I'm back from a week away in the Land of Smiles, and now that a couple of cold showers have washed away the remnants of Bangkok and the first well-rested night in my own futon has relieved my senses, I can reflect on the past week with a modicum of clarity.
Predictably, I'm chuffed to bits to still be alive, an emotion I always feel after getting off an airplane, the sheer terror of flying sufficient to keep me from leaving Japan more than once a year; but my feeling on returning home is far from what I predicted. I expected to find my routine life here dull and bland after an exotic week, but instead I feel remarkably relieved. I know that when I go shopping, the price of something is its price, and every other customer would pay the same. I know that I can walk down the street in peace, without being harassed every ten meters by someone trying to sell me an overpriced ride in a tuk-tuk. I can sit in a train or taxi without feeling like I'm going to catch some disease. I don't have to constantly worry about where my feet are when I walk, and I don't have to remember to keep my head down when a monk passes by. In short, I can live as I'm used to. Perhaps I'm more used to Japan than the local population might think my ethnicity should permit, but whereas I felt I could live in Europe, and had moments in Italy where I felt strongly that moving to Japan had been a mistake, I was rarely comfortable in Thailand and am very, very glad to be back.
My wife and I would be celebrating our first anniversary around the time I belatedly understood how much paid vacation time I had from the university where I spend most of my time, and almost at random we made a spur-of-the-moment decision to spend several days in Thailand. I think it was because neither of us had been there yet, and because I had always wanted to ride an elephant, but we had no time to learn the language even to a basic level, thus were forced to rely on English and sign language, and there we were obvious tourists, and thus easy targets for scam artists.
I don't pretend to be an expert on the country after a week as a mere tourist, but I think I week is just sufficient to start to get the feel for a country, and in this case it was enough. On the positive side, the beaches of the islands around Ko Phi Phi and the bungalow where we stayed were excellent--the water was clear enough to see all the way to the bottom at more than three meters, boats can be chartered to go anywhere around the local islands, including to a waterside grove of trees where a group of very friendly monkeys eagerly swam out to board the boat. (I had never seen a monkey swim before, and now I know they can.) Fare at the restaurant seemed like real home-cooking, and the fruit shakes were made of fresh fruit. I brought home a handful of the copius pieces of coral washed up on the shore and encountered a plethora of zucchini-shaped sea creatures I still can't name.
To get there, you have to ride a dilapidated ferry for two hours from the urban shore of Phuket, and on arrival shove your way through a bevy of touts all offering their services for double what their signs advertise, and throngs of stands and stalls pushing mass-produced 'Thai goods' for no set price. But Bangkok suffers from a bit of the blight. Unfortunately, you have to spend at least a little time there if you fly in from overseas, but we really wanted to experience the city, and so we spent a few days up close and personal with the armpit of Asia.
Bangkok spans the width of the delta of the Chao Phraya River, a faeces-colored canal that provides a highway for longboats and bath water for the prisons, in which upwards of 1/5 of prisoners have been framed for profit by the miscarriage-of-justice system (Send Them to Hell by Sebastian Williams is the book to read). The motorways are stuffed with mopeds and tuk-tuk taxis manned by cartel groups bent on fleecing the foreigners. Monks clad in saffron-robes make their early-morning rounds of services for the pious and the sweet scent of incense mingles with the smog of exhaust fumes. Iced coffee of a unique Thai flavour is ubiquitous and cheap. Enjoy a delicious spicy meal with a city view, but remember that it will be interrupted several times by hawkers edging their way in among the diners to try to sell things no one wants or needs.
The hardest part was the shopping. The guide books all advise you to to 'keep it friendly' and 'never get angry' when haggling down prices, but merely having to do so is annoying by the end of the first day, and exhausting after several. From what I understand, the depth and intensity of the scamming isn't as hideous as in, say, India, but it certainly didn't make for a pleasant stay, particularly when combined with the ever-present harassment, and filth. I do believe we got some fairly good deals, on bolts of silk and cotton cloth, for example, which I'll have made into shirts (I've found with regularity that shirts off the rack in Japanese stores never fit me well, either being too short in the arms or too loose in the trunk) and I'm fortunate enough to have a wife who has been in the business long enough to know by examining fabric what it really is, because the seller's word on the matter cannot be trusted.
The other place we visited was Ayutthaya, which, while rich with history and attractions, is also a massive tourist trap. We probably could have hired a taxi and traveled in air-conditioned comfort for less than it would cost to go from Tottori to Kurayoshi, but we took the train for the experience. Dozing off from the heat and humidity, we were jostled awake every few minutes by the women shaped like bulldozers who lurch up and down the aisles calling out the names of the styrofoam-wrapped packages of edibles they're selling (the food is prepared in makeshift kitchens in minor stations, and they make a living selling it to passengers). One of these invariably leans into the face of every caucasian on the train as it approaches Ayutthaya and announces the destination, because it's so obvious that no caucasian could possibly be going anywhere else, and we obviously need the help--even though the sign at the station is emblazoned with AYUTTHAYA right under the Thai script, unlike in Bangkok where, in the absence of a sign or any other indication in any language, you just have to assume you're there because everyone is getting off the train.
A chartered longboat took us around the river that surrounds the land mass on which Ayutthaya is situated, and we got a tour of the dire poverty of many of the riverside residents alongside the glitter of temples and the queen's opulent sometime residence. One other nice thing to try is dinner on a riverboat restaurant; unfortunately, we were lured into a less-than-savory establishment, which had no other customers and the condiments arrived swarmed with ants, and the rice was infested with some unknown vermin. (The picture below was taken at the very edible restaurant in Ko Phi Phi, not the vermin shop.)
Usually the first thing Japanese people ask someone who has just returned from a trip abroad is 「お腹壊してない？」Overall, actually, the food was quite fine in that regard--and contrary to popular belief, it's okay to drink the water--but I spent my entire trip with a vague pain through the left side of my skull, perhaps an allergic reaction to all the MSG, and I wasn't able to think clearly on a diet of three times the fat and carbohydrate I'm used to, and a fraction of the protein. All in all, it was an interesting trip, but it's very, very good to be home.