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!
I have been wholly negligent of my blog lately. This is due to a few different and related circumstances: lots of work, and thus, not much else to report on besides work. Then, there was a huge personal surge in travel. Let me illustrate:
Lucky for me, there was a 4-day weekend last weekend. Chakri Day, I think. Everybody knows that 4-day weekends mean trips galore!
I’ve been carefully keeping a mental note of an unofficial Thailand Bucket List. Luckily, I’ve hit up a lot of what I’ve wanted to see in this wonderful country, so the places I want to travel to are getting more and more obscure (i.e. cave-canoeing on the border of Burma, sleepy Mekong towns in the far northeast, crystal clear beaches that no one talks about). One such place on my list was Kanchanaburi. As far as obscure places to visit in Thailand, Kanchanaburi is about as far from obscure as it gets. The province is located about 2-3 hours from Bangkok, so it makes a nice day trip for travellers who don’t have multiple days to devote to the area.
The town of Kanchanaburi is located near the border of Burma and is famous for one thing.
When I was little, my family couldn’t go anywhere for vacation that didn’t have some relic of modern warfare nearby. The only way we could drag our dad to the beach was if that beach had a battleship located conveniently close to it. For my 22 years, I’ve been on a lot of battleships and submarines. Going to Kanchanaburi felt kind of like my childhood vacations. I wanted to see for myself the famous Bridge on the River Kwai.
As always, little foresight went into planning my trip. Luckily, a work van was making the trek to Bangkok on Friday. I rode along with colleagues and made it to Victory Monument, the headquarters for minibus travel to and from Bangkok. By 7pm, I was on my way to Kanchanaburi. As I mentioned earlier, it’s been far rainier than I expected for the hot season. It was still drizzling when I made it into town. I stepped off of the minibus and into the drizzle.
Let me point out that this is usually the point of trip when I remember that I didn’t make any plans at all. Usually, I’ll glance at wikitravel to figure out basic layouts of towns and average prices for accommodation, but I usually do nothing further than that. I can usually count on a songthaew to take me somewhere close to where I want to go.
I took in the sights of nighttime in Kanchanaburi (not strikingly different than any other Thai town).
I let the driver take me around to different guesthouses until I could find one that wasn’t full. The guesthouse I ended up at was cheap (200 THB/night) and had a wonderful lawn full of hammocks and chairs for lounging around in and was right next to the river. That’s about all it had going for it though. The place was crawling with nasty old men who were on the prowl for Thai girlfriends. Men with mullets, men with unfortunate tattoos, men who are so old they can barely walk. If you’ve spent any amount of time with me, you probably know how impassioned and upset I get because of the scummy sexpats here. Kanchanaburi seemed to have more than the usual number of these creeps. For that reason, I didn’t fully enjoy my time in Kanchanaburi.
Determined to keep away from the nasty men who bring my mood down, I headed out the next day with few plans.
Due to work these days, I’m a pretty early riser. I set out by 8 and wandered around the town before deciding to do something a little more active. There was a bike rental shop across the street from where I was staying, so I rented a bike and spent the morning cruising the city.
First, I pedaled my way to the bridge.
I confess, I downloaded The Bridge on the River Kwai to watch before my trip to Kanchanaburi. Because I spend too much time on the internet, my intention span is embarrassingly low and I could not pay attention for more than 30 minutes of the 161 minute movie. I’ll save it for a rainy day (mostly because I got the blu-ray version and it would be a shame not to watch a classic on blu-ray!).
Unlike the dying soldiers and ruthless war criminals of the first 30 minutes of the movie, the modern-day bridge was packed to the gills with Thai and foreign tourists. If I were to redo my trip, I might’ve bought a train ticket to travel the length of the Death Railway to see exactly what the prisoners of war had to build.
The view from the bridge, however, was pleasant and confirmed my wishes to travel to Kanchanaburi in the first place.
I made it to the end of the bridge, where the tourists had thinned out, then made my way back. I bought a few cheesy postcards to send to friends from one of the many shops surrounding the bridge and hopped back on my bike to get away from the throngs of tourists. I biked away from the bridge, away from the guesthouses, away from town (except I stopped when I came across a jewelry market because shiny jewelry has always,always caught my eye).
I came across the usual things that make my heart flutter: abandoned buildings, mountains, and fruit.
Being a child of the corn, mountains hold an extra-special allure for me. In Springfield, it was a big deal that there was one big hill that we could roll down and cover ourselves in grass stains (as high-schoolers). So real mountains, those are a big deal. The ones in Kanchanaburi are every cliché possible: majestic, rolling, verdant. I would take these beauties over the creepy men back at my guesthouse any old day.
I pumped my way back to my guesthouse around noontime, only to realize how horribly sunburned the morning’s adventures had left me. Not having much of an agenda for the rest of the day and having my energy zapped from the bike ride and the sunburn, I purchased some fruit and spent most of the afternoon in a hammock, reading. This trip was as much a trip for me to get away and relax as it was for me to do anything else. I ended up reading 3 books in the 3 days I was in Kanchanaburi. The reason I don’t have an awful lot to report on from Kanchanaburi is because, like my entire childhood, I spent most of my time there engrossed in a book.
Besides reading, I decided to find the WWII cemetery while I still had my bike for rent. It was a short ride from where I was staying. I had never been to a WWII cemetery (or any war cemetery) before, and it was an interesting experience.
The messages, written by family members, were sobering and made the experience of being in Kanchanaburi and seeing the bridge more real. The graves were unadorned and left me to wonder if any of these men and women had family left. Thailand is a long way to visit a grave. The cemetery was mostly unshaded, so I didn’t stay too long, for fear of my burn getting worse.
I can always appreciate a good sunset, especially one over a river.
In addition to the Bridge, Kanchanaburi Province is famous for another tourist attraction, the Erawan Waterfalls. I decided that this would be my trip for day 2 in Kanchanaburi.
The falls are located about 90 minutes from Kanchanaburi town and most people reach them by purchasing tour packages that cost upwards of a pricy 1000 THB. Not wanting to organize an expensive day trip, I found the local bus, paid my 50 baht, and enjoyed the scenery of rural Kanchanaburi Province while rattling along in an ancient, tiny bus.
I got to the falls and, I’m sorry, neglected to take any nice pictures of them.
I spent the morning climbing and hiking and sweating and dipping my toes in the water. The falls were pretty, but I suggest that if you go, go with a friends so you have people to jump off of the waterfalls with. I wasn’t about to leave my bag with my camera and wallet in it while I removed my clothing and jumped off the waterfalls (I honestly don’t think anything would’ve happened to my stuff, but I decided to play it safe).
I spent the rest of the day, as you can guess, reading. Eager to steer clear of the bars packed with obese men and rich-white-boyfriend-hungry women, I dined at Mangosteen Cafe both nights I stayed in Kanchanaburi. I can’t say enough things about the friendly, chatty service (Thai people always get a kick out of me when I tell them I live in Buriram) and wonderful smoothies. I tried the blue rice with Thai herbs pictured in the link and I’m still thinking about it.
Early the next morning, I boarded a minibus back to Victory Monument. After a little bit of grocery shopping at Siam, I went to Mo Chit and took my usual route of Mo Chit > Khorat > Lamplaimat, making it back to my place at a decent hour. My time back at my place in Buriram Province was short-lived because the immensely important and festive Songkran holiday was coming up and I had major plans underway.
April in Thailand is notorious for being completely miserable. The oppressive heat of the hot season swarms everyone and leaves us living in a sort of daze. Lately, however, I’ve been experiencing afternoon downpours like I’m used to during the rainy season. These days, my leather computer bag for work often doubles as an umbrella. It makes me look forward to coming rainy season.
Here’s the rain on the lotus pond right outside my office.
Today is one of those rare Wednesdays that happens to also be a public holiday.
Makha Bucha Day, to be exact.
So you can imagine my surprise when I was woken by a knock at the door.
The Teleflora man! With beautiful flowers! For me!
Just kidding. No one sent me flowers. But it was nice that Makha Bucha Day fell on a very special day for me. Today marks 6 months since moving to Thailand.
And what a special, amazing 6 months those have been.
So I thought it would be in order to snip a few blooms from the ever-present bougainvillea bushes to jazz up my living quarters.
After completing my cat-sitting duties for the morning, I used my trusty pocketknife (an essential for every girl! I don’t leave home without it.) to find the brightest assortment of all of the bougainvillea colors.
I made sure to be careful for thorns. I filled up a bottle of soda water (a new introduction into my life, thanks to Nora. I use it to add some bubbles to my veggie juice).
And now they’re sitting happily on the table in my room, a reminder of the small things that sometimes make me the happiest.
Here’s to more beautiful months with you, Thailand. You’ve treated me well.