Everything about this city, country, and culture is new — the food, the language, the transportation, the smells, the religion, even down to the sweetened condensed milk in every beverage, causing me to learn one of my first Thai phrases, mai wan (not sweet).
In a city where dogs and cats run rampant, where flower-covered shrines adorn street corners, and where stoplights are merely a suggestion, I am bombarded by Bangkok’s culture in a multitude of ways. I learn through seeing rather than reading and miming more than speaking. In a city where I don’t know the language, simply ordering food proves challenging, and asking for directions nearly impossible.
Despite the language barrier, I have managed to see some breathtaking sights in Bangkok during my short time here for orientation before leaving for the Thai countryside to teach English on a Fulbright grant. I have seen intricately detailed Buddhist temples, scattered throughout the area, including one with the world’s largest reclining Buddha, complete with mother-of-pearl feet. I’ve boarded a river ferry at maximum capacity only to see a monk, in his orange robes, sitting at peace among the chaos. I’ve realized that being a farang (Westerner) who attempts to speak the teeniest bit of Thai makes the street vendors smile, even though I’m probably pronouncing the words wrong.
I have experienced Thai hospitality when I spent all afternoon being shown around the city by two locals I’d never met before. I’ve tasted what seems like the world’s spiciest and sweetest foods, and enjoyed many meals from food carts laden with tasty treats. I’ve tried and failed to befriend the local dogs and campus cats — I’m not sure they speak English. I’ve ridden in a tuk-tuk with four other people. (If you’ve ever been in one, you know that’s quite crowded.) I saw a giant monitor lizard swimming in a river in the middle of the city, which both terrified and amazed me, almost as much as the congealed pig’s blood that I ate last week. (I don’t recommend it.)
Among the most important things that I have learned here are the Thai cultural rules that many farang are unaware of. One of my favorites is that whenever you travel, or just go somewhere for a weekend, you should bring back kanom, or snacks, for your office and other teachers at school. Thailand is also a very hierarchical society in which you refer to your elders as “P” plus their nickname. For example, we call our program director P’Tip. The P signifies that the person is your older brother or sister and relays a sense of a greater Thai family within the country. In the same vein, Nong means younger brother or sister. With this naming also comes the responsibility that the Ps take care of their Nongs, and the Nongs respect their Ps.
Moving on to other cultural adventures, one of the other Fulbrighters and I decided it would be a fantastic idea to follow instructions from someone’s blog to find a free Muay Thai fight in Bangkok. Now, sketchy idea number one was to follow a stranger’s handwritten instructions, and sketchy idea number two was that said stranger suggested asking around once we got off the train. So we got off a train and found ourselves in a park and thought we knew where we were going, but finally asked for directions and the park policeman didn’t speak English. Next we asked the guys working out in the outdoor gym (which are surprisingly common here) and they pointed us in a direction, then we asked another person and he tried to explain it, pointing a different way. We eventually jumped in a cab, which we should have done from the get-go, because he took us where we wanted to go in a few minutes. Live and learn.
Anyway, at a TV studio where they were filming the fight, the guard opened this tiny door and we stepped into a loud, dark, crowded, standing-room-only makeshift stadium and didn’t get more than a foot inside. The bright lights were on the ring, and it seemed that we were the only farang in the place. We followed the only other women we saw through the crowd to get closer to the ring, and then were beckoned closer while the Thai men who were screaming at the fighters politely stepped out of the way. After the second fight, we were even invited into the ringside media area by one of the guys who worked for the station — I guess being a farang woman with a big camera lens has its perks.
We were literally ringside for the last fight, which made it that much more awesome. What seemed like an adventure that was doomed from the start ended up being an incredible cultural experience — seeing the fight, listening to the crowd, feeling the pulse of the live local music. And I’m sure there’s more to come.
Katie Bimson, who grew up in Montauk, is a recent graduate of Fairfield University in Connecticut, where she studied marine biology. She blogs at tangledupinthailand.blogspot.com. Her mother, Jane Bimson, is an ad sales representative at The Star.