Sunday, June 3, 2018

Don’t Get Mad, Get Lost

Over a late Sunday lunch today, nibbling at comfort food, my friend KO and I got around to reminiscing about a trip we took to Thailand some years ago.

We had a couple of days to kill in Bangkok. So of course, KO being KO awoke one morning and declared, “I must see the River Kwai or I will die.” (I am prone to exaggeration so shush!)

And so we toddled over to our nearest tourist information centre and asked the lady there how to get to the River Kwai. Her eyes turned to saucers as she exclaimed, “Kwaiiiii?!”

“Yes,” said I, thinking that this trip would probably take a few hours by bus. We could hop on in Bangkok, hop off at the River Kwai, KO would stare solemnly at the water and declare her will to live and we could all go about our normal Bangkok business by the early evening.

As if!

My heart sank as the lady traced a long, meandering line across the map to indicate where we’d have to travel. It was absolutely miles away. No direct buses. This was going to take a while. She scrawled a name in Thai on a piece of paper and handed it to us, telling us to show that scrap to people on the first bus out who’d then help with further direction. This was before Google Maps and great internet connectivity became a thing, by the way.

To date I have no idea what was on that scrap of paper, just that I hung onto it with every fibre of my being. After a bit of bumbling around, we made our way onto a local bus and showed the conductress, a middle-aged loud-voiced lady, the paper. She gave us our tickets.

We stayed seated on that bus for a very long time, an ominous feeling gathering heavier about us as we got further and further out of the city. Finally, multiple stops later, I tugged at the conductress’ sleeve as she walked past and pointed to the scrap of paper. She went ballistic and gestured and wailed and pointed.

Yes, we had clearly overshot our stop by miles. We hopped off the bus with the conductress’ voice ringing in our ears and flagged a cab back to a bus/van station we’d seen a little way behind. Wandering into the van station, we realised to our horror that nobody spoke any English. All we had was our scrap of paper and a lot of gesturing.

The details get fuzzy at this point as it has been quite a few years since this happened. There were a lot of people gathered around us – cabbies, some van personnel and some curious bystanders. There was a lot of gesturing and shouting – for some reason people thought that the louder they shouted in Thai, the higher the probability that we’d understand. Some paper drawings and dumb charades later, we had a vague idea of what the recommended plan of action was.

And then we were on our way in a van with a bunch of strangers. We had no clue where we were headed or how we’d make it back to Bangkok. I think we switched vans or hopped into another cab somewhere. We relentlessly pressed on, determined to get to Kwai come what may.

Finally, we made it to a busy bazaar of sorts. There were rows of stalls selling trinkets and junk jewellery, enthusiastic hawkers and even more enthusiastic cycle rickshaw guys. With some relief, we realised we were closer to a touristic area and people here spoke and understood a smidge of English.

Jostling through a crowd of excited vendors and curious people – half a dozen of whom called out to KO as “Indian” and me as “Pakistani” – we found a cycle rickshaw who agreed to take us the remaining way to the banks of the River Kwai.

We wandered up to the Burma border, along the banks of the river, munched some lunch with views of the river and a gigantic Buddha statue, hopped along the toy train tracks and finally decided to head back. This entailed more cycle rickshaws, vans and a bus that dropped us in the middle of nowhere in the twilight, but close enough to flag down a passing cab and get back to Bangkok city without too much of a dent in our wallets.

In all, we’d hopped 11 modes of transport that day and put our trust in dozens of strangers - all this to see what is essentially a rotting old bridge. Would we do it again? Not likely. However, it makes for one of our most fun Thai memories. Getting lost and just going with it rather than getting mad and going ballistic. We were tired, hot and quite worried, but not once did we turn on each other, snapping the other’s head off for being an idiot. The shared exasperating experience cemented our friendship even stronger than before. I don’t remember too much about the River Kwai, our destination. But I do remember getting there. As Elli, old boy, said, “The journey, not the destination matters…” That, and your fellow travellers.

Here’s to 30+ years of knowing KO.

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