Last Smoothie of the Night: Goodbye Thailand

Billy. Remember landing here in Thailand? Remember being driven to the Airbnb through what looked like dilapidated streets where stray dogs roamed free? 

Elliott. I remember. I remember thinking that we were really in for it.

Billy. Look at us now though: walking down the street at night sipping smoothies, feeling completely at ease. This is such a far cry from my memory of that first night. 

Elliott. Things looked so much worse that first day. But in actuality we spent most of our time wandering the city, or milling about in cafés. 

Billy. Thailand has been nothing like the news portrays it as, that’s for sure. What would our parents have said if we told them we were going to visit Las Vegas. Probably something like, “Don’t blow all your money at the black jack table! And remember, an STD won’t stay in Vegas!” Compare that to what they said when we told them we would be going to Thailand. “Make sure you be safe there. Stay away from big crowds and always walk together late at night. You never know who is out there.” That fear is so far removed from the truth. 

Elliott. It reinforces the notion that you can’t take anybody’s word about a place as gospel. You have to visit the place in question to see for yourself. 

Billy. We have to have a boys trip back here. 

Elliott. Absolutely. What a week that would be. Though, as much as I’ve liked it here, three weeks has really been my limit. I couldn’t live here any longer than that.

Billy. No? 

Elliott. It’s too hot all the time for starters. I need somewhere that gets real weather, somewhere where the seasons actually change. That, and I don’t think I’m spiritual enough to live here.

Billy. What kind of reason is that? What do you mean?

Elliott. I mean there is such an air of spirituality here—what with all the temples and that. You walk down the street and there on the horizon is an unavoidably large statue of the Buddha, next to an elaborate Wat that is difficult to ignore. I don’t need to see the Buddha, temples, or Christian churches for that matter day in and day out. I’m always suspicious of outward displays of spirituality. I feel as though true spirituality is inward, and evaporates as soon as it is exposed to outside air. In other words, you don’t need a temple to practice Buddhism and you don’t need a church to practice Christianity. In my experience  people who attend church punctually forget this notion, and are usually looking to prove something.

Billy. That’s some convenient reasoning. Is that why you can’t remember the last time you went to church back home? Too busy practicing Christianity in your bedroom?

Elliott. You know what I mean.

Billy. I do, and I think you’re right to a certain extent. Yes, believing that going to temple makes you a Buddhist isn’t necessarily correct, but there is still something to be said about the feeling of community temple offers. This community is even more important to Christians I think, right?

Elliott. Well. Shit. Yeah that’s true. The whole “Where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them” thing. 

Billy. Is that a Bible verse? 

Elliott. It’s Matthew something or other yeah. 

Billy. I’m impressed. Are you practicing Christianity at home on Sundays?

Elliott. Definitely not. The Bible, however, has no shortage of trenchant lines of beautiful poetry. I enjoy those types of lines insofar as I enjoy poetry. In fact one of the first things I ever memorized was the Lord’s Prayer. You know, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…”

Billy. I don’t know actually.

Elliott. Oh well. It’s in the book of Matthew as well, like the quote I mentioned earlier about God being wherever the community gathers. But the Lord’s Prayer also appears in shorter form in the book of Luke. 

Billy. Uh huh. 

Elliott. How did we get talking about this?

Billy. You were mentioning how aren’t spiritual.

Elliott. Right. All I’m trying to say is that it’s too in your face here, too much for my comfort, anyway.

Billy. I could see myself living here. Not for the rest of my life, but for a few years, sure. Life is well-paced here. It’s not a huge city with over-crowded streets and a sprawling metropolis. Most things are close enough to walk to, and there isn’t an overwhelming variety of things to do, but the things that are here are genuine in that you can do them multiple times and still get something out of the experience. Like Doi Suthep, the temple in the mountains we visited yesterday. I would love to go back there when it isn’t so crowded and just soak up as much detail as possible. I think I could do that many times and not get bored, or at least not for a long time. Plus, these smoothies man, are freakin delicious.

Elliott. The thing is that when I try and make them at home they will be nowhere near as good as they are here. 

Billy. Exactly. That’s why we’ve got to enjoy them while we can.

Foreigner Anxiety 

Conversation overheard at a bar. I didn’t catch the names, so I’ve just made them up.

Harold. Is this your first time in Chiang Mai? 

Caroline. No. This would be my fourth time visiting here. May as well move here right? 

Harold. I guess so. This is my first time in Chiang Mai.

Caroline. How do you like it?

Harold. It’s okay. Everything is so cheap. 

Caroline. Yeah and the people are so nice. 

Harold. Who? The locals or the foreigners?

Caroline. Both I guess. 

Harold. I’ve mostly hung out with other foreigners. Haven’t met that many Thai people yet.

Caroline. I know a few. 

Harold. Really? What do they think of foreigners?

Caroline. I don’t know. I’ve never asked. I guess they like us, right? 

Harold. I hope so. Can I get you another beer? 

Foreigner anxiety: wanting to fit in with the local culture but still retaining an awareness that one will never be of that culture. Is it insulting for me to try to bow? Or should I just not bother? I want to respect the culture and the people while still acknowledging that I’m merely an observer of this place and all its customs, but how? 

If I have any truth to say on the matter it would be this: people, particularly in Asian countries, know that you’re a foreigner. Don’t attempt to disguise it, but don’t let it be an excuse either. You don’t have to be anybody but yourself when you travel. 

People like it when foreigners can speak the language, yes, but most understand that it is an unrealistic expectation of foreigners that they should speak the native tongue. All I recommend is learning “hello,” “thank you,” and “goodbye,” but if you have the time and means try to learn a little more. 

Ultimately what is important is being yourself. Locals know their own culture, and while I’m sure it’s nice to see foreigners learning and respecting that culture, I imagine they might want to learn about your culture, and what makes you unique. Sharing is so important, and is perhaps inseparable from traveling in general. Above all, don’t just come to absorb and give nothing back. 

Clothes

I do laundry here about once a week. I only have a few articles of clothing, so once a week is enough. Mostly we rely on the old smell test to know when we should do a load of laundry. Other than that, clothes haven’t been an issue for either of us, a fact which I voiced on our way to dinner.

Elliott. When we were leaving I had the suspicion that I hadn’t brought enough clothes, but I realize now that not once have I felt like I needed more clothes. 

Billy. Yeah that hasn’t bothered me either.

Elliott. Living out of one backpack makes one realize how little is necessary to get along.

Billy. Well, it also has to do with our current station in life. Sure we only have like three outfits, but people expect that of backpackers. Whereas when we get home it won’t be so accepted for us to just wear the same three outfits all the time, as much as we might want to. 

Elliott. I’m going to be shocked by all the clothes I own when I get home. I won’t know what to do with it all. 

Billy. We’ll get used to all that stuff again I’m sure. 

Elliott. I don’t doubt it, but I think there will definitely be an impulse to cut down, at least for me. Not that I own a lot of stuff anyway, but any amount of stuff is substantial compared to what I’m carrying around in my backpack. 

Billy. Mhm. I’m trying not to think too much about getting home. We’ll be back before we know it. 

Elliott. Yeah we’re leaving for India in four days. How’d that happen? 

Billy. See what I mean?

The Sunday Market

Every Sunday a section of Chiang Mai’s old city gets sectioned off to become a sprawling open air market. The streets become lined with tents selling innumerable tchotchkes and an seemingly endless supply of tourist bait garbage. Shirts that read “I Love Chiang Mai!” or magnets in the shape of elephants, on which are written “Thailand,” and of course the indispensable Buddha statues. For a guy who was really against materialism, he sure does have a lot of little statues of himself that westerns love to buy. The Sunday market isn’t so much a flee market in that there people sell used junk, but a market where people sell new stuff that is nevertheless junk. 

The real appeal of the market is the food, the street music, and the people. Anything you could possibly want to eat is there. Walking through the food stalls you’re apt to hear a group of drunk British people pointing at a skewer of meat and slurring “Is that chicken?” The vendor speaks little English, so by the time she is able to formulate a reply the Brits have already slapped down twenty baht and are enjoying a skewer of mystery meat. Nothing like a little booze to make you open to trying new foods, but I must say, I hardly see any foreigners, drunk or sober, buying from the stall with fried locusts. 

The streets become impenetrable during the Sunday market, and if you get caught up in the crowd, you just have to ride it out to the end. For all the number of people, the market is very tame. No one is shoving or shouting; even the drunk foreigners have an air of dignity about them as they queue along the streets. It is all so well organized that the city has sectioned off specific spots for street performers. This is truly a delight for your ears because of the sheer variety of music to be heard. You get the standard western instruments like the guitar, banjo, and drum kit, but you also get the surreal and wonderful traditional instruments of Thailand. There really is no proper way to describe the tones produced by some of these instruments, which is why I brought a field recorder along with me. Hopefully I will be able to upload some of these recordings onto Bandcamp soon. Walk just fifty feet away from the dream-like murmur of the Thai instruments and you might hear a bluegrass band covering “Stand by Me.” 

The variety of the food and music can only be beat by the variety of people who move through the market. Foreigners of all types shift alongside the natives, and taking a step back to watch the stream of people pass before you is an exercise in pure surprise. You never know how a face will appear until you look straight at it, and, keeping this in mind, you might be amazed by the infinite variety of faces that pass by, none looking quite like the other. 

Strays

I have noticed a fair number of stray dogs and cats here in Chiang Mai. Seeing the wayward dog or cat is always a bit of a surprise to me. Billy remarked that he’s never seen a stray dog in New York city, even though I’m sure they are there. I haven’t seen a stray in New York either, come to think of it, but again, I’m sure they are there. 

New York must have an excellent animal control force, and the excellency of their animal control is due in part to the fact that the State of New York can afford such a unit. I don’t know the budget for public works and animal control here in Chiang Mai, but if the only basis of comparison is off of New York (which it is, in my case) then it would be fair to say that Chiang Mai can’t afford to maintain a proper animal control unit, especially when there are so many more pressing concerns facing Thailand. For example, did you know that the last military coup in Thailand occurred just three years ago? The coups, then, probably take financial precedence over the strays. 

I’m sitting in bar at seven o’clock in the club district of Chiang Mai. It’s Friday night, and seven o’clock is too early for the club scene to kick of, so Billy and I chat in a vacant bar situated right on the street so we can watch passers-by. This is exactly the sort of thing I love: a cheap drink, good conversation, and plenty of people-watching. 

Walking along the street with the tourists who are hurrying to their hotels before the young people take over are the stray dogs and cats. The cats noiselessly pad their way through the throngs of people, looking for a place to nap or perhaps a meal; their motives are just as ambiguous as their domestic counter parts. The dogs are always looking for two things: food, or affection. They’re happiest when they can get both, though. 

The fear of what they might have inherited from the streets keeps people at a distance, so the dogs just mope about, never approaching you unless prompted. Never have I wished I could talk to animals as badly as when I’m here, watching a stray dog trying to cross the street. You can actually see the fear on his face, or maybe it’s resignation, I can’t ask him which. 

By nine o’clock we are ready to head back to our apartment, but already the club-goers are arriving. The men arrive in packs and walk straight to the bar, looking for a drink or any early women, who usually slink out of the back of tuk-tuks and red trucks, trying to make their entrance as inconspicuous as possible.

They are a seething mix of foreigners and natives, but even the natives are not without a small trace of displacement. All wayward with nothing domestic to anchor them on a Friday night, they spend a few joyful and inhibition-less hours dancing and drinking, perhaps never noticing the kindred spirits that swirl about their ankles on the walk home. 

Coin Toss

Never in my life have I been to so many restaurants in such a short span of time. We’ve eaten out every night here, usually trying a new place or sticking with a favorite (Kanjana’s). Most of the time we’re able to narrow our choice down to just two options, so we do a coin toss to decide which place to eat.

Yesterday, however, we were faced with three equally delicious sounding options. We couldn’t narrow down from the cheap Thai place, the Irish pub, and the burger place. Now, I know some people would immediately go with the Thai place—we are in Thailand after all, right? Well we’ve been eating so much Thai food since we’ve gotten here, and consider that we’ve been traveling in Asia now for about two months. Sometimes, you need a taste of home. 

I came up with a brilliant scheme to make our decision from the three options: I put three coins on the ground and turned my back to them. Then, I flung another coin over my shoulder, and whichever coin that thrown coin landed closest to would be the place to go. 

Being supposedly indifferent to any option, Billy agreed to this scheme. I was about to toss the coin when he stopped me.

Billy. Wait. Wouldn’t it make more sense if the three coins are next to each other? Look, I’ll put one coin on each point where the tiles meet, that way there’s an equal chance for all of them.

Elliott. Okay sure. So there’s nowhere in particular you want to go to? You would be happy with any of these three options? 

Billy. Yeah. 

Elliott. Okay, I’m going to toss the coin. 

I turn my back to the coins on the ground and toss a coin over my shoulder. It clatters about and lands nearest to the Thai food coin. 

Elliott. Okay! Thai food it is. Are you ready to go?

Billy. Yeah, well, the coin only landed near the Thai coin because you threw it in that corner. 

Elliott. What are you saying? Do you not want Thai food? 

Billy then grabs the three coins.

Billy. We’ll do heads or tails for each coin. Heads we’ll go, tails we won’t.

Elliott. I think you aren’t as indifferent as you said you were. 

Billy. First coin, Irish pub.

The coin lands on tails. 

Billy. Okay, now the burger place.

The coin again lands on tails.

Billy. Thai food place.

The coin lands on heads. 

Billy. I guess we have to go there now. Thai food it is.

Elliott. The first method of the coin toss didn’t convince you?

Billy. I was just making sure we were making the right call. 

The Sunday Service 

Ninety percent of Thai people identify as Buddhist. The remaining ten percent is composed of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Part of my time spent here in Chiang Mai is dedicated to helping locals learn English, and one of my pupils just happens to be a part of that ten percent. He asked me, “Are you a Christian?” I was caught completely off-guard. I have been confirmed in the Christian church, yes, and, despite my protests, I regularly went to church when I was young; however, during my confirmation speech I openly admitted to my skepticism of Christianity in front of the entire congregation, and I honestly can’t remember the last time I went to church, so I ended up stammering for a few seconds before landing on a panicked “Yes, I am a Christian.” 

This student, I’ll call him JR, is so incredibly genuine and kind. I was afraid I would crush his spirits if I told him I wasn’t a Christian. I realize now that he wouldn’t have cared, but his delight in my supposed piety was worth the half-truth. He was so over-joyed that he invited me to his church for Sunday morning service, and so it was that at nine o’clock on Sunday morning I was clinging onto the back of a motor scooter, hungover, and on my way to church.

We arrived at JR’s church after a tense fifteen minute scooter ride through the streets of Chiang Mai, and were greeted by a host of friendly Thai people. Before the service, the congregation gathered in a little coffee house built on the grounds of the church. We sat and chatted with a few locals over toast and coffee, and a feeling that I couldn’t shake, an initially unknown sensation that only grew stronger as the day went on, began to creep into my consciousness.

The service itself was much like a church service at home, albeit with a few variations. We started out by singing. No hymns, though. They sang the Thai equivalent of Christian soft rock. I was thankfully spared from any obligation to join in because I can’t speak Thai, let alone sing in it. After a few rousing tunes we all sat down and the pastor began to speak. The pastor was a slick looking man in his late twenties. Everything about him was clean-cut and presentable, as if he had just stepped out of an ad for suits in GQ magazine. There’s a real power in the suit here. People respect a professional looking man, even if the suit is a bit too small and the socks don’t match the shoes. 

The pastor would speak a few words and stop, and in the pause the congregation clapped and turned to look at someone. I had a sense of what was going on here, but Billy was baffled when the two of us were in the eyes of the entire church and given white roses, a welcome gift and sign of good will. 

The congregation was then asked to stand and walk about the church to greet everyone. The human side of me acknowledged the value of such an activity, but the New England yankee in me was appalled. I’ve often wondered whether I’m more human or yankee, and perhaps the matter resolved itself in that moment, for I got up and walked about the church, bowing and smiling to these people who looked so genuinely happy to see me. It might take some getting used to, though, this being human thing. 

Communion was next, which surprised me. At my church back home communion occurs near the end of the service. The order of events didn’t seem to matter, which I’m noticing is a trend here in Thailand. Our favorite dish so far has been mango with sticky rice. It’s so simple: a fresh mango, peeled and sliced, paired with a generous helping of sticky rice that has been soaked in a warm syrup of coconut cream, cane sugar, and a dash of salt. Everyday we would patiently await the evening, a time we thought acceptable to eat a desert like mango sticky rice. Then we were told that Thai people eat anything at anytime. You want mango sticky rice for breakfast? Go for it. As with food, so with the church service. You want communion right in the beginning? Sure, why not?

After communion, more singing and videos about the grace of God. The service was of course in Thai, but they gave us headphones that were hooked up to a microphone, into which the best English speaker in the community translated. To translate from Thai to English seems like a fiercely difficult task. Earlier, the girl who was translating held a conversation with Billy and I in perfect English, but now, having to both keep up with and translate the rapid Thai, the English came in staggered flashes. This made listening to the sermon, an already laborious task to begin with, nearly impossible. 

Getting only occasional snatches of the sermon, I let my mind wander. Tired and day dreaming, I felt like I was at home, and that creeping sensation I had felt earlier resolved itself in the revelation that a church service in Thailand is much the same as a church service at home. Even the people are similar. Generally older, full of affection and faith, they line the pews of churches the world over, and in the back, the people who can no longer sit: the cripples. 

Why do the cripples, the people broken in both body and spirit, make their slow and steady way to Christ? It’s the love, I decided then. Psalm 136:26 reads “Give thanks to the God of heaven, for his steadfast love endures forever.” I can’t imagine what it must be like to be so broken and to read these lines, lines that say, despite all ugliness, suffering, and sin, you are loved no matter what. 

I see many hale and healthy westerners here to practice Buddhism. They tell me about how the world is full of suffering, and I want to know: suffering for whom? They’re healthy enough to get here and hike into the mountains for meditation retreats, and they want to talk about suffering? Broken people, in body and mind, know that the world is full of suffering. They don’t need the Buddha or anyone else to remind them.

I can’t speak for these broken people, though. I don’t know what it’s like to be downtrodden. It’s therefore cheap of me to speculate on how they feel about suffering. All I know is that I haven’t seen any wheel chairs in the Buddhist temples I’ve passed.

The service ended shortly after the sermon, and everyone was invited to have lunch together in the common room. Twenty baht (about seventy cents) bought you a heaping plate of pad thai, with a free second helping to boot. This too made me feel like I was at my church back home. At my church back home there were always snacks after the service, earning my church the nick name “the First Church of Food.” 

We left after that full meal and some delightful conversation, and as we left I thought about the only snippet of the sermon I caught. It was something about becoming a better Christian with every passing day. I was just as much a Christian walking in that church as I was leaving, that is to say, not really much of a Christian at all. 

I’m a Christian in the way that a tree stump is a dinner table. I sin regularly and don’t always feel bad about it. I think some of the Bible is far-fetched, and I don’t like going to church. 

Still, with the right sized meal and a little ingenuity, you can use a tree stump as a dinner table.