Beginnings, Heading South

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I arrived in Bangkok on a Monday afternoon, two days after Kasma had sent her last group on their way home. We only stayed one day in Bangkok — long enough to take Kasma’s mother to lunch and to rearrange the luggage for a trip down south. Kasma had been in Thailand for nearly 3 months already leading two trips, both fairly easy and rewarding.

Sunrise I think Kasma does the trips for two reasons. The first is to introduce people to Thailand. She once Damneon Saduak said that if only one or two people on a trip come to understand and be touched by the Thai culture, which really means by the warmth of the Thai people, that trip was worth it. The second reason is that she has made friends all over Thailand doing these trips for almost two decades — how else could she see all her friends every year? It is obvious that she has formed lasting friendships. Her driver Sun was astounded when, at one resort, two women got up early on their day off to see Kasma and the group off. In some ways the trips are nothing more than a chance to trail around Thailand in Kasma’s wake and to reap the benefit of years of good will. Actually the third reason would be the fantastic restaurants all over Thailand — how else to continue to eat at them all?

Noodle Boat As ever, we left Bangkok early in the morning (5:30 am) — the only way to beat the traffic. We headed down the coast to a beautiful sunrise and went to Damneon Saduak, the floating market, to enjoy the river scene and to eat a bowl of “boat noodles.” (On the Thai map Damneon Saduak is near Somut Songkram.) Damneon Saduak is one of Eating Noodles the few floating markets still active and provides a glimpse of what life used to be like all over Thailand. If you get there early you beat the tour buses and at that time most of the boats still contain vendors of produce and food. Later on the boats fill with tourists, both Thai and fahrang (the Thai name for an American or European), It’s great fun to paddle (actually, be paddled) around the river, take pictures, see a coconut sugar plantation, come back to sit on the benches and eat boat noodles. We have a favorite vendor — you see his picture at the start of the paragraph (also one of his customers); he has been there since Kasma started her trips in 1986. His boat rests at one end of the pier, right next to steps where his customers devour his noodles at 15 baht a bowl, about 40 cents. I’ve eaten his noodles on every trip except one and it just wouldn’t seem right to miss them.

Heading South

Noodle Boat Our destination on our mini-vacation was the south of Thailand. Not the deep south, where there have been the problems lately (those are the provinces of Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat) but the south nonetheless. Kasma wanted (needed, really) to check out two of the places where she takes her southern trip to set things up for next year’s tour. She planned to check out some other possible sites and we planned to visit some of our favorite places on the way. We also had been invited to a house dedication ceremony in Nakhon Si Thammarat.

Eating Noodles The first night we stayed in Chumpon right on the Gulf of Thailand. One of the best parts about traveling around Thailand without a tour group is the flexibility to stop and explore things that grab your eye — on the trips there is too much planned to allow such flexibility. As we drove away from our first night’s lodging, we spotted an intriguing Chinese-style Buddhist temple with a multi-hand statue, possibly of Avalokitesvara (Avalokita), a representation not often in Thailand. Actually, it was the dragon that caught our eye.

Recycled Trash Container Along the way, we stopped for about an hour at a tire-recycling factory. All around Thailand you see these distinctive trash cans that have been made from discarded tires. One of this year’s group members had been especially taken with them and even wanted to take one home. When we drove past a factory we couldn’t help but stop and see the entire process of how they were made. I modeled several of the products — the ad campaign will certainly be appearing any day now!

Eating Noodles We also stopped at a favorite temple in Chaiya, Wat Phra Boromathat, one of the three most revered temples in the south. When I first visited here in 1992, there was a courtyard that was Buddha
image in Chaiya surrounded by delightfully-aged Buddha statues. Over the years they had become darkened, damaged and aged in a beautiful fashion. It must have been about 3 or 4 years later when they started repainting the images in gold with black for the hair — much to our disappointment! Talk about a lesson on the transitoriness of all things!

After the temple we made a quick stop at a nearby weaving village where we bought colorful shirts for the beaches.

I should mention that we were being driven around Thailand by Sun, one of Kasma’s drivers on the tours. Sun has driven for Kasma for two years and has really been taken by the trips. He is used to traveling with more traditional tour leaders, who don’t socialize much with their group members and pretty much ignore other Thai people they encounter, except when a commission is involved. When Kasma’s group visit hill Eating Noodles tribe villages in the north, she encourages them to buy directly from the people and leads by example: we have boxes of items from these villages, bought to help out the people. A typical tour group would be told not to buy directly from the villages and would be taken to a center where the tour leader receives a fat commission. In a typical group drivers are treated as second-class employees, sent off to eat and stay by themselves, often having to sleep in their vans. Kasma’s drivers eat with the group and stay in the same kind of rooms as the tour members.

After two years Sun has become family. He treats Kasma like an older sister and we both treat him like a brother. He is so good natured and easygoing that what could be an awkward situation (I speak very little Thai, he speaks no English and he could become a bit of a third wheel) is fun. Besides, it means I don’t have to drive, which would be very tiring. When I drove Kasma and her mother around Bangkok two years ago they decided it was nah-gklua, which translates as terrifying.

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Copyright © 2004 Michael Babcock.
Last updated 27 August 2004.