The deep water port of Khlong Toey on the Chao Phaya River
is only a 15 minute ride from the house but an hour ride from the
office. It was so crammed with ships it reminded me of a Bangkok
intersection at rush hour. Even its giant cranes swivelling back
and forth picking off and delivering or picking up and sending
containers reminded me of the skyscraper cranes of a city always
on the rise.
Ta waved at Daeng waiting on the dock with two helpers and
a truck as we entered the terminal office. Wall fans mimicked their
outdoor giant mechanical cousins as they drifted side to side.
The walls looked they were wallpapered top to bottom with rows of
files. The front desk could have been the research section of a
law library with its succession of face up wide open books. But
these weren't ordinary books. These were the duty books covering
the import duty on everything from a finger nail clipper to a fully
loaded Mercedes Benz. And duty didn't come cheap. For a new Mercedes
or Porsche it could range as high as 225%.
"Your documents please. Bill of lading. Your passport. Any
certificates of origin," the clerk said.
Ta motioned me to open my briefcase and she emptied the
contents onto the counter.
"Okay. I see you were a student. The crate labeled "household
goods" you can go ahead and load up. There is no duty involved
there. Here's the release form for your driver. This car I'll have
to look up. Please have a seat. I'll be with you momentarily," he
I sat down as Ta grabbed the form and went out the door to
wave Daeng to come up to the office. By the time she got back the
clerk had returned with a big red duty book.
"German Opel-1975-made in Stuttgard, Germany-retail price
$7,000..." he read.
"Wait a minute. Look at my invoice. I bought that car in
California for $3,200. General Motors sold that car as a loss leader
in the states," I protested.
"Sir my books are based on country of origin and suggested
retail price not where the car was ultimately sold. And according
to the regulations as a used car there will be a 110% duty charge
that needs to be imposed," he said.
Ta dug her nails into my wrist as she gave me her "don't
say another word" look. She asked if she could write a personal
check. The clerk smiled and nodded as he walked back to finish
the paperwork and find my key.
I looked at Ta as she mouthed the words "outside". ***120
As Ta finished up the documentation at the counter I could
hear the clerk say, "You'll find your car on dock 11."
After we had walked out and started walking down the dock
looking for dock 11 I had to ask, "So why did you try to cut off
the circulation to my brain in there?"
"Hairy you have spent at least $5,000 fixing up that car.
Never mind what you spent on the parts you have stashed in the
trunk. Can you imagine how much it would have cost me if I had
to pay duty on all that wine?"
"You have a point. But god damn your nails are long."
"You like? I just got these decals done yesterday."
"Honey? You know I'm always honest with you, Right? I don't
spend my time looking at your nails. There are much more interesting
things on your anatomy to look at. But yeah. Now that I notice.
They do look nice."
"Hairy, there's your car."
The tires were almost flat. The front windshield was cracked.
There was a big dented scratch on the passenger side door. One
of the racing mirrors was hanging on by two turns a screw. "Damn.
I wonder if it will start." I crawled in. The seats were hot.
The inside smelt like mold. I looked up. At least the moon roof
was still intact. I slipped in the key and turned. Only an annoying
multiple click. The battery must be dead. "Aren't you happy you
wrote that check?"
Ta just crossed her arms and looked around. I saw him, too.
Daeng was walking up with a tank of compressed air, a jumper cable,
and a twelve volt battery all built into a caddy cart arrangement.
He pulled a screw driver from his back pocket and fixed the
racing mirror. He reached inside and popped the hood. He hooked
up the cables and turned the key. It started. He filled the tires
with air. Along with that screw driver, he had brought along a
pressure gauge-30 pounds all around. He motioned for me to get
in but Ta had other plans. She'd let one of the valets from the
office drive it back to the office.
It's a good thing she did. The next time I saw my car it was
getting dragged by a rope attached to a taxi as it got pulled into
the office parking lot.
"Ta ask Daeng what happened?"
"In your spare parts, do you have a water pump?"
I looked. Lots of gaskets, hoses, and belts but no water pump.
I leaned around from the trunk and shook my head. ***121
"Daeng says if you order one air freight from Germany it will
take about a month and a half to get here."
Daeng continued to speak.
"He says he'll take this one off and go see what he can find.
Sometimes they can mix and match."
"Tell him to go for it."
Within a half hour Daeng had wrestled off the water pump.
Never mind the greasy hands and smudged face. He was off on his
motorcycle to see what he could find in the automotive graveyards.
He came back two hours later all excited. I went to find Ta
to figure out what he was trying to say.
"He says, he can't find an Opel part but he got one part
from a Subaru and another part from a Toyota and compressed them
together with a hydraulic vice. He thinks it will work."
I gave him a thumbs up.
"Oh and he says he got you a new windshield for free. And an
air conditioner, too. But you have to pay him for that."
Daeng was a good mechanic. He was so intrigued with my car
and its fuel injection system that it was late afternoon before
the truck pulled in with its bounty of "household goods". I had
just taken a crow bar to the crate when Ta's auntie who was always
by Khun M.'s side pulled up in a taxi. She saw the cases of wine.
She pointed. She wanted one.
Ta looked at her in disgust, "See her? We just get back and
she wants something for free. She doesn't even ask. She just
expects you'll give it to her. She doesn't even drink. She just
wants to show them off in her house."
"Well, that's good right? If I run out I'll just pay her a
visit. I'll keep a couple of cases here under my bed and have
them take the rest back to your house away from prying eyes."
Ta touched my shoulder,"That's a good idea. Why don't you
take everything back to the house. Next thing you know she'll be
wanting to borrow my Kinsa knives."
It was months before I finally drove my car. It's steering
wheel was on the wrong side and I still didn't know my way around
the city. But for Daeng it was part of his day. He washed it. He
waxed it. He revved it up every morning and adjusted the injectors.
He thought the air conditioner was making the car run too hot. He
found me a bigger radiator and hooked up an extra fan to make it ***122
Ed hated my car. To him it was just another sign of me moving
in on territory he considered his own. Whenever Ta went to use it
to run an errand, Ed would be there coaxing her into his car telling
her he would give her a ride. Until one day I got really annoyed,
"Hey, Mr. Ed why don't you fuck off and let her drive?"
Ta started laughing.
Ed didn't understand. He thought being called Mr. was a sign
"Come on Mr. Ed. I'm not horsing around. Let her drive."
By now Ta was crying she was laughing so hard.
"What? What's so funny?" he said.
I looked at Ta, "Don't you dare tell him."
Ta couldn't hold it in, "Its a horse."
"It's a talking horse," she said.
Ed looked confused.
Ta was tired of him too, "TJ has been calling you Mr. Ed ever
since he got here because Mr. Ed is a talking horse in an old
American movie. Get it?"
Ed looked at me, "You're calling me an animal?" which is a
very derogatory thing to call someone in Thai culture.
Now Ta stopped laughing. She looked worried. She hadn't thought
about it like that before.
Ed walked up to within six inches of my face. My nose almost
touched his chin. I could smell the barbecued garlic pork he had
eaten for lunch. He said it again, "Are you calling me an animal?"
"I like animals. I'd never give you the honor of being called
By then Ta had called and gotten Ja between us. Ja looked at
me and shook his head. Not yet. You're not ready.
Khun M. got wind of the almost fight. She called in Ed and
Ta. She didn't call in me. She wanted Ed to make friends with me.
She knew we both liked to play tennis. She told Ed to invite me
to play a game.
Ta told me what Khun M. said. "Are you nuts? It took me forever
just to beat Jenny. I play for fun. Ed's the god damn cadet city
"Hairy please. At least mommy will be happy and Ed will cool
down. Please, do it for me?"
"What the hell. Just make sure it's on a private court. I ***123
don't want to embarrass myself too much."
Ta hugged me, "I love you. You know that?"
Facing each other across the court, both of us on the base
line. I yelled, "So, Mr. Ed. What should we play for?"
"Everything you own in Thailand," he said.
"Even if I agreed you couldn't have that. Serve bitch."
It was a disaster. I hardly got a point. Three sets and I
won one game. Ed walked off the court like a preening peacock. I
looked at Ta and shook my head before kissing my Head 2000 aluminum
racket goodbye and throwing it over the fence. She tried to hide
a smile but finally broke out laughing. I started to do a jig and
tripped over the net. Ta kept laughing. Ed wasn't amused. Ta wasn't
paying attention to him. But he wasn't us.
Ja seemed more urgent now. He started to understand the conflict
I was facing. He started to train me harder every day. Thai boxing
is just another way of saying fight with everything you've got.
Kick with your feet. Kick with your shins. Kick with your knees.
Box with your hands. Box with your elbows. Learn to butt with your
head. For months I didn't sit out in the sun. I didn't want Ta to
see the black and blue of practice. At night Ja would lay gooey
Chinese cooling mixtures on my bruises after everyone else had gone
to bed. And I'd pull them off before anyone woke up.
Six months had gone by and I was finally driving my car and
out on my own. I spent a lot of time taking pictures at the emerald
buddha temple. The floods had ruined the murals painted around the
inner walls of the holy city and now hundreds of artisans were
there every day restoring the gold leaf accented paintings. Nympths
and monkey kings helping mere humans combat the dragons of evil.
Every shot was a story. Every shot was a Thai version of Grimm's
One Sunday I ran out of film and walked outside into a market
looking for some more. It was a weekend market, All the regular
stores were closed. I couldn't find any film but I found a kitten-
a water tiger,gold with black stripes-I brought it home. Eating
three baby mackeral a day it grew fast. I bought a ping pong table.
I didn't want anyone to know why I was spending so much time in
that shed every day.
Then it was time for a trip to Hong Kong, my visa had run ***124
out. I remembered what Joey said about the tax department. I got
there in the morning by 8am. I knew I didn't want to stay there
all day. I just asked the agent how much? He wrote out a receipt
for $50. I paid. I needed to go find my cat some baby mackeral.
Coming back from Hong Kong I was tired. Ed had to work so I
had all the time I wanted to spend with Ta and she wore me ragged
for three days with her shopping. With a monsoon count of two
and rising and my visa still not ready, Khun M. and Ta left me
in Hong Kong to come home. But Ta had my hotel number and made
sure I went out to buy all the things she had forgotten. By the
time I got my visa the monsoon count was up to seven. It took two
more days before the count came down and planes could take off
When I got back, I didn't think anyone had noticed. It was
after 8pm and the office was busy. But Ja did. He grabbed me by
the arm and called Daeng as he led me into my ping pong room. My
water tiger was pacing. She looked like she had been well fed.
Daeng walked in. Ja grabbed my carry-on off my shoulder. He pulled
back on my denim jacket.By now I could understand Thai.
"TJ you tired? You want to go to bed?" Ja asked.
I smiled and nodded.
"You in bad mood?" Ja asked.
I shook my hand so-so.
"Daeng. Sweep him. Sweep him hard." Ja ordered.
I wasn't in the mood. He swept. I jumped and jammed both heals
into his chest as I twisted and got up to walk away. I gave Ja the
finger. He gave me the thumbs up.
Most people would say. Well, you did three months of conditioning.
You did three months of practiced art. So what? How good could you
be? Well if you do it between 8 and 16 hours a day, every day and
not much else because your life might depend on it. You tell me.
It wasn't just about learning an art. It was how I survived myself
and the predicament I was in. It was my couch, my shrink, it was
how I held it all together and didn't give up. It was powered by
a love I couldn't let go. And because noone knew that I was doing
it besides Ja and Daeng it was my ace in the hole.
Two more months of Ed and I needed a break. The last straw
was walking in on him trying to serenade Ta with his guitar singing
some old Elvis tune. Ta sympathetically called up Joey for me. I ***125
needed to know if on the southern tip of Thailand across from the
Malaysian border, there was still an insurgent uprising going on
or was it safe to cruise from coast to coast. Joey said it had
been quiet for the last month and a half.
"So for how long do you want to go?" she asked.
"Two weeks should do it. I'll fly into Hat Yai. Catch a cab
to Songlaa. And then double back to Phuket and maybe take a boat
out to the Phi Phi Islands for some diving. I heard the Similan
Islands are nice, too. But I don't know if I'll have time to get
"So fly into Hat Yai and fly out of Phuket. Is that right?"
"Yeah just leave the return ticket open. Two weeks, give or
take a day or two."
"You have enough money?"
"Hairy don't say that."
"When do you want to leave?"
"Listening to this music, yesterday."
Flying into Hat Yai, I looked down at what looked like an
advanced encampment for an army ranger recon operation. There were
gunship helicopters, soldiers, and jeeps mounted with 50mm machine
guns scrambling everywhere. It looked like we were flying into a
The pilot's voice came over the intercom. I prepared for the
worst. "Ladies and gentleman. Don't be alarmed by all the military
activity on the ground. The crown prince's plane is about 15 minutes
behind us and what you see below is just his welcoming committee.
We'll be landing shortly. Have a nice day."
As I picked up my bag from the arrival carousel and turned
to find the exit, I spotted a tall slender Thai guy with glasses-
about my age-accompanied by three Thai girls-holding a sign that
read "Mr. TJ".
Curious, I started to walk over. He pointed. The girls giggled.
"Are you Ta's friend?" he said.
"I'm Chai. I used to live in Bangkok. I know Ta's family very
well. She asked me to meet you and take you to your hotel," he
"That's great. Tell me something. Why are all the women around
here wearing scarves and long dresses?" I asked. ***126
"Oh, that's because they are all Muslim women. Down here near
the Malaysian border most people are Muslim. They all speak good
English, too. So you won't have a difficult time getting around,"
"Damn. I came down here hoping to be able to practice my Thai,"
He laughed, "You can practice your Thai with me if you like."
After Chai pulled up in front of the hotel and gave me his
card, I thanked him and said goodbye to his three giggling girl
friends in the back seat. It was only half past ten in the morning
so I checked in. Grabbed my camera. And headed out to explore.
Hat Yai was not what I had expected. It wasn't like a Thai
upcountry village. It was more like Hong Kong. Big 18-wheel trucks
swarmed across the border day and night carrying contraband duty-
Store inventories were piled high with every brand name of
camera, watch, lighter, pen, stereo, and household appliance you
could think of. Marlboros were half the price I would have to pay
for them in Bangkok. It was the first time I had seen a can of
Budweiser since I left the states.
And Chai was right. Except for the mobs of Bangkok bargain
hunters, everyone spoke perfect English. It wasn't until I ducked
down into the back alleys of the food markets that I heard the
familiar sound of Thai again.
Finally, the taxi ride to slip across the border to Malyasia
to renew my visa was as easy as going out for a morning cup of
coffee. I made it back in plenty of time for an early dinner with
Chai and a tour with him of the night life that would put even
Patpong to shame. But one day was enough. I still had a long way
I didn't know whether to thank Chai or curse him for keeping
me out until 2am. My taxi was early. Even if Songlaa was just a
half hour ride I was no more than a yawn at 7am. But with the
thought of a seaside and pictures and the help of a marlboro
and a coke by the time I got there I was awake.
Seeing the harbor, I was glad that I had gotten up so early.
It looked like an old New England fishing town with shacks growing
out of warped wooden piers. The colorfully painted fishing boats
lapped in the current as the morning sun licked the tips of the ***127
waves gold giving the whole scene a carnival like atmosphere.
But it wasn't until my driver drove me farther up the coast
that I saw what I had really come to see. They were like a sketch
pad drawing against the bright sun and reflected light-rows of
thatched stilted huts reaching far out into a lagoon. Teenaged
bare-bottom kids were catching breakfast with swirling nets right
off their back porches. Old men and women were sitting on the beach
mending nets while the younger and stronger pushed long boats out
into the surf to fish at sea.
My Nikon had a rough morning. The batteries in my motor drive
went dead before I ran out of film. I'd buy some more at my next
stop. Phuket was only four hours away.