November 24, 2000. Nong Kahi Mai, Thai/Laos border, just over the Friendship Bridge.
4:30 p.m. At train station. Train leaves at 6:30 to Udon Thani. At the station café under a tent. Ordered chicken and chilies. Starving. The Styrofoam plate served up full of rice, chicken parts and chilies. The chicken on the raw side but famished and needed to eat. I paid an extra twenty-five thousand kip to get over the border, because they said my visa expired that day. I’d kept just enough kip for souvenirs and blown the rest at their super gas duty free on a hydroelectric dam t-shirt and some water and smokes. I had just enough kip left for the border. The 2,500 kip turned into 5,000. I had to pay an extra hundred baht and a dollar, which is really about 25,500 kip, but I can’t bitch because it’s less than a six pack in the real world and I had paid as much as a hundred dollars to enter a country before.
Backpackers from all over the world were leaving Laos by train to land in Bangkok by seven a.m. I was getting off in Khon Kaen at 9:30 p.m. to sidetrack west to the ruins of Phitsanulok and Sukhothai. Khon Kaen doesn’t have much to offer the average American tourist, but it was late and I was ready to get away. I only paid thirty-five baht for a third class seat. I was still hungry and guys were walking around with chips and dried squid on sticks, so I didn’t bother. I tried to sleep, but an older Belgium man was sitting across the aisle from me and continued to inquire as to why I was going to Khon Kaen. He told me his Thai wife was there and would meet us at the train station. I half heartily glanced at the map in the Lonely Planet travel guide and nodded my head in agreement.
The train arrived an hour late at ten thirty. It was pitch black and I’d fallen asleep so my bearings were skewed. Sure enough, his Thai wife was there and she spoke exceptional English. I’d been hopping around SE Asia for about four months at this point, so I was weary about traveling alone and getting into a cab with two strangers. They agreed to walk with me.
“I get you a good hotel. Cheap.” She insisted.
I was still loose from my ten days in Laos and my guard was down, but I figured the town wasn’t that big, and if they walked with me for a spell and found me a nice hotel, I didn’t care. I was at the near end of my journey and I just wanted to eat, drink a couple of beers, pop some valium, shower, and watch television in the comforts of cold air conditioning. The couple walked up to ten story hotel.
”Dunno If I can afford this place…” I muttered as the old guy grabbed my arm and told me that she would “take care of it”.
She came back out and told me it was three hundred baht. I entered and a suited man took my bag. I shook hands with my found friends and filled out the paperwork. I took an elevator up to my room. AC, cable TV, hot shower, a view of dark. All for about eight bucks.
I felt mostly good aside form my gut ache from the half cooked chicken and my hunger. I set out the wrong way to find the night market. The smells of roasting meat mixed with the overflowing dumpsters on the street. Soot draped over most things except the night sky that twinkled like the smote coals of a campfire. I saw cockroaches, and a few rats scurry around but followed the lights to my first stand. Some guy was grilling on the corner. I pointed to a kebob of meat.
”Moo?” I inquired. The man laughed.
”Oink Oink?” I snorted. He shook his head.
”Bawk bawk?” I bent my elbows and flapped. He shook his head, no.
”Meat” He said. I bought two for fifteen baht. I ate heartily and spat the bones into the gutter.
I walked over to a 7-eleven and bought a big Singha beer and chugged it. A few blocks over, I found an open Pharmacy and asked for Valium. He sold me ten, 5mg tablets. I downed one and headed back to the night market. I found the longest line for a stand and stood in it. Logic mandates that the most people will wait for the best food. I got a tray of rice, dried squid and chilies. I snisted it all up to the adoration of the local Thais out on a Saturday night. A couple of young couples sat down with me at my table as I ate. One spoke good English and we talk translated with the others. They wanted to know why I was there. I told them that I was just like them and wanted to see their world.
They convinced me to go to a club with then and visions of the legend of waking up in a bathtub of ice meandered through my brain, but the valium put the kibosh on that. I was on the back of a motorcycle speeding through the streets. We ended up in a beer garden. I was real happy, so I bought the first round for the five of us. Three beers for us guys and two drinks for the ladies cost three bucks. I bought the next round and the next and the next. They rolled mean spliffs filled with hashish, one after another and we ate some scallop like spicy shellfish and Pom Frittes. I danced a few songs.
I was more enamored with the event than my existence and the puddle of missed opportunity I stood in was all melted and frozen again and I slid all over all my heartbreak. They sped me back to my hotel by three and I was on my way to sleep. I awoke the next day near eight and the front desk told me I could catch a songthaew to the bus station. When I got one to pull over they told me an outrageous sum, so I walked the few blocks in a haphazard stagger. I needed a bus ticket, water and coffee.
The station information was all in Thai, so I just stood around until a taut brought me to the right place to buy my ticket and guided me over to a coffee stand that was owned by his sister. She spooned some condensed milk into a glass and then let the coffee jump all over it. Then she stirred, and motioned me to follow her behind the counter where a cramped, wobbly table and four plastic chairs remained. She sat me across the table from two old, bald, Buddhist monks dressed in typical saffron robes with eyes as deep as any ocean I sunk in.
I pulled out my plastic chair, feeling the feet grate the concrete under. Farang literature says that you should always keep your head lower than a monks out of respect, so I slunked down in my chair. The monks were drinking tall glasses of a pink liquid that resembled Pepto-Bismol. They alternately took sips and then spit it onto the floor. I opened my journal and began to write. I wrote until I saw one of the monks reach over and put the tips of his fingers on the top of the page. I only saw his yellow dirty finger nails before he pulled it from my grasp. He motioned to my pen and wrote three lines of squiggled letters on the opposite page, then pushed it back over the checkered table cloth. I shrugged my shoulders and then the other monk pointed to his neck and looked me in the eyes.
I was wearing a necklace made of pieces of seaglass I had beach combed from an island two weeks before. I unhinged the clasp and handed it to him. He systematically disassembled the wire around the seaglass and arranged the pieces in front on the table. Flies danced around the ketchup bottle. The two monks looked toward one another again and spit. Then, they took turns putting the color seaglass in their mouths. They tucked the small pieces under their lips like snuff. They rolled the salty glass around their mouths like they were sucking on hard candy then spit them on the table. They laughed after every spit. Then, one pulled a medallion of a yogi on a chain from his purse and handed it to me. They stood up, walked around the table and motioned me to stand up. One put the medallion into my hand.
The monks looked at one another in their age. Their saffron robes wrapped around their plump brown bodies. The sun and the earth. They were happy and I motioned to my money to indicate that I would pay for them. They smiled and walked away.
I paid the tab and picked up all the seaglass from the table and put the pieces back into my rock bag. The girl running the stand came over with my change and held out her hand to the medallion that I was holding by the chain in the air.
”Oh, yogi”. She said.
I asked her what the words on the back of the medallion meant.
”It say, He who is not hungry never eats. That Yogi starved to death. He is important yogi.” She said
I put the chain around my neck.