All of the best things to be seen in Bangkok are safely tucked away from the main streets.
It’s a familiar story.
Girl goes to live abroad in Thailand, girl gets a 4-day weekend.
Girl gets dropped off in the middle of nowhere, gets caught in a freak monsoon and irked by a pig.
Alright, maybe I have your attention now.
This is how my first weekend in August started out. This trip to Koh Mak was, without a doubt, the strangest getaway I have been on to date.
For the amount of foresight that went into planning this trip (scanning the internet for routes of transport to the island, best guesthouses on the island, most beautiful beaches, the usual) nothing turned out right. At least at first.
Stephanie (friend & volunteer with the organization I work for), Adam (by now, a familiar face on the blog), and I decided on going to Koh Mak, a tiny island in far southeastern Thailand near the border of Cambodia. Koh Mak is known for being isolated, rustic, and free of the hoards of tourists that clog the beaches of the more well-known Thai islands. It sounded perfect. We made plans to take a overnight bus from Nakhon Ratchasima to Trat Province, where we would meet up with Adam.
Once again, I was shuttled onto an overnight bus that had oversold tickets and crammed people into aisles for the 7-hour journey. Luckily, Stephanie and I managed to get the last seats on the bus.
I popped motion sickness pills, not because I get motion sick, but because it’s an excellent way to ensure sleep on less than ideal, mobile sleeping environments. I’ve received sage advice that listening to the Planet Money podcast has similar effects.
I woke up around 4 in the morning, the bus having pulled into the Trat bus station. We crawled into a song taew packed with Thai and foreign tourists (everyone else was going to the popular island of Koh Chang). Half an hour later, Stephanie are dumped at what can only be described as a backpacker holding pen.
MY WORST NIGHTMARE.
Dreadlocked, wayward youths sipping beers, taking drags from their cheap cigarettes, and downing beef & basil at 5 in the morning. I looked around with contempt and got pretty disappointed in myself that I had ended up here (even though there was really nowhere else to go). We waited in line and bought ferry tickets to Koh Mak from a company that probably doesn’t even exist. We were given vague details of where to find the dock with our boat. I felt pretty duped, taken advantage of.
Stephanie grabbed some breakfast and I sit and cheerily seethe in a way that only I can imagine doing. I decided to go looking for the mythical dock, as the sun had started to rise. Stephanie and I walk for about 10 minutes and find could only have been our dock. There were a few people milling about, but no boat companies to speak of.
This whole time we had ventured outside, we had a conversation that will go down as one of the dumbest conversations I’ve had in my life. We walked along commenting on the sky – “Wow, the sky looks really weird right now!” “Oh, look how black it is over there.” “This is so strange. The dock and the sky. What are we doing?”
What the heck were we thinking?! LOOK AT THIS SKY!
Somehow, we did not manage to put 2 and 2 together to figure out that we would soon be stranded outside in a really intense storm, without shelter.
Really dumb, I know.
As you would easily be able to predict, we got soaked. Every inch of our bodies, our hair, our clothes, our backpacks. And there were no boats either. We were told to go back.
Cranky and wet, we retreated. I squeezed the water out of my skirt and warmed up with some instant coffee.
Then I noticed this pet pig who kept on wandering around and wiggling his piggy nose.
And as much as I insist that my life in Thailand isn’t very exciting, I had to admit that this morning with the dock and the rain and the pig, this morning that was going on forever was truly surreal. I had to stop and say to myself, “Okay, this isn’t normal. My life is strange.”
After some lounging and minimal drying out, we went back to the dock. And waited. We didn’t know what boat company would take our tickets, and none of them did. We watched boats come and go for 6 hours. And Adam still hadn’t shown up from Bangkok.
I was getting irritated at how unrelaxing this relaxing beach vacation was turning out.
And then I turned my head and saw Adam not 5 feet from me! “Adam!” I yelled.
He had taken a chance and gotten off his bus early. Had he not gone with his gut, we would have missed him entirely! 10 minutes later, we had all found seats on the crowded ferry. Tired by the morning’s events, I slept most of the way (sleeping on boats is a special talent of mine).
Like most islands, you step off the ferry and are greeted by touts and trucks taking you to their guesthouses. There was one guesthouse we wanted to stay, but for some reason the driver wouldn’t let us get on. We boarded another truck with the name of a guesthouse I had recognized from my online research – Baan Koh Mak or something like that. Since it’s the low season, guesthouses and accommodation can be harder to come by on the islands, so we had to take what we could get.
Driving through the island, sitting in the back of the truck, I could see how thoroughly off the tourist trail we were.
We were taken to a remote corner of the island. We were only guests on this beach, at this guesthouse. Our bungalow was right on the beach, the waves crashed right outside our doorstep.
This all might have felt perfect, but because of the day’s events, it just felt a little creepy.
We spent the afternoon reading aloud to each other on the porch of the bungalow and played cards and drank lao pun. We wanted to eat fish given that, you know, we were on an island, but for some reason, there were no fish to had on the entire island. This might have been the weirdest thing of all.
The night was stormy and we slept unsoundly thanks to the cracks and gaps in the walls, our proximity to the sea, and the fact that all three of us were crowded onto a bed that was definitely not built for 3 non-Thai-height people.
The mosquito net was kind of dreamy though.
It was quickly decided that we would look for more centrally located accommodation the next day.
Our first full day on the island shook off all of the weird vibes we had accumulated from the day before. The sky was perfect and the sea was clear and it was exactly what we needed. We easily found a new place to stay. We shared our new guesthouse with a group of high schoolers on a tour and we spent a great deal of time watching them and speculating about them.
We coated ourselves in coconut oil, not for better bronzing, but because it’s a natural sand flea repellant. I learned that sand flea bites don’t hurt but will leave a small red dot that fades quickly.
Much laying out and lounging in the warm gulf waters was done. It was finally shaping up to be the beachy vacation we were all hoping for. We laid down on the sand and let the water lap the backs of our legs, our backs, our arms.
Rosy cheeked and tired from the sun, we spent the afternoons curled up in hammocks, reading. This is all I ask of any vacation, ever. Copious amounts of reading time.
At night, we lay under a different mosquito, reading more stories and having hours-long conversations.
For all of the strangeness, it turned out as peacefully and restfully as I had hoped.
Except, really, how could an island not have fish? Tell me, please.
day & sunset from our favorite view of the ocean from Koh Mak:
Whatever Bangkok tourism propaganda may want you to believe about there being an abundance of parks in the city, it’s more or less not true. Bangkok is a heaving, concrete behemoth of a city and my guess is that if you had to poll residents of Bangkok, far more would be interested in shopping malls and food stalls than jogging paths and quiet places to picnic.
That’s why I’m glad that I lived where I did in Bangkok. Right next to Suan Thonburiram (or just Suan Thon, as my friends and I called it). Unlike many other parks in Bangkok, it was a place for people in our neighborhood to gather – clean, secluded and set away from the main road.
It was the perfect place to be around people and be in my own world at the same time (a feeling I love). I could head home from work, throw on some workout clothes and jam to Beyoncé in my quiet, local, urban jungle. And I miss it.
I used to walk by this pond every day on the way to work and I always secretly adored the way this look, with the algae belched out onto the sidewalk.
The benches were a good place to read, provided it wasn’t rainy or excessively hot/humid or there weren’t mosquitoes out (I’m guessing you can now see why there isn’t much of a park-going culture in Bangkok).
Oh, what a year it’s been.
One year ago day, I had another typical, feverish 3am packing frenzy. I stuffed equal amounts of comforting things I loved and crazy thrift-store clothing I didn’t care about getting trashed into a medium-sized suitcase and a backpack.
I cut off all of my hair, partly because it was something I always wanted to do and partly because I needed to leave things behind.
I bid farewell to my friends. I said goodbye to my family. It was the first time I ever hugged my sisters and parents goodbye without knowing when I would see them again. Before there was always a return date in mind. When I set out for Bangkok last year, there wasn’t.
People always tell me how brave I am, to do something like move across an ocean, but I don’t know if I can understand that. It’s not bravery that I have as much as a desire to see the world, at any cost. And to not chase this desire while I’m young and unattached would be soul-crushing to me. This wanderlust I have is innate. It drove me as a young girl just as much as it drives me now.
I made this trip. Over the Pacific once more, nary a plane cankle in sight. And let me tell you, on that plane from Chicago to Hong Kong, I cried. Just because I do things doesn’t mean they aren’t scary to me. Quite the opposite, really. From constant challenges I grow, learn more about myself, learn more about the world. The only thing scarier than challenging myself is becoming complacent with shelving my dreams for another day, another year, another decade. Plenty of real adults I have met at home, in Providence, in Bangkok, in Buriram, have told me that they wished they would have done something like this when they were younger. And I am a firm believer in regretting more the things I don’t do over the things I have done.
My permavacation in Bangkok was magical. So much exploring, so much getting acquainted to do. Except this time, it was with a city. This was a year for falling in love with places. My heart will always burst for Bangkok.
And then I moved. I have met wonderfully kind, fascinating people in the middle of nowhere. I have had the chance to try and become wonderful and kind myself, but it’s hard. I thought I’d start immediately soul-searching. As much as traveling or living or working abroad is often equated with “soul-searching,” it shouldn’t be. Far-flung locales don’t facilitate soul-searching, it comes from within as a response to an outside conflict. And I don’t even know if soul-searching is a good phrase. It’s more about personal development and self-knowledge. But soul-searching and personal development are not why you read this blog.
It feels so universal, the romanticization of lives of friends and acquaintances and strangers abroad. I am more than guilty of this. I click through facebook, enviously clicking through pictures of friends’ trips abroad, wishing I could also travel. And then I have to snap out of it, because I remember that I’m abroad. This isn’t me bragging, this is me telling you that my life isn’t as exciting as it seems through a blog and facebook pictures. There are lots of things to overcome that wouldn’t exist if I was working at home. There are days when I have thought only about how green the grass must be in an alternate, America-dwelling life I would have had.
It’s hard, but it’s good. It’s rewarding in a complex, sometimes backhanded, sometimes straightforward way that nothing has ever been before. I can’t always articulate it, but you know it if you’ve been here, if you’ve felt these same things. I’m grateful for the friends I’ve made here, I’m grateful for the friends and family who have clocked in many early and late hours on skype. I am grateful for everything I’ve learned in this year, because it’s so much, it astonishes me. I am grateful for myself, for persevering and making it here in Thailand one whole year. I can only hope that my next year of life will bring so many adventures and insights.
No trip to the DC area would have been complete without visiting my friend Casey at her family’s house right outside of DC. I wanted to see their land, their goats, their house. Even though they live so close to the city, when we were at Casey’s house, all the signs and trappings of city life were noticeably absent.
It was just us and the goats.
It was neat to be able to see the home of one of my best friends, especially since we both grew up on farms. (Fun fact – one time, when I was in Thailand and Casey was keeping an eye on all of the pregnant goats at her home, we were skyping, and mid-skype, unbeknownst to Casey, a little kid was born!) Her family’s house and land were so beautiful and lovingly cared for – like something straight out of HGTV (the surprising cable TV channel I never step watching when I’m home). It was a truly great way to while away an afternoon.
As with most blog entries, I have to backtrack a little with this one to explain how I got to be where I was at the time.
The Songkran holidays were nearing and I was looking forward to spending some quality time with friends in Chiang Mai. Due to my recent surge in traveling, I only had two days in Buriram between returning from Kanchanaburi and departing for Chiang Mai on an overnight bus leaving from Khorat. Unfortunately, in those two days, I was legally obliged to procure my visa extension for living in Thailand for the rest of the year.
This was the plan: go to Buriram the day I left for Chiang Mai. Pick up a document from Buriram city. Drive to Khorat from there. Procure visa. Get dropped off at the bus station in Khorat. Leave on my bus for Chiang Mai at 8:30pm.
This is what really happened: I went to Buriram and retrieved the document (this went as planned, phew). I rode along to Khorat, and went to the immigration department, took a number, and waited in line. Maybe I’ve had bad luck in the past when I’ve had to draw numbers, because drawing numbers and waiting in lines makes me pretty anxious and like I will meet some awful fate upon coming face to face with a bureaucratic, government drone. Guess what? That’s what happened! After patiently waiting among all of the dirty, STD-infested European riffraff, it was finally my turn to talk to the government officials. All of my documents were fine. Except one. One document. And it was addressed improperly. That was the only problem separating me from living legally in Thailand. The government official asked her boss and my visa application was denied.
My initial reaction was to start crying, mostly because I am very skilled and experienced with crying. Also, I was incredibly frustrated. My process to become a legal resident of Thailand has been long and drawn out and I’ve logged many hours between waiting in line at government buildings and on public transportation to get to these government buildings. I never really mentioned it while blogging, but it’s been a mentally and emotionally taxing part of my life since January. I wanted everything to be over with and end with a happy ending.
I tried to explain that I had a bus ticket to go to Chiang Mai that night. After that, government offices would be closed for almost a week for Songkran. After Songkran, I had one more possible day to try for my visa again. My margin of opportunity was scarily thin. Khru Shell, a teacher at the school and my helper for the day, decided that we would drive as fast as we could back to the school, pick up a new letter, and drive back to Khorat to get the visa. Unfortunately, Khorat’s about 2 hours from Lamplaimat, even if you’re driving quickly. We realized that we wouldn’t be able to make it back.
At this point, I had to make a decision – either I lose my bus ticket and lose the money I had spent on a hotel reservation in Chiang Mai, or I make sure that I obtain my visa and stay in Buriram one day longer.
I think we can all agree that the most practical, grown-up answer would have been for me to make sure I procured the visa. I, however, decided that I didn’t want to lost all of that money I spent. Plus, there would be no way that I would be able to get a bus ticket to Chiang Mai for the next day – transportation into and out of Chiang Mai was impossible to get so close to the Songkran holiday.
With all of my documents in hand, I hopped on the local bus bound for Khorat (my second trip for the day). I thought I would try my luck at the immigration office in Chiang Mai. And it is with this half hopeful, half terrified attitude that I started my vacation that I had been looking forward to for weeks.
To shorten what could be another long rant on waiting in government offices: I went to the immigration offices in Chiang Mai, waited for hours, only to be told that I couldn’t get a visa there. At this point, I was determined to put it at the back of my mind and enjoy the time I had with friends in Chiang Mai.
I hopped back into thesongthaew I had hired and went to my hotel. I had not been involved in booking accommodation for this trip. If I had, we all would have probably stayed in a fleapit without air conditioning or a flushing toilet. Since I wasn’t involved, we stayed in an extremely nice hotel with both air conditioning and a flushing toilet (and hot water! and a rooftop pool!). It was a welcome relief to come back to such a nice place after so much time in government offices and rest stops and public buses.
We had to purchase plastic bags to keep all of our essential belongings dry.
My friend and old co-teacher at DSIL, Nutt, wanted to see the flowers at Phuping Palace. I had seen a few signs for it around Chiang Mai and got pretty immature by pointing it out and laughing (Phuping is pronounced kind of like “Pooping” and what would I love more than a Pooping Palace? NOTHING.)
Phuping Palace is place for the royal family to stay when they are in northern Thailand, and it’s beautiful! Perched atop a mountain and covered in greenery and flowers, I had no problem imagining my life if I had a chance to live there.
More to come from my wild, northern trip soon!