Thailand tour finds wonders in ordinary life

By K.C. Summers Washington Post Nov. 24, 2002

"Now pay attention," Michael said. "I'm going to teach you how to eat like a Thai, so you don't embarrass yourself."

Fat chance. On my first visit to Thailand I was beyond embarrassment, running around in a state of crazed overdrive as I tried to process the extraordinary sights, smells, tastes and sounds. Table manners hadn't quite sunk in. But my young friend, an American expatriate wise to the ways of things Thai, was a patient teacher.

We were sitting at an oilcloth-covered card table on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, on a tiny island north of Bangkok called Ko Kret. Arrayed before us was a three-course lunch for four, served up by a street vendor for the equivalent of $2.50: fish soup with lemon grass, sweet-and-sour vegetables and spicy chicken with cucumbers. I grabbed my fork and dug in.

That was my first mistake. In Thailand, Michael explained, putting a fork all the way into your mouth is - well, it's just not done. Spoons are the conveyance of choice. Furthermore, he said, never serve yourself huge portions. It insults your host. And whatever you do, don't finish everything on your plate, or the poor host will really flip out. This last bit of advice is hard to follow in Thailand, where the food is so good that what you really want to do is pick up your plate and lick the thing clean.

Michael had his work cut out for him. I, however, was having the ideal travel experience: I was seeing the country like a local.

I was lucky: I knew a resident. Or rather, my traveling companion did. His son, Michael, fell in love with the country on a visit three years ago and decided to make it his home. When his father and I visited him last spring, we let him arrange our itinerary, choose our lodgings, negotiate our bargains and basically do everything but chew our food for us.

And so we saw little-known places like Ko Kret, with its diamond-in-the-rough street chefs and unassuming monasteries. We wandered through alleys where the only Western faces were our own. We learned to eat sticky rice with our fingers, how to tell an express boat from a local and how to bargain a silk blouse down to the price of a T-shirt.

Of course, it also means that you ratchet down your hotel expectations. In Bangkok, Michael booked us into a guesthouse with mismatched furniture and lumpy beds, nestled deep in a neighborhood of auto body shops, but with a killer view of the river. "It's very rare to find a view like this without paying $300 a night," Michael said. We were paying $16.

Over beers with ice (it's a Thai thing) in the hotel's rooftop restaurant, we plotted our itinerary: a couple of days in Bangkok to explore the wats (temples) and museums; a plane ride 400 miles north to the trekking town of Chiang Mai; a 550-mile bus, train and ferry trip south to the resort island of Ko Chang; and back to Bangkok for a parting dose of urban chaos.

Our hotel was tucked down an alley so narrow that even pedicab drivers couldn't fit, so we ended up walking a lot - a great, ground-level introduction to the bedlam that is Bangkok. Making our way through twisting streets, we sidestepped feral chickens, sleeping dogs, seen-it-all noodle vendors and guys haggling over carburetors. On the main drag, mornings were especially intense: cars honking, motor scooters zooming, office workers sprinting, street vendors grilling, orange-robed monks begging for alms, schoolgirls arm-in-arm hurrying to class. Sidewalk stalls were explosions of color, with baskets of guavas, bananas, mangoes, papayas and pineapples crowding out vegetable and fish displays.

We fell into the national pastime of eating all day long. It's easy to do, when vendors every few feet offer everything from fresh pineapple and papaya chunks to grilled pork and fish, usually for less than a quarter.

Soon we could walk, snack and dodge traffic at the same time. The Thai rule of the road: Whatever's bigger has the right of way. Best to avoid the clogged roadways altogether, we quickly learned, and get around by Skytrain, the city's elevated light-rail system, or the Chao Phraya Express boats.

The boats are cheaper and lots more fun. There are docks up and down the river, and when the bargelike boats pull up, workers attempt to hold them steady as commuters take a flying leap aboard. A ride costs about 12 cents. Figuring out the stops can be confusing, but it's easy to self-correct by hopping on and off.

On our jaunt from central Bangkok to Ko Kret, we got our 12 cents' worth, leaving the high-rises behind and cruising past wooden cottages, metal shacks and the occasional gleaming wat. Four or five miles outside Bangkok, we were the only farangs (foreigners) on board. On the long-tail boat we hired to take us to Ko Kret, we were the only people on board.

Ko Kret, just 1 1/2 square miles, is known for its ancient Mon (Indo-Burmese) culture and red-clay pottery works, and although it hasn't made most guidebooks, it's popular with Bangkok residents seeking peace and quiet. There's lots of that - no cars allowed.

Wat Pai Lom, a centuries-old monastery with intricate wood carvings, was a real find. Inside, two young monks showed off their temple, with its five Buddha statues in various incarnations. Michael translated as they described their typical day: up at 6, pray, beg for alms, pray, fast, pray, study, pray.

Back in Bangkok, as we wandered around the Patpong district of go-go bars and call girls, it was hard to reconcile the day's images. There was one constant, though: the goodwill that emanated from just about everyone we encountered.

There is, however, the desire to get as many dollars as they can out of the pockets of tourists. In the northern city of Chiang Mai, we hit the famous Night Bazaar to see if we could find a few good deals amid the bronze Buddhas, Simpsons T-shirts and faux "Vuittion" luggage.

Michael wasn't crazy about Chiang Mai, considering it second only to Bangkok's Khao San Road as Rip-off Central.

"You're like a walking purse here," he said. "The problem with these touristy places is that they're so used to ripping off foreigners that they won't even bargain if you know the right price."

Which he did. He helped me buy a Chang Beer T-shirt for $2.50 - we'd seen it for twice that in Bangkok - and an embroidered vest for $6 (down from $8).

That night, we joined a crowd at a noisy riverside bar, where a Thai rock band was covering American classics like Killing Me Softly and Hotel California with gusto. At the end of their set, the keyboardist and the lead singer, an impossibly slender young woman in a tank top and low-slung jeans, wai'd each other - that lovely, palms-together gesture of acceptance and respect that is ubiquitous in Thailand. A wonderful cross-cultural experience, all for the price of a beer.

Later we headed to Ko Chang (Elephant Island) in the Gulf of Thailand. The beach resort and national park wasn't easy to get to, and that was precisely the point - to escape the throngs on the overdeveloped islands of Phuket and Ko Samui. So from Bangkok we took a five-hour bus ride to the town of Trat on the southeast coast, then a ferry to the island.

The bus trip gave us a glimmer of how most Thais get around. We'd been feeling progressively more confident, but one look at the Bangkok terminal and we immediately let Michael fend off the touts. His tutorial basically boiled down to "Don't trust anyone."

Once on board we had a perfectly comfortable ride, although I wondered how the driver could see out the windshield amid all the floral wreaths, doilies, troll dolls, Buddhas and amulets that dangled over the dashboard. As the PA system pumped out syrupy Thai love ballads, a uniformed stewardess offered cold sodas. At $4.50, the ride was a steal.

In Trat, a dusty, midsize city with a busy downtown, we hopped a ferry for the half-hour ride to Ko Chang. We'd spent a lot of time choosing this place, known for its beaches, waterfalls and virgin rain forest.

Our hotel sat on a pristine, virtually deserted crescent of beach dotted with palms and pine trees, against a backdrop of jungly mountains. Simple cottage-style rooms surrounded a bay and an open-air dining pavilion. You could rent kayaks and paddle off into the ocean. Or simply loll on the beach, succumb to itinerant masseuses or snorkel in the warm emerald waters. Each night we checked out another beachfront restaurant, feasting on fresh fish and vegetables grilled to order.

It couldn't last, of course. Three idyllic days later, we were back in Bangkok, walking around our funky guesthouse neighborhood one last time. We had a final lunch at a little place called Duck Noodle House, where the Formica tables were packed with office workers, and a sweet, grandmotherly looking woman sat in the front window, methodically whacking duck carcasses with a cleaver as they came off the spit out front.

One of those ducks ended up at our table, along with deep bowls of broad rice noodles, Chinese broccoli with crisp fried garlic, fried rice with chile peppers and chicken with hot basil leaves. I smiled in anticipation. Placing a very small amount on my plate, I grabbed my spoon and dug in.

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