With our Thai friends Lena and Dui we drive from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, a nine-hour journey. Early next morning, we head for the beach resort of Pattaya. No sooner have I navigated onto an eight-lane highway, our rental car belches grinding noises and slows to a near-halt. A burning odor is ominous. I inch left (Thais drive on the left side), cross eight lanes, and coast to a stop on the narrow shoulder.
Lena, epitomizing the Thai concept of 'jai yen' - cool heart - pulls out her cell phone. She calls the Tourist Police and the Police Department's Road Services Division. Both promise to send help. Then she calls Avis Rental Car at Don Muang Airport, a few kilometers behind us. The agent offers a promotion. I get on the line to book it.
"What is your fax, please?" the agent asks.
"I'm in the middle of an eight-lane highway in a broken down car!"
"Oh, sorry. You have email address?"
By now my 'jai' is not so yen. I hand the phone back to Lena. "I call you later," she says.
My husband, meanwhile, is on his cell to Khun Tan from whom we have rented the car. He explains the situation, then says, "I'm in the middle of Bangkok's busiest highway. I can't check the transmission fluid!"
An hour later we are still awaiting help. Lena suggests she and I grab a taxi and head for the airport to rent a car. Effortlessly, she flags a cab and we're off to Don Muang, leaving husbands to mind the Rent-a-Wreck. Hertz says they have a special "but only good for shift." I say I can drive manual. "Sorry," he says. "Mai mee" (don't have).
My cell rings. It's my husband. "I need a 'hong nam' (toilet). Can you hurry?" Dui, meanwhile, has spotted a Mitsubishi dealer across the road from where they are stranded. He calls on his cell and tells the repair shop he has a dead car on the highway and a 'farang' with a full bladder.
"Is it Mitsubishi?" the repairman asks.
Dui confirms so the guy says my husband can use the restroom. The Tourist Policeman arrives, stops eight lanes of traffic in the opposite direction, and leads my husband to the Mitsubishi 'hong nam'. Simultaneously, Lena and I arrive at the dealership in our new rental car. We head for the beach, only five hours behind schedule.
It's 9:00 p.m. when our landlords knock on the door. We have recently informed them we would leave Chiang Mai sooner than expected because my work is finished. They demand the rent. We explain that since they are holding two months security, we have already paid for our last month. Mrs Landlord, an atypically aggressive Thai woman, says we must forfeit our security deposit and pay another month's rent or she will change the locks. We invite her to return with a copy of the contract the next night.
At 5:00 p.m. everyone assembles, including a lawyer we have engaged and Lena, who is our real estate agent. We serve soft drinks and go through the expected amenities. Then the fireworks begin. We point to Clause Nine of the contract, which states that we are entitled to a full refund of our deposit because we have given 30 days notice. Mrs. Landlord threatens to call the police. I say that's a good idea. Mr. Landlord impugns Lena's integrity. I threaten to evict him. Then I offer to take them to court to settle the matter. The lawyer waits for the shouting match to end before quietly informing Mr. and Mrs. Landlord that it's against Thai law to forcefully evict tenants. He suggests they accept our deposit as payment in full. Mr. Landlord weakens. Mrs. Landlord continues to rant. In the end, we agree to this solution and Mr. and Mrs. Landlord depart, all smiles and 'Kapunkas' (Thank you). I usher them out, 'wai-ing' (bowing) only to the lawyer.
Our friends arrive from the States. After several days touring Chiang Mai, we head for the Golden Triangle. Our first stop is Mae Salong where, our travel book advises, we must not miss the Mae Salong Resort. As evening approaches, we snake our way up a mountain in foggy rain, anticipating "the best views of terraced hills" and outstanding Yunnanese food. (This village was founded by Chinese escaping Mao's Cultural Revolution.)
The term "resort" is used loosely in Thailand, but what a misnomer for the hotel we find ourselves in! Without checking the rooms we plunk down 420 baht (US$1=THB34.4) per couple - a supposed 40 per cent discount on the usual rate, but after seeing the accommodation we upgrade to "VIP rooms". These are large, dirty digs adjacent to staff quarters. Our view is drying laundry, wood piles and motorbikes. The rooms are dank and dirty. Water runs brown from the taps; the waste baskets are fuzzy; the sheets and towels appear used, the odor is Eau de Mould.
We passed a luxurious place a mile back but would they have room and would driving in wet darkness be sensible? We accept our fate for the night - a Buddhist, but ultimately bad decision.
We visit the restaurant for the promised Chinese fare but find a motley crew of servers, stained tablecloths and a limited menu. We order several dishes. One plate of chicken appears with boiled rice and two plates of what look like weeds cooked in mud.
"Chinese eggplant! Very good - you try!" the waitress says.
We return hungry to our cobwebbed VIP lounge to drown our sorrows, agreeing to abscond in the morning without paying the difference owed on our rooms. None of us is able to sleep in the damp beds; no one dreams of showering. Our friends find a huge cockroach in their bed.
In the morning we head downhill to the beautifully gardened luxury hotel for breakfast and discover we could have stayed for 650 baht. Later, the "resort" calls to ask for their 1,500 baht. We say we are calling the Ministries of Health and Tourism. (Most accommodations and restaurants in Thailand are good to splendid but it's best to look before you book.)
Thailand is a wonderful country full of smiling people, colorful sights, delicious food, and glorious crafts. I'd live there again in a heartbeat. But having done so, I'd know that life can be frustrating, and very funny. Sometimes you just have to shrug and say, "This is Thailand, Silly!"