CHIANG MAI, THAILAND — Dry at last, we dart down a dark, lonely side road and slip into a tiny Indian restaurant for a midnight snack — our first non-Thai food in a week. My wife Mary and I are here for Songkran, the Buddhist New Year, which is to spiritual spring-cleaning what Thunder Over Louisville is to sparklers. A celebration of rebirth that began with a ritual sprinkling of water has evolved over the years into a three-day, nationwide spritz-fire by squirt gun, Super Soaker and bucket. No one is spared; everyone is drenched.
Revelers don’t mind the mandatory soaking because it is usually about 110 degrees in Thailand during Songkran, and walking around soggy is the best way to walk around, especially if you’re of European descent and like to dine on the upper capsaicin range of the Scoville scale. Spray me, baby!
Traveling in Thailand is insanely cheap — $2 meals and $50 hotels make a trip to Thailand cheaper than a visit to New York or San Francisco, even factoring in the airfare. Our tour guides are Mary’s brother Bill, who teaches English in Bangkok, and his girlfriend Noy, a woman who embodies everything lovely about Thailand: curiosity, adventure, loving-kindness and appetite.
Thanks to them, we are gobbling our way across a nation whose food makes me swoon, feasting on fiery tom yung goong and pad kee mao, fresh seafood salads and rich green curries, and crispy fish with sweet chili sauce. We’ve eaten crab and squid and octopus in sight of people out harvesting more. We’ve tasted exotic delicacies like savory duck tongues and the mysterious durian, a fruit many think smells like ass wrapped in socks, but tastes to me like vanilla ice cream.
But now we are ready to dine on food from another nation, so we choose Indian: palak paneer and naan with raita, washed down with a beer called, I swear to god, LEO. We seem to be honored guests in this Indian restaurant, and we’re not sure whether it’s because we’re Americans or because the proprietor is excited to practice his English or because he simply treats everyone like an honored guest. When he confirms we’re from the United States, he tells us about his two brothers living in Burbank, Calif., a place that takes a moment to sink in partly because of his accent but mostly because I’ve never heard that town pronounced without its prefix: “beautiful downtown.”
He shows us pictures of his daughter and tells us a little about his childhood with his brothers in Mumbai and lets us down gently when he admits he’s never heard of Louisville or Kentucky. When our palak arrives, he retreats, but moments later he’s back, pushing a television across the room on a cart. Mary and I give each other a secret smile. We both know I must never be allowed to own a gun, because I would blast every TV turned on in a public place.
After extensive channel surfing, our restaurateur proudly unveils the show he’s gone to so much trouble to find, and we almost laugh out loud because he has tuned into Fox News. In an effort at hospitality, this lovely man has presented us with the one thing we wouldn’t watch if the only other option was a live feed of William Shatner’s colonoscopy. Here, on the other side of the world, in an Indian restaurant in Thailand, we are faced with a moral and diplomatic dilemma: Do we risk rudeness to our well-meaning host or do we lift our lifetime ban on fantasy-based cable-news fear-mongering? What would the Buddha do?
We nod politely and begin a TV-ignoring discussion about the unintentionally humorous English-language T-shirts we’ve seen in Thailand. Much like Chinese-language tattoos on hipsters in the states, the shirts are cool because of their exotic characters, whether they make sense or not. “WANDER OF LOVE,” one said. “SANDWICHES AND CIGARETTES.” But my favorite one said, “IT’S GOING TO BE FANTASTIC.”
With obvious disappointment, our friend from Mumbai asks if we want him to turn off the TV. We give him our warmest multicultural smiles and say, “Yes, please,” and he switches off the pretty Fox prevaricators and schleps the TV back to its corner. We pay him our 30-baht tab — about one dollar — and invite him to America. He shrugs and says he would like to go but he probably never will. “Well, wherever you are,” I say, “It’s going to be fantastic.”