The ancient city of Ayutthaya is flooded, so we won’t be wandering among its temples as planned. Rising waters are eliminating travel routes and transportation possibilities, but I am striving to stow worry about reaching Bangkok in time for the flight home in five days. Live in the moment. Pay attention. Absorb my surroundings. Good goals. And right now, Karis, Casey, Dave and I are tucked in a van among a jumble of bags, backpacks and passengers for the trip to Chiang Mai en route to Sukhothai, our Plan B after studying the guidebooks for un-flooded ancient sites.
The girls were shaking and wobbly-kneed after our wild careen up to Pai, and were not about to tolerate reckless driving again. Seasoned travelers as they are, they have learned to assert themselves and demand satisfaction. My sisters tell me I’m conflict-avoidant and there may be some truth to that, so I have been impressed with my daughter’s confident “don’t mess with me” attitude.
In this case, Karis did not wait for Poo, the unfortunately named driver, to demonstrate his skills at the wheel, but put a hand on his arm as soon as he settled into the seat next to her. Her blue eyes and solemn smile expressed, “We will understand each other,” as she said, “Slow and steady wins the race.”
“Number One driver,” replied Poo, hand upraised, index finger extended. #1.
“Number One, yes, if you get us to Chiang Mai with no one sick and everyone safe.”
“Number One,” repeated Poo.
“Do you know the story of the tortoise and the hare?” Karis asked.
Casey, Dave and I chuckled, sure that Aesop was prominent in Poo’s education. Still, either Poo is a man who values his passengers’ lives and mental health more than his colleagues, or Karis’s intensity conveyed her message. He takes the switchbacks cautiously, honks a cheerful warning before blind curves, and drives at a speed that leaves us hands-free as opposed to clinging desperately to the seats before us.
“Besides,” Karis tells us, “the number on the van is my mom’s birthday, so she has us covered.” Karis lost her mother six years ago, and we are grateful for this sign that Cathy’s on watch from the Other Side.
Once underway, the girls flip through Poo’s CDs, and discover Rod Stewart. Crazy. As soon as Rod begins to rock, the girls chime in and commence a synchronized chin-jut, shoulder dip routine in rhythm with the sway of the van. Poo observes their antics with amusement. “I bet he doesn’t usually share the front seat with dancers,” Karis says with a grin.
I love my view of those two bobbing heads, Karis’s streaky blond hair in its neat bun, and Casey’s tousled brunette knot, wispy tendrils curling down her neck. I am infused with their joy, these funny, light, high-spirited girls who are reveling in this portion of their Asian journey.
Beep, beep, beep. Poo blows the horn as we pass a van on its way up to Pai. “Was that your friend?" Karis asks him. He smiles, but doesn’t respond.
“Nice. Nice greeting,” Casey says. I think they’re relieved to have a sane man piloting us down the mountain. Everything he does is cause for praise.
“He’s being very careful, girls,” I say as Poo honks a warning at a pedestrian.
In unison, their heads swivel to smile at me and nod. “Yes. I love him. I might even give him a hug once we arrive.” Karis beams.
* * *
A night arrival to the unforgiving white lights of a bus station in an unfamiliar town is always unsettling. Add the Asian factor? Disorienting and disconcerting. Disappointing. Disheartening. All kinds of words that start with “dis.” It is warm out, but I’m cold, perhaps it’s my mood more than the temperature. We have no reservations, and when a tuk tuk driver, handsome despite a birthmark that stains half his face, grabs two of our packs and hustles us to his vehicle, we comply without complaint. He has a tiny child in tow, a little girl, and for no good reason, that reassures me, but knowing nothing about my surroundings is way out of my comfort zone.
We load into the tuk tuk and leave the station behind. I watch suspiciously as a sign for the historic park points one way, and we head in the opposite direction toward “New Sukhothai.” Doesn’t sound good. I don’t trust “New.” I want to say, “Wait!” but there’s a window between the driver and me, so we forge on into the dark.
In ten minutes or so, we pull into what appears to be a rest stop. No. It’s a hostel. Dave and I clamber from the tuk tuk to check out a room. It’s clean, but sterile, and I can’t imagine that New Sukhothai is the place to be. We shake our heads and our guide says he will show us something else.
“Something else” is down a long, light-less, street that snakes along a canal. “Something else” is a place where one might be murdered and disappear forever. No.
Casey has been flicking through the Lonely Planet guidebook and finds an inn near the historic park. Our driver hesitates, “Far away. 15 kilometers.” My fellow travelers are adamant, thank god. Alone, I might have caved and settled for the sterile hostel, but we head for the Lotus Inn which, as it turns out, is only ten minutes away.
The place is whacky; we can see that despite the hour. Chubby statuettes of gnomes and grinning, bare-bummed girls peek from ferns lining wading pools afloat with water lilies. Paths inlaid with ceramic flowers weave among shrubs and canopied enclosures hung with bamboo hammocks. Scents of wood-smoke, honey and incense perfume the air. We are charmed as we can be, given our rumpled state and fatigue, as Marco, the proprietor, leads Dave and me up the steps of a porch to a snug bungalow.
Marco is sixty-five or so I’d guess, and his white hair is swept back from a high forehead, prominent arched nose, and piercing eyes shadowed by extravagant brows. In a loose canary-yellow shirt, he fumbles with the lock, opens the door, and gestures for us to enter. The room is small but attractive, the bed draped in mosquito nets. Oddly enough, rather than fleeing after spotting a pile of chewed fabrics and telltale turds – a rat’s nest perhaps? – we troop behind our host to check two other bungalows. During our short time in Thailand, I have tried to suspend my American sense of what is acceptable. Besides, I have never slept behind mosquito nets, and I am drawn by the stunning red lacquer bathroom with its sink of smoky blue ceramic graced with circling fish in simple brushstrokes. We search the rooms thoroughly - no sign of rodents – and agree to stay.
We will not tell the girls about that nest.