Helllllo, Thailand!

22 06 2013

Now that our Thai exchange student has safely returned to his homeland, it seems like a perfect time to share my first account of Asia. I’ve been thinking about what it was like to first land in Thailand, with all the built up ideas and expectations. We couldn’t have started with a better time of year to experience cultural shock: good ole’ American Christmas!

While most people were still thinking about last minute holiday gifts, I was on a very big plane to fly 23 hours around the world. We were headed far from the twinkling lights, the squeaky white snow, and the carols amplified inside my mom’s vaulted living room ceiling. After the two legs of our journey, the time change, and our first taxi ride in Asia, we stepped out into the warm night air, bleary eyed and exhausted.

537407_408090062606957_1716688836_nIt was 1am on Christmas Day, and we were in Bangkok. We had missed Christmas Eve completely, though it was still 1pm the day before back home. I felt a pang of sadness to know that we were here, in the land of Buddha, on the most special day of the year, and there would be no family to celebrate with. Bethany and I paid our cab driver for the 40 minute ride, stepped into the modern lobby of the western hotel that the airline had directed us to, and approached the counter. Despite my lack of brain functionality, we managed to check in, and a man in uniform showed us the way to our room. We insisted on keeping our packs on our backs as he led the way, too sleepy to think about another option. It’s a good thing they didn’t just hand us a key and send us off, or I’m sure we would have ended up lost in the hotel, passing out in a hallway somewhere after giving up hope.

When we finally arrived at our room, I looked down at the handle, and there, hanging from the clean lines of the modern silver handle, was a 10 inch long red stocking, stuffed with treats, on Christmas Day. I nearly cried. Or maybe my eyes were just stinging from being so bloodshot. Either way, Bethany and I were shocked to see this gesture from the hotel, and happily accepted the stocking as our welcome gift to Bangkok. We stumbled inside, threw down our packs, blissfully brushed our teeth as we looked through the contents of our stocking, and passed out.

When our flight got changed, we had to rebook our hotel, and had brilliantly booked a room right across the street from the airport. We agreed to pay a little more for something with western amenities, since we knew we would be weary travelers by that point. In our brilliance, however, we booked it at the airport from which we were to depart the next afternoon- Don Muaeng- not the airport where we arrived that night. You can imagine our confusion when we were trying to figure out whether or not we could walk to our hotel upon arrival in Bangkok, only to have people tell us it would be a $14 cab ride. We originally had thought we might be able to simply walk to our hotel, but were willing to pay a couple bucks for a ride, just to make sure we didn’t get lost. I’m glad we decided to just pay it instead of searching further, given that the actual distance was worth the 430 Baht fare. The hotel we ended up in was an Amari hotel, very high class, western style, with 5 floors of private rooms and insulated walls that allowed us to sleep like babies.

When I awoke in the morning it was 10am, which meant I had slept more than 8 hours, but not slept the day away. I pulled back the dark curtains to see our view, and was shocked to see that our neighboring buildings were not other high rises, or office buildings, but single story shanties lining a small river to our backside. The corrugated tin roofs were pitched in every direction, with hardly a 90 degree angle in sight. My eyes were immediately drawn to a large, 6 foot long Coca-Cola sign that had been incorporated into the siding of one of the homes. You could see light passing through the gaps in the walls. There were no windows, only openings. They all stood on wooden piers overhanging the river, which also served as a sewer system. The water was littered with plastic bottles and debris, clearly not revered as a natural feature or source of life. The stark contrast with our western decadence, just on the other side of the river, was eye-opening. In the light of day, I could see just how much more indulgent our first night was.1501_408084625940834_1304085743_n

We had just a few hours before we had to walk across the street to catch our next plane to Chiang Mai, so we decided to eat breakfast at our hotel. They had a large spread, with western style eggs, German style muesli, and Asian style fried rice and veggies. There was a fruit smoothie station, where I asked the attendant to make me something that she enjoyed, and attempted to ask questions about what fruits she was putting in. Her English was limited, and she seemed embarrassed to speak, quickly calling on the help of other workers to try to explain. I had a little booklet that showed pictures of Thai fruits, and I pointed to one, asking if it was the same. She thought I wanted to know the English word for it, but what I was really trying to ask was the Thai name. Eventually, we all smiled and laughed when we realized that we were talking about the same fruit, and she beamed brightly when I said the name correctly.394882_408090419273588_1665982724_n

Outside of our hotel, it was hotter than we expected. The night air had been comfortably cool, but in the sun it was already time to remove my long sleeve layer. Bethany and I ventured off of the Amari grounds to explore the surroundings for an hour or so. We had a basic map and an idea of which direction was north, so I felt comfortable just wandering. ‘Flaneuring,’ if you will. We didn’t know where we were heading, but decided to follow our hearts instead of our maps. As we turned down the street, however, it wasn’t quite as friendly as I thought.

There was a narrow strip of sidewalk, but the concrete panels were often broken, or jutting up in a manner that would scream ‘lawsuit’ in America, or missing completely. They covered up what I think may have been a sewer channel, and the missing panels exposed a deep and dangerous pit to be avoided at all costs. Traffic zoomed by us on the busy one way street, with little on either side to force the drivers to stop. We were walking along a service drive for the businesses that lined the expressway, and there were few other people walking around. There were no intersecting roads, and no way to get onto a friendlier street, so we began to question our path, when we saw barbed wired atop the fence to our right. “Are we in the Bangkok ghetto?” I wondered. We were determined to see some of the city before getting on another plane, so we agreed to keep going, at least to the next major intersection.

As we approached the junction, I was relieved to see that there was a street heading off to the right, lined with the colorful bounty of an ordinary street market. Never mind the fact that I had no interest in the t-shirts, soaps, and sundries for sale at each of the 6×6 pop up tents. The point was that they were lining a path to something other than the gray, noisy street that we had been stumbling along for 15 minutes. We turned, and shortly saw a large Buddha awaiting us at the end of the lane. With many locals hanging around, we did not dawdle at the shrine, but quickly bowed to pay our respects, before slipping to the right. Just past the shrine, was a narrow bridge, bowing up from the shadows of the dingy buildings.We did not stop to ask where this bridge went, we simply ventured forth with confidence, so as not to be questioned.

Atop the pedestrian footbridge, we paused to glance up and down the small, dirty river. On one side was commerce. On the other, were innumerous tiny residences, stacked along the river bank like tin cans waiting to be collected from the curb. One of the many, 10×10 structures was actually sided partially with an old Coca-Cola billboard. I wondered how the multinational corporations would feel about this form of advertisement. It appeared that the residents lived in poverty, and densely packed for the convenience of the waterway. This sad little river served as both supply and waste streams for its denizens.885_408084859274144_1786350399_n

Bethany and I looked at each other simultaneously. Do we continue? we asked silently. Yes. Why not. As we turned towards the unknown, a man slowly sauntered past us on this little bridge. His eyes were glazed over with a lost look of opium, and he stared at us as if we were angels incarnate. We shook off his weight, and walked confidently into the alleyway before us. On either side stood the one story shacks, with some two stories on our right, away from the river. We walked past open doorways and screen-less windows, able to peer into the single room dwellings on either side. It made me feel like a voyeur. Like we were spying into their living rooms, walking through their backyards, but the path we were taking was nothing more than the main road to their homes, despite being a mere 4 feet wide. Families sat outside eating lunch together, as we walked past and politely nodded. We were too nervous to attempt to engage them in our limited Thai speech. What if they asked us a question and we couldn’t understand? Or grew angry that two Falongs were walking past where only locals belonged? We didn’t take the chance, though we weren’t fooling anybody about being falongs. Maybe we were fine because we were two women, innocent enough. Or maybe this was a common occurrence? Either way, we explored without incident, and turned back after 20 minutes, so as not to get TOO lost.

On our way back to the hotel, we wandered through a few interior corridors of a market. We laughed as we saw an employee drawing a snowman onto the glass entry doors. Her snowman only had two circles making up its body and head, but we immediately recognized that it needed a third circle. Bethany, unable to censor herself, spoke out in English, trying to explain the missing part, but instead we drew attention to ourselves, as the local crowd stared at us to try to decipher what we were saying. I attempted to shush her under my breath, and we scurried past the confused crowd of shoppers and workers. We weren’t in Kansas anymore.

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