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A Helluva Long Way to Do Nothing

A Thai Trip Journal, 1989
Part VI: Doing Nothing at the Border

The word from COERR is: It can't be done. So much for that.

I tracked down the office of Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) as well, but no one was there. I'll try again tomorrow. For now, it looks like I'll have all day to kill.

I spent most of the day Tuesday walking. Aranyaprathet is a different world from Bangkok. It's relatively quiet, and there aren't many cars around. Traffic consists primarily of trucks, motorcycles, and three-wheelers. There are a few Bangkok-style tuk-tuks, and a lot of tricycles with a single seat in front for the driver, and a covered double seat in back for passengers. But there is another style of taxi here that I've never seen before, and it is incredible: they are massive, chopper-styled trikes, some as long as twenty feet. They are powered by automobile engines, mostly Toyota or Honda, and the front wheel is what one might find on a large touring motorcycle. It's steered by handlebars, and the driver sits toward the front. The back -- which is way back -- has a double seat for passengers, usually covered by a canvas canopy or a hard roof. Two automobile wheels are fitted on the rear axle. And there are lots of these things. I wonder who builds them, and who decides how long they should be.

In the afternoon, it began to pour down rain. I got soaked to the skin, but it was remarkable to see the steam rising off the streets. Many of the buildings have roofs of corrugated metal. Water running off the roofs was the temperature of bathwater.

As I was walking at the far end of the main street, a woman called out to me from a house along the road. "Hey you!" I turned around; there were four young women, maybe in their twenties and thirties, and a young baby. They were all smiling. "Hey you. Come here."

"Hello," I said. I walked over and they motioned to a stool.

"Sit down," the woman said, and I did.

Only one woman spoke English, and her vocabulary was very limited. "Where you go?" she asked.

"Just walk around to see," I said.

They asked a few question, and I asked a few. I took a picture of the baby, and then used one of the few Thai words I knew: "Lahkorn!" ("Goodbye!") They laughed, and I left.

Walking outside the town later in the day, I met a Thai couple, about my age, on a bridge over a small river. They were watching two young teenagers swimming. The man said something to me in Thai. "I'm sorry," I said, smiling. "I don't speak Thai. American. No Thai."

The only thing that he seemed to understand was that I hadn't understood him the first time. He pointed to an emblem on his shirt and launched into a very emphatic explanation. I didn't recognize the emblem, and I had no idea what he was saying. I pulled out my Thai phrasebook and tried to tell him, in pidgin Thai, that I didn't understand. He shook his head and started talking again. It was as if he thought I didn't understand because he hadn't given me enough of the details; instead of trying to simplify what he said, or relying on gestures, he tried to make his explanation longer and more all-encompassing. After several moments of this, during which I even tried speaking Khmer to him, I finally gave up. I shrugged. "Lahkorn," I said. "Lahkorn," he replied. It was the only time we understood each other.

In the evening, just after dark, I went walking to search for a good restaurant for dinner. I saw the first foreigners that I had seen in Aranyaprathet: first a couple, probably American, and then a man with long, curled hair, wire-rim glasses, and a tank top. He looked like a low-budget World Traveler, and in fact he was. He said hello, and we started talking. He spoke with a perfect English accent, and I was surprised to find out that he was actually German. We walked around for a while, trading impressions of Thailand, then picked an restaurant and sat down to eat. He'd been travelling for about ten months, and was going to return to Germany in a few more weeks. From our conversation I came to the conclusion that calling him a "low-budget traveler" was actually an understatement. He considered 200 baht ($8) for a room to be outrageously expensive.

(Looking back on that conversation years later, there is one thing he told me that has stayed with me for years. He mentioned that he regretted that on some of his earlier trips, he hadn't taken enough photos. "I'd be sitting somewhere, waiting for the bus for an hour, and it would never occur to me to take a picture. And then later I would forget that place." He was absolutely right, and on later trips I've made it a point to avoid that mistake. Now I take pictures of everything. Maybe those pictures won't be of interest to anyone else, and maybe they won't even be of interest to me. But how much are memories worth? If you are going to spend thousands of dollars to travel around the world, it's silly to try to save a few pennies on film.)

After we'd eaten, we strolled around a little more, then, at about 9:30, we went past my hotel and I decided it was a good time to stop walking. We exchanged goodbyes, and I went to the desk to get my key. The girl working behind the counter wanted to know if my hair was natural. Of course it was, and since I'd lost my comb it was also a tangled mess. She told me it was beautiful. With those fine words as a goodnight, I went to bed.

(Damn... since I'm now transcribing this as a 40-year-old with badly thinning hair, I can't even begin to tell you how much I miss hearing things like that!)

Bed, incidentally, wasn't the most comfortable place to be. The bed was incredibly hard; as a test, I put a small bottle of Gatorade down on the mattress and sat down three inches away. The bottle did not tip over. Truthfully, though, I don't mind a hard bed. The pillows, however, were thick and equally hard, and it meant that you awoke with a stiff neck regardless of your sleeping position.

Remember how I said that I would have "all day to kill" on Wednesday? It turned out that Wednesday intended to kill me first.

I woke up feeling stiff, as expected, but also a little sick to my stomach. But most of all, I felt profoundly tired. I went out to buy some juice and muffins for breakfast, then went back to the hotel and went back to sleep for another hour. When I woke up, I was still tired, and -- believe it or not -- cold. I hadn't imagined that it would be possible to feel cold in Thailand in August. After about an hour I simply kicked off my shoes and crawled back into bed, fully dressed. Soon, however, I woke up sweating. My stomach still felt lousy, and I slept on-and-off until about four in the afternoon. At that point I dragged my sorry butt out of bed and trudged wearily to the MSF office, where, not surprisingly, the word was the same: Without a pass from the Thai government, there is no way to visit the camps. I went back to the hotel feeling emotionally as bad as I felt physically. Still, I decided that perhaps I felt bad because I hadn't eaten much since I'd arrived in Aranyaprathet. I went back to the same restaurant where I had eaten the on Monday night and tried to eat some prawn fried rice. I could eat only about half of it, and felt even more exhausted than before. Back at the hotel, I became sick with diarrhea.

All night long, from six o'clock on, I awoke every half-hour, either hot or cold, and feeling vaguely disoriented. Not disoriented, exactly... more like I just couldn't quite gather my thoughts. I felt as though I was at that state of unreal, confused awareness at the boundary between being awake and asleep. Only when I would straggle out of bed to wobble to the bathroom would I feel as though my thoughts were lucid. At those times, the first clear thought was always the same: "Man, I am not making any sense." I vaguely remember, later in the night, rolling over, alternately lying on my stomach and on my back, and thinking the same agitated thought over and over and over: "I don't have anything! I don't have anything to do this!" I remember feeling angry, furious almost, because I was expected to do something or make something, and I had nothing from which to make it. It was completely nonsensical. What did I think I was supposed to be doing? I have no idea. I only knew that I didn't have what I needed, and I was damn angry about it.

Finally, when I woke up around 7 o'clock the next morning, I felt much better. I could think clearly, and while I was still weak, I no longer felt exhausted. I decided that I'd try to go back to Bangkok that day.

(Here, I have to comment on something that I had written in my journal: "With a visit to the camps now an impossibility, everything I do between now and Sunday feels like wasting time, just waiting to go home. I'm looking forward to returning to Bangkok. It's not that I liked Bangkok; it's just that I'm ready to go home. Bangkok isn't the destination. Chicago is. And Aranyaprathet to Bangkok is the first leg of the journey." Looking back on those words - written more than 13 years ago - reminds me of how much I've changed. I think I've become much better at adapting and coping with setbacks. Granted, I couldn't do what I had gone to Thailand to do... but why didn't it occur to me that I had so many other options? Why didn't I take those last few days and head to Chang Mai, or Phuket? I'm reminded now of the old joke: why is youth wasted on the young?)

From the local pharmacy, I bought some tablets to treat my diarrhea. They were manufactured by Searle. Searle had large office building along the expressway not far from my home in Chicago, and until that moment I hadn't even known what the company did. I was really counting on those tablets: the trip to Bangkok was four hours, and the bus had no bathroom.

It's hard to imagine that it will be fall when I return. When you are in tropical heat every day, it's hard to believe that any other kind of weather exists.

I know that when I return I'll be a little disoriented. Not because of culture shock, but because I've been planning this trip for a year. It's been a disappointment. Oh, well. When I get back, it will be time to move on.

This article contains eight parts:
Part One: Get Your Wings
Part Two: Orient Orientation
Part Three: The Colonials
Part Four: The Singapore Guys
Part Five: The Least-Laid Plans
Part Six: Doing Nothing at the Border
Part Seven: Back to Bangkok
Part Eight: Ayutthaya, Bang Pa-in, and Home