I’d hoped I’d get the opportunity to visit my friend Dave and his wife Fai’s home in the mountain village – which I’d mistakenly thought was a farm – and meet Fai’s extended family. So I felt exceedingly grateful when they were willing to squeeze me into the truck already piled high with appliances and supplies. Fai’s mom was moving into her own little house, and they were bringing some furnishings and appliances donated by other family members who were moving out of the area. Dave is one of those inventive packers and he managed to fit in my big and small packs leaving a corner of the backseat for me. Fai took Bonnie into her lap in the front – they’re a bit more flexible about car seat laws here!
As a rookie traveler I’d spent the entirety of this trip on the tourist trail. Here was a chance to visit a place not even mentioned in the guidebooks and hard to find on any online map of Northern Thailand. Their home is in the village of Arunothai – not a little farming community at all but a rather large village. Dave told me there are 12,000 residents, but I find that hard to believe considering I could not find the place on Google Maps. The land that Google forgot?
Narrow dirt lanes fronted cement houses of varying size and modernity – depending on the prosperity of the inhabitants. The village is populated almost exclusively with Burmese refugees so Chinese is spoken as much if not more than Thai. English speakers are few and far between leaving me almost entirely dependent on my friends when it came to communication.
We pulled into the family compound, and an assortment of adults, teenagers and children swarmed out to greet us. But it was really just an acknowledgment of our arrival, not the hugging and kissing we might experience in our culture. Try as I might I could not keep track of who was who: Fai’s brother is younger than her teenage son and daughter I think, and then there’s another older brother who is moving soon. Aunties, cousins, nieces, babies, neighbors – my brain whirled in the attempt to remember foreign names and relationships. I finally gave up, retaining only a few key relatives (but not their names, alas).
I met Fai’s mother, a sad-faced woman who took my hand and held it tightly, staring into my eyes. I could only think of the story Dave had told about how her boyfriend had died suddenly of a heart attack barely a month earlier. This was a woman who had experienced the type of profound loss I could never even imagine. Babies dead. Husband dead. And now her boyfriend. I learned later that she’d only arrived a few months before and she did not yet speak Thai.
After we’d made our introductions, I went to help unload the truck, but was firmly led away and urged into the little store to “sit down, sit down.” Apparently farang (foreigners) are not supposed to do any work. My instincts wanted to insist on helping but I didn’t want to offend. Dave saved me by pulling a beer from the store fridge and handing it to me and we sat down together at their little outdoor table sipping our beers and talking about village life.
Fai’s niece, a little younger than Bonnie with huge haunted eyes, leaned on my knee then willingly hopped up on my lap. We cuddled as I chatted with Dave.
“She’ll take all the loving she can get,” he said.
The child (whose name I should have written down because I could not remember the three Chinese syllables no matter how many times they were repeated) snuggled up to me staring into my face and I spoke soothing words in English though I knew she couldn’t understand.
She was thrilled at the return of her cousin though, despite the fact that Bonnie bossed her unmercifully, and she jumped down to play doctor and patient with Bonnie’s new plastic stethoscope.
Fai, meanwhile had zoomed off on the motorbike with a female relative after a flurry cell phone calls and a string of instructions to everyone. When she returned it was time to deliver the goods over to Mother’s new home.
Everyone was excited that they’d found Mom her own place for only 600 Baht per month (about $20.) We pulled up to the newly constructed cement dwelling, and Fai’s brother and nephew jumped down from the bed of the truck and began unloading. This time they let me help – but only a little, by joining an assembly line. I passed boxes inside to the folks who had removed their shoes.
The house consisted of two adjoining rooms with cement walls and floors, open air windows, with an outside sink and bathroom. It contained a traditional squat toilet – I don’t think the western style sit-down ones have been around here for long. They’re harder to find when you venture into the rural areas of the country.
The crowd gabbled happily about the new and solid condition of the home, while Mom looked around wonderingly. She seemed a little stunned and I couldn’t tell if she was amazed at the luxury or felt trepidation about moving into this place.
Of course to me, this home seemed beyond just basic. It brought home the truth once again of how lucky and privileged I have been to enjoy insulated homes, private rooms, temperature control and indoor plumbing. The place was pleasantly cool in the late afternoon waning sun, but I wondered how it would be during the colder season.
Dave raved about how this was a real find at 600 Baht. And it’s true – I pay nearly that much for one night’s lodging around here, and some of those rooms came close to the basic facilities of Mom’s new house. I resolved that I would be grateful for my blessings when I booked my rooms, and remember where Fai’s mom lived (not to mention the types of places that house most of the world’s population.)
When we returned to the family compound it was time to take me off to the only guesthouse in Arunothai – on the main street in the village.
Remembering my resolution, I didn’t blink an eye when I saw the squat toilet in the bathroom (at least I didn’t have to share it) and I had to laugh when I realized the basic accommodation included a television set with a satellite device. (I learned later that it didn’t work very well.) The room was actually much more spacious and pleasant than my tiny space in Bangkok, excepting the rock-hard mattress.
Exhausted from the long, hot day, and feeling a little headachey and under the weather, I was grateful when Dave and Fai pointed out a little noodle shop a few doors up the street where we could grab some dinner. At that point I felt ready for some food and then straight to sleep – despite the fact that it was not yet 8 p.m.
Fronting the noodle shop was a glass case display filled with the pale-colored balls of meat that I’d noticed at food stalls all over Thailand. I’d avoided them thus far as they looked distinctly unappetizing. But Fai ordered for us, gabbling away in Thai or Chinese. She turned to me, “Chicken?”
Thinking that would be a safe bet, I nodded. But several of the suspicious-looking meatballs floated in the bowl placed before me .
I picked up my chopsticks and spoon and swallowed some noodles and broth as I warily watched the others attack their meatballs with enthusiasm. Okay, I thought, you have to try them. It’s good to always try things. As I placed the grey-blue ball in my mouth, I suddenly remembered Dave telling me about how they use EVERYTHING here when cooking, meaning every single part of the animal.
Gag. This thing tasted like that was a true statement. I swallowed the rest of the meatball as quickly as I could, thinking this would have been a good night to go vegetarian.
I usually try to eat what’s in front of me when I’m in another culture, but there was no way I could eat those other four meatballs. I pushed them around my bowl as I finished my noodles, then whispered to Dave, “Want my meatballs?” He happily took them and thus I was able to save face and not leave perfectly good food in my bowl.
The next day my intestines confirmed for me the fact that I had made the right decision in forgoing the rest of the meat. After all I am just a farang weakling.
Dave promised to pick me up at 8 am, telling me I was lucky because I was here on the morning that the town held its weekly Market. I looked forward to seeing an authentic village Market populated by locals. At the appointed hour I hopped on his motorbike and we rode the few blocks to the bazaar.
In Arunothai, instead of visiting Wal-Mart or the Mall, the residents head down to the weekly market where they can find all their cheap Chinese imports, along with locally made knives and machetes, all manner of clothing, bootleg DVDs, electronics, and of course the food: a plethora of fresh vegetables from the local mountain farms, slabs of meat, fish both fresh and dried (the fish heads are sold separately bunched together in a plastic bag). While there, they can partake in a hearty breakfast of skewered meats and/or noodle bowls piled high with spices, sugar and curry.
I wandered around staring at all these mysterious foods, wishing I had some idea what any of them might be.
School children laughed and elbowed each other, mothers and fathers shouldered babies in cloth carriers, wizened old men and women poked through the goodies or pointed to their own wares.
The sun rose higher bringing a bit more warmth as Dave greeted his neighbors and folks began to shuck off their wool hats and sweaters. We ran into Bonnie’s schoolteacher, Nemo, the first English-speaker I’d met in the village and he offered us a coffee or a shake from the adjoining cart. We gratefully accepted a coffee, and though I usually don’t care for Nescafe, the warm liquid sweetened with dry creamer actually tasted delicious.
Before collecting my backpack for the motorcycle ride down to Chiang Mai, Dave brought me to his favorite noodle shop, which serves them kao soy style in a coconut milk broth. I went vegetarian this time, and Dave was right – the broth was savory and rich, the fresh noodles tasty.
Stomachs full, we said our goodbyes to the family and headed south to my next destination about halfway between Arunothai and Chiang Mai: the town/village of Chiang Dao – a place where I looked forward to slightly more upscale accommodations, a soak in the local hot springs and some undistracted time to relax and write.