Bangkok, Thailand

I certainly was not prepared for Bangkok. Not in the least.  I think this is what they call “culture shock.”

Coming from the States to Myanmar, I somehow dodged the culture shock that everyone said I would encounter upon arrival. Perhaps it’s because my friends and family tried to prepare me that I was immune to it. Although there was a little bit of shock in Beijing, when the language barrier was so suddenly disarming, it was brief and I adapted quickly.  But when I got to Myanmar, I was for some reason not terribly surprised by the level of simplicity and, well, blatant poverty. It reminded me a lot of the small villages in the Amazon that were home to me for many months in Brazil. So I was prepared for it, on some level, and perhaps I was so used to my life in the States that I thought all travel abroad would be different so I might as well expect the worst.  But for three weeks, I didn’t feel the culture shock like I thought I would.  Probably even if I had literally stuck my finger in an electrical outlet, I wouldn’t have felt it.  I was as invincible as a 15-year-old.

But nothing…nothing that I could have thought up in my head…prepared me for the jolt that coursed through me when I arrived in Bangkok.

A storm coming in over Bangkok, seen from the window of the hospital where I finished my vaccinations

The contrast between Yangon and Bangkok literally floored me. I got to the apartment of the Couchsurfing host I am staying with, and just sat on the floor, amazed and quieted by the city around me. It’s like the difference between Los Angeles and Metlatónoc. The two locations are only separated by a couple hundred miles but they are worlds apart. Two worlds apart, to be precise. I had come from a country that has been closed off to the world for sixty years, into a land of excess and copious international development, just next door. I was most surprised that I hadn’t realized how completely underdeveloped Myanmar is until I saw their neighbors. There aren’t any real stores where I was in Myanmar, just little shops, run by people instead of companies. But I took this for normal while I was there, having for some reason forgotten what a Stop n’ Shop looks like. When my taxi driver in Bangkok dropped me off at an enormous apartment complex, complete with a 7-11 on the corner and a strip mall on the bottom floor, the only thought in my mind was, where am I? 

For the first couple of days, I just thought about Myanmar, and what I had seen in my weeks there. I started missing the simple daily lessons in strange cultural norms. The sandalwood “makeup” that I at first found so strange, soon looked pretty normal and lovely. Or like when I’d be riding in an “AirCon Luxury” bus, for 20 hours straight, and looking out the window to see the strangest thing happen over and over again: Every time we came to a toll booth, we would go through rather quickly  and then slow down 10 meters from the booth while a guy came running up alongside the bus and dove through the doors, as the driver opened them briefly. It took me a couple of times of watching this to realize that the guy that was chasing the bus was the guy checking tickets on our bus. He wasn’t just a random bus-pirate, or kid trying to catch a bus that had slowed down at the tollbooth. He was dumped off at the toll, presumably to pay, and then would chase the bus as fast as he could and get back on. I thought this was hilarious, as if I had accidentally stumbled upon the set of “Speed.”  Why doesn’t the bus just stop at the toll and wait for the guy to pay? I found this bizarre and quite amusing to watch. Every time the bus slowed down while I was napping, I made a point to wake up and watch the event. One time the guy chased the bus for a good 5 minutes. Another time, he tripped and fell, and the bus came to a jolting stop, as another guy jumped out to help the guy to his feet.

What I’ve been doing in Bangkok for days is just letting it all sink in. Without the pressure of a time constrain,  I have been staying in an apartment in Bangkok enjoying the luxury of idleness. I have been acting like this guy, who I met on the streets of downtown Bangkok near Khao San road:

Likely a relative of the unlucky snails I got to know at Inlay Lake...

I am at the home of a lovely girl from Couchsurfing, who is away for work in Kuala Lumpur for the week and left me her home to relax in. It’s been quiet, and homey, and relaxing. And I find that I am reading everything I can, ferociously, as much as I can each day. My routine has been pretty consistent for the past five days:

  1. Wake up
  2. Hot shower
  3. Skype with a friend or family member
  4. Go for a walk
  5. Read for hours
  6. Watch random documentaries online
  7. Eat thai curry
  8. Read some more
  9. Sleep
  10. Repeat

It’s my ten-step program for a smooth transition back into developed civilization. Last night, at the restaurant where I’ve become a nightly regular, there was a new guy taking orders and I actually had to draw what I wanted to order…they couldn’t stop laughing when they looked at my sketch.

Hey, I got exactly what I wanted.

Thai green curry with squid

And those green little things that look like lime slices are some delicious succulent fruit that I can’t get enough of. I have no idea what it is, so if anyone has a clue please let me know!  For dessert, coconut sticky rice.

The food here is amazing.

I have been reading everything I can, from random books in my 267-book kindle library, to websites and discussion forums on U.S. history. I read up on Mr. Crazy Belgium guy’s conspiracy theories (so if I ever meet another like him I can call him/her out on the flawed logic), and I also brushed up on some current events and even contemporary U.S. and world history, as I have been primarily living under a rock for the past couple of years. It occurred to me that I have an extremely limited understanding of the Vietnam war, very little knowledge about Cambodia, and even less about Laos. And these are the countries I intend on visiting in the next couple of months. Another foreigner told me the other day that during the Vietnam War, (which, over here is referred to “the American war in Vietnam”), Laos was carpet-bombed extensively by the United States. I had no idea if this was true or not, and realized I needed to do some research if I were going to be able to learn anything from my experiences over here. Not only did I not know when the war in Vietnam began and ended, I didn’t know exactly why it was so controversial or about how it involved us in Laos and Cambodia. Of course I remembered from my high school U.S. history classes that there were enormous protests during the 60′s and 70′s, but I honestly couldn’t have told you what prompted the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam. I know my parents tried to inform me, but I knew everything back then, so I couldn’t be bothered.  It sucks to admit my ignorance, but like I said, I’ve been under some rock for a while like my snake Mr. Sam.

I felt like I should take some time to brush up on my understanding of these events. As an American visiting these countries, I feel it’s important to be informed for the sake of defending the country I know as home.  From mostly Europeans and Australians, there is no end to the snide remarks and subtle queries as to whether or not I’m as stupid as people think. A British guy showed me this the other day in downtown Bangkok:

Although I found this video hilarious, I was also desperately overcome with the feeling that I don’t want to represent America in this way.  So I have been doing my homework (although I can’t promise I won’t mimic this skit to some English-speaking foreigners just to see their reaction) in order combat the stereotype on a micro-level.  If I can make even one European challenge their idea that Americans are all idiots, I would be happy.

I was also shown a video on “stupid Americans” on YouTube, but I don’t want to post it here because I don’t want to support the spread stuff that leads people to over-generalized judgments.   The above video does that in a sense, but it’s more of a prank, in my opinion, than a bigoted statement on Americans.    Perhaps not.  But I feel that people are quick blame Americans for being stupid and laugh at us for it, when I don’t find it laughable at all.  I find it really sad and discouraging that 15% of Americans don’t know that the Earth revolves around the sun and that 11% can’t locate the U.S. on a world map. It’s indicative of our failing education systems, not a breed of stupid people.  True, we watch too much TV and would rather be entertained than informed, but again, that’s a problem with the society we’ve created, not with the individuals in it.  As someone who went to private schools for 16 years of my life, with an additional 2 years of public school for a Masters degree, I still don’t have a solid grasp on global geography.  And I paid attention in school and got good grades!  Global issues and geography aren’t taught with the same emphasis in American schools are they are abroad.  I’ve been quizzed about how the electoral college works, why we have it, and asked to name the U.S. presidents of the last century.  I can ignore or dismiss the ones who are just quizzing me to be cocky, but I can’t ignore the ones who ask me these questions in the genuine spirit of inquisitive wonder.  They want to know what an American thinks about the actions of it’s government, which has been a major player in the global area for the last century.  It’s been an interesting week, indeed.

My time here has also introduced me to a side of myself that I have been denying existed for years: the side of me that likes to be in one place, and to live in repetitive routine. I like to think of myself as a wanderer, and in a large sense, I am.  But in another sense, I’m a big pansy.  In a couple of days, I will hit the bumpy, sweaty road again, in search of more adventures and cultural surprises, and I can’t say I’m totally stoked about the uncomfortable bus rides and the need to constantly scrutinize the safety of anything I’m about to put in my mouth.

I’ve discovered my home-body-ness, as well as my general distaste for the hot tourist spots that I’ve encountered. I have already begun copying important bits of information from my Lonely Planet guide into my notebook, with plans to abandon the thing upon leaving Bangkok.  Some of it is useful, like, “don’t accept flat-rate taxi rides” in Thailand, because in other places, like in Myanmar, that’s the only way to get a good deal in a taxi.  But it didn’t take more than a couple of weeks for me to start detesting this book, as a whole. It’s heavy, and generally useless. It’s being sold on every street corner in Bangkok, and EVERY traveler here goes to the same 3 or 4 locations per country, which takes the fun out of the exploration for me. It’s not a path less traveled,  and it’s certainly not a “Lonely Planet” by any measure. At least in Myanmar, where tourism is still relatively  new, there are mostly respectful and interesting tourists abound.  But walking down Khao San road, I was filled with the eerie sense that the universe burped, and out came the most trendy, boisterous,  and inappropriately behaved people from each of the world’s developed nations. I can’t tell you how many drunk Germans in tank tops ran into me with their beer carelessly swaying in the nightsky, like I was at a Phish concert. Everyone is walking around with the Thai fisherman pants, and exotic-looking handbags, while sporting booty-shorts and aviators.  It’s not really how I like to travel. I love hanging out with other foreigners, but in some places of Bangkok, the city is a zoo and the foreigners are just the exotic noisy peacocks from a land far far away that can be gawked at for their eccentricities and flashy feathers. It’s just another place to party, and you can’t tell from walking down the street exactly what country you’re in. It’s the twilight zone. Thank you, Lonely Planet.  I won’t get into the sex-tourism industry here, but it’s worth looking at.

All for now.  Back to the books.

8 Responses to Bangkok, Thailand

  1. tina

    great. more later. always so glad to find your posts.

  2. Miss Jen

    I have been reading your blog and I totally understand how other nationalities see us as stupid. But I have to think that it is a bogus stereotype just like you hear the French smell, the Germans are cold and Russian women only want to marry an American.

    In my travels, I have seen and witnessed obnoxious Italians, rude French, snotty English, stoned Jamaicans, fishy smelling Asians and veiled Muslims. But I have also met warm Italians, endearing French people, lovely English folks, welcoming Jamaicans, happy Asians and funny Muslims.

    I think the people you have met who have ragged on the US are ignorant. You are American and you are a brilliant, funny, kind, warm and adventurous soul. I believe that if it wasn’t for the media and tv programming we would have a better image. When we had a Swedish au pair (total stereotype!), one tv show they loved to watch in Sweden was Jerry Springer. Seriously, the worst show ever. and they loved it. Tell them to turn the tv off, stop reading the Huffington Post and to start talking to more Americans.

    And, if everyone hates the US, then why visit? in 2007, the USA had over 56 million international tourists in just that year. Seriously.

    We all choose to see the world in the light that we want to see it.
    I choose to see others as good and unique.
    Thank you for getting me thinking about this. I hope you continue to have a great trip. I have a friend who travels to Thailand 2x a year. If you find yourself in a pickle, let me know.
    xo jen

  3. Anoush

    “I believe that if it wasn’t for the media and tv programming we would have a better image”
    Jen–I think you nailed it here! I keep reminding these people, they see a VERY small glimpse of America through a bombardment of media. It’s funny, because, like you said, these people are ironically just as misinformed and foolish as they are claiming we are, by feeding into the stereotype to begin with. It’s just amazing how incredibly pervasive it is, though. Apparently Anti-Americanism is at an all-time high in Europe, and it is being perpetuated by the media. I haven’t met one person that hasn’t snuffed at me after my “I’m from the U.S” intro.
    I’m glad I got ya thinkin about it. I’m shocked how much this trip has got me thinkin about it.
    I hope you’re doing well, and getting ready for a nice Christmas break!

  4. Tabs

    Exactly well said to all the comments! Stereotypes are everywhere and there’s always people around to either reinforce or break them, you’re definitely one of the latter. Despite that I couldn’t help laughing at the video because I agree that it has to obviously be a prank, sad that’s what some foreigners think of us but we do tend to have a bad/misconstrued image abroad. The food looks bomb though, jealous! I love asian food of all kinds, nom nom nom, just wait for Cambodia! Christina’s–little asian girl I used to nanny, if you remember her?–mom is from Cambodia and they fled after the civil war and when she cooks and the grandmother does it’s like heavennnn. I’m really good friends with the mom now and this past summer I was over like 4 days a week babysitting Christina and showing all the food the grandmother could throw at me in my mouth, It was insane haha She was very concerned she wasn’t giving me enough variety and that I would like it or would get tired of eating her pho soups but I licked my bowl clean every time haha What did those non-lime fruits taste like? I’m intrigued!

  5. Ron

    Honestly, some of the best, well written blogs I have ever read. Keep up the great work! Oh and if you would like, I would love to hire you to write a book about me, your words just flow and capture. Its nice to see the education system hasn’t failed all of us :)

    • Anoush

      Thank you so much Ron!! Can’t wait to see ya on Ko Samui and learn about firefighting in Afghanistan!

  6. Pearl

    Just started reading your blog and you are making me so hungry for the food. I think the lime wedges you are referring to are thai eggplants.

  7. Anoush

    Ah thank you Pearl! They ARE Thai eggplants :) Now that I know what they are I can order it all the time! So delicious. Glad you’ve found my blog!

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