Chance encounters with Thailand

by Ben Bangs, Nov 18, 2002 | Destinations: Thailand / Bangkok

It's funny how your impression of a place can be so colored by being in transit to someplace else -- how the lessons and beauty of where you are can escape you when you've got your eyes set on a prize in another time zone. If you're headed somewhere exclusively to transit to someplace else this temptation becomes that much stronger. Avoid it if you can! As US/Viet Nam relations have thawed and slowly percolated over the past decade, it has become possible to get from one to the other almost directly -- to stay on planes and in airports until you arrive. But ten years ago when I first sojourned to the land of the ascending dragon, the only practical way was through Bangkok -- a transit stop which of necessity had to be at least overnight. I remember that first pass throough Don Muang and my first look at the third world as coming through the windows of a taxi, and my first sensation of Southeast Asia being one of a solid brick wall of enervating heat -- the tropical kind which insists on your attention even at midnight, at almost any time of the year. The things I first noticed after that were that people drove on the "wrong" side of the road, that ferries and busses never come to a full stop to let passengers on and that it's often possible to walk faster than you can drive in the capital with the name so long that you can nevertheless cover at least a city block behind the wheel in the time it takes to say it all out in classical Thai. The next thing I noticed was the little (but profound) ways in which cultures can differ. On one of my later Viet Nam visa runs to Bangkok, I made a friend of a local dourrier who drove me around while I was in town. One noontime, I wanted to spare her the extra time I thought searching out a good, authentic and leasurly Thai meal would take, so when asked what I wanted for lunch, I replied: "Something quick, like MacDonald's"! An hour later my friend gently corrected this mistake; we were munching delicious and nutritious food in mere minutes after that. On yet another visa run, I spent some six weeks on Ko Samui (in Charlie's Huts on Chaweng Beach). It was here that I learned the truth of the aphorism that patience is a virtue, for my visa was ready to leave long before I was. At that time (mid 1995) you could have three huge, delectable and nutritious meals with beer and two deserts a day tacked on for less than $5US, and the ocean beckoned at all hours. R&R is the thing to do on Samui, and now I wish I'd done it more wholeheartedly, instead of worrying about getting to Viet Nam. I finally made it to Ha Noi, only to wish it were more relaxed -- more like Ko Samui, in short. The last time I visited Thailand on my way to Viet Nam, I traveled a bit more extensively. I visited Kanchanaburi for the floating nun, an elephant-back ride and the famed site of the bridge on the river Kwai. I also visited Chaing Mai, though I was once again in such a hurry to get to Viet Nam that I stayed on the heart of Thailand's beautiful and exciting north for just a night or two! But what really taught me patience was a fateful trip to Phuket. Phuket is like Samui's flashy, gaudy and krass twin sister, and much less worthwhile. Less worthwhile still was a night bus trip I took to get back to the capital (and off to Sai Gon) the third day after my arrival. Getting your pocket picked of nearly $500 is way too high a price to pay for impatience and indifference. So remember: Slow down and enjoy the Land of Smiles. And never fall asleep on a bus with money in your pocket!