Ajaan Peerachat was my best friend at Wat Bovornives.
He was what I would never be – a professional teacher. He taught me jai yen yen, cool heart, the relaxed, easy-going attitude Thai people excel at. Between my relaxing a bit and the public caning of Terdsak, Maw Saw 5 became tolerable.
We were correcting homework in the teacher’s lounge one day when I noticed the Buddha image hung in a gold case around his neck. I knew Thais wore them for good luck but had never seen such beautiful workmanship. He took it off and handed it to me to inspect.
“It cost 5,000 baht, Ajaan Maitri,” he told me proudly. I whistled in surprise. $250 was a significant sum for a poorly-paid Thai teacher.
“It guarantees that I will never be without money in this life.”
It occurred to me that putting the 5,000 baht into a savings account might be wiser but I was in no position to lecture. Growing up, I wore a shiny, silver Miraculous Medal of the Blessed Virgin around my neck, believing it would protect me from accidents and injury. On the other hand, it only cost a dollar.
“I wanted a Luang Pu Thuad,” Peerachat added, looping it back over his neck, “but I couldn’t afford one.” Luang Pu Thuad was a Buddhist monk famous for his learning, sanctity and the supernatural powers he exhibited during his life. A genuine Luang Pu Thuad amulet, cast by the right monastery, was literally worth a fortune. Peerachat knew a rich Chinese merchant who offered a Mercedes sedan for one. Some people believed the amulet could even stop bullets and knives, making them popular with Chonburi gangsters.
I laughed. “You don’t believe that, do you?”
“I believe it’s possible,” he replied solemnly.
We spent the rest of our lunch break arguing about amulets and maw duu, Thai fortune tellers. I was dismayed to find out how superstitious Peerachat was, despite his Western dress and American education.
“Show me a fortune teller who can accurately tell my past or predict my future, and I'll believe,” I challenged him when we finished lunch.
“OK,” Peerachat said. “Tomorrow we'll go see my friend Khun Mae in Thonburi. She is very good.”
Walking back to our classrooms, Peerachat told me a story. To qualify to go to Boston to study English, he had to pass a competitive test. Peerachat wanted to go badly. Anxious to know how he did, he visited Khun Mae after the exam.
“She told me I would go to the States – but not that year, the next year. Of course, I was very disappointed.”
“And then I received a letter from the Ministry telling me I had been chosen to go to America that year. So Khun Mae was wrong.”
I was puzzled. “Then why are we going to see her?”
“Jai yen yen, Khun Maitri,” he laughed. “I have not finished.”
That night, he went to a whorehouse with his friends to celebrate, and when he showed up weeks later for the Ministry-mandated health exam, the doctor flunked him.
“I had venereal disease, and the doctor couldn’t cure it quickly enough, so the Ministry held me back and sent me the following year. Khun Mae was right after all!”
The next day after school, we rode the No. 19 bus through Chinatown and across the Memorial Bridge to Thonburi, Bangkok's sister city on the other side of the Chao Phraya river, then flagged down a roht-tuk-tuk, an open-air, three-wheeled taxi, which took us the rest of the way.
“Did you make an appointment?” I asked him as we bounced down the pot-holed, unpaved soi, my head banging against the canvas roof every time we hit a bump.
“She doesn't have a phone. She is not a rich person.” he replied, hanging onto the seat with both hands. I pounced on that.
“She's probably poor because she's an unsuccessful fortune teller,” I laughed. “No repeat business.”
Ten minutes later, we pulled up to a traditional Thai wooden house with a steep, peaked roof and open, unscreened windows, removed our shoes at the door, and a young girl led us through the house to a back porch which overlooked a narrow, shallow, muddy klong clogged with purple water-lilies, the banks lined with banana trees. A mynah bird hopped about in a cage on a lacquered table lit by the late afternoon sun, occasionally giving out a sharp, startling whistle. A dog dreamed away on the steps.
Khun Mae, the maw duu, was a warm, friendly old lady in her 70s. She dressed old style, the way Thai women did before Western culture redefined beauty. She sat bare-breasted on the green linoleum floor, her shriveled boobs resting on her kneecaps. Her long, raw silk skirt was tucked up between her legs, traditional style, and her grey hair was cut butch. The few teeth left in her mouth were black from chewing betel nut. She spit the bright red juice into an empty condensed milk can at her side. She had pink, flat feet and the wrinkled, walnut-colored skin, gnarled hands and hunched back of someone who had worked outdoors much of her life. She cackled when she laughed – which she did often during the visit.
She had been “seeing” for 30 years. Her father had served as a minor court astrologer to the royal Siamese family in his day, and she had inherited his “gift,” though not his job.
Monday was her busy day. A well dressed couple in their 30s – he in black, Ban-Lon sport shirt and sunglasses, she in suit and deep red lipstick – were just leaving when we arrived, and they looked pretty happy and satisfied. We were her eleventh appointment that day. At twenty baht, a dollar a reading, Khun Mae earned more in a month than most government bureaucrats – and almost twice as much as Peerachat, a teacher with a college degree.
We exchanged wai, I sat down on the floor next to her, and Peerachat explained the purpose of my visit.
I listened carefully to make sure Peerachat wasn't passing her clues about me, but he kept his introduction brief. She had never heard of the Peace Corps, she said, but hoped that the farang was enjoying his stay in Thailand. She smiled when she heard I ate spicy Thai food, and sent her maid out to her fenced garden to pick some green chilies for me to take home when I left. She offered us sodas and a plate of mangkhoot to nibble on, pulled her pasin, one-piece sarong, up over her boobs, and the session began.
Khun Mae asked me my birth date, my day and time of birth, and added 543 years to my life to bring me up to Buddhist Era. She chalked down the information in Thai on a small grey slate, pondered it for a while, dealt out a deck of cards, studied the results, then reshuffled them and dealt them out a second time. I slapped at mosquitoes and sipped my Pepsi, studying a picture of Miss Thailand clipped from a newspaper and pasted to the wall behind her. My legs were getting stiff from sitting on the floor. The silence was occasionally broken by the cry of a vendor out on the soi, or a passing tuk-tuk. The maid hovered in the doorway, curious to learn my fate.
Finally satisfied, Khun Mae looked up at me, grinned and started talking. Peerachat translated.She captured my personality with a series of statements that I couldn’t argue with, but applied to a lot of people – I loved to travel, I was generous with money, I worried a lot. Then things got interesting.
“She says you were born on a big river in your country....” Correct. I was born in St. Louis, Missouri at the Alexian Brothers hospital a few blocks from the Mississippi river.
“She says you have five brothers and sisters....” Correct.
“She says you left your house in February to come to Thailand.” I looked at Peerachat. Had he talked to her before we came? Unlikely. She didn’t have a phone. Did he make a special trip over here after we talked yesterday? Doubtful. He didn’t own a car or motorbike, and the bus and samlor ride took almost an hour. Peerachat grinned back at me. Khun Mae leaned over, dribbled a stream of betel juice into the can, and moved to the future. She offered three predictions.
“You will change jobs next year.” I tried to recall if I had told Ajaan Peerachat about my ETV assignment. But she was certainly right. Goodbye and good riddance to Maw Saw 5.
“But you will not stay long at your new job. You will return home due to unexpected troubles.” Khun Mae couldn’t divine the exact nature of the trouble; it was just a negative feeling she had here – she gently tapped her chest – associated with me and next summer. Sorry, Khun Mae, I thought. You’re wrong. With the U.S. Army waiting to grab me, I was definitely staying the full two years.
“You will not marry a Thai…your future wife is an American… she grew up near the maha samut, the ocean… she will be richer and younger than you…well-educated…she will be…” Peerachat paused his translation and they conversed a bit. He needed to make sure he understood. Then he resumed.“…and she will be a gahm phraa – an orphan.”
Wow, I thought. That was pretty specific. Not a lot of wiggle room. That was worth a bet with Peerachat.
The maid carried away our empty Pepsi cans and mangosteen seeds, we thanked Khun Mae and I paid my 20 baht. Right or wrong, she was certainly entertaining. We rode the penny ferry back across the Chao Phraya to the Thammasat University landing, passing several dog bodies floating down the river.
“What do you think, Khun Maitri?” Peerachat asked me.
“Interesting,” I admitted. “We’ll find out if she’s right about the first two pretty quickly. If she gets both right, I’ll give you a hundred baht – because she won’t, I guarantee you.”
“If I win, can I have a Boston Red Sox hat instead?”
“A Red Sox cap?”
“That’s my team,” he said proudly. “Our English teacher in Boston took us to a game. We ate peanuts and when the Yankee men held sticks we all jumped up and shouted at them ‘No beyadah! No beyadah!’”
I was puzzled. “Did he tell you what it meant?”
“No. He just said to yell it as loud as we could.”
I slapped my forehead. “Got it! No batter, no batter. The batter is the guy with the stick. The stick is called a bat.”
“Oh.” It was Peerachat’s turn to be puzzled. “But if he’s a batter, why do we say there is no batter?”
“It’s slang. Don’t worry about it. If Khun Mae gets both her predictions right, I promise I will get you a Boston Red Sox cap.”
“What happens if she gets one right and one wrong?”
I grinned. “Then we’ll call it a tie. And we’ll have to wait to see who I marry.”
Back at the house, I told Khunying Phara, our landlady, about Khun Mae when she came over to pick up the rent. She admitted she visited fortune-tellers regularly.
“Men can get drunk or visit a whorehouse when they’re sad or worried,” she explained, “but women don’t have any other place to go to ease their hearts.”
I discovered everybody in Thailand went to fortune-tellers, from Sunee to the King, so I decided to do some research. I hopped a bus to Sanaam Luang and blew $15 getting my fortune told by ten different fortunetellers –Thai, Chinese, Indian and even a Burmese lady. I watched how they laid out their cards differently, how they studied the lines on my palm with a magnifying glass, how they asked questions, how they slyly qualified their predictions. I asked them how they learned their trade, how long they had been practicing it, why some predictions came true and others didn’t.
In the end, I wrote it all up under the corny pen name “Thomas Farthing” and offered the story to the Bangkok World which bought it for 500 baht.
Sam and Ernie were impressed when they saw the feature in the Sunday paper, and were eager to help me spend the windfall.
“Sorry, guys,” I announced, “I’m taking this $25 and starting a scholarship fund for needy students at Wat Bovornives – excluding Maw Saw 5, of course.”