Saturday, May 5, 2018

On their backs

Beach in Thailand

I never expected to be laying on the floor trying to sleep in a hot room with no air conditioning between a bunch of immigrants from Cambodia, but there I was, and of all the things I did in that beautiful beach town, it was the most memorable.

Early that day I walked through glimmering walking streets with neon lights everywhere, I visited the huge shopping malls with their beautiful and elaborate displays, I waded in the warm ocean water, and I sat in the shade of a palm tree reading the entirety of The Alchemist while someone brought me fresh coconut water until the sun slowly set over the ocean waters into a beautiful evening. It had been the definition of picturesque, the type of day that would be written about in travel logs and put in advertisements for tourism and hotels. Yet it was not the most interesting, or most treasured part of my short trip to the Thai beach town. That would come later, when I planned to be far away from there.
I planned to stay only few days, and the few days were up. What is more, I only had money for a few days. I had been in Thailand some time and no longer had a bank card, or anyway to get money. My only option was the cash I carried. I was running low, but I was not worried. I just needed the 500 bhat or so for a bust ticket and I would be gone back to my home in the north-east of Thailand. That is how travel had always worked for me before, but not this time.

“Mae Sot” I said to the lady at the counter, “Full” she replied, and pointed me to another bus company. I went there and got the same response. After exhausting every bus company in the city I realized I was not getting home that day. I went through a lot of crazy stuff in Thailand, but this is the first time where I felt genuinely panicked. I had not realized is that it was a holiday weekend and everyone was headed back home. Every bus was full. I was stranded.

I was an American in beach town Thailand, who didn’t speak more than a few phrases of the language, almost out of money (with no way to get more) and no place to go. I could not afford another night in a hotel and still have enough to get a bus out of the city. With my phone nearly dead (I had to find some outlet in the bus station just to keep it alive) I reached out to a few locals I had met and randomly got contact information from (even though I had no real intention of ever talking to them again). I'm not in the habit of asking to stay at the house of people I recently met, but desperation is a powerful motivator. The first person said I couldn't, but then on the next I lucked out. She was not even Thai, she was Cambodian, and I had no idea what was about to happen.
It was about 10 p.m. when I got to her place. I had walked most the way because I couldn't afford a taxi. She didn’t get there for about another hour. Most her flatmates didn’t get there for a few hours after that. If these were Americans you might think they were late night partiers. But these were not Americans. These were Cambodian immigrants.
The town is in many ways the Las Vegas of Thailand. Both in their way are beautiful with a facade of bright lights and spectacular shows, huge modern shopping malls and luxurious hotels. It was full of tourists from Russia, Germany, Australia, and just about everywhere else. There are so many Russian tourists that most signs are in both Thai and Russian, a strange combination you would never expect to exist.
And just as in Vegas, to have clean hotels and cheap food, someone, usually immigrants, needs to clean the hotels, wash the dishes, and make the food. In Vegas those people are often immigrants from Mexico, in Thailand immigrants eagerly come from Burma, Laos, and Cambodia to hopefully earn some more money than they could in their home country. In fact it might come as quite a shock to some western tourists to realize that their “authentic Thai food, at a Thai restaurant, in Thailand,” was actually made by a Burmese cook.
Regardless, in this place I will generously call an “apartment” there lived seven (four guys and three girls) of these immigrants. While most westerners in the town were out partying, I was with the people that made all the partying possible. The guys were all dish washers and cooks at restaurants. They got home about 2 a.m. The girls were either masseuses (as was the girl I knew) or maids and janitors for the many hotels and guesthouses. They got home between 11p.m and 2 a.m. One of the guys came in about 3 or 4 (I was in a sleepy daze by that point and could not pinpoint when it actually was).
The outside of the apartment probably most resembled one of those apartments they always show in documentaries about Detroit. They lived on the second floor. The stairs condition did not suggest to me that this was going to be any more of a luxurious stay than the outside had.
However horrible experience you have had with apartments, I assure you, your perception of apartments is a much too generous a mental image for what I saw. It was a single cement room. The walls had probably been painted at one point but at this point it was impossible to tell what color exactly. Some hue of grayish blue would be my best guess, but I'd more confidently bet on horse racing and I know nothing about horse racing. They did have electricity, and a fan. Air conditioning was of course completely out of the question in the over 90 degree swampy air. There was a single cupboard which they put some clothes in, but most their clothes and belongings were just stacked in piles around the edges of the room. They had a few “windows” or rather square holes where something that loosely resembled a screen to stop bugs was in place.
There was no bathroom in the room, but rather a single bathroom for the whole floor, which had about 5 or 6 other apartments which I could only imagine consisted of similar arraignments as the one I was visiting.
After walking around in the previously described weather all day, I was glad to have the chance to shower. The shower consisted of a bucket and a bowl. The bucket was full of water and the bowl was to pour said water over you. This was the nicest part of the apartment.
When it was time to go to bed, they put down several mats (the hard plastic-type) and blankets across the floor, then they all laid down in a row, the girls on one side, guys on the other. No beds. There was no carpet in the room, and some sheets you could have read through were used as blankets. That was their living experience. That was the sum total of their apartment. I did not get to know them very well as I mentioned, they got home pretty late and as you can imagine were pretty eager to get some shut eye. A few of them had children back in Cambodia, and most had not known each other previously. They were in the city of fun and pleasure to work, get some money, and get back home.
I laid there on the floor, hardly able to sleep in the sweltering heat, with hardly any space to move wondering how in the world I had arrived at that point. Earlier that day I had walked through some of the nicest buildings I had ben in, and here I was. It was amazing. The previous night I had stayed in a guesthouse with air conditioning, cable TV, and large and comfortable queen bed with a heated shower. Would I have welcomed one of these people into my room if they had missed their bus out of town while hardly knowing them? I don't know, probably not. I had truly been blessed. None of them were Christians, they were all Buddhists, yet they really were the people described in the words of Mathew, “I was a stranger, and ye took me in.” I was that stranger. As I lay on that floor, for a moment my anxiety about essentially being out of money and not having any idea how I would get home went away. How could I ever thank them enough.
The next morning I had to leave early with my fingers crossed I could arrange some transport. I thanked them as best I could (they spoke limited English, I spoke even less Thai, and even less Cambodian) and was on my way. Looking back now and thinking of that crazy apartment that they let ME stay in, I'm just overwhelmed at how blessed I was to run into such amazing people. I had multiple experiences like this while I was down and out with nothing while in Thailand, and always someone was there to help me. The world, for all its darkness, truly has many wonderful people.
It has been over three years since this little adventure. In that touristy town. While there I did do at least a few of the “touristy” things. Yet my favorite experiences from that trip were A. reading the entire book The Alchemist (as described above), eating breakfast with a German professor (a story for another time), and my last night staying in the most poverty-stricken of circumstances with a bunch of Cambodian immigrants. I guess this is to say there is nothing wrong with taking that big vacation to Disneyland or five star resort in Mexico. I'm sure it will be a great time and create many memories. However, sometime when you don't want to spend so much try something a little different. You don't need to go to Thailand or even get on a plane, just talk to some person you would never talk to normally. Find out about their life and how they live. It won't cost you much of anything and you may get a memorable experience out of it. Also, you may one day be stranded in a city with not even enough money to get a hotel, and you will be grateful for that connection you made and the chance to lay on a floor, and regardless of how destitute the circumstances, I promise it will feel better than a palace.

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