the beer was cold, and that is no small thing in the tropics. So, one long bus ride, and one mildly terrifying mini-bus ride later, I arrived in the small seaside town where he lives.
Colin had suggested that I give him a call shortly before my arrival (surely, with my charming
personality, not to mention my two words of Thai, I should be able to borrow a phone for a local call, right?), and he would pick me up wherever the mini-bus dropped me off. That proved unfeasible, as none of the hardy tourists on the mini-bus had a mobile phone that worked in Thailand. I was deposited rather unceremoniously on a small concrete island amidst the lanes of traffic, the
mini-bus accelerating smartly the moment I cleared the door, nearly taking my trailing foot along with it.
In a small kiosk at the edge of the road, about thirty feet from where I stood, sat a group of four men, all of whom were grinning and calling to me, and waving me over. What with the undisciplined and seemingly endless traffic, it took me about five minutes to cover that thirty feet. As it turned out, none of the group spoke English, although one of them was able to ask me “Where you go?” Another
of the four, clearly the leader as he was wearing a uniform, asked me something in Thai, which of course I didn’t understand. I guessed that he was a cop. Or a postman. Or a boy scout leader. Good uniform, though.
I pulled out my piece of paper with Colin’s number on it and said “Colin Cotterill, my friend”. The
fellow looked at me and said “ Colin…my friend” back to me. He didn’t even try “Cotterill”. I pointed helpfully to the paper, on which was printed Colin’s phone number. Gamely, he entered the numbers into his cell phone, and got some generic phone company recording. At least I assume that is what it was, as he handed me the phone to listen for myself. Meanwhile the other three guys got in on the act, passing the paper around amongst themselves, scratching their heads in consternation. One even scrutinized it upside down, but I opted not to mention that to him. Then a guy seated astride a scooter at the edge of the gathering seized the paper, held a finger in the air as though he had just had an “aha!” moment, and rode off on the highway shoulder (against traffic, I might add), taking with him the only means I had of getting in touch with Colin. No worries, though, he was back in about five minutes with the paper sticking out of his shirt pocket, this time with the number rewritten in his own hand, and without the leading three digits that comprise the Thailand country code. The uniformed fellow took the paper back and redialed the number; still no luck. I noticed however that he had missed entering one number that motorcycle dude had written very lightly. I made a motion which I hoped would convey that I would like to borrow his phone for a moment, and he handed it to me happily. I tried the number once again, this time adding the lightly pencilled final “1” and sure enough, an English voice answered.
“Bruce, where are you?”
“Um,” I said, looking around, “I’m on a main highway, I would guess the main highway, in a small kiosk across the road from what appears to be the bulk of the town.”
“What can you see close by?”
“Well, there is a pink building on the corner, and a green one with yellow trim, and a sign that looks like it might be for pizza…” Everything I could see had only Thai writing, naturally, of which I can read not one whit, also naturally.
Ultimately, it was decided that Colin should talk to one of my compatriots, so I handed the phone back to the man in uniform. There was a lot of nodding, a few sentences of Thai, and then the uniformed fellow hung up. “Fitty baht,” he said. I had no earthly idea what he was talking about. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a two twenty-baht notes and a ten-baht coin, about $1.50 in US money. “You give,” he said, motioning me to give that amount of money to the motorcycle guy. I was fine with this, I would like to note. Without the motorcycle guy I would likely still be sitting in the kiosk, soliciting alms from passing tourists. So I pulled fifty baht out of my wallet and proffered it to the fellow in question. “You come,” he said, motioning me to his bike. Okay, I thought dubiously, now what? He motioned me to get on the back of the bike, which I did with great reluctance, and he started to accelerate out into traffic before I had even gotten a good handhold. Thankfully, he immediately stalled the bike, whose tiny 125cc engine clearly was none too happy about its oversize farang passenger. His companions hooted and catcalled from the kiosk, a chorus of ridicule easily understood no matter the language. The second time was the charm, and we sailed off into the six lanes of traffic, somehow making it across all six without incident, although I would not have bet money on that at the outset. He dropped me off in front of a place I truly did not expect to find in the small town, a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. I was seriously thirsty, so I ordered a large Pepsi from the smiling counter girl, and no sooner did I have it in hand, than Colin Cotterill walked through the entry door.