Sunday, September 13, 2009

Saturday In Isaan - Dealing With Police

Yesterday, which was Saturday here in Isaan, we took a ride up to Nong Khai which is the border crossing with Laos. Apparently Duang's mother who has been caring for "Brother, #4" after his surgery at his home in Udonthani had cabin fever. She had never been to Nong Khai or Laos and wanted to check it out. "Brother, #4"'s girlfriend would drive up to Nong Khai and invited us to join them.

One half the way to Nong Khai, "Momma" realized that she did not bring her Thai National ID card so going into Laos was off the agenda. I would not go into Laos on this trip anyhow. I would have to pay $35 for a Lao Visa to enter be it for 1 minute or 30 days. I will wait and pay when we take another holiday in Laos. Thai people who live in Isaan, typically the Lao Loum but not restricted to only them, can enter into Laos without paying or even getting a Visa. There are some restrictions as to length of stay and how far from the border Thais can travel without a Visa but during last year's week long trip to Luang Prabang, we had no problems with Duang not having a Visa - perhaps we were lucky.

Many expats bring their wife or girlfriend to the border crossing at Nong Khai so that the Thais can cross into Laos and shop at the Border Duty Free Shop in Laos. Laos has excellent prices on articles such as whiskey, rum, wine, beer ... In Laos clothing and textiles are also very cheap. In Nong Khai at the market along the Mekong River, you can buy beautiful children's clothing made in Laos for $3 to $6 U. S. dollars - the same clothing that in the USA would cost $20 to $40. The little girl's outfits were exceptionally cute.

Our trip up to Nong Khai was interrupted by a Police checkpoint. On average we encounter Police checkpoints 4 times a week. Inside of populated areas, the checkpoints are focused on checking documentation of motorcyclists (typically the young female university or high school students) and giving out fines for not wearing helmets. All people 6 years or older on a motorcycle are supposed to wear a helmet. The fine is 200 baht ($5.88) if you get caught without wearing one. It is like shooting fish in a barrel. Easy and quick money for the police - I can't believe how many people ignore the law. The babies, toddlers, and young children who ride the motorcycles squeezed between older people or standing on the motor scooter running board in front of the driver are exempt from the law. I know that it is only a matter of time before we encounter an accident involving a small child. We have seen many victims and some fatalities involving motorbikes but fortunately none involving small children.

Outside of the populated areas, police checkpoints target truckers who have a reputation of using "yaba" amphetamines, speeders, and spot check of documentation such as driver's licence, vehicle registration and vehicle insurance. Yesterday's random checkpoint was for documentation. Duang's brother's girl friend had an one month expired vehicle registration. She had to go over to the tent that had a desk, chairs and officials to pay a 500 baht fine. She has 10 days to correct the problem or she will be subject to fines once again. She has a receipt, "stay out of jail card" for yesterday's fine to avoid having to pay again within the next 10 day period.

Along the way up to Nong Khai, we passed an Immigration Police Roadblock on the other side of the road heading back to Udonthani. We teased Momma about getting arrested because she didn't have her National Identity card with her. We told her that the Police would think that she was an illegal Lao in Thailand. She started to practice singing the Thai National Anthem so that she would be able to convince the Police if we were stopped. She was joking and we all had a good laugh. Humor is a big part of Isaan culture and Dunag's family is no exception.

We parked the car at a local Wat near the market. Often Wats will rent out parking on their property. As we got out of the car, the Abbott spotted me and started speaking some English. We went into the uboth so that the family could make merit. Part of the merit making was to be sprinkled with water by the Monk. He included me as well as my camera in his blessing. No problem - I had a cloth to quickly wipe it dry. We enjoyed a massive lunch in a market restaurant along the walkway bordering the Mekong River. The river was high due to the rains of the past two months and was running very fast. The boats that were crossing between Laos and Thailand were just about running all out to make progress against the current. After lunch we did some shopping but had to leave early because Duang's brother was feeling some discomfort from his recent stomach surgery. I was ready to go too - too much heat, too much humidity, too many people - I was glad that he flinched first.

On the return to Udonthani, there was no excitement due to road blocks or checkpoints. Duang's brother invited me to join him on a road trip in two months. He will be chartering a bus and the band along with the dancers are going to Chiang Rai to perform. He said that I would be able to take many photographs. I readily agreed - sounds interesting -perhaps I could do a story about it for Rolling Stone magazine - I doubt if anyone has written about a Mahlam Lao/Mahlam Morlam road trip yet.

We got back to Lon's place, Yes he does have a name although few people use it, and we were greeted by some of the other performers who live on the street. They were finishing their lunch and in the middle of drinking their whiskey. I had a "quee", a round Pan Pipe type musical instrument central to Lao music, and gave them some samples of how I was teaching myself to play it. That was all it took. Although I initially declined to join them in drinking, they were persistent and my resolve was weak. I joined them and quickly had a nice cold whiskey and water in my hand. I had met three of the guys before and they knew that I was Lon's falang (foreign) brother-in-law. Two of the other men were introduced as policemen. They were not wearing the top of their uniforms but had their radios, guns and other police items around their waist. Apparently their were on a long "lunch break" and did not want to be conspicuous sitting at the sidewalk cafe drinking while on duty. There were two young girls about 18 years old at the table next to us - obviously new dancers from the neighborhood. The men asked me in English if I liked the young girls. I responded in Thai "Sorry, but I have a Lao wife" they roared with laughter. They were very interested in where I was from, how much money I made when I was in America, did I like Thailand ... It worked out very well - their limited English, my limited Thai and even more limited Lao and the free flowing whiskey. The young dancers seemed entertained by our antics. This definitely made the Police happy. We were soon joined by a motorcycle policeman who had also removed his shirt. He admitted that he was interested in the pretty girls. Time for another toast - I gave it in Lao to their surprise. Duang joined us after awhile and did some translating and let me know that I had to finish my drink because we were leaving.

The guys invited me to join them again someday soon.

It was a nice way to finish a Saturday here in Isaan. they were the type of policemen that I can and actually enjoy dealing with.

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