Prior to our week-long adventure, my most vivid memories of Thailand were from Alex Garland’s “The Beach.” Perhaps you’re more familiar with the Danny Boyle film starring Leonardo Di Caprio. Needless to say, “The Beach” was a book that I loved: I read it in the span of a weekend and a homebound train ride. It’s a classic story about the pursuit of paradise. From the book, I took Thailand to be a hedonist’s haven of unspoilt nature and worldly pleasures.
My first impression of nonfictional Thailand wasn’t the best. It was a humidly hot Thursday, and we had just finished going through immigration. We were supposed to take the train to Bangkok, but thought better of it. We decided to join a bunch of people inside a van that would take us straight to the city. At an open cafeteria rest stop, I had my first real taste of pad thai. I won’t add any color into this description but my first genuine pad thai was a disappointing heap of stringy noodles and cold sauce. The disappointment didn’t stop there.
The van operators were rude and the ride itself, which lasted three hours or so, was not exactly how I wanted to arrive in the city. By the end of the ride, I could barely stand up. The German girl in front of me reclined her seat too far back, hence crushing my legs. For. Three. Hours. I have strong opinions re: seat reclining, but now is not the time to discuss them.
What I’m sharing instead are the five things I learned in Bangkok.
Looking like a local can earn you discounts.
“Are you Thai?”
“No, I am Filipina.”
“You look Thai.”
Maybe it was my brown skin (see fourth point), my high cheekbones, or my partially monolidded eyes, but the Thais were convinced that I was Thai, too. I had been mistaken as a local several times, even when Fritzie wasn’t. While I was buying that ridiculously expensive Dalai Lama figurine, the vendor said I was pretty (sales talk!) and looked like I was from Northern Thailand.
When were inside a souvenir shop, the owner, an old Thai man, looked at me conspiratorially and said he’d offer us lower prices because we’re not tourists. Not tourists? Us? What is going on here? He pointed at Fritz and Ralph, “You two Manila, this one,” he pointed at me, “Bangkok.” All we could do was smile and go along with it. In the end, the shop owner gave us a 70 percent off discount for the items in his shop. Fritz was able to buy an exquisite wooden string puppet for the really cheap price of THB 350. I bought a coconut-shell Buddha head for just THB 150, all because I was mistaken for a local. It was a relief the old man didn’t notice anything as I only nodded wordlessly while he explained to me the Ramayana in Thai.
Tinder will bring you places.
So you don’t have Tinder on your phone. You don’t get the big deal about swiping strangers left and right. You are above the worldwide obsession over it. Sorry to tell you this, but you are missing out. Other than it’s fun, our trip proved that Tinder is more than just a dumb hook-up app. When you’re abroad, it’s an excellent and easy way to meet people, especially locals. Nobody knows Bangkok better than the Thais themselves. One of Fritz’s matches recommended that we visit Wang Lang market. Located near the Siriraj Hospital, the Wang Lang market is a non-touristy area filled with unique food and fashion finds. Going to Wang Lang made up for missing the weekend floating markets.
Destroy your English.
The tuktuk drivers will bring you to places off of the map if you don’t listen well to what they’re saying. Here’s where Broken English comes in handy: The drivers might be miming confusion on purpose, in order to cheat you. It’s also possible that they just can’t keep up with your fluid, farang English. So you, as a street-smart tourist/traveller (tourveller?), must be fluent in Broken English, because there will be times that it’s the only way you can explain yourself clearly. In most situations, body language will suffice, but learn Broken English, just in case.
Slather on sunscreen.
You can’t miss temple-hopping in Bangkok, as Thailand is a primarily Buddhist country. We went to the majestic Wat Pra Kheo in the Grand Palace, which looks incredible at night; Wat Pho, other than housing the 141-ft tall Reclining Buddha, also offers free water and wifi, that’s why Ralph, who was “missing since Cambodia,” was able to get in touch with us; and Wat Arun Ratchawararam or the Temple of Dawn, an intricate temple that should be avoided by acrophobics.
Whether or not you’re Buddhist, the temples are a sight to behold. They are effortlessly photogenic, despite the swarms of tourists taking nonstop pictures of everything. Aside from taking photos, I strongly advise you to wear sunscreen. Bangkok is just as hot as Manila. The air is somehow cleaner and more breathable. Even so, if you have no protection against the sun, get ready to have your face turn a darker shade. Trust me; it took more than a month for my skin to even out. Apply sunscreen to all exposed areas of your skin, including your feet if you’re wearing open-toed shoes.
The best souvenirs don’t cost anything.
Since Bangkok was the last leg of our trip, we had naturally spent most of our money. Yet, on our first night in the city, we ordered iced tea and pad thai from a restaurant. Ordering a nice meal doesn’t sound like such a crime, but as broke young people who were miles away from home, it wasn’t the most practical thing to do. Nor was shopping. Soon after dinner, Fritzie and I weaved our way around shop after shop after shop. We went home to our hostel with heavy plastic bags and lighter wallets.
After we went to Wat Pho, we found ourselves on a sidewalk bazaar. I was stupidly drawn to realistically rendered mini-sculptures of the Dalai Lama. Seriously. The Dalai Lama. They were beautiful and I couldn’t take my eyes away from them. I ended up paying a thousand baht for one. I refuse to compute how much that cost me in pesos. Probably not a lot, but as I handed over my money, I was filled with a hollow feeling. That specific hollowness is the best indication of money wasted.
When we went to Wang Lang, my wallet was on lockdown; if I spent any more money, I’d go hungry. (This is an exaggeration because one perk of traveling while you’re young is that you can subsist on cheap street food, thereby saving you a lot of money.) In Wang Lang, Ralph splurged on leather things. And that night, we blew our remaining baht on Thai massage, good food, and overpriced beer. I guess it’s alright to go off-budget, to live large for a while, for experiences that are far more valuable than money.
Our three-day stay in Bangkok may not have been perfect, but we had a grand time anyway. I’m writing this now in December, four months after everything happened. But I can clearly recall the final night in Bangkok. The three of us sat on a sidewalk in Khao San, where the opening scene of “The Beach” takes place. We were tired from too much walking. It was two in the morning, yet the parties remained in full swing. Not three feet from us were a couple making out against a wall. Our flight back home was scheduled in the morning. As we sat on the pavement, our legs stretched out on the dirty street, we felt the palpable slipping of time. We talked about how we much we wanted to make it last. We could do it forever. Now. Tomorrow. A year from today.
And so I froze time: I took out my phone and we smiled at the camera.