-Bill Bryson, discussing traveling in Neither Here nor There
Elephants are sneaky bastards.
Going from a tourist haven like Chang Mai to a city like Phitsanulok, Thailand is like marrying a wife that cooked and cleaned but now stumbles through the day binge drinking. What a bitch. All the sudden the road signs don’t include English translations, public transportation is sparse, non-existent, the stores aren’t selling pasteurized milk. People stare. It’s as if I’m in a foreign land or something.
From Phitsanulok I took a day trip to Sukhothai, Thailand and biked around the historical park, the ‘old city’ regarded as home to the 1st Thai kingdom, an offshoot of the Khmer Empire, from the 13th century. 150 years later Ayuthaya, which I’m currently pedaling through, became the Thai capital, flourishing from 1350 to 1767, until it was eventually sacked by Burmese invaders. At one million strong Ayuthaya was supposedly the largest city in the world around the 17th century. Here I am, enthralled by structures over twice as old as measuring from the conception of my home country, mesmerized by a history I have no bloodline ties to. At least not this lifetime.
Upon returning to Phitsanulok from Sukhothai in the early evening I walk right into a parade. It erupts in front of me in the form of crashing symbols, a deafening drum beat, and dragons made out of paper mache. Then I find myself turning away. You won’t see this sort of stuff back in the States.
A child, he can’t be more than five years old, is standing on the shoulders of another. Making up the top of the human ladder. Five more men are below, each standing on the deltoids of the one underneath. It’s at least thirty feet of human. Don’t worry about the young boy on top. There’s an ambulance following the human ladder as the man on bottom begins inching forward. Then struts. Thirty feet of legs and torsos and arms swaying with each step, the crowd ooing and awing while I gnaw on my lower lip.
The child on top, he looks like he’d rather be anywhere else on the planet right now. Like he’d rather be cleaning toilets or getting prodded with a cattle rod or wading stingray infested waters. I’m at my empathetic best, sort of feeling how he’s feeling. Sort of tingling with the energy and excitement of the moment, but it’s all doused in anticipated dread. Hoping the moment doesn’t ignite.
Hey, at least an ambulance is on-site. That kind of makes it okay in a Third World sort of way.
Halfway into the spectacle the boy adopts a glassy look. As if he’s staring through everything in eyesight. Transporting his mind to another place, another time. As his feet return to asphalt he comes to, beaming with pride, and marches along with the other members in his troupe. Congratulations. You don’t have to suck your dinner through a hospital straw tonight.
As I’m checking out of the guesthouse in Phitsanulok the woman working the desk asks, “Can I go with you?”
I don’t understand.
“You go. I go with you.”
“So, where we go?”
It’s time to do what I do best. Play the part of the village idiot. A method actor, I’m always in character. Shrugging, hands up, a quizzical grin. A new wrinkle to the role, I bring out the espanol. No comprende. A touch of Francais. Je ne comprends pas.
Real Time Travel Tip #2: When in doubt, pretend that English is a second or third language for you as well. That I naturally have a hard time pronouncing many English words finally works to my benefit. And finally, finally a semester each of Spanish and French in college pays off. It was about time I cashed in that dividend on those two million dollar textbooks.
In Thailand it’s all about naa’ , or ‘saving face.’ Most Asian people endeavor not to embarrass themselves or others. Great lengths will be taken to avoid confrontation. As an amateur to the culture this was my way of sidestepping potential humiliation.
Later, on the train ride to Ayuthaya, what I’m thinking is: why not? I’m not opposed to a traveling companion for a little while. Oh yeah. Because after ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’ we’d sit in silence until the split. Wait, that’s about the extent of my social skills with English speakers anyway. Hey, conductor, how about hitting the reverse button?
Astronomers dropped the ball. There was no advanced warning of the solar eclipse experienced in the ancient city of Ayuthaya. Turning around and there’s a large, gray snake suspended a foot from my face. I’m staring at an elephant turned into a taxi. Not as large as its African brethren, the Asian variety can still weigh up to 12,000 pounds and this particular specimen is at least fifteen feet tall. While I don’t disguise my shock well, I do manage to recover before urination. A Thai ‘driver’ sits on the neck as two Caucasian tourists--the American variety can weigh upwards of an astonishing five hundred pounds--are being transported. It’s not the beast’s size, but his feet that truly impress. Such soft contact with the earth, pillows for soles, the elephant sashays off as I stomp in the other direction.
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