As we saw more and more of Bangkok, one thing became abundantly clear. We needed to leave as soon as possible. Still feeling the pull of the ocean, we struggled with our desire to spend just a little more time by the salty pond, and the many islands of Thailand make it very easy to do this. The beaches of Southern Thailand sound like the perfect place to lounge around and sip Mai Thais, but we had come with a mission of learning Thai Massage, and that purpose was leading us North, to Chiang Mai, where the best Thai Massage schools were reputedly located. Our driver had some helpful tips for this, and led us to a place where we could book any trip we wanted.
Like many places in the world, connections and networking are the fabric of social and economic life, and I found myself questioning where the balance lay with our driver. Thus far, we had experienced how being brought to a certain place at a certain time had seemed too coincidentally beneficial to one person or another, and it seemed we had a choice to either trust that the connections our driver was making were on the level, or to attempt to find trustworthy sources of our own. In the end, after some discussion on the matter between my clever wife and myself, we decided that it was best to trust our driver, as going it on our own would be too overwhelming, and might lead to even more unscrupulous types taking full advantage of us.
After some very helpful people in a street side cupboard that doubled as a travel agency booked us with the ways and means to our destination, not to mention a hotel when we got there, we proceeded to our next mission, which was namely to get some more appropriate clothing for the climate. Upon describing our need to the driver, he gave us two choices. The Mall, or the market.
As we neared the mall, we saw many familiar names. The Gap. Barnes and Noble. Tommy Hilfiger. Starbucks. I, for one had not come to Thailand to shop in the same stores that I refused to shop at back in North America, stores which paid people in places like Thailand minimal wages for overly expensive clothes. The irony of having someone sell you a shirt for $120, whose cousin possibly manufactured it getting while paid that much per month, or per year, goes far beyond my moral comfort zone. Theresa agreed, so we headed for the Thai market.
One thing you quickly learn in an Asian market is that Asians are generally a lot smaller than westerners. Beyond the difficulty in trying to squeeze through the narrow stalls and alleys, there is the matter of what a ‘large’ shirt means to someone who is half your size. After nearly choking while trying on a few shirts, and getting tangled up in some miniature ‘large’ pants, we realized that in Thailand, I qualify as ‘extra-large’, a fact that my wounded pride is still trying to get over. I’m a big guy, but not that big.
If you have ever watched a decent travel documentary, then you will have no trouble picturing what an authentic Thai market looks like. Each step is a voyage of discovery, with a tight press of bodies competing for what little room there is on the sidewalk, and people selling any and all types of wares, from cheap plastic toys, to mysterious meats, spices, baubles and trinkets, beautiful handcrafted clothing, jewelry and art.
And this was only just the beginning. Several narrow paths led into the massive market, flanked on each side by endless stalls of goods. The building was probably the size of a department store, confined to a single floor, crisscrossed by the grubby lanes. Even the dirt seemed exotic in the market, having an ancient and well-worn feel. At the edges of the narrow strip of concrete that had the best intentions of being aisles were a series of large bricks with notches in them to allow for drainage and runoff. There was quite possibly another society living in the gutter, but I wasn’t too keen on exploring it.
The other thing dwelling in the market was the heat. Again, it was relentless, like a living creature, permeating our beings with a well-heeled sense of patience. The press of bodies and the lack of airflow topped with the ever-present smog create a sort of sauna effect that soon left us semi-dazed, just wanting to buy our wares and move on. It was like an unintentional replication of the Muzak and fluorescent lights used in North American malls to create a consumerist stupor.
We found some clothing for myself and Theresa, and a cool red felt fedora for Cyrus, but were having trouble finding anything for Violet. Cost was not the issue, as most items of clothing ran around 100-300 Baht (3-10 dollars.) There were baby clothes aplenty, and many outfits for the 7 and up crowd, but only t-shirts and shorts featuring superheroes and Barbies for children Violets size. We were hoping for something a little more local and appropriate for her, so we kept up the search.
We had heard about the love and adoration of children the Thais will show. They believe that children, in their youth and innocence, are closer to ‘god’, or the divine, to put it in Buddhist terms. The younger the better. It is not uncommon to have people pointing and smiling at your child as you walk past, or even touching and kissing your child on the cheek. To those of us from Western cultures, this may seem a bit invasive, but feels innocent and harmless enough to let it pass, and we had been told that this was normal behaviour in Thailand, so we let it slide.
After having this happen a few times, I also started to listen to what they were saying to my sweet little girl. At first I thought they were speaking in Thai, as I had little context for what I was hearing, but I soon realized that what they were saying to Violet was, “Oh, sexy girl, very sexy.”
The first time I caught this, I stared perplexed at the semi-toothless old woman who had said it. Was she sizing our 4 ½ year old up for a lifelong career in the ‘massage’ parlours of Bangkok? The innocence on the woman’s face, and her ear to ear smile made me realize that someone needed to tell the Thais that ‘sexy’ and ‘pretty’ had two very different meanings. The more I heard people say this, the more it confirmed my suspicions that it was an innocent mistake of language, and my worries were eased. Somewhat.
And then Violet announced that she needed to go pee. I had thus far noticed that the symbol for ‘man’ and ‘woman’ were universal in Thailand, and they were often enough to help you find a bathroom, but I could see no such signs in this place. Violet and I started to roam the outer edges of the stalls in search of a loo. After doing several complete loops, it dawned on me that someone must speak English, and so I started asking around.
By this point, Violet was getting fairly agitated, and holding herself, adding to my sense of urgency. I started asking stall owners where the washrooms were, but sensing that I wasn’t interested in buying their wares, they often waved us on. Finally, someone caught my meaning and pointed in the general direction we were supposed to go in. I wandered to the back wall of the market again, and finally noticed the small ‘Toilet’ sign hanging in the corner down a small corridor.
Violet was now telling everyone who cared to listen that she really had to go pee, and we raced down the corridor, looking for a nice, hygienic bathroom. Actually, at that point, I was looking for anything that would serve as loo. A bucket would have seemed appropriate to me under the circumstances. Noticing a small (and I mean small, like 4-foot-tall) door to the right, under a stairwell, we ducked under, passed the babies crawling on the cement floor, past the urinal troughs to a private stall. No male/female symbols This was a free-for-all. Opening the door to the stall… oh wait, there was no door. Just a ceramic squat with a hole in the center. Hmmm. Oh, and no toilet paper, just a bucket of water with a metal pot leaning against it. Double Hmmm…
Violet started berating me for not having found the toilet, and was a little confused as I explained that this was it. Time being of the essence, I helped her get her skirt and panties off, explaining would be kind of like going in the bushes at home, and held her up over the hole-in-the-floor as she did her business.
Now as tempting as it may sound, the ‘splash-yourself-with-dirty-water-from-a-bucket’ thing was not on the list of experiences that I wished to share with my children during our travels, and I was fortunate enough to have a hankie in my bag that served as an emergency wipe. Looks like my ‘always be prepared’ Boy Scout training was coming in handy. Washing our hands and my hanky under a tap on the wall, we made our way out of the ‘bathroom’ to find Theresa and Cyrus, and hopefully a dress for Violet, that would not seem so ‘very sexy.” As luck would have it, Theresa had found a cute outfit for her, and we were on our way, wondering if there was a happy medium between Tommy Hilfiger and Dirty Harry.
One thing we had not found at the Thai market was any type of food that we could recognize, so we asked our driver for one last stop before returning to our hotel, at a grocery store or something similar. He suggested going to a 7-11, which seemed to be on every corner, but we explained that we wanted fruits, veggies, bread, butter, cheese, etc. Real food.
I was puzzled when he pulled into a gas station, as his tank was more than half full, until he pointed to the store on the far side of the lot. “There, Tesco Lotus. You buy groceries there.” Dubiously, Theresa and I walked in to what was arguably a step above 7-11, but not exactly a full-fledged grocery store. At least we were able to find some of the things we wanted, lots of little snacks for our journey the next day. We were pretty sure we had chosen soy milk and yogurt from what little explanation there was on the containers, and the fruit was fortunately self-explanatory, if obviously not organic.
Well stocked, we hit the road again, bound for our hotel. As we sped along the freeway, I had some time to reflect on our day. We had seen things well beyond our normal frame of reference, and loved every minute of it. Watching the motorbikes, (which outnumbered the cars,) weave in and out of the traffic, buses spewing noxious volumes of smog into the air, cars driving with no sense of lanes or lines, I started to understand that Asia reels with its masses of humanity, and they all move in synchronistic step to keep things moving.
Like some grand dance, everybody goes with the flow, and it all works out in the end. I wondered just how a Westerner could embrace this, as it seemed far too much like chaos to easily jump into. I was suddenly very glad to have a driver who could not only navigate the chaos of the streets, but could navigate the chaos of the culture as well.
Back at the hotel, we all jumped in the pool to cool off some of the day’s heat. Even in the early evening, it was almost too hot to handle, but somehow, we coped, as we had been doing all day. Feeling somewhat refreshed, we made our way down to the hotel restaurant, looking forward to some familiar food.
Our dirty secret from earlier in the day had taken root, and we were compelled by our cravings to order Coke, once again feeling as though it provided some shield against the heat and its draining effects. Perhaps Coca-Cola does retain some ties to its origins, as the coca leaves of the Andes are reputed to have allowed the natives to endure long treks through extreme conditions of climate and altitude.
At any rate, the fabled drink did indeed revive and refresh us. I ordered Pad-See-Ew, a Thai favorite of mine, while Theresa ordered Pad Thai, known and loved the world over. For Violet, we ordered the American Fried Rice, because, you know, fried rice is fried rice. And although we hail from north of the 49th parallel, it was close enough to home to be comfort food. Cyrus ordered Tom Yum Goong, a spicy coconut soup with prawns, sure to be a hit. He was noticeably excited, as he absolutely loves prawns.
When Violet’s plate arrived, it gave me pause to ponder what the perception of ‘American’ might mean in Thailand. Beside the perfectly shaped dome of rice were several types of ham; some bacon twists, several sausages and a pile of pork patties, with a nice fried egg topping it all off. And just to make sure it was truly American? A handful of raisins thrown in. Strangely enough, obesity is not an epidemic in Thailand.
We are normally not big meat eaters, and as a rule, we never eat pork, if only because it is the least healthy of all meats. Our disdain for the most human of meats was compounded by a sight we had seen the night before on the trek from the airport to the hotel. As we cruised along the freeway at 3 am, we noticed a flatbed truck with rails enclosing the rear loaded with sides of ham. As in, halves of the pig, piled several feet high, open to the 30 plus degree weather and whatever else might be floating through the air.
I remember Cyrus remarking that he would never eat any kind of pork product again (not that I can recall him ever eating any as it was.) And here our youngest family member was about to dig in to a smorgasbord of the swine. I could not get the image of the truck-of-pig out of my mind, but suspecting that Violet was in need of sustenance after all of our traveling and trekking, we allowed her a couple of pieces of bacon to accompany her rice. Once again, our resolve to go vegetarian was given strength.
While lost in the wonders of Violet’s first pork experience, I hadn’t noticed the other plates arriving. My well-heeled manners kicked in, and I enquired around the table as to how the other meals were faring. Cyrus was looking a little pale in the face, and I asked if he felt Ok. “Yes,” he replied. “Would you like to try some of my soup?” Not wanting to miss the opportunity to sample some more authentic Thai food, I heartily agreed. He pushed his bowl toward me, offering a spoonful of that spicy Thai goodness.
“Hmm. Fishy,” I thought, as my first mouthful went down. Not exactly liking it, but not wanting to dissuade Cyrus from eating it, I asked him if he was enjoying his meal. “Not exactly,” he replied, as he stirred the soup. It was then that I noticed the prawns floating merrily in the bowl. I for one enjoy prawns, but I generally like them when the head and legs have been removed. I looked at Cyrus, then at Theresa. “So I guess you’re not going to finish the soup?” I innocently inquired.
Thai food: 2. Hunt family: 0.
At least the Pad Thai was good. And we still had breakfast to look forward to…