Two Backpacks

trainee Buddhist priest

Chapter 12 - Meeting the family Thai style!

            Our flight leaving Guangzhou is delayed for three hours, but once onboard the Air Asia flight, the journey to Bangkok passed without a hitch.

            As we enter the airport, I experience a strange feeling of apprehension. My brother, Tim, and I have stayed in touch via Skype, but it’s the first time I’ve seen him in over ten years; it’s also Ron and Tim’s first meeting.

            It’s ten past three in the morning when we clear customs and exit into the arrival hall. Leaning against the guard rail is my tall, bearded younger brother and next to him is the diminutive figure of Pensri, his Thai wife. It’s so good to see him again after so many years. I rush into his open arms and am immediately crushed in his bear-like hug. Once released, I introduce Ron and meet my sister-in-law for the first time.

            From the outset, it’s clear we’re going to get on like a house on fire. There’s no awkwardness, only banter and a genuine willingness to get on. The emotions of seeing Tim again overwhelm me for a few moments. As we walk towards the car Tim’s hired to take us all to our hotel for the night, I brush away my happy tears.

            The four of us fly to Surin the following morning and are met at the local airport by my Thai rellies. There’s much handshaking and kissing of hands – a traditional way to welcome elders – it feels strange to be classed as an oldie at sixty!

            Tim leads us to his large, four-wheel drive and gets in behind the wheel while Pensri takes the front passenger seat. Ron and I slide onto the back seat with Pensri’s mother and one of her brothers; the remainder of Pensri’s family pile into the uncovered tray-back, together with our packs and other luggage.

            The trip takes us through flat rice fields and passed ramshackle villages lining the roads; the apparent poverty reminds me of Indonesia, particularly the island of Madura. Just as conversation was difficult on that first night in Bangkalan, when I met Hari’s family, so it is again seated next to Pensri’s mother. Her gap-filled smile shows red-stained teeth and gums. She then speaks to me in rapid-fire Thai.

            I look at Pensri for help, but she’s concentrating on messages on her phone. All I can do is return her smile before turning my attention to the passing countryside.

            Forty minutes later, we stop outside a modern house with a large tiled porch and neatly kept garden. Pensri introduces Ron and me to more of the family – brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles; it seems everyone has turned out to say hello.

            Again, we go through the ritual of taking and kissing hands, after which we receive bright yellow platted wristbands to wear, a sign of welcome.

            ‘Make sure you wear them at all times, day and night,’ my brother instructs. ‘Don’t take them off for at least three days; it’ll bring bad luck.’

            There’s much ‘Sawasdee kha or khap’ (hello in Thai, the kha or khap depending on whether you’re male or female) and ‘Khop khun kha/khap’ (thank you) before we finally settle down on the terrace. The humidity is heavy. It’s draining, and I’m tired. I’d give anything for a shower and a nap!

            Instead, the family prepare a welcome lunch, an array of Thai dishes, including Massaman curry, my favourite, a mix of Thai spices, beef and vegetables, Penang curry, Pad Thai, vegetable spring rolls and sticky rice. The food is delicious, but conversation with my newfound family is difficult. I have no one to translate while Tim is helping Pensri in the kitchen. So, I simply smile whenever someone speaks to me and accept their offer of more food!

            When Tim and Pensri join the group, conversation becomes easier as Pensri translates the numerous questions asked by inquisitive rellies. It’s great fun and fantastic to see my brother so happy. When we finally reach our beds at close to midnight, Ron and I are exhausted. With the mosquito net tightly secured around our bed, we fall into a deep sleep.

            A noisy rooster welcoming the new day wakes me at around five. I can hear movement below in the kitchen and outside the sound of voices in the distance. Peering from our bedroom window, I see the day has already started for the villagers. As the sun rises above the horizon, men trundle large carts along the dirt track in front of the house, and women tackle large piles of dirty washing.

            I slide back onto the double bed beside Ron and gently stretch my legs and arms while allowing my breathing to slow – long deep breaths to the count of four before exhaling to six.

            My thoughts wander to times when Tim and I were kids, to the carefree life we lived while growing up on the Kent coast. How life has changed for us both! Fifty years ago, we wouldn’t have imagined being together in Thailand.

            I turn on my side and gaze at Ron, at the gentle rise and fall of his chest. We’ve been together for nearly two years. During that time, we’ve discovered each other’s strengths, quirks and idiosyncrasies; travelling has brought us even closer.

            In all our time together, there’s only been one serious argument. It happened in Bali at the start of our trip, a trivial disagreement that quickly grew into something that could have ended our relationship and travel plans. Realising the danger, we both pulled back from the brink of walking away. Now, Ron gives me free rein when it comes to our travel arrangements – while I allow him to carry my backpack when needs must! It’s a good partnership.

             I’ve also learned that Ron’s happiest when the internet connection is good – his idea of relaxation is to spend time surfing the net.

            The rooster’s crowing finally wakes Ron. He stretches, turns on his side and smiles. ‘So, what excitement has Tim planned for us today, I wonder?’

            Downstairs, I discover that Pensri and her mother have prepared breakfast for us all. The set table offers an array of different dishes, including fruit, sticky rice and steamed buns.

            After a lazy morning, my brother announces there’s to be a procession that afternoon.

            ‘One of the young men from the village is entering the local Buddhist monastery. There’s always a celebration. Come on. You’ll enjoy it!’

            Ron and I follow my brother onto the street. A crowd has already gathered. In the distance, I can hear music; the bass beat reverberating through the still country air.

            ‘There he is!’ exclaims Tim, pointing to a lorry covered with flowers, the flatbed at the rear draped in traditional bright yellow cloth.

            There are two trucks in the procession, the first carrying the young man; the second has enormous speakers tied to the back, blasting local hip-hop music.

            Solemn, the novice sits with his head bowed and wears a gold-coloured headdress, his tunic an ochre-brown. In his hands, clasped together in prayer, are incense sticks. He looks pensive, perhaps frightened at what lies ahead. Two Buddhist monks dressed in saffron-yellow robes sit immediately behind him.

            I wonder if they’re there to prevent him from doing a runner!

            In contrast to the solemnity of the monks, the villagers are happy and encouraged in their revelry by the availability of beer from stalls along the route.

            A group of young boys rush between us, laughing and screaming, but agree to stand still long enough for me to take a photo of them and their mischievous smiles.

            Tim and Ron have taken advantage of the cheap beer, as have the Thai rellies! By the time the procession ends, the men of our family are very much the worse for wear!

            Later that evening, Tim, Pensri and the family take us to a fish restaurant outside Surin. Ten of us are seated around a circular table in a bamboo hut. Perched on stilts in a rice field, floodlights illuminate the water around us. Large fish swim lazily by, oblivious to the fact they are about to become our supper!

            The dishes are delicious, and the beer is plentiful.

            ‘Don’t drink too much tonight,’ I whisper to Ron. ‘We’ve got to be up and away early tomorrow morning.’

            ‘I’ll be fine,’ replies Ron, as he lifts his bottle to his lips. ‘But you go carefully; you know you can’t drink as much as you used to without getting a headache!’

            He’s right. I’ve started to get migraines again. The last time I had a cluster was when I lived in Indonesia. I’d been lucky enough to find a reflexologist in Surabaya who had cured me. I’d asked Pensri whether she knew someone in the village who could help, but without success.

            ‘I’ll just have to be the sensible, sober one then,’ I reply as I reach for my 7UP, topped with a slice of lime and a wilting sprig of mint.