On weekdays I would return home from teaching at a local school to my apartment complex, a short motorbike ride, and find my landlord perched on a bench beside a cement table, cigarette balanced between his wiry fingers, outside his modest first floor apartment.  More often than not, the table was covered with small dishes of food and his glass filled with beer and ice, sweating with condensation in the Thai humidity.


He kept company with neighbors and family, gossiping about the comings and goings of particular tenants, the chatter punctuated by the grating reprimands he dealt out to his 4-year-old nephew as he ran through the adjacent parking lot, hiding behind cars and picking off unsuspecting tenants with an imaginary pistol.


I would seat myself beside him, and we would pick up where we left off, continuing an interview that I anticipated to last only a few minutes.


The interview ran through days, weeks and months. It ran through the seasons: the stiflingly hot, the hardly cold and the torrential monsoon. It ran through the holidays, mine: Thanksgiving, Halloween, Christmas and his: The King’s Birthday, Loy Kratong, Wan Awk Pansa. It ran through school semesters and the summer holiday. It ran through countless bottles of Sangsom Whiskey and Leo beer, ashtrays overflowing with acidic Falling Rain menthol cigarettes. It ran through a political uprising, from the festive beginning to tension-filled standoff to the violent end of a Red and Yellow color war played out in the streets of Bangkok and media outlets worldwide.  


The subject of the interview was my landlord, one of the first people to speak to me, the farang - foreigner - who had conspicuously taken up residence in the building he looked after for his brother-in-law on the outskirts of Phitsanulok, a city in the central plains of Thailand.  


Tourism in Thailand exists mostly on the fringes of the country. Cacophonous Bangkok is the entry point to the popular islands that pepper the deep south and to Chiang Mai and Pai in the north. The center of the country is only seen by most foreigners through the windows of trains, planes and buses.  My presence in this central province attracted attention, but mostly from a cautious distance. But this awkward buffer zone was non-existent to him and, only a few days after settling in, the enthusiastic “Mr. Tim!” became his favorite greeting and a segue into the next segment of our interview.


He was a small man, standing a little over 5 feet, his linen fisherman pants tied tightly around his thin waste, watery eyes distorted behind circular tortoise shell eye glasses he cleaned with an obsessive fervor on his shirt. Although 65 he appeared much older, the product of the unrelenting Southeast Asian sun and a life lived for a long time day to day, trying to get by. I referred to him as pee chi, older brother, a term of respect and one that was always met with a laugh from visitors.


I peppered him with questions. Food, Buddhism, Thai politics, sports, language, movies, customs, the Vietnam War, surrounding countries, superstitions, music, at times, I imagine, I was as bothersome as his nephew tugging at his shirt. But in particularly un-Thai fashion, he answered my questions unguarded and openly, practicing the English skills he had learned while a physics teacher at the Christian Boys’ School in Bangkok.


The cadence of his speech reflected a general pace of life adopted by those who were fortunate enough to successfully move out of the exhaustive and meager paying agrarian routine still so common in that part of the country.  It was a sense of ease and enjoyment, making up for time lost.


He spoke slowly, his sentences filled with long pauses that originally made me uncomfortable, but from this came three pieces of wisdom that I wrote down, repeated to others and wrote again.





“When you are old, you don’t leave. People come to see you.”


 Relatives and friends cycled in and out through the day, bringing with them food and bits of news. Even an occasional police officer and the postman took time chat, but he never left, always receiving with smile, but rarely even rising from his bench.


In many ways this wasn’t much different from my own grandfather. Sure the scenery was different, a porch on Long Island not a table in Phitsanulok, but the principles were the same. See enough yourself, do enough and people will come to see you.


The principles, unfortunately, have faded in the United States. Older generations are being stowed away in retirement communities, looked upon as family embarrassments. In Thailand, there has been a slow and gradual erosion of respect for elders as Western views encroach on the once staunchly held traditions.




“Don’t marry a woman like your mother. Bad idea.”  


He shouted this to me, shaking his head and laughing as his oldest niece and boyfriend bickered in the parking lot late one night, their fight dissolving into a depressing affair of sobs and slaps.  


“Always fighting. No good,” he went on, telling me of his tumultuous first marriage and reiterating his first line with an obsessive fervor, until I agreed with a smile, never, ever to be romantically involved with any woman who reminded me of my mother.


We had talked about women before. He had jokingly tried to set me up with a local 7-11 manager who lived on my floor, insisting that she was going to do big things, but this advice had seriousness to it, a tinge of personal regret in his in his delivery that made darkened his constantly light tone ever so slightly.





“Don’t eat durian and drink whiskey.”


“Excuse me?” I asked, puzzled.


“You eat durian and then drink whiskey and then you die,” he said it just like that, a simple matter of fact statement that everyone already knew or should know, common sense.


I found durian to be offensive to all of my senses: a festering stinky blob of a fruit that tasted like a stagnant air in a public bathroom stall. My chances of perishing from this supposedly lethal combination were quite limited. The statement, however, fascinated me. I asked my other people about it and they all told me it was true with conviction, describing something to do with the heat of the durian and the heat of whiskey making a fatal cocktail.


In many ways this line summed up much of what our best conversations had been about: a mix of personal knowledge and local lore passed on to me with a sense of paternal protection.


There are facts and there are experiences and somewhere in between, where the two meld, there is wisdom. To create your own takes time, and there is perhaps nothing as ignorant as failing to borrow other’s along the way towards your own.