The Bruce Tierney / Colin Cotterill Saga Continues, January 2013

Last year about this time, while on a trip to Thailand, I had the opportunity to visit author Colin Cotterill, a long-time favorite of mine thanks to his Dr. Siri series of mystery novels set in 1970s Laos (The Coroner’s Lunch, The Curse of the Pogo Stick, and enough others to keep you busy for quite some time). Another writer friend, Timothy Hallinan, no stranger to Thailand his own self, engineered the meeting, and expressed a great deal of envy that he was stuck in LA and unable to join us. As it happened, I arrived at Colin’s house just in time for the annual Children’s Day at the local Burmese school that Colin founded several years ago. It was a profoundly moving experience for me to spend the day in the company of thirty-odd Burmese refugee kids who accompanied their parents across the border to Thailand in search of work, often without the benefits of papers or permission. Colin and his team, of which I became an ad hoc honorary member, led the kids through games of musical chairs, concentration, and stomp-the-balloon-attached-to-the-other-guy’s-ankle-before-he-can-stomp-yours. There was music; there was something resembling dancing. There was fingerpainting, which morphed into body-painting, as fingers were used to scratch an occasional itch or to poke a classmate. Lunches were provided, followed by mounds of chocolate ice cream, as much of which ended up on the outside of the students as on the inside.

In the normal course of things, these kids sleep on floors, eat rice and vegetables (if they are lucky), dress in hand-me-downs. Essentially, they have nothing, yet they are some of the most engaged and gregarious human beings I have ever met. I was pretty humbled.

So—fast forward to 2013. I am once again taking my midterm break from Japan in Southeast Asia. I flew into Bangkok about ten days ago; as usual, I had no plan. I did, however, fire off an email to Colin before I left, and was pleasantly surprised to find out that this year’s Children’s Day would be taking place two days after I arrived in Thailand. Colin suggested that I get in touch with his adopted daughter, Nok, and take the train down the coast with her group, all of whom were going to participate in the festivities. Nok was amazing: when she found out that I was coming, she arranged a hotel for me for the night before our departure, accompanied me to a great local restaurant for a late supper, and secured a train ticket for me. It was like having a travel agent, translator and personal assistant all rolled into one. I imagine I could have managed all that on my own, but not without considerable gnashing of teeth and tearing of my few remaining hairs.

Nok and Khae, Supper at Colin's

Oh, I almost forgot: Nok also arranged an early morning taxi for us to get to nearby Hualumphong Railway Station, from which we would catch the train to Lang Suan, some eight hours south of the capital (by “some eight hours”, I mean some number between the scheduled eight hours and the rather more likely eleven or twelve). The taxi ride was pretty amusing. Nok and her friends Khae and Koi were in the back seat of the tiny Toyota Yaris, stuffed beneath monster plastic travel bags full of toys for the kids. I sat up front, my two carry-ons in my lap. In a few minutes I would find out that this was but the tip of the iceberg: the trunk was full as well, and my services as an indentured bearer would be required. We hefted bag upon bag to trackside, heaving a collective sigh of relief before making overdue introductions.

I had met Khae last year, and although her English was a bit fractured (still much better than my Thai), we got along great. She had (and has) a warm smile and a warm heart. She also has a wicked sense of mischievous humor, displayed most prominently when we were playing the card game UNO, the object of which is divest oneself of all the cards in one’s hand. Every time I would get down to my last card or two, Khae would drop a “draw four cards” card on me, give me a soulful wince, and say one of her best-pronounced English words: “Sorry!” She almost looked believable. Almost.

Khae, the girl whose mischievous smile suggests she is not the least bit sorry...

The newcomer to the group was named Koi, a pretty girl from the north who speaks very good English, switching seamlessly from Thai to English and back, often within the same sentence. I would discover that in addition to her facility with languages, she could display the organizational skills of a Marine drill sergeant, but I am getting ahead of myself.

Koi cuts into a durian, which smells basically like fermented sweat socks

Late in the afternoon, four weary travelers alighted the train in Lang Suan; by the time we finished loading our stuff into Colin’s small Toyota truck, we lacked only an elderly woman in a rocking chair to complete the Beverly Hillbillies effect to a tee!

Khae, Koi, and Colin, plus one overloaded Toyota Mighty X

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