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The Sparrows of Thailand

The Sparrows of Thailand

by Sean Lawlor Nelson

The sparrows of Thailand are like sparrows anywhere: small, gray, and flitting... but surrounded by blue parrots, iguanas, and infinite neon butterflies. They hang around the restaurants and "steal" scraps of food. I remember happily watching one make off with a bit of fresh spinach once. I believe sparrows are only native to the British Isles and spread as a result of imperialism... a term I use neither positively nor negatively but descriptively.

The restaurants around Phetchaburi Rajabhat University (the area where this all took place) were special to me: one was a 3 generation family affair with a large television customers could watch; in this region of Thailand, the vast majority of people didn't have a television or even electricity... though this wasn't the apocalypse many modernites might think. People did strange things like play acoustic guitar and hold conversations.

The restaurant was a three-generation family affair and I was always served with courtesy and quality(I may have been the only westerner to ever eat there.) It's a simple fact that a meal there(rice, four eggs(or chicken), greens, and spicy fish sauce) cost 25 cents. These products come not from some distant corporation but from local villages(healthy chickens can be seen everywhere.)The point must be made that in order to find prices like this, you have to really leave the tourist areas... which have certain advantages.

I took to buying toys for a tiny little girl who was always in the back. This pleased both the family and me, so I took to giving them to other children in the area(they cost about $2 apiece, and I was only rich by Thai standards.)

I should add that I was overpaid and troubled by the fact that I could have been a better teacher. Fortunately, though, our university was staffed with 3 other western teachers(2 Brits and an American.) They were older men of good character and did a good job of instructing young Thais in English, keeping attendance, grading weekly vocabulary quizzes, etc.

I wasn't cut out for it, but this doesn't mean I didn't go to some lengths to help my students; For example, I drilled my students on the importance of a firm handshake when dealing with Americans or Canadians(something I've never cared much about, but realize the practical importance of.) For whatever reason, it didn't come easily. All of the facts in this account, like about any fact in my writings, is if immodest at least true.

The university restaurant(professors and staff only) I went to was fancier(not that the first was to be found wanting in anything but elegance): a meal there cost as much as a dollar. It was in the hotel where I was first lodged and I remember coming out of the elevator the first day(not just in a state of culture shock but rather helpless, suffering from a peculiar sort of panicked depression.) To make the matter worse, I hadn't been to a bank to change my dollars. I heard a voice say and then repeat: "!COME! !EAT!" It was the chef, an older woman of Laotian descent, who gladly fed me and thus earned a loyal customer. My favorite meal(which I had most days) was yellow curry with the tiny squid (pbla muug neet-noy) that are everywhere there and nowhere here.

(By the way, maybe somebody ought to export the avocado there; it's hot, fertile... and a place where getting enough calories is an issue sometimes. Seemingly compatible vegetables are common.)

This Laotian woman was a friend to me and had an English menu made up, by a friend because she spoke very little. I have a habit of pacing(which bothers coffeehouse owners in Ashland and Portland, USA, just as much... so she'd always politely but firmly "invite" me to sit down(putting her world in order I suppose, as I wouldn't do it when there were other customers.)

My boss, a very decent sort: Dr. Sutat Nakjan, invited me out for a night. With classical Thai music(which I've come to love) playing in his S.U.V., he took me for a ride into "real Thailand." We drove by countless villages, talked with rice farmers, stopped our car on a main road while a loose water buffalo stampeded past.

(Later on another trip in this S.U.V., we came across a pack of wild monkeys. Now, I'd come across monkeys around the Buddhist temple and they can be very docile and harmless, so I considered handing out a few bananas. But Dr. Nakjan let me know this was a bad idea. He instructed me that when dealing with a wild animal to never make eye contact.

At any rate, he was right about the monkeys, who sometimes wait outside the 7-Elevens to rob people for food: there was a reason I soon took to carrying tear gas, a tool I've found necessary to defend myself against aggro animals and humans in this nation as well. I don't want to make it sound as though "Thai" Thailand is so dangerous; It's not, but then it's not Disneyland, either.)

There are also many trained monkeys who fetch coconuts, especially in Phetchaburi, "the palm-tree province."

I was often invited to see kick-boxing, at which I'm told the Thais excel. For whatever reason, I never even considered. Maybe I should have: primitivity is not so bad every now and then. But I don't lose sleep over it. There is a violent side to Thai culture: there's also a pacific and courteous one, which at the time of my visit was almost always given to visitors, or "faarangs."

Another experience I soon had was a Thai funeral of a young woman and university student. Many people went: there was a bus from the school and some twenty monks chanting all day. Coconut milk was served for all.

After that, they played cheerful music on Thai instruments with Christmas lights on them. Classical Thai music has many unique instruments and is quite complex and different from anything western. At the end, we all filed past and put a burning stick on her; I couldn't ask for a better funeral myself.
I was mystified that her father, a prosperous fruit farmer, took the occasion to give generous donations to the monks but also to the university; I think I understand this better now.

I hadn't been in Thailand all that long before one late night, having drunk too much at the Discotheque, I decided to walk out and find some revelers in the countryside... and purchase a night's stay somewhere with the large amount of Thai money I had.

As I left the city and entered a region of scattered bamboo houses, a large pack of snarling half-wild dogs appeared ahead of me. So I took off running in the opposite direction soon to come across a similar pack. Fortunately and unfortunately, I had a great tolerance for alcohol and moved fairly nimbly through all this.

I made it to a lighted bamboo house and knocked. I was let in: this was in a region where white foreigners were much respected but very rare. So I was treated politely, despite the late hour and my drunken state; I fairly quickly went to sleep on a pad in an empty room. I woke up in the morning hung-over and quite distressed over the happenings of the last night: at the time I greatly blamed myself and my excessive drinking. There was much to this, but aside from one overheard mention, nobody had ever told me about this danger; Some Thais are over-zealous about not saying anything bad about their country.

At first, my hosts greeted me in a friendly way but did tell me the charge for the room would be exorbitant. They asked and I told them who I was, a professor at the local university, and that I needed a ride back there. Professors, by ancient tradition and modern culture, have great social status in Thailand. We chatted for a while and built a friendly rapport.

I got a ride back from an old but sturdy man on the back of a red motorcycle: he was very friendly and dignified. When I went to pay him, he told me they couldn't accept money from a foreign professor. Then, as he left, he gave me a very high "wai" (a rare mark of great respect.)


"So we'll go no more a-roving,
so late into the night,
though the heart be still as loving,
and the moon be still as bright."
-the poet Lord Byron


The "laws" against all drugs are very harsh in Thailand: but there are few police in Phetchaburi and the ones there are don't care about marijuana which, mixed with 3 parts tobacco, is commonly smoked by people from many walks of life... I know from personal experience.

It should be noted however that Thailand is not a great place for tourists to use drugs, though many do. The in-land region of Phetchaburi at the time had literally no tourists... it quite possibly still doesn't.

Should you find yourself in minor legal trouble over drugs, I'm told a bribe usually does the trick(best offered early.)

Another time, after surviving a flood(a terrible tale I'll tell someday,) I ran into a very old monk with some younger ones. The old monk sent a younger one in to get Pepsi and a pack of cigarettes. Undeterred, I approached him. He asked me a polite question(I gave him a high, respectful wai) and we started talking. Casually but expertly, he started massaging my arms. His eyes were mostly cataracted. I offered money but the younger monks told me it was only accepted at temple(many monks break this rule, but not this old man.) Having now much more world experience, I can say that he was a great man of sorts, maybe a healer(some may laugh but the science behind E.S.P. and E.S.P. healing, Indonesian hobbits, and martian bacteria is all believable... so who's really rejecting reason?)

In Phetchaburi Province, there is another monk; This one runs a disciplined and prestigious monastery with 20-some monks(there are also nuns; when the master speaks, they use sling-shots to keep away the monkeys who otherwise would invade us.)

The reason for this is that every day there's a great breakfast offered to all who come(it is not Spartan but really fantastic, but then it's the only meal for the monastery.)

This old head-monk is very revered among the Thais but does not descend to promote himself among the beach tourists; He took me aside and we talked for nearly an hour, an honor that amazed my Thai friends.

I'm afraid it was wasted: I can't remember anything he said, only that he was kind and dignified. My libertine mind only wondered why a man with obvious abilities would spend his life without women or whiskey on a mountain.

But it wasn't necessarily wasted because among my readers there's very likely someone interested in traditional Thai Buddhism, and now they know an authentic and hospitable place to go. By reputation, this was a place of discipline and the serious pursuit of meditation.

I made friends with a group of young people who hung around outside a store drinking "Singha" or dragon beer and smoking cigarettes. I took to putting lime or "manow" in mine and this caught on... rather widely. There was a very handsome fellow with a lazy, movie-star charisma(though I've found that without other qualities, this is a dime-a-dozen.) Then there was a half-Chinese engineering student(not Boat) whose English was decent and who was always good company. There was a pretty young girl who dressed provocatively and was an exception to the amazing pre-marital chastity that prevailed in rural as opposed to urban or red-light Thailand.

Her boyfriend and then ex-boyfriend was a mafia gun-man from Bangkok visiting his home region for whatever reason; I know this not from him but from others. As a matter of fact, once we listened to Eminem together. He'd approached me and was polite enough, enthusiastically told me that he loved Americans; I left my small Sony CD case and later heard he was using it to transport his pistol.

The "point" of this story is that once I loaded into the back of their truck with 8 young Thais and went to beautiful Chaam beach. Being who I am, I started rapping Sublime's "What I Got" and found that I knew it all by heart.

When I got to the beach, I ordered a whole fish that the Chinese fellow wouldn't let me pay for... though I was glad to and he'd suggested less expensive fare. After eating and drinking a little, I wandered. I was a single blonde, blue-eyed face on a beach with perhaps 500 Thais, mostly families out for a picnic and a swim. I approached and was approached by various parties, ate a little and drank a little with each, and continued on.

Once, after reading "Walking" by Thoreau... I decided to take a walk onto a part of the university campus I'd never seen before, near the houses that are provided for the professors. By the department of fine arts and high technology, not far from an elaborate shrine of the Buddha, I came to a mostly dry canal. Ranged around it, grazing, were a good number of goats; I could see chickens in the distance. These professors were surrounded by farmers and paid well enough that they practically didn't need farm animals... from a non-Thai perspective.

There was this older fellow, one of MANY street sweepers and janitors employed by the university. He was a primal sort: healthy and strong as a water buffalo. He was not as deferential as most Thais of his status but there was a genuine respect and nobility in his demeanor. He was a real friend.

He didn't speak much English at all, but like most Phetchaburians was willing to try. He had this blunt, relaxed way; He took reverent care of the Buddha shrine. He taught me a saying: "sabay sabay" which means "relax, enjoy life, be strong and focused," something of this sort. It stuck with me.

The most common sight in Phetchaburi is the rice farm: the borders are marked with tall, rugged palm trees. The oft brutal sun shines off the greenish water... in which strong men and water buffalo labor through the day. Nearby, women and children are doing their work, for example tending chickens or weaving baskets. At night, they'll sometimes gather at the Buddhist Temple, which doubles as a venue for traveling musicians and theatre troupes: these artists are usually very skilled and the audiences are polite and engaged: some having coconut milk, others "Singha" beer and raw garlic(pra ateet.) If forced to choose a world master race, I'd pick the Thais.

One day, I went to the university post office: a pleasant little building. Outside, there were flowers growing in coconut shells. I sent a post-card to Peter John Avagianos, who was in prison. I told him I was the one who'd sent him the yoga and meditation books, as well as the book of Jerry Garcia's drawings.

I have no opinions about that anymore. Neither the terrible crime nor the terrible criminal justice system is my affair. My affair is not to abandon my friends in their darkest hour. I had and have few enough of them.

Most of my students were girls a couple years younger than me, mostly the children of farmers and fisher-people. There were some young men but more of them were in this program called "business English." Seeing as they pretty much all wanted to know English for purposes of the tourist business, I don't know what the difference would be, but that's no matter.

One of my students was named Bo. She was from a professional family but probably not a wealthy one. She would have been an excellent student if she hadn't been frequently gone for beauty pageants(I gave her As anyway, and probably was expected to as festivals are important things in Thai culture.)

Her skin was neither dark nor light by Thai standards; it was radiant. Unlike many Thai women, she went to no great effort to whiten it. She'd approach me after class and we became friends; we'd have lunch together sometimes. She told me I was like a Thai because I always smiled. She liked that I took care of a couple stray dogs(many Buddhist monks encouraged the care of wild dogs and monkeys... creating substantial problems as we've seen.)

Bo's voice was melodious and what she had to say was always very sweet; Her accent was unusually strong and resistant to correction. We'd have lunch together sometimes, and I'd read her the poems of Robert Frost, which I came to especially like over there.

If I ever honestly and mutually loved a woman, it was Bo. But you have to understand that the culture of the region was ancient and disciplined: the only romantic option for a girl of Bo's class would have been to marry her.

And then she was my student. So my behavior was always polite and any flirtation was very mild on my part(and in this case on hers, though the same was not true for all my students.)

But there was something, quite a bit, there. If I'd come across much money, I'd have returned to Phetchaburi to marry her. If I did now, I'd likely find her with a nice Thai lawyer and beautiful children: They'd want to go have cold green tea and welcome me back to Phetchaburi. That's as it should be but even now it would hurt me to see it.

On Christmas day, the 7-eleven clerk: a cheerful middle-aged Thai woman said "!!!Merry Christmas!!!" to me. Christmas was not on their TV and it was not celebrated that I saw, except by our English department. But she knew it was Christmas for me: I don't know if it was planned or spontaneous.
I was touched.

The local pharmacist spoke excellent English because he'd been living a cultured life in San Francisco before 9-11, with marginal immigration status. For no criminal or political reason, the attacks led to his deportation.

Once I sought him out to learn the Thai word for "enlightenment." For what it's worth, it's "gan-luke-jan" meaning "like our Buddha."

I was on a field trip with other students and professors, high up on a mountain near Chiang Mai(Doi Suthep.) I saw a gnarled old woman selling sticks with gnarled red fruits on them. I didn't want the fruits but wanted to help her out so I bought some.

After carrying the sticks for a while, we stopped by a souvenir stand where some hill-tribe women were selling clothing, etc. I decided to find out what the hell the fruits were like, expecting to throw them away. Well, under that gnarled red skin were moist and delicious lichii fruits. Now, I'd come to love lichii as a teenager in Hawaii but they'd always come gleaming and white on a plate.

On this same field trip, we entered the actual city of Chiang Rai. Knowing I'd encounter beggars(the Northern region is the poorest,) I got a good deal of small bills or coins(I forget which.) The denomination I remember however: it was 40 baht... easily 4 hearty meals.

When some students of mine saw me giving bills to some begging children, they warned me not to do so or I'd be besieged by beggars. I told them it was alright, and continued giving that bill to every beggar who approached me... and my students were correct if not right.

Toward the end of it, I went into a coffeehouse and ordered a mocha. A conversation naturally started up with an older British couple. Outside I saw a woman just standing by the window with a baby... obviously trying to get my attention. This annoyed me for a moment as I thought she could wait till I was done having coffee. But I went and gave her eighty baht. The Englishman commented that he had a policy against giving money to beggars(because there could be so many,) but he thought that since I did it... I might as well feel good about it.

I probably helped around 100 beggars that day. I suppose I feel about it the way the Englishman did about it all. In most of Thailand, there wasn't a bad begging problem.

Also, in my literally non-existent experience, crime isn't all that high: The Thai robber doesn't go to a prison with three square meals, a library, and color T.V.

Another night, I was walking in the red-light district of Hua Hin. I was carrying roses because the children sell them(expensively) and I for good reason felt a need to atone to the community. That said, the severe exploitation and degradation one might expect doesn't really exist in prosperous Hua Hin, which is all run by Europeans. Anyway, I saw a group of women(who all wanted the flowers) and started to give them to a pretty, dark-skinned one.

Then I saw an older woman, not long for the profession, and I gave them to her. She hugged me gratefully and the other women seemed to like that. This wasn't exactly my intention and, as I was going home, I continued.

It's easy for people to think I misunderstood the situation, but I didn't. To put it simplistically, people are people and given a little prosperity, they care about things like each other, art, and flowers. Cultural bridges can be crossed more easily than most think... mostly because they've never really tried.

To address the issue on the minds of most Western readers, I'll point out the fact that women who want to marry Westerners usually become bar-girls and this is by far the most common path to that goal(being a bar-girl doesn't carry the perceived social disgrace of being an American hooker.) Thai modesty doesn't allow for the sort of drinking and dating most Western men want before marriage. This is not to justify the exploitation that sometimes occurs in other areas of Thailand, or to suggest that any of it's an ideal situation.

My sojourn in Thailand ended when, sometimes having the habit of eating the same meal again and again, I took in too much arsenic through tuna on Ko Tao Island, an excellent scuba-diving island notable for its black monitor lizards and amazing diversity of tourists.

My mobility being impaired, I took the time with people from Germany, Lithuania, Israel(nice fellow, said their economy was depressed,) France, and Japan... just to name a few, all on the north side of the island at the Venus Resort(basic bungalows right on the beach.)

Arsenic poisoning is not common in Thailand: it occurs through irresponsible gold-mining practices. It happened through a good deal of chance and could have happened about anywhere... heavy metals in seafood is a global problem, but tuna, along with shellfish, is among the most dangerous for such.


Here are a few tips for the visitor to Thailand:

1.) Don't criticize Buddhism and especially not the royal family: in other words, don't comment on them except in positive pleasantries or I guess enthusiastic praise. This is a matter of occasionally enforced law, not just courtesy.

The monarchy is solid and revered in Thailand: barring incredible events, it isn't going anywhere. Think of it as part of the national religion, something you agree to live with as part of visiting Thailand. The present king has shown admirable traits, and has shown compassion for the poor, who revere his dynasty.

2.) Don't bring up the movie or book "Anna and the King." That's an ice-maker, not ice-breaker.

3.) Be aware of the Thai feelings about feet and shoes. Kicking your feet up on a chair, for example, is a problem not just because of the chair. Personally, I wished Thais would extend different rules to foreigners. If you slip, however, you're far more likely to get a courteous explanation than a furious host.

4.) In my experience, Thais respond very positively to courtesy and interest in their culture. It should be noted that there is an elitist and a "common" Thai culture, extending even to word pronunciations. Both are interesting in my opinion, and the latter can be quite sophisticated.

5.) Don't be too quick to judge Thai ways: things like social hierarchy, censorship, and the adulation of the monarchy. Let's just say it's all complicated, and in some ways Thailand is a more civilized and sane place than the U.S.A.

The Thai government has strongly taught its people that hospitality to and protection of foreigners is an important duty. Should you forget these tips, you'll find that to be a great protection.

I'm going to continue these stories day by day...



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