For some reason, this particular chapter has been blocking me. I left Bangkok two weeks ago and I am not even in Thailand anymore. But as Bangkok was my introduction to Southeast Asia, I feel like it should be an introduction to the poetic journey as well because it will set the tone for understanding the culture and way of life for all the places visited from here on out. Some of my next Backpacking Bonuses are already complete and will be posted shortly after this chapter, but I have to start here.
In my travel experiences thus far, I have learned that you can get a pretty good idea of a culture and how a society operates upon arrival by assessing the dogs and how people drive. I’m serious. Here are some examples: In Guatemala, especially in the more rural areas, the dogs are usually scrappy and mangy. You get close to them and they either jump away or aggressively bark at you; they might even bite you. People may kick them or throw stuff at them, and the dogs are often left to fend for themselves for food or just eat leftover corn tortillas. You can see the fear in many of those dogs’ eyes which is consistent with how much of Guatemalan society lives in fear and functions through intimidation and manipulation. In the United States, dogs are washed and groomed and can receive training to ensure that they are well-behaved. They have names on their dog tags, microchips inserted to prevent being lost, and rhinestone collars just because. There are doggie sweaters available for if your pup gets too cold, Halloween costumes, flea medicine, and even organic, vegan dog food. In the USA, people have the resources to treat the dogs as if they are a part of the family and spoil them–just as we spoil ourselves. We live in a consumer society where many people strive to achieve the “primped and proper” lifestyle: we couldn’t possibly wear clothing with holes or stains, and we have to drive a “nice” car and keep up with the latest technology. If it’s not personalized or perfect, then it’s not good enough and we couldn’t possibly be happy.
Switching to driving, India is a great place to start. “Step into the street at your own risk” would be a great sign to post on every street corner because pedestrians do NOT have the right-of-way. In such an overpopulated country, it is all about survival of the fittest. The streets are jam-packed, lanes are disregarded–it’s about how many vehicles can actually fit on the road, regardless of space and comfort. People honk just to hear the sound of their horns, and if you really care about your own life, you should cross the street with a cow: people don’t really matter (there are too many there anyway), however cows are sacred and Indians actually stop for them as they wander in and around all the streets. You’ll always be safe with a cow.
In Central America, transportation involves a lot of improvisation and resourcefulness, creating paths where there are none and dealing with obstacles as they come–because everyone knows and expects that they will. While seat belts and safety precautions are less common in these fatalistic-minded societies, people in Central America are some of the best “defensive drivers” I have ever seen. And in the United States, there is usually order on the roads with defined lanes, traffic lights, cross walks, and speed limits. We have grown accustomed to this and perhaps take it for granted, losing attention and getting distracted with the assumption that everything on the road will just work out as the structure has intended. If anyone is not compliant with that structure, some people think they have to “teach that person a lesson” by tailgating, flipping them off, yelling at them, or any other futile action. Lastly, there is the sense of entitlement to the road: “I’m choosing to go over the speed limit and if there is anyone in the fast lane who is not going as fast as I am, they better move over and give me the lane!” I suppose you can find that anywhere, however, sometimes I worry about Unites States citizens’ survival skills compared to many other parts of the world.
A PLACE and its PEOPLE
Upon arrival to Bangkok, I was surprised to find that there are not very many cats and dogs wandering the streets. After skeptically observing the dogs that I did see and cautiously keeping my distance having become accustomed to Central America’s dog behavior, I found that the dogs in Thailand are quite subdued. They are very mellow, and I don’t know if they even know how to bark. (I’ve heard some small yappy dogs, but those don’t count. Tiny dogs always yap; I think it’s a genetic mis-wiring or something.) I noticed that people will give the dogs food, but the dogs never seem desperate for it. People can walk right past a dog or a cat and neither will flinch. They all coexist peacefully and respectfully in society. There seems to be a very similar attitude in regard to driving and transportation in general. If there is a person or obstacle in the street or on the sidewalk, people will actually go around it or slow down and allow the person/bike/animal/etc. to cross or pass by safely. It is a beautiful thing. There is so much respect for life and space and any sense of fear or entitlement is practically nonexistent.
The dominant religion in Thailand is Buddhism and while I don’t know enough about it to explain it here, my observations have convinced me that it is probably the most peaceful and least judgmental religion in the world. There are temples, shrines, and golden Buddhas everywhere in the city, and it is common to see orange-cloaked, often barefoot monks walking through the streets or worshiping at the temples. In one temple I visited, I saw a posting that read, “The Holy Buddha: Buddha irradiates the wonderful energies of HEAING, LUCK, ABUNDANCE, AND HAPPINESS ETERNALLY.” Who wouldn’t want that? It seems that this belief system has influenced the entire culture in Thailand and that there is also a strong sense of karma: people are kind, helpful, and always minding their own business, unless needed to lend a hand, which they willingly do, no questions asked nor expectations of anything in return.
At first, I was skeptical. Being that I am fair-skinned, female, and alone, I don’t exactly blend in; in contrast, I could be considered an obvious target, especially because I don’t speak the language. I was mentally prepared for this and ready to get some karate chops going and “hi-YAH” anyone who tried to mess with me if my first line of defense–the “don’t even think about it” look–wasn’t enough. I am laughing about it now as I write this because while I got used to living “on guard” in Central America, here, I haven’t gotten a single cat call nor have I been harassed in any manner. People are extremely respectful, and I feel very safe. It also doesn’t seem to be a place where the public degradation of women is acceptable. You can pretty much just chill out, and you’ll likely make an immediate best friend everywhere you go.
Another cultural trend is one relating to shoes and footwear. First of all, the majority of the people I saw in Bangkok (as well as other parts of Thailand and Southeast Asia thus far) where very simple footwear such as flip-flops or other sandals, crocs, slip-ons or basic sneakers on a daily basis, even when they are working. In order for people to enter temples, homes, spas, massage parlors, and certain other buildings, it is often required that they remove their shoes and leave them outside. It would be rude to walk in with your shoes on. It makes sense that most people choose shoes that are easy to get on and off! Again, I didn’t really trust leaving my flip-flops outside everywhere I went in a pile of shoes. I thought for sure they would either be stolen or mistaken (or swapped!) for another person’s sandals, but so far so good. Thievery is not a prevalent lifestyle in this particular part of the world whereas the honor system seems to be understood and implemented by all.
Because of how this city seems to have been founded on the principles of peace, karma, and honor, it was shocking for many to hear of or witness the bombing that took place at the Erawan Shrine in Bangok just this past Monday that killed over 20 people and injured at least 120 more. Violence and harm do not linger in Bangkok’s city air as they do in other places; Thai authorities say that whoever was responsible for the bombing acted from a place of malice, aiming to kill innocent people. They still do not know where the root of the incident lies–whether it came from a political/terrorist/religious group or someone else, however, it has definitely had a negative impact on tourism, which is the driving force of the Thai economy.
The whole thing has been very sad; it is such a shame that people would be that selfish and cruel. I had been out of Bangkok for about a week and a half already when the bombing happened, and while the Erawan Shrine is a major attraction for tourists and a revered place of worship for locals, I had not visited it. I was intending to make Bangkok my hub or base city for this trip because it is the easiest place to get in and out of when flying to other countries in the area and it is also a good place to go for a “city refresh” after bouncing around jungles and islands and dirt roads. I also still haven’t seen one or two of the Bangkok hotspots, which I was reserving for one of my return trips. With the recent developments, however, I may reformulate my plan and stay away for a while to see how things play out in Bangkok moving forward following the bombing.
Bangkok is an amazing city. It is grandiose. As the capital of Thailand, it has been referred to as the “Megawatt City of Excess.” It is similar to San Francisco in that it is loosely separated into various districts within the city, yet connected by an amazing public transportation system involving trains, subways, and buses. I was so impressed by the systems and the cleanliness of the city. It is modern and busy but technology has not driven out the traditional ways of life and it almost seems as if the old and new function interdependently with each other. For example, every morning street food vendors set up right outside the Skytrain and Metro station stops in the financial sector of the city, ready to sell pre-prepared and portioned fresh fruit and lunch meals to the sharply dressed business men and women who are rushing to their jobs in tall office buildings. Both sides benefit as the street vendors solve the issue of a lack of time [to prepare healthy meals] for the hurried office workers who in turn enhance the income of those with less education/less economic opportunity/etc. Great system.
Another commendable system in Bangkok is transportation. I don’t know how many times I will continue to rave about the Skytrain and Metro systems here, but my appreciation for them was instant. There is an “Airport Link” that will take anyone directly from the airport to any number of connecting transportation stations. There are two “Skytrain” tracks that run through different parts of the city, plus another “MRT” (Metro) track that intersects with both of the Skytrain routes. It is so easy to get anywhere in the city using this system! And it is inexpensive. There are pay stations that dispense tickets or tokens with the exact value to get you to your destination. The trains are air-conditioned and relatively spacious. The stations are designed to be straightforward and it is an absolute breeze to get around. No smoking, no eating, and no stinky fruits allowed on the train–those rules are enforced and abided by pretty much everyone. At the end of the line, no one is allowed on the train until the train workers sweep the entire train. Lastly, people are considerate enough not to pee on the public train–unlike some people who ride BART in the Bay Area. It is a delight to be on public transportation that doesn’t stink.
In addition to the public train system, there are many other convenient transportation systems in Bangkok including public buses, private taxis, and tuk tuks. Most local people drive around in vehicles just like we have in the States. There aren’t very many SUVs out here, but I’ve seen a few. What is more common are motorcycles and motorbike scooters. They are everywhere and I have seen just as many women riding them around as I have seen men on them. Motorbikes are available to rent as are bicycles, however, walking is my preferred method of transportation for now. I trust my feet. Maybe I’ll rent a motorbike when I get out to an island where there is more space, but there are just too many people around here for an amateur to learn how to ride a motorbike. And after losing my borrowed bike to the riverbanks, I’m also passing on the bicycles for now. Plus, walking around is good exercise and a great way to get oriented in any city. If I need to go a farther distance, I will opt to use the bubblegum pink Toyota Corolla taxis; tuk tuk drivers are known for charging “tourists” double the price whereas the shiny pink taxis are metered. Plus, they are air-conditioned and when else am I going to have the opportunity to cruise around in a hot pink car?
In regard to the language, first of all, Thai spoken language sounds lovely and the written form is elegant and swirly, a series of symbols more than letters, however many signs translate the symbols into letters that help with pronunciation. I tried to learn some of the vocabulary from a phrasebook I brought with me, but I am butchering practically everything I attempt to say. In Thai, five words can have the exact same spelling, but have different meanings depending on the tone that is used (high, medium, low, rising, or falling) in pronouncing them. It is all about intonation which can be confusing, difficult, or even embarrassing if you say the wrong word. Asian languages are hard! When I first arrived, I went through a phase of getting the urge to speak in Spanish because that is my second-nature foreign language communication tool, but that urge went away quickly as Spanish won’t get me very far here. Having a second language is like a magic tool that makes you feel competent; unfortunately I am feeling slightly ill-equipped without the language skills and having to rely on other forms of communication (which isn’t a bad thing to practice). I at least got the phrase “thank you” down, for the most part; that’s an important one to know.
To my relief, I found in Bangkok that almost all public signs, menus, prices, and informational brochures are written in both Thai and English. I stand in awe of the Thai government and its brilliance: not only are they catering to English speakers who often visit Bangkok for the purpose of business or tourism, but they are simultaneously teaching their own people English, if only just a little at a time. I am so impressed. And because of this, it is very easy to get around the city. An interesting observation I made related to this is that English speakers are not the only visitors to Thailand; people come from all over the world, from every continent, but they do not seem to have a problem getting around here–guess why not? In addition to their primary languages, people all over the world are learning to speak English as well. Europeans usually speak minimum 3 languages, Chinese and Indian people speak English (if they attended school), and in Australia, they are starting to teach Chinese in school. My prediction is that English, Spanish, and Chinese are going to be the top three universal languages in no time. It is amazing that people all over the world are becoming equipped with a second language in our global economy. In my opinion, it is a survival skill that gives anyone an edge over someone who knows only one language. (No pressure.)
Technology abounds in this forward-thinking environment and I was a little surprised to see that the majority of people use smartphones (but mostly iPhones). While the people are very friendly, I can already see that the younger generation is developing a dependency on their phones for social interaction. When I first boarded the Skytrain leaving the airport, I noticed that probably 90% of the people in the train were looking down at their phones, texting, reading, or playing a game. It amazed me that I could be in close quarters with so many people on this train and not feel like I could approach or initiate conversation with any of them because they were all blocking social interaction by use of their phones. I know this is happening in many other parts of the world as well, but it was so blatant that they didn’t even notice me snapping photos of them.
On that note, I’d like to quickly highlight another form of technology that is sweeping the Asian continent: the selfie stick. I did purchase one of my own from Amazon.com shortly before I left for my trip; my step dad encouraged me saying that they wanted to see me in some of my photos and that with a selfie stick, I wouldn’t have to hand off my phone to someone else to take a picture of me. However, although I tote it along occasionally in my daypack, I feel really awkward taking it out and messing with it and posing. I goofed off with it a little before I left with my friends Roberta and Dan and we had fun figuring it out and taking silly photos, but it’s not as fun when I’m by myself. In contrast to how I feel, people here have absolutely no qualms about pulling out their selfie sticks and taking pictures of themselves everywhere they go. Chinese tourists are the most shameless which goes hand-in-hand with that stereotype we all have about them with their cameras taking pictures of everything. I watch them all, intrigued by the obvious cultural differences, slightly amused, and also curious about what it would take to get me to bust out my selfie stick more often.
Beyond that, the people in Bangkok just seemed so stylish, yet nonchalant about it. From enormous shopping malls to busy markets, people have access to pretty much anything they want or need. Maybe too much access. There is a shopping center in the middle of the city that can be considered a tourist attraction in and of itself. I went and checked it out because I was curious and I was utterly fascinated by the 7-story mall with a movie theater and arcade on the top level, a food court on the 5th floor offering just about any type of food from around the world that you could crave, two Dairy Queens, and shops and stalls that had so many items in them that you could hardly walk through the space. Not tempted by the “stuff” in the least, I opted for a pedicure instead that cost me a $8 US, including tip; I was happy I waited to get to Thailand for that–it was less than half the price we pay in the States and the lady did a great job!
In addition to just enjoying being in a new city, I did get out to do some tourist stuff. To be honest, I don’t always enjoy going to the tourist hotspots because that is not where you see the real people of a city and how a city really functions. Luckily for me, I made a new friend when I was strolling through the great big Lumphini Park close to where I was staying. Kristin was also strolling through the park, having just arrived in Thailand earlier that afternoon. She was just starting a 3-week organized group tour of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, but technically she came by herself. While she has lived abroad, traveled on her own, and worked in Public Health (all things we have in common), she is a nurse in San Diego now and had slightly limited vacation time so opted for a pre-arranged tour. After the walk through the park, we split up for the evening, but made a plan to reunite the following morning to spend the day together before she had to meet up with her tour group.
I was so happy to have a friend–a real, live person who actually wanted to talk to me and could carry on a conversation!! It was wonderful. Five days of one-sided or very short conversations was a long time for Lil Miss Talkative over here to go. I spent my quiet time getting acclimated and organized so I figured socialization could be a great treat–and it was. I didn’t even care where we went, I was just happy to go with someone. We compared the guidebooks with her tour and decided on a couple big places in the city that were not on her itinerary with the group: the temples Wat Pho and Wat Arun and Chinatown. Bangkok has a lot of temples and the majority of them house golden Buddhas and have some neat architecture. Wat Pho is home to the largest Reclining Buddha in Thailand and Wat Arun is known for its Emerald Buddha (however the main temple wasn’t open so we missed the Buddha, but wandered around the rest of the grounds). It was really hot that day so we took frequent breaks from “touristing” to chit chat in the shade, sip Thai iced teas, and snack on street food from the market.
When we were finished with temples, we decided to wander through Chinatown to feel it out and find something good to eat. We quickly found out that right on the outskirts of Bangkok’s Chinatown lie an “Arabia-town” and an “India-town” as well. After a delicious meal at Royal India that we shared, we continued to stroll through the markets and discovered that Chinatown–jam-packed with markets and noises and big red and gold banners and signs all over the streets–is definitely not as clean as the business sector of Bangkok that I was getting used to. While trying to block out the unpleasant smells of dried fish, fresh meat, and rotting garbage in streets and vendor stalls, we both reminisced of prior favorite market experiences as we took in the intoxicating aromas of fresh flowers, incense, and spices that permeated the market air.
I was so grateful for Kristin and her companionship that day. Kristin was on her own healing/reflection journey during this trip and I appreciated that she opened up to me and shared some of her story with me. For some reason, people seem to be more open when traveling. There are no titles or responsibilities or expectations or material items interfering with a person’s identity–it’s literally just the person and maybe a self-sustaining backpack or piece of luggage. There is nothing blocking them and little if any fear of judgment while experiencing the freedom of travel. While Kristin and I parted ways when she needed to go meet with her group, we have kept in touch via email as I am sort of following the path she went through Southeast Asia. (I’m just moving through much more slowly.) She has been sending me updates and guiding me to things she thought were worth doing. A few days after the day we spent together, I was totally missing my new friend, but all the activity of my hostel dorm room kept me entertained at least for the rest of the week.
Staying in hostel dorm rooms can be a hit or miss, but there exists the opportunity to meet some interesting people. I want to include a snippet here (and this is the only time I will give this kind of detail of a hostel dorm room) because it contributed to the overall experience and illustrates how Bangkok is a multi-purposed and colorful city. In the 7 nights I stayed at S1 Hostel, this is a rundown of my situation, who shared the room with me, and the interactions I had with them:
Night #1) A German girl waiting for her sister to arrive the following day so they could move into the apartment they were going to share in Bangkok for the next 6 months while they both worked their separate internships; another girl came in late and left early the next morning.
Night #2) A black girl who came in after I was asleep, was sleeping when I got up, and was gone by the time I returned from the activities I was out doing. We didn’t speak, therefore I don’t know if she was African, American, neither, or both. No offense intended.
Night #3) A 32-year-old Thai woman named “Nok” whose 50-year-old Dutch ex-pat husband was drinking too much that night so she decided to get away from him to avoid a fight. They have been married two years and he retired early to move to Thailand when he married her. She came with very little and stayed in a dorm room–as opposed to a private room–because she was afraid to sleep alone. We had great conversation and she shared some tips for travel with me, websites I could check out, bus prices and stations, stuff like that. I worked from the room that evening instead of from the rooftop lounge.
Night #4) I had the room all to myself! Woo-hoo!!
Night #5) Stephanie, a gregarious 25-year-old from Singapore, had just completed a two-week Musical Arts Workshop hosted by the US Embassy in Thailand and she was en route back to her home. We chatted for a while in English (I learned that although Malay is the “official” language of Singapore for historical purposes, English is actually the primary language that is taught there–Stephanie’s first language) and we may or may not have broken out into song once or twice… If I make it to Singapore for a couple days during this trip, she offered to show me some great places to eat while I’m there. We’re Facebook friends now.
Night #6) A very stinky American girl. I know nothing about her. As soon as I returned from my afternoon outing, I was practically stinked out of the room. I showered as fast as I could and retreated to my rooftop lounge sanctuary for the remainder of the evening. (Luckily she had showered by the time I came in to go to bed so it was manageable.)
Night #7) This was the busiest night with a total of five girls in a 6-bunk dorm, which made me very happy that I was leaving the next day. I actually had a conversation with the American girl from the night before and found out that she had just arrived to study abroad for the semester through her university in Idaho. Another woman from Oregon had been vacationing in Burma/Myanmar and was flying home the next day. (Flights out of Bangkok are the best/easiest/cheapest.) Then a really cool girl named Courtney showed up and we clicked within 30 seconds and couldn’t stop talking. From Kentucky, she has been living in Thailand (on Ko Samui island) teaching kindergarten for a couple years now. I knew she knew the local ways and we had had similar life experiences so there was almost immediate trust. She has been in touch with me since we met, sharing tips and tricks, guiding me along as I go. The last girl in the room was Courtney’s friend who had just arrived to visit and travel with her for a couple weeks; Courtney was only staying in the hostel that night to pick up her friend from the airport before they started their adventure.
Clearly you can see that hostels serve many purposes for many people, not just for backpackers. While most people were just passing through, I made it my temporary home. I guess you could say I became friends with the staff, even though we didn’t really speak much. But early every morning, two teenage girls would come up to the rooftop to water the garden and sweep and I loved watching them play and chase each other around with the big caterpillars (invasive species) they would find on the plants. The staff was very warm to me. If/when I do go back to Bangkok, I will likely stay in this place again. I became familiar with the area, I felt safe, and I liked the people. It’ll be a good re-set place to get my bearings, do some laundry, and re-civilize, per se. Bangkok is a vibrant city with so much to do and so many hidden treasures. I don’t feel that a handful of paragraphs do this city justice, but it is enough for now.
TRAVEL TIP: Patience. In the case that a language barrier exists, have patience first with yourself and second with the people to whom you are trying to speak. If the words aren’t working out, speak with your eyes and use other forms of communication such as hand gestures or drawings. Don’t get frustrated and don’t rush. Be forgiving and laugh at yourself and/or the situation; it will make things better, trust me. If you are patient and engage with the locals, they will do their best to help you in some way and they will know through your eyes and smile that you are grateful and sincere. Smile often–it lets people know that you are open to connecting (and it’s okay if they’re not open, not everyone will be). Lastly, rushing and giving off any sense of fear or desperation will make you an easy target because people can sense that. When you are in a frantic state, the probability of you losing something, getting pick-pocketed or robbed, or being overcharged for an item/service/ride significantly increases. Give yourself plenty of time to get places and plenty of options in case Plans A, B, and C don’t work out. Fretting won’t get you very far. Just be patient and go with the flow.