In the Thai language, “farang” means “foreigner.“
Since I arrived in the small town of Sawi three short weeks ago, I have felt more like a foreigner than I have in my entire life. This is not necessarily because I feel out of place, but because I am clearly, in every way possible, an alien on the planet of rural Thailand. The people of my town look at me with wide eyes and big smiles, and those who know I am a teacher bow their heads in approval and send me a polite “Sawadee” (hello). When I venture to the extreme rural parts of my area, their mouths gape open and they snap their heads so quickly to look at me, it’s as if they they would bend over backwards to see a real live white girl.
Despite being such a foreigner in this land, the Thai people (for the most part) accept me as one of their own. They acknowledge my curiosity, and they understand my wanting to just belong.
This weekend, while my farang co-teachers ventured to Bangkok and the island of Koh Tao to escape the trapdoors of Sawi, I decided to stay put – and I am so incredibly glad that I did. In just two short days, I encountered three separate instances in which, despite being reclused as a farang, I felt more connected to the Thai people.
1. Sawi Police Officers
I spent quite a bit of time this weekend preparing my lessons for the upcoming week, because it has been nearly impossible to catch up. Yesterday, while taking a quick break, I decided to head out to the Big One convenience store to grab some cleaning supplies for my classroom. When I turned the corner of one of the aisles, I spotted two police officers in uniform. One of them was standing still, while the other snapped a photo from a few feet away. I stood there confused, wondering… “Why the hell would a police officer want a photo inside of a convenience store? In his own town?” It took me another 5 seconds to realize that the officer was trying to take a photo with me in the background. I chuckled and said, “Would you like a photo with me?” They smiled politely, and with very broken Tinglish (my word for Thai English) said, “Sawi police. Photo – yes!”
Was that a command? I do not know. But I stood there in the middle of the convenience store and grinned feverishly, with cleaning supplies and a 12-pack of water bottles in my arms. After we said our goodbyes I left the Big One, struggling to keep my bags from piling out onto the street by squeezing them between my legs and the handlebars of my motorbike.
Ten seconds pass, and I am home. I was surprised, however, to see the same two policemen standing at the door of my apartment building. Hm… They know where I live.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
“Photo, photo!” one of them said. The photo in the Big One wasn’t good enough, I guess. I put my bags down onto the dirt, sighed in amusement, and smiled once more for the camera.
They continued to remind me that they were police officers, as if I couldn’t tell from their uniform or when they said it the first time. I tried to communicate with them in Tinglish, but it only led to more misunderstandings. I find that when this situation arises, the best thing to do is to just smile.
Yes, maybe they stalked me out while I ran my errands. Yes, maybe they were quite forward. And yes, there is some oddity to the situation that made me feel quite uncomfortable. But there’s a new farang in town, and that’s all the rage. These officers live in Sawi with their families, and their children sit in my classroom as students. At first, I felt alienated and scrutinized when asked to take the photos. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that their intention for taking them was quite good. At the end of the day, they are there to protect me, the new farang in town, from anything that might stand in my way from teaching their cherished community a bit of the English language.
2. Pi Suti
One of my favorite things to do on my free time is to take my motorbike and just go. If I had to describe the feeling in words, it would be “reckless peace.” Somehow, despite the occasional fly that smacks me in the cheek or dusty pebble that irritates my eye while riding, the open road ahead and thick wind pounding my chest both excites and calms me. Today, I decided to do just that, but I made a split second decision to visit the Wat Phra That Sawi on the way toward nothingness.
I was surprised to find that this wat (temple) off the only highway that runs through town has quite a bit of history aging back to the 1200s. I read a plaque with its rich story, and then I walked about the grounds, which looked like they had been in construction for quite some time. It took me one full lap around the structure before I realized I could actually go inside, and it was at that moment in which I stood in complete and utter awe. Just ahead of me stood a beautiful gold-tiled pagoda with a crisp white cement base, which housed small statues of elephants and resting Buddhas. To my immediate left, a very old woman greeted me with the wide, curious Thai smile that I have gotten so incredibly used to. I hung my 20 baht on the giving tree, and she handed me a candle, three incense, and a flower. I must have looked immensely confused, because I stared at the many objects in my hands, unaware of what to do with them. The old woman led me to the base of the pagoda, where I lit my candle and incense and stuck them in a pot of sand. I left the beautiful yellow flower beside the pot and stood up, absorbing the breathtaking sight before me.
I walked around and took a few photos, pausing when I felt like it, closing my eyes when I felt like it. It is times like these when I feel at peace. From the corner of my eye I saw the old Thai woman watching me. She walked over, summoned me to follow her, and instructed me to hit the large iron bells surrounding the pagoda. I took the wooden stick and watched her face for any sign of discontent, because for some reason, I cared deeply about her opinion of me. I gonged the bells lightly and gave the stick back. Again, she grinned, the stunning wrinkles on her face collecting in perfect harmonic lines.
It was at this time a man approached me. He said, in Tinglish, “You should take the stick and walk around the pagoda three times. Hit the bells when you walk.” I asked him, “Is this custom? What is the purpose?” He simply put his hands together and bowed, or gave a “wai” toward the pagoda and said, “To show,” and then I understood.
I took the stick once more and began to circle the pagoda. It was about noon, i’d say about 95 degrees, and I was barefoot. Basically, I was walking on a bed of hot coal stones. But I knew this was important to the old woman, to all Thai people, so I breathed deeply and stuck it out, gonging the bells loudly for all to hear. At the end of my third lap, I was racing to put on my shoes. I walked outside of the temple to enjoy the view of the river, content to have completed such a task.
About five minutes passed, and the old woman summoned me towards her once more. She put her hands together and bowed in a wai, then pointed to a small building next to the pagoda. She didn’t even know me, yet she knew exactly what I came for, a spiritual experience. I have been reading a book about Buddhism (more about that later), and I was happy to know that the old woman felt the rays of my curiosity and desired to bask in them.
She took my arm and let me into the temple, a small building with a large golden Buddha statue at the very back end. It was adorned with decorations and small statues of all colors, a beautiful sight to see. Silence filled the unlit air around us, as we were the only two people in the room. The old woman sat me beside her and lowered herself to the floor. She kept her eye on me as I followed her lead, sitting with one leg folded in and one folded back, bowing to the Buddha image with both hands on the floor. Then, for the first time in my life, I successfully meditated. We sat beside each other in silence for at least ten minutes. I do not know if it was the old woman’s calming aura or my state of true mental relaxation, but it truly was a miracle that I was able to sit without thinking, without moving, just breathing, for that long. I didn’t even swat away the flies buzzing in my ears.
As we walked out of the temple, the woman spoke two words, the only two words in English she spoke during our time together, “My friend.” My heart melted with pure joy, a feeling that was foreign to me until this very moment. It was then that I learned her name is Suti, and because “Pi” is the word for “Mrs.” when one is older than you, I called her Pi Suti. I left the temple longing for more, so more is what I will have…
3. The Drunk of Bo Kah
My magical experience at Wat Phra That Sawi inspired me to do some more exploring, so instead of heading into “nothingness,” I drove 15 kilometers to Bo Kah, a small fisherman’s town nearby. The night before, I met two teenage boys who told me I could see the sunset here, so I decided to give it a little trial run.
The town itself has a personality of its own. Dozens of small shops, open and inviting, line the tattered road that runs through town. The people sit on their wooden porches, conversing with one another from across the street in an exceptionally loud tone. Children run through the streets, barren of traffic but immense with activity. As I slowly drove through the small town, I waved from my motorbike like a queen waving from a limousine. They grinned and I sent the gesture right back.
After driving through the hustle and bustle of the town, I finally arrived at the rocky and beautiful shoreline. There was a storm brewing a few miles offshore, and I watched its formation as I stood gleaming at the magnificent view, enjoying the way the sunlight bounced from the steady waves of the gulf.
I enjoyed approximately two minutes of silence before I heard a loud, “SAWADEE!!!!!” A middle-aged man, dressed in light-colored tattered jeans and a matching jean shirt, parked his motorbike directly next to mine and began clumsily running down the shoreline. I felt inclined yet severely annoyed to greet him. His breath smelled of Sangsom (Thai rum) and cigarettes, and I could instantly tell he was not mentally clear. There were other people adorning the shoreline, fishermen and some children, but they did not look my way. I assumed this was a “normal” occurrence, not thinking anything of it until he took my arm and pointed towards the islands offshore. The man began to rattle off their names…. “Koh bla bla bla, Koh bla bla bla, Koh…..” and the only thing I could pay attention to was his grip on my sunburnt skin. Every time I tried to walk away, he stood behind me, conversing to an imaginary “me” who was clearly unable to speak back to him in Thai. I was overwhelmed and felt slightly frightened, despite it being broad daylight.
I got back on my bike and started riding away. I thought I had lost him for good until he came riding back towards me with his bike basket filled with fresh fish. “Gin, gin!” he exclaimed, which means “eat” in Thai. I tried to say no, even coming up with the excuse that I was vegetarian (“mang sa wi rat”) so that he wouldn’t force the live fish into my bare hands. As I continued to ride back into the town, he trotted beside me, and I was beginning to think that he would never leave me alone.
The point of this story is not to tell you about my dissatisfaction with the drunk man. Rather, it is the generosity of the townspeople that turn this story into a positive one. As I started back down the small main road through town, my face had “distress” written all over it. Anyone, whether they speak Thai, English, Tinglish, or whatever language, can read and interpret a facial expression, a mother tongue shared by all. The people knew the reputation of the drunk man and instantly sprung into action, running through the streets and hopping on their motorbikes, spreading the word that the drunk was harassing a farang. It was not long before all of town abandoned their shops and adorned the streets with curious, concerning eyes.
A woman summoned me into her shop (from quick glance I noticed she sold pineapples and mangos). I thanked her, still in too much of a shock to make my regular Thai conversation. I hurriedly told her I was a teacher at Anuban Sawi School, and the look on her face switched from concerned to determined. I waited there until a large, shirtless man came to my rescue. He conversed quickly with the Thai woman, said something to me that I didn’t understand but somehow knew I could trust, and I hopped back on my bike. The woman nodded at me with kind eyes and sincere approval. The shirtless man gestured his hands out before him, allowing me to ride in front while he guarded me from the back. Not surprisingly, the drunkie came out from a street corner food stop, swinging around two sticks of barbecued meat which I am sure were meant for me. Still to this very moment, I am trying to convince myself that he had good, amicable intentions.
I was escorted about 3 kilometers out of Bo Kah until I noticed my bodyguard was no longer following me. I did not know his name or his profession, I do not teach his children, and I know I will probably never see him again to say “Thank you.” Saddened at this immediate thought, I hurried back home and was never happier to see Sawi – the curious faces, the stares, the smiles of my students, even the permanent smell of fried chicken.
Yes I am a foreigner, a farang, in this unfamiliar place.
But I am their farang, and that makes a world of difference.