Sunday, July 16, 2006

Chiang Mai, Thailand, 1991

In Thailand, my cousin Daniel always has the Lonely Planet book open, reading the history of the Sukothai and Ayutthaya kingdoms, and figuring out which busses we need to take to get there. I mean to read, but I don't. I sit and watch saffron-robed monks flitter across bridges with bowls in their hands, and watch their shadows create depth on the stone paths. I visit hill tribes and watch an opium addict lie on a rattan mat and languidly blow horizontal smoke through stumps of teeth.

I stroll on a path with sixteen shades of green crowding me, and see squatting boys wash their kneeling elephants above rice fields. I stand at the bottom of a great rush of water spraying from above, letting the water pour over me until I can no longer hear its roar. That night I sleep in a hut in the hills near Chiang Mai with my tour guide, Ding, and let him pet my body as if I were a cat, as I lie there awake but feigning sleep, unmoving, unknown, foreign.

The next day our group goes bamboo rafting down the Mekong River. Ding and our other guides navigate with long poles and we veer around sharp rocks. Our raft is a bunch of bamboo bound together with ropes. If I don’t keep my balance, I will fall, and my body is swaying slightly back and forth. On the shore stands a Karen Padaung woman with a long neck supported by brass rings. She stares at us, and we stare back. Suddenly, I feel a sense of unreality, and wonder what would happen if the woman’s brass rings were removed. It doesn’t seem possible to me to put so many brass rings on one’s neck, and though I’ve read that the neck doesn’t actually elongate, that instead the clavicle gets crushed down, creating an illusion of a longer neck, it looks to me like her neck is nearly a foot long. My head sways back and forth as if I am gauging the weight of my own brass rings that it needs for scaffolding, and because the bamboo raft is tilting on the rapids. I briefly wonder if this river is dangerous, but then the woman with the long neck disappears from sight, and I see an elephant gracefully swimming by, and feel like this is a long moment in which nothing bad could ever happen.

I didn’t know elephants could swim so gracefully.

I laugh and laugh and laugh.

The night our trek ends is my 23rd birthday, and we all sit at a wooden table drinking Singhas and slurping fiery hot noodle soup, and Ding laces lotus flower necklaces around my neck, one after the other.

I am Lao-Thai, he tells me, looking deep into my eyes as if he wants me to know that that distinction is significant, or he wants it to be significant to me.

"I am leaving tomorrow," I tell him, my neck rung with flowers.

I will leave tomorrow and never see him again, but one day I will borrow the book from Daniel and check its index for "Lao-Thai", to see if maybe there was something important that I missed.


Blogger telfair said...

I had to Google "Lao Thai" after reading this but as always, you've left an enigmatic mystery in the heart of your elegant storytelling...

9:55 PM  
Blogger Ali la Loca said...

I loved this story. Besides the magical picture you've painted of Thailand, you've managed to inspire me to start writing.

You see, I'm starting to write my first book this week. It is about Brasil, so the personal/travel writing you do so well is just what I need to get in the mood.

2:04 AM  
Blogger joyfish said...

Thank you for the comments. You've both inspired me to keep writing through your comments and your blogs, and I'm honored if I've inspired you too.

11:49 AM  

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