STORY BY BREE KESSLER
I repeated the sentence twice using the slow and steady tone of voice and sentence structure that I reserve for speaking English abroad, “We do not want to go to a rural village. We only want to go to the golden triangle.” The twenty something Thai man, let’s call him Stan, wearing a thrift shop concert t-shirt looked me directly in the eye, smiled and said “no problem.” Minutes later we were cruising north from Chang Rai in Stan’s tattered jeep listening to Michael Jackson tunes blasting from a cassette tape.
We toured the Golden Triangle in the manner I tour every site: quickly and haphazardly. We made our obligatory purchases at the jade store, took pictures of the river that symbolizes the Golden Triangle, and finished with the nearby opium museum that highlights the cultural history of opium as well as touches on the more recent history of narco-traficking in the area. When Carly, my travel companion, and I returned to the car Stan inquired if “we had enjoyed the museum?” We both replied with the obligatory “of course!” and then he asked would it be OK if he made one quick stop on the way back. Stan had been kind to us all afternoon and we were enjoying the nostalgia of the 80s music so we both agreed that it wouldn’t be a problem. Thirty minutes later we were driving up a nearly vertical road in the hills of the Thai countryside.
There is a least one moment (but often more) in every trip I take where I think “oh, so now is when I am about to get kidnapped” and while that thought was present it quickly was overtaken by the more nagging “I am pretty sure this car is going to fall off this road” thought that eventually was side-swept by the realization that “no problem” Stan was taking us to a rural village. My request to stay out of the rural village was not simply because I was eager for the tour to end and to return as quickly as humanely possible to our five star hotel in Bangkok. I know there’s not a Guinness World Records entry for “most rural village visits by a white person” and I can’t even guarantee that I would win that designation if it existed, but I am fairly sure I would be up there with all the other well funded academic medical anthropologist types. Given my extensive experience in rural areas, it is my practice due to ethical, moral, and the love of five star hotel reasons not to visit then for fun on vacation.
We pulled up to the village, the first time our car had been in the horizontal position for almost an hour, and the villagers came running out to meet us in a mob like fashion. Stan motioned for us to get out of the car and although he had lost all credibility he said reassuringly, “Stay here, I’ll be back in a few minutes.” No problem. The village women began unpacking their handicrafts and gesturing for us to purchase something (well, everything) and Carly and I remained there powerless to their brightly color woven bags. Twenty minutes later Stan still had not returned to the car so we began walking around the small area looking for him. We approached a house with several men sitting outside and one pushed the door open and signaled us to enter. There was a thick cloud of smoke moving through the room making it nearly impossible to see who or what was inside, but I could make out Stan lying sideways on the ground with a long pipe. I had the feeling I had viewed this scene before and just as I was mentally compiling the images of the scene Stan looks up and happily utters, “This isn’t a museum!” Carly and I turned around and went to sit outside to debrief among the crowd of villagers who had relocated to watch our interaction. Carly and I spoke at the same time: “We’re at an opium den.” “Should we smoke opium with him?” Carly said over my concerns of “Can we drive down a vertical road with someone who just smoked opium?” Carly, a pharmacist, determined that no, we shouldn’t smoke opium and that we had to drive down with Stan given neither of us could drive a manual car. A few minutes later Stan emerged nonchalantly, like he had just returned from a simple errand of returning a DVD to the store. As we began the journey down the treacherous road I began to mentally catalog this rural experience along with all the other ones when the car suddenly swerved to the side and came to an abrupt halt. A pick-up truck was coming directly towards us and as it passed us I saw that the back was filled with seven American guys, sporting their fraternity’s baseball hat, and screaming with anticipation for what I could only imagine was their pre-sanctioned upcoming opium den visit. Carly and I turned to each other and I said, “It’s not a museum.”