“I’m gasping for a cuppa,” said Angie.
“We will not have your usual,” Suk answered.
Angie was the new girl at Pert Exports, she brewed the office tea. That wasn’t her job, she was head of international sales. But, as the new girl, she made the tea.
Suk was the daughter of PE’s owner. She ran the show.
“Today we are going out for our afternoon ‘cuppa’, I’m taking you to a tea shop. Okay?”
Suk led Angie by the arm to her chauffeur-driven BMW.
“Where are we going?”
“We are going to Yaowarat Road, Bangkok’s Chinatown. They know about tea, the tea we export to Europe. It is about time you sampled our best seller.”
“Oh,” said Angie. She was brought up on Lipton’s, or PG Tips if there was no Lipton’s.
The car crawled through Bangkok’s late afternoon traffic. There was no parking, the ladies jumped out.
"I’ll call you when we need you,” Suk waved the driver on.
“That’s not Thai lettering?” said Angie, pointing above the red door.
“No, it is Chinese.”
They ducked through the bamboo curtain and into a cramped room. Tables and chairs jammed together. People sounded as if having a row. Gesticulating, flapping their arms, they turned and greeted Suk with their hands together as if in prayer. An elderly lady led them to a back room. The table had a red cloth cover. Two steel chairs with red cushions match the red curtains on the windows at the back.
“They like red, I see,” said Angie with a smile.
“Sit,” said Suk.
A pot of tea arrived, small cups with no handles accompanied it.
The old lady could not speak Thai or English, Suk translated.
“She said, welcome to Yum Chas, her tea shop. She will send us some jasmine eggs presently.”
“Oh,” said Angie, not knowing what to expect.
“The tea in front of you grows in Mae Hong Son. A beautiful region of Thailand, mountainous, and cooler than Bangkok,” Suk laughed. “Anywhere is cooler than here.”
“Why am I here, and why are you telling me all this?”
“Because I need you to go up there.”
“I don’t even know where it is?”
“You will fly to Chiang Mai, then our driver will take you to the border with Myanmar. I need you to write an article about the area, particularly about our tea plantation. You leave tomorrow.”
Their conversation was a Q and A session, with Angie answering.
With a final, “Oh,” Angie was driven back to her condo.
Angie checked Mae Hong Son on Google. She packed an overnight bag, she would need a sweater. What she read thrilled her and scared her.
“New day, a new adventure,” she said as she locked her door. Suk’s driver was waiting, flight ticket in hand.
“One way only?”
The chauffeur shrugged and drove to the airport.
Angie called Suk while waiting for take-off.
“We don’t know how long it will take you, do we? There is a lot to see and learn. The manager will arrange your ticket when you are finished. Don’t worry,” said Suk.
The plantation manager’s driver was waiting, flapping a board with her name on it.
Angie was surprised to see it was a woman. Her English was passable. She introduced herself. “My name Ju, it means Daisy.”
They wandered to the car park, a shiny Honda saloon waiting patiently. Ju opened the back door, Angie clambered in. Then Ju pointed out some sights to see as they passed them. They travelled between hills out of the city of Chiang Mai. Angie fell asleep.
“Where are we going? It seems we have passed the city?” asked Angie.
“Yes, we left Chiang Mae hours ago. Our tea grows in a place called Mae Aw. Our neighbours are Myanmar and China.”
“Yes, I’ll show you on the map,” said the driver.
“There don’t seem to be any hotels?”
“No, there aren’t any. Don’t worry, we have bungalows built into the hill.”
“It’s beautiful here,” said Angie.
“Yes, not the same as Bangkok or London, is it?”
“I don’t recall mentioning London to you?”
“No, all foreigners say they come from their capital city. They think we’ve never heard of any other place,” she said, checking the mirror. “Down there is a lovely stretch of river,” changing the subject.
Tourists were paddling canoes, waved as they saw the car. The scenery was green and raising to the sky. Clouds were now blanketing the peaks. Driver and passenger were quiet as they motored on.
“Are we there yet,” laughed Angie.
A puzzled driver said, “Won’t be long now.”
“Sorry, I’m not laughing at you. English children get bored on a long trip and ask how much longer?’
“I didn’t know you had children?”
“You didn’t ask.”
“Does it matter? No, I’ve never been married and no children. Anything else you want to know?”
“Sorry, I’m not being nosey. We Thais like to ask questions.”
A sharp left turn, up a steep incline.
“We are here. Look, you can see our tea growing on both sides.”
“Can we stop, I’d love to take pictures?”
“Don’t worry, up there is better for snaps.”
They kept driving for another fifteen minutes.
Below them were twenty bungalows built into the slope. And tea as far as you could see.
More homes were scattered between bushes.
“Wow, is this all Suk’s?”
“Yes, well, her family own it all.”
Angie snapped away with her iPhone. A lady lifted Angie’s holdall from the boot.
“Oh, it’s okay, I can manage,” said Angie.
The lady smiled and walked off with the bag. Her red cheongsam’s silk shone in the evening sun as it burst between the grey cloud covering.
“Beautiful dress,” said Angie turned, to see her driver slipping on her red silk jacket.
“Come on, I’ll show you your room.”
Insects chirped as they strolled past bushes.
“Do you have an alarm on your phone? We have an early start. There is no tv or Wi-Fi, so no excuse for a late night.”
“And the food?” asked a peckish Angie.
“It will be brought to you in an hour. I hope you like Chinese food?”
Angie sat on her bed, flicking through books and magazines. She was disturbed by a tap at the door.
A red-dressed lady hung a white suit in the wardrobe. A short while later, the woman returned with a plate of dumplings, and a pot of tea.
After eating, Angie went for a stroll. The travelling had worn her out. She turned to return to her room. The driver appeared and said, “Wear the white suit tomorrow. It will be good in the photos. I’ll come for you at first light. Better set your alarm.”
“Strange room, strange place, strange people,” was Angie’s thought as she dozed.
It was dark when the tapping started. Angie looked at her phone. “Still another ten minutes. Please.”
“Don’t forget, white suit.”
“What is this?” said Angie as she stumbled to the bathroom.
Dressed in white, Angie opened the door. Twenty or more red-clad women bowed to her.
They stood back as Suk smiled and greeted Angie.
“I didn’t know you were coming.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t miss this for anything.”
The group solemnly marched to vehicles, they all clambered in. Angie noticed the drivers were women.
“Everyone I’ve seen here is female?”
“Because we get the best tea by using female labour.”
The vehicles pulled up at a bare patch of ground.
Angie was puzzled, “With all the beautiful greenery, why show me this?”
“Come here,” Suk led Angie to the next plot, green leaves were bursting out.
“That is what I expect, look over there.” Suk pointed back.
Angie touched the tea leaves and took a deep breath. She glanced down.
“What is this?” she scurried the earth with her foot.
“That my dear is part of a virgin’s skeleton. The bones increase our yield.”
“What?” Angie grinned, expecting the punchline. Red-clad women rushed her into a shallow grave.
The earth was patted down.
“We expect great things from this plot,” said Suk as she wandered back.