24.01.2016 - 28.01.2016
You can continue reading my letters following the link below!
See you there
Although we had been warned of the scorching heat that was to greet us in Thailand, especially when arriving from Scottish winter time, we were pleasantly surprised to find that we were not boiling at all. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that i was cold a lot of the time! We both agreed that small bags were more practical than large ones so we carry only 40L backpacks each. Small enough to pass as hand-luggage but big enough to fit our entire lives for the next year and a half. I hadn’t counted that i’d need many (if any) warm clothes for the next year. At night I find myself suddenly very dependent of my only fleece. Naturally it’s far from being ‘cold’. The weather is still warmer than any average Scottish summer but the Thai people are in shock, especially in the evening when the temperature drops. They still frequent the street but they’re bundled up like eskimos; hats, gloves, scarves, blankets, basically anything they can find! The friendly guy working at the reception of our hostel reveals to us that this weather is not normal. That only two days ago it was roasting but this cold snap arrived yesterday and won’t leave for another few days. “One week of winter” he jokes. To be honest D and I are thrilled. This gives us a few days to ease into the hot weather and we thank our lucky stars that we weren’t wandering around in search of our hostel in 30 degree heat.
As for Bangkok itself, it is far greener than I ever imagined it would be. Riding into the city on the sky train I was struck with just how much foliage there was. Of course human presence is everywhere and giant grey buildings emerge from the ground, stretching out way further than my eye can see. Some are new, others under construction, others lie abandoned. Perhaps abandoned but far from dead. Mother Earth has claimed these forgotten walls. Trees, vines and plants burst from the crumbling bricks. It’s hard to see where exactly the city has overgrown nature and nature the city. Temple roofs twinkle in the distance and the large familiar font of “TESCO” indicates that the western world is deeply intwined here. We’re also welcomed by “Boots” the chemist on Khao san road, a delightful street created, i’m sure, entirely for tourists but fun-none the-less. Here you can buy anything you want. Venders are everywhere selling bbq meet kebabs, fried scorpions if you’re game (i wasn’t… yet), haircuts on the street, braiding, dreading, tattoos, so many beautiful and cheap clothes (that i managed to resist… for now), restaurants, fruit juices squeezed right in front of you, even fresh coconut ice-cream.
We spend a morning lost in the narrow bustling streets of China town, surrounded by strange cooking ingredients (fresh, dried, pickled, marinated, powdered), most of which i can’t distinguish at all. The odours that meet our noses are sweet, aromatic and unpleasant all at once. We constantly trip over ferrel cats that seem to have claimed Bangkok as their own. By night China town transforms into another place altogether. Tables appear in the middle of the street and the ingredients we looked over this morning are suddenly converted into the most deliciously incredible meals. Smoke bellows into the heavens as we sit watching our food being prepared before spending a good 2 hours devouring it. We’re lucky enough to have our own Thai guides as D gets into contact with two Thai girls (Ace and Wan Wan) who he studied English with in Australia 2011. I’m touched by their kindness as they offer us gifts and constantly buy us random street food until we’re literally about to burst. We try pad thai, fried squid, prawns, sticky rice, fresh coconut water, a delicious ground up dried fish powder, pork, chicken, sweet fried dough balls with condensed milk and, what tasted like, a rice pudding milk shake. They appear to be so pleased that we’re visiting their home country and proud to show us the best it has to offer. We shower them with questions and practise our rough Thai (much to their amusement). I feel so lucky knowing that an evening with these locals has helped enrich our short time in Bangkok! Without their help we’d never be able to ask for, or pick out any of these yummy treats!
In some ways I find Bangkok exactly as I expected, a bustling, crazy pandemonium. In other ways it has really surprised me. I had been told it would be quite a dirty city but I don’t find it anymore dirty than most other large cities i’ve visited. Perhaps I have low standards! In fact I’m impressed by the clean, open, bright feel of the place. It’s common to see citizens sweeping the pavement outside their houses and we even see official street sweepers constantly cleaning communal areas with bamboo dustpan and brushes. There is definitely a sense of pride deeply felt within the city. It’s also, considering the population, not that loud a city. There are copious cars, scooters, tuctucs, taxis and buses but hardly any honking or blaring at all. I’d say that the drivers definitely have a lot more patience in Thailand than many other cities I’ve been to.
I find that i’m most visually impressed, however, by a whole walled complex of beautiful temples, wats, statues, stupas, buddhas; the Grand Palace. Each decorated with what seems to be tiny coloured sequence. Gigantic columns of royal blue, emerald green and glittering gold tower over our heads. The whole place looks magical and as the tiny mosaics catch in the light i’m momentarily blinded. It looks as though a giant 6 year old child has dropped her entire craft box on top of this place and I later discover that I’m not far off. I see a Thai woman in full concentration hunched at the base of a column. She seems perfectly undisturbed by the thousands of tourist feet that surround her. She sits quietly working with glue and a box full of tiny blue cut squares which she proceeds to stick in place. one-at-a-time. This place is massive! I can’t believe that everything is hand-stuck. I have only seconds to stare at her in disbelief before the crowds sweep me into their current. We abandon our shoes at the base of some steps, following the lead of the many tourists, and enter one of the majestic buildings. This one houses the famous emerald buddha which sits on a lavish gold chair high up at the far end of the room. Paintings hang all around and as i look up i see that the ceiling is also covered in the tiny coloured squares. How on earth do they get up there! In front of the buddha is a barrier designed to prevent the flocks of onlookers from getting their sweaty, sticky fingers too near. On the other side of this barrier sit three monks dressed in tangerine orange robes, cross legged on the ground meditating. These are this first monks I see meditating in Thailand so I spend a good few minutes taking them in. How can they possible concentrate with all these people behind?! They are still and serene and I think that maybe they don’t hear us at all. Some people nearer the front of the crowd are kneeling and praying to the statue. They bow their heads to the floor then back to prayer position. They do this three times with the swift ease of a lifetime of practice before standing up and zigzagging their way out through the temple towards the crowd of selfie loving tourists.
Spirituality clearly runs deep here and it takes only one day in the country to be aware of this. One part of the city, near our hostel seems to be dedicated solely to making and selling buddha statues. It’s hard to describe with only words but the statues will spread from the pavement deep into the dark depths of the shops. Maybe a couple of hundred in each. Most of them are gold but some mimic the emerald buddha and others are carved from grey or black stone. They are in different positions, tiny little ornaments to great figurines looming over our heads. It’s a pretty impressive sight and particularly beautiful when the sun begins to set, the warm, rose light reflecting off of their golden heads. I’m startled in one shop when i see a man meditating in the shop window. I walk on by not wanting to stare too much, i’m impressed and think, “Wow, they really can meditate anywhere!”, when I realise the same man is also sitting on the floor in this shop. In fact he seems to have a twin behind wrapped up in a clear plastic bag like an easter egg! On closer inspection I realise that these are also statues! Life like, life sized, almost like Madame Tussaud’s Wax figures of monks meditating in the shade. After passing 25 of these shops in a row we wonder what all these statues could possibly be for. Maybe people save up and buy a massive one for the bottom of their garden? A whole neighbourhood dedicated to religious statues. They can’t possible all be for temples?! Wrong. They are indeed all for temples! After travelling around and seeing the sheer amount of temples this now does make sense. We see three monks with sunglasses clamber into a silver ford and my mind wonders back to the tranquil monks once more.
There is something simply beautiful and peaceful about the constant presence of monks here in Thailand. In the beginning I’m as curious as a child who can’t stop staring, oblivious of social decorum. As we spend longer in the country we see them everywhere and naturally my burning desire to stare and photograph them wanes. These are, of course, normal people so it’s only natural that we see them on buses, trains, buying coke, hailing taxis, etc. This leads me to regularly consider their lives. I wonder where they live, what they do each day and what they’re thinking. The more I think and see the more confused I become. Before arriving I read that monks can’t touch money but i’ve definitely seen more than one touching bank notes. They have their own seating area in train stations and on trains and as far as i’m aware, they don’t pay to ride them. I’ve also seen one monk at a train station slowly peel the wrapper off of an ice-cream and then throw the wrapper on the ground without a second thought. This was the most shocking for me. I know that littering is not such a big deal on this side of the world but Buddhism is respect and littering is such a basic thing for someone who practices respect daily. I also know that I’m not really meant to go near them, as I’m a woman. This was affirmed for me when I wittnessed a school girl profusely refuse to take a seat in front of a monk on public transport but then I’ve also seen a monk talking to a woman while smoking a giant cigarette. To top it off I’ve even seen some with televisions in their little monk houses. I don’t know why I had such western naivety to assume that all monks would be spiritual, enlightened beings. A Thai friend of D’s later explained to us that there are different types of monks, just like Christians. Some are very strict, living very modestly eating only one meal a day. Some dedicate their lives to teaching and helping others while a minority become monks in search of an easy life where most things are given to them for free. Some may have even been born into a large family, the parents sealing their fate by placing them into a monastery benefiting from one less mouth to feed. These monks will not necessarily grow up to be very spiritual people. This does make sense once I start to see, learn and question things. I don’t think many of these thoughts ever crossed my mind before coming out here. It’s a hard subject to learn about as I don’t speak enough Thai and I feel so uncomfortable going to them to ask. I’ve learnt that the monastery is a place to learn, just like priests in the past would have been there to teach. But i’m a woman and i feel unsure and certain i’m going to offend by accident. Things should become clearer in a few weeks as the organic farm is run by an ex-monk who seems keen to teach about Buddhism and happy to answer questions. It’s still the beginning so I’m sure it’ll all make more sense soon.
I’ve already learnt so much! How to barter the price down on most items (well… maybe D is better at this than me), how to use chopsticks (almost like a pro) and how to eat spicy(ish) food. I was so worried about food being too spicy over here but so far I’m able to eat most things, usually because I order it using one of my only Thai phrases, pronounced: “Pet ni noi” - “a little spicy”. You have to say it in a very nasal way, as though you’re holding onto your nose while you speak, or they may just start preparing and refuse to make eye contact. I’ve worked out that that usually means “I have no idea what you just said and that makes me feel uncomfortable so i’ll just pretend you didn’t say anything”. If you say it correctly their faces will crack into a wide smile and they’ll usually have a chuckle with the person at the neighbouring stand. When in doubt just smile at people. It is the best form of communication and in Thailand, unlike the UK, if you smile at random people on the street they’ll always flash a smile back. At home in Scotland, unless i’m in my tiny village, you’re likely to get really weird looks if you walk down the street smiling at everyone that goes by. Here people will stare at you, mainly because you look different and they’re curious, but you just need to make eye contact and smile and you’re likely going to be greeted with the same in return. I also learnt fast the distinction between someone starting conversation to make money and someone who just wants a chat.
On our second day in Bangkok we were stopped by a random man as we wandered through a park. I’d stepped in to feast on the weird squirrels, toads, insects and birds. As we drifted around a smiling Thai man stopped us in our tracks calling, “Hello friends! How are you?”. It’s day two so we’re pretty unsure and our first thoughts are “this guy wants something from us”. I look around, trying to work out who he’s working for but he seems to be alone and relatively harmless. “I’m fine, just having a walk in the park, how are you?”. I can tell he’s pleased we talk back and he starts chattering away, asking us our plans. How long we plan to stay in Bangkok, what we have visited already. We explain that we’ve just arrived and have only a few days here before heading north. We tell him where we’re from, we compliment his English (always) and he looks embarrassed but pleased. He starts to explain that we should go for a trip down the river to see the temples and the buddhas, that it’s not far. Danilo gets out his map and our new friend whips out a pen and starts madly circling all the hot spots we should visit. “Don’t forget, ring bell three times for good luck! Oh, also give flowers to the Buddha!” He even goes on to tell us how much the actual cost is to ensure we’re not over priced, “You pay Thai price! Remember you have Thai friend now, yes!”. We are still taken aback by all this new information and possibly boat trip. We thank him and explain that we’ll look into it tomorrow. He exclaims, “No! Why tomorrow? you go now, it not far. 10 minutes in tuctuc”. He yells something in Thai to a passing tuctuc. It pulls up beside us and the men exchange a few words. Our new friend beams at us, proud of his good deed for the day. There’s nothing left for us to do now but get in the tuctuc. We clamber in, not sure exactly where it’s going to take us, turn back and wave goodbye to our new friend.