Monday, October 28, 2002

Chang Mai 2

Friends: Last night Laurie and Esther and I had the pair of wooden benches in the back of one of the ubiquitous communal red pick-up truck taxis all to ourselves. Anyone can flag these taxis down, whether it is occupied or not, and negotiate a fare. Ten bhat (about a quarter) per passenger is the usual rate. When the taxi stopped to pick up a Buddhist monk wearing the usual bright orange robe, Esther and I quickly switched sides, so she and Laurie could be on one side opposite the monk. Monks avoid contact with women. Even if they should accidentally touch a woman, they'd have some absolution to perform. With the bumpy roads and sudden stops, there was a danger that he and Esther might brush against each other if they were seated on the same side.

We haven't seen as many monks as I thought we would, sometimes just two or three in a day, and usually early in the morning. Here in Chang Mai with its 300 temples, as many as Bangkok, monks are more common, but they certainly aren't a dominant presence. I saw quite a few yesterday morning at the base of Doi Suthep, waiting for a ride up. On my descent I passed one of those red pick-up truck taxis packed with monks. I was able to overtake the taxi , as I could take the turns faster than it could. The monks were quite gleeful, applauding and waving, as I caught up to them and went by. The monks come in all ages, from pre-teens to the elderly and are clean shave, head and eye-brows. Most Thai males sometime in their life serve a stint as a monk, for a couple of weeks or months. Only a few devote their life to it.

We've also ridden in a car several times on excursions to visit friends of Esther's beyond range of the taxis. Yesterday, Renee, a white-haired regal Tennessean about to begin collecting Social Security, drove us out to our luncheon. She lives in a condo on the 14th floor of a 16-story building. Her rent is $200 a month, the same as Esther pays for her house. Renee said she could never drive back in the States again, and not because of the difficulty of going back to left-hand drive, but because she has gotten so used to being able to make u-turns at will and drive generally as she pleases. She, like most of the ex-pats we have met, returns to the States every year or so. She has a son's graduation from medical school to attend next month. She missed the graduations of her two other sons, and since she has only three children, this is her last chance to attend one of their graduations. She's presently busy planning a local gala to raise funds to build a school for one of the nearby hill tribes.

When we returned to Chang Mai after lunch we went in search of the English paper the "Bangkok Press." We tried more than half a dozen stands. At each we were told "finished." It's a daily and has several sections with news of the world and of local interest. A story in Friday's paper said more than 400,000 cars will be sold in Thailand this year, up from the projections of 320,000. I'm not surprised. They are everywhere. The most inaccurate information I read before embarking on these travels was that 80% of Thailand's motorized vehicles are in Bangkok and once one left the city, there would be hardly any traffic.

Every city and the arteries leading to them have been clogged with traffic. At least the roads are first class and have service stations to match. When traveling the "super highways," as they are called here, we have to remind ourselves that we are in Thailand, and not the U.S . There are Shell and Texaco gas stations. Giant green signs, in the same format as those on U.S. Interstates, span the highways announcing exits and towns. But unlike the U.S., traffic drives on the left-hand side of the road and rage behind the wheel has yet to intrude upon this land. So far, the cursed automobile hasn't altered the pleasant Thai demeanor, other than to make them want one.

I successfully made a phone call to Esther the morning before we reached Chang Mai from 60 miles away with a local phone card, but I was thwarted later that evening when I tried to call her to alert her that we had reached our agreed upon meeting point a couple blocks from her home. Not all the pay phones accept phone cards, and I couldn't figure out what coins to use. After several minutes of frustration a young teen-aged girl came along and made a call beside one of the phones I had tried. I waited until she finished and showed her the number I was trying to reach. She took a one baht coin from her purse and dialed the number and then put in another one baht coin. I noticed she dialed the three digit area code along with the six digit local number, something I didn't think was necessary to do.

When Esther answered, she immediately handed me the phone and absolutely refused the two bahts I tried to refund her. And she was long gone when the phone returned one of the coins after I hung up. Esther said school children are taught to go out of their way to be helpful to foreigners. She gives her students assignments to have conversations or interviews with them. We later learned we could have been spared the pay phone hassle if we had known the people we frequently see at tables along the road with a large yellow "2 Baht" sign were offering phone service on a cellular phone. But then we would have missed out on another example of Thai hospitality.

Later, George

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