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A Misadventure in Hat-Yai

September 27th, 2014 · No Comments · En Route

Border areas can bring surprises, as travel memoir writer Shelley Buck learns during an overnight stay near Thailand’s southern border with Malaysia.

Our landlord is wailing and exclaiming. The porcelain sink, which was so proudly and tenuously attached to the wall of our hotel room, has tumbled and shattered. Lee and I had both just leaned on it while brushing our teeth. Boy do we feel guilty.

Hat-Yai, in a largely-Muslim area near Thailand’s southern border, is the place to catch the diesel rail car to Malaysia. We have come across Thailand’s long southern isthmus by bus from the beaches at Phuket, passing a machine-gun nest at a roundabout as we entered this small city. The presence of soldiers has telegraphed the situation to us. Hat-Yai in 1978 is not stable and is best left as soon as possible.

We are still getting used to the problem of instability – that even countries we had once considered homogeneous are actually not, and that nations sometimes feel in danger of losing territory around their edges. Perhaps influenced by the example of American geopolitics in Vietnam, Thailand – judging from the machine gun nest – prefers to hang onto these edges with the sword.

So I don’t expect to discover a paradise, just the train car out.

However, we need to eat. We walk to the night market, where a friendly man is busy grilling up satay right in the street. Satay in Thailand? It’s a more southern specialty, and we’ve never had it. We buy 20 sticks of grilled meat for a few baht, gobble them down, and then come back to the friendly vendor for 20 more. The marinated grilled meat is indescribably delicious. Afterwards, stuffed, we come back to the hotel room, prepare for bed, and the sink collapses.

We have to pay for a new sink.

And then, we have to brave the diesel rail car to the border: One car, hordes of people scrambling to get in. People flinging baggage into the windows. Somehow we make it.

Fast forward about a year. I’m in Berkeley, sipping a cappuccino on the upper back deck of the Walnut Cafe, looking westwards toward the unworldly blue inverted vee of Mt. Tamalpais, across the Bay. I’m chatting with some people connected with the university about Ved Mehta and other writers, feeling very out-of-the-loop about which books are now popular or interesting. This couple has been to Hat-Yai, too.

“It was a great place,” she says, “except there was this problem with a sink at the hotel. We broke it.” She doesn’t notice the strange look on my face.

© Shelley Buck, 2014. Used with permission. Shelley Buck is the author of East: A Woman on the Road to Kathmandu, a 2013 travel memoir of crossing overland from Europe to Asia in the 1970s.

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