Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


There is something positively civilized about having a neighborhood cafe.

If there's a cafe that serves decent coffee or tea, perhaps some lovely rolls, maybe some fresh fruit, and might even play delightful music softly in the background.... well, no matter where in the world I am, I'm right at home.

If there are books and newspapers about that one can read, well, I'm in heaven.

To find such locations in a so-called "Third World Country / Developing Nation" and I find that I am positively over the moon!

Remarkably, there are several cafes in this neighborhood. All over Pattaya, really. I think one of my favorites is a little place called The Canterbury Tales Cafe. The "Cafe Yen" (Iced Coffee) is pretty good, but not half as good as say, the Cucumber Inn just across the street from my condo apartment. And,  there's something extra delicious about the Cafe Yen at the Bondi in Jomtein (I think it's the ocean just 40 meters from your table).....

BUT... Canterbury Tales Cafe has books. And, magazines. And, newspapers.

Oh, my! Be still my heart.

Mind you, I don't really read them. It's not that I can't read them. Because this is "Canterbury Tales Cafe", most of the books, as you would expect, are in English. Oh, I browse and poke around the shelves, but mostly, I read the stuff on my Kindle Fire. Which, I must say, thoroughly delights the wait staff there. They shake their heads and giggle and point at me from behind the bar (Yes, they serve alcohol there. Everybody does. Everywhere in Pattaya.)

Karen (Hill) Tribe Girls
And, because it's off the beaten path and in a slightly different neighborhood, the folks who frequent there provide a fascinating diversion from the occasional breaks I need to take from reading.

So, I get myself all set up at one of the tables in the corner, order a Cafe Yen, please, with an extra glass of nam kang (ice), check out the books on the shelves while it's being made and then scan the Thai newspapers while I take my first sips.

Most of the Thai newspapers, I'm told, are written at about a 5th or 6th grade level. I try to figure out from the pictures what the story might be and then I compare it with the version in English that appears in the Bangkok Post.

One of the waiters saw me reading the Thai paper and finally came over with a big grin on his face. "You read?" he asked.

"No, no," I said, slightly embarrassed. "I try. No understand. Look very pretty, very beautiful," I said, pointing to the letters, "but no understand."

He giggled.

"I read here," I explained, pointing to the Thai paper, and then, pointing to the Bangkok Post, "Then, I read here."

"Ah," he said, "So. Very good. Smart farang lady. You learn read this way. You keep working. Work hard. Some day, you learn. Some day," he said, very encouragingly.

I shook my head in sorrowful disagreement. I've only been here three weeks, but if I stayed here thirty years, I fear I'd never master this complex language and complicated alphabet.

"No, no," he said, "You do. You try. You work very hard. You do. Some day."

I loved that he cared enough about me to cheer me on.  Intuitively, I knew that there was something more to this conversation, however.

"You read English?" I asked.

"Some day," he said. "I try hard. Is very hard. Letters very pretty. No understand. So."

"I can help," I said. "You have word you want me help with?"

The book shelves at Canterbury Tales Cafe
He shifted his weight a bit and considered how he might answer. "Moment. Moment," he said and then whisked away for a few minutes and then returned with a pen and some paper.

"Name is Pan," he said, putting the paper and pen in front of me.

I looked at him and immediately knew what he wanted of me. I took pen and paper in hand and, at the top of the paper I carefully wrote out in large block letters: P. A. N.

Then, I handed the paper and pen back to him and said, "You try."

He sat down and looked at the paper as I imagine I would look at the same letters in Thai. Then, he took his finger and carefully traced each letter with is finger. When he finished, he looked up and me, smiled shyly and said, "Pan try now."

Very slowly, with great focus and intention and effort, he copied each letter. When he finished, he showed me the paper and said, "P.A.N. Spell 'Pan'. In English.

I smiled and said, "You did it! Good job! Well done!"

He smiled from the top of his head to the bottoms of his feet. "Pan write 'Pan' in English, yes?"

"Yes you did, Pan!" I exclaimed. "You did it!"

His friends heard the noise we were making and came over to the table. He showed his handiwork to his friends and co-workers and they were effusive with praise for him.  Even the dishwasher came out of the kitchen and was very excited and happy for Pan.

The other (male) farang customers looked at us, half quizzically, half comically. I'm sure they thought I was quite mad.

When the excitement had subsided Pan turned to me and said, "Now, Pan teach farang lady to write Pan in Thai. Okay?"

"Oh, yes, please," I said as he took out another piece of paper and wrote down his name in Thai.  I studied his lettering for a minute and then, just as he had done, traced each letter with my finger before attempting the marvelous swirls and curls and heart-shaped thingys that make up the Thai alphabet.

When I finished, I presented him with my work. "Ah," he said, "So. Farang lady smart lady. Very smart. Try very much. Do good work. Yes, much good work. So." And then, he called his friends again to come and see what I had done. Again, they were effusive with their praise and excitement.

Now the farang men at the next table began to snicker to each other, but neither of us cared.

Pan lowered his voice and said, "Many farang no do. Many farang not do. No read Thai paper. No try Thai write. You good farang lady."

It's such a simple thing, you know. To meet people where they are. In their own country. Where you spend in one day what many will not earn that month. To at the very least have a modicum of curiosity about the country you're visiting. To try and learn more about what they know instead of insisting that they become more like you.  To try and learn more about what it means to be them in the hopes that you might become a better you. Not to become them but to learn to live with them. In their own country. In their own home. Where you are a guest.

Pan had to take his leave to run some errands. ""Korb-koon, Pan," I said.

"No, no. English, please," he asked.

"Thank you," I said, as he repeated it. "Thank you, Lady Elizabeth."

"You're welcome," I said, but I could see I confused him. Obviously, no farang had ever said, "You're welcome" to him. I did my best to help him understand the exchange of polite pleasantries we call "manners" in English, which, unfortunately, we don't practice much anymore in this country.

After he left, one of the young girls on staff came to me and said that Pan only had four years of schooling in the north before he came to work in Pattaya. His mastery of the written Thai language is very basic and his reading skills pretty raw, but he has been going to school at night to learn how to read and write and, she said, he has made remarkable progress.

"He read everything. Everything," she said, as she motioned her arms around the bookshelves. "He going write someday. You see. Everybody see. Pan write. Books. Many books. And, songs. Everybody read Pan books and sing Pan songs."

I'll just bet he will. And I, for one, will look for his books. And, music.

I love reading because, no matter where I am, I can travel the world while sitting in my chair.  I can enter into people's homes and lives and imaginations and listen to the stories they tell. Oh, it' s much better to be there, but if you can't travel in your body you can travel in your mind and in your heart and in your soul.

I think Pan has figured that out.  He may never have money or material possessions and he may never travel out of Thailand, but as long as he knows how to read and can unlock the magic of the letters and words written on the pages of books, he will be a wealthy man with untold riches who can travel to foreign places and learn all sorts of things about being a citizen of the world.

Later that day, I saw Pan on his bicycle. He spotted me across the street and waved furiously with one hand while the other hand was on the handle which also had several bags of groceries draped over it.

"You're welcome!" he called.

"Thank you!" I called back.

Okay, so he had the order wrong. I wasn't going to tell him that. We can work on that tomorrow.

Today, Pan write 'Pan' in English.

And, Elizabeth write 'Pan' in Thai. 

Who knows what might happen after that?

See why I love bookstores? 

Add some Cafe Yen and, well, you just might be able to change the world.

Or, at least, make it a bit more civilized.


Jeffri Harre said...

I have loved reading your dispatches. This one really touched my heart. Thank you for sharing, Lady Elizabeth.

Matthew said...

Oh My, that is a ton of books for a cafe,that serves food, coffee, AND alcohol .......... come to think of it, I don't think I've even been in an American establishment that had that combination and so many books at the same time. I would be in heaven too.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I have loved sharing this trip with you. It's been amazing. This time tomorrow, I'll be boarding a plane back home. I'll always carry a piece of Thailand in my heart - and not a few number of Thai people.

(And, I confess: I loved it that Pan called me 'Lady Elizabeth' and not farang lady)

Prairie Soul said...

I agree with Jeffri; this is a truly charming story, Lady Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - It really is pretty amazing. In the US, they would be fined for being a fire hazard! The problem with alcohol is that it's so easily available and less than half the price you'd pay in the States. 60 baht for most drinks. 100 in an 'upscale' establishment (100 baht= $3.25). It's an alcoholic's paradise. Not good. As the Thai would say, "Mow" (Drunk)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank,s Prairie Soul. In many ways, it's an incredibly charming country. In other ways, the poverty will break your heart - especially the disparity between what the people from the West spend here and what the people here earn. It's been an amazing cultural immersion.

Lindy said...

This is a great story. I've enjoyed your Thai adventure. So glad that it's been a great time for you.

Good travels.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Lindy