I was standing at a busy intersection waiting amid a large crowd of pedestrians to cross the street, when someone pinched my butt. I glared heavenwards at the asinine behavior before turning slowly around. And looked up. And up. There was a tree behind me. And it honked. Right in the middle of the Bangkok congestion, in rush hour, an elephant is standing behind me waiting to cross the street. Where else would you see this!! Alright, ok, it’s still a novel appeal to me. I walked next to the massive creature for a few blocks, touching his trunk, his leg, a stupid smile on my face.
Thailand is the only SE Asian country to have escaped the good fortune of Western colonization, a subject of much debate as to why (that was sarcasm). Farming villages, especially those outside guidebook-assisted traffic, manage to preserve an authentic traditional culture. It is one of the last three countries in Asia (Cambodia and Korea are the others) to retain the unifying symbolism of its royal family. Like the typical middle-developing capital city assaulted by a rush of progress faster than its infrastructure can keep pace, Bangkok is dynamic, evolving, exhausting. It is extravagance and exotic refinement, hosted by a culture of reverence and hospitality, amid pollution, congestion, chaos. Streets are rapidly and irreverently stripped of local flavor in favor of sterile megamalls and concrete warrens of Starbucks, GAPs, multi-cineplexes. Professionals favor western garbs over finer traditional silks and prints. There is a concerning eagerness to emulate the standards of westernization ie Singapore.
Despite the clash of modernization with cultural identity, Bangkok offers the friendliest hospitality to newbie globetrotters and jaded planeteers alike. The population is highly literate; many people speak some english; western currency gets good mileage. Legions of tuk-tuks (tricycles), motorbikes, and taxis roar down the left side of wide boulevards that can be pedestrian-unfriendly. My jaywalking days were put to a screeching halt quite literally when I stepped off the curb looking for traffic in the wrong direction and was instantly plowed into, thankfully by only a tuk-tuk. A collective of older ladies peeled me off the street and helped me cross the street, holding my hands like I was a child. It was very cute.
Sensory speaking, I lived an impoverished age. From the moment I stepped off the plane my senses have been assaulted by the extremes of sight, sound, smell. Resplendent temple rooftops mark the signature skyline with their vibrant gold. Streets are lined with market stalls selling orchids, traditional handicrafts, knockoff-brand merchandise (of surprisingly good quality, I found), fine silks and textiles—it is a bargain hunter’s disneyland and a premier destination for vendors in the country. Pushcart kitchens and bars are everywhere. A special Thai moonshine that I swear is straight rubbing alcohol is found only on these street bars.
Seekers of Siam Exotica are not disappointed. I passed a snake blood stand and watched the vendor hang an unlucky reptile, slit it open with a razor, and drain its blood for a fresh warm shot. It supposedly is restorative for many systemic ills; only the poisonous ones will do. For dire situations, king cobra venom mixed with a bit of whiskey is the ticket. Dried gall bladders, fried hearts, pickled genitals are all readily available as well for the uncompromising palate. Flash strips and the skin trade hawking Oriental decadence waken every evening next to swanky shopping centers. Drugs of all kinds are available with the right eye contact. The basest desires transcend linguistic barriers.
And the FOOD!!! Thai food from the best restaurants can’t compare to the vibrant succulence that attack your palate and olfactory glands here. I found and devoured the remotest familiar fruit, drink, and concoction that I remembered from childhood in the tropics plus more (my palate thankfully had the good sense to stop at durian). Meals are so cheap that many apartments aren’t equipped with kitchens. Portions are small for western standards (Keith will need to purchase the kitchen’s reserves!). D and I are about a size 2 in the US; older ladies here grab our arms in good-natured ribbing and laugh at how “fat” we are (in the Philippines it was a compliment).
No standard system exists for transliterating Thai script into Roman so quick lateral adjustments are necessary. Ayutthaya on a map is easily Ayudhia on the street sign; ditto Chatuchak/Jatujak, Ratsada/Raitchada, etc. The tonal language subverts what linguistic logic I possess. Bound for Khao San, mecca for the backpackers, I kept accenting incorrectly. How many different ways one can intonate “Khao San” is beyond me, but I somehow accomplished it. I was dropped off clear across town from intended destination on the first try, and stayed to explore since I was already there. The next day I obliged the fates again after I insisted to no avail with the driver who took me to yet another part of town. Wondering if it’s possible to run out of ways to corrupt this name, three days later I was finally brought to the right place. I haven’t a drop of clue why.
There is a propensity towards kindness in the Thai personality. They’re an inherently good-natured, friendly, and peace-loving sort. To illustrate, unlike in neighboring countries that share their faith of Theravada Buddhism, deities here are benevolent beings, epics and legends like the Ramayana end happily ever after. Merit seeking acts of kindness to insure karmic goals are a life-long endeavor. Of course, the occasional miscreant exists and they have nothing to lose but a propitious rebirth higher up the reincarnation ladder (I wish my pickpocketer an eight-legged existence). This accompanies a natural reverence towards fellow creatures and Mother Earth, which sadly is quickly being replaced by materialism.
Women–a curious subject in whatever city I find myself. This influence on the hearts and minds of the generations is a fascinating watch, before eyes dismiss, look politely down, or smile in courteous greeting. It’s tough to miss the sheer will barely veiled in the eyes of Middle Eastern, Eastern European, Indian women, for instance, despite seeming constraint of culture. That spirit seems rule, not exception. But in the Land of Smiles gusto is mistaken for exception. Across this continent exists a vastly different modus operandi than what has served D and I well in the West, buttressed by a philosophy that honey catches more flies than vinegar. D struggles through this challenge, and I see the same frustration awaiting me.