Khuk Khak, Thailand - It was sweltering out, just after midday on the Andaman Sea, and everybody whose brain wasn’t already fried was seeking shade. We wondered what the commotion was, that monkey up in the coconut tree, screeching and raising hell about something.
His owner, on the ground at the smart, evolved end of the fifty-foot tether tied to the monkey’s neck, was angry, too, barking out commands as the monkey twisted off coconuts and dropped them to the jungle floor with a distinctive thud.
Their heated exchange drew everyone’s attention, because the Thai are normally quiet and do not shout or argue in public. To raise your voice or lose your cool is a loss of face, and to lose face in Asia is a disgraceful and serious breach of the cultural norm, but today wasn’t at all cool.
Sitting in the outdoor restaurant of a private resort, sipping a homemade brew of lime juice and Thai whiskey, we were trying to manage the oppressive heat, me and the two Europeans, served by an illegal immigrant Myanmar staff.
“Monkey say it’s too HOT to work,” offered the Thai wife of the resort owner, looking up from a lunch of fish and rice, showing concern as she glanced up into the trees. “Man say back to monkey, ‘No work, no eat.’ ”
The team can be seen driving around throughout the province, the man’s truck piled high with fresh coconuts, with tall metal railings and the monkey sitting atop the load, looking dispassionate.
The resort owner arose from our table and left, returning with a can of tobacco, asking if I cared for a smoke. I nodded, and he said, “This kind,” opening the can and showing me the largest ball of black African hashish I’d ever seen, bigger than a golf ball, smaller than your fist.
Usually I don’t enjoy hashish or opium, especially when on vacation or operating heavy equipment. It just makes me sleepy. But I had nothing better to do than take a swim in the sea, and I didn’t wish to offend his hospitality, so I made an exception just this time and accepted his offer.
“This one, I’ve had for three years,” he said, removing the ball and pinching off a few chips with his fingernail, sprinkling it along a line of tobacco that he twisted up into a long European-style cone spliff. “African. Very hard to get here,” he said. “Not so hard in Germany.”
We sat there for longer than we had planned, talking and frittering away the afternoon, when suddenly, we all jumped up, remembering we had things to do to call the day productive. When I left, the monkey was still working up in the trees.
He had a deep frown on his face, and was not dropping the coconuts, but rather, throwing them angrily to the ground. The man looked over at me and blandly smiled.
How’d y’all do during the last phase of the moon? Any irregularities? Anything out of the norm?
Just smile. Smile like you’re having dinner tonight with good friends. Smile at strangers like you shared last night’s meal with them. Smile like you just made wonderful love, and haven’t showered yet, the love lingering on your skin and swelling your heart. Smile like you know something nobody else does, a secret, an inside joke, a math equation finally making sense. Just smile. Go ahead and smile.
They call this the land of smiles. You can go around grinning at everyone, and they smile back. They don’t think you’re up to something, gay, stoned, a born lunatic, or simply stark raving mad.
Make those old folks ask, “Do I know you?”
Smile like you’re with the most wonderful wife, husband, mate/partner/companion in the world, like you won the lottery, like a great burden has been lifted off your shoulders, like your book just got published, like your dividends exceeded your wildest dreams, you’re up for an Oscar, the Pulitzer committee called, the tests came back negative, you got the job, the snake wasn’t poisonous.
The plan is working out. Everything is going to be okay. Charges will not be filed. The plane landed safely. The kids are in bed. You’re enrolled, a genius, a magician, inducted in the Hall of Fame. She’s not pregnant. Your computer's back up. You found those keys. The meds are working. You won the election. You won the race, you won at cards, the track, the casino, the Nobel Prize, the bet, the argument.
(There’s a big fucking dog fight going on outside right now)
The dog wasn’t rabid. The orchard’s yielding tons, the hay harvest incredible, you can easily make the payment. You just got your dream home, dream vacation.
Smile that you have been graced with another day of life. Despite it all, just smile.
Out in Thung Maphrao, approaching Tambon # 6, you pass through rubber orchards and enter a fairy tale kingdom that sweeps you from reality and into a distant dream, a faraway deja-vu recollection. Ask Tom or Bryan, or Bill, or Digger. They’ve seen it, too.
You leave behind the suffocating blacktop heat and approach a cool shaded tunnelled canopy of trees, a fragrant breeze, zipping by row upon row of rubber trees with coconut collection cups. Back deep in the plantation sits a small wood and corrugated hut on stilts, the well-worn laundry outside on a line, a hand-operated latex pressing machine under a tin roof, a tiny unassuming spirit house with incense burning.
Your worries and pressing concerns evaporate. Your spirit feels soothed and comfortable, reminiscent of a time long ago, a mother’s soft familiar pat on your infant back. If only you could linger there, absorbing the quiet, peaceful charm of such a place, it’s bliss washing over you, enveloping you, sliding into a restful peace.
I’ve never taken a photo there, but let it remain an unvarnished memory, fleeting, elusive, unspoiled by an attempt of capture or permanence.