Martin West

Don´t pray and drive in Isan

I have come that close to Death so many times I know what aftershave Death prefers on different days of the week but even knowing the contents of Death's Superdrug hand basket could not have prepared me for this moment of my life. Living in Isan, the rural North East of Thailand and in spitting distance of the Cambodian border things are, well, different.
Setting up your motor.
Driving in Isan is not a complicated affair as it is back in Europe, for a start the roads off the main highways are not congested, a driving licence is obtained by going round some cones, getting the colours of some lights correct and reversing into a space the size of the Vauxhall plant in Luton. In fact the licence is deemed to be an optional extra that carries the same price tag as a couple of bottles of Lao Kao so no prizes for guessing what has first dabs on the dough.
For the uninitiated, Lao Kao is 40° proof white Thai whiskey that can be used to start barbecues, arson attacks and for real alcoholics, drunk. It cannot be mixed with cola, lemonade or orange juice as any mixer separates itself and makes a leap for freedom in a trice.
The first thing to adorn your motor is a multitude of real and/or pseudo religious artefacts. These are placed over every available space of the dashboard, dangled from the rear-view mirror and any indicator stalks. They should be in the form of Buddha plaques based on your day of birth, Buddha plaques that look good/old/expensive, pictures of your favourite monk, glass tubes filled with dirt and bits of wood with string wound around it, a bit like a lucky rabbits foot. There are no lucky rabbits feet in Thailand as there are no lucky rabbits in Thailand, any that escape are wolfed down by the snakes, dogs and locals along with frogs, rats and Lao Kao!
Once you have enough items swinging around in your motor that would make Bruce Lee and his rice flails look like a Morris man puffing about, step 2 awaits. Step 2 takes careful planning as so far you have only eliminated a small percentage of your viewing capability. Smoked glass is popular but for a real Isan road warrior you need the equivalent of European standard arc welding strength darkness.
For the uninitiated, you will have noticed I stated European standard as here in Thailand a pair of 30 baht sunglasses from the market is deemed good enough when striking an electric arc but sometimes even that is deemed as overkill.
You need to add stickers proclaiming your loving prowess, your love to the first family, your preferred English Premier league team, with preferably a large amount of red in the strip here in Isan and boast you have more BHP under the hood than an Antar tank transporter. You can also add a massive air scoop into the bonnet but be aware this may not be aiding a 4 barrel Holly carburettor double pumping your V8 but a way of getting the metal to fit over the Kubota tractor engine you have dropped in.
Once again for the uninitiated, the Kubota tractor is a strange but effective beast seen tilling and towing in the fields. Very cheap to run, slow, unbreakable and word on the buffalo track is it can run on Lao Kao.
Doors can be removed if regarded as a weighty extra but replace with black polythene for the whole old door area if needs must. Yes and the glass bit as well!
Next step is to add a silencer box, of which the size and gall stone shattering volume would do Concorde proud, and you are nearly ready for the road, well nearly.
Shoes maketh the man and wheels maketh the motor. You need 4 Alloys to be a road warrior here, be they any size and design. Yes, each corner can be different diameters and widths silly, what did you expect matching pairs or a complete set? Next you will be thinking that the tyres have to vaguely the same....or have tread! Man up! this is ISAN!
Hello Pichay, got a new motor?
Brother in law, Pichay as they are called here, free-wheeled into my farm, frightening the fowl, dithering the dogs and petrifying the pigs in their houses. He poured himself out of a pick-up and then poured himself a stiff glass melting Lao Kao. Well that’s afternoon tea break taken care of then I thought. I stared at the wreck that had abandoned itself at and interesting angle in the drive and inquired in very Anglo-Saxon terms as to what was going on.
Once again for the uninitiated,the term drive refers to a patch of earth by the house that is not used as a rice field but will fill with water during the wet season all the same. The local idea of throwing rocks and any other building material rubbish into this area constitutes a drive, a contradiction in terms as the tyre damage done means you cannot drive due to the flat spots achieved!
Pichay has got a new motor. As I recovered from the initial shock that Pichay could actually pilot such a vessel, the skies darkened, the dead shifted uneasily, the demonic sound of a whetstone sharpening a scythe screeched through the heavens and the sun wet it's pants. The family gathered around, what, when it rolled off the production line, was Nissan's finest and started cooing. The phrase “Sooway” in Thai means beautiful and is directed at pretty young women, fine articles of clothing and at concrete posts by builders doing an exceptionally shoddy job. The phrase “Sooway” rang out like a chant from the heavens as hands brushed the body work that seen more action than a journeyman all-in-wrestler in his 90's. The metal work fitted where it touched, paint grasped to the steel like a man on the edge of the precipice but the artefacts, stickers and light proof glazing were intact. What a motor and at such a good price. Don't ask any more questions just go with the flow.
Oh Death where is thy sting?
The Thai language is pronounced as it is written with no shortening or slurring as in the English language. This village speaks Khmer first, Thai second and Pichay was speaking slurring, a lot. My wife had been busy in a very short space of time, about 10 seconds, rushing around hiding sharp objects, heavy objects, any object you can put in your hand and club a seal to death with object, any object I can use on Pichay objects, as this visit could only mean:
1, Me, self harming.
2, Pichay sniffing Deaths fragrance of the day.
3, A trip to the wailing wall. NO not Jerusalem but the ATM!
4, All of the above.
There was a huddle, similar to the New York Jets on 4th and 2 yards to go, on the 98 yard line, 12-14 down, with 2 seconds on the clock of the Superbowl remaining, needing a touchdown to win. The outcome and translation was "Pichay has been thinking a...." I exploded in horror "STOP! HIM! THINKING?? Buffaloes can outwit him playing Snap!"
I felt the full force of a serious Paddington bear style stare and noted objects appearing from the wife's pockets, which could have had Pichay's name on them but now had mine. I played my master card and feigned death, threw myself to the floor but after realising I was not going to tread the boards at Stratford-upon-Avon prepared listen to a tale impeding doom.
I had been slack and my secret bunker ideas had been seen, read, analysed, dissected and copied into Thai. My back was not against the wall, it was holding the bloody thing up.
“Pichay, Yim and Jort want to help with your piggery building project”. Cue the Fawlty Towers theme tune and a vision of O’Reilly with his merry men. Oh my Buddha!
I explained that a troop of jabbering baboons have more chance of working as Thai Air air crew than the 3 amigos being let loose on my farm. I explained in English, broken Thai and hand waving that it was not going to happen, it was explained to me in Thai, Buriram Khmer, Surin Khmer and broken English that I was going to let them help.
I have to admit I did not understand the Thai spoken word when it was spewed out similar to bullets from an Apache helicopter but the body language of the wife said enough. Even Death sidles into the hair products aisle when the wife is giving it a portion of jaw pie.
I was informed Pichay and myself would be going to the local version of Screw-It-All but I would have to drive as he had something in his eye. Re-phrase this to, he has reds eyes and his eyes on the bottle of Lao Kao. I approached the mobile scrap heap and summoned up none of my strength to open the door hoping failure would spare me a sniff of aftershave, alas the wife was already there prizing the metal apart to ensure my ease of passage. I fell onto the bench seat like the condemned man awaiting dawn. Pichay on the other hand wrenched at the door to such an extent the rebound caught him on his back and propelled him into the motor. Having entered the motor like an English rugby winger diving for the line at Twickenham, he poured himself a sharpener for the trek of 4 Km, the haze of alcohol cleaned the remains of the windscreen and dimpled the rubber surround. I refrained from smoking as being a Nissan test pilot at 32,000 feet was not on the days list of jobs to do. I also felt I may need the nicotine high during the journey of uncertainty.
The road to Hades.
I started the engine and looked for the hand brake, cunningly hidden under the dash as the motor had a bench seat. Twist to release is the details on the handle but no fear, it is the dash having never been applied. Working the gear stick was akin to a wooden spoon in a bucket of porridge but reverse was eventually found. I discovered that the power steering was having a day off as I performed a 3 point turn on the somewhat flat drive area, so needed to apply the finest Charles Atlas Bullworker techniques on the steering wheel whilst wobbling the gear stick around to try and engage first gear. We had 1st, 2nd and then 3rd gear as I headed 200M to the end of the lane in great haste and great haze, even with the windows open, then discovered something even more interesting.
Death had found it was BOGOF day at the Superdrug fragrance counter, Death's credit card had unlimited credit on it, Death was splashing Brut 33, Old Spice and Sexy Man testers all over deathself with great gusto. Death would have filled Death's boots but, being Death, did not have any so the hand basket had to suffice. Death rushed to the end of the checkout queue and passed the time of day with an old lady Death had an official meeting with during the night, actually 03:15:26 heart failure. Death had his mind focused on current and more pressing matters in Isan than to have more than a passing interest in Doris Queenie Smythe. She will be there when the time comes but his mobile phone was texting about a possible freebie bonus ball. Oh happy days, get the production numbers up and at no extra outlay. Death was a happy Deathy.
The middle pedal in manual drive cars is usually the brake, the thing that acts as the opposite to the accelerator, the thing that stops the car. Did you think that as well?
I put my foot hard on the pedal in the middle and lo nothing happened, in fact zero would have been a positive so I pumped the pedal like a drummer on speed and to my surprise, still nothing happened. I pulled the hand brake with the strength of a man possessed and to my surprise, it did not move. I crashed the gearbox into 1st and slowed the car to a stop. Death made it to the till and frowned as he entered the wrong PIN number, twice.
I stared at the brake pedal, at Pichay and back to the brake pedal. I look for stickers stating “Artists impression”, “Window display only”, “Details omitted for clarity”, alas there are none. I focused on Pichay, he couldn't focus but looked in my general direction as best as he could whilst swaying on the seat and uttering the phrase that is guaranteed to make my blood boil: “mai bpen rai”, Thai for “I'm a lazy bastard who can't be bothered to do anything or take responsibility”. My dark mood lead me to think that the DOT Girling brake fluid had been supped in times of a Lao Kao drought. So we have clutch pedal for the bowl of porridge and accelerator for bone jarring experiences and no brakes, my cup runneth over.
Pichay informed me, via frantic waving of his arms, incoherent jabbering and rolling his head a lot, to turn right and take the back road to the next village rather than the main road, I concurred as I had no wish for any unwanted police interest with me piloting junk yard or to mix it with yabba drug fuelled HGV pilots thundering along Highway 24. Death stared at the contents of the shopping basket on the counter, replaced his twice failed credit card in his Dennis the Menace wallet and exited Superdrug in a huff. The checkout girl mumbled under her breath about people who have more money than sense and smelling like a pimps leather coat: Official meeting with Death 23:47:03 next Tuesday after falling out of a high speed rolling open top AUDI TT, drunk on champagne, full of speed and boyfriend driving with more coke up his nose than an episode of Miami Vice.
After 1Km of gearbox gate crashing, grinding of cogs and flat tarmac we turned left into the back road. The track before me resembled a passage created by squadrons of USAF B52's practising carpet bombing, you could have lost a herd of buffaloes in some of the potholes so going fast was not an option. Brakes would not be needed but 4 wheel drive and a winch would have put my mind at ease. We travelled at a dainty pace and as is normal in the evening herds of buffalo were heading from the fields and back to their VIP luxury accommodation. They had a passing interest in the motor but wheeled away quickly as if their sensitive nostrils have picked up the scent of some aftershave. We arrived in the village and after directions from an alcohol fuelled Pichay, stopped at a shop to ask the actual way. Another shoulder wrenching 3 point turn was performed followed swiftly by a left hand exit onto what started as a concrete road but was soon transformed into crazy paving designed and laid out by a deranged lunatic using industrial strength hallucinogenic drugs. At least the suspension still worked so spinal compression was not on the cards, yet.
Shopping with Pichay.
We arrived at the builders supplies warehouse and Pichay poured a quick snifter of Lao Kao into the ever present glass, pour the majority down his neck and then poured himself out the door. We were greeted by a gentleman with a bare torso and sporting a stomach that had offered good quality shade to his feet for many years, not a pretty sight. He seemed to have been imbibing and entered into conversation with Pichay in Khmer with both of them emitting squeals of delight. They rushed to the table and he produced a bottle of dubious coloured liquid stuffed with what looked like tree bark. Keeping with the local tradition, Pichay grabbed the bottle and poured some of the liquid into a glass, offered it to the gentleman and remained swaying on the table. The gentleman's face lit up and had a quick swig, farted, belched, obtained an oafish grin and thrust the glass into the ever waiting hands of Pichay, his face portraying a demonic gaze. I was offered the glass but politely refused on physical, spiritual and mental health grounds, my mind was not ready for the type of holiday theirs seem to be engaged in and my internal organs were already writing letters of complaint due to the close proximity of the nerve shattering vapour. More liquor, more squeals and Pichay rolled off the table onto his feet, performed a pirouette and waltzed towards the motor. He had been doing well until the earth had a magnetic shift, then went from waltzing to the sideways 25 meter sprint left foot first, followed by a Gangham style right foot first version until he hit the motor. It's time to go. The order, somehow, had been placed and I was not in the mood to ask questions.
Pichay fell into the motor with the grace of a shackled camel and eventually extricated himself from a semi-prone position on the bench seat using the frayed remains of the seatbelt in a manner that would have made Heath Robinson proud. His exit was nearly as graceless as he reached for the door handle to close the door, missed the handle and hit the earth head first. I had had enough so assisted Pichay back into the car and slammed the door shut. I jumped back in the motor, started the engine and in the rear view mirror glimpsed a bare torso waving me back so I did not collide with anything.
For the uninitiated, Thais have a nasty habit of telling you how to park and reverse as if you have never done it before, this is because they have no peripheral vision or judgement of distance. It's worse if they have a whistle as it gives them a feeling of power in their otherwise suppressed and controlled lives by any perceived hierarchy. Unlike a farang (Westerner) like me!
You could U-turn an HGV in this yard but he wanted to be a traffic warden. My evil mind broke into a canter as the steering was easier with speed, the wooden spoon in the porridge engaged reverse, the revs went wild and the was clutch dumped. I mean dumped, the foot slipped sideways off the pedal, the rear wheels spun on the sandy concrete and we nearly travelled backwards in time. Usain Bolt could have taken lessons on sprinting from the gentleman as his acceleration in reverse to forwards was impressive but not as impressive as the stomach going in directions not physically possible. Wooden spoon, porridge, revs, dumped clutch and forward propulsion leaving the sound of more squeals being emitted as sand, grit and other debris clouded over the gentleman.
The journey back was a chance for Pichay to help me with my Thai/Khmer skills as he slurred, pointed and tried to look serious, closing one eye for either effect or a vain attempt at focusing. I nodded sagely at every word that eventually stumbled, fought and fell through the smog of hard core liquor and 4 Km passed in an agonisingly long time. Pichay lives 100M away so I thought it best to drive him home. The words “Farang blah blah Farang blah” seemed to staggering from his lips and the eyes were locked firmly on the 3rd moon of the planet Faarg in Nebula Ursa minor until the lids shut. I turned into his farm and thought it best to park the car in its shed but something caught my eye and my heart skipped a beat of joy before I could make that manoeuvre. There was a large amount of washing out. With malevolence and vindictiveness a forethought I checked the level of consciousness of Pichay and he was out for the count, so I drove the motor within range of the washing, slipped quietly out of the door for a reconnaissance of the area to see if Pichay's wife was about. The farm was empty as I suspected for this time of day she would be herding the buffaloes back from the fields. I slid back into the motor and was met with snoring that could shake the foundations of a nuclear bunker to bits. Target locked, steering wheel turned and a wheel spinning, grass churning, mud spraying U-turn was performed. The washing was covered with mud, buffalo dung and grass, mission accomplished. I parked the car and left Pichay laying across the seat holding the car keys I had placed in his hand for safe keeping.
I slipped quietly away out of the back of the farm as I did not want to bump into Pichay's wife who would see me chuckling to myself. Revenge, for wasting my time, endangering my life and wanting to enforce upon me his somewhat wanting civil engineering skills, is a dish best served cold.
Death's ears pricked up and he started whistling a happy tune as he reached for his whetstone and scythe, he gazed at his collection of fragrances mulling over which one to wear. Pichay's wife, who is not to be trifled with, was heading back into the farm with the herd of buffaloes reminding herself to collect the washing from the line as she wanted an early evening sitting outside relaxing. She looked at the washing as she walked past then jolted her head and stopped abruptly and looked again with mouth open amazement. Her blood started to boil with rage and her eyes fixed firmly onto the rear end of a motor covered in mud, buffalo dung and grass. Pichay was still blissfully lying across the seat of the car, holding the evidential keys …..
Post match analysis
Pichay suffered heavy bruising to the groin area that lasted several weeks and would have gone longer had the awful truth not slipped out.
I had gone to the shop and bought a few bottles of Chang beer to celebrate my evil deed and as it was Chang O'clock swigged away merrily on the contents. I was sitting on the porch, the sun was setting, chickens screaming, dogs fighting, a perfect Isan end to the day. My wife appeared and inquired into my more than usual boistrous mood, my singing was slightly raucous and her suspisions had been aroused. H.M.S. Disaster loomed large on the horizon with her massive guns swinging to the left preparing to deliver a broadside, I was caught off guard and partly spilled my guts onto the floor like a disembowling samurai, loose lips, sink ships, but not H.M.S. Disaster! It was a case of, errors have been made an others will be blamed but I had given all the details away faster than a cheap whore looses her drawers. It was a righteous bust as they say and Mrs West was not happy, I endured the stare that has started fires in a block of ice and knew confession was the only option.
The next day I was nailed to the motorbike and driven round to see Pichay and his swollen testicles, I offered my most sincere, deepest, honey coated voice apologiges for the whole episode and offered to redo the laundry myself. Pichay, who was now stone cold sober and throbbing, stared at me like a wolf ready to feast in the chicken coop, his wife also had a facial expression that said I would suffer for my actions and my wife had a look that said "Your on your own kid!".
I felt it was time to buy a rearview mirror and attach it to my shoulder.
For the uninitiated, Chang beer is produced in Thailand and boasts 6.4% on the label. That is open to discussion as our American friends tested a random sample and found it can hit 9% at times due to the “mai ben rai” attitude at the brewery. The Americans will not have it in the country as it has been found to have formaldehyde as and added “extra” in some batches. The English, of course, can drink it as we have drunk Carlsberg Special Brew!

All the characters and events are actual; the names have not been changed to protect the guilty; any coincidences between this report and real life can be deemed as fact; no buffaloes were run over but one has a nasty weal scar where Pichay's wife thrashed it into it's stall before dealing with Pichay, there is a chicken that will never play the piano again and a dog who is still receiving counselling after having Pichay breathe over him. The author would like to thank any deity going for sparing his life driving what can loosely be termed a road worthy motor.


Todos los derechos pertenecen a su autor. Ha sido publicado en a solicitud de Martin West.
Publicado en el 11.06.2013.


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