Thailand

FEBRUARY 16 — FEBRUARY 24

After journeying through South Africa and witnessing its vast inequalities, I was eager to see what Thailand looked like. I was eager to be in a country where I wouldn't be stigmatized for my wealth, and I wouldn't be associated with “the oppressors” by default. Knowing that Thailand's GDP per capita was much higher than South Africa's and that the country’s wealth distribution was a lot fairer, I looked for signs of that as soon as we left the airport.

We arrived in Bangkok after a drawn out trip. From Cape Town, we flew to Johannesburg, then to Nairobi and then to Bangkok. In addition, we didn't get much sleep on the eight-hour long Nairobi-Bangkok flight and planned to stay awake until the evening in Thailand, in order to beat the jetlag.

We managed to hail an Uber at the airport, which was surprisingly easy, and made our way to town for 400 baht — about $12.

Our driver dropped us off in the middle of the Sukhumvit district and the struggle to find our hotel began. Google was no help in finding our destination. It lead us to the right street, but was way off the mark to find the correct building. We realized how dependent we had become on such technologies to get our way around. Our Airbnb host finally answered our call for help by texting us a YouTube link that our 3G connection could not play. “Strange to send video instructions to guests without a decent Internet connection”, I thought to myself. We swept up and down the street with our huge backpacks, drenched in sweat due to the crushing Bangkok sun. The humidity and heat of the city make for an oppressive mix, especially when you're still wearing jeans and haven't slept in 24 hours. Taxi operators saw us wandering and offered their services, which only added to the stress. As we grew more desperate, we entered a small mall at which point a kind woman took pity on us and asked what we were looking for. She was able to guide us to our hotel after what was only 20 minutes, but seemed like an eternity of stewing, lost, under the heat.

It was still mid day, so we changed clothes and set out to explore downtown Bangkok. This was our first time experiencing Asia, and the chaos of the city delivered on what we expected. Streets were impossible to cross, and no one would let us through unless we imposed ourselves. City arteries were clogged up, noisy, polluted. The smells reached out and grabbed us: street food vendors, human waste, exhaust fumes, dust. I was beginning to see why most people didn't have the best things to say about Bangkok, but I just rolled with the punches and tried to avoid getting tripped up in the details.

We decided to explore the old town with its temples the next day. We hopped on the subway and made our way to Chinatown which we crossed on foot. Fifteen minutes in, we stopped for lunch in a tiny joint with ridiculously low prices. The food was rather good and we felt like we were finally getting a real taste of what things are like for normal people in Bangkok. The restaurant's kitchen was out for all to see, there was no window to speak of, tables spilled directly into the street. Service was fast, the food was good, simple and affordable.

Bangkok’s temples didn't exactly take my breath away. They weren't as architecturally impressive, ancient, ornate as what I'd already seen in other parts of the world, but the simple fact that they were Buddhist temples was novel and interesting in and of itself. The following aspects immediately stood out to me:

  • The buddhas depicted in the temples are very androgynous. I concluded that either the religion is meant to be more inclusive of women, or this area of the world has vastly different standards of virility.

  • The buddhas rocked some interesting mustaches which looked as if they had been scribbled onto them by some prankster tourist — another testament to a wildly different set of aesthetics.

  • Offerings in shrines (blankets, incense, fruits, soft drinks, bills) seemed to be intended specifically for the Buddha. It’s fun to imagine that such items are what people think the buddha might want. To me, it brought back down to earth what I thought of as a high-minded, esoteric religion.

  • The music played or sung in temples, revolved around 3 notes in a repetitive pattern — one step up, a minor third down, and half a step up to the fundamental. I can easily see how that would induce a meditative state.

  • Clothing restrictions. Although not entirely surprised, I would have expected Buddhist temples to be more open about women's attire. Some temples forbid women, period. All temples required visitors to take off their shoes, but women needed to cover their knees and shoulders, and could not wear any top that might be too revealing. Buddhism is always described in the West as a religion that is much more accepting and less prescriptive than Christianism, but it seemed to have its quirks as well.

  • Buddhism on a pedestal. The West often portrays Buddhism as a 'high minded' religion, but the attachment to gold and wealth displayed in the temples is a reminder that Buddhism is made of men who are themselves vulnerable to the distractions most humans fall prey to: amassing wealth, displaying power, status.

We walked towards the Grand Palace, only to find it closed. An old man noticed us on the street as we were regrouping and started conversing with us. He asked the usual set of questions: where are you from, where are you going, how long are you staying. He had a smile on his face and a playfulness you rarely see in men of his age. He was obviously very proud of his country and city, and pitched us a tour of his own making. He hailed a tuk-tuk for us and sent us off into the old city of Bangkok to see the standing Buddha and the Golden Mountain.

It felt great not to have to deal with walking in the heat! Riding on a tuk-tuk is noisy and you need to be able to withstand the exhaust fumes from other vehicles, but it’s a great way to experience the city. You can hear all the noises, smell all the food, and go much faster than a taxi would.

After a stop at the standing Buddha, our driver stopped to relieve himself while we were left chatting with the superintendant of a local school who was taking a break outside his establishment. He was excited to find some Americans with whom he could share his experience studying at UCLA, as well as his frustration working with less well educated folks in Thailand. He bemoaned their pride, unwillingness to learn, and occasional inability to teach according to the standards he would like to see set for his country. He explained to us why the tuk-tuk ride was so cheap (40 baht): it was being sponsored by the government to drop us off at specific locations where locally produced goods are sold. The government doesn’t want us shopping in malls where the only items sold are from foreign brands. They want the money to stay in Thailand. That’s why our driver insisted on us stopping at a local tailor and a travel agency, which we stepped in and out of as fast as common decency permitted.

The afternoon made for a short, but rather fun experience of Bangkok and its old city. We had some interactions with real Thai people who proved to be friendly, approachable, smiling, generous, and proud of their country.

That night, we would make our way to the opposite end of Sukhumvit to try out a random restaurant, which ended up being quite good. We were served a green crab curry that I think we will end up remembering as the most spicy dish we’ve had in a very long while.

That night, Anais finally decided to post about our trip on Facebook. That prompted quite a few reactions, including from some very old friends like Wong, someone she made in British Columbia on a Rotary excursion, over 10 years ago. He just happened to be Thai, lived in Bangkok, and checked Facebook at the right moment. The next morning, him and his girlfriend treated us to our best meal in Thailand. I particularly remember a glass of watermelon juice that may well be the best thing I’ve ever drank. Some of the other dishes included Sum Thum, green curry beef, shrimp... Everything was very unique, and very tasty. We were to take the overnight train for Chiang Mai at six later that day, but with quite a bit of time left before that, we decided to indulge in a massage next to the train station. Massages aren’t really my thing and I hadn’t gotten a proper one in years, so my initial reaction to the idea was unenthused, but I figured it would be a crime to go to Thailand and not experience a Thai massage so I just went for it. It’s kind of crazy what they do with your body. Step on it, crack it, tug on it, punch it. It’s enjoyable, I have to admit, all for the low low price of 200 baht ($6).

Wong then drove us to the train station, said goodbye, and we went our separate ways. The last tickets for the 6:30 train just slipped through our fingers. The whole experience was confusing. Hosts at the station sent us to the “foreigner ticket booth”. Naturally, you’re happy to go there because you figure you’ll be speaking to someone with some decent English, but it wasn’t that simple. With some observation, we gathered that the main reason they send you to that booth is to push first class tickets on you. As it turned out, by the time we stepped in, there were none left, neither in the 6, nor the 7 o’clock train. We were at a loss, not knowing if we’d be able to reach Chiang Mai on time, or if we might need to spend an extra night in Bangkok. Out of the blue, an attendant sent us back to the regular ticket booth and revealed that two second class tickets had just become available. What a coincidence!

I had never taken an overnight train before, so I was kind of looking forward to the experience. We watched a few series and movies, and slept together in the same bunk at the bottom. It was definitely cramped, but it was a fun experience to get up in the morning and see the countryside. That’s probably the most we ended up seeing of the Thai countryside, as we would spend most of the following days in Chiang Mai.

Once again, Google maps failed us and we struggled to find our Airbnb because. Once again, the host was unresponsive, but we eventually stumbled upon our place, which was basic, but of decent value for the price we were paying (slightly less than $20 a night).

Chiang Mai resembled Bangkok in some respects, bustling and dirty. But the city wasn’t quite as hot, buildings were much smaller and it was easier to walk around. We stayed in an area called Nimman, which our SF friends might as well dub the Mission, because it feels every bit as hipstery. It did have a lot of great food options which from my point of view was the highlight of the stay. After having done copious amounts of traveling since the beginning of our trip, we were happy to just chill there for a while, and not frantically be out and about every day.

We were also looking forward to meeting up with Sutee, the first person from San Francisco that we met with during our world trip. On our second day in Chiang Mai, we went to the old city and had lunch in a restaurant called Ruen Tamarind which ended up being one of the best eats we had in Thailand. We then perused multiple temples in the city center. One thing that stuck with me was noticing all the monks doing outdoor work. Far from leading ascetic, secluded lives, they were working on landscaping in the temple gardens. Instead of being the esoteric, mysterious, old and wise figures I had always imagined them to be, there they were, an unassuming group of young men toiling over a wooden fence.

As the sun set, we headed to an open air market along one of the city's longest streets. It was a great experience: old and young, locals and tourists, all mingled and enjoyed the night out. Stalls of all types were out selling food, clothes, souvenirs, musical instruments and more. Locals also used the market as a venue to perform their art, whether talented or not. For the first time, we tried proper street food. We were a little paranoid about the sanitary risks, but wrongly so. The food we had was good, not the best we'd ever had, but dirt cheap which meant we could easily afford to try out many types.

The other highlight that week was our excursion to a temple west of Chiang Mai: Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. We made our way up there in Sutee’s good company, up a long flight of stairs. Unfortunately, our time there was cut short as I started to develop a fever. As of the time of this writing, we're still not sure what was exactly wrong with me, but at the time, my temperature read 42 degrees Celsius. As it turns out, our thermometer was faulty but we didn't figure that out until we reached the hospital. I continued to feel dizzy for a few more days, but I was feeling better by the time we reached Vietnam.

I should say a few words about my experience with emergency care in Thailand. With a wait time of around an hour, I was processed relatively quickly. I saw an fairly inexperienced doctor who was not able to diagnose my exact condition and ended up prescribing antibiotics. The hospital staff was able to run blood and urine tests within an hour. Seeing the doctor, running the tests, and buying antibiotics cost me about $20 when all was said and done. I was amazed at how fast they saw me, how cheap it was, and how little paperwork was involved. Comparing this to America was unsettling. Going to a public ER in the US would have meant waiting for hours and stomaching a bill most likely in the thousands of dollars.

When I think of Thailand, I inevitably think of the heat, the dust, the pollution, the traffic, along with golden Buddhist temples, friendly locals, safe streets, “kaaaaap’!”, value for your money (if you're willing to forego the premium experience)... but the highlight for me was absolutely the food. I've been a fan of Thai cuisine for a while and our trip did not disappoint. We had both some refined meals (Tamarind in Chiang Mai) and comfort food-y chows. Most of all though, I was happy to get a taste of something completely new almost every day and to challenge what San Francisco had taught me about Thai food. The sugary curries that you're used to finding in the US are much more difficult to come by. Instead, I saw much more grilled meat, pungent flavors, fish, spicier than in the US (no surprise there!). All in all, I still enjoy Japanese, India, Italian, or French food more than I do Thai food, but the ability of thai food to consistently provide something tasty and unique with value for my money every day is unmatched.