Tourists usually don’t go to the section of Chiang Mia’s main market where Thai women work at sewing machines from sunup into the late afternoon. The women have orders mostly from local people for alterations or special creations. They sit on an upper level behind the stalls with vendors who sell traditional clothing that draws locals, as well as an occasional Caucasian or Korean or Chinese visitor. Not many tourists want to buy a chut Thai (Thai outfit).
So when I appear at the row of sewing machines looking for help to sew a button on my shorts, the women look at me with some confusion. What is she doing here?
I see one woman sitting in front of an elevated statue of Buddha, with offerings of cakes and flowers at its feet. It’s early morning, and Buddhist chants come from speakers mounted to the ceiling in this part of the market. It has a calming effect. There are no tourists here, yet. I decide to make my way over to this woman.
“Sawat di khaaa,” we greet each other. “English?” I ask. She shakes her head no. “OK, no problem.” I smile as I dig my shorts out of my backpack. I show her the missing button on the shorts. “Uh-oh,” I say and laugh. I point to an extra button sewed into an inside side seam. She nods and puts her hand out for my shorts.
“When should I return? Return?” I point at my watch. She again shakes her head no. She gives me one finger, like ‘wait one minute’ sign. She takes the shorts, and gets to work on my button, her sewing machine silent while the other women, who had paused to watch our exchange, are back to their business.
The woman motions for me to sit in a chair in front of her work station. I sit, and look around this part of the floor, where the Thai women work almost behind the scenes, tucked into this corner I saw on a previous visit, by accident, as I wandered around the entire market, as I often do in foreign countries, lost in observations on the rhythm of sales and purchases.
This part of the main market in Chiang Mai smells of clothing and cloth and dye. On the way to this floor, spices of every type imaginable assault the senses – the hot peppers you can sometimes feel in your eyes without the slightest taste. Soon, tourists will pour in and start haggling for the best price on a T-shirt or bag of nuts or dried fruit. The tourists, with fine clothing and leather bags and designer sunglasses on their heads, will think they’ve scored if they get 10 baht knocked off the price. The Thai vendor might think, as they bag up the purchase in plastic, I should have asked for more to start.
Ten baht is roughly 30 cents, 50 baht is $1.60, 100 baht $3.25. If you eat where the locals eat, you can get a plate of pad thai for a dollar, and water is free. If you go to a “nice” restaurant within the “old city” where tourism supports so many Thai families, you will pay three, four, five or ten times for the same plate of spiced noodles and sprouts.
The woman is done with my shorts. She hands them back to me, smiling. “Cop kun khaaa,” I saw with my hands pressed together in front of me, bow slightly to her, and take the shorts. I try to hand her a 50 baht bill, and again thank her.
The seamstress says in English, “No, no, no,” and refuses to take the money. I put the bill down on her table, next to her sewing machine. She again says no, and holds up her hand with five fingers spread out, and I think she’s asking for only five baht. Maybe she is worried she does not have change. I don’t know. As luck would have it, a man standing by the last stall of cloth before the women’s sewing area hears what’s happening. He comes over and offers to translate. He listens to the woman say what sounds to me like several sentences.
“She says she was lucky with money already today. And she says her work for you is not worth 50 baht – five baht is enough,” the stranger says. He is a young Thai man, who clearly speaks fluent English.
“Thank you,” I say to the young man. “But please tell her: I want to give her 50 baht because I can, and because she is kind, and because I love her for helping me so fast.” The man laughs, translates, the woman laughs, still shakes her head no in polite refusal. She picks up the bill and tries to hand it back to me as I put my shorts into my backpack.“Please also tell her,” I say to the man while smiling at the seamstress, “that it’s her double-lucky day with money.”
He translates, she reluctantly relents. She bows, hands together with the bill in between them. “Cop kun khaaaaaaa,” she says. “Cop kun khaaaa.”
I smile again, wave goodbye, turn to head back to the main part of the market, and I think: It’s another lucky day for me, too.