More from The Land of Thai (part 2)
After a quick tour of St. Gabriel's, the school at which Ryan taught English to young Thai students, we started the parade of Buddhas. One of the first things that will strike you about Thailand is the climate. It was, and I can't emphasize this enough, SO hot. Just stepping outside your door meant becoming a sticky mess of sweat. But no one is immune, so at least there is camaraderie in the sweaty-pits department. But it can be oppressive. That being said, Bangkok has adopted its own pace, time works differently because it's too damn hot to rush if you are on your feet. But the second you climb into a tuk-tuk, be prepared to have the tables turned. I had several "come to Jesus" moments during my trip, riding in my first tuk-tuk was one of them. Regular rules of the road don't apply. You just cling for dear life, and if you are brave, watch the city fly past you. The second thing that will strike you about Thailand is the number of people. I felt as though I was in a constant sea of bodies. But at the same time, never felt claustrophobic (which is shocking for me, I once had a panic attack in the Arc de Triumph for the exact same reason). My personal space never felt invaded. But never-the-less, people everywhere; on the streets hawking their wares, begging, just being hot. A chaos of bodies that somehow fits into the rhythm of everyday life. And then there are the palaces. These magnificent temples of vast wealth and decadence touring out and up from the frenetic society. The dissonance between the condition of Bangkok's citizens and Bangkok's temples was difficult for me to comprehend. How could so much wealth be so close to so much hardship, without any trace of resentment or discord? Nobody was protesting. I wanted to protest. I wanted to rip down the golden shingles that protected an innocent object and hand them out to everyone I saw. But I couldn't. I had to suppress the American, liberal, social activist, whatever in me in order to experience this place without judgment. There was nothing for me to fix. My place in that moment was to learn as a humble observer. Checking my ego, I did my best to let go of my first-world stigmas.
What I've just described above is one of the most important aspects of travel. It's why I think all student should visit another culture for a significant period of time during high school and college. Traveling can teach just as much, if not more, about yourself and the context in which you live your life as it does the place you are visiting. That kind of perspective can't be taught. But it also is vitally important to living in a global community.
I quickly uncovered a truth that I had already stumbled upon about the Tai people; they value serving others above all else. And their definition of "enough" is completely different than in the US. It's more important to honor Buddha than horde wealth for the gratification of ego. If I couldn't have paid for breakfast, there is no doubt in my mind that the owners of that American-style (ish) diner would have let me eat for free. Because for them, feeding a hungry person is more valuable than the money the food is worth. And that something that is rarely found in my day-to-day existence in America. But wouldn't it be great if it was?
There are countless examples of the Thai generosity that I can tell you, but there is one, in particular, that is my favorite. I'll get to it in a moment, I promise. Ryan brought me to several temples, walking through whatever bits of shade we could find. I think my favorite is Wat Pho, or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. It's the oldest temple in Bangkok and houses the 46 meter, gold plated Reclining Buddha. The statue, while overwhelming in immensity, is also oddly comforting. The Reclining Buddha is in a posed so casually that you can't help but feel a bit lighter, or perhaps, welcomed, by its demeanor. Again, the dissonance was a little weird. The statue is enormous, but also friendly and accessible. Thailand is like that.
That night, I got to see an entirely different side of the city. Ryan worked as a DJ at a roof-top bar not far from the school. It was incredible, between the incredible views and refreshing night air, I was in heaven. I also had the opportunity to meet a few more locals, including the manager, who spoke very little English. But the language barrier didn't matter. Everyone on that roof was speaking the same language, gratitude. Gratitude for the chance to escape into the cool breeze, good music, and slowly sink to the bottom of a glass.
Unfortunately for me, the combination of a hot day, alcohol, and third-world water treatment, I got pretty sick that night. Which left me feeling pretty drained the next day. But I refused to miss an opportunity to see more of this wacky, beautiful country. On the agenda for the day was another temple, but this one was out in the mountains, and so we needed to hire a bus to drive us out to the country. I let Ryan take the lead and handle all the negotiating. I was grateful to sit quietly in the back of the van for a while and just watch the changing countryside and let the anticipation for this mountain temple fill me.
Unfortunately, the driver had other plans. We stopped at a small gas station and mini-mart and were informed that this van wouldn't be going any further. Ryan did his best to get the driver to reconsider, but he wasn't going to budge. So we were in the middle of nowhere, between Bangkok and a mountain, with no means of transportation. Here comes my favorite story from the trip: We went inside the minimart and asked the woman behind the counter if we could use the phone (by we I mean Ryan, all of this was occurring in Thai, I was a silent bystander offering ideas and encouragement where possible). She asked us why we needed it and he explained our situation. She asked us to please wait and disappeared into a back room. A few minutes later she arrived with a man, her brother, who was willing to drive us the rest of the way to the mountain. They explained that it would take too long if we waited for another van and we wouldn't have time to get up the mountain before dark. Shocked by the generosity, we graciously accepted. When we arrived at the mountain, Ryan tried to pay the kind stranger, who belligerently refused such a preposterous offer. He then proceeded to explain that he would wait for us to do our hike and bring us back the gas station when we were finished to be sure we got a ride back into the city. We explained that it wasn't necessary and he didn't have to wait because it would take us hours to get to the top and back, but again, he insisted. And he did. He waited for us. Unfortunately for me, he didn't have to wait very long. Climbing a mountain after a long night of gastrointestinal distress was ambitious at best, and a little bit stupid at worst. Needless to say, we didn't make it to the top. But regardless, the beauty and wildness of the area is stunning. For the first time in my life, I encountered wild monkeys. Not making it to the top to see the temple is the only regret I had from the trip, but at the same time, I was glad we didn't have to keep our Tai angel waiting too long. We made it back to the city without incident and had a low-key evening. To top it all off, we watched The Hangover Part 2. "Bangkok has him now" became a common phrase throughout the rest of the trip.
The last story I'll mention here is my excursion to the island of Ko Samet to attend a full moon party. I'm not going to go into too much detail on this one, but if we are ever hanging out in person, ask me about it. There are some great stories to be told about this one. To get to Ko Samet, you have to charter a boat. But this isn't like hopping on the ferry to get to Staton Island. I'm talking about a flat bottom fishing boat that has questionable odds for making the journey. When you approach the island, you are greeted, almost seduced, by an ethereal looking mermaid, beckoning you to the shore. Guys, you haven't partied until you've jumped through fire on a beach in Thailand. I highly recommend it. But let me tell you when you leave that island on a rickety boat after a full moon party, that mermaid takes on a whole new attitude--it's clear she is actually laughing her ass off at you because she has your dignity now.
Jokes aside, I left Thailand filled with awe for a place I will never fully understand, and a little crushed by the reality of an excellent adventure ending so quickly. I got a little sick after coming back, readjusting to normalcy can be hard on you, every part of you. But one of the most comforting feelings in the world is being surrounded by people who missed you. My neighbor, Nick, left me the sweetest note under my door the first night I was back that I still have, all these years later. Every day of this adventure expanded and challenged my notion of what it is to be home. I'm so grateful for that.