There’s nothing like a trip halfway around the world to remind you how truly fortunate you are.
These last few days have been a whirlwind of jet lag-induced euphoria, and although they’ve not forced me to forget all my troubles, they’ve helped put them into perspective.
The first few days are difficult to categorize because, somewhere over the Pacific, we lost 13 hours. It’s currently 6am on Sunday here, and 7pm on Saturday in Georgia. My mind is still having trouble wrapping around the concept of fluid time; it feels very Stephen Hawking at the moment.
The flight to LAX was 5 hours; an overnight stop and an obligatory (re: I forced Brandon) stop by one of our properties, and we were back on our way to Seoul on another 13 hour flight. Follow that up with a 6 hour flight into Bangkok and we were feeling a little rough. However, the seemingly endless flights somehow put us on Bangkok time – we got in at midnight on Thursday and immediately slept through the night.
Bangkok is a flurry of beautiful activity, a breathtaking hybrid of deep spirituality and welcoming tolerance. I’ve never been part of a culture in which both religion and sex seem to be so pervasive in the everyday, treated as important elements of the human experience. Even the temples here include statues depicting sexual acts along with every other facet of human nature: parenthood, worship, joy, etc. I actually really vibe with that portrayal of humanity; how refreshing to see a religion that doesn’t pin shame on something so inherently natural. It was a gentle reminder of Christianity’s pervasive stigmas that have seeped into Western culture.
Speaking of stigmas, the night before I left for Bangkok, I mentioned to an acquaintance what my plans were for travel. Admittedly in no state to be having a coherent conversation, the man launched into a torrent of some of the most xenophobic vitriol I’ve ever heard. I was shocked. I didn’t even realize people – beyond, perhaps, some rednecks in the boonies somewhere – still possessed a blind hatred toward any culture other than their own. This was an educated and successful person essentially telling me that any idiot who chose to travel outside of America wasn’t just stupid, but unpatriotic, rendered me literally speechless. I guess I’ve been working for a client so incredibly welcoming of literally everyone for so long that it’s easy to forget that tolerance, for some, is a learned behavior.
In any case, this is not the norm in Thailand. Ever the balance of Madonna and whore, this country seems to house some of the world’s friendliest people; however, our American accents and wide-eyed naivette make is targets for conning as well. There seems to be this understood cultural message that everyone likes Americans, but we also must be milked for every Baht we have. The con game is such standard practice that we learned quickly to stop listening to anyone’s advice – everyone seems to have a connection somewhere in the city to a commission structure, to a Tuk Tuk driver who will take you wherever he’ll make the most money, to a restaurant you didn’t ask to go but “is the place you must try.” It’s like they are leveraging the clear language barrier to feign misunderstanding and drive up the price.
But that’s the seedy part of the practice. Oddly enough, there’s something I find highly endearing about the approach they take here; this obvious manipulation of Americans because they either think we are stupid or easily led (or both). We were accosted, for example, by a man outside a school, who claimed he was a retired teacher and simply loved American people. He offered to pay for our cabs, take us to dinner, introduce us to his friends. He spoke broken but communicable English and Brandon was highly suspicious of his motivations. But he was hilarious.
“You talk, I like you. I like Americans. You talk even though you are a girl. Girls here don’t talk. Why does your husband not talk? I don’t know if I like him. He is slow.”
Sure, he took us to a tailor to get custom made clothes, against which he likely made a tidy profit. Sure, he thought he conned us dumb Americans into spending money we didn’t anticipate. But I was just as happy because custom clothes were a “must” on my list for the trip – so the con man played right into my own game as well. Thanks for showing us where to find a good tailor, and the free cab ride there.
Sexism also seems to be a thing here, but again, in kind of an oddly endearing way. The theme of this country seems to be that it lives in shades of grey; where I live in this black and white universe where things are decidedly right and wrong, Thailand lives somewhere in the middle.
Women are treated with respect, bowed to. Everyone is extremely polite and gracious. But at the same time, there are rules at the temples (we visited Wat Pho and Wat Arun; stunning and breathtaking – thanks to Aisling for the recommendation) in which women must be covered. We also must never touch a monk, even brush his robe accidentally, lest he need to perform a long cleansing ritual afterward. Brandon enjoyed reading this.
“It’s okay, hon. It’s just that you’re disgusting. Don’t take it personally. You’re just a revolting, disgusting girl.”
I am not welcome to pay, or to lead. I get the side eye when I hand over a credit card with Brandon right beside me. This is so far against my nature I’d normally find it insulting, but for some reason, I don’t here. It’s another shade of grey.
Similarly, the embracing of blurred gender lines is completely refreshing. Wandering, we went to an outdoor restaurant with what I like to call the Thai Hedwig, complete with her own Yitzhak, performing on a makeshift stage. She was wearing a leopard print dress and ’90s Blossom-style hat, playing a broom (yes, you read that right). I couldn’t understand what she was saying but she was clearly fucking with the crowd. I got called out for taking pictures. She was fabulous, but looking around at all the locals’ reactions… she was merely status quo. In fact, behind me, a young man was cozied up to his male partner, showing his friend across the table pictures of his experience dressing as a LadyBoy as though he was sharing details from his last trip to the grocery store. There is nothing unusual or taboo about people being who they are here, and it’s startling. A culture so deeply rooted in religion is also deeply connected to its own humanity. Hey, come to think of it – I’m kind of digging Buddhism.
This blog post is getting long, but it wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the food. It’s been a bit of a mixed bag – there are most DEFINITELY no health codes around here; meat sitting out in the hot sun, loosely-rinsed utensils, flies, dogs roaming around. However, I’ve never been one to turn down a good piece of cheese that fell on the floor, so I’ve gotten past it and haven’t managed to get sick yet. And what we’ve had, ultimately, has been delicious. And cheap – $2.50-$5.00 for a meal; the most we’ve paid yet is $15.00 for dinner for the two of us, including beer. So again… welcome to the grey area.
Today, we leave Bangkok and hit the road toward Phuket. Can’t wait to try more of Aisling’s recommendations and hopefully also see some monkeys and elephants. We are truly a lucky pair of people, and we both needed this time away. There’s nothing like seeing the world through someone else’s eyes to make you realize how small you truly are in this universe. And that, Mr. Xenophobe, is why I love to travel.