Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Walking Thailand

We walk. I follow Herman, ten steps behind, like a dutiful wife.
How to avoid going back? Get lost. It’s easy, let any street sign lead us astray. Refuse to recognize familiar landmarks. I make my mind a blank, and keep pace with the tall Chinese man in front of me, opening my eyes to the shapes and colors, my ears to the overpowering city sounds, my nose to the smells of the marketplace and street vendors’ cooking food. He directs our steps towards the most hostile point on the horizon, towards the end of vast, bustling avenues, bewilderingly crisscrossed by what seems a thousand alleyways. We walk on.
This is our routine. Day after day we walk, at times following a set path, other times simply wandering through side streets and back alleys. Reaching one limit of our knowledge of a city, we push on to the next, and the next, storing new information, new shapes, and smells, and textures.

With bowed heads, we seek shelter from the harsh midday sun in the cool interior of a temple. With bowed heads we sink to the floor before glittering alters of golden Buddhas. Even lost, there is always the familiar alters, the prostrating worshipers praying for an easier life, the chanting monks. We don’t pray, don’t want an easier life. We watch, examine each detail, then walk on to become lost again.
We only need to put our minds to it. What is unknown and hostile today will become known and appealing tomorrow. That is what I think I heard a monk say as we fled the cool interior of the temple for the harsh afternoon light. I believe it to be true. We persist, we walk on, we explore the unknown, so that it becomes familiar.

With bowed heads, we walk on. Herman walks, I follow. His strength is very great, his stamina greater, but his hunger surpasses all. He needs to explore, to know more. We walk to the point of exhaustion, to the edge of the city, eat a bowl of noodles from a street vendor, and begin to circle back. We achieve nothing. It is only the accumulation of knowledge and experiences. That is our greed, hording knowledge and experiences.

This is how we explore most places, but it is especially true in Thailand. Within this wonderful, predominately Buddhist country, we have explored a number of interesting destinations: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, The Golden Triangle, the World Heritage sites at Sukhothai and Ayuthaya, Pattaya, and a smattering of islands in the south. Every destination we’ve experienced in Thailand offers a unique glimpse into a rich Buddhist tradition and an ancient culture, and the country’s distinctive natural and architectural beauty.
And the way to experience any place in Thailand is on foot. That is because of the rich and varied street life. Yes, there are many interesting and even glamorous sites to see, but the backstreets, local markets, and street vendors are not to be missed. They are the soul of this amazing culture. You can’t experience these wonderful street people from the back of a Tuk-Tuk while racing from one site to another. One must step slowly along the street restaurants, weave through the market place, and rub shoulders with the local people. You must smell the produce, haggle over the price of the fruit, and exchange a smile once a bargain is agreed upon, even when you know you’ve paid too much. And if you question the freshness of the fish, you risk having the fish pushed under your nose for a closer examination, for these proud vendors have no fear of foreigners.

The irony is, that Thailand is notoriously pedestrian unfriendly. There are seldom sidewalks at all, and if there are, they are jammed with wide metal boxes where the vendors display their goods and cook food. There are often large vats of scalding oil, cooking chicken or seafood, right in the middle of the sidewalk. The walkways are uneven, often having large holes that sink into the sewer. You have to watch your step at all times on Thai streets -- one eye on the shops and street vendors, one eye on the ground.

There is also the danger of walking along a street or crossing the street. Pedestrians do not have the right-away in most Asian countries. In Thailand, size counts for everything. Trucks and buses have the right-away over cars, cars have the right-away over motorcycles and tuk-tuks, and everything on the road has the right-away over pedestrians. It becomes a game of dodging through traffic to cross the street, and you had better be damned quick because these drivers won’t even slow down for you. Fortunately, unlike in Hong Kong, they won’t actually try to run you over.

Still, to experience this wonderful culture, one must brave the elements and do so on foot. You not only experience so much more, but you also get into the rhythms of this laid-back culture. And at the end of the day, there is the woman calling from the street, “Massa?” and you smile gratefully, because a foot and leg massage is exactly what you need most.

Be careful when you're speeding down the road. There may be a tree in your lane.


Anonymous said...

Looking at that bizarre food in the Thai food market, wonder if you have ever tried to taste some of that stuff? Did you eat anything really strange?

--Lee & Steve

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