My alarm is just an annoying buzzing sound, a sport watch vibrating against the wooden cabinet next to the bed. I open my eyes and grab the face of the watch, pushing all the buttons until the right one stops the alarm. It’s still dark, 4:30 AM, and my dog Jaidee has sprung into action at the sound of the watch. He’s leaping over my body, then sticking his cold nose into my husband’s sleeping face before leaping over my body again and onto the floor, where his nails make a click, click, click sound like a tap-dance. I sit up. Jaidee isn’t invited to today’s run.
It’s Sunday and there’s no training in the morning at Petchrungruang. Usually I don’t run either, as it’s my one day out of the week to sleep in. God, I love sleeping in. But last night before leaving the gym my trainer, Pi Nu, had told me that he’d be driving the boys out for a special run in the morning and invited me to come along. The running in Pattaya sucks, it’s just all concrete and there aren’t even sidewalks in most areas, so you have to run on the shoulder of the road with one of the boys’ father on a motorbike slowly following behind the group. It’s not beautiful, it’s not refreshing. When I lived in Chiang Mai I loved the runs. There were probably 3 great runs and 4 moderately good runs that I could alternate between, but not one of them sucked. It’s one thing I really miss about living up there, the mountain, the waterfall, the lake, the lines of young monks collecting alms in the morning and the rising sun setting their orange robes aglow. So, even though I wasn’t feeling really excited to wake up before the sun on my one morning when I can sleep in, and at a time when I’m feeling a cold coming on as well, I thought it was still worth it to see what the “special runs” of Pattaya might be like.
When I arrive at the gym I see my trainer’s son, Bank, sitting at the table outside the front of the house. He looks tired, barely awake but his face is lit by the screen of his phone as he scrolls through Facebook. My trainer’s father, Bamrung, smiles at me as I park and take off my helmet, wai-ing to him before locking my helmet to the back of my bike. Some very thin, long-limbed shapes appear from under the roof of the garage and the two young boys – Gaengat and Carabao – wai to me as they join the group. Another boy appears, says hello to me and then darts up these winding, metal stairs to slip into the sliding glass doors of the apartment above the garage and a moment later he re-emerges with Alex, who has his shorts on but can’t find his shirt. We all wait in silence until Pi Nu comes out front, puts his shoes on and then goes to pull the van out of the car park. We pile in, Bank in the front, all the boys in the farthest back seats and me in this little island seat just behind Bank. It’s only a 20 minute drive or so, but it’s dark and I close my eyes against the headlights of oncoming traffic, which causes my sleepiness to amplify and I actually fall asleep for a minute here and there until we arrive. So I don’t know how we got there, really. But Pi Nu turns the car around and we all get out onto an empty, quiet, country road. The stars are vivid – I’ve never seen more than one star in Pattaya, and even then it was probably a planet – and the air is cold. We start running along the shoulder of the road, fields on either side, as Pi Nu follows slowly behind us in the van. His headlights are what light our path; without them we’d be pretty blind. Surely our eyes would adjust to the darkness enough to follow the lines of the road, but there are very deep holes just barely off the side that are meant for irrigation but aren’t finished yet. Even with the headlights I worry that I’ll slip into one by accident.
I start in the back of the group, but a hill right at the start of our run slows about half of the boys and I move into the front with Bank. Bank always leads the pack – always. He’s a bit competitive with the runs and won’t let anyone stay in front of him for long. But when we run side-by-side there’s this ongoing joke of running each other off the road, like that old Sega game “Road Rash.” He’s not old enough to know the reference, but he finds it funny anyway. Every so often we pass a field where the temperature drops dramatically, all at once. I’ve experienced this in other parts of Thailand, sometimes while driving on the motorbike, and it’s uncanny. The sudden chill is eerie and if you don’t believe in ghosts, this experience will put a strong argument in your mind for how people who do believe in ghosts arrive at that belief. After maybe a kilometer or so all the boys slow to a walk and peel off their shirts. They gather together at the open window of the van and deposit their shirts through the passenger side window so they don’t have to carry them. I can’t take my shirt off, and I’m also cold, so I just keep walking and get a good short distance ahead of the group. We start running again and Pi Nu pulls up alongside me and through the window tells me to look over to my left, where there’s this bizarre mountain that is shaped like a canine tooth, jutting out of the fields completely in isolation. “Sylvie, Buddha!” he calls out to me. I can’t see it, but he’d shown me photos on his phone the night before. There’s a huge Buddha carved into the side of the mountain, the tooth mountain, and if it weren’t still so dark I’d be able to see it. I nod and keep looking over as we run, hoping maybe I’ll glimpse it, but the sun is stubborn to come up.
At one point we pass a sign, the kind of blue overhead sign that I see on the roadtrips Kevin and I take for my fights, which depict some local tourist attractions and state the name of the town you’re in. But instead of “Silver Lake,” which is the general area that we’re in, the sign just says “Rural Roads.” I kind of love that. Welcome to Rural Roads. I smell the air and I can pick up the cool scent of the grasses all around us. Every now and then there’s a different smell, maybe the dirt that’s been churned up for this irrigation ditch that’s being built. Slowly the sun starts to rise and the fields are alight with mist. It’s beautiful. The boys giggle and bark at each other as we go along, but I’m kind of lost in the majesty of not concrete. We turn down a side road and Pi Nu shouts through the window that we’re headed to the Chinese Temple, then points in front of us. I don’t see it until a bend in the road reveals it, but we pass a herd of goats that makes me so happy to see. I ask Bank what they’re called in Thai and then immediately forget the word he tells me. The boys are all hollering back at a kid named Ouan, which means “fat,” because he’s so far behind us on the road. The sky is turning pink, the fields are almost steaming with this mist, and the Chinese Temple his this incredible tower reaching into the sky with some construction scaffolding all around it, the sticks jutting out in geometrical patterns that looks like toothpicks around a game of Jenga. It’s beautiful.
The group of us kind of circle up and Pi Nu pulls up with the van. We think this is it, the end of the line. Pi Nu gets out and says we have to wait for two of the kids to catch up (the smallest one, Carabao, and Ouan) and then when we’re all there he takes a photo.
First stop at the Chinese temple, from left: me, Alex, Ouan, Team, Gaengat, Bank and Carabao. We’re standing on a slope and I’m a the bottom of it, so I’m not actually shorter than all the boys… just most of them.
We’d covered about the same distance that we run every morning, on our boring run to the 7-11 and back. On most mornings we run out to this one 7-11 and there’s a long break at that end point before we turn around to complete the out-and-back run. I hate it. I hate stopping, I hate sitting there for 10 minutes and getting cold, I hate that if I head back before anyone else it feels awkward and like I’m being a jerk. The boys love it because they get to take a break, it’s not a hard run, and because they’re teenagers they can consume disgusting 7-11 food and drinks mid-f***ing-run and not bat an eyelid. If I even drink water at that stop I will have to pee on the way home and it makes me angry. So, that’s our normal, everyday run. I don’t join them everyday because of all the reasons I just mentioned, opting instead to run by myself most mornings and occasionally taking the dogs with me to give them exercise and drive myself crazy with how terrible they are as running partners. But this run – this glorious run – when we stopped at the Chinese temple after running between fields and watching the sun come up through the mist, Pi Nu asked how long we’d been running and when I looked at my watch and said “47 minutes” he told us to keep going for another 10 minutes or so, pointing down a narrow road that was barely big enough for his van. The boys moaned. I had a little skip in my step.
On these narrower roads there were lots of dogs, but they were more afraid of us than curious. On my runs in Chiang Mai I’d go past houses, where dogs can be pretty territorial, so you might have to be wary of them chasing you. But these dogs basically just moved out of the way or stayed where they were. The narrower road was lined on either side by trees, rather than the fields from before, but as there was a break between the trunks I could see a big field on the other side of them, and past that I finally saw the carving of the Buddha on the tooth mountain. I happen to come from Colorado and in Golden, which is where you go to watch live rock concerts (Red Rocks amphitheater) there’s a big “M” carved into a mountain for the School of Mines. It’s utterly uninspired and maybe as a result of that association I’ve never been one to care for things added to the sides of mountains (I think it’s painted in Golden; there was also a CU painted on the beautiful Flatirons for a minute, which felt like vandalism). This, however, is pretty stunning. I think it’s the magnitude of it, taking up almost the entire side of the mountain and the image being divine and all… it’s pretty amazing. Probably helped that I’d been waiting through the darkness to be able to see it and then it caught me by surprise after all that. As much as I just complained about the various things I’ve seen on the mountains I grew up with, there is one exception. Every year, a few weeks out from Christmas, a star of lights goes up on the mountain that the kitchen windows of my parents’ house faces. It’s not huge or garish, just a star made out of lights. One year, when I’d already become an adult and that star had long been invisible to me because I’d seen it all through my childhood, a friend of mine who was in town on one of my trips home from school thought it was really important that we go hike up there. It’s something teenagers and college kids do, so we were on schedule, I guess. What I didn’t expect was that the individual light bulbs are huge and are pretty far apart from one another. Sitting in the snow, looking out over the city lights with the strings of that star surrounding us, it retrospectively changed every single memory I have of growing up with that star. That’s what this Buddha on the face of the mountain reminded me of – sitting between lights I’d seen my whole life and never really felt until that moment, and then forever after that. But with this mountain, feeling all of that upon my first sight of it, after the pre-dawn not seeing of it.
The Buddha carved or painted on the side of the mountain. The date at the bottom is 2539 (1996)
We kept running down these winding roads, stopping when we got to a fork and waiting for Pi Nu to catch up with the van and tell us which way to run. “Tang nai?” Bank would ask through the window (“which path?”) and Pi Nu would pause before pointing, like he was making it up as he went along. In retrospect, I think he was remembering rather than inventing. I loved that he was navigating through his memory of these roads, from who knows when – trying to recall which way the next temple was that we were trying to find – although the boys weren’t so romanced by the whole thing. They were ready to stop running and we were not at the end point that was promised. At the last bit I was running ahead of all the boys, happy to feel the warming air against my exposed hands and face, marveling at the light as it hit the innumerate textures of leaves on the ground, pavement, dirt, grass, the yellow Monk’s quarters that I could spot through the thin jungle of trees. I don’t know how long I was running like this before I realized that all the boys had stopped and were getting into the van. I slowed my pace and waited for the van to catch up with me, then stopped and slid open the side door to climb in, happy to find that Pi Nu had already turned off the air-con and Bank had the front window down, allowing in all that sweet air. I stopped my watch and Pi Nu asked me how far we’d run. My watch is in miles so I had to do some calculations, “about 12 kilometers,” I answered. Pi Nu’s eyes darted up to the rear view mirror and he made a sound of shock. The boys groaned in unison. I guess it was supposed to be 9 kilometers and Pi Nu had gotten carried away with his, “just go this way a bit more,” improvisations. To answer the boys Pi Nu smiled and said, “poh dee,” meaning “just enough.” I agree. Within less than a minute in the van we arrived at the second temple we’d been trying to find. The ride home was mostly quiet, whereas the boys had all been babbling behind me on the ride out. They were tired and silent in the back while Pi Nu pointed out landmarks and reminisced about what areas used to look like when he was a kid, or pointing out a Tiger Cafe where you can get free coffee (I don’t know why), getting excited about one or two alternate runs we could do as we passed turns in the road on the way home.
I got home, walked the dogs and had some coffee to relax before falling back asleep next to Kevin and Jaidee, getting my long morning rest after all. That afternoon I was the only one training out of the runners – all the boys had taken the day off with the run acting as their training for the day – and Pi Nu came over to chat with me as I bounced on the tire before shadow. He recounted all the different runs we could do, then added that since the boys don’t have school on Saturday and Sunday we could maybe do these runs twice per week. He seemed genuinely amped up by the prospect, which made me really happy because I’d really loved getting out of the routine runs I’ve tried to get used to over the past (almost) 3 years. I’m a country mouse – getting out into those dark roads, those haunted dark fields turning into the haunting mist-filled fields in the light of dawn… I could never get used to it. I’d always love it. And in truth, it’s what I love about running: getting lost, making up the route as you go, discovering new places and losing your breath while you find your feet. It’s like I forgot that I love running. But this morning it seems that Pi Nu and I both remembered the joy of it, from different angles, at the same time.