I’ve been in Thailand for 10 days officially! It actually feels much longer. Before I left I told people that I was excited to go somewhere totally different. In my travels I have spent a lot of time in countries that have adopted many western traditions and practices. In the places I’ve lived, it’s never been hard to find a good hamburger or a decent slice of pizza. I was excited to be heading to Asia because I knew that things would be totally different. I wanted that culture shock that makes me feel excited to be human! Well, I’ve found it.. here are a few bizarre things I’ve noticed after only ten days in Asia:
- White skin is considered beautiful, getting a tan is a big no-no. In many of the stores you’ll find whitening lotions, face washes, and makeup. Billboard models are very pale – and often advertising for how to attain a whiter complexion with their specialized products. I went to the beach yesterday and spread my towel out to lay in the sun. I looked around and realized that I was the only person doing this. Everyone sits in the shade or under an umbrella – getting a tan is extremely undesirable. I also saw an ad for lip REDUCTION plastic surgery. Meanwhile in the US, people are trying to become Kardashians.
- Everything is sweet! Thai people are all about their flavor! I have eaten some of the best food I’ve ever tasted since being here. I was, however, surprised at some of the flavors. I expected spicy, but I was not quite prepared for the constant sugar highs I’d be experiencing! Yesterday I ordered a simple chicken and noodle dish and it came with a big packet of sugar on the side! I couldn’t believe it. At the conference I attended, they served what appeared to be iced tea. It was actually something called Bai Miang, and was so sweet that after two sips, I had to put it down. Also, “pet nit noi” is the most important Thai phrase I’ve learned – it means only a little spicy, though they usually won’t overdo it when they see a foreigner!
- Going to the bathroom is an experience. The first hotel I stayed at in Bangkok had a toilet bowl, a bucket, and a hose. No toilet paper anywhere, no flush lever on the toilet. I knew that I should expect a little adjustment, but I didn’t realize how different it would be. After watching a youtube video and figuring out how to flush (you just dump a bucket of water in the toilet, DUH!), I decided to go to the local drugstore and buy myself some toilet paper – a luxury I’m not willing to part with. I’ve learned that in Asia, it’s always smart to BYOTP. At the mall, I found crazy looking toilets with all kinds of fancy buttons; one for washing, one for drying, one to read you the newspaper, one to fly you to mars, etc. Actually, I have no idea what half the buttons did, but there were a lot. I have yet to experience a squat hole, but I am now armed with this guide.
- The people are so nice! I’m from New York so I always think that people are trying to rip me off. The truth is, the people here are often trying to help me when I look lost. This is not because they have something to gain, but simply because they are nice. My friend and I ate at a beachside restaurant this week. We lingered for a few hours before even thinking about paying. As we gathered our belongings, a man came over and told us we could pay him for what we ate. I had never seen this guy before – he wasn’t our waiter or anything – so I was immediately suspicious. I asked my friend about this and he said, “this is a really small community, if that guy took money from the restaurant, everyone would know!” We worked for an afternoon at the beach, each with an expensive laptop, a camera, a smartphone and a gopro. When we wanted to swim, we got up, left our stuff at the table and didn’t worry about it being taken. It’s weird being in a place where people aren’t always out to get you, and are genuinely nice to strangers for no reason. Of course, there are bad people out there – I’m just talking about my personal experience so far.
- The water is WARM. Here in the Gulf of Thailand, the water temp is about 85 degrees! The first time I went in, I was so amazed by it I didn’t know what to do with myself. I licked my hand to make sure it was salt water and not some kind of lake. I have swam in so many beautiful oceans, but this is the warmest so far. I’ve been told that in many parts of Asia the water is equally warm. I now understand why so many Asian tourists would say the water was too cold in Hawaii.
- Walking in the city is… different. So on day 1, I was walking down the road admiring the delicious street food when I tripped, busted my toe and got laughed at by a group of vendors. Hi, I’m Mr. Bean. In my defense, walking around in the city of Bangkok is a little bit tricky. You’ve got cars, bikes, scooters, and pedestrians zooming past you in all directions at any given second. The rule of thumb here is that you’re only responsible for what’s in front of you. You don’t think about inconveniencing someone behind you, that’s their problem! Once I figured out the rules of the road (and started paying attention to the road), things became much easier.
- It’s dirty. The city of Bangkok seems to exist under a layer of soot. I don’t know if it’s from pollution or what, but the city is definitely unclean. Instead of paying for a cab, tuk tuk, or motorbike, I took a bus to the Grand Palace in Bangkok (which was about 7 miles away and took an hour and a half.. but only cost me roughly 15 cents). On the ride, we passed through many corners of the city and I was shocked by how filthy it is. There are tons of sketchy looking electrical wires, stray dogs, and dirty buildings. When I arrived at the beach, I was shocked to see the amount of trash all over the place. I’ve tried to clean up one section of the beach, but this is a HUGE task and I didn’t even make a dent. Even wading into the water, there’s garbage everywhere. It’s very upsetting to see plastic bags floating by, having spent years trying to keep my waters clean.
- There are no homeless people. I arrived in this beautiful beachside town and almost instantly asked my friend if all the homeless people live on the beach. There’s plenty of soft sand, tons of shade, etc. He told me that there really aren’t a lot of homeless people in Asia, none that he can think of who live on that beach. If people are going to be bums, they’ll be bums at their family’s home. It’s a very prideful place, and they take care of their family members on a whole different level.
Yesterday I sat looking out at a young girl playing with her mom on the beach. She was splashing in ankle deep water, squealing at the waves, and digging a hole in the sand. It reminded me that some things are totally universal. A child’s curiosity and a mother’s love are qualities that transcend all cultural differences. They are built into the fabric of being human.
I’m excited to have these thoughts down on paper because as time passes, the bizarre often becomes the norm. It’s fun to see how things change. I’ll be sure to post soon. I’m (perpetually) in search of soft sand, diving, surfing and sailing so I may have an exciting new destination in mind. More on that later..