POSTCARD#69: Chiang Mai: Tuktuk gets stuck in traffic, comes to a stop, driver brakes and switches off. The large sound of the 2-stroke engine is gone with the flick of a switch. Suddenly it’s quiet, only metallic creaks and random traffic noises. The outside world enters my space – inner merged with outer – no walls, just a canvas roof supported by metal poles bolted to an engine with wheels and a seat. It’s like camping when we were kids, inside a tent, domestic activities in the open-air. Gentle winds blowing through, reflected heat from other vehicles and the slightly surprising presence of tarmac. City infrastructure – experiencing it for the first time… the world has always been here, I’ve just been busy with the concept of it and didn’t notice.
I hear my phone and search for it in the bag… listening, but it’s not mine, ringtone is totally different. It’s that kind of high frequency awareness I seem to have these days, the melody playing in the sound of air-conditioners, ceiling-fans and anything that whistles and sings. Then I hear this single word, ‘hello?’ coming from somewhere behind me in the column of stationary traffic. I turn to see; it’s a girl sitting on the back of a motorbike, holding a phone to her ear. A conversation begins, quite loud, but I can’t make sense of what she’s saying – not that I’d want to… anyway she’s speaking in Thai, which is difficult enough and also, I notice, she’s eating an ice-cream cone at the same time: “wah ee ah in ai-eem ah” no words, it seems, just incoherent mumbling. So, well I’m vaguely curious about this, thinking how can she expect anybody to know what she’s talking about with a mouthful of ice-cream going at the same time? Her boyfriend (driver of the motorbike) says something to her, and he’s eating an ice-cream too: “oo ap ai ao a-lai ab?” mouth open trying to let the coldness out. Coping with a large bite of ice-cream, he speaks with lips protruding in a singsong, bird-like way, all-vowel articulation – a kind of breathy thing. She replies, and it amazes me… they can understand each other perfectly well.
It’s like the mating dialogue of exotic animals in National Geographic. I listen and realise I can also understand some of what they’re saying (see below). No consonants in Thai, no sharp sounds like /s/ /sh/ /ch/ /t/ /d/ /k/ that require lip, teeth and tongue coordination and thus difficult (impossible) to articulate without an explosion of strawberry vanilla ice-cream from the mouth. The Thai language doesn’t have that problem; it’s mostly vowels, like an arrangement of melodic intervals, five tones: rising, falling, high, low and middle. Listen for the tones and you can always understand what’s being said (if you’re Thai). Words are not spoken, they’re sung. Thai is a tune played on the acoustic wind instrument that is the human vocal tract.
Tuktuk driver (a lady) keys the ignition; other engines start up like the clearing of throats. Gears engage and there’s movement in the column of cars, a kind of careful jostling for space as everybody gets ready to go. Things start to speed up, we’re all moving as one, then spaces open in the traffic. At some point, the motorbike roars up behind me and overtakes – girl on the back, speaking on the phone again, boyfriend in front with ice-cream cone held in his teeth, gives throttle to the machine and they accelerate away…
‘All we know of a thought is the experience of thinking, all we know of a sensation is the experience of sensing, all we know of a sight is the experiencing of seeing, all we know of a sound is the experience of hearing…. And all that is known of thinking, sensing, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling is the knowing of them. And what is it that knows this knowing? Only something that itself has the capacity to know could know anything. So it is knowing that knows knowing.’ [Rupert Spira]