In Search of Sanuk on a Chicken Bus
I found myself on a chicken bus heading to a remote northern part of Thailand. My mother was sitting two rows over looking out the window, face serene. As a young girl, she rode many chicken buses. This one was my first, and where I received my first lessons in sanuk.
The month before that, my family learned that my maternal grandmother had passed. Since coming to the States, Mom hadn’t seen her mother in over 20 years.
Since she missed the funeral, Mom decided that a week-long memorial was a fitting way to honor her mother, and she planned to invite a hundred of her closest friends –the entire population of the little village where she grew up.
For her, it was a type of homecoming. Some roots run deep. I’m a bit jealous of people like her, for I have yet to find a place to call home and grow roots. So I came along for the ride, and what a ride it turned out to be.
After the bus pushed off from Bangkok, I settled in my seat with a stack of magazines (this was 1997 before the invention of MP3 players and smartphones), expecting the ride to be dull and long, already feeling an impatience to reach my destination.
A few of my fellow passengers glanced curiously in my direction. Despite my Asian features, I eluded the act of blending in. Was it something about my demeanor and carriage, I wonder? The fact that I was clueless to what gave me away only proved that I was undeniably farang, a foreigner.
The bus was filled to near capacity when we left Bangkok but the driver kept making stops along the countryside. Every mile or so, I’ll see someone standing by a dusty road, and the driver would pull over. With no seat left, the new passengers started filling up the aisle, seeming not to mind the hard floor which in some places were caked with dirt.
With every stop and with every passenger, I was treated to something colorful. Some wore their Sunday best, as if they were off visiting relatives. Others appeared to have come back from a market, balancing bags of spices, vegetables and small wire cages with some noisy fowl inside.
I was tempted to take out my camera and start snapping photos. That certainly would brand me a tourist but it was not why I decided against it. It seemed rather undignified. Here was someone’s normal, and by whipping out my camera, I was in danger of turning a rather beautiful ordinary moment into an insult.
Somewhere after the halfway point, the bus rolled to a stop. Men dressed in military uniform seemed to have appeared out of nowhere and a certain hush fell over the bus. I watched other passengers busying themselves fishing for papers. I looked askance at my mom, and she mouthed, “passport.”
When it was my turn, the rather grim faced gentleman took an inordinate amount of time looking over my passport. It didn’t help that he carried all sorts of weapons on his person. I grew up around guns, yet the sight of one remains disconcerting.
I had no idea why an I.D. check was being conducted; it wasn’t like we crossed any border. Again I looked to my mom, and she simply smiled and shrugged her shoulders.
Shrugging off stuff was such a Thai thing.
I thought about that for the remainder of the ride. The Thais seemed to have mastered the art of levity. The darker the situation, the greater the need for levity. The remarkable thing is – they do so with such effortlessness and ease.
I was trying to put my finger on it, what was different about this bus ride in comparison to ones in the States. Aside from the obvious variety of fowl and fauna onboard, it was the energy. No one was tapping their feet or drumming their fingers, and looking stressed or peeved. The remarkable show of patience for the heat, the noise and the questionable smell of someone’s lunch, guilted my inner whiny self into silence. Their attitude went beyond making the best of a situation. It was full acceptance, a deliberate choosing of an attitude.
The bus ride, in which I initially looked upon as an inconvenient mode of transportation, became my mobile classroom, and I was reluctant to have it end.
Here are the things I observed on that ride. You don’t have to go through the experience of the chicken bus (though I recommend it) to put them into practice.
No mind as a state of mind.
The most useful words you can pick up when in Thailand is Mai pen rai. You use it to tell someone “you’re welcome.” It’s the French equivalent to De rien and the Spanish Da Nada. It can also be taken to mean “don’t sweat it” or “Never mind.” It’s the verbal form of the shrug. It is a state of mind. You can turn yourself into a student studying all its nuances.
“Kha” them with kindness.
In learning Thai, the toughest thing for foreigners is picking up the correct inflections. This melodic word – kha – if pronounced in a low tone means to kill. Spoken in a high tone, kha is an affirmative, a yes. Thai women pepper their sentences with kha. They use it strategically to sweeten a request and charm the pants off someone (figuratively and literally). It is truly disarming and uniquely Thai. By the way, if you’re a man, you should use the equivalent khrup, otherwise - yes, they are laughing at you.
Sanuk above all else.
Sanuk could be defined as fun. But its meaning goes beyond the enjoyment of things. It can mean a peace, a calmness or joy within self. As with mai pen rai, it is a state of mind. Think of it as enlightenment minus all the pretensions.
Your turn. How will you start practicing sanuk?