Bangkok

Time has come today (okay, tomorrow, but...)

 
oh Buddha--you and I were so young back then

oh Buddha--you and I were so young back then

Nearly 13 months ago I left home on a one-way ticket to Bangkok. I was excited and scared as I didn't know what awaited me: but I knew I wanted to write, discover, and learn about the world and myself. I saw ancient temples, awe-inspiring sculptures, surprising natural beauty, and traffic that defied description and camera capture. I found the fun, odd, and quirky stuff that makes Krung Thep unique. I met wonderful, beautiful people (which was absolutely the best part). I found some damn good food (maybe the second-best part). And I wrote a bunch, though never as much as I thought I needed to.

I explored Thailand and her neighbors: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. I took a diversion further north into Korea and JapanThen I left Thailand and went deeper into Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and The Philippines. And it was in the next to last of these countries that I realized I'd learned all that I needed to here. So I began making new plans.

And the time has come to embark on them. 

Tomorrow I will fly out of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi (pronounced Soowanaboom, because Thai) airport to start the next next episode. There will be time to talk about that later. But for now, I just want to show my love and appreciation for SE Asia and this City of Angels. You gave me exactly what I needed at a challenging time. You weren't always easy, but you were always worth it. And part of my heart will always be here.

I will miss you. I love you. I will see you again someday.

Back on the farewell tour: things I knew I wanted, things I didn't

New Year's Eve--four days left in Krung Thep so down to last boxes for checking. I'm a fight fan so I knew I wanted to take in a Muay Thai event. Three options in Bangkok:

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  1. Rajadamnern Stadium. Home of the biggest shows, and the biggest prices to boot: 1500 baht and up. Too paeng for this farang.
  2. Lumpinee. Most tickets are similarly priced as above. Also I'd heard some (possibly unfair) criticism of the venue so didn't give it much of a second thought. Especially when there's:
  3. Channel 7. Live televised shows every Sunday afternoon. And the price? Free.

Dii mak!

And everything I'd read was that this was real Bangkok, a real local experience. So I get to rub shoulders with those I've lived among for the last nine months and...

oh.

oh.

Well, it's about the fights--and they were exciting for sure. Sample: 

Two young men giving their all to take care of their families and put on a show. How can you not smile? 

Serious, y'all--how can some of you not be smiling? What are you watching, big beard? Not impressed? Then get on down there!

Serious, y'all--how can some of you not be smiling? What are you watching, big beard? Not impressed? Then get on down there!

Important to note, however, that gambling is NOT allowed, as all these signs attest:

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And Thais are a rules-following sort, so...

oh.

oh.

And we saw a title change hands. At least, the back of it:

hope I made good smiling background for the Channel 7 viewers

hope I made good smiling background for the Channel 7 viewers

After this the plan was a quiet, introvert-friendly New Year's celebration: order a pizza, drink cocktails, watch the fireworks.

But dating a Thai isn't always simple. Because she has family, and they have get-togethers for holidays, and they invite you. And you can't say no, because that would be rude (and even though you are rude, you don't want them to know that).

So before long I'm sitting in the soi, struggling to communicate my appreciation for gracious hospitality. "Dii!" Smile. "Chai." Smile. "Aroi mak!" Smile. "Khap khun khrap." Smile.

just how we do it in Krung Thep

just how we do it in Krung Thep

And how gracious is that hospitality? Check the prawns:

That's a Thai pointing at things.  It's a thing .

That's a Thai pointing at things. It's a thing.

Long before I'm saying "Im lau im mak!" I realize this is what I most wanted. In my last days here, one more real Krung Thep experience. Because while weather, topography, architecture, and attractions all contribute to a given location, I've found it's always the people that truly make a place. And in a city full of kindness, the family I spent New Year's evening with was among the most. Still, I wanted to show my appreciation beyond poorly articulated Thai and crooked smiling. Thankfully, I get that chance after I push away from the dinner table, full and happy, while others in the family have yet to be fed themselves:  

What's shakin? Bacon.

What's shakin? Bacon.

And I still got my fireworks:

Like so much of Krung Thep, pictures don't do it justice.

Like so much of Krung Thep, pictures don't do it justice.

Sawasdee bpii-mai! Happy 2561!

Back on the farewell tour: and how do we feel about leaving again?

 
More than one thing can be true.
— Mike Wilbon**

Less than a week left in Krung Thep and my feelings are mixed, but not that straight-forward: more like all of one, then that gets wiped out by the next that comes crashing in, then the next next obliterating that one and filling me to the outer layers of epidermis and thongs.

I feel ready

My time in Bangkok has been positive and very necessary. The stability gave me time to write, saved me money, and let me roam while providing comfort. It's a great city for a farang.

But it also becomes difficult/expensive to maintain visa privileges in Thailand unless you're employed by a Thai company--and that's not the deal for me right now. Plus I've struggled with the language, and it becomes isolating, even for me, to go days without a decent conversation (you should see the excitement in local eyes when you say "Phom puud pasa Thai nik noi" turn to disappointment when they discover just how little Thai you puud).

Much as I love this place, I don't fit. Sometimes literally.   

my apartment stairwell

my apartment stairwell

Plus, I want to explore all I can of these kingdoms and republics before the money runs out. So it's time to ramble on. But then...

I feel sad

I've been lucky in this life so far: parents and siblings still alive, I'm pretty healthy. So my greatest sadnesses (aside from the deaths of extended family and a dearly beloved mentor) come when I leave those I love. Had a lot of that on the 2017 farewell tour, shed a lot of tears. Those feels came back last night when my Thai friends (after a little birdy told them) organized a going-away dinner and tacked on a game night afterward.

Photo credit: Ashley (or in Thai, AshLEEEE)

Photo credit: Ashley (or in Thai, AshLEEEE)

Besides being travel buddies and islands of bilingual relief in a sea of mae ruu, they are sweet, and funny, and giving. They've made me feel at home half a world removed from mine. And as I walk away from them, and a city that has sometimes frustrated but deeply enchanted me, it's hard not to stumble. 

And then...

I feel scared

Because when I left last time, I came to a farang-friendly city where I had at least a friend. And while I'll have the same (a brother, in fact) at my next destination, the time there will be--unless plans change dramatically--much shorter. After that, I'm on to lands where I know not a soul. Lands where English and kindness to farang (or whatever I'm called there) and maybe even cell service aren't guaranteed. I'll be pushing outside of my comfort zone father than ever before.

And that's the point. That's where growth happens. That's the kind of fear I'm here to push through.

It doesn't make me any less afraid. 

 

**I'm sure somebody said it before him, but PTI was a long-time thing for me so I'll give him the dap.

(Sky)train of thought and memory

With my time in Bangkok speeding to a close, yesterday I daytripped with friends to Samut Prakan. 

Afterwards, riding the BTS from the Bearing terminus with a little birdy at my shoulder, I was struck by out of sequence nostalgia.

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At On Nut station, I remember my second week here. I was excited. Amazing though Songkran was, I looked forward to seeing the city without the parties and tourists--the real Krung Thep. I bounced to an airbnb apartment near On Nut and definitely experienced some Thai culture, though not like I imagined. I'll spare the details, but the lessor's laid-back attitude on providing me access to the room, proper working equipment in the room, and my having to sneak in and out of the building itself (since he failed to mention the management doesn't allow subletters) tested my mai bpen rai. Mak. But it taught me that the things I get so easily twisted up over don't matter much in the end--and my anger and frustration only hurts me so best that I just get over it.

Plus I got this, so not a bad week at all.

no pain

no pain

Three stations later we reach Thong Lo, and this is where it all began: where I stayed my first week, when I did Songkran, and Wat Po, and the Golden Mountain. Where I saw the glitter and gleam that is Bangkok. Where I felt the crippling anxiety of being alone and pushed through. Where I clogged my toilet by putting toilet paper in it because, isn't that what you do?

Not here.

But you learn.

Sà taă nee dtòr bpai, Asok. This connects to the MRT, and the hotel I spent three-plus weeks on two separate occasions. Great street food, comfortable for the price--it was the next-best home away from home I found here. It's where I sat on the floor, angry and frustrated and determined following another rejection of my most personal short story, and wrote this blog post. And where I revised and revised that short story that will some day be published, I'm certain of it. It's also where I started my YA novel in earnest, which absolutely will some day be published.

now the nominees for least exciting screen shot of the year...

now the nominees for least exciting screen shot of the year...

This is what writing is made of. Dogged, stupid refusal to quit.

On we roll to Phaya Thai, where the Airport Rail Link connects. I remember riding into here on that first arrival, and a month later after my first border run to the incredible ass-kicking Vietnam. Phaya Thai is also the stop for the language school that added a little Thai to my vocab and extended my visa a few months without needing so many pesky border runs.  

Then to Anu Sao-wa ree Chai sa Mhor ra Phoom.

a.k.a Victory Monument, which has a fascinating history all its own I hope to go into later. Image credit: Bangkok.com

a.k.a Victory Monument, which has a fascinating history all its own I hope to go into later. Image credit: Bangkok.com

This is my stop, because it's a short walk to my apartment and home for the last six months. It's where I've felt truly settled. It's where I finished the first draft of that third novel I'd been working on. And the second draft. And third and fourth and fifth. It's where I started querying agents, then stopped because I realized it was almost ready but not quite. And it's where I made a deposit payment to my developmental editor, because I'm so damn serious about getting it published. So fuck you, Stewie. 

And thank you, Stewie. Thank you for being the motivating voice in my head, encapsulating my fears and driving me to more.

I don't know where I'll be when my editor sends those edits (I have a guess on the country). I don't know where I'll be when I start querying agents again (I have a guess on the month). And I don't know where I'll be when my agent says yes, when my publisher does the same, when I'll hit the shelves or the best-seller list. But I know where it truly took shape. I know the genesis of the story, and how its roots run from Tennessee through North Carolina and across continents to here.

And I know Krung Thep will always hold a special place in my heart, for what I've done, what I've seen, what I've felt, who I've met. They call it the City of Angels. And I... I will spare you any cheesy quips I could come up with off of that. 

But I am truly blessed and fortunate. 

Back to boring Bangkok

 

It’s easy to become cynical about where you live, whether you were born there or just moved four months ago. Even in Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, a place I never imagined taking for granted. Yet here I am, thinking: 

‘Sure they’ve got cheap and tasty street food everywhere. But remember the bahn mi in Saigon? The most ama-aazing sandwich ever--and less than a dollar!’

‘Big deal, another gilded wat. Remember the temples in Laos? So much darker, with all those violent murals!’

‘Yeah, a moto almost ran me down on the sidewalk. But in Cambodia, everyone drove the wrong way. Death lurked around every turn!’

Yep, boring old Bangkok. But there’s still much The City of Angels had yet to reveal to these farang eyes, and I got to see a few this week. Now you do, too.

 

BANGKOK BOAT TOUR

then when the tourists are gone, some food cart owner comes along and stocks tomorrow's menu

then when the tourists are gone, some food cart owner comes along and stocks tomorrow's menu

When traveling, if you’re open to it, you intersect with people who will pop in your life again. Such was the case with my sacred tattoo tour guide. Long story short, he needed guests willing to be photographed to come on one of his newest tours. And I’m an attention whore so was happy to help out. In exchange, I got to see a different side of sights I had seen, and new ones I hadn’t.

Bangkok by boat is especially fascinating--it’s called the Venice of the East for a reason.

Along the way we hit a couple of lesser known destinations (Wat Paknam Bhasi Charoen) and well-known sites in unusual ways (Wat Pho at night, after all the tourists have been kicked out).

AIRPLANE GRAVEYARD

how do  you  think they got here?

how do you think they got here?

Since entering the Ghost Tower is verboten and the Fish Mall has been torn down, there isn’t much urban ex weirdness left in Bangkok. But the Airplane Graveyard remains.

How did dilapidated passenger jets end up in a field not very close to either of the city’s airports? Seems no one knows. But if you’re willing to pay the homeless guy 200 baht you can climb around in the old planes yourself. Don’t expect hand rails or safety cordons, however.

A greener shade of Bangkok

Last weekend, following the recommendation of Evo from the Bangkok Podcast, I visited Bang Krachao. It's a massive park within Bangkok's borders also known as the Green Lung, since it may be the only place you can go to breathe. Or it may be the city's only oxygen source left. Or it's kinda shaped like lungs--opinions vary, as they so often do here.

no street food, no streets--this is still Bangkok?

no street food, no streets--this is still Bangkok?

I'm not so foolish as to think I've seen all BKK has to offer--not even close--but even so, this was a surprise.

The area in and around also has a weekend floating market and other fun discoveries you can really only see by renting a bike.

lots of people shopping. Okay, still Bangkok.

lots of people shopping. Okay, still Bangkok.

roadside  Ganesha

roadside Ganesha

And speaking of renting that bike, they have bike paths. But not like the ones back home.

straight-ish and very narrow

straight-ish and very narrow

It might not be clear just how tight this path is--two bicycles could pass each other but handlebars would be scraping railings. That is, where there are railings--and they disappear at points with no warning, where a shear drop-off awaits.

Fortunately, when I got astride a family and rode a bit too close to them and to avoid them overcompensated there was a railing waiting to catch me. That was a comfort. Less comfortable was the slow-motion crash and the bicycle kicking back into my exposed shin, but hey, what's a little hematoma?


KANCHANABURI

Later in the week I took a bus 120 kilometers (75 miles) west to Kanchanaburi Province, an almost entirely rural, farming area of Thailand, as different of a world from Bangkok as one could imagine. 

To see this beauty, however, you have to board the Terror Train.

Terror Train is not the official name, just one I found appropriate--because over the Wampo Viaduct the drop-off is...significant

But there's more than fear and beauty in this place. This is the Burma Railway--aka the Death Railway built by Japanese-captured POWs in WWII. To stand on the trestles, to touch the steel laid by tens of thousands of Allied soldiers--men working against their will to benefit the enemy. To think of the 12,000 of them who died--along with a 100,000 or more Asian laborers--it staggers the imagination.

surreal

surreal

After, we visited one the museums containing many artifacts. This was the most shocking of all: 

beyond surreal

beyond surreal

Why these bones aren't interred somewhere, I do not know. Given DNA testing today, I would figure they could be returned to their families. This left far more questions for me than answers--is it a cultural thing? Do "authorities" just not know this is here? Are these "just" Asian laborers, and thus somehow "less important"?

Kind of a dark way to end the post, I know. So here's the pretty sunset we saw before leaving. 

ahh, pretty. let's forget the war atrocities we just saw.

ahh, pretty. let's forget the war atrocities we just saw.

Sam I ain't

 

I do not like the hostel dorms

I do not like them in any form

 

I do not like sleeping in a bunk

And smelling other people’s funk

 

 

 

 

I do not like the late night noise

I do not like sleeping next to boys

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I do not like the lack of space

And all these children in my face

 

I do not like them calling home

On the speaker--where are their headphones?

 

 

 

I do not like rules that, I assume,

Are made to drive me from my room

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I do not like communal bum guns

I do not find them the least bit fun

 

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I do not like mosquitoes in my shower

Dengue fever makes me sour

 

 

I must admit I liked the price

And the staff was awfully nice

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Still… I hope I’m done with hostel living

Guess I’ve grown too posh and unforgiving

Visa run 1: what have we learned?

Hard to believe I'm leaving BKK tomorrow, harder still that I've been here 25 days. So it's right that I take stock and review learnings.

1: I have time to spare, but not time to waste. Soon after I arrived to U.S. Army boot camp a fellow recruit--one who'd been there a week or two longer and so was a subject matter expert in my eyes--said "the days are long but the weeks are short." I didn't understand what that meant but it sounded really wise. Mornings later during muster I looked up, saw the stars, and realized I couldn't recall when last I'd noticed the sky. [Side note: thanks to my asthma I was discharged eight weeks after arrival, and didn't see a day in basic training. Related: the U.S. Army remains the world's best.]

Two decades later one of my finest bosses ever said "this is a marathon, not a sprint." It sounded really wise. And it was--I stayed there twice as long as at any other company. [Side note: she's now starting a farm. I love and miss her.]

What do these two events that predated the One Way Ticket have anything to do with what I've learned here and now? This: I can and should take time to visit the wats. To wander and discover. To be wowed by the beauty that surrounds me. To breathe. I need it, and I have it.

But I'm here to write. And I'm a little lazy by nature and tend to dawdle. I can't afford to do that here. I need to remember the voice that haunts:

2: Comfort is hard to come by, so there's no shame in taking it. Also in the marathon not sprint category, this really is hard sometimes, and it never is easy. I'm living out of a backpack week to week. I spend a big chunk of time looking for cheap yet cockroach-free rooms, weighing the pros and cons of bus vs plane, and foraging for cheap food that I won't regret at 3 a.m. I don't speak the language and don't expect I'll ever be conversant.

So I've probably eaten too much ice cream. That's okay. Eat the ice cream, then walk it off later. The shorts still fit so you're fine. 

3: When drawing conclusions, time matters as much as place. Soon after arriving I noticed, damn, people wear a lot of black here.

Was there some aspect of Thai culture that encourages humble dress? Maybe they like the formal look here? Will I stick out if I'm wearing bright colors?

No. But it is a testament to how beloved King Bhumibol, the Ninth Chakri King of Thailand, was by this country. A year of mourning is prescribed, and wearing black or white is a way to signify this: but dressing as such isn't required by law, for citizens or tourists. This time next year things will look quite different. Had I not known that, however, I might return home with stories of "everybody in Thailand wears black" which simply wouldn't be true any longer.

4. Check the pressure on that bum gun first.

Friend Request! Culture shocks and surprises

Sunday night, sitting with my three best BKK friends drinking coffee and eating stoner desserts, I'm asked, now that I've been here almost a month, what have been the biggest surprises? 

if weed is so illegal here how do they come up with this stuff?

if weed is so illegal here how do they come up with this stuff?

One of them, I noted, happened just minutes before as we parked. The street spot was left short by the car parked ahead, so my driving friend simply got out and pushed it, then pushed his in behind it.

This wasn't some great strength feat--cars are left in neutral here for just that purpose. From what they said this is largely voluntary--an unwritten rule. And like many unwritten rules, violators--especially those who box another driver in and apply their parking brake--can end up with a nasty note on their windshield or key carvings in their paint (I guess mai pen rai has its limits).

And I'm sure most of my American readers are shaking their head, maybe with the same thoughts I had: "That's so smart--no way in hell would it work in the U.S." People in The States think they own not only their car, but feet in front and back.

'muricans are a kind, neighborly bunch

'muricans are a kind, neighborly bunch

Then I shared one I encountered soon upon arrival but didn't fully understand for weeks. My first room was lovely in ways (scary enough the next two beds were even harder), with en-suite bathroom and shower--tough to beat at a hostel. It was missing one thing: a sink.

time to get creative

time to get creative

Okay, no big deal, I decide. After all, in my old Kentucky home we had just one bathroom and, when we all had to get ready for church or whatnot I was sometimes relegated to brushing my teeth over the toilet. I could do the same here. And washing my hands, well, it did have a sprayer beside said bowl.

So I made it work because I'm not fancy. Though later I clogged said toilet when I put toilet paper in it, because I thought they were made for each other.

Not in these parts.

Long story short, the toilet-side sprayer is known as a bum gun. You use like a hand-operated bidet, and with soap, a good reach, and practice you get much cleaner than the American approach. I mean, seriously, think of it, we don't like walking around sweaty or with chicken grease on our hands, but...

okay, don't think of it. Just trust me, it's better. Of course, nobody tells you these things in advance, you just have to learn it the hard way and get a little embarrassed.

But not you, O my brothers. You learn from my embarrassment. What a bargain.

And here's a bonus lesson--test that bum gun first:

Prada Wat

 

This is Wat Phra Kaew--or at least, a sliver of it at a distance. It's considered Thailand's most sacred wat, and like the Taj Mahal and Chichen Itza, no photos I've seen--much less those taken on my iPhone--do it justice. That said...

Indeed, the most sacred part of this most sacred wat cannot be photographed, at least not by visitors with iPhones and the like: the Emerald (jade) Buddha. But I did see it, along with thousands of other visitors that morning alone.

taking a stand for peace at Thailand's most sacred Buddhist shrine

taking a stand for peace at Thailand's most sacred Buddhist shrine

The constant tourist selfies and "wonder how many likes I'll get" snaps harshed my zen, but I reminded myself Buddha doesn't need my righteous indignation on his behalf, he's doing just fine thank you.

Though, crowded as Wat Phra Kaew is, it can't approach Bangkok's most popular temples, dedicated to the world's most popular -ism: Consumerism.

commerce is merit

commerce is merit

This is Prada Wat. The temple keepers claim it "captures the contrasts, the quirks, the qualities that make the city so distinctively Thai: a love of expressive fashion, amazing food, emerging art, enrapturing music, the sanuk (fun) and the sabai (comfort)."

And what is more distinctly Thai than Audemars Piguet? Bottega Veneta? Givency? Hermes? Hublot? Gucci? Omega? Ralph Lauren? Rolex? Tom Ford? Versace? Chanel? Chopard? Christian Louboutin?

This and more on just one of eight floors, mind you.

ministers to meet your every need

ministers to meet your every need

I arrived believing Thais were more centered and balanced than Americans--that they prioritized fun over work and spirituality over money. And I believe there remains truth in that.

But a truism of travel, I've found, is that we're more alike than different. People like stuff, and sometime feed the needs of this world ahead of the next. This is nothing new.

And that doesn't make them bad. But when surrounded by conspicuous Consumerism, one (this one, at least) has to question the motivations.

mantra

mantra

are these the leading men in your life?

are these the leading men in your life?

And so let's question, and start with the man in the mirror. High-minded Citizen of Rome that I am, raging against the corporate machine. Throwing it all off to live out of a backpack makes for a good story.

But open that backpack and what do you see?

complicity? hypocrisy?

complicity? hypocrisy?

Makes it easier to live simply when you still have nicer things--and the leftover money from that pursuit up the corporate ladder. Am I really carving out a new life, or simply shopping at a different store? Trading clothes for plane tickets?

Buhbuhbuhbuh wait: it gets worse.

Leaving Prada Wat in search of a photomat for my Vietnam Visa, I further marinated on the bullshit I might be serving myself. Might this pursuit of deeper truth and understanding via travel and writing be itself a lie--cover for the fact that I just couldn't hack it? That I wore the clothes and drove the car and got the degrees and even learned to doubletalk like a good corporate drone, but in the end I just couldn't make it more than halfway up that ladder? That, in a world where money equals worth I just wouldn't add up?

yes, but you're just saying that to sell things

yes, but you're just saying that to sell things

Slow going in this magic city

 
no, not  that Magic City

Monday I sat in a Bangkok McDonald's, distrait and distraught, missing my home halfway round the world.

Friday I sat on a Bangkok sidewalk, sweating in the night swelter, sipping iced coffee and nibbling fried cheese, with an interesting person (interesting, not "interesting"), sharing thoughts on bucket lists, karma, the great barrier reef, Thai monarchy (all positive, I promise), family, relationships, mistakes, and crazy decisions amongst others.

She called me courageous. I called me lucky. The people I carry with me are courageous.

love you all

love you all

We talked for hours and sometimes we didn't talk at all, just sat or walked, taking in all the beauty in this magic city.

trump would abide

trump would abide

There were more photo-worthy sights but I didn't take pictures of them, because sometimes it's about being there in the moment. Because living life through Instagram's lens seems to me a fate worse than death. And because, while I love visiting a good wat, the magic of travel is always in the people you meet and the experiences you share with them.

So instead, this night in Bangkok, most of the magic was mine (ours) alone.

Afterward I walked 4 km to my room, sweating through my cleanest dirty shirt, disdaining every taxi and tuktuk because I wanted to make the night last. Just taking things slow.

I'm not used to going slow. But I'm enjoying getting there.

Separation anxiety

As soon as I arrived I'm preparing to leave again.

accustomed to customs

accustomed to customs

Such is the way of life lived out of a backpack. And I'll be back--Thailand will remain my base of operations. Nothing has changed.

That said, it was a strange brew of feeling picking up my Vietnam Visa. Joy in realizing I truly am a world traveler: anywhere I want to go, I can. Excitement to compare Saigon banh mi to Eden Center.

But also a little wistful. In the last days I've had hints of getting the hang of Bangkok's craziness. Long way to go, to be sure, but little victories have been won. I'm growing confident when saying sawasdee khrap to the 7-11 cashiers. I got into a taxi today, requested my destination, and was understood on the first try (thanks to pronunciation coaching from a new Thai friend).

And have I mentioned the massages? Best 400 baht ever spent.

There's a lot to love about this place, and a lot to bring me back. A lot to miss.

It's already left it's mark.

i've got puns

i've got puns

29,000 words