Dennis, for that was his name; it was blazoned across his T-shirt, grinned widely and pointed in the direction of the temple on the outskirts of the village. He marched off soldier-like. Left, right, left, right. And I joined in. I fell in line. Both of us now were marching like soldiers, knees high, legs outstretched, arms swinging in unison. Up, one, two, up, one, two. “Company Halt! Attention! Stand at ease!” We were now standing outside one of the five gates of that great temple complex, with it’s splendid chedis, main gigantic central hall, monks’ sleeping quarters, a tower with a gigantic gong, tanoys, and vehan. Thousands of tats, some with loved ones’ photos imbedded, hugged the walls outskirting the compound. I noticed too a Brahmin shrine and a shrine for the village spirit. Dogs lay asleep under the awnings and two buffaloes lay tied up next to coconut trees.
Dennis stood and scanned the compound. He waited, as was his way. I thought we were going to spend the night in the main hall, but no! Dennis had a better idea. He stared down by the side of the main gate. Propped up against the wall was a very large, transparent plastic bag. If it had been red, I would have thought it was Santa’s sack, but there were no kiddies’ toys in there. Inside were bottles and cans – all empty. He picked it up and swung it over his shoulder. And off he went, marching through the compound. We marched past the chedi, past the crematorium and out through a side entrance and onto a small road. Left we turned past some houses and there we were heading out to the countryside again. By now it had stopped raining and the reluctant moon shone down half heartedly, revealing a new landscape.
Over a bridge straddling a river, we marched. Rice fields to the left of us, rice fields to the right, forward, upwards along a straight, long road. Left, right, left, right. Halt! We’d reached a copse. The tall, dark coconut trees, eucalyptus trees and look dan trees looked down on us like looming giants, all standing closely together. Left we turned along a narrow, dark muddy track into the copse. Where we were going, I did not know. Out the other side and there we were walking, leaping and jumping through a rice field like young spirted dogs. Splash, splash, splash. Oh what fun it was! Oh to be young again in that rice field.
The rice planting season had started about three or four weeks before. There they were, the young, light green rice plants, freshly inserted. Now, I know what some of you are thinking. Don’t be alarmed. We didn’t destroy any of the plants. No! We were like the rice farmers who know where to step and how to move among the plants. We were like the dogs who enjoy bathing, running and leaping among the rice plants as if celebrating the harvest to come, and counting their pups before they are born.
A dog began to bark in the distance inside some of the trees. I assumed it was a small dog. Then, somone, who I assumed to be one of Dennis’s brothers, mates or relatives yelled out. I don’t know what he was saying. I couldn’t really hear. I think he was saying hello, or inviting us over to join him for a drink, a bit of grub or to lay down our heads for the night. He was clearly happy to see us. Dennis obviously didn’t hear him. He was dancing around in circles in a world of his own, an ecstatic world of happiness, peace and lack of suffering. Crying out for joy. A place where very few of us have entered or if we do sometimes, we forget that we’ve been there. The man amongst the trees then fired, what I think was, a gun. He was doing his best to call us over, but it didn’t work.
Off we spun into the next rice field and the next falling over in the empty patches away from where the rice had been planted. We ran past a pond into some higher ground, a clearing and into the company of several dogs who welcomed us with open barks. And then I saw it, for the first time. My home to be. A hut on legs. Six legs with no walls, just a platform and a roof. The toilet was outside. Under the hut pigs lived, chickens and chicks roamed, cats slept. Ducks were in the pond near the hut where a net lay. Off to the right was a pile of dry rice plants fit for a buffalo and kept dry by a corrugated roof of metal.
Up we climbed onto the platform. Dennis had dumped his sack with the pigs. By then, I was tired, exhausted but ready for rest. Down I lay on the wooden floor too hungry to be bothered to eat, too thirsty to want to drink, enjoying the fresh air and the smell of pigs and chickens. Dennis sat in the corner, bolt upright, legs folded, grinning. He was soaked and caked up with mud all over his clothes, on his face and plastered on his head. He didn’t seem to be tired. But he seemed to be waiting for something.
Maybe, I thought, he was waiting for his mates to turn up, or his family, perhaps his wife, baby tied to her back, with food and drink under her arms. Suddenly, he picked up a long knife from the floor. It almost looked like a short sword. He swiftly raised it up and made several deft sweeps at the ceiling made of straw and down fell three snakes, heads chopped off. The entire operation had taken less than two seconds. I thought for a split second he was going to kill me, stab me in the heart, chop off my head and cut out my heart. I wouldn’t have been able to stop him. He was too fast.
One of the snakes was short. It was green. I think it was a tree snake. One was yellow and very long, perhaps a metre. I don’t know what it was, and so far, no one has been able to tell me what it could have been. The third was black. It was about a metre long too. I think it was a cobra. He took them downstairs, peeled them, chopped them up, stuck in sticks and cooked them by a charcoal fire.I got up and joined him sitting on the earth floor staring into the fire, smelling the cooking, charcoal burning flesh. The culinary op didn’t take long. He passed me a stick of well cooked snake flesh on a stick. I declined. He put it aside and continued to cook the rest.
Then he pulled out a bottle of lao kow from under a rock, opened it and took a swig, grimacing while he did. He clearly didn’t like the taste, but must have enjoyed the effects. He passed the bottle to me and I swigged too.Grimacing more than he did and feeling decidedly queasy for hours after that. It didn’t taste good at all. He opened a small basket of sticky rice, took a fist full and squeezed in some of the flesh. He gulped it down. I grabbed the basket and ate some rice too. Next to the rice, was a pot of cooked mushrooms. I looked at him, I looked at the mushrooms, he nodded. I grabbed them. I needed to cover up the taste of the lao kow.
I don’t remember what happened after that. Perhaps I passed out, but I woke up on the same spot where I had sat. People were looking down at me smiling and laughing, saying “buck see da, farang, hello, hello.” The sun was coming up, cocks were crowing and when I looked around I could see people were already stuck in the rice fields planting. I expected to see Dennis, but he was no where in sight. His bag was gone. I asked them where he was and they shook their heads. They didn’t seem to know anyone called Dennis. Perhaps they knew him by a different name.
I didn’t want to just to sit there with people staring and laughing and looking friendly, so I suggested that we should get the party started. They nodded as if they knew what I meant. I ran off into one of the fields, grabbed some plants and started sticking them in the mud. They laughed even more. One shook her head, pulled out my plants and showed me how to do it properly. My next attempt was better but still not good enough. My plants weren’t straight. With practice, and more guidance, during the morning, I improved, but it still wasn’t perfect. It’s no where as easy as it looks.
Time for lunch. We had fish, (I think it was cat-fish), sticky rice, wild mushrooms, and insects, washed down with beer kept in an ice box. For desert we ate mangoes. It was hot then, so we slept in the shade. In the late afternoon, it started to drizzle. We planted more rice. The farmers had a very long field with lots of paddies.We worked until it was dark, but I knew it would take many more days until all the rice was going to be planted.
End of Chapter Two