THE River Kwai is a jade jewel as late afternoon concedes languidly to dusk. The longtail boat in which I am travelling roars and sputters like an indignant politician up the infamous waterway towards the floating jungle rafts I have come to know and love so much. Travel writers don’t particularly like returning to the same place – there’s too much world to explore – but there are some destinations which become firmly etched in your psyche. And so entrenched in your soul you are unwittingly lured back. And for me, this is one of them, in part for its brutal war history involving the bravado of Australian soldiers and in part for its sheer natural beauty.
He doesn’t know I’m coming back to this place with no electricity and where internet connection is notoriously unreliable on the limited generator in his village. And anyway, I wish it to be a surprise visit to an old friend. Six months ago I found myself on my third trip to Thailand’s romantic River Kwai Jungle Rafts and I told him I’d be back for the next chapter of his story. But even I didn’t know it would be so soon.
I first met Sam Season several years ago, and over the years I have been speaking with him about the most salacious of all subjects: love. Regular readers of The Global Goddess will remember this 22-year-old tour guide, a Mon man from one of the earliest tribes to live in South East Asia. Considered neither Burmese, nor Thai, the Mon exist in a small slither of land along the River Kwai, not far from the Burmese border. The Mon number some 8.14 million people but I am remain captivated by this one man. This man called Sam.
At night, he paints his face in traditional Mon markings but speaks with an English accent plucked out of a south London pub, with a smattering of Aussie twang – picked up solely from the tourists with which he works every day. He moved to this particular village when he was 9, and has been studying to finish High School since, in between working 6 days a week at the River Kwai Jungle Rafts. And Sam is in love with a girl called Jaytarmon with beautiful long black hair who lives in a neighbouring village down the river. But access to this girl, like internet, electricity and hot water, are elusive in these parts. And to complicate things more, Sam is being pursued by a girl in his own village, who cooks for him and washes his clothes.
Last month I returned to the River Kwai Jungle Rafts on a last-minute work trip. Word travels fast in these parts and I’m sitting at dinner when a young man, his face painted in Mon tribal markings, walks up to me, his arms outstretched and in that unmistakable Aussie/British accent says: “It’s so good to see you, why didn’t you Facebook me to tell me you were coming?”. We laugh, hug and chat politely for a few moments and I tell him I am here to collect the next chapter of his love story. He blushes, coyly. “Well, it’s complicated but a few things have changed in that direction. I will explain to you tomorrow.” The one thing I have learned about my many visits to this beautiful region, and this young man Sam, is that you must take your time. Pause. Enjoy. Sway in a hammock and daydream. Listen to the river gurgle like a baby. And the story will eventually float down the rapids towards you.
The next night after dinner and by the light of a kerosene lamp, Sam pulls me aside to give me his next chapter. And he’s excited. He’s learned that a scholarship exists in Australia for which he may be eligible. He’s going to apply for it in one year, when he feels his English is adequate. He tells me he has only told his parents and me of his dream. “I really want to go for it,” he says, “I think it will change my life. I want to help my parents and we have a house but it is just bamboo. I want to build a house for my parents. I need to keep going with my dreams.”
I ask him about the state of his love life. He has finished his relationship with the girl in his village who cooks for him because “she is not nice to tourists. How can I introduce this girl to my family when she acts like this?”. So Last January Sam phoned Jaytarmon after an absence of a year. “I said Happy New Year, it is a New Year and I want to start new things with you. The past I just want to forget it. You can punish me however you like but please apologise me but don’t push me away,” he says in his broken, yet impressive English.
“She said it may be too late and that maybe she has a boyfriend. I said ‘I don’t want to have anyone else, please give me a second chance’. I told her ‘you are the one who can keep going with me for my whole life’. I told her ‘I have tried another girl, she doesn’t work out for me, but you are one of the best’.
“I asked her ‘when can I call you?’ She said maybe once a week. She just wants to test that I will keep going with this to test me. So I call her once a week, sometimes twice a week. We talk about our daily work and how many tourists.”
We wade into the murky waters of sex. “We are traditional Mon people. If we kiss we need to be married.” I ask him whether this mysterious girl with the long black hair is still beautiful. He doesn’t hesitate. “Oh, awesome. I want to listen to her voice.” He pulls out his iPhone until he finds a photo of her, laying dreamily on a bed with her hands in her chin. “I look at her photo every night before I go to bed.”
In the meantime, Sam will spend the next year perfecting his English, so he can gain the scholarship and work towards his dream of becoming a car mechanic along the Thai/Burmese border. If he is successful, he will be in Australia for between four and five years, which raises the question of Jaytarmon.
“I have to make her believe in myself and trust in myself. When I finish my education I will be ready. I have to show her ‘can you wait for me?’ One day, when I have an education we will have a good life and then we will marry.”
Our short but magical time comes to an end. The next morning Sam walks me to the long-tail boat to say goodbye. I go to shake his hand and he says “come on” as if to say handshakes are for strangers, and gives me a big hug. I wave farewell to my friend, this impressive young man, and smile all the way back down that beautiful jade river.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand and Thai Airways. Sam’s original story, and others, appears in Christine Retschlag’s first book (just released) Destination Desire – The Global Goddess, a single woman’s journey. This travel and dating book is available as an eBook via Amazon for $4.99 or as a limited-edition print run for $14.99 through The Goddess herself at Christine.firstname.lastname@example.org. http://www.theglobalgoddess.com