Wednesday, 4 April 2007
"You Can Score on Route 24!"
Lower Isaan, the five provinces just north of the Cambodian border, is dry and dirt
poor. The land is degraded and the increasing population can no longer live off the land. Families are split apart as the young and energetic leave home to find work elsewhere. If you ever see a decent home in this part of the world, unless they’re Chinese merchants or police, the money has come from elsewhere… from construction work in Taiwan, from sweated shoe factories in Samut Prakan or the girlie bars of Bangkok and Pattaya.
If you’ve holidayed in Koh Samet or Phuket, Krabi or Samui, you’ll know that the sleepy girl who gets your order wrong with such charm is probably from Si Saket or Surin in Isaan, just like the vamp who fixes your eye on the dark, rutted sidewalks of Sukhumvit and whispers, ‘Handsome Man! Bai duay.’
So how do you get to Isaan if you want to see what it’s like and why so many of these ladies have left home? Well, you can travel east as far as Ubon, the land of the light skinned Isaan ladies and it’s a long and dusty road through hundreds of miles of dry rice fields, taking you swiftly across endless oceans of unremitting toil. Little wonder is it that the ablest and the prettiest young women make an escape in the hope winning for themselves their walking jackpot lottery ticket with a well-stocked wallet.
For the adventurous farang, this road runs east first through Korat, then Buriram where Fon, the heroine of my novel “Thai Girl” comes from, through Surin where I now live, then across the parched plains of Si Saket and finally to Ubon.
It may seem a coincidence that whenever Cat and I meet a Thai/farang couple in England, surprisingly the lady often comes from quite near our village in Surin. But then it’s not that strange as this is where so many of these economic migrants come from.
The long, straight road that links these provinces, which runs for hundreds of miles not far from the border with Cambodia, is famously known as Route 24. Along it, heading west, these optimistic young things go in search of a new life, and back along it they nervously return with long-nose in tow, he of tatty shorts and tattoos, to present him triumphantly to their families and friends.
To these happy men, this road has great significance too. It’s a bounteous place and from its unpromising soil spring women of great beauty and charm. Nor are they always unattainable, and many a dumpy Joe soon discovers that he’s an attractive guy and much in demand. Yes, you can score on Route 24!
There’s a great old song by Nat King Cole which has the worst lyrics in history but somehow still hits the spot. ‘Get your kicks on Route Sixty Six.’ And I’m thinking that if in my sixtieth decade I can write a successful novel about kids a third my age, then why can’t I be a song-writer.
If you like pastiche (microwaved for three minutes), then try the following for starters. It’s reasonably close to and not much worse than the original so don’t blame me for all of it.
“If you ever plan to motor east,
Of Thai girls you’ll soon find a feast.
In Buriram and Sisaket, there’s many waiting for you yet.
You can score on Route 24.
It runs dead fast right through Korat,
Though Ubon’s where it’s really at.
And if you choose the darker skin, then sip a Singha in Surin.
You’ll find more on Route 24.
Won’t you get hip to this timely tip,
When you make an Isaan trip.
And if you love that rotten fish, then som tam Lao is just your dish.
You can score on Route 24.”
There you have it! So put it on the karaoke screens and take it away! As far as possible! My prize for the worst line goes to, ‘Won’t you get hip to this timely tip,’ and that one comes from the original!
It has a useful message, my song does... though do you think Route 24 is really where you want to score? Are you sure this is where you want to hang up your coat?
It’s said that when you marry your Si Saket lady, you marry her whole family, but in a way you marry her village too, her province even. You’ll have to build her a house in the village as a necessary rite of passage and if you’re to spend any amount of time in Thailand with her, then you’ll find yourself spending a fair bit of your life in the proximity of Route 24.
As I sit at my computer writing this rubbish, Route 24 is seven kilometers to the south... and my elbows are sticking to my desk, burned by it almost. Everything I touch is hot. Hells’ teeth it’s hot. And dry, and dusty and noisy and alive with rampant insects. The dogs and cockerels wake me at three and there’s nothing much here other than buffaloes. Is this really where I’ve chosen to spend the rest of my life?
Waiting at Immigration in Suan Plu, I recently sat next to an American who told me he lives in Petchabun. It’s high there and the daytimes are never too hot, he said. The scenery is mountainous, there are meadow flowers everywhere and it’s always green on his side of the hill. It sounded wonderful and I hated him for it. How had he got it all so horribly right while I was exiled out on Route 24?
When you fall amorous with your ‘Thai girl’, you soon give up all free will and you have to abandon yourself to a passive state of limbo as she rows you across the Styx to heaven or hell. If it’s ever possible though for you to resist the sirens long enough and to make decisions with your brain rather than with another part of your anatomy, I’d recommend a few additional courtship questions to the standard ones before you finally give in.
When she opens with, ‘Hansome’ man! Where you come from?’ you should reciprocate with, ‘And where do you come from?’ Next you casually add, ‘What’s the elevation and the average daytime temperature for April in your village? Is it high up? Where’s the nearest Big C, the nearest airport and the nearest immigration office?’
Only if the answers to your questions are favourable, should you let off the brakes and note whether she’s truly beautiful and worthy of your attention. For remember, a beautiful flower in a desert’s all well and good, but not if you’re going to have to live there with her!
For sure you can score and get your kicks, but you may end up kicking yourself too on Route 24. If you end up with a life sentence locked in the aircon, grumbling to the forum on Thai Visa and reading Stickman, while home life revolves around Thai soaps and som tam parties, you have only yourself to blame. But if sometimes it’s a dog’s life, you’ve just got to hang in there, matey and not do anything desperate. So what’s the score now, my friend?
Just kidding! I love it hot really.