I took a train north from Georgetown, Malaysia hoping to make it all the way to Krabi Town, Thailand in one day. It was not to be. After a successful border crossing, where the train stopped for 20 minutes and we all filed out to have our passports stamped, I ended up in Hat Yai too late to catch the connecting bus. I didn’t have a guide book with me, so I just started walking around Hat Yai hoping to stumble on a hostel.
Instead I stumbled upon Gavin and Drew, a couple of white guys drinking at an outdoor cafe. They gave me good advice about hostels and then invited me to have a beer with them. That invitation turned my few hours in Hat Yai into a fascinating glimpse of expatriate life in Thailand.
Drew and Gavin are both British guys teaching English in Hat Yai. Hat Yai is the biggest city in southern Thailand, a butt ugly transportation hub tourists would only visit when they’re stranded like I was. Drew is Welsh and happily married to a Thai woman. Or at least I think he was happy. To hear him tell it, their marriage consists of endless arguments about money (his), shopping (hers), food (theirs), and beer (his), but he never stopped smiling when he told us about it. Gavin is single. He was quiet through most of the conversation with Drew and I, and I couldn’t get a read on him until after Drew decided to call it a night and head back into battle with his wife.
It turns out Gavin is very smart and a great observer of people, a skill he has been exercising in Thailand for years. It seems he’d just waiting for the chance to share his observations with someone else. I was lucky enough to be that person for a night. Gavin speaks pretty decent Thai and he learned it all on the internet and from talking to people. Amazing. He is mostly quiet during group conversations, and when he does take a turn to talk it takes the form of intelligent streams of thought that last just a little longer than they should.
After our beer was finished Gavin offered to take me around for the evening and show me the town. Though he’s living there long term, Gavin stays at a hostel and I just got a room at the same place. Then we headed out for a tour of downtown Hat Yai.
The first stop was a noodle shop where I enjoyed my first Thai meal since December. I couldn’t feel my tongue afterward but it was amazing even after Georgetown cuisine. When Gavin chatted with the waitress, I discovered his self-taught Thai skills. He was modest and to prove how easy it was he launched into a lengthy explanation of how to read Thai by pointing at and reading the signs around the restaurant. I was impressed but unfortunately still could not read Thai even after his explanation.
Gavin was in Hat Yai in 2006 when some southern Thai Muslim extremists bombed the city. Not only was he in the city, he was right in the action. He mentioned this casually in conversation over noodles. I think it went something like “So after we’re finished eating I’ll take you to the pub where all the guys usually hang out. Maybe there will be a football game on. We’ll take a right at the corner where the bomb went off, then head down toward the night market…do you want to stop at the pub or head around the block first?”
Naturally I responded with “Wait, a bomb?” And that’s how I learned about the Hat Yai bombings. As promised, we walked right by the corner where the bomb went off. The first bomb, that is. Gavin took me through the play by play of 2006. “I was sitting in this cafe”, and he points, “when we all heard the noise.” Gavin decided to go investigate and as he walked down the street, the second bomb went off just half a block away. “Right there, on a motorcycle,” he pointed back up the street the way we’d just come. “And then, when I turned to go take shelter in the coffee shop, the third bomb went off right across the street, there.” Again, he points. “I was standing right here, where we are now.” I am stunned. He is pointing literally across the street, and about 20 yards down on the opposite side. “I think that one was on a tuk-tuk, but it might have been another motorcycle.”
“The Canadian who died in the attacks was standing right there.” Another jaw-dropping piece of information; Gavin is pointing just 10 feet in front of us. “And you were standing here, where we are now?” I asked, just to confirm. Gavin is telling me this information as a lecture, deadpan, the same way he’d tried to explain Thai writing in the restaurant. He nodded. “I think it was shrapnel from the bike that caught him. Unlucky.”
As I attempt to process this information, we reached the pub he’d told me about earlier. As promised, ‘the guys’ are out watching football, a big final match between Liverpool and Cardiff City.
Two of the more memorable characters were Larry and Big Bad Bill. Big Bad Bill was the quiet guy in the corner filling two chairs with his girth. His luscious white beard and flowing ponytail complemented his black biker style t-shirt, leather jacket, and baseball cap. He and Larry were the only two Americans in the room. Both were Vietnam vets and (more recently) retirees. Larry easily won the respectability contest at first with his full head of neatly trimmed white hair, professional glasses, and a button up shirt. He asked me about myself, commended me for going into engineering, but then ruined his kindly grandfather image when he started saying naughty things about Thai girls. Oh well.
Everyone I met that night had an interesting story, and the best part was getting their side of the story and then Gavin’s behind the scenes analysis of their psychological state. Usually the extra information had to do with their Thai girlfriend status: everyone is either looking for one, has one and is happy, or has had one and had their heart broken and/or lost money somehow. Names have been changed but even so I will say no more here for fear of incriminating the innocent. Also, this all happened a month ago and my memory is foggy.
Gavin and I made our way back to the hostel and went to sleep. I caught my bus the next day and never got his contact information. Gavin, if you’re out there you know who you are. Give me a shout! That was a great night; without you, my memory of Hat Yai would have faded into random-hostel-bed obscurity.