Udon Thani

Come, let’s go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:7 WEB)

By the time I departed for the mission field my experience with bus travel boiled down to a couple city bus trips and one trip from Gainesville to Jacksonville, Florida during my college days. During my trip from Gainesville to Jacksonville, a whopping 2 hour drive, I sat bored watching the flat Florida countryside roll along. Not fully understanding the bus route I pestered the driver to let me off at a corner near my parent’s home. He was a bit annoyed but figured putting me off the bus was better than listening to me.

I thought Guam might have a bus system I could use to go to and from the office. Guam was, and is, a small island with tour buses. These were small buses which took the predominately Japanese tourists from place to place. The local residents never rode the bus. They drove everywhere. I thought I was destined to be bus impaired for life. This was until Beth and I visited Thailand.

My brother worked for Voice of America at a station in Thailand. My travels across the pacific qualified me for some free tickets. With a destination, free tickets and a book titled, “How to visit Thailand on $10 a week,” we were ready for the adventure. We made reservations, withstood the eight hour layover in the Narita, Japan and arrived in Bangkok for our holiday.

Beth and I enjoyed a couple days in a mission home while touring bits and pieces of Bangkok. Finally we went to the bus station to book a ticket to Udon Thani. The ticket agent spoke just enough English to sell us two tickets. When I asked which bus was the right bus their English skills suddenly evaporated.

We walked through the maze of buses and realized interpreting the language was going to be difficult. The Thai language uses a form of Sanskrit. To us it appeared like scribbles on the sign. We carefully looked at our tickets and held them up to compare them to the bus signs and figured we found our transportation. We took a chance and asked the driver, “Udon Thani?” He smiled shook his head and we climbed aboard.

We were in God’s hands because no one on the bus spoke English. The bus attendants used hand signals to inform us when it was meal time, toilet time and sleep time. The attendant passed out the bagged meals, collected the remains and left us to enjoy the rest ride.

We sat on an unknown bus, traveled throughout the night on an eight hour drive, in an unknown land, with an unknown language and an unknown destination. This made it a little difficult to sleep. I doubt it had to do with folding my six foot plus body in a seat designed for a five foot Thai.

As morning dawned and the sun provided a spectacular array of color the bus entered a city. It was about the right time so we thought this was the place. I stepped up to our road attendant and asked, “Udon Thani?”

“No,” she replied with a frown on her face.

“Not Udon Thani?” I inquired.

“Udon Thani” she replied and smiled.

This conversation went back and forth a couple times before the bus pulled over to allow some of the passengers to depart. Beth and I took the chance, departed the bus and collected our suitcases.

The local travelers disappeared into the morning mist and left us on the side of the road as the bus departed. One Sam low (sic) driver came to offer a ride, at a price of course, but we didn’t know where to go. (A Sam low is like a Rickshaw with a bicycle on the front.) All the shops were closed, the signs looked like scribbles and we were in an unknown town in the middle of no where.

As we contemplated our situation one of the shops opened its security gate. The owner came out, dumped something into the street and began to retreat behind the gate. We approached, almost scared the man to death, and used sign language to see if there was a phone available. After a few minutes of flapping our arms around like lunatics, attempting to demonstrate the universal sign language for, “I need a phone, I don’t know where I am,” he smiled and let us step into the shop.

In the center of an otherwise empty room sat a chair with a telephone on the seat. I dug through my wallet for my brother’s number and dialed.

“Hello,” came the groggy voice of my brother so early in the morning.

“Hi John, it’s me!” I replied with a thrill of joy in my voice.

“Me who?” John asked. It had been a long time since our last phone conversation.

“Your brother Bob. Beth and I are in town, I think, and need to be picked up.”

“That’s today?” he asked.

“Yep, we are at the bus stop.”

“Which one?”

“The bus stop from Bangkok.”

“There are five bus stops in the city. Which one are you at?”

“I haven’t a clue,” I answered. I began to wonder what we were doing in this strange place.

“Any signs around to tell you where you are? Perhaps a shop or something?”

“You’ve got to be kidding! They all look like chicken scratch to me. Let me look outside once more.” I set down the handset and poked my head out the door to find some distinguishing landmark. Returning to the phone I said, “There’s a sign across the street with a horse on the front.”

“There’s a lot of those in town as well,” my brother replied. “Just hang tight and we’ll drive around until we find you.”

“Ok, see ya.”

When I expressed my thanks to the shop keeper and returned to the street I gave Beth a detailed report on the conversation. We were apparently in the right town, but John had no clue where to find us. We sat on our bags and waited.

Within ten minutes a Jeep rolled up in front and we were greeted with John and Jeanne’s smiling faces. What a relief to be back with someone we knew, who spoke our language, and who would bring us to safety.

Our vacation was great. We ate dinner by the Mekong River, visited the transmission site, and caught up on years of separation. It was well worth the trip. I’d do it again in a heart beat except my brother doesn’t live there anymore.

Attempting to communicate with the bus personnel, the Sam low drivers and the shop keeper reminded me of the Tower of Babel. Getting things to work well was difficult. I didn’t understand them and they sure didn’t understand me. God’s plan to confuse the languages was a job well done. We weren’t accomplishing much by speaking gibberish to one another.

Sometimes when we share the Gospel it sounds like a foreign language. We use big words, church words, and theological words to express simple ideas of God’s love and salvation. After the demon possessed man was healed he wanted to follow Jesus. Our Lord sent him back to his home, not with theological proclamations but with a simple testimony, “Go to your house, to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how he had mercy on you.” (Mark 5:19 WEB)

How well do we communicate? Are we refugees from the Tower of Babel or are we messengers and ambassadors for Christ? Maybe it’s time to ride a bus into the country and learn the simple life and the simple language of a personal testimony. What great thing has the Lord done for you . . . in twenty words of less?

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