Each time we arrive in a new country, I google to see if there are any cultural mores we might need to know about before we enter someone’s country and unintentionally do something equivalent to picking our nose and wiping a booger under the couch. These articles range from interesting tidbits, to unfortunate and inaccurate stereotyping, to information that literally can save travelers’ lives. After you've been doing this for a while, you start to get a sense of what information is helpful, and what you should take with a grain of salt. When we arrived in Indonesia and South East Asia, generally, one of the tidbits I read about included the notion that they will never, ever say “no.”
The reason for this, as multiple articles explained, is that they do not like to disappoint people (especially a guests) and open/public criticism is generally unacceptable. Therefore, the answer to any question is “Yes.” Could this be an unfair stereotype? I wondered. I set it aside in my traveler's mental Rolodex and waited to see. Throughout our travels in Indonesia, we noticed that there is a different tone to “Yes!” meaning, absolutely no problem and “Yeesssss???” meaning, “I will do anything I can to make what you want come to fruition even if I (or we) die trying.” It’s rather charming, until you find yourself paddling up current in a dug out wooden canoe with three holes leaking water at a rate of approximately 6 gallons per minute in answer to the question “do you know where we might find a good place to snorkel?” Best not to make too many requests aloud....google is your friend.
It’s not that they are duplicitous or untrustworthy, though it can feel that way to those of us who expect a “no” when a “no” is the necessary and proper answer. It is that they say “no” with their eyes, their voice, and even soft handed guidance that they offer. In their culture, between each other, they both know exactly what is being said. There is a language, a code, that if you just knew the eyes, the hand gestures, or the voice inflection, you would realize they are saying “it can be done, but I wouldn't recommend it.”
We are learning...slowly.
After enjoying Chiang Rai’s Temples of Modern Art and Buddhism, we turn our car back into the direction of small villages and nature. We slide to a stop in the gravel on the side of the road when we passed a front yard cafe trailing a long line of Thai patrons and an interesting cast of characters. Wooden planks creating a "food bar” of sorts behind which the matron mixes and cooks, steams and chops. We watch the whole neighborhood line up and gather their takeaway bags.
Not one single person in this crowd spoke a word of English.
Armed with our repertoire of charades and growling bellies, we skid to a stop in the dirt along side the road just a few feet after spying this obviously superior eating establishment out of the corner of our peripheral road vision. We take a seat at the bar, and the whole crowd bursts into a roaring Thai cacophony all at once. I can't imagine what is being said other than “For the love of Buddha, do not give them too much spice! Foreigners don’t eat spice!"
We point to the food on the plates around us and motion to indicate we would like to try a bit of it all. The customary fear we often invoke is absent. This little restaurateur has sparkling eyes and an easy smile. She speaks to us in Thai, expecting us to understand the tone if not the details. She offers us a paper thin crepe made of rice flour and herbs. She scoops and dusts diced garlic, garlic juice, sugar, salt, lime juice, crushed peanuts, and fish sauce into a cup and gives it a stir -- everything but the chili. I note there are no chili, and I know for sure that this will not taste “as it should" without at least a little heat. I point to the chili paste pot, then I point at me and nod. She turns to her customers and bustles with their pouch, seeming not to hear/understand my request. After she hands that bag over, I point at the chili, point at myself and I pinch my fingers together to indicate “just a little bit, really!” She scurries away to her pot of boiling broth, consults her son who lowers his ear to hear her whisper. An exquisite use of the “selective language barrier soft no” technique.
We shrug, and dig in. Everyone returns their attention back to us. The collective holds its breath while they watch. Savory, salty, sweet, tangy, chewy with the rice paper pancake it’s all delicious, it’s just missing one thing…
I smile, rub my belly, smack my lips, then say “Ah Roy!”
I point at the chili pot, I point at myself, I pinch my fingers together. Now the strategy shifts to “fine for you...good luck” and she passes me the little pot with the tiny spoon no bigger than my pinky finger. I take a cautious dab of pepper and confirm exactly how hot it is before murdering myself with it. With that assessment completed I place a dainty plop atop my food and mix it into the sauce. I take a taste, then say; “EVEN BETTER!” The whole crowd smiles and starts talking at once again, especially when Andrew clears his plate and asks for another round.
For course number two, we enjoy a steamed chicken Dim Sum with fried onions and a soy sauce drizzled atop. Also delicious.
After we were full, we got back on the road to find the best accommodations we’ve had on the entire trip so far. Weaving our way through tiny villages and single lane dirt roads, we eventually end up at our destination. A heavy wooden door swings open and reveals a manicured garden, a pond, a swimming pool, a fire place, and a series of small buildings that serve as the welcome area, dining room, and sleeping quarters for guests. Next door to the West are working rice fields where workers sling water out of irrigation ditches with woven baskets on the end of a long handle. I watch them as Andrew checks in and gets our arrangements settled.
We are shown to our bungalow with lots of space, a whole wall lined with french doors that can swing wide open toward the rice field, an outdoor shower that will be far too cold to use, an indoor shower tiled with a mosaic of cherry blossom motif, and towel animals. Who can resist towel animals?
Our host sets us up with two bicycles (one significantly too small for my dear, lanky Captain) and we pedal up the canyon in search of the destination we came all this way to see: hot springs.
Upon arrival, we walk through a large park with geysers steaming and sputtering, a healthy tinge of sulfur hung in the air. We walk past the private soaking cabins, and choose to warm our bones in the open air pools and steam cloud saunas. We are higher into the mountains again, and in this time that constitutes the closest thing to “winter” in Thailand, the bite in the air just enough to welcome us into the hot spring baths. Clouds rise and swirl around me, and I splash my hands in my own private circle - as the men and women are meant not to bathe together. "Aaaahhhhhhhhh!" I enjoy this lovely time alone with my thoughts, but they are lusciously quiet, only occasionally chanting their silent tone of my pleasures: “how nice!"....”this is nice”….”Ahhhhh!"
After we had shriveled ourselves to prunes, we dry off and slither down the winding road atop our bikes. We find a place next to our hotel fire place and pop open a bottle of Chiang to share as we watch the dropping sun and colorful paper lanterns make long reflections on the pond.
Our dinner is a rich pork curry over rice. The pork was fall off your fork tender, having been slow cooked in the sauce made of coconut cream, a rich broth, and the spices of the area: cinnamon, nutmeg, star anise, red chili, mace, a dash of red sugar made from the coconut palm for a touch of sweetness....
We have a hot shower, a cold sleep buried under piles of cozy blankets. When we wake the next morning, our table is set with special china plates hand selected as favorites by our hostess. “Everything is just so perfect!" I tell her as I stir my coffee in the copper and ceramic cup with the small but heavy silver spoon. She brings me a traditional Northern Thailand breakfast: Hot sticky rice steamed in a woven cube of a bamboo basket, a sweet glazed and dry roasted pork, pork in a sweet and smoky chili paste, and a bowl of puffy, deep fried pork skins. “Would you like a side of pork with your pork?” The breakfast also included a tender steamed local green, several slices of tropical-perfect pineapple, fresh squeezed orange juice, and dark roasted Thai coffee. I poked at my breakfast as slowly as I could enjoying the view and savoring the flavors. “I wish we could stay another day!” I tell Andrew.
“I know, this is so nice.” He said, “But we are on a deadline.”
“What deadline?” I ask.
“Death. We are all going to die someday better get moving.” We chat with the owner for a while and she asks us where we are headed next. “Pei.” Andrew says.
“Oh, that's nice.” She says, but I tip my right ear to the ground because I detect a hint of “Yes means no” happening.
“Have you been there?" I ask.
“Oh yes,” she says. “More hot springs like here,” She hesitates. “It’s a bit smokey there this time of year."
“Smokey?" I say, “From the jungle fires in Myanmar?”
“Yes, yes, yes." She says. Now, looking back on this, I wonder a little if her head was shaking back and forth rather than up and down as she said this. But, I'm sure it was all more subtle than that. In any case, Andrew was in a hurry to get on the road and my “yes means no" instinct wasn't kicking hard enough to make me pause longer. I took this explanation at its face value, making a classic legal deposition error: I asked a leading question that inserted my own speculation about what the answer might be, rather than asking a question that forces your deponent to formulate his or her own words.
For this error, I pay.
…to be continued!