I spent half a year in Southeast Asia and all I got was this lousy life experience
By Claire Brownell
Stepping off a plane from Toronto, Bangkok looked like Cambodia. Stepping off a bus from Cambodia, Bangkok looked like Hollywood. It was fascinating. Everywhere Maggie and I looked, we saw landmarks of wealth and globalization that we hadn’t seen for months. Look, a skyscraper! A Burger King! A highway overpass! Even the tourists looked more attractive. Look, straightened hair, heels, manicures! Walking down Khao San for the first time, the second time, was like reverse culture shock. After seeing nothing but dust and potholes for months, it was dazzling, beautiful, and mesmerizing, whereas fresh out of Toronto the first things that caught my eye were beggars jumping over puddles of garbage water.
Our first time in Bangkok, my friends and I were twitchy deer in headlights. We were so determined to avoid the dozens of scams we had heard about that we did things that were, in retrospect, pretty hilarious. We walked everywhere, even if it was hours away, because we were convinced that every tuk tuk driver was out to rip us off in the infamous jewellery store scam. We avoided travel agencies like the plague and eyed everyone with a tourism authority badge or license with suspicion, convinced they were fakes. Ironically, all these safeguards and precautions stamped Brand Spanking New on our foreheads and made us a magnet for every huckster, bamboozler, and fast-talker in town. My memories of my first time in Bangkok generally involve all five senses being overwhelmed. It smelled like a diaper, it was covered in garbage, it was hot, people were yelling at me, cars were about to hit me, the concepts of squatter toilets and sanitary hoses were beyond me.
I braced myself for a similar bombardment when I got off the bus for Round Two. I figured it would be less intimidating after a few months of experience, but it went beyond that. It was a breeze. Hucksters actually left me alone after my first “No, thank you.” I didn’t get a single offer to be taken on a sightseeing tour for five baht, special price (code red for “Big Fat Scam”). Sometimes I actually strolled down entire streets without anyone trying to sell me something I didn’t want.
What gives? Who changed? Bangkok, or me? It seemed to be a little bit of both. Very little fazes me any more. Oh, I have to cross four lanes of highway traffic and there’s no pedestrian crosswalks or lights? That’s a walk in the park when you’ve ridden a motorbike in rush hour traffic in Vietnam. Is that a roach I see crawling out of that pile of garbage in the gutter? I’ve been to towns in Cambodia where the roads are composed of layers of compressed, fossilized plastic bags, cans, and bottle caps, with livestock casually grazing on the food waste. In fact, I found myself feeling nostalgic for the trademarks of less “modern” places. In Bangkok, when people need to get somewhere, they generally drive or take the bus. I never see twenty people sitting on a board strapped to a pickup truck on top of five cows and a hundred chickens. When people move, I guess they hire a van or something, but they certainly don’t strap the entire contents of their home (cabinets, sinks, dressers, tables) to a motorbike and drive it over to their new place. I never thought I would use these words to describe Bangkok, but after the rest of Southeast Asia, it’s kind of sanitized and dull.
I’ve also mastered the most important skill for a trip like this: the Polite but Firm No Thank You. During Bangkok, Round One, I realized that the clichéd Canadian qualities of politeness and deference were more ingrained in me than I’d thought. People would stop me and offer to sell me a tour, or whatever, and I’d say no thanks. They’d ask me where I was from and how long I’d been here, and I’d tell them (because to just walk away from a conversation was unthinkable!). Then they’d try and talk me into it, again, and I’d say no thanks, sorry, I have to get going… and they’d FOLLOW me! They’d keep up the small talk! They’d keep trying to pressure me! By all standards of Canadian manners, there is no polite way out of this. Add the fact that I was walking everywhere, and you can imagine how it sometimes took me 45 minutes to walk a block. It was infuriating.
For Bangkok Round Two, however, I had vast experience in the two cardinal rules of dealing with hasslers: the Polite but Firm No Thank You, and You Get Rude With Me, I Get Rude Right Back. The trick is to say “no thank you” firmly, one time, then shut off all further conversation. I’m actually a little worried that I may accidentally retain this habit when I get home, because by Canadian standards, this is unspeakably rude. But eventually, I realized that continuing the conversation was more impolite, in a way. Engaging in meaningless small talk when I’m determined not to buy whatever’s on offer just wastes their time. Once I mastered this crucial skill, I could even have fun with it. I’d say “no thank you” in a Donald Duck voice, or sing a song about how I don’t want anythiiiiiiiing… If I did I would have said somethiiiiiing…. The huckster would laugh, I would laugh, we’d give each other “you’re cool” head nods, and we’d go on our separate ways.
This skill combined with a mastery of Bangkok’s unbelievably cheap and efficient transit system turned it into a whole new city. I discovered the Chatuchak market, on the northern outskirts, filled with stalls run by independent designers selling unbelievably cool and original stuff at mind-bogglingly low prices. I wandered through China town, which was neat even though I was there on a Monday night, which is the Buddhist version of Sunday, and everything was closed (you’d think I would have figured that out by now). I spent an afternoon playing cards and smoking strawberry tobacco from a hookah at a café in Little Arabia. Khao San Road is still obnoxious and lame, though. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
The more I travel, the more meaningless categories like “third world” or the currently trendy “Global South” really are. In a lot of ways, Bangkok is more developed than Toronto. There are fewer homeless people, plus they have a Skytrain AND a subway AND a reliable bus network. There’s obviously a shocking poverty problem in Thailand, but it just doesn’t compare to the normality of subsistence living in a shack with a garden and a couple of chickens in Cambodia, Laos, and, to some extent, Vietnam. It’s good to realize that I’ve actually learned something concrete about the world through my travels and haven’t just been killing brain cells with rice whiskey and Red Bull. It also makes me wonder how I’m going to deal with Toronto and real life after living in this alternate universe for six months. I’ll find out in about two-and-a-half weeks, I guess. Yikes.