Thailand - June 28, 2011

Sawasdee Ka (Hello)!

I have officially fallen in love. I thought Africa had stolen my heart with its wild and primal spirit, but now that I have met Asia, I understand what love really is. Asia is like the mysterious stranger who rides into town, exotic and aromatic, bent on seduction. I’m sorry Africa, you and I will have one or two more good years together and then I’m running away to the East. Until then, I will be dreaming of silk and flowers and golden temples, fried noodles, tuk tuks and hilarious boy bands.

Bangkok is a city of almost 10 million people. You can definitely feel the crowds, but it doesn’t seem overwhelming like New York City. Perhaps that’s because I find Bangkok much more interesting. Obviously this means the traffic is truly terrible. It’s partly because the traffic lights are ridiculously long (one is over 7 minutes) and partly because of the sheer volume of vehicles, motorbikes and tuk tuks on the road. The taxis are an array of neon pink, neon orange or neon green and I was dazzled by the colors when I first arrived after two months of nothing but various shades of green and brown. Other than that, Bangkok is a very white city. When I imagine a big city, my mind immediately flashes gray and steel and endless expanse of mirrored glass. But the skyline in Bangkok is overwhelmingly white, with patches of green from rooftop and balcony gardens.

Since I’ve been surrounded by temples and Buddhas all week, I’ve been inspired to think about my past lives.  Besides having been someone akin to Elizabeth Bennett (naturally), I think I might have once been a homing pigeon. Not because I was being punished as a rat with wings, but because I was being taught the amazing orientation and navigation skills which I currently possess (if I do say so myself). Send me to a place once, and I can usually get there again and again. I arrived at my hotel, checked in (which consisted of leaving my bags in the lobby since it was just before 10am) and immediately took a cab to the US Embassy so I could get more pages added to my passport. Having just taken two red-eye flights in a row (Monrovia – Accra – Nairobi – Doha – Bangkok), I hadn’t slept in almost 48 hours and was exhausted (I don’t sleep much on planes). I wasn’t paying all that much attention to where we were driving, other than noticing a few things here and there as we passed by. It took about 30 minutes to go maybe 2 miles. Like I said before, traffic sucks. Anyway, as I was leaving the Embassy I decided to walk back to the hotel. Now, I admit it probably wasn’t the best idea to walk around a completely new and foreign city when I was deliriously tired and essentially had no idea what day it was and where I was going. Considering I was here to attend a conference on safety and security, I probably should have oriented myself a bit better (and slept) before venturing out on my own. But this is Bangkok, not Baghdad, so I’m giving myself a pass this time.

I knew enough to walk to the top of the road and turn right. At least I was pretty sure. Then I saw two homeless guys sleeping under the stairwell to a pedestrian walkway, and I knew I was on the right track. I clearly remembered them from the drive. Then I came to an intersection with a Burger King, McDonalds and 7-11. Yep, turn left here. I remembered the intersection because of my immediate aversion to it. I kept walking, pretty sure that eventually I’d need to make another right turn. Oh, there is the Egyptian restaurant and the Restaurant Dubai. I remember in the car thinking I was hungry and wondering where the Thai restaurants were. Keep going, keep going. Oh, there’s the homeless guy begging on the corner. There weren’t many homeless people so the ones I saw stuck out in my mind. I’m pretty sure I turn right here. Hmm…this really doesn’t look familiar at all and there is no sidewalk and lots of traffic. Am I going the right way? Am I allowed to walk along this street? Oh, there’s another pedestrian, good. Onwards. Oh, there’s the security guard wearing the uniform from a company called G4S. I remember thinking in the car “geez, those guys are everywhere” since G4S operates all over Africa too. I’m definitely going in the right direction. Then I came upon a series of street signs pointing the direction to the Radisson Suhkumvit. I was tired, sweaty and probably looked like a vagabond (especially since I spilt tea on my shirt on the plane) but I was totally thrilled that I made it back to the hotel on my observations alone. That’s when I decided I was once a homing pigeon.

The walk was great too, a full-on sensory overload. The streets were lined with vendors selling food. Not like big taco carts or hot dog stands, but folding tables or little push carts with bowls of weird ingredients I’ve never seen or smelled before, platters of strange fruit that looked like sea creatures, and charcoal grills roasting chicken and pork. I wasn’t brave enough to try anything at that point, other than buying some sliced apples. I haven’t had much Thai food in my life. I’ve had Pad Thai and Drunken Noodles and Chicken Satay, but that’s about all. It’s amazing to me the variety and kinds of food here. In Africa, it’s pretty basic…rice and beans and potato greens and corn and spicy pepper. Here, it’s weird shoots and greens and seaweed and things I can’t even really describe because I have absolutely no idea what they are. Whenever I saw something new I always asked, but I honestly don’t remember any of the answers I got. One lady looked at me like I was the biggest idiot in the world when I asked her what was the large, round white fruit that had some patches of green on it. So I’ve never seen a coconut with the shell bit cut off it…so sue me. I liked everything that I tried, but I think it would take a while to get used to all the new flavors if (when!) I move here. Did I mention yet I want to live here? Well, I do. My absolute favorite thing is Tub Tim Krab. It’s a dessert of jellied water chestnuts in coconut milk. You add ice cubes to make it really cold, but you don’t eat the ice. I know it sounds weird, but it’s soooo good. One of the first things I’m going to do when I get back to DC is find a Thai restaurant that makes it.

I got back to my hotel a little bit after twelve, so I had just enough time to have lunch and take a shower before my tour. Let me tell you about the Radisson Sukhumvit. So when I was first told I was going to Bangkok, I wanted to stay at the nicest hotel possible. I seriously thought about the St. Regis and similar places. When I found out our conference was at the Radisson, I figured I would stay there while my organization paid for it and then move to a fancier place when I took R&R. However, the Radisson was amazing. It was such a nice hotel. Totally as nice as any Ritz Carlton I’ve stayed in. And it was cheap. That first day I didn’t even dare sit on the bed before my tour. I knew just by looking at it that I would be asleep in seconds. It was big and fluffy with soft, crisp white sheets and the four poofiest, most luxurious looking pillows I have ever seen. It was a cloud descended from heaven, designed for my comfort by the sandman himself. I know I’m being a bit melodramatic, but it was so far removed from the two months I spent on slightly dingy smelling, stiff, crackly sheets and ancient pillows stained from the brows of god only knows how many sweaty expat aid workers, not mention the bugs…nats that get through the mosquito net and conveniently die on your pillow or moths and other bugs, who don’t get through the net, and conveniently die directly in your line of sight so you have the joy of staring at them. So, like I was saying…a cloud from heaven.

I had a private tour around the old town of Bangkok. They were supposed to take me to the palace along with some of the main temples, but, because traffic was so terrible, we only made it to the Wat Po temple. It’s the royal temple and has extensive grounds with Buddhas galore, including a huge, reclining golden Buddha. Huge. Like 15 meters high and 46 meters long. Then we made our way to the banks of the river and took a longboat cruise through the canals. It was just me and my guide in the boat, so we sat near the front and each took the middle of a bench to balance. We definitely took some curves where I was leaning far to the other side because I felt like we were going to capsize. And when we were cruising along the open river (rather than in the narrow canals) our driver was slapping down so hard and fast over the wake of other boats that I was just waiting for the wood to shatter. Oh but it was fun! If you know me well, you know I love boats and now I can add Thai longboat to my list of vessels. 

There are temples and houses all along the canals. Most of the houses are built on stilts out on the water. Old rickety shacks mixed in with nicer, newer houses. In some areas there was even a concrete sidewalk on stilts running the length of the canal. We stopped at a temple and a monk gave us some bread to feed the catfish. I have never fed fish like that before. They went crazy and splashed and jumped about and made me even more wary of capsizing the boat. 

My tour guide was sweet. Instead of saying “so many” or “a lot” she would say “too many”. It was funny. “There are 30,000 temples in Thailand and over 400 temples in Bangkok. There are too many temples”. “That billboard over there is the King and his family. We love king here. We love his daughters and sons too. The king has too many children”.  It reminded me of my last night in Uganda. We went to the casino and played blackjack and every time the dealer bust we’d say “how many? TOO MANY” and we were pretty rowdy. Every time my guide said too many, it amplified in my mind and became a little drunken and slurred.

Weeks before going to Bangkok I made an appointment for a 6 hour massage service at a day spa recommended by my Australian colleague. I knew that massage was a popular thing in Thailand, but I had no idea that every other store front would be a massage parlor…and no, I don’t mean the type of massage parlor those of you who are degenerates are thinking of. Those type do exist of course, but in certain areas, like a street called Soi Cowboy (HA!). Anyway, 6 hours of body scrubs and foot massages and this weird Indian oil head massage was fantastic. I tried not to fall asleep but a few times it was beyond my control. When you have warm oil constantly pouring in soft, smooth patterns over your forehead for an hour, you get lulled to sleep whether you want to or not. A few days later I did a traditional Thai massage. It was more like a circus act than a massage. She stood on my back and walked on me and bent me around in funny directions. At one point she stood on the back of my thighs, tucked me feet up around her calves and then she bent forward to massage my shoulders while she was doing a yoga-like pose similar to downward facing dog. It felt like it stretched out my entire body and was pretty amazing. Overall it was probably the best massage I’ve ever had. I’ve always said if I was a millionaire the first thing I would do is hire a personal masseuse who would live and travel with me everywhere.  Well, I don’t have to wait until I win the lottery now. I’m just going to move to Thailand, where you can get an amazing massage for over an hour for less than 10 bucks. You can’t beat that.

On Saturday I went to the Chatuchak weekend market. It was a maze of stalls and alleyways and I was lost immediately. There must have been some kryptonite which blocked my homing pigeon powers. I have never seen a market so large and I wandered for hours. I should have bought Christmas presents for the next 5 years because everything was so cheap and you could buy anything you might ever want…clothes, shoes, hats, textiles, ceramics, toys, lanterns, statues, artwork, knick nacks, household goods and various other odds and ends. It was one of the few times I’ve had while traveling where I positively longed for some company. I thought of at least 5 people who I wished were with me to help navigate the goods and shop. I am not an expert shopper. I don’t get thrills from finding that great deal. I like to get in and get out and be done with it. So in this market I felt totally overwhelmed. I gravitated towards the souvenir stalls because that’s what I really wanted, souvenirs for friends and family. But even that was a fail on my part. I just felt completely flustered and overpowered by it all and with each drip of sweat that rolled off my face (it was hot as hell) my desire to shop decreased. In the end I spent about 5 bucks and bought two little things and that was it. So, if you’re used to getting presents from me when I travel and I don’t give you one this time, just remember that I thought about it, I tried really hard, but in the end I was paralyzed. You’re probably secretly happy because you have nowhere to put all the crap that I give you anyway.

And now for some other random observations…I went to a movie one night and before the show started they played a video showing the King and various scenes of citizen life throughout Thailand, all set to some rousing music. I don’t know if it was the national anthem or maybe some song dedicated for the King, but as it was coming on, the entire audience stood up and remained standing until it was over. I stood too because I didn’t want to be disrespectful…

Cigarette packs and cartons don’t just have a written warnings that they will kill you, they also have nasty pictures of diseased lips and cancerous throats and people on breathing machines. They should do that in the US. If I were a smoker, I would have a hard time buying anything with these extremely gross pictures on them…

If you ever need Viagra, Cialis, Valium, Xanax, porn videos or sex toys, you can get them on just about every street corner in Bangkok. I also saw some wood carved ash trays and boxes that had very dirty carvings on them. Apparently the Thai people are pretty sexually liberated…

I thought we in the US were subjected to an insane amount of advertising, but Bangkok was worse. It seemed like every free surface of space has some add or billboard or video screen showing commercials on it. And the commercials were hilarious. Of course I couldn’t tell what they were saying but I could never guess at all what they were trying to sell until the end when they showed the product. When I thought they would be advertising some entertainment center or headphones or something even slightly related to what they were doing on screen, it would turn out to be shampoo or a vitamin drink or something totally random…

Did you know that most of the flowers used to make leis in Hawaii are imported from Thailand? In 2008, when the airport in Thailand was shut down in the midst of political protests, Hawaii suffered a shortage of leis because they couldn’t get the flowers.

Well, that’s all from me for now. I’ll be in the US for about a week or so and then I’m off to my next assignment. I’m not sure where that will be yet, possibly South Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo. I’ll write again from wherever it turns out to be.

Thanks for reading. Kraub Koun Ka (thank you!)