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Two hours east of Bangkok, on Thailand's gulf coast, lies the small beach town of Bang Saen. Lined mostly with casual restaurants and lower to middle-range accommodations, Bang Saen is usually bypassed by foreign travelers for more glamorous resorts further east, leaving these laid-back shores to locals: students from neighboring Burapha University and Bangkok families on weekend trips. I watch as they splash in the shallows dressed in denim shorts and oversized T-shirts—as much out of modesty as from the Thai aversion to tanned skin—or huddle underneath umbrellas in the tarp recliners that line the sand here, ordering grilled seafood from the passing beach vendors.
Shirtless and sporting knock-off designer trunks that reach only halfway to my knees, I am always the most scantily-clad beachgoer when I visit. I live in the American Midwest, but have been coming back every other year or so since I was nineteen, when my aunt and uncle moved to Bang Saen, settling not far from a mountain called Sammuk. Named after a lovelorn girl who supposedly leaped from its heights and into local folklore, Sammuk stands at the beach's westernmost limit, its slopes and surrounding waters said to be guarded by the girl's spirit. This ghost story did little to enliven Bang Saen for me, however, when I first started coming—suburban life was cloying and the beach itself, boring. But now, when I'm in Bang Saen, I always make it a point to come down to this beach, to where I can see the mountain jutting into the water. What made the difference was a poem.
The year was 1806, and Phu (pronounced “pooh”), the man who would become Thailand's most celebrated poet, was only twenty. At the time, he was on leave from his duties as a servant in one of Bangkok's minor palaces and en route to see his father in Klaeng, a village further east, where Phu had been born. This was three years before King Rama II ascended the throne, and almost a decade before the monarch would recognize Phu as Khun Suntharavoharn, “he of the eloquent verses.” Still, the fact that Phu traveled to Klaeng not only with a hired guide—a petulant old man named Saeng—but with two sit, “pupils” (the boys Poom and Noi), suggests that he was already teaching in Bangkok the art of letters: reading, writing, and presumably, verse.
In Nirat Mueang Klaeng (“The Journey to Klaeng”), a verse account of his travels, Phu uses his signature eight-syllable klon to record how he and his companions encountered rough weather as they passed through Bang Saen, skirting Mount Sammuk in their small, covered boat. As the wind picked up, Saeng “gripped the sides until his knuckles grew white, swearing under his breath,” while Noi “dropped the oars and sat disconsolate, pulling his leg-clothes tighter as if dressing for death.” Realizing their predicament, Phu appealed to the spirit of Sammuk and vowed to make her offerings if they reached land. “No sooner had these words been said,” Phu wrote, “than the sea grew calm; the waves subsided.” [All translations my own.] No worse for wear, the men pulled ashore somewhere along Bang Saen's palm-lined stretch of beach.
Discovering this tale the first year I came to Bang Saen, I saw the sea, the sand, and Sammuk's white cliffs—once seemingly so unremarkable—transformed before my eyes. Before this I had only dabbled in Phu, and knew him mostly for his Phra Aphaimanee, an epic-length work about the adventures of Prince Aphaimanee through a world of mermaids, ogresses, and mountain hermits. Though this is considered his magnum opus, of more enduring interest to me since discovering The Journey to Klaeng has been the corpus of nirat—a sort of verse travel memoir addressed to an absent lover—that Phu left behind. Phu wrote numerous nirat over the course of his life about travels west, east, and north of Bangkok, in a radius of some one hundred miles from the capital city. It is through these works that Phu becomes Thailand's people's poet, for although he was attached to the royal court at several times in his life, no one else wrote so extensively or so memorably about life outside the palace in old Siam. Now, whether returning to Thailand for research or relatives, I often find myself gazing out of bus windows at places Phu also passed, and wondering where exactly our footsteps overlap—at the dried seafood market at Nong Mon, at the fishing pier near Ang Sila Elementary, or the neon-lit beaches of Pattaya, Thailand's “Sin City” on the sea.
And here at Bang Saen. As I bask at the edge of surf, defying all standards of Thai sun-cover, my favorite activity is to stir up seashells from the sand. There are no sand dollars here, no great conch shells that I can hold up to my ear, but whorls and concave discs the size of my fingernail. Still, each one is uniquely contoured and colored.
Throughout his nirat, Phu turns his attention to the commonplace: he will catalogue vegetables in a country market, liken the texture of fine sand to homespun cotton instead of shimmering silk, or pause to note the superiority of wooden bowls to fancy porcelain. And so, it's tiny seashells like these that I imagine Phu describes a little further in The Journey to Klaeng: “There were many kinds of these, some twisted and some round, and would have delighted you if you came,” he wrote, thinking of his then-fiancée in Bangkok:
You would have bent to gather them along the beach
then, curious, had asked of me
how such peculiar shapes have come to be
while I, not knowing either, could only laugh.
In the original Thai, Phu's verse is simple but polished, and as neatly structured as a seashell, as he travels further east, past Bang Saen, along Thailand's gulf coast—mapping not only the physical topography, but the landscape of the heart.
After The Journey to Klaeng, Phu would continue to write many more nirat, each of them filled with tender moments and lush description like this, along with scenes of hi-jinx and even self-deprecation. Yet, like the majority of Thai literature both classical and contemporary, little of Phu's work has been translated into English, and what translations do exist are more utilitarian than poetic. Like Bang Saen, they remain largely unseen by foreigners, who may bypass Phu's work for more well-known Asian poets like Basho and Li Po. Even as late as 2011, when I received a Fulbright grant to live in Thailand and select texts for translation, I initially overlooked Phu in favor of courtly tales of gods and heroes. Perhaps it was all those weekends visiting relatives in Bang Saen that finally opened my eyes—to see that stretch of sand and sacred mountain, and to remember what Phu saw in the ordinary and everyday. Gazing over the water at Sammuk now, I recall how its guardian saved a young poet once, and hope that she'll bless his translator, too.