Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Tones

Greenleaf Guesthouse and Tours, Pak Chong. So I managed to find my way here, which was an unexpectedly arduous feat. This may seem obvious, but EVERYTHING IN THIS COUNTRY IS WRITTEN IN THAI.

The northern bus terminal in Bangkok is massive, with several floors of ticket windows going to all northerly corners of the country. There were about three windows with destinations written in English, and luckily Pak Chong was one of them, presumably because foreign tourists like me travel there to get to Khao Yai National Park.

The bus to Pak Chong was standing room only. It was the Thai version of the Latin American chicken buses or the rattletrap Kenyan matatu-buses, which means it had a little rotating fan buzzing from the ceiling, passengers with all sorts of food in their laps, and ticket takers in tight uniforms droning in Thai. I got stuck sitting on the stairs, which wasn't so bad because I got to sit down, especially after I discovered that my Lonely Planet guide put just enough distance between my butt and the scalding metal steps.

For some reason I assumed that if Pak Chong was written in English at the bus terminal, then it would be written in English somewhere in the actual town. So I didn't bother to ask where we were when we pulled into a town and some people got off the bus. After all, there was no sign anywhere that said, “Pak Chong.”

An hour later I looked at my watch and realized that I was three hours into a 1.5 hour bus ride. I tapped the guy next to me.

"Where is Pak Chong?" I said in Thai.

Blank stare. Thai is a tonal language so if you use the wrong tone people don't know what you're talking about.

"PAK Chong," I said, trying a different variation on the tones. "PAK CHONG?"

More blank stares.

"Bok Jong?" I said. "BOK Jong? Bok CHONG. Bak JONG. BAK Chong."

"Buck CHONG?" he said, his face lighting up. "Buck CHONG! Buck CHONG!"

I nodded vigorously.

"Buck CHONG!" he said, pointing behind the bus. "Pass already."

My standing-room-only neighbor started discussing my predicament with three other men, and after every head had managed to turn and stare at the idiot foreigner cleverly disguised as a Thai lady, they decided that I needed to stay on the bus until the next stop on the route, a city called Khorat (in Thai, goh-LAHD, if you ever want to find out if you’ve passed Buck CHONG). There I could catch a bus going back to Pak Chong.

Well, Khorat was another hour away. By the time I got there, found the right bus with the help of my kind and generous new friend, and took it back to Pak Chong, my 2-hour trip from Bangkok had become a 7-hour trip into the heart of Northeastern Thailand.

I think trying to get around in a country and culture and language I don't understand makes me realize how well I knew Kenya, and how comfortable I was getting around after living there for so long. It was really helpful to know Swahili, but I also knew how everything worked, and I could predict how people were going to behave. And because of that I knew how to navigate my environment to get what I needed. If I wanted to wash my underwear? Ask for a basin. If I wanted a hot bath? Ask the guide to boil water. The matatu tout will always remember to tell you where to alight if you ask him to. As much as Kenya infuriated me, it was very familiar place and I'd never be lost there.

So, thumbs down on the people’s bus in Thailand. Yesterday evening I took a minivan into Bangkok with Dr. Khin, who makes the 1-hour commute to Mahachai everyday. Thumbs up on minivans. They are new, clean, air-conditioned, and only one person is allowed to sit in each seat. The entire vehicle still has all its original parts from the factory, instead of being a Frankenstein vehicle created by welding together the remains of four or five different dead cars harvested from accidents that happened 20 years ago in more developed countries. There are no rattling windows, no missing rearview mirrors, no touts hanging out the window trying to recruit more people to stuff inside, no passengers with teargas-grade body odor reading your book over your shoulder and holding your wrist to stop you from turning the page because they’re not done yet, no drivers falling asleep at the wheel, no rusty door sliding off its rails and clunking onto the ground while unemployed men on the street leap from their drunken stupor and run over to try to force it back into place.

Minivans here are a lovely ride. Still, my other car is a matatu.


CMB said...

I had a GREAT time at GreenLeaf and . . . I had no problem arriving there via bus - silly girl!

Justina said...

What? How? I think Thai people automatically look out for you if you look like a tourist. If you look like me, everyone assumes that if you didn't get off at Buck CHONG then you didn't want to go to Buck CHONG.

Yen said...

I've so MISS you!

Ebony said...

"reading your book over your shoulder and holding your wrist to stop you from turning the page because they’re not done yet"

NU UH! Hilarious!