Thailand, Day 1
What an inglorious two weeks, huh ? I had this whole post ready to go, and then Boston happened. Man. It hit me hard, in the way that these things do. I have this hang-up about posting really goofy, possibly frivolous stuff in the midst of national tragedies, and it’s happened twice now in the past year; first with Hurricane Sandy, and now with the Marathon bombing. I had this post more or less ready to publish , but I felt conflicted about doing it last week. The sun has been out for TWO WHOLE DAYS here in Seattle, so I’m chalking it up to some kind of “sign” that the air is clear to post slightly neurotic recaps of vacations to hot places.
I’m back from Thailand! Thailand?
Yes, Thailand! I went to Thailand for my honeymoon! Your honeymoon?
Yes, my honeymoon! I went to Thailand for my honeymoon! With no planning and no reservation! Um, what? You didn’t plan your honeymoon?
Nope! I just packed a bag and went! No reservation! Like Anthony Bourdain, but with way less leather jackets!
And, of course, I brought back stories.
I’m going through my journal right now and re-reading some of my notes . There are two weeks’ worth of restaurant reviews and first impressions and the like, but I’m combing through it for the best parts. I’ll post a few days’ worth of stuff at a time here on the blog.
First, though, a little preamble. I can’t emphasize enough that this is the first trip I’ve ever taken where I didn’t do ONE lick of research beforehand. Literally. Like, I didn’t even Google a MAP of the place. I had a general
idea of where Thailand was in the world, but that was where my education ended. I bring it up because that lack of information really colored the first part of my trip. It will probably become obvious here in a minute when I start having anxiety attacks over long pants, but I promise you I eventually relax and eventually ENJOY my honeymoon. The first few days, though, were fraught with a myriad of concerns, not the least of which was: if Mr Burdy gets swallowed by a narwhal, how will I get home? (Let’s agree to ignore the obvious lack of narwhals around the Thai peninsula, shall we?) I had a few vivid daydreams involving the Thai authorities asking me questions like: When is your return flight? Where are you staying tonight? How do you plan on getting to the southern islands? Where are your long pants? And then I broke out in a sweat imagining myself answering each question with a big fat I HAVE NO IDEA. MY HUSBAND HAS THE iPHONE WITH HIM IN THE NARWHAL.
In all fairness, I knew a *few* things about Thailand before I went. They were this:
- I knew that it would be a good place to vacation because of the suggestions of friends who had been there years before.
- I knew it would be good and hot and sunny and a welcome relief from the crap weather in Seattle. Also very, very beautiful.
- I knew it would be “cheap” (It wasn’t. Not the way I thought it would be. More on that later).
It’s worth mentioning I was right in the middle of some massive changes with my professional life when we made the decision to buy the plane tickets. I spent the weeks leading up the trip preparing my clients for my absence for two weeks, and then writing letters to terminate our professional relationships (more on that later). So, that was my preparation for my work life. My preparation for the trip
included finding out how hot it was in Thailand so I knew how short my shorts would need to be, and visualizing getting five pairs of orthopedic sandals into a carry-on. Once we were in
Thailand, the only information about geography/language/culture I was able to absorb came from what Mr. Burdy was able to look up in the few minutes of free wifi we picked up here and there. I used a few tattered guidebooks that had been left at the various hotels for help, too. Most of them were already ten to fifteen years old, so the information was not exactly, um, current
. All of them, though, from the Lonely Planet
I found in Chiang Mai, to the glossy coffee table book in our hotel in Bangkok, said the same few things, which I took as gospel.
–“Thailand is a modestly-dressed country. Leave your spaghetti -strapped tank tops and Daisy Dukes at home. If you’re a woman, consider bringing loose fitting long pants, and something to cover your shoulders with, especially if you think you’re going to want to visit the temples. There will be signs posted that read: ‘dress appropriately’. Covering up is not optional; it is mandatory.” As a North American being constantly pitched to by lingerie companies, celebrities wearing bikinis, tooth whitening manufacturers, diet pill inventors, and makers of uncomfortable, supportless “ballet flats”, my idea of “appropriate” is COMPLETELY skewed. (I’m looking at you, Victoria’s Secret PINK line). Not that I don’t know what appropriate is… just that it doesn’t even occur to me that perhaps flashing my fleshy white thighs is rude in other places. Hell, it’s rude here- if only because it’s impolite to flash something that BLINDINGLY BRIGHT at someone’s bare eyeballs (shaking fist at Seattle skyline). Anywho, the rules in Thailand are this: cover thyself up. And that was unfortunate because a) I DID want to visit the temples and b) since I knew it was going to be hot, I had packed ONLY tank tops and Daisy Dukes. Whoops. To market, to market to buy a fat pair of pants.
– “It is considered rude to publicly display affection. Avoid kissing, or holding hands”. Um, I’m on my honeymoon, y’all. I kind of want to touch my husband. Lucky for Thailand the way Mr. Burdy and I show affection to one another is by fake punching each other in the solar plexus and then dramatically doubling over in slow motion. PDA problem solved.
–“DO NOT make any negative comments about the King. Do not use the feet to touch any images of the King, including currency, which features the King. If a paper note should fall to the ground, DO NOT retrieve it by using your feet. Feet are considered the lowest part of the body. Any slander against the king is taken seriously and punished accordingly.” Whoa, T-land. I got it. No smack-talking about the guy in the palace. I have to admit, this little note scared the ever loving bejeezus out of me. What if I said something slanderous accidentally? Like what if someone asked me a question with an obvious answer and I was like “Does the King shit in the woods?” Not that anyone we ran into knew enough English to linguistically spar with me this way, but WHAT IF? So, yeah. Monarchies. Weird, right? Say what you want about the United States, we still have the right to say all kinds of nasty, nasty things about one another, including the president. In fact, If you show up to my neighborhood’s post office during an election cycle, you might just run into the LaRouche supporters who hang a 3’ x 4’ poster of Obama sporting Hitler’s mustache off their card table. So, yeah. Freedom of speech? We got that. I hear it again and again when people come back from travelling: we have not even BEGUN to appreciate our freedom of speech here. Travel to lots of other places in the world and you’ll soon realize how much we’re allowed to say (and look up on the Internet) here. Is our republic perfect? No. Are there people being hushed up all the time, some even by force? Yes. Do all of us really feel permission to fully express our views without fear of violent retaliation? No. But can we print posters of our democratically elected leaders wearing a former murderous despot’s facial hair and NOT go to prison for it? Mercifully, confusingly, yes.
–“Be sure to bathe. The Thais consider daily bathing natural and right. Body odor is considered extremely rude. If you are backpacking, and plan on making a homestay, or interacting with a family, take care to clean yourself up. You may think you are doing a good thing by conserving water and living simply, but the Thais appreciate personal cleanliness.” Check and check. Thailand, you don’t think patchouli is an acceptable substitute for soap? HEY! ME NEITHER! I think we’re gonna get along just fine. I’m terrified of your king, but we’re obviously on the same page about the smell of unwashed hair.
RULES, people. There were RULES in Thailand. And even though I was somewhat unprepared to follow them, at least I knew they existed. And now that I knew they existed, I had license to freak out about them.
At the top of my Checklist to Experience Paranoia? LANGUAGE. I’m a big fan of being able to speak at least a few words in another language when traveling. I think it indicates a genuine willingness to experience a place, and it opens you up to a beautiful kind of vulnerability. There are some things you can ONLY understand about a culture via its language. Also, it’s super annoying to have to keep smiling and pointing to everything. Asia, in general, as travel destination has terrified me for a long time because all I’ve ever heard is how IMPOSSIBLE it is to learn an Asian language. There’s not just vocabulary to learn, but intonation as well. Intonation? You mean I could be saying “I’d like the fish soup” or “your mother is an orangutan” and the only difference would be that penultimate syllable rising or falling? I’d rather not, thank you.
Lucky for me, most Thais learn English as their second language, and most Thai English is impeccable. It’s slow and thoughtful and deliberate- quite the opposite of what you might expect of people trying to very quickly get a concept across with as few words as possible. This intentionality, this deliberateness is at the heart of the Thai culture as a whole, I would soon learn. It is not a country of hustle and bustle, as I imagined, but one of calm confidence. I couldn’t help thinking that this was the result of never really having been colonized. Their national identity was still intact, unbroken by a colonial power’s command to work harder, go faster, be more.
Here’s something else I learned within hours of landing in Thailand: food is available at all times of the day. You want a hot bowl of soup at 2 am? You got it. A bag of freshly deep fried and salted taro root at 8 am? No problem. Thais love to SNACK. Did you hear that? The Thais love to SNACK. They LOATHE BODY ODOR AND THEY LIKE TO SNACK. I HAVE FOUND MY PEOPLE.
Here are some notes from my journal:
The sign that “welcomed” us to Thailand as we drove in last night was provided by Sharp Corporation, and it was about the size of a house. Really, it said: “SHARP” and then, in much smaller letters beneath, it read “Welcome to Thailand”. I felt a teensy weensy surge of pride knowing “my” country’s ingenuity and cleverness and chutzpah had made its way to this other side of the earth (what they are providing, of course, is questionable. Goods? Services? Landfill? Billboard pollution?). And then I got pretty sad thinking that I had just paid a small fortune and sat on a plane for four-fifths of a day to see… stuff I could see in my own country. What have I agreed to in being here? Is everything in Thailand sponsored by an electronics company?
Took a tuk-tuk
to Wat (“temple”) Sitaram. Met a lovely man named Tan-An (?) who told us to go to the clothing factory (already scheduled for us on our route per a guy on the street Mr. Burdy “had a good feeling about”.) Tan-An taught us in five seconds how to be Buddhists. Or, at least, what to do when we visited the temples: you kneel down, feet tucked under you. You make a wish. You say a prayer to Buddha to make it come true for you. You put your hands together at your heart and you bow three times facing the altar. That’s it! He asked us if we were Buddhists. He seemed surprised that we, as foreigners, were there in the first place. Mr. Burdy answered, “Well, we’re not not
-Buddhists…” Well played, farang
i, well played. What we are
, I wanted to tell him, is Jake and Elroy. We are lapsed Catholics on mission to find God. So yeah, today, we are not not
We went to the factory and Mr. Burdy ordered five tailored shirts. Strangely, none of the “Thai” shops we went to featuring that “famous” Thai tailoring were run by Thais. They were run by hip, urban young men from, perhaps, India? Or points west of Thailand? Bizarre. My Seattle sensibilities flared up and I immediately suspected some sort of indentured seamstress operation going on. After Burdy was done placing his order, the salesman turned his attention to me. “And for you, Madame? Perhaps a blouse? We have many materials. You like cashmere? Perhaps a wool coat? Look here. Very fine quality”. Here he rubs the grey cashmere coat’s lapel between his fingers. I stood there in my short shorts and tank top, letting the air conditioning do its work on my inflamed, red skin. I flipped through the catalogue politely, though disinterestedly. It featured mostly collared dress shirts being modeled by serious looking women in pinstripe pants and expensive watches. How to explain to this man in very simple English that I’d just fired nearly all my clients and that, when I actually DO go to work, I work in a big open penthouse with a smelly dog, and kayak equipment everywhere, and a dirty sink overflowing with dishes? Or, that, on other days, I work in a loft with a bunch of dudes in tee-shirts and athletic shoes who eat trail mix and drink out of plastic sports bottles? “No”, I said smiling graciously. “I don’t have a… need… to dress up for work. Very casual, I said. Very casual”. I showed him my palms like “jazz hands” was the international symbol for “I don’t possess the level of maturity required to wear your fancy clothes or the language skills to tell you that in five words or less”.
driver, a lovely man with the most beautiful light brown eyes I have ever seen, must have gotten the message that we were not in Thailand to buy suits or silk or rubies as we spent only five minutes exactly in all the places he dropped us. It was a fine game of bowing and smiling and polite agreement to enter into this ridiculous tourist dance. He obviously would receive a kickback for dropping us off at the jewelry factory or the suit place, and we would get the cheapest ride of our lives around an enormous city. Fair enough, I suppose.
The jewelry factory was an unexpected stop, but I think we handled it well. A smartly dressed woman wearing a badge asked a hurried set of questions (Where were we from?! Did we like the heat?! Did we know Thai rubies are the best in the world?!), then led us into a blinding maze of glass counters. I looked down at a case. She offered me an elephant-shaped ring in white gold, with a tiny diamond where the eye should be and inset stripes of blue topaz. I thought that my cockeyed, oversized thrift store sunglasses and my shorts made baggy with sweat would have tipped our sales lady off that I was more of a found object/knotted rags-jewelry kind of gal. Still, she gave it her best shot. After much dramatic lowering of the price (“I discount for you today” is the working alternate for “hello” to foreigners) and the final offering of $67 for the damned elephant ring, and my polite refusal, she handed us a coupon for 10% off anything in the souvenir shop and moved on to the next dazzled foreigner. For a brief moment, I entertained the idea of buying an investment piece of jewelry like Burdy’s dad would have done back in the day, but the whole experience had been one part sensory overload, one part “sell this to foreigners” and one part “ I would never wear a gold elephant-shaped ring in a thousand years”. I didn’t want to take home a piece I had bought under duress while wearing sunglasses that cost me $1.17.
I can’t quite shake the annoyance I feel at being judged a consumerist/glutton because of my skin color. It’s totally fair, of course. But I am still annoyed.
I can’t quite figure out the garbage situation here. And most things smell of three things: incense, urine, or fish sauce, and not much else. For a country offended by lack of personal hygiene, I find it strange that the smell of comfort is rotting fish. There are civil servants (?) everywhere in Day Glo yellow safety vests, thick denim, and bandannas around their mouths and throats, sweeping the sidewalks with broad and sparse handmade brooms. They’re just sweeping up the curb, looking like they are wearing homemade Haz-Mat suits. Just looking at them makes me break out in prickly heat rash. I have to wonder how dangerous the air/garbage is that they are wearing so much clothing. Most of what they’re sweeping is vegetative, dried leaves and the like. I haven’t seen anyone hauling away actual
garbage yet. Again, my Seattle sensibilities have me instinctively holding on to all my empty water bottles and cellophane wrappers until I can dispose of them “properly”. I’ve been separating my
garbage into recyclables, compostables, and landfill, but I couldn’t so much as find a single empty can on the street, never mind a color-coded, well-signed triumvirate of waste management.
We went to Wat Pho after another ridiculous trip to a tailor shop where another non-Thai sales clerk pointed out in a glossy-paged book that his store was THE number one tailor shop in Bangkok. I have no doubt that the authors of the book are also THE number one fabricators of statistics. And that they are on the same take as our tuk-tuk
In between the Thai clothing factory and Wat Pho, we visited Wat Benchamabophit where we paid 20 baht (about sixty cents) to walk around for few minutes. We bought a coconut and slurped down the juice in seconds. The heat was merciless. I decided to follow Tan-An’s advice and bow three times and send a prayer to Buddha to ask him to protect my immune system after I watched the coconut vendor hand the same (dunked in dirty water) metal scoop to me as she had just handed to about a dozen other tourists before me…. tourists who’d put the metal scoop into their mouths. WHAT the hell, Thailand? Don’t take a bath and you might be frowned upon. Eat from a dirty spoon, and nobody says a word. (*Follow up note #1: Hey, kids! The metal scoops are designed to JUST scoop the flesh up from the bottom of the coconut! Use your HANDS to put the flesh in your mouths, NOT the spoon!
Really? Oh, man! Thanks, helpful Follow Up Note!)
Overheated and sweaty and probably dehydrated, we reached Wat Pho when we thought we were being taken to Wat Pra Kaew. No matter. We still had our long pants on. We saw the enormous reclining Buddha (the soles of his feet inlaid with mother of pearl was magnificent) but couldn’t take the heat anymore. We changed into shorts, but we also wanted to see another Buddha so I let a tiny assertive woman in a blue uniform warp me in a scratchy and stained wool skirt and drape a purple wool shawl around my shoulders. Thank goodness for the guidebooks or I would be confused about being dressed in public by Thailand’s version of the TSA. Remember: no covering up out of respect, no seeing the Buddha. Got it?
The plastic bag situation, as one might expect, is outta control. Worldwide, the plastic bag is as ubiquitous as oxygen. It’s the only thing you can find on every continent on earth, even ones not inhabited by humans. Dozens of them clung to the moorings on the river, dried, bleached, thin, and slowly dispersing microscopic fragments into the water. Note to self: figure out a way to convince the world to STOP using plastic bags in my lifetime.
The boat ride along the river was my favorite part of the day. The breeze, the splashing, the ice cold beer at noon. We pulled down a “side street”; a tiny fleet of handmade canoes “parked” under some trees on the banks of the river came to life. One of them, steered by a young man in a conical hat, approached us, his canoe packed full of cheap trinkets wrapped in cellphone. Bought a can of beer for the captain, whose swollen bare feet and wide smile made a permanent impression in my memory. No souvenirs or bamboo carvings, though. The vendor looked genuinely hurt. I need to learn the Thai words for “no, but thank you”.
Our hotel room in Bangkok smelled like Chinese food and cigarettes, and the Carl’s Jr. next door only served to substantiate the suspicion that perhaps we had, in our 17-hour flight delirium, accidentally boarded a plane bound for Las Vegas. The bed in the hotel was rock-hard, some of the lights in the room didn’t work, and the individually wrapped condoms stood at attention right next to the packets of peanuts in the snack bar. If we hadn’t seen the street carts outside piled high with soup, basil sprigs, and fluorescent-lit piles of offal at 2 am, I would have sworn we HAD, in fact, landed in Las Vegas. I fell into a dreamless sleep that night, and had my first (and possibly most delicious) breakfast of the trip the next morning: a big ol’ bowl of broth and rice, seasoned with those quintessential tiny dried Thai shrimp, and garnished with black pepper and a few green onions. What the hotel lacked in charm, it more than made up for in the Thai food department. We skipped the quarter-mile-long buffet of uninspired variations on white bread and eggs and ordered right off the Thai menu. Unsure of how to handle tipping, we left our server a few coins and expressed our sincere gratitude for her patience with our terrible pronunciation. She brought her hands together in prayer formation, softened her eyes, bowed slightly, and smiled. This was our first experience with the wai,
which I was to read about later on in the trip, and it was absolutely magical. The Thai Smile is real, and it is life-changing.
And that was Day 1, more or less.
4/12/13: I took a really great cooking class last night offered by our local food co-op called “Night Markets of Bangkok”. It featured some of the food we ate (in Bangkok! At night! In the market!) and was hosted by Becky Selengut, another Jersey Girl living in the Northwest. (Sorry if I’ve outed you, Becky). It was AWESOME to share stories and basically re-live our trip through food. It was also a great reminder that a draft of this post has been sitting on my laptop for a LONG TIME. More to come, I promise.