Since I’ve returned to the States, a lot of people have asked me what it’s like to come back after a handful of years in Thailand. Well, I’m too much of an airborne Aquarius to answer that question with any satisfying exactitude, so I figured I’d try to get at the question from another angle–what do I miss the most? This way, I can make one of those linear lists that the internet loves so dearly–and, ideally, avoid equivocation as much as possible.
1) STREET MARKETS & CHEAP FOOD
Seriously, though! We don’t have street food in America, outside of the ever-evasive farmer’s markets (only accepting early-risers), smelly state fairs, and gnarly co-ops carefully set aside from the rest of the community like a birth-mark you don’t want anyone to see. We generally have shopping plazas and restaurants, and it takes going to Thailand and experiencing the way THEY eat to realize how impersonal those kind of things are. Imagine walking out into a street, any street, and being faced with a plethora of goodies lining the sidewalks, right there in the open air, with smiling faces and steaming vats as far as the eye can see. Want a piece of homegrown chicken? 50 cents. Hot pad thai? A dollar. A fresh-blended fruit smoothie with, like, a thousand nutrients in it? Yeah, a DOLLAR. No need to pluralize your Western currency in Thailand–you’ll be full in no time. Just watch out for the fried grasshoppers and ant eggs.
2) THE AWESOME-NESS OF THAI PEOPLE
OK, so the whole “Land of Smiles” thing is a bit overdone and just a little self-demeaning (suggesting a big Asian minstrel show), but it really DOES capture the spirit of Thai people. You see, my whole life I’ve been a pretty easygoing guy who feels compassion for everyone, can be rightfully called a little spacy, just likes to have a good time with people, and can always be counted on to be slightly late for formal occasions. When I came to Thailand, I realized I was finally home! Thais, in general, have this really authentic sweetness in their nature that, for a lot of Western travelers, can really bring down a lot of emotional barriers and blockages. The message is, Just Be. So yeah, being late ain’t a thing… Mai ben rai is the Thais’ way of saying “Hey, don’t worry about it.” Late for your buddy’s wedding? Mai ben rai. Can’t make it to work? Mai ben rai. Seeing your cousin’s ex? Mai ben rai. (Careful, though!) As you can see, this way of life can backfire in certain ways, like, you know, if you’re actually trying to get stuff done. But that’s another topic! Nowhere else in the world will you receive the kind of unconditional love, respect, and selfless concern that you’ll get in Thailand. Wat ta na tam Thai (the culture) is a great facet of the world.
3) THE BUM GUN
If we’re going to use the above title to discuss this wonderful bathroom mechanism, I guess you could call me a proponent of the 2nd amendment. See, in America we were raised on toilet paper when it came to that sensitive step of cleaning our nether regions. Well, I’m here to tell you that there’s a far superior, less wasteful way to enhance your southern hygiene, and you can find it in “the Orient”. To put it plainly, the bum gun is a hose resting next to the toilet that you use to spray after relieving yourself. Forget wiping! Given our environmental situation and the particularly soothing quality of this method, why in the hell are we still using toilet paper in the West? As one of my eloquent friends in Chiang Mai would say, “you have to cool the booty”. This is a fixture in Thailand, and quite an eye-opening one. In fact, both my girlfriend and I, when asked about our transition of coming back home, have invariably brought up the bum gun as being one of the hardest things to let go of. Hey man, it was life-changing! The Thais know what they’re doing. We’re going to have to get one installed…
4) THE LAWLESSNESS OF THE SCOOTER-COMMUTE
When I first arrived in Chiang Mai after having spent a year in the lesser-known (but equally gorgeous) sister town of Chiang Rai, an American buddy of mine summed up the Thailand motorbiking experience in a really concise and funny way. He said that when you’re zipping down the road on your little Yamaha, it would make a lot of sense to be listening to the theme music for the Super Nintendo version of the Mario Brothers game in your earbuds, because, well, driving a motorbike in Thailand is like playing a silly video game (albeit one with consequences). Expecting rules for motorists? You better get over it quick, ’cause there ain’t none!
Thais take a more, um, creative approach to the mass transit concept–motorbikes routinely weave between moving cars at high speeds (what speed limit?), ricocheting from one lane to another like Yoshi on his Mariokart; at stoplights, Thais make a sport out of squeezing between the tiny gaps of idling cars in order to get all the way to the front; and it’s really not surprising to see four people on a bike, or even a 10-year old driving at rush hour! For someone with more than a couple speeding tickets on his record, driving a scooter in this sort of environment was like a dream come true. Because Thailand is still a second-world country, more people own scooters than cars. In other words, everyone has one. So if you want to get around when you go out there, you have to embrace the chaos a little bit. Don’t worry, it’s kind of exhilirating!
5) LIFE IN THE TROPICS
“So, how’s the weather out there?” my friends would constantly ask from my Skype window. “It’s HOT!” And while that may have made them jealous at Christmas when snow was dumping across the eastern seaboard, you do grow a little weary of it sometimes. I’m talking that 100-and-something farenheit, aggressively humid kind of hot! Yes, it’s vacation weather, but when you’re living out there sometimes you just want a vacation from the vacation. However, along with the prolific rainy season, Chiang Mai does have its own cool season which here at home we’d recognize as light autumn weather. (Northern Thais are very proud of their annual “coldness!”)
Tropical ecosystems, though, are truly fascinating. You get those towering palm trees with their jagged edges silhouetted against the evening horizon. Gushing waterfalls nestled in gigantic forests of bamboo. Varieties of fruit that would appear to be imported from an alien planet. And the critters! In our little duplex alone, we had lizards, snails, centipedes, giant spiders, toads and big frogs that could jump a mile, and even the occasional scorpion. Monkeys and elephants were never too far away. Not to mention all the strange-sounding birds and luminescent insects that always seemed to defy my personal classifications. Half the time I felt like Mogli from Jungle Book. I’ll always remember the beautiful hue of green that the vegetation attained after a rainfall, and the wonderful clarity and coolness in the air.
Alright, so that’s my five! I could really go on and on, but we’ll save the rest for another post. Thailand is such a rich, elaborate place that it eludes being condensed into a single blog post. And while it might not answer your question of “what’s it like to be back?”, maybe it gives you a better sense of where we’re coming from. I’d love to field your questions below, so hit me with something in the comment section!