|Thai airways was our initial exposure to the hospitality of Thai people, and to the comforts found in Thai culture. The blankets were nearly warm from the dryer, folded nicely and smelling of soap as we peeled them out of their plastic. The seemingly hundreds of flight attendents flocked through the large, spacious aisles delivering dinner menus, and offering smiles one could only try to imitate. Waking from intermitent sleep, you thought you might be dreaming when you realized that their uniforms changed several times throughout the flight- displaying a variety of beautiful Thai colors and styles.
The flight certainly put us at great ease, and offered a grand welcome to what we have since found to be a warm and gracious culture.
The heat was obtrusive as we waited in the long taxi line outside the airport, and we quickly ripped off our warm New Zealand layers, and got used to the sweat. We shared a taxi with Sara from California, who had arrived in Bangkok from India- and was looking for a way to save a baht or two by sharing with some fellow Farang (foriegners). After several attempts at trying to tell the taxi driver where we were going, we decided not to confuse him any further, and follow Sara to the guesthouse she was going to in order to meet some friends.
After a bit of a misunderstanding about the price of the cab ride, we scored ourselves a small room with a fan at "My House Guesthouse," took a peak around for cockroaches or any other foreign creature that may be lurking within the four walls of our new room, and laughed at our little attached bathroom/shower. The toilet and shower are in the same small cubic space here in Thailand, so the bathroom is eternally soaked. Not to mention the custom of a small sprayer that hangs next to the toilet in lieu of toilet tissue which is taking a bit of getting used to.
Not yet ready to attempt sleep in our humid room, we decided to take a stroll and introduce ourselves to our surroundings - and to see what the nightlife in Bangkok was all about. We had been told the city was a suffocating mess- thick with inescapable smog, noise and commotion. But it was not the impression we got. The area we stayed in was certainly the main tourist neigborhood- so it was a bit more tailored for us farang. Along our cozy little street sat groups of folks on beautiful Thai rugs, having some drinks, and chatting. The vibe was excellent and the crowd seemed fairly tame. Along the street were various food vendors, with piles of noodles in front of them, making fresh pad thai, or egg noodles, or fresh fruit bags.
We then made it to Khao San Road- the infamous street where young travelers can devour cheap beer, cheap Thai clothes, and have a party that no 17 year old would want to write home to mom and dad about. It is a scene. We people-watched with wide eyes, and attempted to take in the madness.
We found ourselves there a couple nights later, having a Chang (local beer here in Thailand), and sitting at a sidewalk table just watching the folks go by. Young teenage girls, laden with shopping bags from the sidewalk markets, all dressed in their new Thai garb of barely-there skirts and tank tops, tuk-tuk drivers whizzing by trying to lure in the tourists for a ride, groups of teenage Thai boys stumbling drunk in the street, with large Changs in their hands, gorgeous young Thai women flaunting their tiny bodies in skimpy clothes, their "occupations" very evident. There are flashing billboards and terribly loud music, and a pervasive sense of consumerism. As we sit and watch this, neither of us really speaking to one another because there is so much to see, a girl emerges from the crowd and walks cautiously towards where we are sitting. Her gaunt legs barely sustain her, and the size of her body takes your breath away. Looking into her eyes you can see she may either be blind, or so undernourished that a disease has certainly taken its toll on her frail body. her hair is in a ponytail, making her seem all that much younger and vulnerable. she ends up squating right in front of our table, takes out a cardboard sign from her bag that reads: please spare a baht or two, I am sick and need to go to the hospital." The image of her, as she sits on the edge of this wild, gluttonous street, looking no bigger than a 9-year-old girl is one that will never leave my mind. We offer her a banana to eat and some money, though it does not ease any pain, nor do we know how it will help her body that seemed not long for this world. We continue to sit there for nearly another hour, our people-watching now turned to observing how people react to this girl- do they turn around and notice her? do they drop money in her cup? do they offer help of any kind? Or do they not notice at all? It was an interesting viewpoint, sitting where we were behind her. There was such consumption happening right in front of her- like a never-ending festival it was- big lights, quick food, beer, balloons, music, laughter. She was so small.
Of course she is not alone, and the situation we observed is only one of millions- but for some reason it hit hard, and the injustices of the world seemed to be revealed directly through her, with the backdrop of global consumption and capitalism.
We explored Bangkok for the next several days, sort of without direction. The city is a big mess, essentially, with no city center, and a bus system that is a bit difficult to interpret. Especially in Thai. We became involved in what we now think to be a big scam, involving (what we thought to be)a very nice Thai couple stopping us on the street and offering us some direction and general advice about the city, and the "corrupt"taxi/tuk-tuk drivers. As they told us places to visit, writing down a list for us, and then offering some language advice that would help us not seem so vulnerable to tuk-tuk drivers, a tuk-tuk passes by and stops to see if we need a ride (as they all do, all the time). They take tourists on "tours" of the city, to see the big temples and several buddhas. So, to make a long story short, we got involved in a pretty innocent game- simply said, the TAT (tourist authority of Thailand), associated with the government, was giving out free gasoline to the Tuk Tuk drivers who brought tourists to the offices around the city. Like any travel agency, they want to sell you tour packages and give you travel advice. Well, we didn't need any, but found ourselves saying ok to our tuk-tuk driver because, hey, the guy could do with some free gas, and all we had to do was go in and chat with a tourist agent about Thailand.
It was harmless, and later we were able to go to see the Reclining Buddha, and then the Big Buddha (and this was all for 30 baht which is less than one dollar). Our driver would wait for us, then take us to the next spot. But then, after leaving the Big Buddha, our driver was gone. We hadn't paid him, so no harm done, but he had spent over an hour driving us around the city and hadn't collected his fee. weird. Suddenly, another Tuk Tuk drives up and says "his friend" was sick, and had to go home, so he was sent to pick us up and take us to the next spot. Still weird- but we thought it ok simply because the Tuk-Tuk driver knew we were waiting for the initial Tuk-Tuk. With the new driver, we find ourselves AGAIN at the TAT, (he wanted his free gas too). we put up a fight, saying we didn't want to go back to the office and we had already been there- all lost in translation. But, we found ourselves back again, sitting at the desk asking questions that had already been answered for us about Thailand. Back to the Tuk-Tuk- we demand to be taken back to our hotel. The guy tries everything on us- do we want to go here, or there, or does Jon want a nice "thai lady." no, please, just take us to our hotel.
And he does, but on our way, we see our original "sick" Tuk-Tuk driver driving around with some other passengers in his car... so, we realize it was all some big scam. But, we ended up not paying anyone for anything, and so lost nothing in it at all- just gained a bit of a story.
Our days in Bangkok should not be summarized by these adventures with the tuk-tuk, however. We had a great time in the city, exloring markets, and eating spring rolls, pad thai, and ginger chicken. The food is superb. We experienced the highly acclaimed Thai massage (after Jon's reluctance) and it was excellent. They're a bit rough on you, but you emerge feeling like new. We took river boat rides, and visited some grandiose temples (although many we have to return to because we weren't properly dressed).
The monsoon season was gentle with us in Bangkok, and offered only an hours worth of rain in our 4 days there, so the exploring was that much more pleasant.
Luckily, we will be back to the city, to dress properly for the buddhist temples, and to ride the buses with more ease, now that we have figured the system.