Love in the Kingdom
In 1965, Petsri Bumrungcheep was a 12 yr. old 7th grader at Sriyanusorn, the girl’s school in Chantaburi. Wayne and I, at that time, called a second floor classroom at the school “home.” Our bathroom was on the first floor of an adjacent classroom building, and our kitchen was a corner of the student’s cafeteria. You can imagine the hilarity among the early-arriving students seeing us in various types of sarong attire scampering to the hong naam in preparation for the school day. Things began to change for the better after nagging the school principal and communicating with Peace Corps Bangkok about our living conditions – we were to have a real Thai house outside of town for the next school year.
Even better than better, Petsri came to us with a plan; she would live with us in our new house. With a perky, confident affect, she said we’d probably have problems shopping (bargaining), in the town market, and that she would ride her bike there each day at 5:00 a.m. to buy food. Also she promised to hung kaaw before going to school. This was the beginning of a wonderful friendship for the three of us. Petsri did the shopping and helped cook on our new electric stove. Her parents were very positive about the arrangement; they knew their daughter was a lively, motivated girl who wanted to practice English with native speakers and learn about other cultures.
Petsri was a self-disciplined youngster who managed her time very well. She made time for domestic chores, studies, her artwork, classical Thai dance, and always time for friends and family. The simplicity of how she kept her small bedroom is a vision I can easily call-up to this day. She had her sleeping mat under the windows and her clothes either folded on a shelf or on the clothesline which was strung from wall to wall. As I recall she washed and ironed her uniform daily.
During the 1967 school break we traveled by air to Chiengmai with Petsri. This was her first time on an airplane; she spent the whole trip with her sweater zipped up over her head. We assumed she was napping, later we discovered she was too scared to look out the window. What a joy it was to see her taking in the sights and at the same time serving as on-call “guide and translator” in this wonderful city.
The end of our time in Chantaburi was closing in, Wayne and I were preparing for our German language course (Goethe Institute) in Bavaria, graduate school at Pitt, and our visits to Israel and Europe on the way home. Petsri talked about visiting us in the U.S. and we assured her that she would always be welcomed. She invited me to spend a weekend at her parent’s house in Lamsing, a fishing village about 30 km from Chantaburi. We rode the bus to the village and walked to Petsri’s home which was built right on the water. We spent the night in another smaller house in a more bucolic corner of the family’s property facing the gulf. When the sun rose the next morning, Petsri’s mom, came to us with big bowls of steaming rice topped with fried eggs. It was all so perfect! Then it was time to go to our Thai house, pack and say farewell to Petsri and our Chantaburi friends.
We exchanged dozens of letters during Petsri’s years in high school, university and graduate school. She began her college-level work as an economics major at Kasetsart University in Bangkok, at the same time starting a writing career with a job as a book reviewer for a local magazine. In 1974, Petsri was graduated by Kasetsart, and soon after admitted to a master’s degree program at Thammasat University. Petsri earned an M.A degree in Economics (English Language Program) in 1977. Her thesis was on labor relations, a comparative study of air-transport workers unions in Thailand and Singapore. Throughout these years, Petsri continued as a free-lance fiction writer for several Thai magazines.
Her visits to Baltimore, at least four times between l975 and l985, were primarily in the early 80’s in conjunction with her masters program in economic policy at Boston University. These visits were always a time of excitement in both Ries households; we shared the hosting privileges, and Petsri had the experience of two different family lifestyles. Petsri seemed to enjoying interacting with the children, Ken, Justin, and Lydia, during these visits. Fortunately, Wayne and Janet’s house was never more then a 15 minute drive from my abode, and our moves always factored in the desire for the extended family and the three children to be physically close throughout their school years at Friends School.
There were Christmas break visits - roaring fire, turkey, gifts and all those goodies. Also Petsri enjoyed visiting my parents at their small farm in Baltimore County where she could survey my mom’s vegetable garden and my dad’s latest creation – a wooden raft for sunbathing on the pond. Our agenda included a trip to Harper’s Ferry for a bluegrass musical festival, and one to Maryland’s eastern shore for seafood and sightseeing. I visited Petsri at her apartment in NY, when she had her summer employment with the research project on pharmaceutical industries in developing countries. She had become an expert traveler and socially graceful in all sorts of situations meeting new people. Her English continued to improve. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about my Thai, even with seeking out Thai students studying at Towson State who wanted to be “conversation partners.”
My letters from Petsri usually contained an invitation to visit Thailand and stay with her; it became a serious topic of conversation and planning in 1987. Petsri sent a list of items to bring from Baltimore mostly Clinique cosmetics and clothes she had left behind. Ken’s Christmas break at college coincided with mine at Towson, and Wayne strongly encouraged me to take Ken. It proved to be a once in a lifetime amazing experience for me and my 18 yr. old who had come to know Petsri quite well during her visits to Baltimore.
On December 19, 1987, Ken and I were on Northwest Airlines Flight #11 out of Detroit. Before too long, we spied the frozen flatlands of Canada and Alaska. Ken unhooked his walkman, and put down his Motor Trend magazine. The design from 35,000 ft. resembled the gray, heavily lined skin of an elephant. This was beautifully complicated with expanses of brilliant white, tinged peach and lavender by the 6:00 p.m. sunset. Out of this reverie, Ken asked if we would see any “California chicks” at the beaches in Thailand. After our eyes met, he saw my furrowed brow and went back to his Motor Trend and Popular Science.
We arrived in Bangkok many hours later, frazzled and very grateful to be in the care of our hostess, Petsri. The next day the three of us ventured into the city by bus, this was an exciting first for Ken, who was aghast at the number and types of vehicles chugging and spewing fumes. Shell-shock took over when the three of us had a stir-fry noodle lunch for $1.80; Ken realized his spending money was likely to go a long way. We headed back in late afternoon to Petsri’s townhouse in a suburban Vipawadee-Rangsit Road neighborhood, whereupon Petsri asked Ken to go to the store to buy a bottle of oyster oil. Fearlessly, armed with a transliterated Thai note to jog his memory, he completed the task. “Mom, the guy understood me the first time and I paid him without any mess-up.”
The next day we traveled to the train station to purchase tickets for our trip south, after a MacDonald’s snack and the light & sound show at the palace, we headed home. Ken made it clear that “riding” the streets of Bangkok was probably the most stimulating adventure second only to re-entry to Earth on a spacecraft. On December 23rd we headed off to Pattaya Beach, where Ken spent hours in the Gulf swimming and jet-skiing, and sitting on the beach drinking fresh coconut milk. Our next stop was Chantaburi, my PC home, we would spend several days here meeting and greeting former students and teacher-colleagues, as well as traveling around the province to visit the gem mines. We spent our first night at the Kasemsarn Hotel, pretty much the same as it was in ’67, except for air-conditioning and police banging on our door in the middle of the night. Petsri said they just wanted to “check on us” because there had been a robbery earlier in the evening – less than a restful night.
Our visit with former students, Petsri’s close friends, was just terrific, lots of smiling and chatting about how life in Chantaburi had changed in 20 years. This group of young women included business owners, a pediatrician, a dentist, and a researcher in the Ministry of Health. We had a lovely Euro-style breakfast, a round of gift-giving, and
After a short respite in Bangkok, we headed for Chiengmai by bus. The trip was long enough to have a movie treat “Blue Mountain,” with James Mason and Tom Skerritt. The best part was hearing the dubbed Thai and Ken’s gasps as we rounded the curves up and down the mountain. Once again jewelry shopping was a must; Ken kept the beat going and we bought some lovely silver pieces, as well as crafts of the Hill tribes in the night bazaar in town. Our trip to Doi Suthep was filled with spectacular scenery and as Ken put it “too many gaudy gold temples.”
Petsri went back to work in Bangkok on December 30th and Ken and I rested and readied ourselves for our trip to Buriram, the hometown of Petsri’s older sister, Kring. We had a super nice greeting from Kring and Petsri’s mom; the special smiles and flirty looks were from Dyun, Petsri’s 3 yr-old niece, who just latched onto Ken. He loved it and was great with her. On the evening of the 31st we all tromped to the park and Ken lit the firecrackers he’d bought at the market. Happy New Year!
We spent the next day sightseeing and picnicking at the ruins of an ancient temple. Our lunch was more memorable than the name of the temple – sticky rice, chicken, and pineapple. That evening we went to town for dinner and were served by a cross-dresser “waitress,” Ken, of course, was mesmerized and then spoke. “Out here in the boonies and we got cross-dressers and nobody’s even raising an eyebrow!?” Petsri responded in her pedantic tone, “is that a reason for the guy-girl not to have a job?!”
Back in the big B, we splurged on a movie and an expensive dinner at the Meridian President Hotel – 900 baht. On Sunday we confidently hopped a bus to Nakorn Pathom for a visit with Petsri’s eldest sister, Kloy, who along with husband, Sirichai, teach at the Faculty of Sciences at Silapakorn University. We enjoyed the day sightseeing and buying some lovely watercolors from the artist – who communicated in sign language as he was deaf. Once again we were treated to a fine Thai meal and Ken is totally sold on this cuisine.
Finally, our long-awaited train trip to Songkla. The sights and smells were great, especially since we were in the car behind the dining section. Ken had a chicken stir-fry with cashews and all was fine with the world. About 8 hours into the trip, however, there was a fair amount of bellyaching from Ken as we had to sit up for 15 hours in “second class seats.” Hat Yai was pretty much as I remembered it, quite the bustling mecca. Petsri, Ken and I stayed at the Samila hotel, the same place Wayne and I stayed in ’66, but this time we had a marvelous hot shower. The beach was filled with folks as was the water, even though it was the color of mud. Ken and Petsri did most of their swimming in the hotel pool, but while walking on the beach we spied the largest jellyfish “ever”; the swimmers were all screaming and heading for the shore.
The next day we visited Prince of Songkla University to meet up with old friend Ajaan Pan, who was a senior teacher at the girls school in Chantaburi, 20 yrs. later is the director of the University’s Pattani campus. Since 1967 Pan has been to the U.S., Austria, and Israel several times for graduate study and vacationing. On January 9th we boarded the train for Krungthep. This time Ken had a sleeper, dinner in the dining car, and rewarded me with a sweet thank you for the trip.
In preparation for our trip home, and to prevent crippling culture shock, Ken and I went to the Central Plaza Mall. We met Pornapit and Songklot, two of my Towson State friends, for a lunch of pizza and donuts. Petsri took us to the airport the next day and we hugged, promised to write, and said our farewells. The flights home were just fine; we were basking in the glow of our wonderful journey.
Petsri and I communicated at least once a month. She was gearing up for Ph.D. studies somewhere in U.S., maybe University of Maryland. How lovely that would have been!
In August, 1988, I received a letter from Petsri’s sister Kloy who found my latest letter to Petsri on the floor of her living room in a pile of unopened mail. Kloy, in her poignantly perfect English told me of Petsri’s death on June 27, 1988 – two days after her 35th birthday. She was heading home from work in Bangkok and was struck by a speeding motorcyclist. Some nurses nearby came to her aid and got her to the hospital where she died that evening from her head injuries. Petsri’s family was distraught and sought the advice of a cousin who was a judge. Kloy related that the family wanted some sort of justice and not one penny. I just needed to scream and cry, alone at home with my cat.