Pizza on a Rainy Night (Friday, November 18)
The flight to Phuket was the longest one we took during our stay in Thailand, about 435 miles, which is roughly 100 miles longer than our flights to Chiang Mai and Ubon. Still, it didn't take much more than an hour. Our flight to the Cambodian city of Siem Reap, eight days later, would be shorter by 100 miles than any of these. (Distances are approximate, arrived at with the help of a tape measure, a calculator, and the National Geographic World Atlas.) We saved more than time by flying. Some friends of Jayanto's left Bangkok by automobile a day later, intending to join us in Phuket. The drive is almost 100 miles longer, but that wasn't the problem: as they got farther south they found so many roads washed out or flooded by the recent heavy rains that in the end it was impossible to get through, and they had to go back.
We were to stay in a house that belongs to Khun YS, a friend and supporter of the Wat Pa Nanachat community. Jayanto had been down here helping her with relief work earlier in the year after Phuket was hit by the tsunami. The house overlooks the sea near the beach settlement of Rawai, close to the southern end of Phuket Island.
The airport, however, was almost at the northern end. We were met there by Khun C, a friend and supporter of Jayanto who works at the airport and also owns a small fleet of taxis. He made arrangements for a van to take us to Khun YS's house. While we waited for it, Khun C showed us a picture of our son that he keeps in his wallet. They met several years ago when he saw Tan S and Jayanto walking along the road in Phuket, and stopped to offer them a ride and a meal. Afterwards, during the time when Jayanto was in residence on the island of Ko Yao Yai ('big long island,' translating the words in reverse order), whenever he returned from a trip to Bangkok, Khun C would collect him at the bus station in the early morning, take him to his house where his wife would offer the meal, then drive him to the ferry landing where passengers for Ko Yao Yai are picked up. He said he had been greatly helped by the teaching and advice of Jayanto, whom he addressed as Luang Por — a phrase that means "revered father," and is conventionally given to beloved elder monastics, usually abbots; so, although it clearly expressed Khun C's heartfelt feelings, it surprised us a little.
Phuket Island is about 30 miles long and its highways were busy, so we had a fairly long trip from the airport. On the way it began to drizzle and then to rain. The van driver knew how to get to Rawai, but not to Khun YS's house. We were met along the way, however, by another of Jayanto's local friends and supporters, a woman named K. Khun C had been following the van in his own car, and K got in with him to give directions.
Following Khun C's car, which was now in the lead, we turned off the road into the unmarked driveway of the house, a dirt track that led up a short hill and down a long one, deeply gullied on the downward slope by the heavy rains. By the time we got to the house, at about 6:30 pm, rain was coming down hard. The young couple from the Isaan who take care of the house greeted us shyly. The husband’s name is Mei (with a rising tone), and the wife’s name is Daeng. (The spellings are guesswork — what we heard was "May" and "Dang".) Both were very young; we weren't certain that they were out of their teens.
K, who had led us there, has been generous in supporting Jayanto. She asked us to call her just "K" without the polite "Khun" and asked if she could call us "Mom" and "Dad." K worked for many years for a multinational company, traveling mostly in Asia and sometimes to other continents as well. She left that job a few years ago to take care of her ailing parents in Phuket town, where she developed what had been her hobby — flower arranging — into a business. She now owns a small flower shop in the town, where she mostly sells flower arrangements for people to offer in the temples. She has also worked in the charitable activities that Khun YS sponsors in the area. K, a devoted Buddhist, spent the last vassa as a mae chee in the monastery of her teacher, Luang Pu Supaa, a hundred-year-old monk whom Jayanto had told us about. When she no longer has responsibility for her parents, K would like to become a mae chee permanently. She closed her shop for the duration of our visit in order to be our companion for that whole time.
Mei and Daeng were the only present occupants of the house; Khun YS was away. The entrance led to a reception room, beyond it a courtyard. On the far side of the courtyard was a porch-like living area in one part of which perhaps four people could sit on the floor with cushions and eat at a low table. The only chairs in the house were in the reception room and the guest room. Khun YS’s bedroom was on one side of the courtyard and the guest room, where we slept, on the other. On a lower level, still open to the sea because of the steep hill, was the kitchen and the room where Jayanto and Punnyo stayed. On a higher level was a roofless porch, open to the sun. The view over the water from all three levels (which we couldn't see until the next day) was magnificent. Mei and Daeng occupy a small cottage separate from the main house.
After we had settled in, K and Khun C asked if we'd like to go to a restaurant for dinner. The four of us got into Khun C’s car in the rain and started up the hill, but the car wasn't able to negotiate it. We three passengers got out to see if that might help, but it didn't. After a period of standing in the rain (which didn't seem to bother the mosquitoes), Dorothea and I gave up the idea of a restaurant and went back into the house. We later learned that it took K and Khun C about an hour to get out to the main road.
On her way home, K stopped at a pizza place, ordered a pizza, and called Mei on her cell phone, asking him to pick it up for us. He got out and back in on his motorbike despite the mud and rain, and we ate our pizza — good if not spectacular by American standards, and very welcome — in the reception room. This room had not only a table and comfortable couches and armchairs, but also a TV. While we ate we watched CNN International — the first news broadcast we’d seen since leaving home. It was Friday, November 18, exactly two weeks after our arrival in Bangkok.
Around the Island (Saturday, November 19)
The next morning K brought take-out food, and, adding what they had received earlier on pindabat in Rawai, we offered the monks' meal at 9:00. They ate in the porch-like living area and we ate with K in the reception room. While we were eating, our driver, Prasert, arrived with his van. (Another transliteration problem: his name is pronounced "pruh - SÖT" with the vowel you hear in the second word of German "Danke schön" — or in British or Bostonian "assert." The emphasized syllable has no R sound in it.) Prasert drives for Khun YS when she is in town, and we engaged him to transport us during our visit.
We devoted the day to the sights of Phuket Island. By our request, the first stop was a hand laundry, where we dropped off the dirty clothes we had accumulated since visiting Phu Chaisai, where we had also had a wash done. Then K took over as direction-giver and tour guide. We visited a lookout point near the southern tip of the island, from which we could see some of Phuket's most famous beaches as a series of semicircular inlets facing west. Rawai faces southeast and is less famous, but it was the west-facing beaches that took the full force of the tsunami in December, 2004. Leaving the lookout point, we drove through the beach settlements we had been looking down at. Rebuilding was still going on in some places — notably Patong, which was hardest hit. It was only 11 months after the catastrophe, but with few exceptions it seemed that the tourist business had already recovered, and we saw quite a few westerners even though November is still the early part of the season.
Outside Phuket town, on Ko Sire (or Sile), we drove through a Sea Gypsy village. Ko Sire is a small island separated from Phuket Island by a mangrove swamp rather than a body of open water. Its name is pronounced "kaw see-REH" — or "kaw see-LEH," since L and R are often interchanged in Thailand, and both spellings can be found in publications for English speaking tourists.
"Sea Gypsies" are native to many small islands — real islands — out in the Andaman Sea. Some have become refugees on the Thai mainland since the tsunami devastated their villages, but others have been living there for centuries. They are similar to the hill tribes in possessing a simpler and more archaic culture than that of the Thais, and they are treated in much the same way: given private and public assistance and also exploited as a tourist attraction. The village consisted of bamboo structures, many with large open-sided porches. All the floors were three or four feet above the ground. The people sitting and lounging on these porches stared back at us while we drove slowly past staring at them. Although soft drinks were set out for sale on one porch we saw, no one seemed especially eager for our company and we felt a bit out of place ourselves, so we turned at the end of the village and drove back out without stopping.
Not far from there was Wat Ko Sire, a hilltop monastery where K's teacher, the hundred-year-old Luang Pu Supaa, lives. (Luang Pu means "revered grandfather.") He was away at the moment, however, so we spent our time looking around the monastery, perched dramatically on top of its steep hill. Instead of climbing the stairs to the temple, I elected to walk back down the hill to a point where, as we drove up, I had spotted what looked like a good photo of the temple peeking out over the trees. Along the loop road that led around the site was a wall with niches containing memorials to deceased supporters. The memorials, which held the supporters' ashes, were too small to be called chedis, but many had the same shape. Prasert, who was walking with me, pointed one out that was covered with green tiles, and told me that the people it commemorated were Muslims. When I mentioned this to Jayanto later, he said he doubted greatly that Muslims would want to have a memorial in a Buddhist wat, and pointed out that Islamic custom calls for the dead to be buried, not cremated. And the pictures I took showed the same kind of jars and urns — probably some kind of spirit-offering — placed in front of Buddhist and "Muslim" memorials. So I conclude that my informant was in error.
The rest of our company, visiting the temple, saw a reclining Buddha image whose eyes, made with mother-of-pearl, had been donated by the king. The building's gable was brilliantly blue and gold with mirror glass tiles, and the staircase leading to it was guarded by two nagas, also resplendent with mirror glass. Their long serpentine bodies formed the stair rails — a protective motif we saw in many temples.
Driving back to Rawai at the end of the day, we began thinking about dinner, and at this point we learned that Prasert's wife owns a restaurant across from the beach in Rawai. Through K, he assured us that she is experienced in toning down the spice to suit western tastes. We decided to eat there. The restaurant, named Duan Sook, looked like a hundred others, but the food we got was wonderful. With Prasert coaching us on the best dishes to order, we started with som tam, a salad made with shredded green papaya and flavored with lime juice and a little jolt of hot pepper — perhaps the jolt was little out of consideration for us — and went on to small Asian lobsters (clawless and resembling very big shrimp, served in the shell with a tasty sauce on the side), stir-fried vegetables, and a whole fish poached and served in a luscious broth. Dorothea considered the fish the star of the show and noted in the diary she was keeping that not a morsel nor a drop was left in the bowl.
This section last updated 3-5-2007