Out of The World: a trip to Solaris – and what happened on the way there

 |  December 25, 2009

Once a week I get on my Honda and bomb down the Airport Road to Palm Springs Lodge. It’s a ten-minute drive and better than twenty kilometres from where I live at the foot of Doi Suthep. And on the way out, I’m telling you, once beyond the lights at the Airport Plaza crossing, it’s not so much ‘chocks away’ as ‘we have lift-off, Houston’. You just wind the accelerator back, watch out for slower movers, and enjoy the way the scenery goes all blurry.

Palm Springs is a gas. This is Chiang Mai province, of course, at the edge of Chiang Mai city, but Palm Springs has as much living connection with the venerable, culturally resource-rich northern capital as, say, Ice-Station Zebra. Or better still that space station in the Russian cult movie – what was the name of it? Solaris?

I found it hard to take the first time I was down there – all those palm trees, lakes, the watered expanses of lawn with peons bent over them. A Hollywood back-lot, surely, before the space station image replaced it.

But if I found Palm Springs hard to get my head round, that’s nothing compared with the difficulty the security boys at the daan had on first acquaintance.

A farang! On a motorbike? Here?

“Who are you visiting…? What’s the house number…? What’s your business…? You’ll have to surrender your driving licence…”
It took a great deal of phoning around before they’d actually allow me in.

But it’s not this curious destination I want to talk about, but an inconsiderable little incident that happened on the way there the other day.

Let me admit, a trifle guiltily, I enjoy the trip down the Super. My Honda’s more or less held together by the stickers plastered over it – chuay gan raksa Doi Suthep and so on. But the engine’s still good and when you open up, that bike…. certainly… traaaveeeeellssss! And it’s the sensation of movement that’s exhilarating, not the passing scenery. You’re transiting the Mojave Desert, culturally…concrete, concrete, more hot, featureless concrete. Pasty great buildings. Billboards fifty metres across, steel scaffolding you could build a battle-cruiser out of. Advertisements for ZONK!! – or whatever – the ‘O’ alone the size of a private swimming pool.

However, on the Old Lamphun Road overpass, just at the edge of the highway, there’s a bit of detritus that might be worrying, if you’re the worrying kind: the top of a red motorcycle helmet, the shape of a skull cap. And just as in the desert, where accidents of passage lie year after year, transmitting their message _ “Once I had life and motion as you do,” – so too on the Super. This bit of helmet was lying there the first time I crossed on the way to Palm Springs. It was there the last time. And it was just after I’d passed it on this particular occasion and was going down the other side that the back tyre blew, the bike going into a terrific wobble before I slowed, stopped, then pushed on to the bottom and looked around.

Looked around. What do you see? Lots of Superhighway, stretching off to infinity, the sun beating down relentlessly. So what now?

If you haven’t noticed before, you notice now that for all the concrete poured, your average Superhighway doesn’t offer much that’s humanly-associated. And while in a real desert there’s a certain austere beauty, a modicum of hard-won life – snakes, Gila-monsters, the odd cactus or two – what does the Superhighway offer? What does it say?

“Lose hope all ye who break down here!”

But then, while I’m still wondering which way to push, along comes a character ambling down the side of the highway: working clothes, flip-flops, an old straw hat. An apparition, maybe, a mirage vivant. But never mind that. Get your Thai working.

“Er. Kortot na kap. Yang baen, hen mai? Taeow nee, tee bah yang mee mai kap?”

Straw hat, the apparition, considers me. He looks at the yang baen, then points down the Super, the direction he’d come from.

“Just round the corner.”

I sigh, call on patience, equanimity.

“Look, excuse me. I’ve got a flat. Is there a repair shop around here?”

And again, patiently, he points down the Super.

“Just round the corner there.”

Well, what can you do? I thank him, push on down the road, sweating already, but just a hundred metres further _ what do you know! _ there’s a modest minor turning into a meagre lane. And down this lane, beyond scruffy fields, little bitty shops and houses, chickens and things, people too, of course… Damme! Unbelievable! If there isn’t the most blessed little repair shop on a corner, with the standard stained walls, oily floor, pieces of machinery strewn around, and a youngish proprietor working on an upended bicycle.

There’s hardly any need for words. The proprietor relinquishes the bike, gets to work on the tyre, by which time I’m beginning to feel elect, if you know what I mean. All I need now is a telephone. The mechanic waves casually in the direction of the street.

“Right over there.”

Well, we all know ‘right over there’, particularly out in the boonies. I go first to a shop-house, next into an unpromising soi, and then stumble onto – into – an internet café.

Now wait a minute! This is hardly the fringe of Hicksville, and it’s got an internet café Admittedly, once inside, the place has the dimensions of a largish cupboard, but when I ask about phoning, the attractive young woman running the joint answers in excellent English, cheerfully.

“You want to call Australia? Europe? Oh, a local call. No we don’t have a local phone, but look…”

She takes me to the door, points across the street.

“There’s a public phone box right over there. You want some small coins?”

Ohmigoodness! So there is. And when I’ve put my one baht piece in, got through to my number, explained why I’d be late and come out again, the repairman’s done what’s needed and I’m ready to go again – all for the price of the replacement.

So that ten minutes later I’m at Ice Station Zebra/Solaris, handing over my driving license, the guards at the daan still unable to get over it.
“That farang again, on his motorbike. Here! Would you believe it?”

The fact is I can’t get over it either – I mean the inconsiderable little incident out on the Superhighway, the blow-out and what followed.

It’s something to do with liking Chiang Mai, fearing for its future – that’s to say what the pu yai, the big boys, plan for it. Oh, marvellous to think how rich we’re going to be, of course. But what’s worrying is the thought of what we might be losing. A culture, a way of life you won’t find anywhere else. Something that’s unique, invaluable.

But you know, this side-trip off the Super’s given me hope. Beyond the concrete and massive crassness of the bill-boarding, beyond the featureless constructions that grasp at the sky and offer nothing in return, just in those unexpected turnoffs leading to inconspicuous buildings and ordinary people, the old Chiang Mai, the old Thailand is still surviving.

Things move on, of course. In internet cafes and the like. But perhaps – so I’m hoping at least _ with a bit of help from ordinary people, from all of us, the things we respect and admire, the essentials of community, won’t disappear entirely.

Won’t be completely lost.