Hotel Unhajak, Phitsanulok
2 January 1986
Today I have travelled alone for the first time in Thailand. That is to say that up to now there have been friendly fellow travellers to cushion communication. Catching the bus from Chiang Mai to here; watching the French-Canadians descend at Sukhotai; finding this hotel entailing a rickshaw ride and checking out vastly more expensive ones; walking the town to find an evening meal: all that had to be conducted in Thai.
And a pleasurable experience it has been.
Perhaps on my own, there will be more of an immediacy to each day. I will, perforce, have to be more receptive to the subtleties of the Thai psyche. Having achieved a level of communication which owes so much to body language and a smile, I am more contented here than in the other countries I’ve passed through, all of which where English is more widespread.
I am not sure that there is much of interest in Phitsanulok for a tourist. The wat by the river has a huge statue of Buddha which is visible from the bus, and the river itself could provide a pleasant stroll. Maybe the tourist office could furnish some outings.
For all that (or not), I feel that I am back to the original precepts of my travels. An independent traveller, off established routes, can gain insights denied to those who restrict themselves to scenic rides. I’m more of a William Cobbett than a Tony Wheeler. However, I am going to have to learn more of the spoken language, though I am increasingly adept at bargaining prices, having (almost) mastered all the number, perhaps the most logical part of Thai.
It’s difficult trying to define my response to Thailand. That’s because apart from the hill tribe excursions, I’m mixing with a global middle class of which I am a part. Transportation is familiar: Youngsters and young families ride in pairs or en famille on Japanese 70cc mopeds. The taxis and rickshaws (tuk-tuks) are not metered, but India bred the correct behavioural responses in me. The buses and trains are not air-conditioned and pre-reserved still tend to be cramped. I have to adjust my frame accordingly; there are few Asians of my stature, but the low fares are adequate compensation. And I don’t share the common view among travellers that motorists, esp. bus drivers, are homicidal.*
I feel safe here, and this extends to food. The tea and coffee is drinkable and does not taste “like the two have been mixed together and left to stew for a month.” (Tony Wheeler) If drinking thick and strong Thai coffee, a cup of weak tea is often served alongside. But Nescafé is common as is Milo. Refrigerated drinking water is usually readily available, and for free in hotels and guest houses.
Eating is more of an adventure. Sometimes the fiery condiments are left to the customer’s discretion. More usual though is the need to carefully remove the chillies before consumption. A tour of the stalls outside the restaurants can provide the sweet things necessary to calm the fevered lips and that, for me, is a gourmand experience. Of course, it is possible that by the time I rejoin M on Ko Samet in a couple of weeks I shall be desperate for the ubiquitous banana pancake to complement the yummy tom yam.
*See my entry for Bangkok for a contrary view. Perhaps the capital should be viewed as a separate urban aberration.