A Clean Well-Lighted Place

La lune à un mètre / The Astronomer’s Dream, 1898

Our bus rolled into Ranong at dusk. The sun had just set yet it felt closer to midnight than 8 p.m. Music and jovial chatter hummed in the background, but we felt more alone than we ever had before. The starless sky and blazing lights of the hostels and bars gave the town a seedy glow.

My friend Anthony and I were at the halfway point of our 2006 journey through Southeast Asia . We had just crisscrossed through Malaysia and had entered Thailand at the height of the 60th Anniversary of the King’s rule. The whole country had taken a break from protesting Thaksin government to celebrate King Bhumibol Adulyadej. However, Ranong, best known as the entryway to Kaw Thaung, Myanmar , seemed unaffected by the event. With heavy backpacks and worn-out bodies, we searched for a place to sleep.

Our first stop was at a large concrete building, whose fluorescent red sign was strategically placed across the bus stop—a siren call for weary travelers. A large aquarium, stood in the middle of the entrance and illuminated the four young faces hidden in the darkness. There were two children and a man and woman in their mid-twenties. They seemed vaguely annoyed at our arrival, though the kids paid us no mind. The girl stomped up the steps to show us the cellblock style rooms that came at five-star prices. She said that the entire place was booked and only had that one room. We opted against it and she shrugged her shoulders and left us there. The entire hostel was quiet; the only sound was the soft gurgle of the aquarium as it struggled to keep the fish alive.

We wandered back unto the large road, unsure of what to do next. Our only intention of going to Ranong was to catch a boat to Myanmar , and it looked as though that would really be the only thing we would experience at the border city. Although physically, structures, houses and shops filled the area, its aura of emptiness was deafening.

Directionless, my friend and I continued our search. Banners that advertised the town’s fresh spring water was everywhere and from a distance you could hear the gentle thunder of rushing water. A few yards later on the bridge, we found the source of the sound: A brook right below us. We wondered if it was the oft-advertised mineral spring water.  And after a day spent on a hot bus, nothing seemed more refreshing and pure than the cold, clear water below. It was hypnotizing to watch the process: Wires hung over the river, the water funneled into large pipes that connected to the city’s system. The sheer power of that water kept the city alive.

Our backs began to ache and we continued onwards before our fatigue would cause us to seek relief by jumping into the water below. Following the advice of the guidebook, we turned the corner and found three small hotels that stood side-by-side on a wide tree-lined road. The first and the third establishments were closed, though sounds of jeering and laughter came from its rooftops. The edifice in the middle highlighted a small dining hall with green plastic seats, a TV blaring football scores in the background and an old traveler, with his head on table, shouting profanities at random intervals in his semi-conscious stupor. The clerk, who was sweeping around the loud guest, grimaced and shook his head indicating that there were no vacancies. We looked at the street ahead and all we saw were the faint shadows of rustling trees.

Retreating to the main road, we kept on going until we saw a hotel next to a go-go bar. That was the actual name of the club, “Go-go Bar,” which was funny, as I hadn’t realized  that people actually used those terms. Nevertheless, what drew us in was the sign that said “We use 100% fresh spring water.” How could we resist? Hurrying in, we wondered if we made mistake as it seemed more like a museum than and inn. From top to bottom, the hotel was filled with every kind of Thai and Burmese handicraft, statuettes and paintings.

Once again, it seemed as though we meandered into another silent place. We wondered if our watches were wrong and that we had actually arrived at some ungodly hour, or maybe the people of Ranong were a quiet sort that retired early. Finally, a man came out and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He left the door to his sleeping quarters open and the haunting melodies of a woman singing on the radio wafted into the hall. He continued to shake himself awake and wore a formal short-sleeved cotton dress shirt for a uniform. The attendant said that there were rooms and gave a good price—half of what the first hostel had initially charged us. We agreed, due in part to the good price and our fatigue. The man led us up the carpeted steps to our rooms, which was packed with art and antiques and even had banners in pink and yellow strewn from one end of the ceiling to the other. He said that indeed, the water in the bath came directly from the spring.

After cleaning up, we wondered if we should brave the rest of the town’s eerie silence. The rumbling of our stomachs decided that for us and we followed the road to a large open-air restaurant that had Christmas lights strewn around the wooden windows that gave it a festive atmosphere. The entire restaurant was packed with people of all ages, joined in happy chatter and sipping on the local brew. Every table had a hot pot and its ingredients lay as a buffet in the back end of the eatery. Unlike other small town’s we had been to, the people took no notice of us since they were used to foreigners coming in and out for a quick visa-run to Kawthaung , Burma . However, as we struggled to understand how to the get the machine to work, several came forward to help and began to tease our lack of cooking skills. A group of college-aged folks, with beer and snacks in hand, sat next to us as though we had always been friends and that this was merely a long-awaited reunion. The rest of Ranong, outside the restaurant, was mysterious and sedate, while inside, it was alive and vibrant. They told us about their childhood in the city and growing up with Myanmar as a speck from the distance. They told us about what kind of music they liked (Britney Spears, Hip-hop), the exotic delicacies they dared us to try (beetles, ants) and that the city was very different by day (crowded, chaotic).

Time passed quickly. Most of the crowds had already gone and the waiters were arranging the chairs, but our table, beneath the glow of a single yellow light remained.

The city of Ranong , with its initial despair and loneliness, seemed a universe away as we sipped our ice-cold beers with new friends on that humid Thai evening.

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