The Land of Smiles
The cars were bumper to bumper on the expressway and Kaufman wondered if he would be arrested when he finally arrived at the airport. He had seen it happen. Ten years ago, during his first business trip to Thailand, he watched two helmeted officers board a plane just before take-off and remove a passenger from the first row.
“Do you know a shortcut?” he asked the taxi driver. Kaufman didn’t look like a fugitive. With his rumpled suit and greasy hair, he could have been just another salesman who’d overslept and was anxious about missing his flight. “Is there a faster way?”
“All roads very busy,” the driver said as he adjusted his wire-frame sunglasses. He was a plump man in a short-sleeved shirt who seemed impervious to the heat. Not one hair of his black pompadour was out of place. “What time your flight?”
“You should leave earlier,” the driver said. “Big holiday tomorrow for king.”
Kaufman leaned forward as the driver pointed to a sepia photograph of the recently deceased monarch taped to the left visor. The picture of the bespectacled old man in military fatigues was familiar. Almost everyone in Bangkok had one just like it framed in their house.
“King was great man,” the driver said.
“That’s what I hear.”
Kaufman had seen firsthand what happened to people who did not show the proper appreciation of that greatness. The passenger who had been arrested—an Australian tourist in a tie-dyed T-shirt—was apparently making off-color jokes about the royal family within earshot of a flight attendant. At least that’s what the newspapers said back home. The stewardess had delayed the takeoff until she could contact the proper authorities.
“Everyone in Thailand love the king,” the driver said.
Not everyone, Kaufman thought. As he had come to learn, a man who called himself Asnee Timkun maintained an entire website devoted to attacking the royal family. Kaufman had never heard of him until he checked his email after a sales meeting last Monday. Timkun had written to explain how he had translated a series of jokes that Kaufman had tweeted about the royals and posted them on his home page. He thanked Kaufman for providing a valuable weapon for attacking the monarchy and offered his assurances that Kaufman’s name and Twitter handle had been included so he could be contacted by his fellow dissidents.
“Are they looking for someone?” Kaufman said as the taxi inched toward a toll booth. A soldier armed with an assault rifle was standing in front of the kiosk, tugging on his red beret. When he saw Kaufman gaping at him through the window of the taxi, the soldier curled his lips slightly and nodded.
“Many people making problems,” the driver said. “No good for country.”
Kaufman wondered if his tweets were now officially considered one of the country’s problems. He had posted them 10 years ago: five jokes about the royal family, each one nastier than the last. The tweets were posted on behalf of the Aussie who had been removed from the plane. It was his own small act of vengeance in the days when the Internet seemed both urgent and anonymous.
Kaufman could not imagine how many digital bells and whistles Asnee Timkun had deployed to avoid being shut down. To his credit, Timkun removed the tweets after receiving Kaufman’s panicked email. But that still left Kaufman within one well-timed screen shot of being targeted by government censors.
“Maybe we should try the train station,” he said.
Kaufman had the fleeting thought of taking the overnight express to Chiang Mai and then jumping onto one of those tour buses to the Laotian border. He could sneak away at a souvenir shop and catch a ride to Vientiane.
“Train? We almost at airport.”
The taxi started down the exit ramp. Large banners of the deceased king still hung from every street light alongside the roadway. Kaufman had never studied the image so closely. He had never contemplated the nobility implied in that receding hairline, the softness in those bespectacled eyes. Kaufman saw the grace in the monarch who eventually pardoned the arrested Australian because he understood that the man had never intended any harm. Kaufman could only hope that the crown prince inherited his father’s wisdom.
“Plenty of time!” the driver said as the taxi pulled in front of the terminal. “Plenty of time to make flight.”
If the lines were as long as expected, Kaufman would have at least an hour until he reached the check-in counter. He would have to decide by then whether it was worth the risk to hand over his passport to a representative of Thai Airlines. The driver popped open the trunk and Kaufman thought of the Aussie, how he had insisted on retrieving his baggage before leaving the plane. Kaufman was not sure how he would react when it was his name on the warrant. Perhaps all he could do was offer a sheepish grin and explain that he was only kidding.
As Kaufman wheeled his bag toward the terminal, two armed guards were standing on either side of the sliding door. The one on the left was trying to light a cigarette, but the one on the right smiled at Kaufman the way the officers had smiled when they boarded the plane all those years ago, a smile that dissolved any pretense of mere politeness. It was how you looked at a friend you had been waiting for through a decade of delays, the way you greeted him when he finally arrived.
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