It was one of those evenings where the elements had conspired to produce the kind of sunset that is only ever seen in the pages of National Geographic magazine. A photograph you see, while idly flicking through its glossy pages, that makes you stop and open the page right out and think wow, I wish I was there.
At The Sky Bar with Sai, on the sixty fifth floor of The State Tower on Silom Road, I was most definitely there. A real life National Geographic image had developed on a vast scale in the roseate glow of a biblical looking sky. Twinkling lights of early evening dusk were scattered across the darkening streets below as shimmering headlights on distant expressways began to shine. Chattering drinkers at the bar turned their attentions toward the sun as it dropped over the horizon. In the time that remained before another night unleashed itself across the capital the deepening red of the sky turned the Chao Phraya River to the colour of a Mai Tai cocktail. For a city that at times can appear to be so ugly it was truly a thing of great beauty at that moment.
Even Sai seemed to be impressed. Though it’s often hard to tell with her. There are those street tables on Sukhumvit Soi4 that run alongside the wall between the garage, on the corner, and The Nana Hotel. Late in the afternoon, as music drifts across the stop start traffic from the bars opposite, girls meet up to eat Lao food and start their working day with cheap shots of whisky. I sometimes think that Sai would rather be there than at somewhere like The State Tower. To use a well worn phrase, Sai is different from all the other girls. And when I say that I don’t mean that she’s stunningly beautiful, or that she’s understanding, or that she attends to my every need. In fact she’s probably the complete opposite to all of those things. In truth she drives me to despair at times. I have the patience for travel in Thailand. I know that Thai and Farang don’t think the same way, even if I can’t explain it, and I make allowances for that. But at times with Sai, in moments of rare stillness for her, when the search for any logical thought has been exhausted, I hold her little simian-like face in my hands and say, “Sai, I really try to understand you but I just don’t.” She looks up at me with eyes that I know have seen a lifetime of hardships, dissapointment and sadness and says, “Same me, I no understand you too.”
She leaves in the morning but never before asking, “Where you go today?” I lie of course and we arrange to meet up at 7. 30pm. I suggest going somewhere nice to eat. She’s fine with that, “Okay, see you seven o’cocks thirty,” she says. Seven thirty comes. Ok this is Thailand I don’t expect her to be on time. Eight o’clock, a phone call would be nice. Eight thirty and I call her to find that she’s eating on Soi4 with friends. It’s Christmas eve in Bangkok. Sai leaves in the morning to go back to her grim little room in Phra Khanong that she shares with her daughter. As always, trying to keep tabs on me, she asks, “Where you go today?” We arrange to meet later and off she clomps in her big shoes. That evening, by about the third beer while waiting on Sukhumvit, she calls me from Pattaya. Sometimes if I think she might be around I call to see if she’d like to meet up. The conversation (probably in poor Thai from me) often goes along the lines of
“yoo thee nai?” (where are you)
“thee nee” (here)
“thee nai?” (where)
“thee nee” (here)
“thee nai” (where)
“hong nam” (toilet)
“hong nam thee nai?” (toilet where)
“thee nee” (here)
and so it goes on.
An hour before daylight and I’m dragged back from the edge of sleep to find that I’m on a bouncing bed. In the gloom I see Sai doing bicycle kicks. “Sai what are you doing?” I groan.
“Excercise” she says, as though I was stupid for asking. If it’s not that she’s rustling bags looking for something to eat. Or she’s scrambling over me to get to the toilet when she could just get out on her side of the bed. Or she’s grabbing my nuts while asking, “You sleep or not?” I hear her mobile go on. I always turn it off when she’s not looking in the hope of getting some sleep. She calls her daughter before school. If she gets a cold drink out of the fridge she’ll get back into bed and put it on the back of my neck. Sleep is at a minimum with Sai. One night I opened my eyes, Sai appeared to be propped up on one elbow looking down at me. I tried to focus in the darkness. She smiled. Neither of us spoke. I wanted to bring her down onto the pillow next to me. I reached out expecting to touch her face and my hand passed right through it. My heart missed a beat and I closed my eyes not wanting to think about what had just happened. Turning my head a little I opened them again to see Sai fast asleep beside me. It was an odd little episode that played on my mind for awhile. I later reflected on the fact that she could keep me awake even when she’s asleep.
There is usually once on every trip that I make to Thailand where I catch the sun just a little too much, especially if I’ve just arrived straight from an English winter. While having a few beers with a friend on the terrace, overlooking the river at The Sheraton Hotel, I thought I’d be ok sitting under a big table umberella. Little did I realise that the sun had reflected up off the light coloured tile flooring. That night my face was glowing. If I’d have stood at the Asoke Junction the traffic would have come to a halt thinking that I was a stop light. After a few drinks that evening in dimly lit places Sai was a little drunk. We stopped off to pick up a few things on the way back. In the harsh neon glare of the little Seven Eleven on Soi8 I caught my reflection. I looked positively radioactive. For a second Sai looked concerned, “Oh, khamai na see daeng?” (why is your face red) was all she could say before becoming convulsed with laughter. “Na see daeng” was all she kept saying as she sank to the floor she was laughing that much. Pulling her up she stopped laughing just long enough to take another look through her tears before collapsing into hysterics again. Even the girl on checkout could barely supress the laughter behind her hand as Sai babbled on in Thai and all i could understand was “na see daeng”. I dragged Sai all along the Soi to my room with laughter, barking dogs and the words “na see daeng” ringing in my ears.
My first visit to The LOS was more years ago now than I care to remember. I went down to Hua Hin for two days met a girl on the beach and stayed for two weeks. Noi didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Thai. Under a shady umberella she fed me fresh crab. There was hardly anyone around. Long shadows that crept across the sand in the afternoons were that of palm trees. The only sound was that of the sea. I’d never experienced anything like it before. In my mind it was paradise. Those days are long gone of course. As The Eagles once sang -call some place paradise, kiss it goodbye-These days highrise hotels cast their shadows above the trees to the sea, the sound of which may be drowned out by the music from a beach vendors stall, which in turn maybe frequented by those who feel the need to wear football shirts everywhere they go. Despite that I still have a soft spot for Hua Hin. I took Sai for a few days. Out past Khao Takiab (Chopstick Hill) a few miles south is Suan Son Beach. No highrise, no music, and few people. I’d hoped to recapture those long lost days. Of course with Sai that was never going to happen. We hired a mat to sit on and set off further down the beach. Sai wrapped it around herself and shuffled along inside the tube that she’d created with just her feet sticking out of the bottom and her eyes peeking out over the top. It’s like being with an unruly child at times. I wouldn’t mind but she’s forty years old. A breeze blew in off The Gulf and ruffled through the Casuarina trees that lined the beach and gave us shade to lay out our mat. I wanted to lie there together and fall asleep to the sound of the sea. What Thai girl wouldn’t jump at the chance for a bit more sleep? Sai, as I should have known, was up and down, running to the water’s edge and back getting sand all over the mat, and me. And I’m saying, “Sai, can you just sit still for five minutes?”
“No cannot,” she says,as she rolls on top of me. There’s no fresh crab. She feeds me broken biscuits that have come loose in her handbag as she laughs and likens it to feeding the monkeys up on Khao Takiab.
In the Hi-So surrounds of The State Tower, long after sunset, a young Australian was celebrating. His well to do parents sang Happy Birthday as some of the staff presented him with a small cake with a candle in. Sai joined in with the singing from where we sat across the bar. After awhile the guy was left with just his mother, who was obviously around sixty five years old, and when she called it a night the Australian sat alone and finished his beer. As he got ready to leave Sai wished him a “Happy Birthday ” for which he thanked her. But Sai being Sai, with whatever goes on inside her head, then asked him, “Where your girlfriend?” At first he looked puzzled, and then his face fell as he answered, “That was my mother not my girlfriend.”
“Oh, sorry,” Sai said.
With Sai I’m left both amused and bemused. She’ll call me at home in England just to ask, “Kin khao yang?” (Did you eat yet?) No hello, or how are you? Just “kin khao yang?” and then she hangs up, or her remaining credit runs out. Other times she’ll just sing a Lao song. Sometimes she’ll just say, “Khit teung khun mak maak.” (Think about you very much.) Now and again she doesn’t say anything at all and she’s the one who made the call. Occasionally we even have a conversation. The one thing I can say with certainty about Sai is that it’s never boring. Frustrating at times yes, infuriating even, but never boring. She makes me laugh. I like to see her laugh, even if it is at my expense. When I hold her face and look right into her eyes I know that theres a whole world inside that I’m not even close to seeing. “I try to understand you, Sai,” I say, “But I just don’t.” And when she looks up at me from that world within and says, “Same me, I no understand you too,” at least at that moment we understand each other and that has to be a start, doesn’t it?