Khae (pronounced “Kay” with a slight cough at the beginning) was about half the reason that I decided to come to Chiang Mai. After her nasty fall at Colin’s place the week before, she had gotten a doctor’s excuse from work for a month. She was in a fair bit of pain, and had somewhat limited range of movement (she couldn’t bend down to pick things up, and reaching above her head, to wash her hair, for example, was nigh on impossible). I thought I would spend some time with her and try to cheer her up, and perhaps give her a hand if she needed it. In the event, she didn’t need a lot of assistance, but she seemed happy to have me around for company, and we talked about everything under the sun, cementing a friendship that had started warmly but haltingly a year before. Khae arranged for me to meet, and hang out with, her “gang”: ChingChing, Sukie, and Fang, and then later on, an American girl named Allyson. Khae is the de facto earth mother of the group, the go-to confidante, the kind-hearted gentle spirit. This is not to say that she cannot get a bit grouchy by times, but it takes her longer than it it takes most folks I know to reach that threshold. She made sure that I saw all the must-see places in Chiang Mai, for which I will be forever grateful, as it is really one of the loveliest places I have ever visited. Breaking news: Khae just hooked me up with a Thai woodblock print artist, who is really great; I bought several of his prints, and I anticipate buying quite a number more for sale in Japan and the US.; Khae will be my Thai contact for purchase/shipping, etc. The full story of this will appear in Mysterious Orientations within the next few days; bookmark this page!
Koi (pronounced more or less like it looks, but the K sound is about halfway between a K and a G) was the second half of my initial reason for visiting Chiang Mai. We had talked for some length at Colin’s house, and I looked forward to the chance to get to know her better. Although Koi works with the others, as c0-worker or mentor, she runs with a different group. So it was only once or twice during my stay in Chiang Mai that I was in the company of all of them at one time. If you have been following Mysterious Orientations, you will remember Koi as the “Great Organizer” who shepherded a group of Burmese youngsters into a well-trained play unit, despite the fact that Koi speaks not a word of Burmese. While the others were in class or at work, Koi and I would often go out for breakfast, and we managed to make time for an occasional afternoon chat or supper as well. Koi has a dream to open a guest house in her late grandmother’s traditional Thai stilt house, located in a mountain village outside Chiang Mai. The house adjoins a working coffee plantation, and guests during the winter harvest season could actually pick their own beans, roast them, grind them and brew a cuppa in the space of a short stay. For Java-heads, this would be an unparalleled experience. The problem is that the startup money, while quite modest by Western standards, is kind of monumental by Thai standards. We have looked into kickstarter-like organizations to see if there are some funding options, and I am confident that she will have the place up and running by next harvest season. She is attractive, engaging, motivated and hard working; how can that not be a winning combination?
ChingChing (pronounced Shing-Shing) was our designated driver, piloting the crowd around Chiang Mai in her new dayglo lime green Nissan March, a small four-door car we get in Japan, but not in North America. I loved it; it is roomy and smooth riding, and it seats four more comfortably than my considerably larger Honda Civic, even though the exterior size is roughly the same as my Mini Cooper. Ethnically Chinese, ChingChing is really beautiful: perfect makeup; a great sense of style, and a photographer’s dream, as you will see from the many pictures I took of her. Many pictures, you ask? Well, yes, because ChingChing is also something of a ham, making flying leaps in between my camera lens and whatever I think I am taking a picture of at the moment (I am slightly, but only slightly, exaggerating here). Although her English is virtually as limited as my Thai, we managed to communicate very well, as her expressions telegraph every thought going through her mind; she made me smile constantly, and she made me laugh out loud more than anyone new to my life has in quite some time.
Sukie (pronounced just like you would think) was, in many ways, the group member I related to best. Where the others are all super-feminine, Sukie is a bit of a tomboy, yet warm, affectionate and exceptionally centered. When one of the others would channel her inner drama queen, it would be Sukie who would step in and calm the situation down. It was as if her motto in life was “go along to get along”, and when I explained that saying to her, she grinned and tapped her heart twice in a “that’s me” acknowledgement. Despite 40-odd years and a dozen time zones separating us, we shared an affinity for off-the-beaten-track music, and were able to turn one another on to lots of new (to us) stuff. Her tastes are eclectic: Lily Allen; Boys Like Girls; Hikaru Utada; traditional Thai music; LMFAO. And yet, she was entranced by Richard Thompson, Matt Andersen, Howie Day, and REM, none of whom she had encountered before. Because Khae was in some discomfort, she sat in the front passenger seat of ChingChing’s car everywhere we went. My spot was the place I would typically refer to as the penalty box, the center position of the rear seat, with Sukie to my left and the passenger(s) du jour on my right. Sandwiched as I was between several attractive young women, I was forced to reconsider the term “penalty box”. Often we would arrive home late, and I would have one cuddled up on either side of me, sound asleep, and not the least bit inhibited about using my shoulder as a pillow.
Allyson, the American member of Khae’s “gang”, hails from southern Alabama, but you would never know it from listening to her. A bit of interrogation about that unearthed the fact that she had gone to some lengths to shed the accent after being teased about it in college. Nowadays, you’d think she was from LA. We met one evening at a supper outing at some very local eatery, the kind with plastic tables and chairs, kids and dogs wandering among the diners, and curious locals surveying us with an equal mix of curiosity and amusement. On the menu, slotted in between more prosaic offerings, were scrambled brains and some unidentified raw meat dish I immediately dubbed “rat tartare” (and which I opted not to partake of). Allyson sat across from me, and as we were two of the three native English speakers at the table, we fell into easy conversation. For a woman in her early twenties, especially one from southern Alabama, she has an impressive number (and variety) of stamps in her passport: Thailand and Kenya among others. She occupies a volunteer position teaching English at Payap, a Christian university in Chiang Mai. She receives a small stipend plus a room in the women’s dorm, and she will stay for the remainder of the school year. Early on, we discovered about one another that we both have a love/hate relationship with writing, and both of us have to drag ourselves to the chair every time we feel the need to write. We chatted about favorite books, writers we admire, and so on for the better part of the evening. After that night, she was a regular member of our ad hoc group, and we had the opportunity to talk at length about pretty much anything: travels (naturally), family, boyfriends and girlfriends, religion. One of the peculiarities of foreign travel is that sometimes friendships can be sealed in a matter of hours or days, as opposed to the rather longer gestation period of a hometown relationship. Perhaps it is because there is an innate honesty shared among fellow travelers; after all, if you show someone your true colors, and they don’t like you, in a few hours or days one or both of you will be on the road, and you will never have to see one another again. On the other hand, if you really resonate with one another, you fast-track your way through the learning phase, and find yourself inextricably bonded with someone you didn’t even know a few days earlier. This is how it was for me with Allyson, and I’m pretty sure how it was for her as well (I hope so…).
Fang (pronounced something like “Fon”) is for me, the conundrum of the group. There are two distinct sides to Fang: the slightly rambunctious, flirtatious and outgoing public persona, and the warm, curious and introspective private persona. Having met her twice before, and exchanging only the briefest of pleasantries, I was really surprised to find that her English was quite good, perhaps the best of the group (hence my earlier comment about not putting too much stock in first impressions). As you can see from the pics, she is adorable, but if you ask her what she thinks of herself she will respond with “too fat”, “not beautiful” and the like. That said, she is almost as much of a ham as ChingChing, regularly asking to be photographed alongside charming hill tribe children, or next to one of Chiang Mai’s myriad exquisite sights. Often she would look at the photo and ask dubiously “Am I beautiful?” Naturally, the skeptic in me had a sense that I was being played, so when I took this photo…
and she asked me “beautiful?”, I took a critical look at the picture and said, definitively, “Beautiful…flower”. This earned me a slap to the back of the head, which I no doubt deserved. That said, on my last day in Chiang Mai, as we arrived at the train station literally one minute before the scheduled departure of my train to Bangkok (which, oddly, turned out to be perhaps the first on-time departure in Thai railway history), it was Fang who was running alongside me down the platform to my sleeping car near the end of the train. Hustled onto the train by an impatient conductor, I never had the chance to give her a goodbye hug.
Shortly after I got settled in on the train, I received a phone call from Khae’s number. One by one, the Girl Guides of Chiang Mai came onto the line to say the goodbyes we had missed out on at the station. Allyson was last to the line, and she told me that there wasn’t a dry eye in sight, which I could easily believe; a similar situation was playing out on the southbound train.