Sunday, July 15, 2007

New Sensations
If you're not into the girlie bar scene, massages (legit or not), are bored playing pool, can't afford the freight at Hua Hin's several 5-star hotels and assorted spas, eschew golf, dodge real estate investments and developers (beware the Aussies!), have no invites to the King's summer palace and hanging with near-homicidal temple monkeys doesn't carry the charge it used to, options for foreigners here aren't exactly jumping out at you.

There are beaches, of course and a few unorganized seemingly random charter boat trips for lounging, surf-splashing, swimming and riding fatigued looking ponies. And an elephant trek park/paintball combat zone ("Dress in authentic Cambodian army fatigues!" screams the paintball part of the promotional brouchure. No idea if you can also recreate Pol Pot's reign of horror). Otherwise, Hua Hin. so far, seems to be a combo of Peyton Place, mixed in with a dollop of Mayberry and a zinger of a low budget version of a scummy Carl Hiaasen Florida beach town.

At least that's my in-depth and entirely superficial insight approaching a month or so here. but a week ago on a slow Sunday I was fortunate to discover some more redeeming values.

Hua Hin sports an utterly charming, small, airy train station. Shaded under palms, cozy, wooden, red and white and set in a small park along the north-south rail line that bisects Hua Hin, it's so idyllic that one's immediate impulse is to simply use it: buy a ticket from the visor shaded agent and hit the rails. Where to go? Well, the train schedule isn't on a flipping LED read-out but carefully inscribed in classic penmanship in English and Thai in white paint on a blackboard. It's as if the schedules and routes haven't changed for 50-years. And perhaps they haven't.

Bilingual wooden sign shingles hand from the doors of the neatly arranged, side-by-side depot offices. Luggage, ticketing, 1st and 2nd class waiting rooms all look as if they're awaiting Maugham or Kipling to chug through on a steam train to the Malaysian or Burmese borders. Built in the late 'teens or early 1920s, I believe, it has a laid-back, colonial/Thai ambiance that the likes of Spielberg, Ron Howard or Disney would kill for as a movie set.

A self-described "half-Cypriot, half-Irish" (English passport and birth) expat-since-on-the-lam, M, introduced me to the joys of train spotting-Thai style as we drifted around on a lazy Sunday afternoon looking for a mission other than sitting and drinking and pretending to think. "Les' go to the train station," M said. "Grab some cheap noo'les an' wa'ch the worl' go by."

A deal. We ordered up some shamefully inexpensive Thai fare at one of the several rickety, outdoor eatieries across from the station and sat in the shade watching a few passenger trains and one cargo train slowly come and go while marveling at the station's time machine-like cast in the past aura. He told me about a 10 or so hour rail trip he'd made from the station a few years ago to Malaysia (two trains daily to the Malaysian border) on a whim.

"It was lovely," M enthused. "Just the rails, the rhythm, a pint in a sleeper car, rolled m'self a spliff and watched the jungle and all click by. Met some lovely, lovely people. Got to Malaysia, didn't come back for 5 days and finally make me way back. Boss says, 'Where you been?' 'Malaysia,' says I."Ah' he says. 'On the train were ya?' I says, 'Yes, actually.' He laughs and says he's done it, too. Never paid me for the time off, o'course. But he didn't gi' me the sack."

I was sorely tempted to follow his example. I had my passport, the next train to Malaysia arrived in about 25 minutes, I had enough baht on me to carry the fare and maybe some cheap lodging ...but nah. Not that irresponsible yet.

"Bes' sleep I eve' had," M continued. "Dunno if it was the train rhythm,rails and all, or wha' .. like that old American song ... " He began humming City of New Orleans.

M's a romantic,but thoroughly mostly irresponsible. Since our Sunday he's disappeared, suddenly leaving, according to the low-rent, expat mojo wire, a scattering of unpaid debts and a burned, small-time ganja deal in ashes. (I told you this was Peyton Place). I initially thought he'd joined Gladys Knight and the Asia Pips for the Midnight Train to Malaysia, but he hadn't even borrowed enough for decent train fare before splitting. However, before his sudden exit he was good to me and in exchange for noodles, a beer and motorbike gas money he also introduced me to another side of Hua Hin after we'd soaked in the railway ambience.

"Wouldja fancy mee'in' up wi' a real Thai fambly?" he asked. He'd been courting the mother until she got a better offer from Switzerland about 6 mos. ago; but M assured me he was still welcome despite her absence.

He cautioned me to prepare myself for a shock. "They aren' well off by any means," he said. "Very shabby quarters ..." I braced myself for something along the lines of of my shanty town visit but after we pulled into the family's area on M's rattling motorbike, it was clear that his idea of "shabby" might need redefining. Though smack next to the two lane highway into Hua Hin, the home was solid, mostly plaster and concrete, very clean and with new faux marble black and white floral motif flooring. Minimal electrical service and no running water, though.

M's ex's 24-year-old rather Indian-looking, English-speaking son - the result, the son told me later, of a one-week-stand between a visiting Indian pilot from Maldives and his mother - was outside putting the finishing touches on a quaint, cozy frond-roofed, bamboo beamed roadside karaoke bar he was building outside the home. He introduced himself simply as "S"and showed me a new sign in Christmas lights he'd designed on an enormous shellacked wooden slab. "S Karoeke Star Bar" it read, complete with a star to twinkle later. He hopes to plug it all in and open by the end of July. You're all invited if you're in the area.

S's barefoot, 3-year-old daughter and her three slightly older cousins all rocked and rolled and pushed one another on the gravel, mud and dust on a large log alongside the highway. No TV, no video games, or even swings, slides or a Welfare Services-sanctioned public park nearby. Just jungle-like foliage and a filthy, trash-strewn muddy klong, but S, between his building duties, kept a close eye on them and shooed them away when they teetered too close to the freeway.

It was then that I took the opportunity to unleash my pathetic Thai language skills, beyond greetings, thank you, and where is the toilet. An American friend with better language skills and more adult experience than me here had emailed me with a tip.

My absolute most useful Thai phrase for ingratiating oneself is to compliment a parent ontheir children. (phonetically spelled) "Luke chai/sow(male child/female child) na rock, krub!"(Your son/daughter is loveable) Works wonders. But be prepared for a blizzard of Thai you won't understand. "sorry, I don't understand" is "Kor toad, my cow jai, krub," he'd written.

I dredged it out of the memory banks and stuttered it out. S cocked his head, looked momentairly puzzled and then beamed. His smile momentarily outshone the 40-watt bulbs in the budding "Star Bar." "Oh, thank you!" he said. And, as predicted, unleased a blizzard of Thai. I blanked on "kor toad, by cow jai krub" but he quickly got the message

It was then that S's elderly uncle (actually, probably about my age), a sinewy, small, heavily tattoed Thai version of Ray Bradbury's Illustrated Man appeared as if a deux ex-machina to rescue me in his bare chest, floppy shorts and flipflops with a couple of Thai beers. I'm not big on body art but this guy's tattoo work, a pale blue, elaborate baroque quasi-psychedelic jungle foliage creation covering his entire upper body, save neck and arms, - was stunning.

Through S's translation,he accepted thanks from M and I for the beer and soaked up the compliments for his self-decoration/mutilation. He added that the skin canvas was done by hand by a friend of his with bamboo needles and homemade ink in three days. Oh yeah...and it was done while he was serving time in prison for (an unspecified) crime that he (naturally) did not commit.

"Yes, very painful," S told me after I'd asked the obvious question. "But my uncle wants to know if you want one also. His prison friend did his, but he can do one for you himself for 1,500 baht."

I demurred, despite the bargain. S himself said he disliked tattoos and nodded in agreement.

"What did his wife, your auntie, what did she think of it when she saw it? When he was out of prison and came home?" I asked S.

He laughed. He already knew the answer but asked his uncle again who paused, then grimaced and replied in Thai. "He says she did not like it," S said. "He said it was almost one month after he came from prison that she would even touch his body."


Patrick said...

I'm tellin you, man...
I like this place -- or at least the picture you paint of it -- better than Hong Kong...

Get on that train, JM.

Anonymous said...

I found a new proxy at least lets me READ comments on your page (also good for Flickr, Xanga, and other sites that most anonymizers won't reach), SO I'm giving it a shot.

Justin, I've long loved the way you use words. But this post REALLY made me long for a couple of pics: one of the train station, and one of the Illustrated Man.

And I'm with Patrick: Hit the rails, man, and write about it.

Meanwhile, I'm trying to blog, but The Great Firewall is higher than usual, so I'm trying to work something out on one of my homepages. I'll let you know the final solution (sounds ominous); but for now you can see what I've done (painstakingly) at

Best, bud.

Anonymous said...

Wow, it works! Send that link to any friends behind the Great Firewall:

Sam said...

You're a fantastic writer.. keep it up!

And, yes, get on that train!