Profoundly shaped by a near-universal adherence to Buddhism, Thais place a high value on reticence and subtlety. Their food, famously, strives for the perfect balance of sweet, salty, spicy, sour and bitter. The language is tonal, with identical Latin spellings of words yielding wildly divergent meanings through subtle inflections and lilts when spoken. The wai – a traditional greeting consisting of a slight bow with one’s palms pressed together in front of the face – is fraught with enough potential meanings that Westerners are coached to avoid it altogether. There are 13 kinds of smiles. Thais are polite – this is the “Land of Smiles,” after all – but calm, and typically reserved.
Which is why starting one’s trip to Thailand in Bangkok is such a jarring experience.
Hucksters and schemers dot every other corner. Cab-drivers will try to charge a flat fee instead of running the meter. Innocent-seeming locals claim the attraction you’re walking to is closed; you should go to this one instead…and oh, here’s a taxi to take you there.
Then there is the dizzying array of smells. Three different doses of sewer gas on one block interspersed with delicious frying food and fresh-cut fruit. And then there are the tuk-tuks – always the tuk-tuks – spewing exhaust and noise and three-wheeled mayhem everywhere. It’s maddening, disorienting. But as it turns out, the confusion eases quickly.
Because on day two, still adjusting to the time change, you wake early and watch the city come alive from your hotel balcony. Birds make monkey calls from the tree. Cars, buses and tuk-tuks grind away on the street below. An old woman swishes her palm-frond broom, fighting the dirt and garbage to a stalemate for a few more minutes. Rafts of water hyacinth float down the river on their way to the sea. At a temple a young girl drops a coin into each of 108 bronze bowls. Lithe women carry on a low, laughing banter with their colleagues as they bend and prod you through a Thai massage with practiced, preternaturally strong hands.
You eat spicy, green papaya salad, fried noodles and fragrant tom yum soup, drowning the heat on your tongue with swigs from a giant bottle of Singha beer. That night, paper lanterns are lighted and rise, like ghostly jellyfish in the moonlight, over the Chao Prya River. A pretty girl presses her palms together, fingertips just below her nose and bows slightly, drawing out the end of her “sawadee ka.” Hello – Bangkok is saying hello. And by the end of day two, you are saying hello right back.
We would head south next. But where the end of day one had us anxiously awaiting the rural escape, the close of day two found us wishing for more time. Why is it we travel, after all, if not for the chance to be won over by a place?