In many ways, we had waited for fifteen years for this. Big arrived in the United States when he was just fifteen years old, on the biggest adventure of his life. He seemed confused, bewildered by our habits and eating customs, and he was thrown into a high school senior schedule with little English. His mother had sent Thai gifts for us: clothing for both me and Rebecca, a framed photo of their king, some jewelery and some kinds of ceremonial food. But more than anything back then, she had entrusted us to take care of him, guide him, and help him through the challenge of his life.
Now, 15 years later, were about to meet Big’s mother, and complete the circle started so many years ago.
Big had arranged a trip to visit his home town. He seemed to relish the idea of leading us on a tour of his hometown and the region around it. First stop on our journey north out of Bangkok, we visited the ancient village of Authaya, which was built in 1370 and was Thailand’s first capital city. Huge brick temples and expansive gardens that had decayed and been covered by the encroaching jungle over the years, until it was re-discovered and somewhat preserved. You could see that there had been a layer of plaster that had been eroded, leaving the bare brick below. Many of the monuments were tall, missile-shaped, or cone shaped. Some of the meeting halls had been constructed from vertical brick posts that supported some sort of wooden cross member that had long sense rotted and fallen. One such column and an exterior wall remained so that we could imagine how the building might have looked.
We toured many red-brick ruins of temples, stupas, and other monuments, all built by early kings to honor the Buddha. They have interesting shapes and the details that have survived the centuries are angular and rythmic. There were also many ruined statues of Buddha. I liked the one that a Bohda tree had grown around. We climbed up of one of the temples, and there was a well that went straight down the middle. It was covered by a grating, but there were two men that were obviously employees with belay ropes, who had gone down to the bottom, gathering up all the money that had been tossed down as an offering.
I got a kick out of these three-wheeled vehicles used for transporting people or selling wares.
From there, we drove to a restaurant for lunch, a place called Baan Pomphet that one of Big’s colleagues recommended. It was right on the river, which because of the recent heavy rains earlier this week, had overflowed its banks, and flooded the lower terrace of that held dining tables for the restaurant. It was hot and muggy, and threatening to rain again, so we ate inside the upper level. Inside, it was too cold, but at least it was dry.
The food was excellent and the staff, very attentive. We saw on the menu that the restaurant had earned a Michelin star. Big ordered an egg dish to share, which, when I googled the word, translated into cowslip. It was very tasty. I had a mushroom ginger soup. All very good.
Later that day, we met Big’s mother, Uood, a very dignified and elegant woman, in a humble sort of way. She met us with a gracious bow and “wai,” the folding of hands together in a prayer motion to the mouth and heart. She seemed to be saying that she had been waiting for this day her whole life. We had been as well. Shen had picked her up and met us at what Big had told us was a “Special place.”
They had invited us to a restaurant just outside Nong Chang, (Big’s hometown) to what looked like an unassuming farm house from the outside, off the main highway, down a muddy, gravel road about a half kilometer. When we got there, we saw in the distance, festive lights strung up, and the entryway to a nice looking restaurant with outdoor seating. There were tables set up near a stage where a performer was just setting up to entertain for the evening. Big said something, and the waitress led us to the side of the stage where there was a large pond, on which were several little platforms with little rooftops, and small tables only a foot above the floor. We entered one of them, and sat on the pillows that surrounded the tiny tables. The setting was intimate and luxurious. No sooner had we made ourselves comfortable when Shen left to retrieve from the car several stacked containers that Uood had prepared, apparently with the consent of the proprietors of the restaurant, as two of the wait staff helped bring up onto the platform, an amazing array of little bowls and plates of vegetarian food that Uood had prepared especially for Rebecca.
For me, they had ordered about a two pound Snake Head fish, surrounded by garnishes and rice. Shen made sure that I knew it was the Snake Head Fish dish, although I did not know, at the time, how rare and expensive the delicacy was for them to purchase. Since that meal, I have noticed the dish on menus in other restaurants and realize its enormous expense.
We toasted to having had the privilege of sharing Big living in our home for a year, and that we still share his relationship now. Uood spoke for several minutes. We looked to Big as the conduit of the conversation. Big blushed. Then he simply translated that his mother was glad that we were here and happy to meet us.
Big’s sister, Shen, had reserved a spot for us at a restaurant she liked. It had an unassuming drive-up to it, but, boy, was that wrong! It was a lovely spot overlooking rice fields, which with these latest rains, were flooded, making it look like a lake. The sun was just setting and it was a lovely sky. Our table was a small structure, typical of Thai design open on all four sides with a thatched roof. A low table in the middle, had mats around it to sit on.
Big’s mom is a lovely woman carefully dressed and not a hair out of place. She greeted us with warmth and a hug. Shen is sweet too. We lucked out with our Thai family. Of course, we can’t talk to each other, but I think we could be friends easily. Woody made a little speech about how lucky we were that Big’s mom entrusted us to have him in our care and we enjoyed having him. He did a good job and Big translated. We gave her the gifts that we had brought. I hope it was enough.
This restaurant specializes in fish, and so Big’s mom had made food for me–and my goodness, she cooked a lot! Spring rolls and a tofu dish, and a soup, and steamed vegetables! Everything was good. She ate the food with me, as during this month there is a vegetarian festival in the Buddhist tradition that she follows.
Woody and Big and Shen had several dishes, too–one was a big fish that was called snakehead fish–didn’t sound appetizing to me. Woody said later he wasn’t sure of it at first, but it was better than it sounded.
We talked as much as we could and Big had to translate everything. That’s a lot of work. About 8pm we finished and said goodnight. We will see his mom tomorrow for lunch at her house, and we will see Shen again this weekend maybe in Bangkok.
We dined under the canopy of the thatched rooftop and the soft pastel sky, overlooking the lights that shimmered on the pond below us. The gentle music in the background of the performer on the stage was a nice background, and not too loud. It was an evening that will surely be remembered, not only for the beauty and culinary delights, but moreover for the blending of two families connected by our common son.
The next morning, Big took us to see some sights around the place he grew up. First, we went to a ridge near the city of Ulan Thani, where there is a temple at the top. The rule of the Buddha statuary seems to be: The bigger the better; and the more the mightier. We saw temples beside others, seemingly in competition for the most and biggest Buddha statues. And there are types that seem to convey a message. We saw sitting Buddha, the most common; Reclining Buddha, quite a few of those, Standing Buddha, rarer; Smiling Buddha, rarer still, and we saw a few Buddhas made from some translucent material. Big didn’t know what the significance of these were. These were the only ones we saw like that.
We woke up at about seven and met Big for breakfast at the downstairs dining room of the hotel. It was luck that Big’s mom, Uood, had fixed me some spring rolls to take with me, as the fixed breakfast wasn’t anything I could eat. We packed up after breakfast and left on today’s adventure. First, we drove up the small mountain that overlooks the town to a large temple. The view is amazing beause it is such flat land below you can see for miles. The temples and surrounding buildings are ornate and covered in gold and white. There are dozens and dozens of Buddha statues–and influences from China and India. In one room there is a row of sitting Buddhas made out of colored lucite. They glow in the sunlight–one is green, another red, another blue.
After visiting the temple, Big drove northwest to the edge of the valley where the hills rose abruptly–nearly vertical cliffs on the western edge of the valley. As we skirted around the edge of the emerald valley, we came to a shady parking lot, the entrance to the some caves.
From there, Big drove us to a cave about 20 minutes from his town called Tham Hup Pa Tat. I felt we were really in jungle country. Vines and varieties of palms grew big and towered over our heads. Banyan trees, with their long roots searching for a foothold on the ground, or hanging down like hair were all around us. At the cave entrance, the staff armed us with flashlights and we climbed up a long flight of steps to the entrance. As far as caves we’ve been in, they weren’t the most spectacular, but there were broad built up stalagmites and pointy stalagmites over our heads. And bats…it smelled of bats. We went out the back side of that cave into a secret world. Big said it looked like a scene from Jurassic Park–ancient and green. That part was my favorite–walking along the wooden boardwalk, looking at the trees over my head and the dapppled light on the plants below. I didn’t know most of them, but I saw palms, ferns, philodendrans, birds of paradise, ginger and wild basil.
The second cave was more of just a pass-through cave to more jungle walks. We looped around and then came back through the same path steps and back down. Quite fun.
After visiting the caves, we finally had a chance to visit Big’s home. He had always described it to us as a three story building with a business on the bottom. We imagined a large business building, maybe on a corner, and a store of some sort on the bottom, maybe a grocery store. But now that we approached his town, we realized that it was probably something much more modest, somethng like places we have seen in rural areas, one of the many small storefronts that serve as sort of a living room or family entrance but have some type of retail sales going on.
We drove to Non Chang and down the busy main street full of shops and women cooking on the street. We stopped and parked in front of a dress shop and Big said, “This is it. This is my home.”
The dress shop had three racks of women’s clothes, and more folded and wrapped in plastic bags on shelves along the wall. Uood (or Zhing Uood) met us with smiles and hands clasped in the “wai” sign. Her eyes filled with emotion as she welcomed us. We went in to the back of her shop where she proudly asked Big to show us the graduation pictures she had on display on the wall. Shen has three degrees and Big has one. The Queen’s sister, who is from around here, officiates all the degree ceremonies so the pictures showed her handing diplomas to Shen and Big.
Then Uood and Big moved things out of the way and set up a small table. We sat on heavy wooden chairs with ornate carvings. Big and Uood set out the lunch she had prepared–more food than we could eat in three days. There was a dish that tasted and looked like dried carrots (shredded fine) and fried with orange essence–it turned out to be a very thin noodle deep fried with orange peels. There was a tofu curry and fat noodle dish–so many things–I don’t even remember what… we ate and ate. She was happy to see us eat. She even made Woody and Big a meat dish.
She served everything on her best china and I was embarrassed that she went to so much trouble for us. A neighbor woman came over to meet us because she had heard so much about us. I felt like a celebrity during the meal. One of the porcelain lids to one of her fancy dishes fell with a crash to the concrete floor. It made me sad.
After the meal, she brought out a big tray of nearly a dozen little desserts she had made. The textures and flavors were gooey and too sweet for us, but it was amazing that she went to so much trouble. I think rice flour gives foods here a gelatenous consistency. After we were stuffed to the top, we cleared things away and Uood brought out some family pictures albums–so we saw pictures of Big as a little one, and pictures of his father who died when he was about ten.
When it was time to go, Uood wanted to give me some clothing she sells. She had several things but Big translated for me and told her that my suitcase was too small. I took two things, a blue blouse and some linen pants. She also loaded us down with food. We hugged and took pictures and were on our way. She is a kind and generous woman, even though we couldn’t talk much, we got along well.
On our way back to Bangkok, we stopped at the hospital where Shen works. She took time to step outside and say goodbye. It was good to finally meet and really feel part of Big’s family.