Welcome to Narathiwat, deep in the south east of Thailand not far from the border to Malaysia. I can’t remember if anybody actually did welcome us. However here we are. It is a most beautiful day and from early morning till lunchtime is spent being bumped around in a small public bus with see through wooden floor boards feeling claustrophobic lots of entertainment as vendors are getting on and off the bus selling smelly food, gooey snack and deadly looking drinks. It is not a trip for the faint-hearted person and I am utterly exhausted by arrival. Well, just dust off your feelings and residue chook manure from the bus trip. In this part of the world anything and everything gets transported on buses as long as it can be carried on board so we have a few chook passengers and old mum toothless and beautiful in the seat behind us has a piglet on her lap. Let go off the puke on your right shoulder planted there by your fellow traveller also behind you. The puke never made it to the plastic bag that most locals carry around while travelling the twisted tracks of Thailand. Mountain travelling is not their strong side. If you ask them I am sure they would prefer to travel on oxcart and there are plenty of them on the road carting old logs, chooks, pottery, hay and some look to contain a whole house hold. 75% of this province is jungle and mountains and we have been driving through some stunning landscape to get to Narathiwat.
Please do not ask me why we want to stop here for the night. Maybe our travel book is promising some sort of nice accommodation, markets to stroll around, exotic food to sample and much more. If you like to read a really good travel book have a look at my book “A Creative Writer’s Travel Guide”. The population in this area are mainly farmers and fishermen 82% Muslim and 18% Buddhist which is a very interesting mixture but never intimidating. Today at the time of writing I would not go there as there are too many problems and danger around every corner of the province including terrorist attacks. Just take it off your bucket list and be happy to know that I have been there and done it for you. Now lean back in your best recliner chair and enjoy another juicy story from this wag.
It is a cheerful day. It is Friday and lunch time, just in time to find a cheap hotel before all the weekenders from Malaysia arrives. We have to face that we have made a serious mistake. In the heat of the day we walk from one hotel to the other. We are turned back everywhere. Big smiles on their faces but we have no room for you. Big Buddha festival they say all happy. The Buddha in question is the golden “Pra Buddha Thaksin Ming Monkol” (Not Mongrel) seated in the lotus position and giving posture. He sits on a mountain top and he is 17 metre wide measured from knee to knee and 24 metre high. Good news indeed! We never made it to this enormous Buddha but we have seen other Buddha figurine during our extended travels in East Asia and I have included a few photos so you can sense the magic and spirituality surrounding this religious fellow.
The town is hectic with energetic people everywhere. No matter where we look people are so colourful all dressed up for exciting news. It is just one of those things we did not take into consideration. The big Buddha festival! However we end up in a very posh hotel with a very pricey deal. We pay through the nose. No other choice at all and the last bus out of town left at 11 am. No bus before next morning. Settle in girl and enjoy the moment. We plant our back packs in our posh room and head for the streets.
I am bewildered by the fashion and culture. It is one catwalk after the other people glare at us as we stare back at them. The streets are full of seductive aroma one can hardly make up one’s mind where to eat. It is just all too overwhelming and “look Peder a street procession”. Beautiful vibrant yellow, brown and orange colours in one big wheel wind of festivity. Lots of Buddha figurines and statues are paraded on floats with incredible beautiful flowers sticking their heads out everywhere. This is unreal, full of magic and our best luck for donkey’s years.
We go with the flow and late night we are so content with life. There is food everywhere. Street markets spilling out like octopus arms in all directions. Food vendors everywhere and we are determined to try as many different local dishes as possible. It is the land of milk and honey. Welcome to El Dorado, folks! My mouth is watering as I dive into a Somtam which is a green papaya salad with a salty, very spicy and sour taste. Ups I don’t really like sour food. The papaya is green which means it is unripe, swimming in heaps of soy sauce, ground nuts, fish sauce ups another not so nice food but the locals love it. Then lime juice and plenty of chillies. Overpowering hot chillies and my mouth is suffering from a first degree burnout. All the ingredients are pounded with a pestle in a mortar for a few seconds and there you go the salad is ready to eat.
Time to find our way back to the posh hotel for a well deserved good night sleep. We are up early the following morning and out hunting for cheap accommodation again. Big smile! Sorry same story as yesterday. Big Buddha festival all rooms booked. Big smile! Come back tomorrow. So we have another night at the posh hotel. Then luck strikes. On the second morning hunting around we strike a deal. The hotel is a rundown, absolutely charming timber building with lots of character. I wonder why we did not see it before now! The paint has long gone. It is just the perfect place to be. The building looks as leaning against an invisible pole holding up its appearances. Wow, we have found a home for a few days. We are told to come back tomorrow. There will be a room available and to make sure we don’t miss out on the once in a life time opportunity we pay for one night in advance. You never know your luck but you have to follow your intuition and as I said many a time before trust your inner guidance.
Next day comes around like any other day does just out of the blue. Who invented the next day anyway? I am not going to get into a philosophical trap so I will just leave the question open. We are ready for new adventure and some excitement. We check out from the posh hotel and the girls at the reception are all excited. They want to know which town we are going to. “Oh no”, I say “we are not leaving town. We will be staying at the Old Narathiwat Hotel”. Golly what a change of energy! The girls turn pale and look down. Well not to worry. I might turn pale one day too. Back packs secured and off we go.
The day is bright and full of hope. We enter Old Narathiwat Hotel and feel welcome, at ease and at home straight away. Old Dad in the reception is still there and with a big smile on his face he gesture for us to sit down at one of the tables in what looks more like a living room than a reception. We guess we are waiting for our room to be cleaned. Old Dad does not speak much English but we understand that all is good and taken care off.
A few old and younger men are hanging around watching us their faces full of curiosity. Dusty pictures of the King and Queen of Thailand on the wall reaching out. I must have drifted into dream time day dreaming a bit about being a royal when a smell of sandalwood drifting atop the ramshackle reception desk brings me back to reality. There are plenty of cockroaches to study on a dull evening. They are milling around just like us for something to do. Small geckoes are running up walls to chase flies and greeting spiders.
Old Dad gets up and gesture us to follow him out through a large door onto a huge veranda overlooking a lovely garden with some shady trees to one side and a row of rooms to the other side. A new world unfolds. Wow there is young ladies everywhere I look. They are definitely not dressed for the opera and stealing a closer look they look ready to capture and conquer their man of the year. I wonder if it is a travelling theatre troupe getting ready to do some street performance now that it is the Big Buddha Festival.
I look away and follow Peder and Old Dad upstairs where we meet and greet Old Mum. Of course she talks Thai and we do not understand one word of it. She does not speak English at all not to mention Danish, German or French. She shows us our room pointing at two coat hangers, one each, she shows us where to find the light switch and point out where to find the toilet and showers. It is an absolutely release to be here. The old wooden floor creaks by the thoughts of walking across the room. The bed has hard madras. The breeze in the large hall at the top of the staircase is a welcoming friend. No doubt we have landed in paradise. Then Old Mum takes us out onto the balcony. She is very helpful and a lovely old lady. Then she is gone.
The old hotel is right on the Bang Nara River and our room faces the river with a million dollar view. It is just stunning. What more can you wish for? We make ourselves at home. It is time for a shower and siesta before we head back to the dusty streets to sample more of the lovely speciality cooked in this region. Ready to go out for dinner downstairs has turned into a hectic place. The doors to all the rooms are all open but two. I have a good sticky beak into the rooms as I slow down walking past. There is a girl on each bed. Looking seductive and face complete with war paint. Then the penny drops. We are in a brothel!
Here is a never ending traffic of men in all ages from the age of very young to the very old. The birds are dressed to kick up a row. Their make-up is raising hell. A girl sprawled on the bed gives herself airs. There is a smell of lavender and jasmine fit to knock you down. She does not worry about me watching her. Some of the girls show a great interest in Peder and especially his beard. Or maybe it is not so much his beard after all but other parts of his body. I tell Peder to keep moving and instruct him not to look in the direction of the girls. It is now my understanding that Old Mum must be kept busy looking after ten hard working girls. Well there you go! This is awesome!
Lots of men are now hanging around the reception some watching a black and white movie on the old telly. Some are having a cold beer or a cup of coffee. Some fellows drink what looks like egg toddy. Most of the men greet us and they also show a great interest in Peder’s beard. They all want to feel the texture of his whiskers and some of the men are brave enough to pull at it. It is one compliment after the other coming Peder’s way. I am more interested in the ingredients of the egg toddy so I keep a sharp eye on what the toddy maker is doing. I better call him Eddie the Eggert it will do him justice. He seems to be a master of the trade. He breaks the eggs open in a cup then adds some powder from different glass containers. I move a bit closer to the young man and indicate that I would like to know what is in the containers. One has ground black pepper another ground ginseng. Some stuff I can’t guess what is but with each serve of egg toddy they get a stick of asparagus. I am pretty sure by now that this drink is an aphrodisiac. That’s awesome and inspiring at the same time! I think raw oysters, almonds, chocolate, bananas, basil, figs and avocados will do the trick too!
I am sure lots of young men lose their virtue in this hotel under gorgeous swaying women. Here at the Old Narathiwat Hotel the sea runs high outside in the tidal river. There is a smell of fish as a fully loaded fishing boat sail past the rocking brothel hotel. One boat is heading straight for the jetty where the old hotel bobs up and down. Skipper has been at sea for a long time. His dick is pointing the way to the brothel and soon the dick will be all sagging. Skipper himself will be at ease before he goes back to his boat. A large cargo boat is bound for the old wooden hotel. I hope the helmsman changes course or we will all be lost in the mighty Bang Nara River. All hands on deck having to rescue drunken sailors and wringing wet birds.
An old bloke swaying and shuffling a bit unsteady in his walk comes out of room number seven. On his face a most unusual broad and wheedling smile. He is one of the many old sailors with a girl in each harbour. I give him a quick glance. He is just out of the love nest realising that he did not do up his zip. The door to his hobby room is all open and the little fellow is looking out, flabby and wrinkled himself on wobbly knees. I meet his glance as he walks past me. I smile to him as he puts the little fellow away and zip up and it is gone. He greets me and I greet him. It’s awesome! Fancy sitting here soaking up great atmosphere! Sometimes I do get cranky with myself for not speaking more languages. Imagine what conversations you could strike! This is exhilarating!
The mood in the reception is on the high. Men are waiting for their object of choice. They are drinking more beer and there is no end to their excited chatter. The serviced men are happy and satisfied. The weight on their shoulders is gone. Those that are not in a hurry to go back to their wives and kids take their time to enjoy another cold drink while sharing their newly acquired experience. They are ready to face the world.
Shortly after the door to room number two is opened and a middle aged man appears in the door opening. A large blotch on his trousers reveals that he has either wet his pants or his God blessed him with the biggest passage ever and soon it is departure time for us. We are going out for dinner and by now the girls have realised that we are not working the sex industry we are just a couple of dewy-eyed travellers following the advice of H.C. Andersen who said “To travel is to live”.
Late night back at the hotel all doors closed we sneak upstairs ready for bedtime stories. Vagina unearthed the floor and ceiling rocking. I think all the girls have found the same rhythm. Now it is up to Peder and me to join in or play another record on the just about worn out jukebox. It is like being on open heavy sea. A delightful and healthy laughter finds it way upstairs. You can hear them work; in and out it goes at full speed ahead now and again a pubic hair breaks. Then suddenly it is all quiet. Cheers to the birds! 11pm is bedtime. Old Dad makes sure all birds are in their room roosting on each their perch. A good night kiss and the light is turn off.
Five days later and believe it or not we are still at the brothel enjoying every minute of it Old Mum come upstairs big smile on her face and her radiance so special. She gesticulates tremendously but to no avail. We just cannot understand what she is saying but she is definitely trying to pass on some information. She is pointing towards the river and showing 5 fingers. She is waving her body as if mimicking water and a flow. Making circles in the air pointing up in the air. She is really good at body language we just need the tools to break the code! She is making another big circle in the air and bringing it to the ground. She spots a half used candle on the book shelf gets it and make more movements. Here comes another big circle this time she draws it at floor level and brings it up high in the air. Gosh this is getting a bit exhausting but what do you do. We smile and keep nodding our heads off. Then she is gone. We look at each other and shake our heads hoping as the day unfolds it will give us the key to better understanding.
We are back in the dusty streets and smelly markets. The locals are milling around. They seem more preoccupied and excited than yesterday. Some carry beautiful decorations made from banana leaves and pretty flowers. In the town centre there is a pop up market with lots of stall holders selling these decorations. It is one big flower show. I feel so happy to see all these stunning flower arrangements and I wonder if there is some sort of happening in sight! We have not seen these decorations before. Oh well maybe Old Mum was body language lecturing us about something to do with flowers, candles and circles!
The day pass away another siesta gone and before you know it is time to organise yourself for the early evening stroll through town and chase some dinner. We go downstairs. All the girls and Old Mum are all excited. Even more excited when they see us. They are all dressed up in their best finery. Their faces painted and jewellery dangling. They look like a colourful procession. We stare at them and they motion us to follow them out the door and down the street. They keep signalling for us to keep moving down towards the river.
The sun is setting behind the mountains and as we get to the river there is a big full moon on the rise. Wow, so that’s what all the circles in the air was all about. Sun set and the rise of Full Moon! Well done Old Mum now we are getting to understand the message. There are people everywhere. I can’t help staring at all these beautiful people in colour full dresses and sarongs, some wearing head dress in gold, orange and yellow. Families sitting on mats and blankets on the ground with bundles of kids, old folks and teenagers. They are all out. Most of them are carrying flower decorations. They chat and laugh out loud. This is amazing magic.
The pop up flower decoration market is now extended to hold a huge food market with thousand of dishes to choose from. My mouth is watering again. I am having Nasi Tumpang which is rice packed in a cone-shaped banana leaf with omelette, meat floss and sweet gravy. The aroma drifting from each stall is terrific. I am incredible hungry and I dive into the next dish on offer by a young couple. This next one is Ayam Percik which is boiled chicken with sweet coconut gravy served with rice. I guess all dishes in Thailand are served with rice as this is their staple food.
The Keropok lekor is a traditional Malay fish cracker snack also called fish sausages, fish stick or fish fritter made by mixing fish flesh and tapioca flour. The ingredients are rolled into long firm sticks then steamed or boiled. The stick is then cut into smaller lengths then deep fried. It is yummy snack food. Everywhere you look you will see fruit piled on the ground.
So difficult to make a choice as there are noodles by the millions, gravy in all sorts of colours and consistency. Peder wants to try fried grasshopper. We are all different and I look the other way as Peder is having a gourmet snack. More noodles and heaps of fermented shrimp paste. Fish sauce by the gallons and after a while it makes my stomach growl at me. No more it says. Please do not feed me with another drop of fish sauce. One dipping sauce after the other and life is all about making those choices. What to have next? I grab a salted anchovy sauce for my rice, grilled fish and vegetable dish. I am full but manage to squeeze a fish cake and spring roll down my oesophagus. Peder wants cockroach. Bon appétit you are on your own Mate!
Next stall stinks to high heaven. Tempoyak – fermented durian. Excuse me but just move on. I don’t even think that I could eat fermented durian. However people go crazy over durian. Beef curry cooked with peanuts, potatoes and chopped red onions in a thick coconut milk is the last dish for Peder to try out for the evening. He is stuffed too. Kaeng som nom mai dong is a hot and sour fish ragout with pickled bamboo. It will have to wait till tomorrow.
It has gone dark and the locals are all heading for the river. You can hardly see the wood for the trees. So we follow the crowd. People are now launching their flower decorations for a river cruise. Unbelievable but those flower decorations are actually floats and most of them have a candle in the middle. Old Mum really did a good job this morning moving her body like water and finding the old lonely candle on the book shelf. So we watch them all. The candle is lit. The floats put in the river. It looks like a prayer being said and then people turn their back to the river and away the decoration floats towards the river mouth and the great ocean beyond. I am so excited. Imagine having this opportunity to share a moment of a ceremony with people from a different country and a different culture.
A young couple is approaching. They speak English and ask if they may join us. Absolutely and what a blessing it is for us to finally find somebody with whom we can communicate with words. They explain a lot and now we understand that it is Loi Krathong. It is a festival where people float their “baskets”. The festival takes place in the evening of the full moon of the 12th months in the traditional Thai lunar calendar. The floats are elaborately decorated and many a local put a coin or a piece of jewellery on the float as an offering to the river and sea spirit or a water spirit as such. As people launch the floats they make a wish. For the wish to come true they must turn their back to the float. It is about letting go of one’s hatred, anger and any other negative energy. Some people cut their fingernail and hair and place them on the float as a symbol of letting go of past sins. What an eye opener. No wonder we love travelling the world.
Most of the floats have been launched by now gently rocking finding their way to the mighty ocean to be swallowed up by the Sea Goddess. I feel so humble and content, tired and exhausted at the same time. We are just about to leave the river when the young couple tell us to stay as there is more action to come. I can hardly comprehend more actions but here it comes. Every man and his dog has got a lantern in his hand not that there are any dogs around. They may all have been eaten or maybe I ate some tonight who knows. The lanterns are made of rice paper or thin fabric stretch over a bamboo or wire frame. Candles are lit inside the lanterns then let loose heading for the sky high above. It is a most spectacular sight. Hundreds or even thousands of lanterns are taking off to make merit. It looks spectacular.
I consider myself a blessed person being here in Narathiwat on such a special day. We thank the young couple for their company and for sharing their time and knowledge with strangers. They say: “There are no strangers here, only friends you haven’t met”. Before we part they tell us that Narathiwat is from Sanskrit Nara and adhivasa and means “the residence of wise people”!
We are finally back at the hotel just before 11pm on the upstairs balcony watching the river scene unfold below. We thought it would be all quiet but we were wrong. Eddie the Eggert master of the egg toddy is busy looking after the girls. They should have been in bed by now! Each girl has a float and Eddie the Eggert stands on the downstairs veranda next to what looks like a sewage creek with a float in his hand. The sewerage system is one of the open kind which runs from both the toilet and bath room. This makes it easy to keep an eye on what is going on at the brothel. Condoms and sperm are pouring out of down pipes from each room. I have never seen anything like it. Apparently they also use the toilet as a rubbish bin after dinner because at that time you will see sperm mixed with spaghetti, fish oil and well chewed blue fish bone. Eddie the Eggert don’t mind the sewage mess and climbs down the stairs on the jetty and swims in the dirty water dragging condoms and other human debris along in his one arm big breast strokes. Finally he reaches a good current of the river and he let go of the float. We can hear a young female voice making wishes for new beginnings. The Water Goddess blesses all the girls, everybody is happy the ritual has been conducted as ruled out.
Hey, what’s happening? There are some young people in a canoe on the river! Where did they come from? We watch them for a while. They are paddling around the river under trees which are leaning out over the river that’s why they are difficult to spot. Oh dear, they are taking the floats out of the water and robbing them for coins, jewellery and what else the people offered to the Water Goddess. We yell at them to stop pinching the floats. We are showing them our clenched fists but to no avail. They laugh at us as they work their way through all the floats they can get their hands on. I wonder if the wishes will ever reach the Water Goddess!