Part 1: Chiang Rai: The Peanut Butter Odyssey
by Timothy Hoare
Timothy Hoare is Professor of Humanities and Religions at Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, KS (a suburb of Kansas City). While all of his previous published writing has been academic in nature, these essay selections represent his first published creative non-fiction work. They also represent his ongoing love affair with the Kingdom of Thailand, which has been the focus of his personal and professional life for twenty-five years.
A Northern Thai Saturday morning…no classes to teach…no deadlines to meet…no alarm clocks to pummel…I lay there and stretched, like a cat in the throes of a nap in the sun.
But my feline lassitude was rudely interrupted by a realization that hit me like a brick in the head: there is no food in the house. On the previous evening, I had casually noted that my little refrigerator contained a ball of day-old sticky rice, a half of a guava, and some ice cubes (hmm…with professorial astuteness, I concluded that this is probably why I went out for dinner last night). As much as I like sticky rice, guava and ice, when I say "there is no food in the house," I refer to the essentials: coffee, Thai instant noodles, bourbon. But let's get serious—even more serious than bourbon—I am out of peanut butter. On the plus side, it's Saturday; had I made this grim discovery on a weekday, the crisis might have forced me to cancel my classes.
I am currently engaged in a sabbatical teaching position at Mae Fah Luang University in Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand. Well, yes and no. MFU is indeed located in Chiang Rai Province. But the actual municipality or city of Chiang Rai is some seventeen kilometers (about 10.5 miles) to the south. And there's the rub: in the face of this peanut butter deficit, I was left with no choice but to take drastic measures. On this idyllic Saturday morning, I was forced to face the music with a pragmatic stoicism born of several weeks overseas: a trip into "the city" of Chiang Rai, which meant—and there was no way round this—a solo journey to Big B.
Essentially, Big B is Chiang Rai's hybrid-department-grocery-mega-super-store. Big B has everything. Big B has Thai laundry detergent. Big B has Japanese cookies. Big B has American peanut butter. Would I make it there safely on my own? And then, peanut butter or no peanut butter, would I make it back?
"Oh, come on now!" scoffs the sharp reader. "How hard can a trip to the grocery store be? What are you, eleven years old?" How hard indeed. Why, the first time I embarked alone on this errand in a state of utter naiveté, I failed miserably—I got on the wrong bus and ended up in Burma. And while Burmese cuisine boasts many noble and tasty entrees, peanut butter does not rank among them, let me tell you. Therefore, one must approach these tasks with a certain amount of forbearance; as important as peanut butter is to the welfare of body and spirit, its procurement should not require the assistance of a travel agent. It is not a matter of the route—once one learns not to get on the bus going to Burma, the direction and the location of Big B are no mystery. The challenge is neither the path nor the destination, but the means: no less than three forms of vehicular transportation and the will to endure. But this is not about rice. This is not about a visa renewal appointment. This is about peanut butter. And so I invite the reader to attend to this Northern Thai odyssey, to this Siamese saga, to a kilometer-by-kilometer account of my lone Arthurian quest for peanut butter, the holy grail of foodstuffs.
As Mae Fah Luang University is situated about one or two kilometers off the main highway, I had the choice of making the walk, which is indeed great morning exercise. But this culinary crisis afforded no time for leisurely strolls. I opted to catch a ride on the campus roht sawng taao.
Roht sawng taao literally means "a vehicle with two rows," referring to a small covered pick-up truck with two benches attached to the rear cargo bed on which the passengers sit. As the basic local taxi service of any village or town in Northern Thailand, the roht sawng taao would get me down to the main highway for about five baht. After a wait of some ten minutes, my ride came around the bend. But being that it was a clear and sunny Saturday morning, I found that I was not the only one making a run into the city—the back of the truck was packed with students. Students—the nerve of them choosing to travel on the same day as one of their professors. But then again, why on earth would a "professor" ride around in the back of pick-up truck anyway? For my payment of five baht, I stood on the rear bumper like a six-feet-five-inch fireman, with a tenuous grip on life and limb. Surrendering to my inner child, I embraced this as a carnival ride, not a violation of some other Western nation's stuffy traffic code.
Once the two-kilometer journey down to the main highway was completed, we all poured out and off of the truck and made our way to the next vehicular link: yet another roht sawng taao, whose sole purpose on this Saturday morning was to take a full load of passengers to Big B. At thirty baht per person, this was a bargain, but there was a catch. Only about half of us were headed in this direction, while the others wandered off to nearby shops along the highway (none of which were in the peanut butter enterprise). And, as Big B is some distance down the pike, our driver would not depart until he had a full load. His logic made perfect sense—from this university crossroads, it is not so hard to find people to take to Big B, but unless one plans to hang around and wait for every one of those same people (which would be absurd), it is quite difficult to find a full truckload of people who want to return this far in the opposite direction. Therefore, the one-way trip must be worth his while. Practical people, the Thai. In fact, were I to jump on a roht sawng taao at Big B and request a ride back to the university, it would cost me at least twice as much. My immediate interior question was, "With all of these students running around, why was Big B not built closer to the campus? Or, to put it another way, why was the campus not built closer to Big B?" The answers to such conundrums are best left to more enlightened minds—there is a Buddhist monastery just across the highway, and perhaps the resident monks are grappling with this very question in their morning meditation as I stand here waiting.
But a mystical combination of my karma and their meditative prowess brought rapid resolution. Another student-laden roht sawng taao from the campus suddenly appeared from around the bend, and we had our Big B quota.
We picked up a few additional stragglers along the way, some replete with bags, packages, and young Thai children who eyed me with an uncertainty usually reserved for exotic zoo animals. Indeed, with my six-feet-five-inch frame compressed into a biomorphic zig-zag in the covered cargo bed of the roht sawng taao, I might have appeared exotic even to American children. Comfort-wise, I had been better off while dangling off the rear bumper.
As we pulled alongside the curb in front of our destination, it appeared to be a typical Saturday at Big B: a kind of supervised chaos. Armed with whistles and broad gestures, uniformed parking officials were directing traffic and indicating open parking spaces, but it seemed as if no one was heeding their advice. People seemed content simply to drive. This is kind of like America, I surmised; some people come to shopping centers for the sole purpose of driving around in circles in the parking lot. A thousand years from now, archaeologists will uncover fossilized automobiles driving in circles in shopping center parking lots, and will conclude that this was a form of recreational activity or perhaps even a religious ritual. But this is no time for worrying about legacy of the species—with the image of a jar of fresh peanut butter etched in my mind, I made my way toward the entrance. Once inside, I began my quest.
As my Thai wife has reminded me on numerous occasions throughout our twenty-two year marriage, regardless of how much I know about Thai culture, history, food, and language, I am not a Thai, nor will I ever be one. Cultural mysteries continue to abound. One of these mysteries, both here and in the States, is the Thai grocery store. Once one is set adrift in the aisles, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the organization of the merchandise. There are no signs above the aisles. Somehow, one is simply expected to know. Now fresh produce presents no problems—if I see an apple, I can be confident that I will find a mango nearby. If I see a fish, chances are good that a shrimp will be lurking about. Mountainous stacks of large white bags of rice are likewise not hard to spot. But when it comes to everything else, one pretty much walks the aisles until coming across what one is seeking. Generally speaking, there are multiple aisles for sweet things, for bottled things, for canned things, and for instant things. But perhaps one must think like a store owner—in the meandering exodus up and down the aisles, who knows how many additional things one will pick up en route to the one or two things that he or she came for in the first place? And so as my basket became increasingly laden with additional sweet things, bottled things, canned things, and instant things, I finally broke down and asked a busy Thai shopper, "Where is the aisle with peanut butter things?" "Yoo tee nee kah ('It's right here')," she pointed out nonchalantly. And there it was, right in front of me—my jar of American peanut butter, nestled between a can of coconut milk and a bottle of fish sauce. She stared at me for a moment, as if I was the only person in Big B who did not know that this is the natural place for American peanut butter to be found. Well, of course; where else would it be? Can you feel it? I am becoming more Thai by the minute.
Having paid for my purchase with crisp, new baht notes (my American peanut butter cost as much as everything else combined!), I made my way back out to the street. The trick now was how to get home without spending three times as much as I paid for my two bags of groceries. As noted previously, Big B is farther down the road than central Chiang Rai, so once there, it is not easy for a roht sawng taao to find a full load of Big B customers to bring back the same distance. If I were to hire another roht sawng taao to take me from Big B back to the university, it would probably cost at least twice what I paid to get out there in the first place. It was time to jettison the roht sawng taao for new devices.
Amid the usual fleet of roht sawng taao were several of the famed roht dtook dtook. A common site on the streets of Bangkok, the roht dtook dtook is relatively rare up north. The roht dtook dtook is like a three-wheeled, roofed golf cart with a two-stroke combustion engine. Roht dtook dtook is quite easy to translate—essentially, it means "a vehicle that makes a dtook dtook sound," in reference to its noisy engine. It is steered like a bicycle and can carry two passengers comfortably on the rear bench seat. Two passengers; that is about the same as me and two bags of groceries. According to my Thai counsel back at the university, this was the first leg of my return journey.
"Bai nai krahp (Where to?)," asked a dtook dtook driver.
"Bai tah roht; tau rai krahp (The central bus station—how much?)," I responded.
"Yee sip baht (twenty baht)."
Good enough; while I could probably bargain for eighteen, I am carrying two bags of groceries, I am tired, and the driver knows it. There is no way around it: the trip back is going to cost more than the trip to get here. After all, peanut butter requires certain sacrifices. He would be going there anyway, as the central bus station is where all the action is for anyone in the public transportation business. In fact, from the moment that I climbed out of the roht dtook dtook at the bus station, I was immediately accosted by four or five more dtook dtook drivers who asked me if I needed a ride to Big B.
The central bus station in downtown Chiang Rai is almost as interesting as Big B, and ten times more confusing if one doesn't know what one is looking to do. Instead of food aisles, there are two-dozen large parking stalls, each one with either a local or a long-distance bus headed somewhere in the Kingdom of Thailand. According to the instructions of my Thai colleagues, I was to look for the bus going to Maa Sai, which is a little town at the Thai-Burmese border-crossing, about fifty-five kilometers north of here. "You will pass by the main entrance to the university— just tell the driver that you want to get off there. But don't fall asleep, or you might wake up in Burma," they quipped.
Nice-looking buses, I thought, as I walked along the stalls with the air-conditioned busses going to Chiang Mai, to Bangkok, to Nakorn Ratchasima. It's only a seventeen-kilometer trip north to the university, but a cushioned seat and some AC would be nice after today's wild and rustic rides.
"Where is the bus to Maa Sai?" I asked a uniformed official. He gestured to the other side of the station.
The bus to Maa Sai is, in contrast to the air-conditioned roht tua ("touring vehicle"), a roht tamada, or a "regular vehicle," which is a polite way of saying a green school bus. But the fare was only seventeen baht (one baht/km?), so I climbed aboard with my grocery bags while there were seats available. Roht sawng taao: thirty baht; roht dtook dtook: twenty baht; roht tamada: seventeen baht. Perhaps I should give up peanut butter. No, I won't give it up; no more than I would give up the roht sawng taao, the roht dtook dtook, or the roht tamada. No, I will never be a Thai, but I am still going to live every bit of it that I can, with or without peanut butter. Otherwise, what's the point of being here? So I stayed awake, enjoyed the Northern Thai scenery, listened attentively to the local conversation, and even managed not to go to Burma.
Tonight…Tim has everything he needs. Tim has Thai laundry detergent. Tim has Japanese cookies. Tim has bourbon. Tim has American peanut butter.
Now, for that long-awaited peanut butter sandwich—where's the bread?
Continue with Part 2: The Japanese Refrigerator Incident
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