Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Getting Out Of Bangkok: Trading "Super Pussy" for Culture (2004)

I wrote this little account about my Homestay with a Thai family whilst I was on my in-country 6 weeks overseas study portion of my Asian Studies Degree at Mahidol University in Bangkok in Jan 2004.  Just sitting on my computer since then, thought I would just start sharing pieces I've written, so enjoy (maybe you will be compelled to visit Thailand.. or maybe not.. after this..) 

You could send me all around the world blind-folded and I would know when I got off in Thailand.  There is this unmistakable mixture of incense, rotten durian, sweat and soot that seeps into every pore as you step off the plane into the fan forced oven that is Bangkok.  Bangkok. The real name in Thai is actually four lines long and in a nut shell means City Of Angels. Personally I would call it City of Mangy Dogs.  There are quite possibly more dogs than people.  And don’t be fooled – they are not cute.  A fellow student had the unfortunate experience of finding herself in hospital for three months of rabies treatments after getting a little close to one of the stray mutts.  I fear the dogs have hustled every last Angel out of town – and I would soon follow, in search of a kind of peace that cannot be found amidst the honking horns of Bangkok’s streets.

The purpose of this trip was for me to study Thai language at Mahidol University. I spent the first two weeks on the usual tourist track, bargaining at the night markets of Khao San Road and Pat Pong surrounded by ‘Go-Go Boy’ and ‘Super Pussy.’  Somewhere between baggage claim and a lap dance I felt I had forfeited my student visa for unabashed sex tourist.  In search of a little culture mixed with some tanning opportunities, I headed for the closest beach on my map, Pattaya, and soon learnt you should always read the guide book before getting to your destination.  Looking out towards the southern islands – oh yes – I had found my glorious beach – sparkling aqua water and not a cloud in the sky - but if you don’t like your views obstructed by overweight, middle-aged men in g-strings, then I suggest you steer clear.

After reciting my Pattaya experience to one of the teachers - aghast - she hurriedly organised a home-stay weekend for the three of us Aussie students, out in the countryside with a traditional Thai family – as far away from nudey bars as possible.  I was sent to one of Thailand’s oldest regions, Nakhon Pathom, home to the first and tallest pagoda (or chedi) in the country, some 56km north-west of Bangkok.

Thai people are well known for being proud of their food.  As we drove in our mini-bus through the province, I became aware that Nakhon Pathom’s obsession was fruit, in particular, pomelo, an ancient ancestor of the grapefruit. Every which way I looked - large green soccer ball sized fruit was lined up on roadside stalls.

How fitting then, that we should meet our adoptive parents at one of the largest food markets in town, Don Waay Market.  It was just as loud as Pat Pong, and definitely just as pungent – but not a Gucci handbag, Armani belt or pirated CD to be seen. Phew! Our new mother and father introduced us to many of the stall owners and we were offered plenty of delicacies. Jackfruit, my personal favourite, is the largest of any tree-borne fruit at about 36 inches long and 20 inches wide.  Its flesh is bright orange, peeled off the inner bulbs of the fruit like rings of grated cheese. Khao Lam, a mixture of sticky rice with coconut milk that is grilled in a bamboo trunk, and of course – the famous pomelo.

Our Thai parents were highly respected members of the community (I am convinced it is because they own a pomelo orchard) and invited us to accompany them to a funeral service on the Friday evening where they were to make offerings to the soul of the deceased.  A Buddhist funeral is not exactly as morbid as you may think.  Not only is the entire shrine extremely colourful, filled with golden Buddha statues, pink lotus flowers and offerings of food – but a row of monks sit inside the shrine and chant (loudly I may add) whilst the congregation sits on collapsible deck chairs outside peering in on the ceremony.  Of course in true Nakhon Pathom fashion, we were served a three course meal in between chants and prayers.  I was somewhat surprised to see that no pomelo was served, and even more surprised that at least 10 mobile phones rang during the service – and completely dumbfounded when each phone was answered.  It would appear the funeral is a rather casual affair.

So, one of my fellow students and I decided to take a look around the markets next door during a snack break.  All shut.  And all quiet.  Eerily quiet.  By the time we had weaved our way out to the other side, I couldn’t hear a monk chanting or even a mobile phone ringing.  Dead silence.  That is definitely something you do not get in the nation’s capital.  We stepped round the corner of one of the buildings into an empty car park.  I could feel something lurking nearby.  We crept up towards a wharf, jolting out over the murky canals in the moonlight.  And there it was.  I froze.  The one thing I had feared running into since stepping foot off the plane four weeks earlier.  But there it was, not three metres from me.  Not one of the rabies infested stray dogs that had wandered up from Bangkok.  Much worse.  A chicken.

Most of Asia has had its fair share of disease scares, having devastating effects on the tourist industry.  Typhoid, SARS, dengue fever – and while I was there – face to face with a chicken, Thailand just happened to be suffering from a fatal epidemic of bird flu.  I was not comforted in any way by President Thaksin’s compensation of a million baht to any family who suffered a death from eating what he believed to be well cooked chicken.  For one, this bird was not cooked.  It still had feathers.  And it was walking - towards me.  My friend and I stood still, eyeing each other trying not to scare it into a full blown chicken attack.  On the count of three, we both turned and ran for our lives.

We met back with our Thai family ready to board their long boat (the only means of transport) to get to their house along the canal.  On the way I am devoured by mosquitoes – my anxiety rises again, first chickens now mosquitoes – until I am assured that malaria (along with the angels) have migrated and settled somewhere far away up north.