A Kiss on the Mekong River

It has been said Loy Krathong is the day most Thais lost their virginity. The night when young couples hold their hands, and, together, let the floating buoyant decorated basket made of banana leafs and marigolds, along with their bad lucks, onto the river.
Traditionally the purpose of this ritual is to thank the Mother of River who has been kind and patient to us, year after year, that we polluted her with unnecessary, in-disposable well-decorated garbage and even threw our bad lucks at her. Because I feel sorry for her and feel responsible for my own luck—I didn’t join the crowd at the festival for years.
I was watching the super-moon, all by myself, from the rooftop of my apartment and looking at the other apartment buildings, wondering what was going on inside those windows on Loy Krathong evening. Especially the windows with the light turn off.
The night I lost my virginity wasn’t on Loy Krathong. It was a regular night in September, a few days after my twentieth birthday. I went to Laos on my first solo outside-of-the-country trip. I gathered up my stuffs in my new The North Face backpack, which cost more than my budget for the entire trip, and booked the two days one night slow boat trip from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang just because, as a student, I can afford to be slow.
The boat was cramped with backpackers. Most of them, like me, were in their twenties, full of energy and their parents probably had no idea what they were up to on the Mekong River. Of all the choices of available seats I sat next to an old silver-haired white woman who carried along very small backpack.
I was surprised by her presence; she was unsuited to be on this boat designed for much younger tourists whose idea of having a time of their lives is playing card games and getting drunk on local beers in broad daylight. It was as if you’ve entered a youth hostel and found that your roommate is a seventy-year-old woman. Her incongruous made her look even more vulnerable. I looked at the old woman, studied her frail skins as thin as translucent paper. If she was left in the hot South Asian sun she would be burnt and exploded like a vampire. She had no travel companion. Who knows what’s her purpose for the trip and why she boarding this boat. Maybe she’s just finished reading that contemporary adventurous memoir ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and felt like this was something to do. My eyes beamed as I glared at her with admiration.
“The fuck are you looking at?”
“Oh, sorry, ma’am.” I said in panic. Like someone who doesn’t speak English as the first language would react when a native speaker bawls at them.
“Don’t ma’am me. I know that how they trained you to say this kind of shit when you get caught. I know why you sit here. Sucker. You think it’s easy to rob some old people blind? I’ll tell you one thing, I ain’t regular fogy. Ain’t your easy target. Think twice before you delve my pocket.” My eyes filled with question marks. ‘Get caught from what?’ I thought. I might appeared like I was lost in translation. My English wasn’t good at the time—I could tell that she’s American but couldn’t pinpoint which state she came from. Looking back I am now regret my answer. ‘Oh’ and ‘sorry’ and ‘ma’am’ in the same sentence just shown how unworldly and immature I was. I have a picture of her clearer now than I was back on that day. I would say she’s Patricia from somewhere in the mid-west with accents you would hear from characters in the first season of True Detective. The kind of woman who would vote from Trump. If, god forbid, she’s still alive in 2016.
Instead of feeling happy and treat her with care and admiration. I suddenly felt sad for her. She must have been through a lot and, in her life, people must have done her wrong. That, for her, apologizing wasn’t enough, even for things you shouldn’t apologize for. She acted like the futuristic police who can predict future crimes (like in Minority Report) but within her discretion and her judgment.
“Get your sorry ass away from me, I fuckin’ warn ya.”
The old woman made quite a scene but no one said a word—my look back then probably resembled a brown skin Thai boy who hassled the old white woman. Then a girl, two rows from behind, came to rescue and invite me to sit with her and her friend.
“We can just move our backpacks a little and there’ll be space for you.”
It was like experiencing an instant dose of karma. One minute I got discriminated by Patricia from the mid-west, despite my well-intended presentation. Another minute someone was rewarding me with her well-intended mind. I waited no longer to move along with her.
“I am so sorry for our countryman.”
Cadence was an African American girl from New York City. Her friend, Bethanie, was white with dark brown hair and weight like one hundred seventy something pounds. Bethanie was reading on her Kindle while Cadence was demonstrating me how to use my camera.
“You have a good camera. What a waste if you just use the auto mode!”
“I’m too lazy for it. But that doesn’t mean that I want it the easy way.”
It was the first time I flirt with someone in English. As a non-native speaker you know you’re fluent only when you are able to flirt, naturally, without thinking first in your language. Cadence didn’t expect that from someone whom she just assumed his English wouldn’t exceed beyond the ability to ordering foods and asking for directions to the nearest ATM machine. So she blurted out laughing while Bethanie giggling, I had no idea if it was something she’s reading or my conversation with Cadence. She studied art and photography and had studied psychology as a side. The way she said sorry for her countryman felt like a heartfelt condolence to the victims from Vietnam War rather than this particularly old silver-haired woman on the rocking boat.
Because Cadence was good looking and had an advanced social networking skill, we effortlessly forming a group with other wayfarers and killing time by playing card games and getting drunk on local beers in broad daylight (if you think you’ve read this sentence before you are absolutely right!) I couldn’t really tell if it was the boat that gave me headache or the Beer Lao was responsible for it. Anyway, it was a blast. To be able to hone my English and making international friends. It’s like having, to use a tech/marketing term, organic friendships. Friend without pre-online conversations, but real. Real people I had had impressions onto them in real life. For the first time, in twenty years of my life, I felt free.
A ten time more luxurious and twice the size of our boat was passing by and our boat was shaken by the ripples created by the engine of the big boat. I thought, we were pretty close to capsize. In that horrific moment, if we were going to die, I would die happy surrounded by my own kind of people. The first Beer Lao we were friend. The second Beer Lao we were buddy. The third, we were the best fucking friend! Like where-have-you-been-all-my-life kind of friend. I would probably drink myself to blackout when it happen and wouldn’t remember how I died. While Patricia from the mid-west was hit by a swollen drunk German backpacker. She stood up from her seat and yelled with all her might, “Get the fuck away from me or I’ll stick my dentures up your ass!”
*
At dusk the boat stopped mid-way at a small town in the middle of the jungle where it seemed to have no paved road access. Then came a surprise. I learned that the accommodation was not included in the package and people who didn’t book guesthouse in advance had to browse for available room. My agent did or did not acknowledge me about it, but she made it sounds like everything was included. I was furious, realizing I had been tricked by my countryman.
“We are going to sleep on the boat.” Cadence told me. “We are on budget and we just talked to the boat driver and he allows us to sleep here. But that’s between us three.” She lowered her voice to avoid the other tourists from hearing it. The third Beer Lao with new pals only lasts so much as the course of one afternoon.
We crossed a gangway over the muddy river and on our way into town for dinner. Our hands touched, I felt electric.
The town felt more like a gas station with refreshment area for truck drivers who drove a long haul. We settled in a place where “Happy Pancakes” was written on a chalkboard, which I ordered. (I later learned the hard way that ‘Happy Pancakes’ were actually pancakes with a little bit of weeds.) Then we proceeded the night to “The best bar in town” following the waiter’s recommendation. Of course it was indeed the best bar because it was the only bar there and the only customers were the boat passengers. The night looked like the electricity could have gone off in any minutes. In my blurry vision I think I saw Patricia, somewhere in the dark corner of the bar, shaking her head with disapproval as our relationship continue to develop.
Very much like hers, the idea of dating a black girl is incomprehensible in Thai culture. In high school, I remembered mentioned that Rihanna was sexy with my high school gang then they mocked me, ‘Sam likes black pussy.’ Even for now, an English vocabulary chart still teaches children that dark skin is ugly. With no history of race or color-discrimination; it’s easy to entrust the color-discrimination as our ignorance. Cadence pulled me from the bar to dance in the middle of the place. With all the eyes watching us, I said, “I don’t think I can dance.”
“Don’t worry, Sam. Follow my step.” She was someone who I’ve always imagined to be my dance teacher—patience, egoless and gentle. I can’t remember what song was playing while we were dancing. I was too drunk and stoned from one Beer Lao too many and the Happy Pancakes, I had to make an excuse to go outside and get some fresh air (back then it means to smoke a cigarette outside the bar) but realized I didn’t have cigarette. I had to ask the guys to blow smoke my way so I have the smell as prove that I’ve been standing out here to smoke cigarette and not chickened out.
Cadence found me outside. Her friend, Bethanie was still inside the bar talking to a guy. I tried looking for a spot like telephone booth, or a bush somewhere dark and quiet we could use to fool around. But since this place was temporarily full of westerners and somehow they had bend the rule of culture. Some people were already kissing on the street while I was wasting time finding a secret spot. So right there was our first kiss. Kissing in public make me feel invincible. Kissing in public in a foreign country make me feel even more invincible. I remembered thinking this was what America must feel like.
We slowly made our way to the boat. Walking hand-in-hand, Cadence was eager to search my body, she put ice from the cup in my underwear to make me jump. I kissed her, a nervous French kiss, and then I confessed to her that I’ve never done it before.
“Remember what I said on the dance floor?”
“To follow your step?”
“Unless you’re good at improvisation.”
I felt like stealing all of her lines and made it my own. My flirtation tactic was on sex-switcher. I sounded girlish and weak but at the same time my body felt like Justine Sacco’s Twitter account when she landed in Africa and the airplane mode had been turned off. The new moon darkened the sky but we made love without fully undressing our clothes. And the Mother of River listening us..
*
The first thing I saw the morning that followed was the back of Patricia from the mid-west. She’s the first to arrive, claiming the same spot where she sat yesterday. Cadence was up earlier, I was on and off sleep and felt like I saw her up before dawn rolling her sleeping bag and went out into town. I was only a few days old into my twenties I hadn’t yet ready for it. But having it away for the first time with a lovely girl from New York on my first day in a foreign country kind of put the grin into the chagrin. I bought a donut and a coffee, then I decided to buy two for Cadence. I started planning our life together. How she could spend the rest of her holiday with me cooking, dancing and making love in the apartment in Chiang Mai I rent. We could talk and watch the stunning view of the mountain from the comfort bed twice a day; once in the morning and again when the sun setting behind the mountain and the sky turned red. Then we could let the distance appraise our loves when she had to go back to the States. See if we meant to start a life together. We could do that. We definitely could.
“We are not going.” Cadence broke the news as she put on her enormous backpack. “Change of plan. We are going directly to Vang Vieng. We have to catch the minivan now.” She went on explaining how it wasn’t entirely her idea but it was also Bethanie’s using complex English words I couldn’t understand while maintaining eye contact that reads ‘this is it.’ A non-verbal communication she’d hope to send across. Well, that’s one way to say goodbye to a sentiment Asian boy, I thought. “Thanks for a great night!” I reminded what she had probably forgot to tell me and drank the cold coffees on my own.
The boat resume the trip. I found myself jittering two rows behind Patricia. She went down the aisle to the toilet; she poked along and stopped at my seat on her way back. “So that girl broke your heart, eh? Big deal.”
“Well, that’s unlikely. We exchanged our Facebook and we will be in touch with each other as soon as we have internet access so why don’t you shut up? You weren’t nice to me yesterday.”
Without my permission, Patricia took a seat next to me. “Look. I am terribly sorry about the way I behave and what I did was uncalled for.” I looked at her in disbelieve. A rowdy, old-hag Patricia from the mid-west is now a mindful candidate trying to win over a municipal election campaign. “So why don’t we start over, son? Tell me about this face book thing.”
Even a well put-together apologetic couldn’t change her nature. Listening to her worldview where everything was truly awful was utterly painful. Everything she said always ended with ‘it’s horrible’. The TV at her guesthouse was in the language she couldn’t understand (it’s horrible). I lived in the U.S. my entire life and never, in my life, America afraid of change (it’s horrible). This was when America deciding whether they should re-elect the first black president back in the White House. I could feel her politically dissatisfaction raging. ‘How could she not realize Obama is the testament of a revolution when he was elected as the first African American president? Or she just simply numbed by the news that she didn’t notice the dramatic change?’ Then she referred to Cadence in one of her grumbles. “That black girl just uses you and you don’t even realize it. It’s horrible.”
Days had passed and then months. Then three more versions of Facebook. Cadence hadn’t respond to my Facebook friend request. This is where her psychology degree might be really paid off. She would become quite handy at excuse herself from all the guys she had sex with, singlehandedly excelled at benching or even ghosting people. I hate to admit Patricia was right.
The sworn ‘we are the best fucking buddy’ backpackers on the boat, once sobered, everything all came down to just a nod and mental energy the equivalent to ‘Please, do not disturb’ sign on hotel doorknobs.
Sometimes friends begin as enemies, and enemies begin as friends. I wouldn’t say Patricia is my friend. But she was the person who was there for me. Both before and after one of the best nights of my life that led to one of the worst and unstable mornings. A temporary friend in need. In another life, maybe, Patricia and I could have been the best fucking buddy. A friendship that requires no alcohol in our blood down on this muddy river.

Sam Nathapong is an independent writer and journalist working in Thailand. Twitter @samnathapong
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