King of the RoadFrancis Chang / Thrillers & Crime
of the Road’
By Francis Chang
Sombat awoke to the shrill alarm of his mobile. He grappled for the phone still in the fog of sleep. Whatever time had he got home?
He recalled racing around the Ring-Road the previous night with his pack of biker friends, pushing his bike to the limit and gleefully taking the money that they had all bet on who was to be the first to complete the circuit.
Sombat had saved long and hard for his Honda Phantom and although it was not new he worshipped it.
Unlike the previous models, the Phantom that Sombat owned was a 200 cc 4-stroke and Sombat washed and waxed it every day, lovingly applying polish to the chrome, cleaning the saddle and blackening the bike’s tyres.
Now he himself had to pay.
Even now long before sunrise Sombat had to hasten to the vegetable market to start the fires that heated the stock on the family noodle stall.
He squeezed into the space behind the corrugated iron on the balcony where the family had fixed a shower nozzle at the end of some plastic tubing and let the cold water run over him and wake him fully.
The motorbike started on first press of the electric starter button and Sombat sped to the market. On the way he stopped at another vendors stall to buy a slab of fried pork, some sticky rice and chilies in green vegetable mash.
As he arrived at the family noodle stall he stopped to look around – there were a couple of "Farangs", western foreigners, with cameras hung around their necks gawping at the hustle of the market vendors preparing for the days selling, a few Monks clutching their bowls on their Binthabat , a traditional Buddhist alms giving and a group of Chinese, perhaps heading for Thapai Gate and their early morning Chi Gung exercise.
Sombat had seen it all before and started adding the meat bones, coriander and knorr stock powder to the soup water in the large cauldron above the gas heater. Sombat looked up. The market was beginning to bustle with early morning traders loading fruit and vegetable into their pick-up trucks.
There was a call of hello from the next stall. It was Noi who made Thai crepes and fritters.
“Sombat – there was a Policeman here earlier looking for you. Something to do with racing motorbikes around…”
Noi was interrupted by the sound of many large motorbikes.
Sombat looked up the street and saw a group of Farang bikers coming towards him. He was fascinated.
There were many types of big bikes and one Farang rode the same model of Honda Phantom that Sombat owned. He watched them slowly cruise by and then called out to Noi
“Noi, please look after the stall for five minutes. I’ll be right back.”
Sombat ran along the road by the canal, right up to and around the corner and reached the ancient wall just in time to see the bikers pull into the car park of the Lanna hotel. Sombat rushed into the car park and approached the bikers.
The bikers all turned to look at him.
Sombat started to feel foolish as he had exhausted all of his vocabulary in English.
He saw a young man standing by the Honda Phantom. Sombat pointed to the bike and then to himself and grinned.
The bikers all looked at each other and raised their eyebrows. Who was this idiot?
Sombat persevered. He pointed to himself and said “Sombat” Then he pointed at the man next to the Phantom. The man looked puzzled and looked at the other bikers for assistance.
Sombat repeated the gesture several times until at last one of the other bikers said “I think that he wants to know your name. Maybe he’s in love with you - you can still pull ‘em Steve!”
Steve’s face reddened but there was something about Sombat that seemed genuine. Steve pointed a finger at himself and said
Sombat looked across at the hotel. The girls from the tours desk were watching the events with interest.
He smiled ruefully and realized that he could do no more at this time. He waved and walked back to the noodle stall.
The bikers all ribbed Steve about his new boyfriend and entered the hotel reception to check-in.
By this time the market had become quite busy and there was a queue of customers waiting for Noi to serve them.
Sombat quickly went behind the stall, thanked Noi and took over.
He rapidly got into the routine of filling the mesh basket ladle with glass noodles, submerging them in the stock water, filling a plastic bag with pork balls and vegetables and finally the noodles and stock and then deftly twisting a rubber band around the bag to seal it.
Soon he had cleared the queue and sat down to await the arrival of his Mum, who would take over from him.
Sombat considered what his options were. He was eager to talk to ‘Steve’ and see if they could go riding together and perhaps have a race.
Of all of his friends there was only one whose English may be good enough to translate, it was Boy, who worked in an IT shop at Computer Plaza. As soon as his Mum showed he would ride over to the plaza.
Nok, Sombat’s Mum and Noi were sitting behind their stalls chatting.
“Nok… I shouldn’t be telling you this.. as you know I am the last one to gossip, but there was a policeman here earlier looking for Sombat.’
Nok’s eyes narrowed as she looked at Noi – ‘last one to gossip! Mai Chow Woeeii…. Noi's tongue was as sharp as a razor and as sour as vinegar.
“Did he say what he wanted?”
“Something about racing around the ring-road on his motorbike, racing with his friends.”
“Nok… Sombat is a good boy… he doesn’t drink or gamble and if that is the worst thing that can be said of him, I am a proud Mother!”
Nok turned away from Noi and made herself busy cleaning the noodle stall – still, she would have a word with Sombat when he came home.
Sombat weaved in an out of the cars, motorbikes and tuk-tuks. When he was on his bike he felt master of the world.
Ahead of him he saw a police road block. They were checking for riders without helmets and had seemed to have made a good catch this morning as there were many motorbikes with riders digging in their pockets to find a few hundred baht to pay the police their ‘tea-money’.
He managed to turn off into a side soi long before he reached the block.
The computer plaza is a labyrinth of dark corridors stretching over two levels. All types of electrical and computer shops and stalls were to be found in the bazaar.
Sombat soon found the shop that Boy worked in. Boy was sitting, with electrical screwdriver in hand, gazing into the mysteries of a computer hard disc, with various wires, relay boards and components all around him.
“Hi Boy…How’s it going?”
Boy looked up.
“Hi Sombat…fine…what’s new?”
“We missed you last night. There must have been ten of the boys all on their Yamaha and Honda scooters. They didn’t stand a chance. I could have won, with my Phantom, even if I had carried you on the back”
“Sure.. that will be the day! Sombat how come you like to ride so much?”
“Well its hard to explain. Somehow it makes me free! Do you remember when we used to go to the karaoke bar and listened to the western music? There was one song called ‘King of the Road’ – that’s how I feel when I ride my bike, especially when going fast.”
“Listen Sombat, I have to get back to work, the old boy who owns this place is a real pig.”
Sombat got up to go. “Boy are you free for a little while this evening? I need some help in interpreting.”
“Really… what’s it all about?”
“I’ll tell you later. Meet me at the Lanna Hotel at six o’clock.”
Sombat sat on a bench by the canal waiting for six o’clock and watching the front entrance to the Lanna hotel. He had made a few jokes with girls on the tours desk and made sure that the bikers were still in the hotel.
Now he was considering what he was going to say and ask Boy to translate to Steve.
Sombat looked down the road to the bridge across the Klong where some young boys were diving into the water and remembered doing the same not so long ago.
There was a tap on his shoulder, it was Boy.
“Hi… thanks for coming. You know that I can’t speak English, well today I saw a group of Farang bikers arrive and one of them has a Honda Phantom, same model as me. I tried to speak to him earlier but it was impossible. When they come out do you think that you could translate for me?”
Boy looked somewhat puzzled but said “Okay, but whatever do you want to say to Farangs?”
“Boy I know this sounds crazy but I have to find out who is fastest and best. I know that there are riders on bigger bikes than mine who can easily beat me around the ring-road, but it is somehow important to me that on my Honda Phantom – that I remain King.”
Boy just shrugged.
Sometime later they saw the bikers leave the hotel and walk to their motorbikes. Sombat and Boy ran across the road. Sombat pointed out Steve and his Phantom to Boy.
Boy was a little nervous but with Sombat in tow approached Steve.
“Hello I am Boy…. You are Steve?”
The other bikers were both amused by this and curious. They gathered around.
“Hey Steve…looks like he has brought his boyfriend along!”
Boy angrily said “I am not his boyfriend, I am