Well, here I am, writing again at 5:30 in the morning with the birds chirping outside my window. It’s never what I would have predicted myself doing, but if it turns into a trend then I’ll be happy.
Yesterday was my first full day in the country, and I seriously doubt my ability to translate its richness in a blog post, but I’ll give it a shot.
After finishing my first blog post I grew restless and decided to venture outside my apartment before I was due to meet my Thai buddy at ten. I traversed several back alleys to get out to the main road, and made the random decision to go to my right. Within two blocks I had passed at least five small food carts, grilling chicken and beef right their on the side of the street on charcoal grills. They were selling sticky rice and fried and grilled things that I had never seen before. Because I still had no money I made the mental commitment to try them all at least once before I left, and continued on through my small local enclave around Arun Amarin road.
Though I was still not buying anything from these people because I had no money, everyone that I passed shared a smile with me. There were old men pushing carts filled with fruits and vegetables and young children playing in the huge vats of water that the food carts used to wash their dishes. All were beautiful, natural smiles shared with a bit of an elongated gaze – I was the only white person that I saw out that morning.
Much to my relief, I soon passed an ATM machine right on the side of the street nestled in a hedge of something beautiful that I wished I knew what the name was. I attempted to withdraw enough money to pay the down payment on my apartment, about 20,000 Thai baht, or approximately $600. The screen came up with a message that it didn’t have that much money in it, a concept so bizarre to me as a young American that I tried again before realizing I would have to go to a different area of the city for what I needed. I took enough money to get me through the morning of buying breakfast and my school uniforms and climbed up onto the bridge through stairs leading up from the other side of the quiet street.
Under this bridge there was another group of food carts, separated by walls of what looked like junk to my eyes from a back space that seemed to have cooking supplies, and what I could only hope was not a living area for the large family operating the carts. At least twenty cats were pouncing and scampering around the stoves (while fired up and grilling chicken and vegetables) and drinking out of the huge vats of dirty water filled with dishes. I haven’t actually seen anyone take dishes straight out of the water and wipe them off to use, so I shouldn’t condemn the cleanliness too much without more experience, but it’s easy to say that this is the sort of thing I would never experience in the West.
After making a couple loops around the block and familiarizing myself with the area I found a small market where I found some colorful candy that had a gelatin-like exterior. A kind woman told me that they were made from soybeans. Those, along with a “honey drink with basil seeds,” constituted the days breakfast, eaten alongside the busy road smiling at old men pushing fruit carts back and forth in front of me.
After meeting Aum, my Thai friend, she led me down the road to find the ferry that will take me to my university each school day. The walk leads me past a beautiful temple and a hospital that is currently housing the King of Thailand, who is not in good health. His picture hangs everywhere and is emblazoned on the currency of every denomination, and is one of the images I have been cautioned most about treating with respect. His poor health is a stressful thing for the nation, which experienced a military coup last May which displaced its former ruler, and now the nation is led by the King and the military, two separate entities. If the King dies there will be no natural check on the military’s power with the political clout that he carries, and many are unsure what would happen. I have read the King’s role is ingrained into Thai society, and after just 36 hours here I have no doubt at all that that is true (from my back window you can see a shrine of the king in our neighbor’s small back yard. I realized early this morning that it is covered in neon lights that blink yellow, green, and red all through the night.)
The ferry to my university looks like a huge black plastic tub with a flat top with benches and a motor stuck on the back. The bottom reminded me of a plastic pond liner, if you have ever seen one of those. The pier is made up of old sheet metal, with stencil-painted letters that read “safety first” in yellow paint that is so faded it appears to be from the 70’s, and seems downright satirical now. The ferry costs three baht each way across Chao Phraya River, the US dollar equivalent of a dime. There are no life jackets, and the driver does not ooze competence (although on the way back yesterday afternoon he was wearing a cute navy blue sailor suit.) Everyone is kind, however, and smiles all the same. It is hard to feel too stressed about things in an environment as unassuming as they make it. It takes about ten minutes from the time we leave the pier to park on the other side, and you jump off the boat while the driver uses the motor to drive the boat into the dock, holding there just long enough to exchange passengers. I’m excited to use this mode of transport all semester.
School uniforms were first on the agenda, and I went to the Thammasat University bookstore to find them. They consist of a white button up shirt, black pants, black tie with a university specific pin, and a black belt with a belt buckle also emblazoned with our university name. In American I consistently where a large shirt size, but the XXL I got here is tight about the chest and arms and takes very deliberate movements to remain tucked in. I got the whole outfit for around $20, which is nice because in my Thai studies program we only have to wear them on mid-term test days and finals.
After the bookstore we took a cab to the mall, where I was able to get soap and toiletries that I had been missing direly. The mall, though interesting, was similar to many large malls that you would see in the US. Many young people were there, and at five stories I was told it was one of the smaller ones in the area. While it is hard to predict how I will feel in a couple weeks time, I don’t anticipate going back there too terribly often. Malls tend to stress me out a little bit in the US, and not too surprisingly that translated to here as well.
From there, I took a cab to Kho San Road. A twenty minute cab ride cost me about two dollars, and I was in the backpackers paradise of the city of Bangkok. Between what I have read and heard from people, Kho San Road is the sort of Land of Vice for foreigners. It is a common party area at night, and during the day is full of vendors selling their wares and cafes serving breakfast food and beer. Smaller food carts and the ever present fruit sellers were out en masse as well. After stopping for a beer and observing enough to decide I would explore somewhere else that night, I decided to get a coconut from a rotund elderly woman on the side of the road. When I pointed to the one I wanted, she smiled, picked it up and held it between us. She reached under the table, grabbed a large machete-looking knife, and gave it a large whack with the dull side of the blade. She peeled off a small chunk on top, inserted a straw, and charged me a dollar. I had to wipe off my glasses because when she hit it juice, filled to the brim, spurted everywhere.
I am in bliss.
After that, what else could I do? The act couldn’t be topped. I got another beer, and also a nice metal fish to keep me company on my desk while I write these blog posts. I had to haggle for him, which was exciting.
I payed a nice gentleman two more dollars to take me to the university on the back his motor bike, boarded the ferry home, bought sheets, and slept for twelve hours until the rhythmless-yet-beautiful sounds of the birds outside awoke me to another smoggy, beautiful day that reeks of opportunity on the streets of Bangkok.