Surin doesn’t feature prominently in the first draft of my novel. But I seemed to meet a disproportionate number of economic refugees in Bangkok from Surin province: taxi drivers, tuk-tuk drivers, bargirls, a fruit vendor near the railway line on Ploenchit Road, who’d left her eight month old daughter behind to ‘draw from another well’, as the Thais put it. There’s more than one Thai surrogate character in my novel and, given that Surin is the neighbouring province to Sisaket, I thought it was worth a visit.
The provincial capital, also called Surin, is best known for its annual elephant round up, held in November. The town was still wearing its festival finery when we arrived, red banners strung across the street. We didn’t see many ‘foreign’ tourists during our visit — the festival is really Surin’s moment in the sun — although tour bus loads of Thais were visiting the Angkor-era temple of Phanom Rung, in Buriram province, but accessible from Surin.
The temple of Phanom Rung (‘vast mountain’ in Khmer) is the best preserved of its kind in Thailand and a wonder to behold, built on the summit of an extinct volcano, the only point of elevation in an otherwise flat landscape. There is something poignant about coming across the splendour of Phanom Rung in an otherwise humble place. The temple is accessed via a steep staircase, the exterior decorated with carvings depicting scenes from the Hindu pantheon and the Ramayana. The view of the surrounding plains is through a curtain of frangipani trees.
After spending a couple of hours at Phanom Rung, we returned to Surin town, where Miss Nearly-Ten decided she wanted a haircut. We managed to find a place near the morning market, a salon in the front room of the home of a Mrs Kimly. In the tradition of local businesses, the electricity was off when we arrived but quickly turned on. While Miss Nearly-Ten revelled in the full service — shampoo, head massage, haircut and blow dry — I chatted with the neighbours, who were clearly amused to meet a Lao/Issarn speaking foreigner. They were lovely company. All of them had children elsewhere. One had a daughter in Bangkok, another in New Zealand. Unlike the characters in my stories, I don’t speak much Thai. But I can carry on conversations in Lao, which is the dialect in the northeast part of Thailand, and it was a real treat to swap stories with these women.
We spent two nights in Surin, eating both nights at the evening market, which was on the doorstep of our hotel. I even
convinced bribed Miss Nearly-Ten to join me in trying the fried crickets, a local delicacy — actually quite tasty in the way that most things are when deep-fried and salted.
Among the most enjoyable and enlightening aspects of visiting Sisaket and Surin was the train travel involved in getting there and away. We caught a 3rd class ‘rapid’ train between the two towns, where the open windows were far more effective than the overhead ceiling fans in terms of cooling. The view took in what many consider to be the ‘real’ Thailand, family rice farms, the paddy reduced to straw tufts at this post-harvest time of year. I saw one family hanging out in the shade while the father raked raw, laundry spread out on the rice stalks to dry.
On the train trip today from Surin to Nakon Rachasima, I saw a man pushing a wooden plough behind a water buffalo. I tried to explain to Miss Nearly-Ten the significance of this ‘poor man’s tractor’, how rarely it is seen these days. Likewise, I pointed out the poor housing lining the railway line, trying to explain that for those who could not afford land, this was often the only housing option. Clumsy attempts to explain what I was myself remembering about disparities in wealth in this complex country.
At the same time, I was amazed by the wildlife we could see, the herons and kingfishers rising from the paddies, the squirrels running along the electric wires. My memory might be faulty, but it seemed to me there is more bird life than I remember in this part of Thailand.
Another striking feature of the landscape were the stations, each pretty and well-tended, titivated with statuary, water features, topiary, portraits of the King — often all of the above.
On the train we snacked on fresh pomelo and pyramids of sticky rice stuffed with taro and wrapped in banana leaves, resisting the grilled chicken. Miss Nearly-Ten’s biggest thrill was the experience of walking between carriages on a moving train.
After nearly twelve hours’ travel, we arrived today in Trat, the jumping off point for my personal leave time. We’ll be spending Christmas on Koh Chang, before heading back to Bangkok for New Year and some last minute location research. Thus, I’ll be taking a break from blogging for the next week or so.
Thanks to those of you who’ve come along for the ride so far. I’ve appreciated your comments and ‘likes’ and look forward to crossing virtual paths again in the New Year.
Meanwhile, I wish you all the very best for a fun and restorative festive season and an excellent start to 2016.