“Hi there! My name is _____.”
These magic words that can open doors, all over the world.
I’m on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Krabi, Thailand, and decide to go out on a limb and introduce myself to the couple sitting next to me. What a wonderful idea.
Peter and Bua are natives of Krabi, speak English, and the three of us immediately take to each other. I pull out my trusty notebook, and they teach me a dozen or so simple Thai words to get me oriented.
Since I just changed gears and booked the flight at the airport two hours before, I have no agenda, no accommodations, and no plans.
At the airport, Bua helps me exchange money at a fair price, purchase the right SIM card for my phone, and offers to drive me into town. I gratefully accept all of this help. Peter’s brother pick us up, and before I know it I’m in the center of Kribi, a small but charming tourist destination in the south of Thailand, with a dozen different hotels and hostels to choose from.
After getting settled into a room, Bua and Peter drive back to pick me up again, and take me to their favorite restaurant nearby for my first Thai dining experience. The restaurant, an open-aired establishment on the street, is filled with only Thai people.
When we walk up, the servers and patrons all look at me curiously, but kindly. The Chef, a mister “Wat,” is clearly the central entertainment of the joint. His kitchen is right next to the dining area, totally open to public viewing. If intensity can be measured on a scale from 1-10, this guy would merit an 11. Sweat pours from his face as he shouts, yells at the top of his barrel-chested voice, and dashes back and forth. Huge spurts of fire, some times five feet high, erupt from the half a dozen sizzling woks he simultaneously tends.
Peter and Bua instruct me to say “Sa wa day crab, de Wat!” (How are you doing, Mr. Wat?) at the first opportune moment. At one point when he races away from the kitchen to the other side of the restaurant, I shout, “SA WA DAY CRAB, DE WAT!”
A moment of silence ensues in the entire restaurant. Wat stops dead in his tracks, and looks at me. Everyone holds their breath. Then he throws his head back, and starts bellowing a booming laughter at the top of his already powerful lungs. The silence breaks, and the rest of the restaurant follows suit. When we finally leave an hour or so later, everyone smiles merrily and nods their heads.
Over the next few weeks, Bua acts like kind of a big, protective sister to me. She offers suggestions on the best sites to see, makes sure I don’t get ripped off, and even insists on driving me to the bus station when I leave, claiming “she was going in that direction anyways.” One day she organizes a “surprise” experience for me, mysteriously coordinating a meeting with her and Peter.
I show up at her place of work, and Peter is waiting with his Kawasaki motorcycle, spare helmet at the ready. Flip flops, shorts, and camera in hand, I jovially dawn the helmet, and jump on the back. Having been separated from my Triumph Motorcycle back home for the last five months, riding on a bike with more than 50CC is a glorious treat.
First stop is a ropes course. It turns out Peter’s family owns parts of a few different businesses around town, so before I know it, I’m strapped into a harness, climbing trees, and zip-lining back and fourth 50 feet off the ground. When I try to offer to pay, they fervently decline, in respect to Peter.
After another brief motorcycle ride, we are bumping down a dirt road, through a forest. I’m still wondering what’s in store for this destination when I spot a ginormous pile of poop that can only mean one thing, given that I’m in Thailand…. Elephants! Before I know it, I am up on top of a massive male named Bo. He is strong, cheerful, and feisty. And, we are almost the same age.
I know elephants are used widely for tourism in Thailand, and the humane side of me was wary about seeing them. I was happy to note that the elephants seemed to be well treated, and each one had his or her own personal caretaker, who spends night and day attending to their individual needs. I had seen elephants in movies and pictures of course, but being around them, feeding them, looking into their eyes, riding on top of their massive, lumbering, powerful backs, was unlike anything I expected. I was giddy with excitement for the next two days.
During my last weekend in Krabi, Peter and Bua invited me to go with them to Koh Lanta, a famous island about two hours south of Krabi town. Think picturesque beaches, laid-back culture, crystal-clear waters, kimono dragons.
“Are you sure it’s alright if I come?”
“Yes, of course!”
“I mean, you guys don’t want to, you know, go alone?”
Peter and Bua squint confusedly at me. Something is getting lost in translation.
“No, is fine. You come, Nick!”
“Are you sure its not a… a…. romantic trip?”
The reaction is hilarious. The confused frowns of incomprehension turn into shouts of laughter, and they fervently shake their heads to assure me the trip is not a romantic getaway.
Peter and Bua were unexpected friends that made my trip to Thailand a delight. They were patient, friendly, accommodating, and wanted nothing in return for their hospitality and kindness. I hope that one day they can visit me in California, so that I might pick Bua up from the airport or give Peter a ride on the back of my Triumph.
And imagine, what if I hadn’t plucked up the courage to say, “Hello, my name is Nick!”
Out ‘n About Krabi:
Hot, sticky heat. Blair of motorbikes, taxis, and buses. Smell of gasoline, of food, of coffee, of flowers, of trash. Solicitous shouts. Powerful, unforgiving sun. A different language. A different culture. A foreign country.
An old woman naps, curled up on top of her cart of potatoes.
A multitude of people, sitting, waiting patiently, wear black in homage to their dead king.
Old, conquered temples. Once magnificent structures now lean. Old, forgotten spirits.
Monks walk amongst tourists.
A crowded ferry ride up the river. A crisp, refreshing breeze on the water.
A two-hour local train ride, only 50 cents.
A toddler wobbles up and down the corridor. People smile.
An old lady sells mangoes. Sticky rice costs extra.
I like to explore on foot. Sometimes ten miles per day.
My favorite restaurant is in the front room of a man’s home. His 13 year-old son is the maître d’.
The food is 2-3-4 times more expensive at the tourist spots. I think the food on the street tastes better anyways.
The dishes are spicy, but not that spicy. Eyes widen when I add more chili.
My favorite coffee is “Cafe Boran” (Coffee “old style”). Strong coffee with condensed milk. People chuckle appreciatively and shout to their friends when I ask for this in Thai.
I stand up on the bus to let an old man sit down. A woman pats me on the back and shouts “gud job!”
I walk past a man in an alley every day. He’s deathly thin, he has no clothes and no possessions, but he always smiles at me.