Jungle trekking- no. Elephant rides – no. Tigers – not really, but we have tom cats instead. Rafting, kayaking, diving, anything? No chance. The only place in Phayao where you can settle your adrenaline rush is the local hospital.
No matter the day of the week or the time of the day this city looks and feels like an eternal Sunday afternoon. Phayao sits by the lake with the line in the water, fishing for time, an old song plays on the radio and lazy bumble bees fly around in the sun. You come strolling and it gives you the look: of all the places in Thailand, this is where you chose to walk around?
– What are doing here?
– Then you are at the right place. You can stay, but keep quiet otherwise you’re going to scare the fish.
Phayao. The Living Room.
The city is dead empty during the day; seems like everyone disappears into some underground metropolis filled with office buildings, busy streets, honking cars, smog, fast food restaurants and shopping malls. One hour before sunset, though, people start to come back from this parallel world and the city streets start to get slowly back to life. As empty as a bachelor apartment during the day, Phayao turns into a huge living room where all the 21,000 members of the family eat, drink, sing and play together once the stars start shining in the sky.
I am the only foreigner in the living room. I try not to bother anyone and thus I choose a table aside from the crowd. As I am served with a bowl of hot and spicy soup, it starts raining. It is a lazy rain, the drops barely fall to the ground, the water almost doesn’t wet the streets, the clouds hang on to the sky with one finger, just like little monkeys dancing for the tourists.
The Phayao family takes shelter under a rain cover but I do not dare to join them. I put on my rain jacket and start eating there, at the table, under the rain drops jumping as touched by fire when they meet my soup. People stare at me, glasses rise to the crazy farang, the band sings for me. I bow to thank them all and then leave. I go to sleep and after eight hours I wake up, take a look out of the window and there is none on the streets. Only the lake is at the same place as last night.
– 20 baht per person but we need four more passengers. Do you have a cigarette?
We light up each other’s cigarette under the sun hats and we wait, looking up and down the road. Kwan Phayao, the biggest artificial lake in Thailand, is the most important source of water and probably the main attraction of the province. It sits right in the middle of the living room, sorry, of the city, so you wouldn’t need to take one step off the chair to see it.
A five centuries old temple, Wat Tilokaram, lies on the bottom of the lake with only one Buddha statue still visible above the waters. People visit the statue from time to time and to get to it they need to charter the boat driven by the man sitting and smoking next to me. From time to time doesn’t include today.
– Do we wait any longer?
– I need four more passengers.
– And when do you get them?
– No idea. Maybe I get them; maybe I don’t.
It was just a matter of money. The man is not willing to the effort for only 20 baht. Under the circumstances, I called four imaginary friends, paid for all of them and started the ride. The Buddha statue at Wat Tilokaram shows only peace. If Buddhism means letting go of every earthly matter, wealth, wishes and passion, then the Buddha here is the best example of Buddhism. The prince who gave up the palace for the tree was levitating among water lilies in a perfect state of illumination. The lake that had taken over the temple was filling its altars with crabs and fish. The lake that had stolen the shadow and the shelter was forgiven.
I came back onshore alone. My imaginary friends liked the place so much they decided to stay. It’s been two months and I haven’t heard a word from them.