I’d been driving for longer than I could care to remember. Names of villages flash past…Sign posts…Ban Gu, Ban Bop, Ban Lok, Ban Tok… Dead snakes in the road, crushed under the wheels of passing vehicles, crepuscular (yes it’s a word, look it up…) raptors circling above marsh land diving for prey, men as black as soot wearing only underpants wade in stagnant pools trawling fishing nets. Children play in mud looking for land crabs to pound with pestle and mortar and enrich pungent som tam salad. It’s like the last five-hundred years didn’t happen. Time stood still. Cattle returning home from a days grazing, the farmer beats them along with a long bamboo cane, they plod along undeterred. Here and there groups of Thai men sit on wooden platforms, sharing local moonshine, cheap tobacco and dull conversations. Sudden Isaan music blasts from perilous two-storey dwellings built from breeze block and local timber, corrugated iron roof tops. Higher up the sky a deep red broken up with fair weather cumulus clouds (the ones that look like sheep)… Rubber plantations, eucalyptus groves, sugar-cane fields… The Honda Phantom is becoming uncomfortable between my thighs as the images flash by. The petrol tank is almost empty. I will have to stop.
The village is simply a few houses clumped haphazardly around a petrol station that doubles as the village shop-come-bar-come-gossip-point. This is where everything happens. The nucleus of a community mainly made up of the very young and the very old. The in-betweens are often drawn towards the promise of the cities. And who can blame them? The elders sit on a raised wooden platform under a sickly banana palm, eyeing me suspiciously as I approach. The dusty floor stained red with betel nut juice. They have heard stories about Farangs. These are mostly true stories about money, and the ease with which they part with it. Chickens and ducks peck at scraps in the dusty road. A few children stop playing for a moment, look me over, and start giggling saying over and over the word ‘Farang’. I wai the elders and tell a bored looking petrol pump woman to pump the petrol. As she does so I notice that there is something happening a little further down the dusty street. A group of about thirty villagers are setting up some speakers and arranging tables and chairs. Food is being prepared in large cooking pots. Some kind of party. A vaguely official looking character approaches me and wais. I assume he is the village headman. He smiles revealing bright white teeth. His head is shaven, but he has a certain gentleness about him; like he had just had himself some wat-time. He asks, in broken English, if I would like to join the party. He puts a slightly drunk hand on my shoulder, and points with his other hand in the direction of the crowd. I park the motorbike and follow him.
The area of land set aside is rectangular in shape and about the size of a tennis court. At the far end a row of five monks sit on a raised wooden platform surrounded by small statues and images of Buddha, incense sticks rise up from bowls of sand, smoke rising upwards.
‘You have come late,’ the head man tells me, ‘body already go fire.’
‘Oh,’ I say.
A number of women sit in front of the monks. They hold photographs of the deceased. A woman, in her thirties, is framed in the pictures. She is seen smiling. It is a graduation picture.
‘She drive bicycle. Have car kill her. Man drunk. Very bad.’ The headman shakes his head slowly. ‘Come follow me.’
We sit down at a table occupied by six or seven Thais sharing bottles of Leo beer. I wai each villager in turn and they fuss over getting me a glass, some ice, and some beer. Each time I take a sip the glass is replenished. I know enough Thai language to engage in basic conversation. And basic conversation is all that is really required when sharing beer with villagers. We speak of premier league football, world currencies and the cost of living in foreign lands. I am handed a plate with a tasty isaan soup, minced pork stuffed inside of a soft undetermined vegetable. I eat rice and noodles, listening to the strange Khmer dialect that the villagers preferred to use. The conversation appeared to be upbeat, not like the remorseful funerals in the West.
After several glasses the light began to fade. The women and children formed a line and walked circuits around the perimeter of the area set aside. As they walked they chanted a phrase that I could not understand. Somehow, it seemed better not to understand. Nobody seemed the least bit surprised or put out by my presence.
Not wanting to outstay my welcome I got up to leave. Where I was going, I wasn’t sure. The only thing I did know was that this was the first time I had gate crashed a funeral.
And maybe the last.