It’s back to the real world in a few days: back to work, back to the mundane, back to the routine. Now we’re back to our apartment, life as usual. But since that’s not too interesting, I’m going to share about the trip the little family and I made to Southeast Asia for the better part of two weeks. We visited two countries, Thailand and Laos, but for now I’m focusing on Thailand. We explored three distinct areas of Thailand. Bangkok, Udon Thani, and Krabi (Ao Nang, more specifically).
Let’s talk about scenery first. Without a doubt, the Krabi area was the most scenic, with stunning cliffs and towering islands, verdant greenery, and multi-colored waters. In contrast, Udon Thani isn’t picturesque at all. It’s a city that’s grown rapidly in recent years, but it mostly lacks anything that lends itself to a photograph. There’s a bustling night market, a nice mall, and street vendors selling whatever they can, and in the parks people play a sport that seems like a mixture of soccer and volleyball. But it isn’t beautiful. Bangkok was a surprise. We’d both expected the city to be something other than it is. What, exactly, I’m not sure. But we didn’t find it pretty for the most part. Until we reached Krabi on the tail end of our trip, in fact, we shared the opinion that Thailand generally wasn’t pretty, except for the temples and palaces, which seemed the only things well-maintained. Bangkok has skyscrapers almost right next door to homes of a floor or two, paint peeling off the sides, yards ramshackle. It’s grimy and the sidewalks are uneven and difficult to walk.
The Thai people seemed very warm and friendly, always smiling and courteous. Even people trying to sell us trinkets and such weren’t usually pushy. They’d try to get our attention, of course, but they’d accept “no thanks” as an answer without any of the irritating badgering that we put up with on a visit to the Old Souk in Dubai or to pretty much anywhere in downtown Kandy, Sri Lanka. Wherever we went, the little blond baby boy we were carrying was an attraction. Turtle himself thought the attention was quite alright, and enjoyed waving “bye” to people and pointing his finger up, which caused no end of giggles and imitations, bringing a smile to the little guy’s face every time.
In Udon Thani, a couple we’ve been friends with for years showed us around. They’ve been there for a while, and were able to take us to the neatest places and help us sample the tastiest foods, as well as advise what to avoid and teach us a couple of Thai phrases. It was awesome to catch up with them, and so good to have their inside view of and understanding of the area.
So what are some insights we gained from our trip? Would we want to live in Thailand? Is the Pad Thai (or Thai food in general) better than it is anywhere else? Here are three things that made an impression on me. Jenia has more insights, very interesting ones relating to culture, and she’ll write them up someday soon. For now, here are my thoughts.
Insight one (if this is really an insight, perhaps I should call it an “observation”): there’s a palpable sense of freedom when compared to living where we do right now. Yes, this takes the face of cross-dressing and prostitution in some places, but in others it’s the simple wearing of whatever clothes you feel like putting on, knowing nobody’s going to be offended. There’s a sense of freedom in the (unregulated and kind of sketchy) selling of food on the sidewalks, off the side of a scooter with a sidecar contraption that contains rice and noodles. This also means people run red lights or drive the wrong way on some roads (particularly the “motorcycles,” or scooters, in our understanding). It’s got a touch of the Wild West about it, with all the associated connotations. Regarding those who enforce traffic regulations, evidently extremely inconsistently, “The police here do stop you sometimes,” said our friends, “because they want a bribe. But they usually only stop trucks and motorcycles, because they’re the ones that break the laws all the time.” The bribes are usually small, too, which makes the harassment more bearable, they said. Speaking of bribes, those are apparently also expected when doing some bureaucratic business, something us tourists don’t usually encounter much, and which I have no personal experience with. “You just pay it,” we were told, “So things get done. Otherwise you could wait forever.” This freedom most certainly does not extend to making remarks about the King, and one guidebook we read advised tourists even to be careful about putting a banknote in your back pocket, as it could be deemed disrespectful to sit on a portrait of the King, whose face adorns all the currency. If you’re interested in news about Thailand, check out the Bangkok Post. The linked article is actually pretty interesting, being about the ivory trade, and it should supplement what I’ve written nicely.
Insight two: the place is still third world, despite fairly rapid development in the 20th century. In terms of creature comforts, convenience, and the like, it’s a notch or two above places like Sri Lanka, though. The electricity is generally reliable in Udon Thani, for example, however everyone’s prepared for a brief outage. Also regarding electricity, it’s disconcerting to see the proliferation of wires that hang from telephone poles, sometimes easily within reach of anyone who might casually reach up and touch them. We suspected the low-hanging ones were merely phone lines, but weren’t sure. In Ao Nang, the highest wires were actually buzzing constantly, snapping, and popping occasionally. At night you could see electricity arcing around the insulators atop polls sometimes. Walking on the sidewalks under this wasn’t particularly nice, but we got used to it quickly, and it became normal after a day or two.
Insight three: the food is by turns surprising, delicious, and tastebud scorching. We found a couple of favorite dishes: papaya salad, a sweet and spicy dish, and mango sticky rice, which is exactly what it sounds like–slices of fresh, melt-in-your-mouth mango with glutinous rice. We liked the fruit smoothies that were ubiquitous. It was shocking to see bugs roasted up and for sale as snacks. Want a crispy grasshopper? Check. Maybe silkworm larvae? Got it. Other insect? Probably available. Neither of us ventured to try these, although my friend offered us this tidbit: “I’ve tried the ones under an inch long. They don’t really have any taste. They’re kinda crispy. Just wings and things, you know.” And as for the Pad Thai: Ruen Thai, a restaurant half a world away in little Cornelia, Georgia, makes stuff that’s as good or better than we encountered in the actual country. If you’re ever in Cornelia, you should go there, and you can have a wonderful Thai dining experience at a fraction of the cost of flying to Thailand and with none of the risk of food poisoning you run at a street vendor.
Insight four: the place is hot. Really hot. In UT it was 100F one day, and this was just barely April. It’s also extremely humid. This is no surprise, as Thailand is a tropical country, but still, 100F and high humidity is formidable.
Would we move to Thailand? No. “It’s too third world,” says my wife. I agree. It’s a neat place to visit, and we’d definitely go back. The next time, however, we’d fly to Phuket and get the ferry from there to Ao Nang, skipping the bland northeast, grungy Bangkok, and go directly to the scenic coast, with its otherworldly pillars of rock and vegetation rising from the sea. That’s all for now. Stay tuned for Jenia’s upcoming post, one I think you’ll find far more interesting and insightful than what I’ve offered here.