Friday, November 27, 2009

Wrath of the Bangkok Gods

Today was the first time I feared for my life in Bangkok. I truly thought I was going to be bowled over and killed by a scooter taxi. While I normally tend to have a blatant disregard for oncoming traffic, a trait I inherited from my mother, this time, my complete oblivion was not the cause of a near fatal traffic accident. I normally walk the mile and a half to work every day, one of my many attempts to burn off the New Zealand poundage I packed on over the last few months, and the street I live on has no sidewalk. I’m normally pretty adept at dodging any traffic, as it is a one-way street and I can see what’s coming (basically I would have to be blind, deaf and dumb – in the literal sense, not as in mute- to be hit by an oncoming car). Scooters can prove pretty tricky, as they like to weave in and out of the three and four wheeled vehicles (lets not forget about tuk tuks now folks, they’re not just a tasty restaurant in London), and tend to encroach on my walking space. But again, seeing as I have eyes, it’s hard to miss them coming, so no problems there. Until this morning. Although traffic laws don’t really seem to exist, or at least be enforced, in Bangkok, drivers normally try to avoid running down pedestrians. So while it might not have been surprising to see a scooter driving down my street the wrong way, when I literally felt a rush of wind as it sped past me, I was a little ruffled. When this happened a half a dozen or so more times in the five minutes it takes to walk to the end of my street, my heart was starting to feel as though it was going to jump out my throat. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why these scooters couldn’t pass the cars on the other side, where there was perfectly enough room for them to be driving illegally down a one way street without endangering the life of poor little white girls just trying to make it to work alive and as sweat free as possible.

The rest of my walk to work has very obvious raised, paved sidewalks, so I thought I was in the clear. Silly me. Obviously I had pissed off the traffic gods somehow (perhaps they thought my recent decision to walk instead of taking some form of public transportation to work was insulting), because they definitely had it in for me. The last stretch of road I walk to work is a very big, busy street with nice big, empty sidewalks. By this point, I always have my iPod in and blasting, knowing I no longer need to keep my ears alert for potential death machines racing towards me at 60 miles an hour. So I didn’t hear the scooter coming as it sped along the sidewalk behind me until just moments before it reached me, causing my poor heart to jump right back into overdrive (to say nothing of my sweat glands… you all have active imaginations, I’m sure you can figure it out). The first scooter, at least, was understandable, as it was driving against the flow of traffic, and there is a major barrier dividing the two different sides of the road, so the taxi driver probably felt it was easier just to risk the lives of several innocent civilians rather than drive an extra 50 meters to turn around. Fine. But the second scooter, who I didn’t see coming till the last second, as I like to examine all the people running around in the park which borders the sidewalk, came flying at me like a bat out of hell, driving in the same direction as the traffic! I would have been more understanding if the road had been jammed up, because then obviously what are sidewalks for other than an extra lane for scooter traffic, but no- the street was literally empty! I swear to god I would have been safer walking there, as I would have had a much wider berth for dodging the one or two motor vehicles that came my way. By the time I reached the safety of my office, I was convinced that scooter drivers were out to get me; a conviction which, I’m sure, Bangkok traffic will do nothing but strengthen as time goes on. 

In all honesty, there is a good chance the scooter taxi drivers were simply coming to ask if I wanted a ride, and almost running me down seemed the best way to get my attention. Normally they are relentless- I have literally watched as drivers have turned around on a one-way street, attempting what would seem to me a life threatening maneuver of weaving through oncoming traffic, circling back to make sure I wasn’t actually trying to hail down a taxi scooter just as I’m waiving another hopeful driver away. Surprisingly, the scooter taxis are really the only people I even get remotely hassled by in Thailand. I was expecting constant harassment, with street venders and beggars shoving their wares and shaking their cups in my face, demanding my money, as small local children follow me around with wide eyes, open mouths and pointing fingers. In other words, I had expected it to be like Kenya. Being started at like an exotic animal and treated like a walking ATM machine defined my daily life during the summer I spent in Nairobi, and according to my boyfriend, who had visited Bangkok before, I was to encounter the same type of experience here. I probably should have factored in the fact that he came to Bangkok for three days, fresh out of New Zealand (i.e. the furthest he had traveled before was to the Gold Coast of Australia), ate McDonalds the whole time, and practically screamed, “ignorant tourist, please rip me off”.  Because contrary to all the warnings I received prior to my arrival, somehow, even in the most touristy of areas, I’ve completely avoided being robbed, scammed, or hassled (which is much more than I can say for my first month in London, where I managed to have my phone pick pocketed, my wallet robbed, and my book money scammed off of me all within a few days).

My first trip into one of Bangkok’s famous tourist areas was the night I got home from my work retreat. My uncle had a friend who’s birthday it was, so my family was headed to Soi Cowboy to meet up with his softball friends and celebrate. Soi Cowboy is probably the most notorious street in Bangkok – it’s a sea of neon lights, gogo bars, and groups of beautiful Thai girls dressed in matching costumes all trying to woo you into their clubs, and arms. As we turned onto the road, I felt like I had stepped into a mini Vegas (not that I’ve been to Vegas, but I’ve seen it from the airplane, so I can imagine). I was no better than the hundreds of leering western men as we walked down the street; I just couldn’t peel my eyes away from all the gorgeous and scantily clad club workers who lined the sidewalks. To top it all off were the dozens of men selling the biggest teddy bears I had ever seen in my life, although I couldn’t imagine who the hell would want to buy a six-foot bear and carry it around all night to a bunch of bars and clubs. When I shared this sentiment with my Uncle, he told me it can actually be quite a lucrative venture – the beautiful Thai girls get the drunken/horny/love-struck western men to buy them the adorable yet monstrous bears for a price equivalent to your first born child, carry it around for an hour or so, and then bring it right back to the vendor who can sell it again the next night. Although I garnered a hopeful look or two from the teddy bear sellers as we made our way down the street, it was my uncle they were really after, thinking they could possibly swindle him into buying two teddy bears, one each for his American and Thai girlfriends (i.e. niece and wife).

We finally reached the club-bar we were going to, and made our way in. It was packed with men, many of who were white and having some form of canoodling/lap dance going on. The tables surrounded a center stage, equipped with poles and dozens of sexy girls dancing away in blue mini skirts and white bikini tops, up just high enough to see the curve of every butt cheek. The only table that was even partially available already had one occupant, but as he was busy with some girl grinding on his crotch and milking him for every drink he was worth, he didn’t seem to mind sharing. So we sat down and ordered some drinks while we waited for the rest of my uncle’s friends to arrive. Turns out the next one to show was my boss, who I completely forgot was one of my uncle’s softball buddies (not sure how that slipped my mind… its pretty much the entire reason I am in Bangkok). Although I have no problem drinking with my boss, when there are half naked girls pole-dancing a few feet in front of you, it gets a little weird. Thankfully, we decided to go and leave the softball boys to their fun, and spent the rest of the night at a sports bar watching rugby (why can’t I seem to escape from this infernal sport?!).

The next day, I decided I wanted to check out a few more of the local tourist attractions. In order to peel Nicky away from his cartoons, my family decided to join me. So we headed to Chatuchak weekend markets, a market literally the size of a small city, selling anything you could possibly dream of. Naturally, I spent the whole time looking at clothes. I tried not to let the fact that everything is designed for sticks or the constant insistence from venders that “we no have big size” deter me from pursuing my shopping addiction, although I got so overwhelmed with the amount of clothes that I just end up looking at most of the stuff anyways. A few hours and hundreds of stalls later, everyone was exhausted. But as it was still the weekend, we decided to skip dinner at home and head to Khao San road, which gives Soi Cowboy a run for its money in the notoriety department.  Only a block or two long, Khao San road is jam packed with tourists, street venders, restaurants, bars, and hostels. It is where the majority of backpackers stay, and sometimes never leave. We sat down at one of the little street restaurants, taking turns pointing out people who looked like they arrived in 1967’s summer of love for a weekend in Thailand and got sucked into the world of parties, drugs, and girls for the next few decades. All along the street, sketchy looking men whispered about cheap tailor made suits and ping-pong shows – one of the staples of Bangkok’s sex tourism industry, where client’s don’t expect to be sexually aroused but rather witness a freak show of sexual exploits. A man, who had self-proclaimed himself as “Mr. Thailand” (made evident by the giant sign he carried around) and dressed up in a mixture of 70s gear and rave clothing drove tourists up and down the street in a half bike, half tuk tuk contraption, which blasted music and so many flashing lights it would surly have set any epileptic into a fit. In other words, the place was a snapshot of what tourists expect of Thailand, and often, the only aspect they ever see. While our food was disgusting, with ketchup mixed in to the pad thai (I think they were trying to appeal to Western tastes, and I was tempted to point out the fact that Thais are the ones who are addicted to shitty hotdogs), the views were entertaining, and it was a good finish to my very touristy weekend in Bangkok.

As I had managed to avoid the scams and high prices at all the touristy locations I visited over the weekend, I thought I was in the clear. The last place in the world I expected to be ripped off was at my gym. Realizing it is just too damn hot to work out on our porch (15 minutes on the elliptical outside and it looks like I jumped in the pool), I decided I wanted to join a gym. My only criteria was that it have bikram yoga, which is somewhat ironic as part of the reason I wanted a gym was to avoid working out in the heat, and bikram yoga is conducted in a studio at 41 degrees Celsius (106 degrees Fahrenheit). But still, with a gym I felt at least I could choose when I wanted to be raining sweat off my body. So I went to check out True Fitness after work on Monday. The facilities were unbelievable, the posh-est, most fully equipped gym I had ever seen complete with a full spa and yoga studio. To top it all off, my sales consultant, Tew, was a young Thai guy who wanted an American friend to speak English with, and he had tourettes! My sister has tourettes, which is a neuro disorder that manifests itself in tics, and I miss her dearly. Tew reminded me of her, so I though maybe the gods weren’t so mad at me as they were introducing me to a Thai guy who was so clearly meant to be my friend. Not only did Tew want to be friends, but he offered me an incredibly good deal on my gym membership, with me paying the equivalent of $66 a month. Score.

Or not. Turns out Tew’s whole “lets be friends” thing was just part of his superb sales ability. On Thursday, I came in to ask if he wanted to go out for a drink after work on Friday, and he looked at me as though I was crazy. I’d already told him in our earlier conversation that I had a boyfriend, so he couldn’t mistake my offer as a come on. As he shifted uncomfortably on his feet, his tics getting more and more pronounced, I began to feel really awkward. Oh god, what the hell was I thinking! I should have just accepted my friendless state and been happy with it. But no, now I had to go and alienate the one person whom I could at least wave hi to and pretend was my friend through actually trying to hang out with him. He gave me some feeble excuse, saying if he wasn’t already busy maybe we could do something, and I bolted up the stairs as quick as I could to hide among the elliptical machines, my hopes and dreams of having a cool Thai friend shattered. Oh well, I thought, at least I got a good deal on my gym membership. Also turns out, Tew ripped me off. Talking with one of my co-workers, who is also a member at True Fitness, she pays less in two years than I pay in one to be a part of the gym! Of all the places you are supposed to bargain and barter, I never expected the gym to be the prime location. Unlike gyms in the US, which have a set price which only varies with age or student status, the gyms in Bangkok sell you your membership based on how much they can squeeze out of their potential members. All the friendship talk was just a ploy to butter me up and get my money. I had no idea that had I presented a hard line, I would have been about to get my membership for a fraction of the cost. The only reassuring fact was that technically, I was still paying peanuts compared to US prices for a full gym and yoga studio. Still, on principle, I felt jipped that Tew played upon my weaknesses to secure a better commission for himself. While I can handle being hassled and almost run down by scooter taxi drivers, being ripped off by my gym was really a blow to my confidence. Maybe I should have taken my boyfriend’s warning more to heart, because it seems, at least for now, that the Bangkok gods have it out for me.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Joy of Hotdogs

If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn't. 

If only Alice had managed to fall down a different rabbit hole and had ended up in Thailand rather than Wonderland. I’m pretty sure she would have been satisfied here. Waiting in line at the 7-11, I felt like I was in an alternate universe. The sign outside, the décor, the general layout, the slurpee dispensers - they were all the same as my local 7-11 in San Francisco. There was even the hotdog rolling machines near the cash register. Yet just like Alice’s world of nonsense, this convenience  store was anything but convenient, and everything seemed opposite from what it should have been. Unlike the 7-11 in San Francisco, people were actually buying the hotdogs, bags and bags of them, all cut up into little pieces by a small, elderly 7-11 employee (since when does 7-11 have employees there to serve you your food?), placed into a plastic carry bag along with an elongated toothpick and heated up till the hotdog pieces practically burst apart. I thought they looked disgusting, but unless Thai people have a heightened preference for synthetic tasting crap (which I highly doubt, considering the disgusting food Americans consume on a regular basis… spray cheese and twinkies, come on), I clearly was missing out on something - literally every person in line was waiting to purchase these unsavory looking logs. Apart from the hotdogs, the shelves of this 7-11 were filled with unfamiliar goods – hundreds of Asian versions of cup-a-noodles, buns, crisps, and snacks akin to those found only in the Chinatown or Clement Street shops back home (my sister, who I swear must somehow be secretly Asian, would have been in Heaven), and packaged meals of rice with an unidentifiable meat (mostly because I couldn't read the packaging). I stood in line sipping on my giant cup of iced coffee, becoming more and more flabbergasted by the complete lack of order taking place at the cash register. Somehow at least ten people had managed to get their hotdogs ordered, cut up and heated, but the one guy trying to pay for his 35 baht worth of snacks was still standing at the till. I stood there for literally 10 minutes, wondering what the hell was going on, and why the hell doesn’t any one else seem phased by this, and what happened to the whole concept of 7-11 being a convenient store, ie one you never spent more than 30 seconds in?! By the time it was my turn to pay, I was incredibly over the iced coffee I was drinking, realizing about four sips in that the sugar content was probably high enough to launch me directly into early onset of type two diabetes. I handed over my 20 baht and rushed from the air-conditioned store to my air-conditioned bus, which waited to take me and about 30 of my colleagues on our annual company retreat.

I was absolutely dripping in sweat by the time I completed the 10 meter walk to the bus, and I prayed that the glistening sheen on my face came across as that sought after dewy look as opposed to disgusting beads of perspiration… an achievement I seriously doubted as several sweaty drops rolled into my eye. My uncle Ron assures me that after a few weeks my body will adjust and I will stop being a sweaty, sticky beast every time I step outside of the house. While this is somewhat reassuring (if it proves to be true), unless I can also shrink three inches, loose 20kgs, grow black hair and learn to speak fluent Thai, I have a feeling I am always going to feel like I stick out like a sore thumb. As I took my seat on the bus, I felt a pang of jealousy towards all the girls around me, who looking perfectly comfortable in their long jeans, tee shirts, and sweaters. There wasn't a bead of perspiration or a sweat stain amongst them. Some how Thai's manage to wear the clothes I would normally associate with the start of fall in the most sweltering, humid weather imaginable, topping it all off with the occasional grumble about how cold it is with air conditioning. I'm pretty sure my attempt to fit in by wearing my long black leggings utterly failed (what I had been thinking when I got dressed that morning is absolutely beyond me), as I was now the only one on our bus mopping my face, chugging back water, and attempting to focus both seats' air vents directly on my face as our bus began our two hour journey to a hotel up north.

I quickly realized that, unlike work, everyone was not going to be chatting away in English all day long. Why would they, when every single person in the company speaks Thai except for me? So I absorbed myself in a book while everyone around chatted, gossiped and laughed away in Thai, hoping that at least our retreat activities would be in English. When we finally arrived at the resort, obviously none of the staff spoke a work of English, so they just jabbered away at me in Thai as I mechanically repeated kob kun kaa (thank you), hoping they would get the point and lead me to my room. As the rest of my group slowly disappeared around me, I assumed I too should follow the man carrying my bags and find out where I was staying. Unfortunately, no one had my cell number, I had no idea what our schedule was, and I didn’t have a clue where anyone else had gone, so I headed back towards the front of the hotel in hopes that when I was supposed to be somewhere, I could just follow the crowd of people.  Several meters from my door, I ran into some of the girls I work with, camera in hand and clicking away already.  While many of you may laugh, thinking what stereotypical trigger happy Asians, I was overjoyed – finally I found something we all had in common, an insatiable desire to capture every single moment on film! They greeted me with a resounding chorus of “Steph!”, grabed my hand, and off I went on our photo adventure. We took pictures next to the decorative fountains, hugging the giant elephant statues, with the hotel sign in the background, with the mountains as a backdrop, in groups, solo, in twos and threes, waiting for lunch, at lunch… you name it, we took a picture of it. I even chucked a few peace signs in there for good measure.

I found the rest of the day exhausting – turns out all our retreat activities weren't all in english. Half the time I sat around trying not to blankly stare off into space as everyone around me spoke in a flourish of Thai; the other half of the time I was concentrating with all my might to figure out what people were trying to tell me in English. This was all complicated by the fact that our retreat’s main focus was to learn project development skills, meaning the majority of these conversations took place while trying to develop a very complicated project proposal. By the end of the day, I was exhausted. I sat around at dinner for a while, enjoying the gibber jabber of Thai flowing around me and actually quite happy I didn't have to contribute. Around 8pm everyone headed for their rooms in order to watch Thai soap operas for the remainder of the night, and I followed suit. Not really interested in watching TV dramas I couldn’t understand, I settled for watching on what I can only guess to be the Asian version of the Home Shopping Channel on mute. I settled in to watch an octopus displayed crawling across a tiled floor, another floating aimlessly in far too little water, and a third, the size of my hand at least, squeeze through a gap less than a centimeter wide. As I felt my eyes begin to droop, I pondered who in the world would want to buy an octopus on television, but accepted that perhaps, like the hotdogs at 7-11, this was just another anomaly of my new home that I had yet to truly understand.

The following day on the retreat wasn't much different from the previous, except for our closing party, 40's style vintage hat themed. They way the girls had been talking about it, I was expecting a fully stocked bar, rowdy drinking, all those incredibly embarrassing things that happen at staff parties which you barely remember but everyone else does and makes you want to never show your face at work again (for those of you who know him, think Bodie). I had to laugh when our crazy drunken staff party turned out to be a karaoke night. And we're not talking the karaoke you see in the states, where people are screeching like dying cats, piss drunk, into the microphone after they have been ungracefully shoved onto the stage and the microphone forced into their hand by their equally drunk group of friends who want to see someone make a complete fool of themselves. Oh no. If there is any shoving going on at all, it's to get onto the stage and fight for control of one of the two microphones. And then you sing. Not screech; not yell; not try to sing - you sing, because people are judging you, so you better sound damn good. Needless to say, I did not get up on stage, but just enjoyed from the sidelines as cameras flashed, peace signs were given, and karaoke was sung to everyone's heart's content (in other words, hours upon hours worth). Around 11 o'clock, when all the songs had progressed into solely well known Thai ones, I decided to pack it up and hit they hay.


Some of the sights I saw the next morning on the way back home made me feel like I was right back into nonsense world again. One thing that continues to baffle me is the Thai road systems. It seems that no matter where you are - in Bangkok, on the highway, on tiny side streets - in order to get anywhere you have to zig zag back and forth about fifteen times before you are heading in the direction you want to be going. Our bus must have turned around at least a dozen times on the way to the restaurant we were scheduled to eat lunch at, not because we were lost, simply because thats how the road system works. Now I normally have a pretty good sense of direction, but I was completely baffled when we managed to pass by a giant statue of an ear of corn twice during our trip. I knew it was the same one, because it was being painted, and I highly doubt that the country highways of Thailand are lined with statues of corn all being repainted at the same time. Buddhas, maybe, giant corn, I don't think so. Lunch was tasty, yet rather uneventful, minus the very important discovery I made. One of our dishes was a plate of hotdog slices, and I was honestly very excited to try them. I see people eating them EVERYWHERE, and if they were served even at this incredibly nice restaurant, there must be some Thai hotdog making secret that they are just not sharing with the rest of the world. I grabbed a piece, excited to finally try this culinary delicacy, and was shocked when I tasted your stock standard Oscar Mayer wiener in my mouth. Now don't get me wrong, I have nothing against hotdogs. My friend Crystal and I practically lived on them when we were staying together in London. But I thought we were an anomaly among people over the age of 7. Turns out, Thais do have an enhanced preference for synthetic tasting crap, at least in the hotdog department. I decided to leave the hotdog slices for my table mates, who quickly gobbled them up, and stick with the delicious green curry.

After lunch, we were finally on our way back to Bangkok (passing that damn giant ear of corn again), when we made one more unexpected stop. Snapped out of my iPod induced daze by the bus slowing to a stop, I looked out my window to see several wooden buildings with the letters Farm Chokchai plastered across their exterior and signs for fresh milk littered everywhere. I had seen hundreds of withered, starved looking cows along the side of the road, sometimes even tied to a tree by a piece of rope leash like a pet dog, but nothing which would have suggested a giant (and clearly prospering) milk farm / tourist location. We were told we had 10 minutes to get out and buy whatever souvenirs we wanted, which I thought was a little strange, since souvenirs were normally reserved for places you had actually visited, but I figured there was no harm in having a look around. After blundering my way through ordering a scoop of fresh milk ice cream (cookies and cream flavored, and it was pretty damn good) I headed to the gift shop to look around. Had I not been surrounded by Thais, I would have sworn I had somehow been teleported back to the American West. Leather clothes, boots, and wallets lined the shelves. Cow print bags, slippers, and toys were everywhere. They even had a glass cabinet to display their giant silver belt buckles. It was exactly the type of store I would expect to find on a Texan cattle ranch, not an hour outside of Bangkok. Of all the crazy, seemingly backwards things I had seen, this by far took the cake - this place was the last thing I expected to see in Thailand, and while we can probably chalk that up to my complete ignorance, it was still an incredibly weird, nonsensical experience.

As our bus pulled into Bangkok, I witnessed my first rainstorm. I had heard rumors of how the streets completely flooded, and I got a good look around as we were still on a highway about 10 meters above the ground. Sure enough, the roads had begun to flood as only a very serious storm could accomplish in San Francisco. It had stopped raining by the time I had taken public transportation to a point about a 15 minute walk from home, and I didn't quite trust the idea of ridding a scooter taxi through 6 inches of water, so I decided to get a little exercise and head home on foot. The street I was on looked relatively dry and there were sidewalks, so I figured I was fine. This was the case up to about a block and a half from my house. The sidewalks all but disappeared, and the sides of the road were completely flooded, so I hopped my way through the puddles into the middle of the street (while an entire construction site of locals laughed and pointed at me) and tried to walk where there was an inch or less of water while avoiding the constant flow of traffic (a very difficult feat when you are walking, literally, in the middle of the road). About half way down the street I noticed that the three-inch-wide edge which bordered the shrubbery along the side of the road was actually raised above the waterline, so I did my best to leap the five feet over there, and proceeded to tightrope walk my way home. I managed to keep somewhat dry until the last eight meters or so of the road. I was about five seconds from my front door, and nothing but six inches of water and absolutely no sidewalk or dry ground was separating us. Taxi drivers honked and laughed when they drove by to witness my predicament, but I refused to pay 20 baht just to drive a couple of feet. So I leaped, soaking myself from the knees down, and ran for the lobby of our apartment building. God knows what is in that water, and I'd just as happily never find out. All I know is that by the time I had reached my front door, my feet were beginning to itch (never a good sign), so I hopped in the shower and scrubbed them till they were raw.

Free from sweat, grim, and whatever else might have been lurking in the water, I curled up next to my little cousin to watch some cartoons, something which is always one of the best parts of my day. Not only do I get some bonding time, but lets be honest, I love Sponge-Bob Square Pants and Fairly Odd Parents, and finally I have a good excuse to watch them on a regular basis (i.e. no boyfriend around reminding me that I'm 22 years old and should have grown out of my cartoon stage over a decade ago; I am free to watch all the cartoons I want till he gets here in January). Despite all the things I see which seem completely crazy to me, I have to admit that I couldn't be happier living in Bangkok. My nonsense world is what makes me love this city so much.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Border Hopping

"If you catch me at the border, I got visas in my name"
Ironically, on my trip to Laos, I saw the most white people, or Farang, I have seen since my arrival in Asia. I think the fact that Vientiane, the capital of Laos, has the closest embassy to travel to for Thai tourist and work visas contributed to the dense population of lighter skinned folks, as did the fact that I have yet to explore any of the “touristy” areas of Bangkok. Either way, I still count myself as very fortunate to have met another expat who is actually living in Thailand rather than backpacking on a whirlwind tour of Southeast Asia. I actually spent the entire nine hour bus ride to Nong Khai, the northern most point in the north-eastern province of Thailand, blasting Jack Johnson on my iPod (a desperate attempt to drown out the horrific Thai movie, complete with screaming, violence, and crying, which was playing on full volume – what is it with Thais and blasting multimedia at ear shattering levels?) and trying to sleep. Aside from deciding together that the squishy bun with green goop inside it was definitely edible and tasty, it wasn’t until reaching the bus depot about five minutes away from the Thai –Laos border that Philippa, my English bus mate, and I even had a conversation. As our bus pulled in, a screaming sea of taxi and tuk tuk drivers crashed upon our ride, and we both turned to stare at each other in horror. Clearly the most foreign people on the bus (there were some possible half Thais, but definitely not full farangs), I think we were both a little scared we would become the number one target for hassles. She asked me if we were already at the border, if I was also going on a visa run, and if I knew what I was doing. I assured her that while I had not a clue what was going on, I had the fortune of having my Thai aunt and her friend along with me and who could sort out any roadblocks we might come up against, and that if she liked, she was more than welcome to tag along. As it turned out, meeting Philippa was the best thing that could have happened for either of us.

Feeling slightly more secure with my new friend along side me, I braved getting off the bus. I definitely received a lot of hassles and demands, but it turns out that Thais are just as interested in hassling their own as they are foreigners, so it wasn’t too overwhelming. We sat down in the bus depot to wait out the hour or so until we could buy tickets to Vientiane. The ticket window finally opened, and as our little group lined up one of the taxi drivers walked up to the window and held up a sign which stated, “If you do not already have a visa for Laos or a Thai passport, you can not get on this bus.” Again, the look of horror passed between Philippa and I. I think we were both of the same mind set, that if we simply ignored this taxi driver who kept pointing at us and demanding to see our visas, the problem would go away. Thankfully, my Aunt and her friend were with us, and throughout the trip they turned out to be our saving grace. As it turned out, the taxi driver wasn’t lying to us, but funnily enough, he also made a bit of a profit from the situation, as we decided to take his ride to the border. As we drove through Nong Khai, I was amazed by how much the scenery reminded me of Kenya. The dry dusty color of hot country surrounded us- the plants, the streets, the shops, everything seemed to be of this same brown dust. Suddenly we turned on to a lush side street with blooming trees and greenery lining the road, complimented beautifully by the two young monks dressed in burnt orange with the happiest smiles on their faces walking down the road, which ended just as quickly and thrust us back onto a dry, smoggy street headed towards the border.

About five minutes into our drive, and half way to Laos, our tuk tuk taxi driver (because our ride was really a mixture of both) pulled into a small hole in the wall shop where he told us we could buy our visas. Thankfully, both Philippa and I were experienced travelers, and we adamantly put our foot down. Try as the shop owner might to convince my aunt and Noi, her friend, that we were wrong and that the deal of 1400 baht for a visa, ride through the border, and night in a hotel was legit, we refused to give in. “Visas can only be bought at the border and at the embassy” we said over and over again, as An and Noi tried to convince our taxi driver to move along and take us to Laos. It was clear that this was a scheme set up by the taxi driver and the “visa” shop, and he was upset that we were not stupid tourists easy to rip off. Finally, after much hassling on our parts, we convinced him we were not going to buy this package visa deal, and we were back on our way.  After that, crossing the border was a cinch – first you travel through the Thai customs, hop on a bus to cross the “Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge” and then buy your visa to enter Laos. Although my visa cost 1500 baht and didn’t include a night in a hotel or a ride to Vientiane, I was happy to pay my due knowing that at least the border guards couldn’t legally rip me off (well, in terms of buying a fake visa… in terms of price, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of $35 US converted in to over 1500 baht… 33baht to the dollar, you do the math).

By this point, Philippa and I had spent a good two hours awake together, and we were fast becoming friends. She has one of those spicy personalities which draws people to her, witty, talkative, and not afraid to poke a little fun if you set yourself up. We clicked immediately and decided to spend the entire Laos trip together. While Philippa and I chatted away waiting for our visas, An and Noi had crossed the border and commandeered us a driver for the entirety of our trip. A little skeptical at first of this incredibly friendly looking, smiling man, my suspicions turned out to be entirely unfounded. Not only did he drive us to the embassy, where we waited over two hours just to spend 30 seconds handing in our visa application, but he was still there, waiting for us when we got out. He drove us around to hotel after hotel, until we found one for 275 baht each a night (we’re talking $8 here) with an incredibly expensive and gorgeous hotel across the road whose pool we could use for a small fee. Sounded good to me. We headed upstairs to freshen up, with Philippa and I in one room, An and Noi in the other. I was relieved to see that our toilet was not one of the squatting kinds that Thais are so fond of, but a regular, flushing western style toilet. Our shower, however, was just attached to the bathroom wall, no stall or curtain or any sort of separation device. According to Philippa, this was a huge improvement from her previous hotel, where they shower head had been stuck directly over the toilet, which she had to straddle in order to get clean.

The shower was refreshing, but the air outside was hot and sticky, and Philippa and I decided to skip the markets for a day at the pool. An, who is not at all a shopper, gave us a jealous look as Noi pulled her away for a long day of bargaining. After donning Philippa’s extra bathing suit (thank god she hasn’t learned to pack lightly after years of traveling… I on the other hand forgot one days worth of clothing and my swim suit) we headed over to the pool for a day of lounging, reading, and gossiping about the elderly French couple who were inappropriately canoodling in the pool. Once the sun started to go down and our sun was replaced with shade, we packed up our stuff and decided to try and find the markets. After asking several police men, none of who spoke English but who were all too happy to try and give us directions regardless, we found our way to the Morning Markets. I was expecting markets like Bangkok, full of every imaginable piece of clothing, or like Nairobi, full of local treasures and cultural items, but these markets were just full of random crap- plain tee shirts and underwear with a cheap knockoff bag here and there. We quickly abandoned our shopping plan and decided to look for the river, where Philippa knew we could find bars and restaurants.  However, we were again faced with the problem that hardly anyone spoke English and An and Noi were nowhere to be found. So we began to aimlessly wander, hoping to strike upon either the river or someone who could understand even our wild hand gestures. We spent an hour walking poverty ridden streets without a foreigner in sight when we finally decided we had no idea where we were and it was probably best to head to the hotel and try again. We sat down in front of a local convenience store, stocked solely with water, coke, a few tea drinks, beer and a few random house hold items such as toilet paper (which isn’t surprising, people over here use it for EVERYTHING), to have a rest and a drink. That ended abruptly as a police officer with a gun as long as his legs casually strolled on by.

Hightailing it back to the hotel, we realized we had been walking in the complete opposite direction from the river and neighborhood we were looking for. In fact, had we used our brains and eyes for even a moment, we would have notices the streams of farangs everywhere we looked. Relieved to actually be among foreigners, we went to look for somewhere to have a proper drink. All of Laos is full of French influence, and this area in particular buzzed with a European vibe. We sat down at a little Italian restaurant for a Beerlao, a very well liked and tasty local beer, and were shortly joined by two English boys who hailed from the same region of England as Philippa. We sat with them for about an hour, but the boys were a little too weird and a little too daft for our liking, and the older Aussie man who joined us and wanted to pay for everything was definitely off putting, so we excused ourselves (with the obvious lie to meet up later, but its not like we are going to tell them we think they are daft and weird) and headed back to the hotel to pick up An and Noi.

The ladies were just settling down for a nap as we returned, An looking absolutely wiped from trailing Noi around all day in sweltering hot heat to buy cheap cell phones and knock off Louis Vuitton luggage. A little buzzed from our beer, we decided to leave them to nap and head out for cocktails and food. We happened upon a beautiful restaurant with an outside bar and seating, and settled in for the next few hours. We ordered gorgeous Indian food, a Laos appetizer of vegetables and dip, and quite a few cocktails. As we were eating, an Italian man Philippa had met at the embassy, Giovani, happened upon us, and we asked him to sit down. Three cocktails and half a beer later, we realized we had to go back and pick up An and Noi, as our phones didn’t work and we wanted to go out with them. We ran back to the hotel, grabbed the girls, and went straight back to our waiting beer. An and Noi wanted to order everyone drinks, and suggested we order a tower of BeerLao. Now I am not sure whether it was the language barrier or because I wasn’t listening, but I insisted we order two. I thought An was referring to the tall bottles of BeerLao, and I know Philippa and I would power through one before An and Noi even got to wet their lips. So when the waiter showed up with two giant towers of beer, pretty much like small kegs with a spout, I was shocked. As the bar wouldn’t allow for us to return one, all we could do was tuck in, drink, and find as many friends as possible.

Finding friends didn’t prove to be too difficult. I am pretty sure the older Japanese man who grabbed my waist as I walked by, gave my boobs a little grab and tried to kiss me would have been very happy to join our table, but I left him with a smile, a konnichiwa, and a very fast walk away. I think he was satisfied just giving me a very vigorous smile and wave every time I turned around to face in his general direction that night. We did, however, invite the three English boys who were sitting a few tables away from us and who Noi thought were incredibly cute. Definitely an improvement from the poms (read – prisoners of mother England, or English folks) we had met earlier, and we were happy to pass our beer around.

We finally left our restaurant around midnight, twenty minutes after the staff had shut the lights out on us, with both towers empty. As it was our only night in Laos, and one of our English buddies last night traveling, we decided to try and find a discotec. We were discussing with the tuk tuk drivers milling about where we should go when we noticed one of the poms across the street doing some very shady business. When he came stomping back cursing loudly that the stupid guy had just tried to sell him crushed up aspirin, Giovani decided it was definitely time to go home, and Philippa and I grabbed An and Noi, jumped in the Tuk Tuk and took off. As startled as An and Noi must have been for us to leave our new friends, it’s not easy to forget the warning written on all entry documents to Laos that trafficking drugs is illegal and the penalty is death, so we figured it was best to explain while we were well on our way.  We headed to the only night club we knew of, which was on the third floor of a very quiet hotel, and decided it wasn’t worth paying for. We still went in, of course, but we just walked importantly pass the bouncers, who after saying 300 baht once didn’t seem too phased to let us just go on through. We walked in to the little dance club, and within a few minutes it was as if Philippa and I had walked into hell. At one table sat the fat old Aussie and the two English boys we had ditched earlier in the night. Walking in the door were the three we had just left standing in the street. And all around us were young Asian girls and fat old white men. We decided to call it a night, dragged Noi kicking and screaming (not literally, more like boggie-ing and drinking) out to a taxi and made our way home.  On the way, we stopped at a Laos noodle stand, and ate some noodle duck soup. Although it wasn’t as good as the Thai food I’d had, I’d venture to say my late night snack definitely was my saving grace for the next day.

The next morning we all pulled up surprisingly well, considering the amount of booze we had comsumed the night before. Noi and An, who had a much later start on us in the drinking department, got up at 7am to visit a temple. Knowing I’d have to make a visa run to Laos a few more times during my stay in Bangkok, I decided to skip the early morning festivities and snore the morning away. I decided to try and be human again around 10:30am, guzzled a bunch of water, took a cold shower (not that there was any other option), and bee lined for a restaurant with some sort of sandwich I could wolf down. Our friendly tuk tuk taxi driver was waiting for us outside as we came down (truly, the man must have been an anomaly, I’ve never met such a trustful driver in my life), and he drove us back to the area we had eaten the night before. We ran into Giovani again, who was enjoying a coffee at a little French café, and asked us to join him. Noi and An headed off to buy some smoked fish off the street, and Philippa and I tucked in to a delicious French style lunch. One thing the French have definitely taught the Laos to do well is cook bread, and I had one of the tastiest buns on my burger that I have ever had in my life.

We decided to leave Laos early, so we picked up our visas and headed back to Nong Khai. Turned out the next bus wasn’t for three hours, so we spent some time exploring the local market. We found a stand with beautiful scarves, were we bought loads to stock pile as presents for family and friends. We ate some delicious Laos style food, as we hadn’t managed to eat much while actually in Laos, and hopped on our 8pm bus to arrive back in Bangkok at 6 in the morning. My trip to Laos, while short, was definitely eventful. I managed to gain both a legit work visa and a good friend through the experience, making the trip an ultimate success.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Long Live the King

My first week in Thailand passed in a whirlwind of activity. At first, it was sensory overload – deep fried bugs sold by every other street vendor, taxi scooters where women ride sidesaddle, shopping malls on every corner, pictures of the King posted everywhere. Somehow, everything seemed very familiar yet foreign at the same time. I’ve begun to adjust, and while I think I am still a far cry from trying some crispy critters, other everyday parts of city life in Bangkok are beginning to feel normal to me. Scooter taxis, for example. My second full day in Thailand I had to start my new job, approximately two weeks early, as some important work came up that they needed help on. My aunt, An, was going to escort me so I didn’t get lost, and my jaw dropped when I saw her flag down two scooters. I was wearing a knee length pencil skirt and three and a half inch heels… was she serious? Yes, she was. So I hopped on, sidesaddle as I had seen all the other Thai women in skirts do, and held on for dear life.  I knew from observation that when you ride a scooter taxi, you are not supposed to hold on to the driver, but rather just balance on the back seat as he weaves in and out of traffic, occasionally grabbing the back handle for support. Seeing as I have trouble balancing on my own two feet, I though it probably more important for me to place value on my life rather than on local customs, and I clutched on to my driver’s waist and shoulders with an iron grip. By the time I made it to work, I was feeling slightly more comfortable on the scooter, and had even taken one hand off my driver, although he may still have some bruising. Over the next couple of days, I began to think myself a real expert and I got better and better at holding on to just the back handle, keeping my seat even through speed bumps, sharp turns, and dips in the road. I might not be chatting on my phone or smoking a cigarette, as many of the locals are apt to do when ridding the scooters, but I could hold my own.

Then my aunt threw a wrench in the works again. Coming home from a giant day of shopping, traffic became too congested to stay in our taxicab. Hopping out, my aunt flagged down two scooters again, and turned to my little cousin Nicky and asked, “Who do you want to go with?” Being his new house mate and friend, of course Nicky wanted to go with me. I gave a look of horror to my aunt, who laughed and told me just to hold him on my lap. So sitting sidesaddle on my scooter again, my little cousin climbed onto my lap. This time, I clung to him with an iron grip, my other hand holding the back handle of the bike, praying that I wasn’t going to kill my cousin less than a week into living with my aunt and uncle. Somehow, we made it home alive, but I have a feeling the experience was not a one time off sort of thing.

My first week in Bangkok passed quickly, and I was definitely ready for the weekend when it came. Work had been very busy, the days had been very hot, and I was very tired from jumping full on into my new life. Friday night my family all went out to meet some friends of my uncle for a few drinks, but the loud 70s and 80s music started to really get to Nicky, and we called it an early night. Saturday night we headed over to central, to the food court at the top of one of the giant malls there. I was a bit skeptical on how good a food court could be, considering the fact that I had recently been an employee of one, but this “food court” defied all my expectations. High end restaurant would be more accurate. Upon entering, each customer is handed a card with a 1,000 baht ($30 US) limit, and is then faced with the multitude of choice meals. There are sections for every food imaginable – Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Malaysian, sandwiches, soups, salads, desserts, cocktails – you name it, it was there. Not only is the food of the best quality, but it is also dirt-cheap. Most of the meals were between 100 and 200 baht, or $3-$6 US. After placing your orders, the eating area is literally a beautiful restaurant style area, outfitted with fountains and live music.  After our fantastic dinner, we decided to head over to the Michael Jackson movie This is It, as it was supposedly only playing for two weeks. The nearest movie theater was at the top of the Paragon Mall, which is apparently the largest mall in the entire world. Designer stores I’ve never even seen in San Francisco – Versace, Christian Dior, Escada - every designer you can think of was there. It’s a strange contrast to the street market going on directly outside of the mall’s front doors.

Every movie in Thailand begins with the King’s song, and no one is allowed in the theater after the song has begun. The song is a progression of images displaying the King, and Thai people doing good deeds, such as coming together to push a broke down bus out of an intersection, under the gaze of His Majesty. The truly astonishing thing is that the images displayed in the song are not too far off from the truth. Thais practically worship the King.  Every household, by law, must have at least one picture of the King at eye level, yet I would be shocked to find a single household with only one picture. Posters are displayed around the country of the King, and it is near impossible to walk 10 feet without seeing his face looking down at you. It is almost as though Thailand is an alternate universe for Jesus freaks, who dedicate their lives and moral compass towards a royal figure as opposed to the son god, with crucifixes replaced by posters. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, the King is one who deserves to be revered, and has done much good for this country. It is simply the best way to describe the dedication that Thais feel for the head of their country. So as the King’s song began in the theater, everyone stood up, and all the non-foreigners sang along with gusto.

While experiencing the King’s song for the first time was a cool experience, the rest of the movie was an experience of a different kind. I’m not speaking of the actual movie itself, but of my experience in the theater. The lights went down and the previews began, and I felt as though my ear drums had been blown out of my head. I had heard that the sound is turned way up in Asian theaters so people can talk on their phones, but this was ridiculous. I don’t know how any person could possibly enjoy sitting through two hours of earsplitting noise, regardless of how good a movie is. I seemed to grow more used to it as the movie progressed, but my head was still ringing as I left the theater. However, the most memorable aspect of the movie was the man sitting next to me. Our theater had assigned seating, but as the theater was practically empty, we sat two seats off of where we were supposed to. Five minutes before the King’s song, a dumpy Asian man in his mid thirties comes to our row looking for his seat. I watched, wondering if he was going to make us move, as he looked at his ticket, looked at the seat number, and looked at his ticket again. He even went to look at the seats the row below us before coming back up to question whether or not we were sitting in his seat. Indeed, we were, so we all shifted down one, and he sat down next to me. I should have known this wasn’t the only disruption I would have from our friend. Turns out he was a Michael Jackson fanatic. Within the first five minutes of the movie starting, I was already more focused on my neighbor’s rocking, fist pumping, finger pointing, and seat dancing than on the film itself. Every time a really famous Michael Jackson song began (which, honestly, was every song) he would grab his hair, give himself a nice big rock in his chair, before pointing at the screen and fist pumping with one hand in the air. I could tell he would then get self conscious and stop for about 10 seconds, closing his arms around himself before the music would just be too much for him and the whole spectacle would begin again. While there may not have been many of us in the theater, I think the man sitting next to us definitely had enough excitement and love for Michael Jackson to fill all the empty spaces. At least I know now that however foreign Bangkok might feel, it has at least one thing in common with the rest of the world- no matter where you go, the King of Pop can bring us together.

Welcome to Wonderland

“It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
Looking back over the last five months, I finally see the truth in JRR Tolkien’s words. Despite having read Lord of the Rings more times than I care to reveal, I never realized the golden wisdom in this clever little phrase until my own road literally swept me away. In my last days at Yale, as I said goodbye to the familiar halls and faces which had become my home and family over the past few years, I thought life was going to be a cinch from there on out.  Diploma in hand, I thought I had the golden ticket to any job I wanted, especially as I planed to take the off beaten track, avoid New York, where I would be competing with all the other bright-eyed, bushy tailed golden ticket holders, and move to New Zealand. I intended to sweep Auckland off its feet with my resume and ambition and then settle in to the life of a well paying job, sunny beaches, and (I had secretly planned) hunting for the elusive Kiwi bird.

Had someone told me then that three months of endless rain, hundreds of resumes, and ten pounds later the only job I would be able to score fresh out of Yale was working at the Muffin Break, a coffee and pastry stand in the local Whangaparaoa (note, not Auckland. In fact, 40 minutes drive away from Auckland or anything remotely resembling a city) shopping plaza food court, I know I would have cried. Actually, I probably would have told my psychic friend to drop dead, because working in a food court is the last thing on earth I would be caught dead doing.  Yet when the time came, a mixture of desperation for money and severe boredom literally must have rewired my brain, because I actually felt nervous and excited to don my burnt orange synthetic polo, mesh cap and black apron and start my first day at “the break”. The worst part was, for the first few days, I was actually competing for the position, and I harbored a very real fear that New Zealand wouldn’t even want me for their food courts.

Needless to say, I got the job, and for a little while (read, a week) it wasn’t too bad. It was energizing to finally have something to do with my time, and it reminded me that normal, functioning human beings don’t sleep for twelve hours a day, seven days a week. My body had apparently forgotten this small little tidbit over the course of the past few months. I settled into the job and prayed I would soon be able to move up in the world. Just as I had never expected my first post-university job to be working at a food court, I never would have guessed at the next curve ball life threw my way.

Although I knew my mother despised the fact that I had moved to New Zealand right after graduation (although she will never admit to this and I know it is only because she misses me dearly), thankfully, it pained her even more to see me take up a job as a barista.  Being the wonderful woman that she is, rather than throw my decision back in my face, she discussed my predicament with family and friends alike, trying to find out how I could dig myself out of the grave of Muffin Break. My Uncle Ron came to the rescue.

My Uncle Ron lives in Bangkok, and has resided somewhere in Asia for the majority of my life. Until recently, I had never met his wife, my Thai Aunt Kulanit (An for short), or my little seven-year-old cousin Nicky.  As of Monday, I now live with them.

Of all the places I imagined working post-Yale, Bangkok was definitely not on the list. I envisioned the next few years of my life spent working and traveling through New Zealand and Australia, eventually moving back home to San Francisco where I would end up with a job which would occasionally take me back to my old stomping grounds in London. Asia never had more of a place in my plan than as an exotic travel location. But when an entry level consulting position opened up with the Kenan Institute Asia, a non-profit focused on the social and economic development of the Greater Mekong Sub-region, my uncle shot me over the job description and I figured it couldn’t hurt to apply. Anything had to beat working at the Muffin Break. The more I researched, the more I realized that KIAsia actually conducted exactly the type of work I was interested in, and the thought of finally moving back to a buzzing metropolitan area proved the final straw in setting my heart on getting the job. Approximately a month of emails, telephone interviews, and anxiety ridden waiting later, I found myself on a plan heading to the one continent I’d never been in order to start my new career and life as an expat in Thailand.

I had been warned that Bangkok was a dirty, crowded, and poverty ridden city. The real Bangkok is much more convoluted than that. While a layer of smog often clouds the hot and humid air, mostly a result of the insane amount of traffic, the city of Bangkok is actually cleaner than a lot of the American cities I’ve been to. The public transportation, in particular, is sparkling clean, air conditioned, incredibly efficient and surprisingly pleasant to ride on (note, I haven’t ventured as far as the bus system yet, so I can only speak for the metro and sky train). The roads are not built in the grid system that I am so used to, but rather are a mess of winding, narrow, and very confusing side streets which all connect with the several major motor ways running through the city. The traffic is insane, with hundreds of scooters weaving in and out of cars. With no zoning laws in place, the city is a sprawling hodgepodge of buildings with very little discernable order. Rather than a central downtown surrounded by residential neighborhoods, everything is mixed together. My uncle’s apartment, and my new home, is a perfect example of what I mean. Our building is a very nice, high-end apartment building with all the facilities imaginable. Directly across the street from us, surrounded by a concrete wall, is a giant swamp, home to luscious trees, flowering plants, and giant pythons (seriously, one crawled up the phone pole a few years ago and took a nap on the electrical box, knocking out all the televisions and electricity during Super Bowl Sunday). On the other side of the building are the backs of some lower-end apartment buildings and a giant construction site, where in no time flat surely another apartment building will stand. And through my bedroom window are some run down homes, a swampy field, and skyscrapers, hotels, and high rises as far as the eye can see.

Completely unbeknownst to me, I planned my arrival in Thailand perfectly. After a brief trip through Australia to visit some of my old friends from London, I touched down at Suvarnabhumi airport on the afternoon of November 2nd. Turns out that evening was the first full moon of November, when Thais celebrate Loi Krathong, or the festival of lights. It is one of the most recognized and celebrated Thai holidays, and probably one of the most beautiful rituals I have ever witnessed. Along every major waterway, thousands of Thais gather to release their krathong, or banana leaf boats elaborately decorated with flowers, candles and incense, and make wishes and pray for luck. My family bought one from a street vendor, each placed a clipping of our hair and nails onto it, and made our way to one of the parks in central Bangkok. I had walked by the park earlier that day, and was amazed by the transformation. All around the central lake, neon lights where hanging from the trees and flashing from structures. Giant pictures of the royal family bordered the lake, and a giant shrine had been erected on one end. Hundreds upon hundreds of people waited to release their boats onto the water. Just as we got there, beautiful music blared and a royal procession began – one of the Thai princesses had come to the lake to send off her krathong. Dressed in pink and escorted by the top military officials, I stared, amazed to be seeing royalty for the first time in my life, as the princess made her way to the water, lit the candle on her krathong, and pushed it out into the lake.  Moments later, hundreds of other floating boats with candles made their way out onto the water, slowly growing in number till the entire surface of the lake was covered with shimmering boats lit by candle light. A Buddhist chant rose into the air, and I looked up to see a half dozen monks chanting into the microphones set up on the platform where the Princess stood moments before.  As we made our way around the lake, I watched in amazement as the thousands of Thai people slowly migrated towards the chanting monks and shrine, praying with all their might for the health of their King.  It was a beautiful first night in Bangkok and perfect introduction to Thailand. I went to sleep that night with excitement pumping through me, amazed that of all the places my road could have swept me off to, I managed to end up in a country so fantastic as Thailand. I truly am living in wonderland.