Notes From A Recent Trip To Thailand Part 1
My wife decided to take an extended trip of two months to visit her mom. I would join her halfway through for 11 days. As the date approached for my trip to Thailand, I became more nervous as my mind filled with foreboding thoughts. The last two trips
to Thailand had ended with me being a sourpuss; more concerned with having his way and having his beer, and not necessarily in that order. This was the result of allowing my wife and her friends to dictate what we would do and when we would do
it. I felt so much like baggage they threw in the car and hauled around. To make matters worse, my petty tantrums were embarrassing for my wife.
I know now that they were not being rude but that this was the Thai way of organizing these kind of trips; mostly unplanned to start, but after much discussion, a plan would eventually emerge. This method was so different than mine as I would plan well ahead of the event. But as I do not speak Thai very well, my ideas never seemed to surface during the planning. My wife did her best to explain my preferences but rarely did they sway the rest of the group, much to my consternation. As I am mostly used to doing my own thing, this approach was always a bitter pill to swallow, one that I usually gagged on. But after two bad experiences, what was most worrisome to me on this trip was what would happen in the future when I retired to Thailand and lived here fulltime. Surrounded by an extended Thai family and friends, would constantly dealing with the "Thai way" cause me to storm back to America? I decided to give the "Thai way" one last try.
I had booked my tickets months in advance and reserved choice bulkhead seats in the front of economy-plus for every flight. As this particular airline has a history of canceling flights or changing planes, I would log into the airline's web site every now and then to check that my seat assignments were still in place. The night before my flight, I checked one last time and they were still reserved. The next day I arrived at the airport in plenty of time so I stopped by the airline's lounge for a quick bite before the long 13-hour flight. These days, with American airlines, you never know what "meal" they are going to serve. I also decided to check one last time on the flight status. The attendant said the flight was on time but my seat was re-assigned as they had to change aircraft at the last minute. Now I was sitting further back in the cabin. I gasped and complained loudly, hoping they would upgrade me to business class, but it was no good. Oh well, a bad day flying to Thailand was better than a good day staying home. My first test of letting go.
My new seat wasn't too bad, aisle in the middle of economy plus, so I settled in for the long flight to Narita. Of course, as feared months ago, the person in front put their seat back all the way and it stayed that way for the next 12 hours, even during meals. Although more cramped, I still had room to sleep. But when the lights dimmed, I heard loud hacking from the passenger sitting across the aisle from me. This horrible noise stopped after a few minutes but then I heard faint mewing. This woman was nursing a bad cold as well as a kitten in a small cage under her seat. Not so bad, I whispered to myself. But this one-two punch of weird noises happened every 15 minutes or so, making sleep next to impossible. I somehow survived the flight but after we landed, I went straight to the magic beer machine in the Narita lounge. I resisted the urge to put mouth to spigot.
The Bangkok flight was much better. Thanks to the good seat and the beer, I got much needed sleep for most of the flight. Surprisingly, we arrived early and I flew through immigration, baggage, and customs like I never had before. Twenty minutes from airplane hatch to the arrival area – unbelievable! I knew my wife and her friend weren't expecting me this early so I pushed my loaded cart to the nearby convenience store and purchased the first of many Singha beers I would drink on this trip, along with a small bag of pussy nuts (fried broad beans). I pushed my cart back to the waiting area and noticed there were a half dozen or so other farangs waiting with their carts piled high with bags. Like myself, they were middle-aged and anticipation was clearly written on their faces. One by one, young Thai girls arrived in either short skirts or tight pants to greet their "boyfriend". They kissed and hugged and then off they went into the night. Unlike with me, I don't think these women are their wives. Soon, my cheery but conservatively dressed wife shows up. I get a quick kiss on the cheek (no hug) and then off we go as well. I'm sure my fellow "waiters" thought my girlfriend was a cold fish.
We will be staying a few days at my wife's friend's condo. The condo complex she lives in is fairly new and fairly upscale by Thai standards. It is named for a famous street in Paris and the exteriors of the buildings are ornate beyond anything I have seen in Bangkok. Iron rails, statues, wide streets; it even has a miniature Arc de Triomphe that Thai newlyweds like to have their picture taken in front of. Its claim to fame is the superstar Mario has a penthouse here. I was very impressed as I schlepped my heavy bags down the corridor to the apartment. Once inside, though, I saw the usual Thai design – cheap doors, exposed wires, few wall plugs. In the bathroom above the shower was a light with exposed wires. I imagined myself coming out of the shower, stretching my arms out and touching the wires while standing in water. Hopefully, the small fuses in the old fuse box would do their job before 220 volts cursed through my body to my heart. After each shower, I kept my arms close in while I dried off.
This is actually my friend's second condo in Bangkok. The other one is closer to the city and is near a metro stop (I only stayed there a couple of days so details are sketchy). It was of the same Thai construction and certainly not very ornate, but it was still very decent. I asked what she did with it and she replied she was renting it for 4,000 baht a month. That seemed very low considering the proximity of the condo to metro and numerous shops. But it confirmed my theory that you can live relatively cheap in Bangkok if your tastes are moderate, have a reliable network of friends, do your homework, and then watch your money.
The next day I am a passenger in a car traveling from Bangkok to southern Thailand. It's an ADD's dream (Attention Deficit Disorder) because as soon as your eyes focus on something interesting outside the window, you immediately spy a new interesting thing. Trying to make sense of any one thing is impossible. For me, it is mesmerizing to the point of being relaxing. I am struck by the number of businesses, both large and small, that seem to have been abandoned along our route. Some of these sites look old, like pre-1997, but some look relatively new. I know many Thais, even astute businessmen, believe in ghosts or bad luck. Is this what keeps them from reclaiming these structures for new businesses? Or do the owners have unreasonable expectations of what this property is worth? Either way, ghosts or greed, this constant new building seems like an awful waste of resources. But then again, I'm not Thai and I don't believe in ghosts.
We are traveling to Bang Saphon Noi to visit my wife's mother. It is a trip I have been looking forward to as my mother-in-law is one of my most favorite people in the world. She lives outside a small town in a small house with no air conditioning. The house has seen little improvement in the 60 years she has lived there. There is little to do there except watch TV and drink beer. Occasionally, nieces and nephews stop by to play. She is 86 now but still buzzes around her house most of the day, cooking food, cleaning, and talking with friends. Her one reward is a couple of glasses of Singha beer at the end of the day, a treat I am happy to provide. She speaks no English yet we communicate just fine by holding hands and smiling a lot at each other. It is a trip back in time to a Thailand of old. She is my inspiration for a happier life. No matter what life throws at this woman, she adjusts, makes the best of it, and finds whatever small opportunity to smile. Who has a better life? Hi-so's who are constantly in conflict or worrying about their money? If I am lucky, I will learn her lessons so I may also live my last years in peace and harmony, surrounded by loving and grateful family members. What greater goal for life is there?
Early the next day, we squeeze into my sister-in-law's Yaris propane hybrid to visit a "special lady Buddha". I have no idea what this means but I am always up for a new adventure in Thailand. We drive south along the local coastal road catching glimpses of deserted yet beautiful beaches set against the coastal outcrops of the Tenasserim Hills. I am amazed by their beauty which surely rivals that of any beach in Phuket. After an hour or so of driving south, we arrive at a large temple complex on the coast. There are many buildings and statues, the largest of which is a "lady Buddha" as my wife calls it. The temple compound appears to have been cobbled together over many years with many different designs, as it's an eclectic mix of the divine and the frivolous. But the ocean views rival any in all of Thailand. I ask my wife what this place is called and she replies "Wat Tha At". On my return to America, I try in vain to find information on this temple on the internet. I even consult my copy of "Buddha in the Landscape" but I come up dry. This must be a temple famous only to local Thais as it appears to be well off the beaten tourist track.
Walking towards the back of the temple complex, I see two signs pointing in opposite directions saying "Hell this way" and "Heaven this way". I naturally choose the Hell route first. This is one of many Thai temples that have simple statue gardens designed to scare Thai kids "straight" to do the right things in life. Although the Buddha did not believe in the idea of Heaven or Hell, the monks in this temple must have deemed the local kids so needing in discipline they had to borrow the Christian idea of Heaven and Hell. The reverse-Kharma utterly failed with me, though, as the gruesome images of people being tortured seemed much more interesting than the happy but boring statues in Heaven. Oh well, I guess in the end I really would choose Heaven, but I would always be wondering what tortuous fun they might be having in Hell.
Of course, after a quick visit to Heaven and Hell, most Thais' thoughts turn to what their next meal will be. So we beetled off the way we came north on the coastal road. When we were about halfway back home, we took a sudden detour towards the coast into a small compound. It appeared to be an old resort of Thai vintage with various small bedroom houses along the sand. We headed for the open air restaurant located right on the beach. The resort was located in the middle of a small cove with small, majestic outcrop hills reaching out into the ocean on either side. The beach is not wide but perfectly adequate for any sunbather. Nearby on the cove, was a small picturesque fishing village with their boats moored close to shore. The waves on the beach were small and they lapped ever so softly. It was truly an idyllic location to rest and relax. If this were located closer to tourist destinations, developers would be bidding many millions of baht to buy this land and build a new complex here. It is as close to the western ideal of a perfect beach as any I have seen. For me, though, the best was yet to come. We ordered a Thai lunch which started with Tom Yum Goong. As I sip the broth, my taste buds explode at the spicy yet rich taste. I remark to my wife that I had never had soup like this before. She nonchalantly said, "Of course, you can only get Tom Yom broth like this from southern Thailand". Of course, I didn't know this but I do now. As I slurp the last of the soup, I consider ways to sneak some into my suitcase to take back to America.
This resort is one of those little known gems you find in Thailand occasionally. That is what makes travelling here so very interesting and rewarding. Again, I did not write the resort's name down and my wife cannot recall the name either. I can only tell you to take the local coastal road south from Bang Saphon Noi for maybe 5 – 8 miles, and then look for the old blue resort on the beautiful half-moon cove. Good luck, you will be well rewarded.
I had little time to savor the excellent soup and the Singha beer buzz, as we had one more destination to visit that day. Located at the north end of Ban Krut beach on Thongchai Mountain, is Wat Tang Sai temple. This is easily the most beautiful Buddhist temple I have seen in Thailand. Everything is wonderfully designed and well maintained. Inside the pagoda are paintings in the old Thai style decorating the walls, doors, and windows. Surrounding the spacious decks are spectacular views of the beach and the ocean. My wife said it was built by wealthy Thais and dedicated to the King and Queen of Thailand. This temple must have cost many millions to build which caused my mind to drift into dangerous territory. So, I posited to my wife, the rich steal from the poor and built this beautiful temple dedicated to a super-rich royal family. I got a very scornful look in response. I deserved it, though, as I pondered the many billions of dollars the Vatican has squirreled away from the poor people they supposedly serve. Or the billions given by oil-rich Arab governments to various mosques around the world. The Thais are piker's in comparison to these holy rollers. Anyway, if you have not seen this truly magnificent temple, please put it high on your to-do list; you will not be disappointed.
I have been intrigued by recent submissions about "doing well" in Thailand by basically approaching as many Thai women as possible and being friendly. I decided to test this theory myself on this trip. Although I am fit and tall, I have a mostly bald head and I am in my 50's, so I did not expect good results. My plan was to engage and smile more than usual to every cute Thai woman I met. When possible, I would try to be funny or to say some silly thing. After a few tries the results were pretty amazing. I definitely received positive looks and responses. One girl who really responded, was a stunning beauty with dark skin and large eyes working at the ice-coffee counter at the temple complex. After a little playful talk, I definitely got a good response even with my wife present. After we walked away, my wife asked me to go back for some water. When I did, Miss Dark Beauty started in with the twenty questions. "Where you from" and "what hotel you stay"; you know the routine. I quickly escaped, barely waiting for my change from the water. Why would she respond like this? Maybe a quick fling with a foreign guy would make for a little fun in what might be a dull day. Maybe a "rich" foreign guy wouldn't try to steal her meager earnings after providing a little needed pleasure. Or maybe I am simply seeing more than what is there. Anyway, this "being there and being fun" approach is worth a try, especially for those who are weary of the same old bar girl experience.
After this day, I thought I had seen all that was wonderful and weird in Thai temples, but tomorrow would change my mind.
Next in Part 2.
Yep, smiling goes a LONG way with Thais, Thai women in particular!
On the subject of trips with Thais that you touched on at the start, I simply don't have the patience for it. I much prefer to travel on my own and can safely say that all my best travel experiences have been when I have travelled alone, the way I prefer to travel these days.