I would make a great politician.*
Every country I visited was somehow my favorite this or the most that or the best at something else.
I like to think this is not due to indifference but rather optimism and flexibility. As the great diplomat that I am, I found a way to love something in every country I visited, doling out at least one respectable superlative per passport stamp. It would make a well rounded yearbook.
Best Southern Hemisphere Christmas Celebration, Ever: South Africa
Hottest Temperature of Life, Ever: Namibia
Smallest Airplane of Life, Ever: Botswana
Most Beer Consumed from a Milk Carton, Ever: Zambia
Coldest Night Spent in a Tent, Ever: Tanzania
Best Place to Leave As Quickly As Possible: Kenya
Most Miraculous Mask Recovery, Ever: Seychelles
And that brings us to Thailand.
A new continent! My most coveted continent. A dream since childhood, since our many report card dinners to the local Chinese restaurant. Now, don’t you worry, I am not suggesting that the cuisine or the people or the life experiences in Thailand are even remotely comparable to those in China. Or India. Or Pakistan. Or Bhutan.
Asia is big. Like, really big. But from an early age, I was fascinated by all things Asian.
It started with food, as most good relationships do. Then it blossomed. Arts, culture, religion. How could it not grow? With all that beauty, all that history, all of those delicious flavors parading about in my mouth. Fire crackers and Dragon Dances celebrating Chinese New Year on my tongue.
That greasy Chinese food early on, it was like a gateway drug. It opened my world up to Japanese and Indian and Thai and Vietnamese and Indonesian and Nepalese. So when it came to planning this trip, Asia was happening. It just was.
Needless to say, Thailand was annoyingly awesome. Like, almost too awesome. You know what I mean? It would have been that really popular kid who somehow managed to get Best Hair AND Most Likely to Succeed. A month of traveling over sea and across land and through air left me with a major crush.
So with everyone’s favorite activity, lets take a look back at our High School Year Book.
Most Interesting Transportation: Thailand
I arrived in Thailand gangbusters full of energy. After many months living on an island with electricity for 2 hours a day, shower limitations, and rice and beans, a lot of rice and beans, I was ready to go.
I could smell the fish sauce wafting up from the city as my plane descended. Curries and noodles and meats and meats and meats and curry and noodles and enough soup to drown my previous dining sorrows.
The only thing that stood between me and my culinary dreams was another taxi ride. We all remember how well the last one went…Little did I know I was descending on the transportation capital of my dreams.
I once asked a young Thai man in my hostel in Bangkok the best way to get to a local market. He told me to walk outside…and hail a cab. Assuming some language barrier, I asked again, making the universal sign for walking with my palm and two fingers. He laughed briefly and happily explained that he didn’t know, Thai people don’t walk. Obviously that is a gross generalization, but hey, when in Thailand….
I have never been met with such enthusiasm in a cab. Such excitement. Such joy. Such utter disregard for the rules of the road. Every cab was a pure pleasure. A mystery. Like those chocolates that Forrest Gump liked to eat, but with all of your favorite flavors and none of those nasty cherry filled ones.
My first ride into Bangkok was like being welcomed back to lovely Boston drivers. Lane lines were irrelevant. The use of blinkers seen as a sign of weakness. And I am pretty sure that the speed limit signs were simply a recommended minimum speed. As we flew along, I was quite comforted when the driver proceeded to take his laptop out, open it, and shuffle through iTunes. Few words were exchanged and there was a mutual understanding that I would turn a blind eye to the traffic laws and a deaf ear to the horrid music and he would get me to my destination as fast as humanly possible.
Have you ever had a cab driver announce with complete certainty that your sports team is “toilet”? You see it seems that the sport of “football”, as the rest of the world calls it, may have been the source of some very creative bits of language acquired in areas of the world that do not choose English as their first language. Forget TOEFL, give me a good old footy match. “Toilet!” he shouted banging the steering wheel as we giggled ourselves silly. “Toilet.”
Red lights were run. Cops were bribed. Truly splendid riding.
And then there was the mother of all cabdrivers. The cream of the crop. La crème de la crème.
He was a bit old. Somewhat senile maybe. I pictured him going home at the end of the night to his wife. She would have been one of those friendly old ladies who sold miscellaneous meat on a stick from her food cart on the sidewalk. The ones travel doctors warned you about. The ones you ate at anyway. They would have had a happy life. Many grandchildren. Another one on the way.
Perhaps that is what he was thinking about when he forgot to start the meter on the cab. He realized his error eventually and apologized profusely. We knew the general price of the ride so agreed to his proposed solution and the ride continued. Taylor Swift sang along in the background about some broken heart or new love. And we finally reached town, crawling through traffic and starving. As if Father Cabbie could read minds, he rolled down his window and reached out into the bucketing rain, retrieving from out of nowhere a greasy paper bag full of fried plantains to share. As one friend put it, “so you had a cab driver that undercharged you and bought you street food to apologize?”
Father Cabbie here earned Thailand the coveted “best transportation” category of our yearbook.
After a week in Bangkok, exploring the glowing gold temples, the buddhas as big as buildings, the searing hot curries, and the winding street markets, I was in heaven.
But after so much hot, crowded city time, a little bit of me begged for the countryside, which is how we found…
Most Buoyant Markets: Thailand
Most days were spent walking and burning and eating and drinking and stopping for the periodic foot reflexology massage. Save for one day which was filled with markets and boats and markets and boats together. The floating markets around Bangkok are famous, for good reason. Lively, energetic, and touristy, very touristy. But with an early start time we avoided some of the activity, followed by a bike ride through local farms, a climb through a temple overtaken by a tree, and a quick little seafood lunch, it was a colorful break from the bustle of Bangkok.
These traditional markets have been largely taken over by tourists, ourselves included, so I would recommend you get up and moving early and opt for a smaller, further, less well known market if you want the experience all to yourself.
And then it was time to travel north. Chiang Mai, capital of the Chiang Mai Provence and former capital of the Kingdom of Lan Na (1296-1768), an old walled city with four quadrants and more art, creativity and culture than it can contain. The first night was spent stumbling through a blinding rain storm, seeking cover in a street-side foot massage stand, and then eating and drinking our way through a sprawling, colorful, lively night market.
It was the highlight of Thailand, smaller and more manageable than Bangkok with easy access to nature above and beyond my beliefs…
Greenest Hills as Seen from a Moped: Thailand
Would you rent mopeds to two girls who did not drive stick, have never been on a motor-powered two wheeled vehicle, don’t speak the local language, and usually drive on the other side of the road?
Yea, neither would I. Fortunately, some fool did. And we fools accepted the rentals, dangerous as it may have been.
We wanted to get out of this beautiful walled city and see what treats lay beyond. We wanted to go and go we did. And go and go and go. We journeyed for hours and hours through more gas than we expected on roads we didn’t see on maps, returning in rush hour traffic that makes Boston drivers look like kittens. It was just so mesmerizing. The greens flying by. The greenest greens. Shades of green I have never seen. Stretches and hours of road with no other vehicles and vistas around every turn.
We couldn’t talk most of the day. Or listen to music. Or read. Or write. But drive we could do. And drive we did. Through the greenest green hills these eyes have seen from the driver seat of a moped.
After all that driving and sitting and walking, it was time for some down time. Which brings us to…
Most Interesting Massage: Thailand
Notice I said most interesting, not best.
The Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution.
What was I doing getting rub downs in a jail? Don’t worry, I was well behaved, no funny business here.
I stumbled upon the Chiang Mai Woman’s Correctional Institution one afternoon of wandering with a friend. This facility offers prisoners training in trade skills during their incarceration so that they may become more valuable to society upon their release, offering services to the public as part of training. We figured it was our duty as American ambassadors to contribute to the rehabilitation of these women. Happy to oblige.
We weren’t expecting much as we were led to a back room by a sternfaced uniformed guard. Ambiance wasn’t their forte, the walls being adorned only by a small sign reminding patrons that money should never be given to prisoners. Ambiance was not necessary when the main event began.
We settled back into our well worn reclining chairs with looks of trepidation as we received the ceremonial (read, hygienic) washing of the feet. I was expecting an hour of poking and rubbing and squeezing that would leave me with a good story and in need of another massage. How wrong I was.
I spent an hour floating in the no mans land between dreams and reality before being gently welcomed back to the earth with a warm cup of herbal tea. We rose to our pampered feet and with much bowing and thank yous, and more bowing and more thank yous, we backed by the guards, paid our way, and were free. I left quite invigorated and wondering why we didn’t have as many convicts turned masseurs in the U.S.
From Chiang Mai, I spent some time in the islands, on the beaches, seeing the expat lifestyle. The beaches were beautiful, but after months in the Seychelles, they didn’t rank quite as high as food and culture for me. Sorry!
After 5 months in Africa, Thailand was a treat for every sense, taste above all. And Cambodia didn’t disappoint either. Come find out for yourself as I ride bikes and sweat my way through UNESCO World Heritage Site Angkor Wat, same time next week…
*This statement is categorically false.