Saturday, July 08, 2006

Off To Petchabun

Today we got up before dawn and caught the bus to Petchabun. There actually is a bus that goes directly from Pattaya up to Petchabun, but being a holiday weekend, it was sold out, and so we had to do the mind-numbing bus ride to Morchit bus station in Bangkok, and then a 2-hour layover, and then the bus onwards to Petchabun. Total travel time 11 hours. (I did the math: In a car, taking one's time, the drive would be 5½ to 6 hours.)

Amazingly, Pot never complained once. Can't say that about most 4-year-old kids facing 11 hours sitting on their mother's lap in a cramped bus seat. (We meant to buy 3 tickets for the bus to Petchabun, but somehow the ticket stand only gave us two... 1 child and 1 adult... which we never noticed. The bus stewardess, upon taking our tickets, understood what happened and didn't insist we buy another ticket — since the bus was sold out anyway — and let the three of us ride in 2 seats.)

Well, I do have to say that after the city of Chayaphum — my only other Isaan visit of any duration — the city of Petchabun is just fabulous. Really, really nice. It has a lot of pretty government buildings; broad, tree-lined thoroughfares; a large amount of middle-class, attractive residences; a golf course; and a reasonable amount of civic pride in the cleanliness and upkeep of the numerous public spaces. Actually, the town feels as though it expects one day to be a great metropolis, and has planned ahead for just such an eventuality.

Petchabun is the world-capitol of tamarind, and is located in almost the geographic center of Thailand. They apparently have some diamond mines, grow lots of corn, and have some really pretty mountains in the distance.

Pui's family lives about 20 miles to the east of downtown Petchabun, right in the foothills of those mountains, and it is really nice out there in the country as well. Lots of pretty little villages with (once again) a fair amount of wealth as compared to other parts of northeastern Thailand.

Pui's family is about as poor as you can get in Thailand (outside of a hill tribe). Apparently they were much better off at one point in time, with a nice (nicer) house, but their house, everything they owned, and Pui's grandmother were washed away in a flash flood several years back. Obviously Thailand doesn't have some kind of "FEMA" government agency, and there isn't any such thing as home insurance, so they were left with nothing.

Then, to compound that, Pui's father has suffered from recurrent bowel obstructions, and has been cut open so many times that his abdomen is criss-crossed with scars. He can't work. (He seems to have lost an eye as well, though that was never explained to me.) Pui has a younger brother, but he seems to be allergic to labor of any form as far as I can tell. Fortunately, her family owns a small amount of land, and they live off the rental income from that.

Pui's mother seems to spend most of her time in the kitchen preparing meals, washing clothes, and probably doing odd things to earn a buck. She also loves her betel nuts, and her teeth are a shiny ebony because of them. Life, work, and luck seems to have aged her well beyond her years.

Pui's family also has her other grandmother (her father's mother) staying with them. She is 78 years old, but looks to be 108. Decades of squatting in that famous Asian fashion have left her as a contender for the most stooped person on the planet... terribly scoliotic and deformed. When she walks, her head is actually at the same level as her buttocks (with the arch of her back above). However, when she goes down into that squat, she folds up so nicely and comfortably, and compactly, that you admire her more than pity her. She easily crouches down so that her head is eye-level with my shins, arms and chin resting on her knees.

Pot's little friend (whose face oddly reminds me of a child version of my own grandfather on my father's side) was there, and Pot and he had nonstop fun for the entire visit. This child's father died of an illness of some sort, and lives with his mother who is nearly crippled.

Down here in Pattaya, you hear all the sob stories from the bar girls about death, disease, and destruction back home, and kind of nod your head and take a tighter grip of your wallet. However, when you go up to a place like Petchabun and see the hard life first hand... Well, you do appreciate that tragedy is an integral part of life in these places. One of Pui's friends explained how her 8-month-old daughter had died just a few weeks ago when her mother-in-law got drunk and didn't see the child wander off and somehow fall between two steps and strangle herself. I was shocked not so much at the story as shocked at the easy, matter-of-fact manner in which this mother relayed the facts of her daughter's quite recent and exceptionally tragic death to me.

No comments: