November 6, 2012

Thailand Recap

We have spent the last 25 days in Thailand. We knew it would be inexpensive to travel here, but WOW. It’s not impossible for us to spend under $40 per day, and that includes lodging, food, and maybe a small activity. The difference between a disgusting hotel and a decent hotel is $7. A yummy plate of food costs $2. A two-hour train ride is 50 cents.

BUT…no matter how cheap something is, human intuition is still the same. You never want to feel that you're being cheated. We have found ourselves walking away from the bargaining table over less than $1. We fret about buying things and have to keep reminding ourselves that we're worrying over pennies. After 10 months, it's hard to snap out of our frugal traveling routine.

Before we got here we wondered how difficult the language barrier would be. I was betting on it not being a big deal because Thailand is established on the tourist circuit. I was wrong. Probably only about 10% of people speak English, and even then, it is very broken. Pronunciation is also a challenge. Sometimes when we order food, instead of asking if we want “rice”, we get asked if we want “lice”.

On that note, we see a lot of people picking things out of each other's hair in public

It's also not uncommon to see people sniffing from their bottle of nasal decongestant. We have a hunch they have become addicted to it. But I digress…back to the language thing. 

The Thai alphabet is completely foreign. We see what look to be warning signs but don't know what to look out for.

The craziest thing is that they consider words like Chatuchak, Sukhothai, and San Kamphaeng to be ENGLISH! Someone has taken the phonetic sounds of the Thai language and translated them into the Roman alphabet. We speak English and we're pretty sure those words are not in our dictionary. 

The people here don't mind having their pictures taken, and in fact, they smile for the camera. What a refreshing change from places like Bolivia and Peru.

As we pass by on trains and boats, children wave and blow kisses to us like we're celebrities. It doesn't have anything to do with us; they just get excited when the daily train whizzes by. Thais love Western babies with light eyes, which is funny because most Westerners love Asian babies!

We've never seen a country where the heads of state are more beloved. Thai King Bhumibol is the longest reigning head of state in the world. He loves photography, and so in many of the pictures of him, he wears a Nikon around his neck. Even on the money.

His wife, Queen Sirikit, has done a lot to preserve Thai fashion and working conditions for farmers. I can’t say this enough…they are adored. It was recently the Queen’s 80th birthday, so there are huge billboards of her on pretty much every street throughout the country.

Whenever we happened to be up early enough, one of our favorite things was to see monks accepting morning offerings from townspeople. The orange-robed monks can be spotted around the wats, but also bartering with trinket vendors and smoking cigarettes on the street corner. It feels unusual to see them in everyday situations. Along with the elderly, pregnant, and handicapped, monks also get reserved seating on trains. 

It's strange to be walking down a street and see Buddha statues (which are revered everywhere) in their rawest state. There are men chiseling the bodies and loading them onto trucks. Someone's getting surprised with a nice shiny new Buddha tonight!    

Outside of many buildings and homes in Thailand you can spot spirit houses. These are miniature buildings erected to respectfully communicate with and host spirits on that land. Even the most decrepit of buildings have beautifully maintained spirit houses.

Feet are considered the lowest and dirtiest part of the body, so in Bangkok we took our shoes off when entering homes and important buildings. By the time we got to more rural areas, the custom extended to businesses, shops, laundry mats, and restaurants. Sometimes we were even asked to take our shoes off to go into a restroom…gross! When it rains in the afternoons the shoes just get wet. 

We've gotten Thai massages all over the country. How could we resist when they are so inexpensive? A two-hour massage in Chiang Mai cost $8.  Thai massages are physical. The masseuse really gets in there, climbing on top of and all around you. They use their body weight to push, pull, and tug at your muscles.  

Not a day goes by that we don't see a burning pile of something. Gasoline is sold in used liquor bottles on the side of the road.  Instead of napkins at restaurants, sometimes we get a tissue box or even a roll of toilet paper. The sidewalks are littered with dangling power lines. Families play badminton in the streets. Food never comes out at the same time. Instead of lawn mowers, they simply use weed whackers. 

Is the food safe?  Are the sheets clean? Is the bottled water legit? We don't know. But after watching two boys dive head first and swim around in Bangkok's river, we're pretty sure the human body can survive almost anything. 

One of the things we were most looking forward to in Thailand was sampling and learning the food. Thai cuisine is notoriously spicy, but I actually wouldn’t use the word spicy at all. Spice implies some sort of additional seasoning. Instead I would use the word heat. This was the chili sauce aisle at a Bangkok grocery store.

It took us a week or so to get the hang of the food. At first we kept getting dishes that didn’t have the least bit of heat. Then we realized that as soon as a cook sees see a Western face, they assume we can’t handle it. I also have a theory that Thais take great pride in being able to stomach “the heat” and subconsciously don't want other races to encroach on their clearly super-human abilities. Still, we were in Thailand and we wanted to at least try! Whenever we ordered food, we had to proactively tell them “hot” and then they would crank it up. Maybe our taste buds adjusted a little bit over three weeks, but in one dish we still only take 3 chilies maximum. They take about 10. 

We never realized how unhealthy Thai food can be until we were eating it for every meal.  It seems that almost everything is fried in oil – rice, palm and soybean are the most common. And now that we've gone through a cooking class, we also know that they use a ton of sugar.

Street food and outdoor markets are a way of life – morning, noon, and night. 

At restaurants where meals aren't made to order, each table comes with condiment jars so that you can season your food to your liking. There are four condiments in the Thai diet – chili powder, chili slices in vinegar, sugar, and fish sauce.

We tried so many different dishes, but when we stopped to think about it, the majority of them were mix-and-match. They can be divided into four basic categories: noodle, rice, curry, and soup. We added our preference for vegetables and meat (chicken, pork, beef, tofu, fish, shrimp, mixed seafood) and could get endless combinations. There were almost always mystery ingredients…miniature green eggplants the size of peas, stalks of lemongrass, smelly dried shrimp, and coagulated pig blood (which Steve ate unknowingly!).

For breakfast they eat rice soup. It wasn’t bad, but it was hard for us to get excited about something like this to start the day…especially after eating rice the previous 15 meals. 

Instead we opt for yogurt from 7-11. It's pretty much our only chance throughout the day to get some dairy in our diet. We have been to 7-11 more times in Thailand than we have our entire lives!

It's one thing to have curry and rice or coconut milk soup, but our favorite dishes were those in which these basic meals were merged together…

Kao Soi – panang curry and coconut milk noodle soup. This dish is also called Chiang Mai noodles, and that's the only city we ever found it in. It is reason enough to go back. Katie's favorite!    

Tom Yum – a spicy hot and sour soup with prawns and lemongrass. A tantalizing confusion for the tongue.

Pad Thai – the most internationally famous Thai dish. Even when we ordered it with chicken, it almost always came with tofu, too. It was a safe bet during our first week, but quickly became boring as soon as we entered our second week.

Pad See Ew – even better than Pad Thai with thicker noodles and more flavor. Steve's favorite!

Som Tum – green papaya salad mixed together in a mortar and pestle. But it's not what you would expect because green papayas are a vegetable. This was one of the only dishes that wasn't fried.

Hor Mok – a curry and coconut milk fish custard served in a banana leaf basket. 

New fruits added to our repertoire included Honey Pear, Longan, Dragonfruit, and Mangostine. 

In Thailand yellow mangos are a fruit and green mangos are a vegetable. 

A popular dessert from the street carts was Rotee, a neatly packaged pancake with fruit or sweet fillings. We got one with vanilla pudding, nutella, and condensed milk. It was fried with orange-colored butter in a huge pool of oil. It had to have been the unhealthiest thing we've eaten since a Belgian waffle.   

There were a lot of banana desserts…fried bananas, bananas cooked in coconut cream and brown sugar, steamed sticky rice with bananas wrapped in banana leaves. 

We also tried roasted pumpkin in coconut milk and a rice / coconut milk concoction with jelly things that looked like a mix between green beans and worms. If you can get over the looks of this dish, it’s actually really good! Our favorite dessert was a simple combination of yellow mango and sticky rice – with condensed milk poured on top, of course.

One thing we quickly learned is that Thai cuisine does not include bugs! We only saw bug carts three times. One was along Koh San Road in Bangkok – the center of the backpacker universe – where taking down big bugs on a stick fulfills the tourist bucket list. This doesn’t count. Another time was in Chinatown, where anything goes. And the most legitmate sighting was way up north in Chiang Rai.

And last but not least there were Asian oddities. Lays potato chip flavors are Hot & Spicy Crab, Hot Chili Squid, and Nori Seaweed. We were really excited to find purple Oreos and even more pumped when we saw that they were “ice cream flavored”. Score! But they tasted awful. It turned out they were blueberry ice cream flavored. You know, blueberry…everybody’s favorite ice cream!

Because everything is so bite sized, there are no knives in restaurants…just forks, spoons, and chopsticks. On the streets, utensils are a little wooden stick and a plastic bag. On the go, everything is neatly bundled in a banana leaf. Banana leaves…the original ziplock bags.

To drink we liked cold beer (Chang, Leo, Singha) and also tried several new iced teas like Chrysanthemum, Longan, Thai (sweet and milky), and green (milky and gritty).

We loved getting fruit shakes, which are found on almost every street corner. My favorite thing was to get a spicy plate of noodles or curry with a cold coconut milkshake. The flavors balance each other out in the most delicious way. Yummmm!!!

People kept asking us if we eat a lot of Thai food at home, and I had to keep telling them an ashamed, no. I never knew enough about it and was always overwhelmed when I saw a menu. Not anymore! We are excited to get home and find an authentic little Thai restaurant to frequent.

We saw all sorts of sea life up close and personal while scuba diving.

On land we've seen monkeys, snakes, cockroaches, butterflies, rats, roosters, and massive spiders. This guy was just hanging around on the sidewalk in the middle of Bangkok. You can get a sense for his size next to Steve's size 12 flip flop.

Little lizards are all over the place (even in our hotel rooms), but in Ayutthaya, we saw a wild lizard in the middle of the city that was between 5-6 feet long!  

Everything we read said NOT to book lodging ahead of time. Apparently you can get better deals if you just arrive on the train, take a taxi to a random street corner, walk around in 100 degree heat with a 35-pound backpack, and barter with people who don't speak your language. Uhhh, no thank you.

More than anywhere else so far, we struggled with finding decent rooms. We’ve seen a private hotel room for as little as $5…but it was disgusting. After 10 months of traveling on a tight budget and in remote villages, we have stayed in some real dumps. But when we left Ratana and Sobhon’s house in Bangkok, we didn’t know what we were in for. Our first night looking for our own lodging was eye-opening. There are some places that I just will not put up with.

One funny quirk about even the nicest of hotels is the shower. There is no such thing as a shower curtain. They just have a shower head sticking out from the wall right next to the toilet. The whole bathroom gets a shower. 

 -  Living with Sobhon and Ratana in Bangkok
 -  Meditation class
 -  Views of Bangkok from Sky Bar
 -  Visiting wats and comparing their unique features
 -  Learning to scuba dive
 -  Bicycling Ayutthaya's ruined temples
 -  Cooking class
 -  Hill tribe trek
 -  Elephant riding
 -  Street food and the night markets  

Compared with other places around the world, Thai islands are not to be island-hopped or explored. They are for relaxing while you sit at the same resort for days on end. Enough said.

Don't judge a train by its cooling system. We took three long (9 hour +) train rides through Thailand and experimented with something new each time. We tried a nighttime sleeper train, which was actually pretty nice because we bought a 1st class ticket ($40). 

We took a daytime fan train, which basically means no air-conditioning. We were so worried we would melt to death, but with the windows open and the wind blowing through, it turned out great. 

We saved the worst for last – the daytime air-conditioned train. It sounded good at the time. We could have easily taken another sleeper from Ayutthaya to Chiang Mai, but we wanted to see the countryside. The second we stepped on the train we knew we had wasted a day. The windows were so dirty you couldn't see through them, and you can't open the windows because the train is air conditioned. There went our plan of countryside sightseeing…along with a precious travel day. 

You have probably seen a documentary on TV or in National Geographic about women who wear brass rings around their necks to make them longer. They are a subsection of the Karen tribe – refugees from Burma who are now living in Northern Thailand. Of course at first we wanted to see them, but when we got to Chiang Mai we changed our minds. There are no long-necked women living an authentic lifestyle in Thailand. None. They were brought in and essentially made an amusement park for tourists to gawk at. Their only options now are to return to Burma and face genocide or stay in Thailand and make 1500 baht ($50) per month to sell trinkets and take photos with tourists. How sad that the world has lost this authentic and unique cultural group. After we learned more about the state of the long-necked women, we were extra grateful that we didn't go exploit them, but unfortunately most tourists aren't aware of what's going on. From our perspective, the trek we chose was definitely the way to go.

It took us a couple of weeks to get back into the groove of traveling in a developing country, but we finally hit our stride.

Maybe it's because we know the end of our trip is getting closer, but we've started experiencing quick bouts of home sickness. On the other hand we get sad when we count the days and realize we only have six weeks left. We are entering into a vortex of emotions, but there's one thing we know for sure…we have a lot of good stuff to look forward to.


  1. Rotee is one of my favorite foods!

    1. Yeah it's ridiculously unhealthy

  2. I love this post :))) Hello from Thailand <3

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