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Letters to Jim: Tales of Surratthani
by Guy Hormel
As I watched my four year old kid hippy hippy shake with the other sweaty kindergarteners to Wham's Last Christmas, creatively interpreted as a Thai fandango, dolled up in a scarlet and silver lame swim suit, at her Oonrak School Christmas pageant in Suratthani, I had an insight; she's the only thing I've ever loved aside from the arts and alcohol.
Not much happens here in Surat. It's a sleepy southern river town of around thirty thousand that sometimes hot, dirty, and a tad chaotic. Although it may have once had salad days of majesty. Nearby Chaiya is reputed to have been the regional capital of the Mahayana Buddhist Srivipaya Empire. This kingdom at sea dominated the Malay peninsula and much of Java 1500 years ago. Bathed in legend and mystery, archaeological discoveries at Chaiya hint at the empire's former splendor.
Now Surat's the transit point to the outlying islands, most farang just pass through. Possibly spending the night but then hustling off to Samui, Phan Ngan, or Phuket. It's pretty much of an ordinary Thai town. That's why I like it.
Viewed from the inside of a moving tuk tuk taxi, outsized pug ugly mongrels hump nonchalantly on a main drag. Finer, read air conditioned, restaurants feature delicate renditions of "I Think I'm Going Out of My Head" and "We Got a Groovy Kind of Love"; two parts Thai mandolin and flute with a just a dash of computerized percussion. And the grandly named Pacific Center is really a plain jane, three story, cement mini-mall featuring plastic fantastic fashions for the well turned out Thai teen. A bold neon sign on the way to the head defines essential services:
The last time my family and I were here, The London Royal Circus came to town as part of Surratthani's ninetieth anniversary festival. It was definitely the fourth string team; tawdry and Felliniesque in a wryly consoling way. Not a Brit to be found; just tired Russians and Asians from the former Soviet Republics. Lots of toy poodles, but no jungle cats or pachyderms. What you might expect in a scaled down version at an elaborate children's party in Beverly Hills. Still it was great to see a live show with all the inherent risks. We felt sorry for the performers because there were only about thirty people in the house. Only six in the so called "VIP" section where we sat; ten bucks for adults and two fifty for kids. So we clapped if it was remotely deserved. And at the curtain call stood on our chairs cheering and whistling as loud as we could.
Kierkegaard was convinced a person could walk off any number of maladies; emotional, physical, or spiritual. No doubt he was right. So I'm happy I can stroll from the hotel across the nearby river to the Koh Lam Poo, a tropical island park that usually has a cool breeze off the water. Thermal pink, orange, and yellow flowers stare out from ardent green. A ladies' auxiliary meets at outdoor pavilion shrine complete with golden Buddha. Hot floral backdrop replicated in their pink polo shirts, monk's orange robes, and the yellow bunting draped around the pavilion.
Couples lie on mats, toes entwined, under gnarled shade trees. Huge mottled rust and green leaves plunge earthward to make fetching patterns on the grass. Giggly teenage girls dressed in short shorts and autumnal jean jackets whiz by on motorbikes shouting, " What's your name.?" Swarming dragon flies render viscous shadows on the glstening riverside pavement. And languishing coconut trees nod with the weight of stout testicular fruit.
Surratthani means "city of the good people." And it is. Everyday folks befriend us here and make life more enjoyable: The warm hearted staff at the affable BJ Hotel allow my daughter to play with impunity behind the front desk. I found out she tutors the maids in simple English. They're too shy to ask me. So when they see my kid, they point to everyday objects. She answers, "towel", "glass", "pillow"... A Country Shaman/Chiropractor doctors my degenerative discs. His desire for the lingua franca extends to, "muscle", "tendon", and "spasm" ... A lively Chinese family feed us every morning at their excellent dim.sum restaurant. My wife brought them a set of traditional Korean masks they proudly hung on the wall. And I wrote them a promotional blurb in English to attract transient foreigners.
The other day I had coffee with Lek, the youngest daughter of the family
that owns the internet cafe I frequent around the corner from the BJ. In
the afternoon it's usually full of high school boys gaming themselves into
soggy oblivion. The lads get a kick out of it when I bring in my kid and
she jams on line talking back to Dora the Explorer. But midmorning it's usually
quiet. Lek was home for the holidays enjoying a break from the big city.
She's a twenty something architectural designer in Bangkok. She commented
that Thai culture is an amalgam of Chinese and East Indian civilizations.
She also said her Chinese and Indian friends in Bangkok are constantly telling
her that she is too open hearted. More or less screw everyone else and get
what you can. I think the native Thai ethos, characterized by an acute generosity
of spirit, gives a needed balance to other Asian precepts too often suffused
with a corrosive coveting. I hope that doesn't change too much with transformation
to a more bourgeois society. One which is already bringing fuller pockets
and fuller stomachs.
Speaking of full stomachs: Obesity is increasingly a problem in the burgeoning Thai middle class. All over Asia really. But here like China it seems to be a source of affluent pride; especially in ones children. I've seen pre-schoolers so bulky they can barely walk without assistance. My wife made a Korean's racially innocent remark that some of the pudgier, dark skinned Thai women look African American. She's right. Cruising down the street, they do a compact version of the Big Black Lady Shuffling Waddle. The men still seem generally scrawny except for micro beer bellies.
I have heard some intriguing tales here. They seem to ooze out of the transcendental
Thai ether. Jim, there may be close to a million frigid stories in our rarely
naked city, but there are plenty of sultry ones here; Thai and farang as
well. The stories I've heard open a window on a capriciously eccentric and
exotic place. The Thai imagination is so dense with ghosts and spirits, that
people's lives are imbued with a unique necromantic verity. All is "true" yet
not necessarily factual. Let me give you snapshot sketches of some Suratthani
THE CHOPPED HARLEY LADY BOYS
In mid-town Surratthani is a Harley shop owned by two "Lady Boys", Sivit and Ornjong. The two transvestites are soothsayer/exorcists. So their shop is also the psychic center of the neighborhood. Often the place is full of anxious people desirous of an encouraging word about the future. Or requesting the lads help rid them of some trouble or a poltergeist that is plaguing their lives and turning their luck sour.
And the local crowd that hangs around the shop, comprised of a variety
of ages, genders, and orientations, acts as a chorus, providing constant
kibitzing and kvetching about everyone's supposedly private business.
THE HOBBIT LAUNDRY TWINS
Two gnomish, sixty something twin sisters Noy and Noy, different tonality
makes these two different names, are founders of a successful laundry. They
own the building where they work and live, and have a respectable amount
of cash in the bank. They grew up in a dirt poor rural family of fouteen,
that would have been larger but for a high infant mortality rate. The younger
kids were sometimes children of the older girls and their father. So Ala
Chinatown , "She's my sister. She's my daughter ... She's my sister
and my daughter." The ladies seem quite accepting of their taboo family
history. They commune daily, and even argue, with the spirits of their deceased
siblings at an ancestral spirit house in the back room of the laundry.
TERRY AND THE PIRATE
Terry is a young American entrepreneur from a sixth generation military family. He is a former army ranger who owns a language school financed after his small U.S. security company was bought out by Pinkerton's for far too much money post 9/11. His Thai lover/ manager Goong, is American educated and niece of the governor of the province. One of his teachers, Gabriel, an Irishman crazed from too much opium and whiskey, came to believe he was the reincarnation of a famous Thai pirate. He also simultaneously fell in love with Goong. When she didn't reciprocate, he threatened to kill her. She told Governor Uncle who ordered Gabriel whacked immediately. Terry managed to put the kibosh on that in the nick of time. But personally escorted the Gaelic lunatic out of the country.
Terry is very socially responsible. A trained medic, he volunteers tirelessly
in the ER at the local hospital. He closed down his school after the Boxing
Day Tsunami. He and his entire staff when to Phuket to help out. And he is
hopelessly addicted to Thai women. A big handsome guy, he may have slept
with an impressive percentage of the local women under fifty; professionals
THE MONKEY TRAINING COLLEGE
The Monkey Training College is a primitive jungle facility about a half hour outside Surat. Started thirty years ago by Ajarn Somporn, the school does daily demonstrations of their training technique. Up until recently it was a major attraction for Asian tourists.
Mr Somporn learned how to educate the monkeys by being in harmony with them as sentient creatures. His teacher was Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, one of the most influential monks in modern Siamese history. The college trains monkeys to work on coconut farms. Elementary school lasts for three to six months and monkeys learn how to get the coconuts down from the trees. Smarter monkeys can go on to secondary school where they learn to put coconuts in a bag. A few of the best and brightest go on to high school where the monkeys learn to do almost everything a human worker can do. The training process in quite benign. The animals are never struck or punished. When the monkeys get too old to work they stay on with their adopted families much like retired retainers.
After Ajarn Somporn died his daughter, Som Jai and her Dutch engineer husband,
Jan took over. They struggle to carry on her father's legacy in the face
of the glitzier demands of a changing tourist industry and a fire that left
both Jan and the facility disfigured.
SCAR FACE PONG
Pong is a frightening looking, but kindly mid forties gigolo. Every week
he has breakfast at the above mentioned dim sum restaurant with a different,
attractive young women and another adorable offspring. His face has been
slashed more than once by a jealous lover or husband. He refers to his scars
as "love wounds" and considers them an occupational hazard because
the women do support him. What's his secret? The female staff at the dim
sum joint just giggle when asked.
THE ANTI - IMPERIALIST OONRAK SCHOOL
Big John is a massive and crusty sixty something Englishman who was a member
of the British Navy's special forces during the dawn of the Vietnam war.
He was a true believing, gungho patriot. But his participation in black ops
for the U.S. military, during that fledgling conflict forever radicalized
He quit the military in disgust and dedicated his life to education. He became an elementary school teacher and conspiracy theory aficionado, eventually rising to the position of assistant principal. John retired early to Thailand and with a business partner started the Oonrak School, an excellent pre-school/kindergarten.
That partner Jorge, grew up in Montevideo then fled with his family to
Australia after the CIA backed military coup in 1970's Uruguay. Both he and
John are gentle, extraordinarily gifted teachers of young children. But get
them talking over a few beers and their utter contempt for the American Military/
Industrial Complex that so drastically affected their young lives comes out
MOT THE SOCIALIST SHAMAN
Mot was the number one healing shaman in late 1960's Suratthani province. He reportedly even raised a few folks from the dead before they got too ripe in this tropical climate. It was said he lived surrounded by ghosts because of potent trance medium abilities.
In the early 70's he became the head of the Socialist Worker's Party for his district. He led peaceful demonstrations of disenfranchised Thais in hopes of a better life. Mot was a non-violent revolutionary. As a friend and devotee of above mentioned, Buddhadasa, his Marxism was saturated in a social protest brand of Buddhism.
After government backed hit men shot him to death in his home, he was widely
reported to have been seen and heard around the province giving comfort to
a widely grieving populace. Beseeching them to refrain from any acts of vengeance.
THE TURN ON CAFE
The Turn On Cafe is a funky, alfresco living room/ gallery/ restaurant/ lending library run by three talented Thai artists, Big, No, and Ga. After attending university and exhibiting with some success in Bangkok, they returned to their Suratthani roots for some fresh inspiration. Their restaurant is a mecca for both farang and hip Thais. Lots of cross cultural hooking up of course. The three artistic gentlemen supplement their income by trading a little Thai stick under the table. And as the night turns to early morning the stoned out, drunken dumb show is a more fun than ferocious bacchanalia.
Big and Ga have relationships with Canadian and English women respectively.
The puzzling and often frictional dynamics of this reversal of the more common
western guy/ Thai girl relationship provides additional entertainment.
THE BALLAD OF BOSIE AND NERAYA
Bosie is a sweetheart of a middle aged, Swedish alcoholic with aqueous blue eyes so empathetic they seem to be perpetually on the brink of tears. He is a former heroin dealer who lived for over a decade on the Full Moon Party island of Koh Pha Ngan. He had to flee after he was robbed of ten grand and unable to pay off his Burmese connection.
Broke and hiding out in Suratthani he tried to make ends meet by teaching a little Svenksa flavored Anglais. That's how he met Neyara, a drop dead gorgeous upper class Muslim of a certain age. She had recently ended a long and brutal marriage in which her husband regularly forced her to engage in multiple configuration sex with prostitutes of all three Thai genders. Realizing she had met her soul mate, she soon invited Bosie to become her lover. He thought he had been carnally around the block. But Neyara showed him how truly far he could travel with his sandals off.
Neraya asked Bosie to move in her tiny house. Her now much more modest circumstances the result of being royally screwed by local Sharia law. The fact that Bosie was penniless was of no consequence. To her tenderness is everything. Lucky for Bosie he agreed to co-habitat. Soon after settling in, he had a heart attack brought on by a surfeit of rot gut Thai whiskey. Five minutes later to the emergency room and it would have been curtains.
Bosie recuperated nicely. Just in time for the next crisis. His former
girlfriend, Oom, a speed freak strumpet, put a contract out on him as revenge
for leaving her. The Thai hit-man was a former business associate of Bosie's.
The assassin found him in Surratthani and took him out for dinner. Then told
the astonished Swede he had collected a fifty percent down payment on the
two hundred fifty dollar fee to kill him. But that he favored Bosie more
than Oom, so the deal was off. Thailand being a sybarite consumer's discount
paradise, they spent the night drinking v.s.o.p. cognac and eating fine cuisine
before calling it a night.
BUDDHADASA AND SUAN MOKKH TEMPLE
Suan Mokkh Temple was founded in the 1930's by the now thrice mentioned Buddhadasa Bhikkhu. A Siamese leader of back to basics, socially engaged Buddhism, Buddhadasa dedicated his life to dragging humanity out from under the yoke of materialism. Like Bertrand Russell he was convinced all great ideas manifest outdoors.
Every month there is a ten day foreigner retreat in silence at the International Dhamma Center. People come from from Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas, to seek some relief from a surplus of "I, Me, Mine" dukkha (dissatisfaction, suffering). And often to clean out from their other more hedonistic Thai adventures. Sometimes following the rules for strict sexual separation. Sometimes not.
Young Yelena from Estonia and Chou from Hong Kong didn't realize in the dark that their midnight assignation was in fact on a giant red ant hill. They ran screaming back to their respective dormitories only to be expelled the next morning.
Birgit, a Deutsche Nun, rather suddenly gave up her vows for the charms of writer Alex, a handsome Bahamian New Yorker. During a meditation session her repressed kundalini burst forth and she demanded, "Take me Alex! Take me now!"
Poetess Simone from Surrey and Yoga instructor, Kaulish from Singapore swooned at first glance. Disciplined people, they got through the entire ten days without violating any strictures. But the minute the retreat ended, they headed for a rendezvous at a Samui island resort. For the next fortnight, they ventured out only when forced to by dehydration or malnutrition. And of course to buy more candles, incense, and massage oil to maintain the celestially slippery nature of their union.
Often at least thirty percent of the participants can't cut it and drop out. Usually for mundane reasons like sore backs or lack of motivation. Others try to persevere and go bonkers. Nabil from Dubai was still suffering the pains of a recent divorce. He attempted suicide by jumping in the slippery muck of the hermitage pond. It took four people doing splish splash pratfalls to rescue him. Yet those that do make it through often have insights that precede significant life changes.
Volkmar was a highly paid international consultant with the Berlin office of Arthur Anderson who chose to quit the firm and utilize his considerable financial skills to create sustainable communities in Africa. Or gifted British singer Toby who decided to make a journey with his father back to Spain and explore their Sephardic Jewish roots. And a former Moroccan street kid turned hash wholesaler, nicked named Don Pablo Escobarf by a groovy London DJ, who moved to northern India and gave his bankroll to an ashram. Not to mention the Deutsch nun Birgit, who ended up living with Alex in Hawaii and selling time shares.
Some resident characters include English Monk Tan Maddividhu who was an accomplished classical guitarist. Even after years of forest meditation he retains a wonderfully wicked British wit; now tempered with compassion of course. Youthful Thai friar Tan Medh who grew up at the temple. His virtue is sometimes overshadowed by an adolescent randiness when confronted by voluptuous European women. And hermitage Abbot Ajarn Poh whose simple pronouncements bypass the brain and pierce the heart with acute devastation... Damned interesting yarns aren't they? Someone ought to write a book.
New Year's was a real blast. I woke up at three am thinking the hotel was being shelled by separatist insurgents. The firecrackers the locals set off were louder than shit. Many times more powerful than the M-80's we blew off as kids on the fourth of July.
That's about as exciting as it got. Much earlier we had a quiet dinner at Lucky Restaurant; top notch curry. Lucky seems to be a popular moniker for a variety of things in Asia: Lucky Restaurant, Lucky Apartments, Lucky Condoms. Maintaining a precarious temperance. I toasted the New Year with an Ovaltine shake. That malted chocolate elixir, an integral part of the American cultural landscape from sponsoring the Captain Midnight Radio show in the 1940's, to supplying plot devices for the film Christmas Story in the 80's, then finally providing Seinfeld with sources for obtuse, spherical references in the 90's, is still quite popular in Thailand.
Abstinence does make the heart grow fonder. I cease to be the asshole as emotional abattoir who vaporizes empathy at will; a melancholic shambles vermin ravage without volition. Ironic that all compulsions stem from lack of love, but human love alone can rarely heal them. Although my daughter certainly tries. Knowing I spent a month at a recovery center last fall, she counsels me if I drink I will have to go back to "the spiritual hospital."
And in Surat Mama and Papa find refuge from our niggardly Korean cacophony.
We're able to recuperate and croon a more deferential lament; cradled safely
in the arms of clement domestic détente.
My kid is pretty cute in her school uniform. She reminds me of a diminutive Holy Angels girl back before tattoos and multiple body piercing. She's as physical as ever. I am trying to wean her away from drop kicking me in the crotch while I'm relaxing on the couch. One big advantage to her attending Oonark school is that they have a great gymnastics program so she has a place to channel all that gusto.
She has recently taken to dancing around the hotel room dressed in red. She insists on red. An extended crimson scarf theatrically wrapped around her neck and trailing behind on the floor, she pirouettes ala Isadora Duncan or struts boldly circa Altamont era Jagger, screaming, "Look at me!", with all the grandiosity one expects from a cherished four year old. I'm glad my kid is choosing to live life out loud. Although if she sometimes were a bit less vociferous it would be nice. Last week when I tried to settle her down so I could read, she told me I was "military school". Where in the hell did she get that?
Her interior life continues to bloom. Her imaginary dramas are becoming more complex. Blood curdling floral visions of sociopathic lilies with hybrid names like Panda Ha-Na and Santa Kik-in-Choo commit heinous acts that amuse her as much as they disturb me. And she loves to surprise her mother in the morning by practicing the vintage Midwestern patois I've taught her, "Wake up mommy! You're a helluva gal."
Until That Time,
May 14 , 2006