Just over two years ago, a friend and I were taking a bus from Phitsanuloke to Phrae. I expected that Phrae would be a good city to visit, as I knew that relatively few tourists include it in their list of destinations. I had no idea that Phrae was to become one of my most favorite places in the world.
Fifty-seven kilometers before arriving at Phrae, the bus stopped to pick up passengers. One of them, a well-dressed woman, looked at me inquisitively and sat down in the seat in front of me. I made my first entry about J in my journal notes — enchanting eyes. I could speak just a little Thai and she just a little English. She asked where we would be staying in Phrae. “Oh, I don’t know,” I answered, pulling out the guidebook, “Maybe in this hotel or that hotel.” J said that she’d be glad to show us how to get to these places, and could also show us other places in Phrae, which sounded fabulous. However, as soon as I agreed, she unexpectedly got off the bus, without explaining to the slow-witted farang what was taking place.
We alit at the next bus stop. I told my friend that, well yes, I was certain that she had said she’d show us around town, but no, I didn’t know why she disappeared. We then followed the time-honored tradition of standing on the street, leafing through the guidebook while looking thoroughly confused. Luckily, before we could make a decision on which way to go, J pulled up on a motorbike. “Hop on!” she told me, “my brother will be here in a moment to take your friend”. We drove through the maze-like back alleys of Phrae, and ended up at a hotel. It was not a hotel listed in the guidebook, but rather one run by J’s aunt. The rooms looked fine and the price was reasonable, so we checked in.
For the next several days, we felt like unofficial members of the family, and we were taken to many sites that would have been very hard to get to our own. We got to meet regular Thai people in their houses and at their work. Very few of the people we met spoke good English, but we managed to get by, and it certainly forced me to use the Thai language that I had been learning. While it can be taxing on the brain, forcing oneself to use a language really is the best way to get acquainted with the true culture and character of the local people. The Thais are so welcoming and happy when any foreigner makes an attempt to use the language, it is also a great deal of fun.
I stopped again at Phrae for a few days last week, and had a wonderful time. When I was ready to leave, I told J that I was going to take a bus on Thursday to Chiang Rai and then make my way up to Mae Salong. She told me that if I waited until Friday, she could get off work early and drive me in her pickup truck. Of course I agreed, and took the extra day to go up to Nan and rent a motorbike for a ride in the hills. When I returned to Phrae, J, her friend Daeng, Daeng’s seven-year-old son Bim and I went first to Chiang Rai, staying overnight with relatives, and then went to a beautiful resort up in the hills near Mae Salong. Had I followed the guidebook recommendations and gone to Chiang Rai and Mae Salong on my own, I’m sure I would have enjoyed myself, but not nearly as much.
There is a reason I know that J got on the bus when I first met her at fifty-seven kilometers outside of Phrae. She was coming home from work. She is a kindergarten teacher, and I have now spent a total of four days at her school. If you’ve never visited a rural Thai school, all I can say is that you’re missing a very unique experience. Actually, just about any school, rural or not, would be thrilled to have a farang visitor.
I have just uploaded some photographs of my current trip, including some of J and the kids at her school, as well as some others from our road trip. The pictures at her school at numbered from 226 through 250. You can see them at http://www.picjar.com/pub/shuba/Thailand/