Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Location: Walking Street, Pattaya; Status: Feeling somewhat dirty, intoxicated, and yet intrigued.

We actually spent a good portion of the first morning during our stay walking from atop the hill of Berne and Vera's condo, down towards the town center of Pattaya. It being pleasantly scorch-worthy, we ignored what our skin told us was so, and went on our way - drunk with curiosity. Wendy, in all her adorable glory, had arrived a day ahead of us, having made the journey from Virginia alone. She seems to be at the head of the pack of the four of us - leading us down the hilltop path with the youthful verve of a newly appointed company leader. Every step behind us and in front, we stared ahead at the green-blue bowl of Pattaya punch. The bay of Pattaya City, seemingly clear from afar, appeared more like a tropical version of the Schuylkill River, injected with Frost Gatorade and transported to our new locale overnight.

I still had trouble believing I was here, and until I started to sweat through my clothing at 8 in the morning while downing my first authentically made fried rice for breakfast, my body still felt like it was on the plane. The first glimpse of city given to us boasted all the commerce of a recently abandoned ghosttown. The nightlife of the city was what we would come to know and love/not feel quite comfortable in. A feast for the eyes and ears to say the least. More on that later.

On this morning, our legs carried us into a city the size of Philadelphia, maybe bigger, and certainly much denser. And we had arrived at the ocean side, retail-influenced sector of this new place. But where the hell were the people? The walkway towards everything was paved with the remnants of every past evenings' goings-on, but with a lack of life walking among it. Slowly, we saw shopkeepers opening their corner stores, and carts lined with fresh fruit and sticks of slow-cooked meat being pushed to their street corner destinations by the collective of older Thai women much past the brink of the American stereotypical age of retirement. (Warning: long sentences.)

It wasn't after much hungered debate that we all decided to venture towards one of these carts, off in an alley among the slowly waking city. We sat down on plastic chairs encircling what was perhaps once a suitable table to eat from, and listened to the women, our hostesses, cackling away at rapid speed the menu, and what was what. Tell you the truth, the food in those large pans was hardly discernible from Purina dog chow slow cooked in a curry, but I was in no shape to be picky. I had just spent more than a day's travel on United Airlines' cuisine from hell, and besides, THIS IS the experience. Exactly! I'd just spent a day on a plane, and I wanted nothing more than to taste and savor the down home (corner cart) culinary traditions of these seasoned Thai women. The only moment of pause I had about digging in, in fact, was the meat content. I'd traveled to this haven of glorious food (cue the orphanage song from Oliver) as a vegetarian, and would likely remain so during my visit.

In choosing, Chris and I ordered just what we wanted - I played it a bit safe with a few fried eggs and jasmine rice, while he took a gamble and had a dish of an incredibly hot lamb curry with rice at 8:30 in the morning. There's really nothing more amusing than watching a grown man sweat his brains out and run to the nearest corner store for a bottle of whole milk to help the pain of curry subside.

The four of us took photos and gawked a bit at the miniature temples planted side by side to a bar, and eyed up the locals with unbridled curiosity. It was difficult not to look like the outsiders. Wandering about in our western clothes, our pale skin quickly turning to light shades of pink and red, and armed with our cameras, we had no choice but to look the part, and own it. Yet any notions I'd had prior about feeling the stares and glares from the native people as they watch us watch them was quickly squashed upon finishing that first meal. By the time we had gotten up and began roaming was about the time that the city began waking up, and commerce proceeded to engulf us.

The faces we started to see looking back at us were not at all focused on our shoulder bags and bottled water, or our pointing fingers and dropped jaws. They looked at us square in the eyes and used our language in their country. Greetings like, "Hello", and "How are you?" were heard from every smiling face we passed. I'd heard that Thailand was the "land of a thousand smiles", but I hadn't realized that I'd be nearing that number on day one!

Perhaps my naive attitude shown through my youth was getting the best of me, because I had a difficult time seeing this place through the eyes of what I know deep down to be true. I know what our presence might mean to the simple Thai man or woman. Through and through. We equal revenue to them. We are bringing money into their lives, jamming it into their pockets, and slipping it into the occasional g-string. We help feed their economy. But I couldn't help but let their positivity on that morning infect my mood. I see a smile and I return it. For me, it's contagious...much like seeing someone yawn. Next thing I know, I'm yawing back at them.

Forgive me for going on about the smaller hints of remembrances of my trip. I find myself dreaming about being back there, right in the middle of Pattaya, or on beautiful Koh Larn, or in the jungle of Koh Chang, or the clustered and frightening streets of Bangkok. As mezmorizing as the entire trip was, I feel like the lessons learned are still metastasizing in my mind, forever gelling themselves to my outlook on everyday western life. The single experiences are in and out of the forefront, and I'll do my best to shine light on those when I can, but the feelings they left have lingered. They are why I keep writing, as infrequent as the writing may be.

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