Within minutes of deplaning my Stockholm to Bangkok flight, it was clear I was not in Kansas anymore. I immediately picked up on completely different standards of beauty, methods for doing monetary transactions, ways of judging where to eat, and general treatment of tourists. While my initial reaction was absolute terror, having no idea how long I’d be staying in this crazy new culture, so many aspects of it were also hilarious and ridiculous to someone with fresh eyes.
Things were just strange at first. You might order a soda and be handed a plastic bag full of ice and your drink of choice with a straw sticking out of it. The man behind you might order the same and hang the bag from his motorbike handle while snaking his way around tuk-tuks and cabs at full speed.
Or you might see the huge, black, circular eyes of the women working at Siam Center, making them appear like walking, talking anime characters. Once you notice, it’s all you can see – in every commercial, every print ad, and so many women at shops.
My existence as a tall, curvy, caucasian, American, dishwater blonde had implications that I didn’t fully understand as I entered into Southeast Asia. Being the minority gave me a fresh perspective. I found myself re-evaluating the Westernized societal norms I had assumed would exist everywhere and finding something new instead.
Everything is negotiable. A price might be printed on a website, menu, or tag, but it doesn’t matter. I just booked a beach bungalow for half price for a whole week, despite the printed rates sitting in front of me as I talked to the front desk. But I started out like everyone else – clueless at how and when to haggle. It’s a power-struggle, but if you state a hard number – rather than asking something vague like “can you lower the price?” – you will be successful most of the time. The language of the Thai vendor is to punch a number into a calculator and show you – you can speak that language back. “No, 1000 baht ($30 US) is way too much for these fake Ray Bans. I will pay 300 baht ($9 US).” If it doesn’t work, walk away. You’ll generally get a firm hand on your wrist pulling you back and the price you wanted.
In the same vein, there is no base price to speak of. Any initial price you’re given is likely completely arbitrary (or based on how dumb the local thinks you are). Yesterday I hired a tuk-tuk to drive me from the pier to my bungalow and when given a 200 baht offer, I laughed and said, “No way! 50 baht” and that was that. When the tourists who came right after me were approached by the same woman, they said “How much does it cost?” and the driver said “400 baht per person.” They took this as some sort of standardized cost, but from my experience, there is nothing standardized. As I watched them get in, I wanted to turn to them and say “Guys, smarten up! You’re getting completely extorted.” But I also had to learn my own way and I want the locals to be able to survive off what little extra they make off this ignorance. I am not going to disturb the balance.
On my second day in Bangkok, I asked my hostel how I should get to the Flower Market and what else I should see on the way. I was instructed to take the metro system to a certain stop, walk to the big Buddha, explore Chinatown, then head to the Flower Market. I made a series of wrong turns which left me in a slum with mountains of old car parts, an influx of stray tail-less cats, and some of the worst smells I’ve ever come across. In a fit of panic, I saw some Westerners and asked them where they were going. They too were trying to find the Flower Market. I ended up spending the day with this young Austrian married couple who had spent the three previous days in Bangkok and had mastered the city. They showed me the magic of the water taxis, which navigate from pier to pier and get you quickly, safely, and easily across the city with lovely views along the way. As we walked up to get tickets, I pulled out 40 baht, having seen a sign in English. They stopped me and paid my 15 baht fare, then explaining, “They have tourist boats and local boats. They are the exact same, except that they charge tourists more and they just pay without realizing.” What a joke!
The grass is always greener… While my summers might be spent trying to get a nice tan, Thai people are looking to do the opposite. Walking into the pharmacy, I noticed that most Thai sunscreen even has bleach in it. I’ve had numerous occasions in which I forget to check and almost buy some for myself. I started noticing the commercials on the Skytrain for products like “Snail White” everywhere once I picked up on this odd desire to be whiter.
You can live like a king. I can admit that one of the big draws for me to visit Thailand was for the fact that a two hour massage can be as cheap as $6 US. This is why I’ve gotten five in my two weeks here so far. In Chiang Mai, I spent time with some locals who turned me onto something new – the blind massage. I spent two hours on the massage table of a blind woman, who in turn found every pressure point on my body and dug into it with her full body weight. No, it was not relaxing whatsoever. Yes, I had bruises to show for it. But wow, she got into the depths of muscles and knots in a way which made me feel like a new person.
To the same end, a splurge on a nice hotel room will cost about $30 US. An amazing, extravagant meal may end up being about $15 per person. So even if everything is marked way way up for the tourists, it is still cheap for a lot of visitors. It’s pretty amazing how far money can go here!
Sex is everywhere. When walking through the Night Market you will hear the inevitable lip-popping that only indicates one thing – the Ping Pong Show. These sex shows involve a woman publicly displaying her overly-developed Kegel muscles, shooting things out of herself (hence the name) and doing all sorts of other tasks. There is an actual menu to choose from. While I’ve never been to one, I can only imagine ordering a beer, only to find out that you actually ordered the performer to open a bottle of beer with her lady bits. Maybe you should ask for a glass on the side.
On Day 3 in Bangkok I walked across the street from my hostel to the fanciest, cleanest looking spa I had seen and asked for a one hour oil massage, hoping to target the chronic back pain I’d been ignoring for months. I was instructed to shower and put on some disposable underwear thingies and lay down. When my masseuse came in and started up, she said “Oh, you are very sexy!” then “American very, very sexy!” over and over. I got called sexy by this woman maybe five times. It got to the point where I started questioning if I had ordered some sort of special massage and found myself completely panicked, which is the worst way to experience a massage. Then I recounted my conversations and realized that they wouldn’t have asked me to put the underwear on if they were going to … take them off. I chalked it up to this: I am, unlike most Thai women, a person with some meat on her bones. After discovering the odd standards of beauty in Thailand, like the desire to bleach one’s skin, I thought maybe my pear-shape is something that is valued in this culture too. I left very happy to not have received a happy ending.
We act like animals and they are our keepers. I had been clearly instructed to avoid Khao San Road by my friend who had lived in Bangkok. This street is a renowned party destination for the backpacker community. When the group from my hostel decided to go, I was wary but thought it would be an interesting experience and decided that I could leave at any time. The only way I can describe it was like going to the Dirty 6 (Austin, TX’s trashy party street, on which I admittedly rode a mechanical bull during a bachelorette party in August) but times fifty. It was some of the best (and worst) people watching I’ve ever experienced. We progressed from the road’s edges toward the center, which is the loudest, craziest, trashiest part.
At the last stop (or my last stop – this is where my twenty nine year old self told me I couldn’t handle this scene anymore), my group of eight ordered liters of beer, brought over in a huge tube, and sat out on a table by the street, trying to yell over the mind-numbingly loud music. A few feet from us were two extremely drunk backpackers making out and committing some of the most graphic PDA I’ve ever seen. After lots of gawking, pointing, and laughing from my group, most people turned back to talk to each other and I caught the guy yelling over the music to the girl (whose lips he had been trying to suck off her face for fifteen minutes) “WHERE ARE YOU FROM?” How had they not covered that yet?! That is question number two after the obvious first one: “Do you want to publicly make out right now?” (Ok just kidding, number one should be, “What’s your name?”) This moment captures the trashiness that is Khao San Road. This and, of course, the platinum blonde 18 year old Australian who was sleeping on the table of a bar next to his own puke undisturbed by his friends or any staff members. Terrible.
It’s okay to cry. Every commercial either involves crying or makes you want to cry (a lot). Why are the emotions of Thai people so extreme? Not so sure, but it’s funny to watch yet another music video involving cliched story lines and over-the-top reactions. I scoured the internet trying to find my favorite one, but couldn’t locate it. I will find and share it someday.
People are very serious about silly fashion. The fashion in Bangkok is fantastic. You will see people wearing outlandish, whimsical outfits every day. If I had to categorize the street style, it would be matchy-matchy-Tween-meets-50s-housewife. I couldn’t fit my baby toe into the pants here and when a Weekend Market vendor saw me looking at a tank top, she told me she’d give me a deal for the longer ones. I looked at what she was indicating to and saw that she was pointing to the men’s shirts. Wow thanks lady. I know I am an obese giant to you teeny-tiny people, but come on!
Be a sheep. Unlike what you’ve ever learned anywhere else, when you are choosing a place to eat in Bangkok, don’t be an original – follow the crowds. Particularly find where the locals are eating. Some of my best meals were in dirty streets, next to yelling people and stray cats. But damn, the flavors were great and the bowls were clean. What else matters?
I found out that the Thai word for the number 5 is pronounced “ha” and that Thai people use 555 as a way to text or type “hahaha” to each other. 555++ is like infinite LOLing. This weird little fact seemed just perfect, as it was just another example of the off-beat but semi-Westernized way here. Everything is slightly odd and slightly hilarious.
I can’t wait to get into other countries in Southeast Asia to learn about their little idiosyncrasies as well. Until then, stay sexy!