Latest Posts

Overnight with a Thai family

This week is mid terms week, when all the normal classes are cancelled and students work on the assorted papers and tests assigned by their professors. My classes aren’t too terribly challenging over in the Thai studies department, so in lieu of some of the studying I ought to be doing I thought I would recount some of my experiences.

Last weekend I was shown yet another extraordinary act of kindness and generosity by one my Thai friends (her name is Aum, pronounced “oom”) when they invited me to stay at their parents house overnight. It was an opportunity I was excited to have. As with many things over here I learned a whole lot, but not exactly the things that I expected to learn.

Her and her father picked my friend Tyler (another American student) and I up around 4:00 p.m. Friday evening just a short walk away from our apartment. We drove out of town right in the midst of rush hour to their home, which was in what was kind of a suburb of the city. During rush hour it took approximately an hour and twenty minutes to get there, but we were told that otherwise it can take as little as thirty minutes. Neither Tyler nor I knew what to expect, other than that we would likely be shown just as much kindness as this family always does (this are the same people that picked me up from the airport, showed me around, helped me track down my lost luggage, find the post office, and loaned me a cell phone and a hot water maker).

The girls father was a government official who works fairly high up in the import/export of animals division, and her mother is a professor of chemistry at another University in Bangkok. We arrived at their house to be greeted by a huge brown dog that looked something like an Australian Shepard. They lived on a long residential street that had much more greenery than most of Bangkok does, and it was a beautiful change. They had two houses side-by-side, one where our friend lived with her father, mother, and brother and her grandmother and housekeeper lived in the other one.

IMG_2235

This was my first time inside a Thai household, and I found myself thrust back to the interest of my first few weeks here, when I had no idea what lied around every turn. The houses were close together – separated by a driveway – and of standard size in America, a bit smaller than my house in Montana but bigger than the small one that I grew up in. They had two floors, and were overall rather similar in layout to what you would see back home. The exceptions were few, and included the doorframes, which were just short enough to knock my head a good four or five times over the 24 hours we spent there, the small room off the upstairs study (our bedroom for the night) that was dedicated to a Buddhist shrine, and the fact that they did all their cooking in an outdoors kitchen. We were told it was to avoid making the house smell like food, and given the extraordinary heat that is here all the time, it made sense in that respect as well.

They took us out to dinner that night at MK, a chain restaurant in a nearby shopping mall where everyone at the table shares a common hot pot and you order small dishes that are brought and you cook them in the hot pot. Maybe I wasn’t doing it right(I probably wasn’t doing it right), but I wasn’t the biggest fan of the whole hot pot thing. They do a lot of boiling things when they cook here, even meet and vegetables. It always seems to make everything bland and soggy, and the processes meat they oftentimes use doesn’t have a ton of taste to begin with. My favorite part were these mushrooms with small caps and very long stalks that tasted dark and almost meaty. They have them in a lot of things around here, and they are delicious. They also got duck meat, pre cooked and seasoned, and insisted that Tyler and I enjoy it. It was delicious, and though they said that it was one of their favorites they insisted that we eat it all between the two of us. It was just another example of the Thai hospitality that I am finally beginning to become accustomed to.

After dinner we went back to their house, and enjoyed a quiet night reading alongside the father, who was watching TV. It rang with familiarity, and despite my high expectations I realized that people everywhere need to relax sometimes, and they aren’t always in such different ways.

We went to bed early because we had to be up early the next morning at 6:00 a.m. to drive five minutes into town and offer food for the monks on their daily morning journeys through the streets. They leave the temple each morning and walk through the streets to give the people in the town the opportunity to offer them food. I confess to not knowing as much about it as I could, but I have read that the act of offering monks food is a positive thing for a Buddhist to be able to do, something that gives them a sort of good credit. Many wealthy people will build pagodas in various places for the same sort of reason. I was told that monks are only allowed to eat the food that they gather from the townspeople on their morning walks, so the act of communal generosity is a foundational pillar of supporting Buddhism within any community. Isn’t that a beautiful thing? The joint effort of everyone in the community supporting the religious tradition in that primal way was real nice, and I was sure happy to be a part of it. It was a sort of way of keeping people actively involved, of the religious body marshaling community support with their own hunger on the line. Comparing Buddhism and the more common Christian religions in the West may be a futile effort, but this was a refreshing experience after weeks in the modern globalized city of Bangkok.

It was two Thai girls and Tyler and I at 6:30 that morning, and we each offered the monk some instant noodles, iced tea, and small cakes that Aum’s mother had bought at 7/11 the night before on the way home from dinner. The monk was holding a basket in one arm and an orange canvas bag in the other. I watched several ladies who were giving food him front of us first, and followed suit after they had finished. I put the food in his basket, then he motioned for me to move it from the basket to the bag. After me Tyler went, and then Aum and her friend. I thought perhaps I had messed up by putting the food in the basket first, but when Aum and her friend did the same thing I realized that perhaps there was a religious importance to putting the food there first, and the bag was then simply to handle the overflow. The monk had gotten more food than he could hold, so after we filled his bag he asked us to put it on the steps on the side of the street so that he could pick it up on his way back through town. We kneeled and he blessed us, saying words in Thai and moving his hands in deliberate orientations back and forth and looking very serious. We stood up, and I couldn’t help but smile. He smiled right back, even bigger. This was one of those cool occasions where there weren’t a plethora of white people around, and I actually felt like an uncommon occurrence in this untouched suburb. The people treated me like they would any other, and I appreciated the smile that transcended linguistic borders so well.

After giving the monk food we walked through a local morning market, one of the ones where the people who cook at food carts all day get there food. I have reached the point where markets, which were so fascinating at first, all sort of begin to look the same and aren’t quite as exciting if you don’t have anything to buy. This one was interesting because it was cheaper, and as before it was full of Thai people, with no foreigners in this area of town. The services were more genuine, and the cooking was fresher so early in the morning. We didn’t buy anything, but it was a pleasant excursion to say the least. I also have gotten into the habit of eating things even if I don’t know what they are in an attempt to be adventurous, but I am beginning to realize that that loses some value when you can’t tell people what adventurous things you ate because you what it is called or how to describe it. At any rate, walking through a market with a Thai person to ID these things for me is a valuable experience.

IMG_2232

After that we went back to Aum’s house. Despite the fact that it was a Saturday her mother had classes to teach at the university, so Aum, Tyler, and I spent the day working on homework. Around noon we met up with her neighbor and got a cooking lesson, which was really awesome. I learned how to make khao moo sam, which is the pork and basil stir-fry that I get for breakfast almost every morning. We also made vegetable stir-fry, dim sum, Thai omelets, and these delicious (and incredibly rich) caramelized bananas for dessert. I feel pretty confident I could make these again back home, which is exciting. Here is a picture of all the delicious food we made:

IMG_2234

An hour or so after we finished lunch Tyler and I packed up and they drove us back into town. Outside of rush hour it did indeed take closer to thirty minutes, and we were back home. The trip had been a meaningful, if in ways far more subtle than I had anticipated. In Thailand dad still watches TV during the day, they still have dreadful game shows on, houses are still cluttered and comfortable and homey, relationships aren’t perfect but people love each other anyways, and they make it work. Quiet Saturdays to that Thai family don’t look that much different from my own back home, just with a shrine upstairs.

Also, they didn’t use any air conditioning so I spent the whole time sweating profusely. But they put up with my bad smell and were kind throughout. I only hope I get to return the favor someday.

Advertisements

Boy Scouts in Bangkok!

This handsome little guy was walking down the street in front of a week or so ago. I see young boys wandering around in their Boy Scout uniforms from time to time here, and it always brings heart warming flashbacks to my days in Troop 1947. Those were the days.

A Thai person once told me that all Thai boys have to be in Boy Scouts for at least two years, but I’m not convinced that’s actually true. I can’t find anything online to support it either. But what a thought…

Disclaimer: This is a far more dapper boy scout than I ever was.

Missing the beauty we cannot see

There is an art to finding beauty in things that you don’t have any emotional attachment to.

Life is different here for that precise reason. There are many things that are beautiful. I see them every day, but it’s different from being back in Montana. For the majority of my life I have resided in places where every time I turned a corner I had a reason to appreciate what I saw that was completely devoid of the aesthetic appeal of the scene. My life was full of meaningful relationships and events, spread out around the places that I spent the most time.

Uprooting and moving across the world, I don’t have those connections anymore. It isn’t a straightforward switch, but I’m slowly learning to appreciate and enjoy it in it’s own right. It makes me stop and think, it makes me really look into a place for what it is devoid of the emotional connections I’m temped to inject into it. Then it forces me to make them anew, to create relationships and experiences that inject the value into the environments. That seems to be a big part of traveling, a big part of making new places home. It doesn’t happen easily, or overnight, but it’s incredibly worthwhile.

Big cities have always struck me as impersonal and humbling. For the first ten days or so I love the excitement and adventure they inherently bring along, and after that I begin to miss the small town values and personable demeanors that come with a rural Montana upbringing. After spending more time here, however, I’ve realized more than ever before that cities are really just large conglomerates of many small communities. It seems like some parts of Bangkok have stronger community spirits than others, but my part is damn nice. There may not be 35 miles between us and the next community, but that doesn’t mean that the people are any less willing to band together and nurture the collective.

I’ve also come to realize that because of that, not all communities are geographic in nature. In many ways some of the communities I have found here in Bangkok are more personal and friendly than those back home. Though the man from the bookstore an hour and a half away from my house may not wave at me when I pick up my mail in the morning, he is slowly getting to know what books I’m interested in, learning about me in an intellectual and very personal capacity. Learning how to develop relationships and create such varying forms of community has been a largely trial and error process, but it’s a skill that I suspect will serve me well through what I hope is an adventurous life.

Here is one of the beautiful things that I see every day. It’s the view from the ferry I take to school each morning.

IMG_2156

And this is the view from the bridge when I walk home from the University around 4:30 p.m. on school days.

IMG_2193

Excitement strikes, and no one was killed

I was in this square about twenty minutes before this happened: http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/general/463328/update-paragon-bombs-homemade

Just as I was beginning to lull myself into thinking that this city wasn’t so crazy after all. I’ve been exploring a bit each day, filling in the blank spaces between metro stops in my head. Seeing familiar faces, all these kind smiles most everywhere I go. It was certainly an abrupt wake-up call, and has been an intriguing story to follow in the time that has lapsed since as well.

I was at the gym yesterday evening, about 24 hours after the incident. There was a Thai talk show on the TV, and while unfortunately I couldn’t understand the words that were being said, the expressive faces of the anchors were fascinating. A very passionate looking plump man was talking loudly with a face that can only be described as indignant, as if he was saying that whoever was responsible for such an act of terrorism had better watch out, this wasn’t an acceptable act in a nation whose nationalism is tied with pacifism in the eyes of so many Thais. As if to reinforce this point, the next person brought on was a stony-eyed, intimidating looking policeman in a ball cap. He stoically spoke for a few minutes, presumably about the police reaction to what happened, and the segment ended, cutting back to the pre-recorded European soccer game that was playing before.

The front page of the Bangkok Post, read on my way to school this morning, illustrates what I have found to be an interesting dichotomy of the press here between asking difficult questions and answering them with confoundingly small number of sources. Rumors were about that perhaps the bomb detonation was staged by the government as a way to justify continued use of martial law when many Thais are calling for a return to democracy.

Thailand rates rather low on the Press Freedom Index, and that is something I have been trying to uncover the basis behind since I arrived here. While it was intriguing to see the front page of the major national publication questioning the government in such a critical manner, reading the story makes you realize it follows the basic structure of all stories here. The only sources used are officials from the government. It is an incredibly frustrating way of wrapping up a story with little information. It’s interesting to ponder, as a journalism student in America, about the nuances of working in the press in a foreign nation. It would be difficult to understand not only which buttons to push while still getting published, but also the national psyche that will determine how the material is consumed and interpreted. I find myself frustrated that I can’t read the Thai newspapers here that I see being toted about by so many people, read on the side of the street and in restaurants and on the bus.

You can find the last article here: http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/general/464446/army-denies-martial-law-plot

Settling in, sort of

As the first week of my time in Thailand comes to a close, I feel I am beginning to settle in. Albeit slowly.

It feels as if it has been far more than eight days that has gone by, as every day has been a roller coaster. I’ve learned so much, yet become conscious of how much more there is out there to know. It has been a humbling experience to say the least, and I am weary and excited to see what the next week brings.

I’ve had some excellent experiences with many local Thai people. Everything that I have read about their innate kindness and generosity has proved true precisely when I needed the most. Many faces are now connected to names and smiles in my head, and that helps keep me anchored when I go about my day to day routine, particularly at the University.

Now that I have had a bit of time to think about it, the things I miss most so far are all the conversations I have each day when I’m at the University of Montana. I like to think I’m a pretty independent guy, but each day in Missoula I see many people I know who slow down and talk to me and make me feel like I belong. It’s apparent almost every day that I occupy a spot in people’s lives, and my presence actually changes something about the place that I am. The same feeling occurred to me during my month in England a year and a half ago. It is very difficult to get used to the idea that if I was not here in Bangkok, right now, that the lives of essentially everyone around me would be exactly the same as they are now. They might smile at me when I walk past them down the road twice a day, or teach me how to say the name of the food I order each morning, but if my presence doesn’t alter or improve their lot in life at all. That is humbling for me, and so counter to what I am used to that I often feel sort of foundationless.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m having an amazing time. It’s just that a surprising amount of it seems to be in retrospect, when at the end of the day (or perhaps with the new energy that the next day brings) I look back on the things I learned yesterday that make today easier, even if it is but a miniscule amount. I’m finding better places to get the foods that I enjoy, quiet places in the middle of this hectic city where I can read quietly, kind old women who will wave at me if I walk the long way to school each day, and the bus stations, so when all else fails I can leave for what lies outside these municipal borders.

The hardest part of the trip so far has been fitting in with the other foreign students here at the university, which is not what I expected. I’m usually fairly quick to make friends, and although it was my goal to come here and focus on spending time with native Thai people that I couldn’t meet anywhere else, I always imagined I would have to be keeping other temptations at bay in the evenings. Rather I hear about what my classmates did the night before oftentimes in class the next day. I’ve been invited along on several occasions, but oftentimes find myself too tired from the day’s excursions to get up the energy for the late nights and early mornings that they seem to crave. I suspect I will settle in just fine after a little bit more time here and would forget many of these difficulties if I didn’t write them down, but they’re worth remembering. They’re making me rely on myself in ways I wasn’t aware I was relying on others back home, and it’s giving me a new appreciation for the friends I have made, and especially kept, over the years.

My biggest victory to date occurred when, after class got out early on Tuesday, I got up the courage to walk into the lone indoor basketball court on Thammasat University’s campus. There were six or seven Thai students out there playing, and about the same number watching from the baseline. I had packed all my clothes and my basketball shoes in doubtful hope that morning that I would get the opportunity to use them, and when I was greeted with the same generous smile that follows me almost everywhere I go here, I sat down and laced up.

We played for several hours, and it was the first of several sessions that week. I learn a few new names each time. Thai people tend to go by one-syllable nicknames because there given names are much longer. Some of the guys at the basketball court I play with are (spelled phonetically): First, Kan, Yoo, Wat, Tat, Kee, and Patrick. Patrick is Taiwanese, although he’s spent over ten years living in Thailand with his parents. None of us can dunk it, but we all have a great time playing together, and being accepted into the group as generally as they did has been about the most helpful thing to me so far.

Some of them play in jeans, and they have a more run-and-gun style than we tend to play back in the US, at least in the pickup games I play in back in Montana. They manage to operate that while playing half court, oftentimes even if we have five-on-five, numbers that always merit full court play back home. There is a mix of bare feet and basketball shoes much nicer than my own, but everyone is kind and everyone can make a shot. They’re good passers but also not hesitant to throw up a questionable shot from about anywhere. They keep my guessing, and although I am several inches taller than most of them our different playing styles make us a good match, and I have a great deal of fun. They seem to as well.

One of the advancing thoughts I have had swirling in my head is why it is that Thai people speak so quietly. Two people, talking to each other from 10 or 12 feet away, seem to little more than mutter to my ears, and yet understand each other perfectly. It perplexed me for a couple days, until I sat down and thought about (during the middle of my Advanced Topics in Political Theory and Current Events class, which jumps from far over my head to unfortunately easy with incredible rapidity) it one day. In order to speak so quietly, they must listen incredibly carefully. For that to be such an ingrained act in a society, it seems to me that perhaps person-to-person interactions and relationships are valued more than they are in my Western/American society.

This is all speculation on my part, but I suspect that that could be a big contributing factor to why everyone seems so content and shares so many smiles and pleasant exchanges. The smiles aren’t baseless. They are just anchored in something that is difficult to catch with the first cursory look of someone like me, with my past experiences and world-view.

I wonder how much of this is influenced by a political climate and how much is simply passed down from generation to generation. In the United States I feel like people observe and participate in politics under the assumption that our government is there to serve us, and if they are not doing what we want then it is our ability to rise up and change them to people who may do a better job. Indeed, it is written into our Constitution. Some people, myself included, may argue that is a fading principle in our country, but being here makes me appreciate whatever amount of it is left, even if it is in the eyes of only some. Here people see it as their duty to revere the King, and to agree with what their government is doing and how they feel. I recognize this is a broad, sweeping statement that is likely in many cases to be proved wrong. Indeed I’ll actively seek out ways to prove it wrong, but it has been clear that on the whole this is a somewhat reasonably applied broader national identity. You can see it in the way they write their news, in the way their political science professors speak critically about what their citizens are blind to. It’s obvious in they signs places in their museums, and in the books they fill their bookstores with. It is rare to climb in a cab without having your driver point at one of the many pictures of the king posted above the road, and saying with a gap-toothed (or completely healthy looking) smile, “Dat is the king!” They wait for you to smile back and look enthusiastic before they turn back to look once again at the road, where three or four lanes are artificially made out of a painted two-lane highway.

Day Two: Bangkok’s Chinatown

Before Bangkok began the Thai-dominated metropolitan mixing pot that it is, apparently it was the Chinese who had the settled it the furthest, and have been effectively ingrained in Thai society for the last 400 years. About 14% of Thai citizens are ethnic Chinese, and as many as 40% can claim some small piece of Chinese heritage. At least I read all this is my Lonely Planet guidebook and a Wikipedia article, so I thought it would be prudent to spend my last free day before classes begin by exploring Bangkok’s Chinatown for myself.

Sensory overload was the theme for the day, and I forced myself to trudge through the stalls for several hours experiencing the sights, sounds, and smells of the area. Hundreds and hundreds of people crammed into alleyways not more than six or eight feet wide with stalls selling wares on either side led you to squeeze your way as politely as you could for around an hour, then abandoning all sense of propriety and just forge on by whatever means possible. I think I managed to blend in more after I turned that corner as well, as most others were doing the exact same thing.

Listing off all the things I saw for sale that were new to me would take at least a thousand words, but that assumes I knew what to call them. I passed stalls piled high with dried fish (of which I have experienced in soup and Pad Thai that I have ordered), clothing, toys, fruit (mango, papaya, pineapple, apple, strawberries, cherries, watermelon, cantaloupe, coconut, jackfruit, tamarinds, pomelos, and many others), and all sorts of watches, electronics, and other goods one might find at an upscale department store. That part all became a bit exhausting, although it goes without saying that I had some amazing food. I also had my first ride on a Tok Tok to get back home!

What was interesting about the experience to me, after stepping back and thinking about it, are the drastically different lives that young Thai people live. That’s not different from many cities around the globe, but what is so different here than anywhere I have been in America is the lack of gentrification. I walked the streets of Chinatown and saw young children playing in the dirty industrial construction sights of buildings that looked like they hadn’t seen a work crew for forty years. Kids as young as three or four, without shoes, would be playing with scrap rebar and throwing dust back and forth at each other as their mothers watched and spoke in the background. You could look to the opposite side of the street and see a Starbucks in part of a four-story mall filled with Thai teenagers whiling away the afternoon on their smartphones and socializing. You get a glimpse of the socioeconomic spectrum if you make a commitment to walking a fair distance, and there is something beautiful about that. There is no attempt to separate the classes and pretend the lower class does not exist as I observe in large cities in the West. These people, even if they are not what we in America would deem economically wealthy, make due with life and manage to live with each other in spite of it.

I hope I get the chance to learn more about this in some of my classes and hopefully through some discussions with Thai people over the course of the semester, because I find it rather fascinating.

This idea was highlighted during my trip home. I asked a Tok Tok driver to take me back to the neighborhood that I lived, with my backpack full of groceries. I have a map that came out of my guidebook which I use to point to places when I encounter cab drivers and the like that don’t understand my English jargon. He drove me to a back alley with a sign that read “National Museum of Royal Barges,” which is the landmark closest to my apartment on the somewhat rudimentary map. The museum is probably around a quarter mile from my apartment. The sign had an arrow pointing down a narrow a sidewalk with a canal on one side and a chest height fence around someone’s dwelling on the other side. The man and I exchanged smiles and money, and I headed down the narrow walkway.

These people living on the canal had such a unique life. Everywhere where there wasn’t a standing wooden home there was dense, green, stout, beautiful foliage with garbage strewn about the ground under it (there is a severe lack of garbage cans everywhere in Bangkok, which explains the large amounts of garbage you see on the ground in many places). These wooden homes look more like shacks, with rotted walls and ceilings leaving holes to see (and rain) through, and if there is any glass left in the windows it is probably broken. Many older women sat out on the pavement walkway speaking with each other in slow, quiet Thai and even there selling food from small stands. I have no idea how much foot traffic comes through there on a normal day, but it can’t be much. They all smile warmly at me as I walk quickly by, looking at their homes and way of life and trying not to impart my Western values on their untempered happiness. Dogs are lying out everywhere, sleeping in angles so odd that you worry they are dead until they lift their heads and look at you in the inquisitive way that dogs do when you pass by them.

When I reached the museum I decided to take a look inside, worried that I if I didn’t now I would let it fall victim to being so conveniently close to me that I would never actually do it, like many of the hikes through the Mission Mountains that seem imminently more enticing from Bangkok than they do from my parents home in Polson.

The museum held about seven regal, beautifully painted and designed 30-meter long barges. They were long and narrow, equipped to hold around 60 oarsmen with another two to steer and one to lead in front. There was a throne in the middle that was meant for whatever royalty (in this case it was often the King) and space for four body guards around him as well. All were to wear elaborate uniforms that were also on display. I think when I purchase a sailboat after I graduate college and fail to enter the malnourished job market I’ll also get someone to sew me costumes that look like that. I’ll post a picture soon. Squeezed in among the elaborate long barges were several old, rotten, brown pieces of barge. They were more like half a barge, and the signs explained in broken English that they had been blown up by bombs in WWII. While bombing a boat that didn’t even have an engine seemed absurd to me, these boats were of such an immense nature that I believe little short of a bomb would actually be able to sink them. I had never heard of any Thai involvement in WWII, so this prompted some research. Apparently back in 1941 the Japanese invaded a sovereign Thailand (Thailand is the sole nation in Southeast Asia that has never been colonized) because they wanted access to British controlled Burma and Malaysia. The Thais refused, and a struggle ensued. After several days of fighting the Thais surrendered to the Japanese and have them the access they wanted, allied with them for the duration of the war. The refusal of the Thai embassador in Washington D.C., however, to hand over the documents making that allegiance official led to the United States never actually declaring war on Thailand. I read that the decision of Japanese allegiance was not particularly popular with many Thais, and within a few years a well-organized resistance movement ousted the Japanese from the country completely towards the end of the war.

At the end of the day I once again had the energy to do little other than come home and collapse into a comfortable bed. The amount of knowledge and experiences that I am getting each day is refreshing, but also trying. I am finding myself ready to get out of Bangkok, and think I will shift my sights to finding a train station where I can buy a ticket to get out of town and perhaps do some backpacking or find a beach. That sounds downright beautiful.

Adventures Abound on the First Full Day

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.

Day One: Awoken by Birds at Sunrise

It is the beginning of my first full day in Thailand, and I was lying awake in my bed around 5:30 am when I decided I might as well get up and do some reading. While in the bathroom I slowly noticed the sound of birds outside my window. It was still dark outside, but when I opened the window to my balcony I could hear a cacophony of calls and sounds. I will have to find a good resource pairing bird calls to species to figure out what exactly is right outside my window, but at any rate it was a truly excellent welcome to a country that I am just now seeing by daylight for the first time. You can look out the window and see birds of all shapes and sizes flying to and fro over the city, and by the sound of it there are a handful of species taking residence in the decent grouping of trees right outside my window.

The trip here was rather long, and a quiet apartment was a welcome thing after being on the road for approximately three days. From the moment I stepped off the airplane at Suvarnbhumi Airport I experienced nothing but the kindest people, and I genuinely sensed why they call this place the “Land of Smiles.” My checked bag was lost somewhere in transit (I have a hunch it was misplaced at the airport in Bahrain), but they took my address at the airport and assured me they would send it to me as soon as they found it. The bag contained mostly clothes, so while I am short on that and a few toiletries I should be fine for a couple of days without it. I can only hope it shows up sooner rather than later.

Aum and her father greeted me at the airport. Aum is a student that goes to my university and has volunteered to take me under her wing and help me assimilate into life here with a bit more ease. She is a kind woman. Her father drove me all the way from the airport to my apartment in the city. Their generosity floored me, as it was around an hour and a half long drive through heavy traffic and several toll roads. I will put it near the top of my list to find a way to thank them – they made my first experience here a great one.

My room is a nice one – spacious, with a nice floor to ceiling window facing a garden behind the building. My fifth-floor balcony looks right out to the point of being about level with the highest trees. I have a private bathroom with a shower and a toilet equipped with a bidet, a small hose that you use to clean yourself in lieu of toilet paper. I used one for the first time in the Bahrain airport because I thought there was a chance I would never get another chance. Recovering from days of the diet of a traveler has led me to already appreciate it, although I doubt this morning will be the last time I soak my outfit in a sleepy, careless haze.

It has grown lighter outside since I have been writing, and the haze I have heard so much about has become apparent. There were no stars out last night, but I was a bit too frazzled to realize just how thick the smog seems to a young man from Montana. The Weather Channel website says today is supposed to be partly cloudy, but this would classify as heavy overcast in Montana.

Aum has volunteered to meet this morning and take me to the bank to get money, and to the university bookstore for school uniforms (a plain looking white button-up shirt and black pants). I hope to be able to make a side-trip to find some other essentials, such as soap and bedding, which I was without last night.

It should be a grand Saturday, and the beginning of something great. More birds are awakening, and with every call my excitement at being here grows a bit more.

En Route to Bangkok

Here it is, the maiden voyage of the blog and this adventure.

I’m sitting in Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris, France, waiting to board a plane bound for Bahrain, which is my last stop en route to Bangkok. I’ll be spending the spring studying at Thammasat University in Bangkok, Thailand.

Sitting on the precipice of adventure has always been a curious thing to me. I spent many months in anticipation of this trip. Looking forward to it has made it difficult to do homework and write my stories all of last semester. I’ve been kept awake at night with dreams of the vibrant culture, chaotic city, and the profound impact I hope it will have on me

Now that it’s here, however, it’s a difficult thing to grasp. Growing up ski trips evoked a similar pattern for me. I would look forward to a Saturday of skiing all week until Friday night, when I inevitably questioned if I wanted to go at all. I never could bring myself to admit it to anyone, and besides that I always found that I was glad I made myself do it in the end. In the meantime I felt guilty for not reveling in the joy that I always felt should have been present. It just seemed to be one moment of softness, when the realization that staying behind is easier, more comfortable, and more familiar. It wouldn’t push me.

I’m glad I’ll be boarding this plane in a few minutes.

The journey really began about two weeks ago, when my father and sister dropped me off at the train station in Whitefish, Montana. It’s been long, and it’s been wonderful. I spent a day in Washington with my buddy Chase, a good man and a fierce friend. After that I spent about 10 days in New York City, and those ten days proved to be far more involved and transformative than I anticipated. It was beautiful, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. A great way to ease into this adventure, and a excellent opportunity to re-anchor my priorities in life away from the ebb and flow of my normal day-to-day callings back in Montana. That’s one of the things that I suspected would be good for me on this trip, and my time in New York forced me to plunge headlong into that. It was there that I found several things I was looking for, and a few that I was not. I’m taking all of them with me, in a permanent way.

It will be humbling and yet self-empowering, I hope in a way that can be channeled into something productive. It’s my dream to be a long-form journalist, writing internationally about social, economic, political, and cultural issues. I hope this trip will help me understand if I’m cut out for the lifestyle, if I’m capable of what I’ve been gearing my education and training towards for the past couple years.