‘Are you sure there’s good shopping? ‘Cause the last time you said that it was all old lady stuff,’ I moaned to my mother, while enduring a painfully long layover before our flight to Bangkok, Thailand while sitting in a smelly terminal in the Taipei Airport. My ever-prepared mother responded, handing me a guidebook, ‘Yes, here read this on the Pratunam Market in Bangkok.’
I’m excited for this trip, I thought to myself, while carefully breathing through my mouth and flipping through pages, I’m going to get way neat knockoffs for really cheap and get lots of sun. And we get to ride elephants! I didn’t realize then that I would get so much more out of this trip than some new ostensibly-brand-name clothes, some good photos and a nice tan line.
After traveling for what seemed like an eternity, we made it to our hotel in Bangkok. The crazy and slightly nauseating cab ride from the airport, the swarms of yellow shirts (in honor of their beloved king’s birthday that year), the unusual sounds of the Thai language, and the many prostitution houses made me a little wary. I’ve never been a fan of big cities, and this was about as big as the come, the population nearly reaching 10 million.
I had never been in such a foreign situation; I love to travel and had vacationed in Europe before, but nothing was nearly as different from my safe Utah neighborhood as this. But despite the apprehension I felt, the city mesmerized me, especially the contrast. In between the skyscrapers, westernized billboards and stylish shopping malls were the gold spires of Buddhist temples, numerous shrines, and the huge expanse of the Grand Palace.
Sophisticated business men lived in high rise, security guarded apartment buildings while children ran around the streets below in bare feet with the frequent stray dog. On thin, decaying stilts were tiny, tin roofed sheds held above the filthy river that had more unidentifiable grime than water. These sights were new to me.
Our next stop was the resort destination of Phuket which I loved even more than Bangkok. A beautiful, isolated and diverse island, it was devastatingly affected by the tsunami a few years ago. There were few visible signs remaining of that destruction, as the villages didn’t have much to be destroyed in the first place.
The scenery was stunning, and the resort workers generous and kind. But again I noticed the contrast. We were staying in a dazzling four-star hotel for 7 days, while the inhabitants of the next village over seemed happy to live in a filthy one room hut.
We ate at a relaxed and lavish buffet, while a pair of hunched old women walked the streets selling handmade bracelets, trying to make a few baht a day for food. We exercised in an air-conditioned gym at our resort, while a man with stumps for legs and arms sat in the sun, begging on a crowded street corner, near the main market. But what amazed me the most were the people.
I have never seen so many polite and optimistic individuals in my life, despite the poverty many of them live in. I saw a little boy sitting in the dirt playing with a small toy truck while his mother worked beside him, teaching tourists how to make Thai curry. When I bent down to take his picture, his face lit up, and he smiled and waved enthusiastically.
On a bicycle ride through the small, local village, people would wave from their hammocks or dusty lean-tos, shouting, ‘Sawadee-ka!’ and small children would chase after us on their own little bikes yelling, ‘Heyllo! Heyllo!’ I longed to give them something, candy, food, money, or just love. Tears slid down my cheeks for them, giving me away. I quickly wiped them off, self-conscious in front of my family, but I couldn’t help it. I felt a great love for all the Thai people and felt connected to them somehow. I still do.
Although I was naturally happy to arrive back home, it took weeks to get back to my normal sleep schedule, my normal life. I still think about that poignant vacation whenever I see an Asian child, look at an elephant in the zoo, wear the bathing suit I wore in the Andaman Sea, or experience a hot, crowded street. I think about that magical place almost everyday. Leaving Thailand was difficult, but forgetting Thailand is impossible.
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