I stumbled out of the taxi in the heart of Chiang Rai city. I had reached my destination, the Nak Nakara Hotel. The building’s triangular roof, framed in dark teak wood, pointed skywards to the foreboding clouds hovering above, whilst its gable ends spread wide, like open arms providing a traditional Lanna welcome. At the entrance stood an attractive dark-haired woman dressed in a smart blue uniform. The red lips on her powder-white face beamed as she greeted me. ‘Sawatdii Khun Stuart ka’.
I watched as she pressed her palms together, fingers pointing up, curtsied, and bowed towards me. She led me into the hotel lobby, where the refreshing scent of lemongrass filled the air. Her light brown eyes lit up when she said my room had been upgraded. I said nothing.
A porter carried my bag to room 213, he demonstrated how to work the tv and air-conditioning. I grunted, closed the heavy curtains, took a Singha beer from the fridge, popped a Prozac, and poured my lumpen body into the wooden bed.
It had been a long journey, three flights, twenty-five hours. More than a day since I had climbed the shaky metal steps of a 777 at Glasgow Airport. I don’t enjoy travelling. Hate being cooped up like a battery hen, but Doctor Simpson said that a break could do me good. She said it would take months to get counselling and I should try to keep busy, keep focused, keep up with my running.
I thought I’d be okay, I really did, but I wasn’t. Materially I was fine, I had paid off my mortgage, had money in the bank and a decent pension too. No debt, no responsibilities, free to do whatever I wanted. I should have been enjoying my retirement. After all, life was for living, that’s what I told myself when he died. My brother, John. He was only forty-nine. Not yet fifty. Throat cancer had taken him from me ten years ago. I had never got over his death. I guess I never will. Ten years I should have been enjoying making every single day count. Instead, I had thrown myself into a stressful job, convincing myself that I was doing good, making a difference. A wasted decade.
It was the anniversary of his death, I had raised a glass to him, and then another. The memories came flowing back. I wondered what he would do now if he was still alive. He had been in the Merchant Navy, had been everywhere. I remember asking if he had a favourite place, one that stood out above all the countries he had seen.
He answered with that cheeky grin of his. ‘Thailand. The Land of Smiles.’
It might have been the whisky talking, but I thought maybe I could go there, maybe I could go to the Land of Smiles.
The internet told me that a Thai pop star, Toon Bodyslam, was doing a race in Chiang Rai to raise funds for a local hospital. I had never heard of him, nor the place, but I liked the thought of going to Thailand and running a race. I checked the date, 24th Sept 2017, only four weeks from now. Too soon, I couldn’t go.
But the doctor asked. ‘If not now, then when?’
So, here I am, half-cut and jet-lagged, falling to sleep in some far-off foreign land.
Nine hours later, the crashing sounds of thunder and torrential rain woke me from my slumbers. It took a few moments to work out where I was, and why. I made myself some coffee and sat on the edge of the bed, listening to the rain battering against the darkened windows. I started thinking that I couldn’t race, wondering why I even wanted to. What was I trying to achieve? Who was I trying to impress? Not my brother. My father? He never praised me for anything when he was alive. Doctor Simpson was right, he never would. But I’d come all this way.
The bedside clock read 4:13. Still time? The Half Marathon was at 5.00 am. It would be tight, but there were shuttle buses direct from the hotel. I could do it. I switched into pre-race mode. Donned my yellow runner’s vest, spread Vaseline on sensitive parts grabbed two bottles of water and a bar of Hershey chocolate from the fridge and headed out the door. As I handed my room key to reception, I noticed the digital sign showing that the outdoor temperature was 23C. The receptionist asked if I could run in such cold weather. I scurried through the pouring rain to the blue shuttle bus loitering in the corner of the car park. Bus? It was an open pickup style truck with a canopy roof, and two wooden benches for sitting. I climbed on board, then shuffled up towards the driver.
I wiped the condensation from the window and said, ‘We go?’
He ignored me.
I tapped it with my knuckles and raised my voice a little. ‘We go now?’
He sat there, square, and rigid shouldered, refusing even to turn his head and acknowledge me.
I heard someone clambering in the back of the bus and looked to see a Thai man dressed in a blue running vest with a white trident on its front. A genial smile lit up his face as he introduced himself as Khun Udom Thaksin.
‘Like the former Prime Minister, but without his money’.
Not knowing what to say, I returned his smile, cleared my throat, and offered my right hand.
He asked if I was English; I told him I was Scottish.
‘Ah’ he replied, ’khon Scot’.
He said that he had taken up running after retiring as a professor at Chiang Mai University.
‘What else can I do?’ he asked.
Pointing to my watch, I said. ‘Can you tell him to go now?’
‘Sabai, sabai’ he replied. Waving his hands gently downwards, as if calming the atmosphere.
Eventually, he turned towards the driver. They talked in Thai for ages, I never understood a word. I glanced at my watch for the umpteenth time. We never moved.
‘Well?’ I asked. My voice perhaps too loud.
Udom explained, calmly, that in Thai culture, it is important for people to save their face, so there is no point in trying to force the driver to go before he wants to. I rolled my eyes and shook my head.
We sat there until he broke the silence, by asking if I knew what the figure on his running vest was. I did not. He explained it was Wat Rong Khun or White Temple, which was being rebuilt at great expense by Chalermchai Kositpipat, a local artist. He said that Thailand has many Buddhist temples, but this one was unique because behind its peaceful white exterior are many bright and fiery murals depicting famous farangs (white westerners), as well as images of terrorism, nuclear warfare, and oil rigs. All symbolising the destructive impact that humans have on earth.
‘You must visit it’ he said.
Before I could answer, I heard high-pitched voices in the rain. A couple in their twenties with the same blue vests as Udom climbed on board.
There were four of us now, enough for the driver to save his face.
The wooden seats shuddered as the diesel engine groaned into life and the bus bumped and splashed along the puddle-strewn streets towards the outskirts of the city.
I slurped my water and ate my melting chocolate as the young couple chatted enthusiastically. Udom said that they were newlyweds from his hometown, who had come to Run with Toon. He pronounced it ‘Too–oon’. They asked me if I knew of this famous rock star running across Thailand raising funds for charity.
’A bit like Eddie Izzard?’ I asked.
Their faces went blank.
The bus braked to a halt. We jumped off into a pool of Thais. Boys, girls, men, women and an occasional ladyboy too, all dressed in the same blue vests. A sea of blue with one foreign body.
I followed Udom to the Start and stood there in the saturating rain.
‘Does it always rain here?’ I asked.
‘Only in Rain Season’ he replied.
The organisers wrung out one incomprehensible pre-race announcement after another, and then the clock struck five. Toon fired a gun and the runners cheered. We were on our way, ten thousand happy smiling, chatting Thais, and sweaty me.
I watched the youngsters dash away, disappearing into the darkness. Udom set a more measured pace along the boring concrete city streets where soi dogs barked as we disturbed their sleep. We left those chasing canines to their city home and plodded north, towards more peaceful, pleasant country roads. At mile three, we reached the River Kok. The muddy brown raging torrent mocked us as it gushed along, running much faster than Udom and me. We turned left, two sexagenarians shuffling through the tropical greenery of the local agricultural college. I filled my lungs with the rain-drenched scent of Purple Orchids and the sweet fragrance of White Jasmine. The Mangrove Trumpet trees played a marching song whilst the wide glistening green leaves of the towering Black Basjoo Banana trees waved us onwards, towards the five-mile point, and away from the sights and sounds of that sarcastic river.
We climbed up past Rop Wiang Hospital. Adorning its perimeter fence were two rows of flags, standing like sentries. The blue, white, and red horizontal stripes of the Thai nation and the bright yellow of their beloved late monarch, King Bhumibol. Udom said that the King had died eleven months ago but the military junta had not yet crowned his eldest son. Lost in thought, he stopped to say a prayer but waved me on. I left him there. I ploughed on to the top of the hill, the halfway point. No turning back. The rising sun shone in my eyes; the rain had stopped. I upped the pace as I ran downhill, throwing one leg in front of the other. I felt alive. My second wind or a false dawn?
At Rim Kok village the locals were setting up their Sunday market stalls but stopped their chores when through the morning mist they saw a six-foot farang in a bright yellow vest running up the middle of their street. With broad smiles across their wrinkled faces, they banged their pots and pans and cheered me on my way.
I slogged on through the humid heat until I reached an oasis at ten miles. An eager line of volunteers handed out cold drinks and face cloths from plastic buckets full of melting ice. I stopped and took a drink, wiped away the sweat from my stinging eyes. A vice squeezed tight around my thighs.
My muscles cried: ‘no more!’.
My heart said: ‘five more kilometres’.
Reluctantly, I plodded on.
Ahead, I caught the sight of a tiny runner. I followed him along the winding road. He grew larger as I closed the gap. I heard the faint noise of crowds of people. The further I ran, the louder it became. I turned a corner and overtook my foe.
A parade of elephant ears tannoyed out: ‘Khun Stuart Gulliver’ as I sprinted down the final strait and crossed the finish line.
Shattered, my legs gave way. I hit the ground. Some marshals picked me up, helped me to a plastic chair and wrapped me in a foil blanket. Someone waved salts beneath my nose. Took my pulse. Gave me an Electrolyte to drink and a banana I could not eat. I took deep breaths, exhaling slowly. I sat there in the shade, recovering, then through my daze, I heard a voice.
‘Are you okay, Sabai Khun Stuart?’ A happy Udom pointed at me ‘You number one’, he said. Handing me a piece of paper.
Chiang Rai Half Marathon Race Results: Cat. Place, Male 60+ 1st Stuart Gulliver, 2nd Jira Pirawong, 3rd Udom Thaksin.
They called my name. The crowds cheered as I hobbled onto the stage. I towered above the others as Toon presented us with trophies, model replicas of the White Temple. Proudly we held them high, posing for the photographers, family, and friends. There was no one there for me.
Back at the hotel, I received a triumphant hero’s welcome. The staff and guests buzzed around me smiling, chatting, demanding selfies. After a while, I slinked off to my room, closed the heavy door, took a Prozac, and fell asleep.
That evening, after dinner, I sat alone in the hotel’s lounge bar. My Leo beer, once cold and refreshing, now tasted warm and bitter. My mind began to stray. Self-doubts began to rise. What had I done? Coming to a foreign land and beating the natives, with scant regard for local feelings. Was I just the same as those destructive farangs depicted in the White Temple of my trophy? Maybe I should stay a while, learn more about the place, the people, the culture? After all, I had nothing to go home for. I took the airline ticket from my wallet and ripped it into two.