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The Barter

Story : Vanich Charungkitchanand

English Translated : Chamnongsri L. Rutnin

Illustration : Indigo

Several people were involved in this story, but the man who might be pointed out as “the instigator” was an architect, a graduate from one of those universities in the West. He hit upon the idea after having been entrusted with the project - the project of building the grandest Thai-style riverside restaurant in the Bangkok metropolis.

But then, it wouldn’t be fair to put the entire blame on him because the owner, too, played a significant role in the affair. The owner was a millionaire in his fifties who felt that too much of his money was lying idle. Consequently, he wanted to invest it in something praiseworthy - and laudable in taste.

After some discussions with his friends as to the ways and means, he decided to open a restaurant. It was to be a Thai restaurant... a waterside Thai restaurant with a part of the building extending above the Chao Phraya River - that “river of kings”. He summoned the architect to listen to his concept. It was clear that the capital investment posed no problem as long as the right site was found and things went according to his wishes.

One day, therefore, they all boarded a boat and cruised along the Chao Phraya River. It was on this occasion that they found a large mansion - staid and proud - standing on the river bank. Somber green in color and venerable in age, its dimensions were impressive even when viewed from the river at a considerable distance. It was built in the European style which had been the vogue in the latter part of King Rama V’s reign. Everyone in the boat was seized by the same thought.

The navigator headed the boat for the mansion.

Though the owner wasn’t living in it, the group knew that the mansion had once belonged to a nobleman with the exalted rank of Chao Phraya, and that it was built more than sixty years ago. Every single board was solid teak, as was every tiny wooden component of the building. For ventilation, a clerestory of ornamental openwork in the European gingerbread style ran like a decorative frieze under the eaves along the verandahs all around the house.

The house was an office in which a few Chinese clerks were working. Questioning elicited the information that it served as the office of a rice mill which stood on the adjacent plot of land. Ascending the stairs for further inspection, they arrived at the conclusion that the house was exactly what they had wanted, and in fine condition. Some old, broken-down rickshaws and the remains of horse carriages found in the compound bore evidence to the affluence of its past owners.

There were altogether twelve rooms, each one beautifully spacious, not counting the verandahs and the pavilion of the kind called sala. The architect made a rough mental calculation that the main building alone could seat no less than a hundred diners were it to be turned into a restaurant. An old man came up and told them that he was the caretaker, so they asked him the ways to contact the present owner.

All went well at the start - and that point in time at which they succeeded in negotiating with the heir of the nobleman who had owned the house, could well be counted as the start of the story.

Even though they had not been able to persuade him to sell the title deed, they did manage to obtain a long-term lease of the property, which was quite satisfactory. It brought the millionaire’s project close to reality.

The architect with the western university degree went back again and again in order to make a thorough survey. He visualized how the marble-lined terrace by the river together the green house (he subsequently called it “the green mansion”) would appear after it had been renovated and redecorated as a restaurant. He felt that the whole thing would remain incomplete and fall short of the magnificence that he would have liked to achieve. In his mind’s eye, he envisioned the warm grace and opulence of the bygone past that he so wanted to recreate.

He thought that there was something lacking... something still missing. Something that would make it a complete whole - as he saw it with his inner eye.

The architect spent several more days cogitating before coming to the conclusion that a big Thai house was needed.

And this was exactly where we can pin the blame on the architect.

He did not want a modern Thai house but a genuinely old one. He respected the venerable grace and grave dignity that gave the airs of antiquity to the green mansion. He did not want the kind of Thai house that would spoil the mood of the guests who might set foot in the compound with the feeling of something new and tasteless.

And the Thai house that he wanted was not a Thai house in the meaning of a residence, because such a structure would not be suitable for a restaurant, but rather something in the way of a pavilion, like sala karn parien, spacious and open.

The millionaire fell in with the architect’s line of thought. The two sent out agents to comb the provinces of Angthong, Ayutthaya and Supanburi for Thai houses in the style of the central plains. Nothing of the kind was to be found. They were to be found only in temples, according to some people.

“Which temples?” No one could answer the millionaire’s question.

Meanwhile, the architect had driven northward with a friend. As their car rolled past an old monastery, his eyes caught an aged northern-style structure standing there in the compound. At the architect’s request, his friend turned the car into the monastery grounds.

The architect told himself that this was ‘it’. This was precisely what he was looking for.

It was a wooden sala, an open pavilion-like structure traditionally used for religious rites by rural monks and lay villagers in the manner of their counterparts in the central region, though it was smaller and without the raised floor. The sala appeared to be in a decrepit state but its look of decrepitude could only delude superficial eyes. After a sala karn parian brief survey, the architect was convinced that it was strong and complete despite its lopsided stance and a collection of holes in its roof.

In addition to its fine proportions and spaciousness, the architect was impressed by the finely carved floral-motif gables as well as the lotus molding that formed the capitals of the pillars and the beautiful fretwork that graced other parts of the structure. The important fact was that the whole pavilion was built of solid teak with admirable workmanship.

The architect asked to speak with the abbot and learnt from him that the sala was well over a hundred years old, the villagers called it “Sala Hoi Khao. The architect then expressed his fears the old sala might collapse one of these days while the villagers were gathered on it for some religious ceremonies of merit-making. The aged abbot agreed, saying that there was nothing he could do as there wasn’t enough money for repairing it. The architect was able to understand the thoughts and feelings of the old man.

After bidding goodbye to the abbot, he proceeded to photograph the sala from every side and at every corner, not forgetting the details of the wood carvings and fretwork that ornamented the building.

The architect returned to Bangkok earlier than scheduled. He enlarged the photographs that he had taken and showed them to the millionaire and all those concerned. He described to them the beauty and the antiquity of the teakwood sala. He made sketches to show how it would look if it were to be put together with the green mansion. What he made was a very clear presentation of the way the old sala would be joined to the green mansion to make a magnificent riverside restaurant.

It was unanimously agreed that the century-old sala would have to be dismantled and brought down to Bangkok.

The saying that money had the power to bring about the realization of one’s wishes may be true, but it had proven to be wrong in certain places and circumstances. To move this aged, close-to-collapsing sala was not as easy as they had thought. There remained villagers who were not completely ignorant and blind to the beauty and the values of old architecture. When the architect returned to the temple for the third or the fourth time, voices of dissent began to make themselves heard.

The man who opposed the move most strongly was named In, a man whom his fellow villagers called “In Jaang” or “In, the Builder”. “In” was the name his parents gave him, “Jaang” was the indication that he was a builder of houses.

It was surprising that no one called him “sla” or craftsman.

In Jaang was over sixty years old. He had an understandable reason to be against the dismantling of the sala - his grandfather had built it with his own hands. Ever since he was born, he had seen this sala. His whole life revolved around it - he had sat on it, lain on it, walked passed it, worked on it---his whole life revolved around it. In fact, he loved it and was more attached to it than to his own house.

The sala was grandfather’s handiwork. His father had told him this and often repeated it to him. The governor of the province had told his grandfather to build it.

It was his grandfather’s work, his father’s pride, and In Jaang's own heart and mind. This sala had put him on his life path and made him a builder like his father and his grandfather before him. In Jaang’s father had impressed the fact that it was born out of his grandfather’s craftsmanship - it was a fact that had been imprinted in his memory through frequent repetition. In Jaang had spent his whole life with this “Sala Hoi Khao”. He knew every post, every board, and every motif in all the ornamental designs that enriched it. He had been the sole repairer of this building during all these years... though he had done all he could, the sala still looked as if it might soon fall down.

“What if it falls? What if someone dies? What would we do?”

The abbot asked In Jaang.

“I could mend it, Tu Poh. It wouldn’t fall.” In Jaang insisted. Yes, he was sure that he could repair this sala and that it would not fall down.

“How much money to mend it?

“Where to find the money?”

To the abbot’s last two questions In Jaang was at a loss to find an answer, as were the five or six villagers who were his fellow dissenters. Money was an essential requirement if the repair was to be done, but where was the money to be found?

Money might not be able to effect every change, but when the money came with the governor of the province every change could be facilitated with much smoothness.

The governor was a friend of the millionaire.

Within a few days, the framed and neatly colored plan of the new sala, designed by the architect and considerably larger than the old one, was hanging on the wall of the abbot’s kuti(1). The governor called a meeting of all the villagers to make an announcement in reference to the age and broken down condition of the century-old sala, followed by an assurance that as soon as it was taken down, a larger and more strongly-built sala would be put up in its place. The replacement would be completed within three months and would come with the addition of a large Buddha image.

The villagers were happy, but In Jaang had to turn his face to brush away his tears.

The architect brought workmen all the way from Bangkok. No one wondered why he did not have the sala taken apart by the local builders. No one had asked him, but the architect knew in his own heart that he was preventing possibilities of error. If he had used the local builders to take it down, he would have to take them all to Bangkok to rebuild it. According to his plans, it would be his own workmen who dismantled it and would reassemble it later.

The task should not be a difficult one because not a single nail was used in this sala.

If there had been one other reason for not using the local craftsmen, it might have been the fact that he had already met In Jaang, had known who In Jaang was, and had sensed In Jaang’s hurt and sorrow in regard to his beloved “Sala Hoi Khao”. The architect had glimpsed the shining reflection of tears In Jaang’s eyes on the day they began to take it apart. The architect had tried not to pay any attention and not to glance in the direction of In Jaang. If he had allowed the local builders to help, it was certain that In Jaang was sure to be among them. Looking at it from the point of view of humanity, according to his own ideas, the architect had thought that would be inflicting too much unkindness on a rural villager like In Jaang.

No one thought of the difference between jaang prung ruen(local builder) and jaang pang huen(Bangkok builder).

Not even In Jaang himself.

They took apart the components of the sala with great care, packed each piece into a box or a crate which was securely fastened with nails prior to being conveyed to Bangkok in three big trucks. For pieces with wood rot, they constructed special boxes to take them either to be repaired or to have replicas made. No part of the sala was left behind except for the tiles from the roof. These were scattered in abandoned piles because the architect had already taken a few samples to a ceramic factory in order to make molds from which copies were to be baked using identical forms and colored glaze as the originals.

One month passed. Sala hoi khao took shape on the bank of the Chao Phraya River. The sight caused no small wonderment in those who saw it from adjacent plots and from passing boats on the river.

This was the one and only of its kind. This was the only restaurant in Bangkok to be able to boast of a beautiful sala of the northern Thai architectural style of genuine antiquity. Such magnificent grace and craftsmanship. The architect could not help thinking a somewhat self-congratulatory thought that it had an air of age that went so extraordinarily well with the green mansion. He felt proud that the marble terrace could set off the majesty of the northern-style sala and green mansion to such perfection.

Even though they did not know the meaning of hoi khao, they continued to call it hoi khao just as the villagers had done.

Though there were similarities in the form of sala hoi khao and the standard ordination hall of the Department of Religious Affair, it was notable that sala hoi khao was not as tall, wider in proportion, more squat in shape and unencumbered by the busy intricacy of openwork patterns which were usually covered with glittering decorations of mirror mosaics. Sala hoi khao’s roof was double-tiered. The finials, shaped like the mythological serpents called naga, pointed straight up at the sky in the architectural style typical of the north unlike the gracefully curved finials so familiar to the eyes of Bangkokians. They looked stiff but dignified. The slopes of the roof were wide and gentle, one roof tier above the other.

Looking at the sala directly from the front or from the rear, one could see four rows of teak pillars. Those in the two center rows which took the weight of the gables were larger than the ones in the two side rows.

There were altogether four pillars that supported the gables and the pediments - two at the front, and two at the rear. They were, like the smaller pillars, standing trunks of teak trees - round, each one large enough to be encircled by a man’s arms. They were entirely without any jointures, being the trunks of single trees.

The architect often stood beside these four pillars stroking them with a sense of happiness and exultation. They were the most beautiful teakwood pillars he had ever seen in his life - aged, smooth, gleaming, straight, and round. The lotus-motif capitals were carved into the very wood of the pillar. Often, the touch of these venerable columns made his skin creep with a strange awe.

In point of fact, he felt like putting his palms together in the traditional wai to these four pillars - not in homage to the lumber but to the craftsmen who had carved and turned them to such perfection making the pillars identical in texture, color, smoothness, and size.

The publicity campaign for the restaurant was a resounding one. The construction of sala hoi khao was finalized. The gilt on the carved floral motif of the gables and on the blossoms in the openwork around the sala gleamed so brightly that it looked as if the whole structure was ornamented with flowers of radiant gold the brilliance of which was further set off by the scarlet of the wooden beams beneath the eaves. The newness of the gold-colored roof tiles sparkled richly with reflections of sunlight. And on nights with a bright moon, there would be a glimmering pool of silvery light in the middle of the roof. The pool of light would shine the brightest on full moon nights.

They - the architect, the millionaire and those who had any hand in it - were proud of this sala. Even the stately green mansion was overshadowed. The press began to trickle in for news and interviews, or to take photographs and taste the food. One and all were impressed and full of praise - oh, what a worthwhile investment!

The millionaire was the proudest of all. He was filled with satisfaction. This was what was needed for the remaining years of his life - not wealth, not honor, but the distinction of being the preserver of a priceless work of architecture by not neglecting it to fall into decay.

The inaugural celebration of the restaurant was a grand affair in which sala hoi khao played the leading role. Every important guest wanted to be seated in it. And, in keeping with the regional style of the architecture, the softly rhythmic nail dance of the north was performed with melodic interludes of songs from that particular kind of northern guitar called sueng. Every table was lit by large red candles.

The entertainment in the green mansion was Thai dances and music of the classic genre. Members of the high society turned up in force. Arrangements had been made to convey guests from the parking lot to the riverside by rickshaws and horse carriages.

The opening celebration of the most opulent restaurant on the bank of the Chao Phraya progressed into the night to the great enjoyment of everyone. The architect was the person who received the most credit. He answered endless questions about sala hoi khao without any signs of boredom or exhaustion.

In the midst of the festivities, a strange sound could be heard... and sala hoi khao seemed to sway very slightly. Not many noticed the sound or felt the sway. None paid any attention. Some thought the sound was of the musician’s tuning the sueng, yet others thought that the sway was caused the impact of a riverine wave on one of the posts or the weight of a heavy truck on the road behind the compound.

The gaiety of the atmosphere and the vivacity of the conversation prevented thoughts of anything more ominous. No one wondered how powerful a wave had to be to cause an impact on such a solid structure, or how a truck could be speeding through a parking lot packed with cars.

The inauguration party passed with great success. The riverside restaurant was as elegant and profitable as anticipated.

One month went by.

No one in the management noted anything unusual but the employees who remained after the closing of the restaurant each night began to noticed certain anomalies. In the stillness of night, they would often hear loud creaking noises like the shrinking of wood in the winter. No one paid much attention at first. But as the sound became more frequent, they began to look at one another with questioning eyes. No one was sure where it came from because it resounded so piercingly throughout sala hoi khao and the green mansion.

Sala hoi khao swayed frequently but they only thought it was because part of it stood above the water. They failed think that it stood steel and concrete pilings which were driven deep into the river bed and were far too sturdy to be the source of the swaying.

Then it came, late into the silence of the night ...

While the employees were making their final rounds before retiring to their rest, a long and blood-curdling wail of some unseen thing sounded... from sala hoi khao for certain, there was no doubt about it this time because it was very loud and clear... like the twist and breaking of a great piece of wood. Then, all of a sudden, came a high long drawn sound like wood cracking. Sala hoi khao shuddered as if shaken by a giant’s hand. Roof tiles fell and shattered on the paving. Even the green mansion shook. In a moment, everything was still.

Everyone was terror-stricken. At first, they thought it was an earthquake, but why did it affect only sala hoi khao?

The roof was repaired without difficulty. There was no other damage. All the employees were instructed to keep the strictest silence - nothing was to leak out to outsiders.

But the incident went on recurring - it was fortunate that it only occurred after the restaurant was closed for the night. Nevertheless, it grew more and more frequent each night to the point that the millionaire and the architect decided to come and stay overnight in order to investigate the matter - partly because several employees had become so nervous that they refused to remain after work.

And it really happened... the noise and the tremor were such that the millionaire and the architect had to rush out of sala hoi khao for fear of it collapsing on them.

Then, one night... a ghost buster from the old city of Ayutthaya, whom we shall from now call “the witch doctor”, came after the nightly closure of the restaurant.

It was the only solution the architect could think of after he had carefully inspected every detail of the structure and could find nothing that could account for the phenomena.

The witch doctor’s rite took several hours in an eerie, ghostly atmosphere. As the witch doctor mumbled his mysterious mantra while holding a large bunch of lighted incense sticks, a long, hair-raising sound erupted - the same cracking, screeching wail that had become familiar of late but much more long-drawn than ever before, so long drawn that had it been emitted by a human-being it would have taken at least two deep breaths to accomplish such a lengthy wail.

The witch doctor said it was the scream of the takien ghost, the female ghost who resided in one of the four teak pillars that held up the gables. The words struck deep fear in the hearts of all present, especially because what had gone before seemed to bear evidence to them.

The wailing stopped at the approach of dawn. The witch doctor claimed that he had captured the takien ghost. He put the earthenware pot into which he imprisoned it into the cloth bag that he slung over his shoulder, pocketed his fee, and went home. Everyone felt a sense of relief even though the employees continued talking about the whole nerve-racking affair with some relish.

While all this was passing in Bangkok, the building of the new sala was completed. It was a big concrete sala, beautified on all sides with silver-painted iron grills which enclosed it on all sides. It was no longer the open sala that used to stand here in the old days. No matter where one looked, there were the angels with hands held on their chests like lotuses - these angels being the motif of the design of the iron grills along the sides of the sala. These, and the celestial door guardians that were the motif of the grills at the front and the back.

In Jaang looked at the sala with a desolate heart. He thought of sala hoi kham, of the lifework of his grandfather, of the structure in which his father was so proud, of what was like his own life and soul.

The new sala was like a stranger from an alien land - someone he didn’t know and didn’t want to greet or to converse with.

After the witch doctor had captured and taken the takien ghost away (according to his claim - he had also declared that he was going to set it free in the forests near Ayutthaya), the strange wailing sounds ceased for two whole days. Everyone was noticeably happier. The architect was relieved; so was the millionaire. The latter, however, was bothered by the increasingly expanding gossip about the power of the takien ghost which had not yet reached public ear due to various tactics which were devised by the millionaire himself.

On the third day after the witch doctor’s rite, a strange phenomenon occurred - this time at an utterly wrong hour.

It came about at nine o’clock Friday night when sala hoi khao was packed with diners and when the waiters and waitresses were at their busiest with orders and dishes.

All of sudden a long drawn screeching wail pierced the chattering voices of the dinners who, together with the waiters and waitresses, looked up at the ceiling from which the sound seemed to emanate. Silence fell. The sound was heard even by those seated in the green mansion. Silence fell. One by one the diners there also stopped talking. Many unconsciously stroke their own arms on which goose pimples were rising.

After the sound had come to a stop, and someone was just beginning to laugh in the face of the blank silence, the hair-raising sound started all over again. Its loudness was such that it seemed the vast sala might crumble all at once. The four big pillars twisted creaked, and swayed in a horrifying manner. The gables, both at the front and the back, screeched for all the world as if pulled by a number of elephants.

Pandemonium broke out. The terrifying sound not only would not stop but grew increasingly louder. The sala leaned and settled on the left side. It was filled with noises of chairs falling, and people yelling and screaming in terror. Several diners jumped into the water. Those in the green mansion caught the panic, and everyone rushed out to the riverside terrace or to the parking lot at the back. Many fell and could not regain their feet because of the number of people running past.

The roof tiles fell crashing in every direction as though clawed by a titan. Several people shouted “Earthquake!” If it were so, why did the tremor affect sala hoi khao? The green mansion did tremble enough to send dishes falling without any part of the structure being the least damaged.

Though this incident caused no fatalities, it resulted in a good number of injuries, in several cases severe.

The restaurant was closed.

The front and the back of sala hoi khao were twisted towards each other by the weight of the inward leaning of two of the large teak pillars. The left side settled in an alarming manner and all the smaller pillars twisted and leaned along with it. The surprising thing was that none of the wood components were broken or fell down though almost no tiles were left on the roof.

The uncanny fact was that the strange noise persisted intermittently, at times in short, broken rhythm that sounded almost like the human sobs.

The consensus to dismantle sala hoi khao was unanimously reached. Another exorcist and a medium came to perform the separate rites at different times without any positive results. The new ghostbuster insisted that there was no evil spirit of any kind in either sala hoi khao or the green mansion. The medium invoked spirits with utter lack of response from any incorporeal beings, at least not until the spirit of a child who had drowned in the river in front of the rice mill came - no one knew how. A long conversation with the child ghost preceded the final realization that it knew absolutely nothing about sala hoi khao.

The dismantling of sala hoi khao caused deep regrets. Though no one knew what to do after it was accomplished, but they knew that the sala could not be left as it stood because it could collapse at any time.

One day before they embarked on the dismantling the sala, In Jaang and a few villagers followed the abbot down to Bangkok to buy a Buddha image for their new sala - the funds for this purchase being the proceeds of none other than the barter involving sala hoi khao. In Jaang had seen photographs of sala hoi khao in the newspaper and had told the abbot that they should go and take a look at their old sala - people had been saying that it was haunted and was about to be pulled down because it was on the brink of collapsing.

The abbot and the villagers didn’t really want to go because they felt it might embarrass the present owner. In fact, the abbot himself felt guilty - it was as if he had taken advantage of the new owner who had built such a grand and lavish new structure for the monastery in exchange for such a derelict, crumbling old building about to be taken down.

But In Jaang wanted to take a look. Some deep urge was prompting him to go and see his sala, his grandfather’s sala, his father’s sala - the sala that was his very heart and soul.

In Jaang wanted to know how and why the sala was falling down.

In Jaang missed sala hoi khao - and he believed that the sala missed him, too. His single-minded determination overrode the others' reluctance. Besides, the abbot had always felt considerable guilt about the barter where In Jaang was concerned.

In Jaang, the abbot and the villager friends of In Jaang arrived at the riverside restaurant in the afternoon when the builders were trying to find the best way to take down sala hoi khao. The architect was there, so was the millionaire. Both felt awkward at the sight of the abbot and In Jaang - part of the awkwardness was embarrassment. They couldn’t quite explain why, nor towards who more embarrassed them more, the abbot or In Jaang.

They invited the abbot to take a seat and told him the story.

In Jaang looked at sala hoi khao. He gazed sorrowfully at the sala of his heart and life. It wouldn’t have come to this if it had remained in the monastery. It wouldn’t have been so bent and twisted. In Jaang walked round and round the sala, touching every pillar, every openwork panel that he passed. He felt such sorrow for the sala that his eyes brimmed over with tears. He thought of his grandfather, of his father - of how his grandfather used to touch, his father used to stroke every pillar and every panel, just as In Jaang himself always did. Every lovingly-carved flower was like a long-loved friend or a deeply-revered relative.

The sala was nearing its end. They were dismembering it, and it was most likely that it would not ever be assembled again. In Jaang thoughtfully felt the grains of the pillars with his fingers, his eyes shining with tears; but when his hand touched the big pillar that leaned low inward at the front of the sala, In Jaang sensed that something was wrong. He walked around towards the back and stroked the other big pillar that leaned and twisted inward. He ran his palm up and down the pillar before quickly making his way to the abbot.

“The pillars ’re paired wrong, Tu Poh!”

Excitedly, In Jaang told the abbot that the big pillars were paired wrongly. The architect didn’t quite catch what he said. He looked at In Jaang with genuine sympathy. He was a craftsman himself, so was In Jaang - therein lay his respect for this villager. He had never looked down on the fact that In Jaang was a rural builder. At this moment he actually felt guilt and embarrassment towards In Jaang - definitely towards In Jaang than towards the abbot.

“We are going pull it down, uncle,” he said sadly to In Jaang - mainly because he was at a loss to find anything else to say.

“Yes, take it down...” In Jaang told the architect “...and put it up again with the pillars paired rightly.”

“Why, uncle? Are the pillars paired wrongly? But what difference does it make?” The architect felt a rising excitement.

“They have stood together for a hundred years, how can you have the heart to go and separate them?”

In Jaang replied with a tremor in his voice and tears running down his cheeks, as he turned to look at sala hoi khao with an inexpressible pity spreading through the depths of his heart.


Short Story from S.E.A. Write Award-Winning (1984) Collection : Down the Same Lane

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