May 19, 2011 was the last time I was in Bangkok. I had left my host family a few days before, hiccuping and in tears, not knowing when I would be back. I cried when I visited a Thai 7/11 for the last time. I cried leaving my AFS friends behind, and they all waited up with me until 3:30 in the morning when a taxi came to take me and me alone to the airport. Some of us snuck up on to the roof of the hotel and danced in the rain in a garden of skyscrapers, savoring our final hours. When I finally got on the plane, I was physically ill to be leaving. I had a fever, a rash on my chest, a throbbing headache. All because I was leaving a country I loved and didn’t know when I could return.
Two years later, fate has transpired to bring me home. Yesterday morning, I arrived in Thailand over the Cambodian border. The Thai immigration official was friendly and after hearing my pronunciation of Ban Nong Faek (the village where my family’s house is) he conducted the rest of the mini-interview in Thai. He handed my stamped passport back with a smile and well wishes for chok dee, or good luck. Welcome home!
The bus dropped us off at Khao San Road, the tourist section of town that I have heard about but never visited. The street is lined with restaurants and bars and shops on the sidewalks and food vendors and tuk tuks ready and willing to spirit you away from the madness. My initial plan was to book another bus ticket to take me to Yasothon that very night, but navigating crowds with heavy bags strapped to your front and back, without a sense of direction and a grumbling belly is a recipe for grumpy traveler. That much I have learned. So I sat on a curb, watching the masses flow by, and waited for the internal decision to be made. Stay in Bangkok for a night or press onward? I got some Thai iced tea to help me think it over. Mmmm… Stay. It will give my family more heads-up time as well.
200 baht later, I had a room and a place to leave my bags. Success! I hit the sidewalks, taking in the smells and sounds and sights of this corner of a beloved country. I entered every 7/11 I saw, whether I was shopping or not, just for the satisfaction of seeing familiar brands and snacks. I walked laps around Khao San and the surrounding streets. I got a SIM card for the secondary phone I brought with me and haven’t used, but there was nowhere to put the SIM card in the phone. Some hilarity with the 7/11 staff who sold me the SIM card ensued, but in the end I had to by a new (to me) phone from one of the many roadside kiosks. Before that, I used a public phone to telephone my host mom. It was almost surreal; there I was on a street corner, smiling like a fool and surrounded by streetside food vendors going about their business. Oh, joy of simple things.
Being in Thailand, I am taking care of some business that I have been letting slide in other countries. I am buying new deoderant, a toothbrush, glue. I went to a Kodak store and printed pictures to put in my on-the-road scrapbook, which will be completed long before I reach American soil. In a way I have been waiting to get to Thailand to deal with some of these things, largely because prices are more clearly regulated here and I feel less like I will be ripped off. Plus it is cheap, relatively speaking.
And if you are looking for hippie chic, this is the place to be! Tie-dye headbands, embroidered linen shirts, pants in various colors, textures, and degrees of baginess. Admittedly, I would like to get a high-quality version of each of these items, but have no real need for more clothes. Maybe when I am heading out I will spring, but for now my one pair of khakis and one skirt are holding their own. (But it will be laundry day soon, that’s for sure!)
Today I wandered the city, hopping on a boat shuttle and hopping off in Chinatown, from there, I found my way back to Khao San and enjoyed the sensory stimulation along the way. The smell of Tiger Balm and unnamable herbs drying in Chinese medicine shops. The alley selling shoes of every size and color, shop after shop of shoes. The narrow indoor market with shops selling everything under the sun. Boys with overloaded dolly carts shouting Tor na krap! as they hustle through the claustrophobic walkways. Glittering fabrics and jewelery pressing themselves upon you. The smell of roasting meat, smoke trailing down the street. The occasional unexpected whiff of jasmine garlands, sold as offerings to Buddha. The cough of tuk tuks zipping farangs around the city. The smell of frying noodles in street stalls and accompanying sound of spatulas scraping woks. The chatter of vendors gossiping. The sudden coolness found by the tree-lined canals that led some people to call Bangkok the Venice of the East. The steamy sewers and their smell of old laundry water. The ubiquitous wats, or temples. Oh, Thailand how I missed you.
Last night I stretched my legs after a long day of transit. Business handled, I strolled the farang-filled streets and enjoyed the music coming from different restaurants and bars. Sometimes I would cop a squat across the street from a place with live music and groove to the beat.
I don’t remember this part of Thailand, but it doesn’t surprise me now that I’m back: people are really friendly! I have had a number of local people stop for a chat, usually in English. Many of them have family living in the States and some have spent time over there as well, making our communication even easier with their advanced English skills. For example, yesterday I was fiddling in my bag and looked up to see an older woman standing next to me. I gave her a smile, and she asked where I am from. Turns out her daughter lives in Dallas and she has been living with her on and off there for the past fifteen years. She is in Bangkok to visit her sister, who is hard to live with because she is “too picky!” She runs a tidy little business bringing in Estee Lauder and other legitimate beauty supplies from the States and resells them to rich friends in Bangkok. She does the same with Thai-style bags and goods, bringing them back to the States to sell to friends at an inflated price. She was a cunning business woman, but honest and had a conspiratorial smile that was infectious. Another man, who had lived in Michigan, stopped me and asked about Vietnam (since I was wearing my Vietnam shirt) and took an empty water bottle off my hands. Shortly afterward, another lady asked me where I am from and why I am traveling alone. “You should have brought your boyfriend and come on holiday!” she laughed. (Yeah, long story about that one…) A guy and a girl asked if they could film an interview with me and were delighted that they could ask the questions in Thai while I responded in English. I don’t know if there is something written on my face, but people are awful happy for a chat. Just another reason why I love Thailand.
And now I am about to grab a taxi to take me to the train station en route to Ubon. The train was cheaper than the bus, and I am quite excited for this experience. I haven’t been on the train in Thailand yet, which was a bit of a sticking point with me when I was here last time. So here we go, on to a new adventure and a new chapter with the Sujarit family!