Our conversation grew and I found he didn’t really enjoy The Beatles but really loved old Country music, like Johnny Cash. I moved across the bar so I could sit closer to him to hear him better as he spoke with a very quiet and calm tone. He told me about his daughter who recently graduated with a degree in Tourism Management and is now working at the Phuket Marriott. He told me about his son whom he jokingly described as lazy. He told me about his 30 years of working for himself and starting his own business, and how at one point in his life he made a high income which he was able to use to pay for his children’s education. Those days of high monetary wealth are apparently gone for him. He seemed so open to share his life and emotions and ideas that I felt comfortable asking him some very personal questions.
“I noticed that the tourists here are generally very disrespectful and are loud and trash the beach. How are you able to enjoy working around such disrespectful, rude people? Does it ever bother you?”
He looked at me, paused a few longs seconds and smiled, “People from all over the world come here, to Heaven. People from Spain, France, America, China, and all over the world come here. I get to meet them and they get to enjoy this place. But, they come here thinking they are rich. At home they are not rich but here they think they are rich. All they say is, ‘money, money, money’. They look at us here, they do not look at us as human. They think we are poor with no education. They think we are dumb. They treat us like we are dumb. I am not dumb. I am very smart. I study for many, many years. I speak Thai, English, French, Spanish, Italian, German. We are all equal, all of us from all over the world. We are all the same. They come here, they yell, one year ago a drunk man came over and hit me. They think they are so powerful here and forget that when they return to their home they are not rich, they are human. They do not know who the real idiot is.”
I could hear the hidden pain in his response, “Well, I am sorry to ask such a personal question, you don’t have to answer, but do you think that Thailand would be in a much better position if the Tourism industry did not become so popular here? Do you think Thailand would be better off?”
Again, a long pause followed by a smile, “You have to be happy. Sanuk. You find when you get older that you cannot waste time being unhappy. This is the way things are. This is where my money comes from, this is what my business is and what my life is. My daughter asks me everyday to move in with her so I can get away from here and she can take care of me. Nobody needs to take care of me. This is my life and I have to be happy.”
“I heard that this influence from the Western cultures visiting Thailand has led to a loss of respect throughout the country. That younger generations are not as respectful toward their elders as they used to be, almost as if they are picking up on some of the cultural traits from the visitors and becoming more rebellious, independent, and loud. Would you agree with that or is it untrue?”
He nodded, “Yes, this is very true. Very, very true. The younger children cannot accept the way things have been. They no longer take care of their parents and grandparents. They do not take responsibility for things that they used to. In Thailand, we have strong respect for all people like the King, Monks, elders, and our neighbors. But, it is going away. It is not good.”
My heart sank a bit deeper. Our conversation continued for a little over an hour when my friends called me over to take a group photo before some of them had to catch the ferry and return back to the states. I apologized for the disruption and told him I would quickly run back to talk to him some more. Before I ran off, I turned back quickly to ask him for his name. He smiled and shook my hand, “Woody.”
I took a few moments to make the connection, after I stood with my group of friends for the photo and looked back at the bar with the large sign “WOODY BAR”, that Woody was the owner of this very popular bar we had spent the previous evening. When I ran back over to thank him for his time and conversation, he was gone.
Reflection and A Full Moon Party
I spent the remainder of the day mostly laying under the shade of an umbrella observing the different varieties of tourists; young girls in small bikinis, parents with the young children, large men in small black speedos, college age boys carrying kayaks out to sea. I wondered if any of them knew how much their short vacation impacted the island. I wondered that if any of them had witnessed the sea of trash in the early morning if they would be questioning the same things as I was. The sun began to set so I decided to walk back to the hostel to clean up and pour on my bug spray. I regrouped with my friends and we all walked back down to the beach to find some food and enjoy the sunset.
This evening was a special type of evening for the islands, for this setting of the sun would also be the rising of the full moon, an occasion that brought with it Full Moon Parties and hordes of worldwide travels ready drink, and dance, and howl. I managed to spot Woody sitting on the freshly placed stage for the Fire Show and ran over to him to thank him for his time and conversation earlier in the day. I wanted to remember the conversation we had so I asked if I could take a photograph with him and said thank you and walked back to my friends.
We decided to get some great front row seats for the night’s Full Moon Party Fire Show so we jumped in the comfy bean bag chairs and ordered some drinks and enjoyed our food. The night started, the fires were lit, and the large sign “FULL MOON PARTY” was placed near the shoreline. A few hours of dancing, limbo, small explosions, and laughing passed when Woody approached me at my seat. He put his hand out to help me stand and pointed at my friend, Tou, and told us to follow him. We followed him with slight apprehension as he led us back through the bar to a table in a dark area where a woman sat quietly as if she were guarding an object of importance. He looked at her, she bowed and quickly ran off. Woody pointed at one chair, “Gentleman..”, pointed at the seat next to that, “Lady…”, and walked toward the third, “Woody” and we sat down in our assigned seats. My fears grew tremendously in these moments as if I were suddenly placed into a Hollywood Mafia film and had just found myself in deep, deep trouble.
Tou and I sat there, staring directly at his face, as if we were young children being scolded by our parents for stealing a candy bar. Woody, staring off in the distance, said “This is my mafia and I am the big boss. If you are in with me, nobody here can touch you”. I never asked Tou if he was as scared as I was in that moment, but, I was scared, very scared.
He pounded on his chest as if he wanted us to feel what he was about to say, “I am good people. I am small size, but my heart is very, very big. I am good, good people”. He paused. He looked at me directly in the eyes and said, “You are good people. You are like my daughter. She loves me very much, and she is good people like us. Today, I am so happy. I am happy because today I met you, good people, and I get to talk to you. This makes me so happy.” He looked at Tou, “You! Hmong! Hmong! We are all the same. We are all equal. You are good people!”
He looked back at me, “I always watch everyone. I watch to see how my guests treat my staff. My staff is well taken care of. My friends always ask why I have such big business but I do not have big money. I no longer make big money because I make sure the money goes to take care of them. So, I watch to be sure they are being treated well. I look at everything my guests do. I watched the way you treated my guests. Today we talked about the things you have done to us. You say hello, you smile, you say thank you. I saw that you gave my worker tip money. Everyone here always thinks ‘money, money, money’ but you did not try to steal money back from us. I heard you on the phone and I heard what you said. You are good people. You can see.”
I then realized that earlier, when Woody asked the bartender to turn the volume down, he was listening to my phone conversation.
He grabbed the both of us and pulled us in for a hug and as he sat there holding us he spoke, “You can see. You can see what they cannot see. You can learn and you can teach. You must teach the world and share what you see. You have power and you can make it better. You have to go and make the world happy. You are my daughter. You are my son.”
Tou and I grinned and squeezed him tightly while nodding in agreement. We are going to change the world for the better.
Woody gave Tou and I the VIP treatment for the remainder of the night. He had us sit at a table in the back of the bar so we could observe the hundreds of tourists jumping and dancing and crawling all over the dance floor. He told us to watch the guests dancing and every so often he would point into the crowd and softly whisper, “Idiot”. It was as comical and surreal then as it is now, but it was a moment that will stick with me and replay in slow motion. Woody invited me to join him in the ‘ceremonial’ lighting of the Full Moon Party sign, the first time he has ever asked anyone to join him. Although I’ve never identified as being a partier, this was a true honor, as lighting the sign is something I am sure thousands of world travelers would love to experience, especially those who travel to party.
I wasn’t honored to participate in the ceremonial lighting because of it being a unique experience, but was honored because it was nearly a symbol of the trust and mutual respect and understanding Woody and I had found earlier that day.
Until Next Time
The next day I decided to skip out on an island tour I had been planning on attending so I could meet back with Woody before I left the island to return home to Chiang Mai. He had sensed a few of his staff members being uncomfortable, almost jealous, that I had been asked to light the sign so Woody had told his staff I was a close friend of his daughters. In turn, I decided it would only be proper to meet his daughter at some point during my stay in Thailand. I was able to talk to her on the phone and exchange contact information and now have plans to meet his daughter in August.
Before we left, Woody welcomed me, Tou, and the remainder of our friends to enjoy a round of icy Chang beers as a parting gift. Our travels back to Chiang Mai were quiet as we all sat on the ferry, bus, and plane in gratitude, very thankful for our weekend in Ko Phi Phi.
I will be returning to Ko Phi Phi in August, with my close friends, and hopefully Woody’s daughter, by my side. But, for the rest of my life, when I see those photos of Ko Phi Phi, I will try to remember and mentally place all of the factors those photos lack. And I will use those photos as a reminder that my right, privilege and responsibility, is to do my part to make the world happy. Khob khun ka.
Bertha’s Big Adventure 3: Too Young to Burn