I'm now in Phnom Penh after two weeks in Battambang, where I was teaching English to local kids. I'll have much more to say on an experience that was in large part amazing--but one less-so aspect was my bed, which reminded of the "traditional" Thai beds that, in Sangkhlaburi, moved me to make a video about them:
in the two seats beside me sit four humans, the closest of which being a threeish-year-old girl sitting on her very young mother's lap, drinking from said mother's exposed breast.Read More
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:
- Rajadamnern Stadium. Home of the biggest shows, and the biggest prices to boot: 1500 baht and up. Too paeng for this farang.
- 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:
- Channel 7. Live televised shows every Sunday afternoon. And the price? Free.
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...
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?
Important to note, however, that gambling is NOT allowed, as all these signs attest:
And Thais are a rules-following sort, so...
And we saw a title change hands. At least, the back of it:
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.
And how gracious is that hospitality? Check the prawns:
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:
And I still got my fireworks:
Sawasdee bpii-mai! Happy 2561!
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.
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.
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.
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.
It's inevitable. You're nearing the end of your time in a situation--graduating from school, ending a relationship, moving away--and you want to drink every last drop before it is done, because once it's done, it's done. Do you want to remember that last party, that last kiss, that last landmark, or do you want to stay cocooned in your room?
Such was my choice when on Tuesday morning, scheduled for another "must-see Thailand" daytrip, I woke with a wicked bout of food poisoning (writer's note: this is a "tell, don't show" situation). And it was an easy decision, hard as hell to fulfill--but it helps to have medication and friends to lean on (sometimes literally).
Damnoen Saduak Floating Market
100 km outside of Bangkok and with all the trappings of a tourist trap: stall after stall of counterfeit merch, overpriced shirts with tuktuks on them, and purveyors of pad thai. The boats are cool, but they could benefit from a traffic signal.
It was even suggested that we rent a boat and paddle to our next destinations. I declined, though I imagine the pics of my projectile vomiting into the canal would've been colorful.
Mae Klong Railway Folding Umbrella Market
This one was high on my list, and I'm glad I got to see it. The concept baffles: a market set up literally on top of an active railway. Six times a day the train comes, and vendors fold up their umbrellas, move their inventory off the tracks, and let the train pass. Then it's back to business.
I've seen videos and articles calling it "The World's Most Daaaaangerous Market!!!" and yes, I'm sure if you're not paying attention or lingering for that selfie too long you can get squashed, but what I was struck by was how placid it all seemed. The vendors are used to this, they have a system, they make it work just fine.
Plus I worked in retail, and remember some near-misses with forklifts, pallet jacks, climbing up into topstock, etc.
Wat Bang Khae Noi and Wat Bang Kung
Early on the One Way Ticket, one of my friends asked "don't you get tired of all the temples? Don't they look the same?" And, even months later, the answer remains "NO!"
Okay, yes, a lot of them do look the same. But there's also a lot of differentiation among the wats, including these two, both built during the Ayutthaya period. Wat Bang Khae Noi is notable for its intricate wood carvings, made of different panels that were then joined together (no gaps, amazingly).
While Wat Bang Khae Noi does amazing things with wood, Wat Bang Kung looks like it was built into living wood itself.
It also served as a base for the Siamese army and a site of battle in their wars with the Burmese. This is commemorated with a set of statues:
Amazing(ly random) Thailand
Thailand has much history, great wonders, tremendous resources. And in my travels I've found they aren't necessarily interested in organizing these things in a clear way. So it continued on this day, when we ran across a zoo/military artifact museum-ish place/restaurant.
The adventure wrapped with an hour-long BTS ride and 20-minute walk through cold drizzle. Yes, I felt like crap the whole day, and yes, my happiest moment was climbing into bed that night and sleeping off the misery. But I'm glad I toughed it out and chose to make more memories.
I can always sleep later.
The "Crap, We Gotta Get As Many Sights Within One Day's Driving Distance Of Bangkok In As Possible Before I Leave" tour continues, this time heading back to Ayutthaya Province for Wat Niwet Thammaprawet Ratchaworawihan (pronounced just like it looks, obv), Bang Pa-In Royal Palace, and the abandoned second capital of Ayutthaya:
Wat Niwet Thammaprawet Ratchaworawihan
King Chulalongkorn, aka Rama V, was a modernizer. He admired the west and wanted to bring western ideals to Thailand. In 1876, he commissioned this temple and complex, and it is most reflective of his desire. It's also the only wat I've visited that we accessed by cable car.
Bang Pa-In Royal Palace
King Chulalongkorn's western vision carried through his restoration of Bang Pa-In Royal Palace. As we walked paths winding along gardens and Euro-styled buildings, we also saw soldiers standing guard. A discussion began on "how bored would we be doing that job?" since no threats seemed apparent. Soon after a young rifle-wielding solider approached and insisted that we follow.
I wasn't going to argue.
He showed us a cool site to take pics we'd missed, and engaged my party in a long discussion (all in Thai, of course, so I just stood and smiled). He was so nice he also took a picture with me.
As we walked on we saw him chase down another group. And we guessed that, yes, being a guard was boring, so you become a guide to pass the time. And a guide with a gun? So much better.
Next to the ruins of Siam's second capital city, Ayutthaya. I've been here before, though there were parts I missed. Why? A discussion among my friends describes it well:
"He didn't go to Wat Yai?"
"No, it wasn't walking distance from his hotel and the tuk-tuk drivers were pissing him off."
I get cranky--but it's nice to have friends who know this and love me anyway.
Ayutthaya's royal palace built in 1448(!), each of the three large stupas holds ashes of a prior king.
An active temple on Ayutthaya's grounds, this temple has an eclectic look--and puppies.
So I subtitled this the corrective experience, because, as cranky as the prior visit here made me, this one was lovely. It makes a real difference when you can travel with your friends and aren't dependent upon money-hungry touts for your human interactions.
That brings some bitterness to the sweet, knowing I'll be largely on my own soon. I'll miss my Thai peeps dearly. Yes, I'll carry them in my heart and memories, but that just isn't the same.
That's just a rationalization.**
**Thanks for ending on that high note, Jamie. Ever thought of writing greeting cards?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change."
My writing has over the years been fueled and clouded by several substances...
A near constant has been Irish coffees: caffeine for energy, alcohol for lowered inhibition, warmth for comfort when recalling difficult ish and turning it into literature suitable for consumption.
But while lots of things are cheaper in Thailand, Bailey's isn't:
There's a knockoff called Kelly's that runs about 430 baht, but when I went yesterday to the one store I've found that carries it, I found that's now past-tense.
So I fired up ye old Google to find a substitute, while also considering is it worth it just to shell since I'm already here and in the grand scheme...
Wait, what? You can make Irish cream?
Sho nuff--even without a cooktop. Which is good, since I don't have that. Or an oven. Or a microwave.
And I made it, and I like it better than Bailey's, and it was cheaper, and while all of that is interesting (?) none is especially relevant. This is about adaptability and how we can all adjust to situations we couldn't even imagine previously.
When my marriage was mid-implosion in 2014, X and I spent a lot of time talking.
A lot of time talking (she's a psychologist so what would you expect?).
Among many memorable things, she asked "What is it you're wanting to change? What don't you like about this life?" She genuinely wanted to accommodate (within monogamous reason). And truth was, I couldn't even articulate what was missing. We had an outwardly lovely aspirational life--two fancy cars, four BR house, six-figure income, sufficient footwear.
Everything I could want. Except happiness.
Post-separation and divorce my life changed to one hedonistic and Nate Dogg-inspired. I also spent more and more time with my first love--writing. I wouldn't survive the corporate life much longer.
A year ago I was making preparations and adaptations. I sold off damn near everything and traded PowerPoint for the One-Way Ticket. Since then I've visited six countries. I got a real taste of Thailand as predicted. Now instead of deciding on blue suede vs. brogues, I choose sneakers or flipflops, and have a week's worth of clothes as long as I re-wear stuff.
And I finished a workable, submittable novel. My life is so different, so changed, by all I've been able to do and see. I am blessed and fortunate. It's been everything I wanted and couldn't articulate.
Change is on the horizon and I'll need to adapt again. It will suck sometimes. But that's no different than any of y'all's lives--and I see how very strong the people in my life are. The strong survive because the strong adapt.
Adapt. Change. Nothing is the same.
So we keep moving.
**Okay, not exactly. But that's the gist.
When in October 2016, Thailand announced His Majesty Phra Bat Somdech Phra Paramindra Maha Bhumibol Adulyadej Borommanathbobitra had died, the country entered a year of mourning. Thus, from the day I arrived in Krung Thep Mahanakon...
a.k.a. Bangkok, I was surrounded by citizens in black, portraits of King Rama IX draped in black bunting, and a general impression of heaviness that comes from an entire people losing their beloved king and father who'd reigned for seven decades.
So October 26, 2017--the day of his cremation--was an extraordinary event. Consider that the last time they put a king to rest, Harry Truman was U.S. President. Consider that, in the time since King Rama IX ascended the throne, between 11 and 15 coups d'étated in Thailand (and consider when you have so many coups you can't get a completely accurate number from the wiki...).
Consider that all the 7-11's in Bangkok closed for the ceremony.
Understandably, I wanted to experience it. I had no chance of getting close to the six military parades, the concerts, or many of the events on which the country spent approximately 3 billion THB--more than 240,000 Thais lined up for hours and days to get those choice "seats" (in many cases, spots on the sidewalk to kneel upon). But as I hit the streets that night, dressed in all black like The Omen and per requirements, hours before the actual cremation ceremony at 22:00 (Bangkok is a nighttime town, and Thailand likes the military clock), I immediately saw examples of what makes this place special. What makes the people here same as back home, but different.
The biggest was the way people take care of each other. In a country where per capita GDP is just $5,000 US, you could understand people using this as an opportunity to profit, to get a little ahead, especially off of farang like me. Hell, Americans do it to each other during hurricanes so surely I'll pay mightily to be part of this, right?
No. Shuttle buses, public toilets, water, coffee, food--everything was free. Shops, food stands and tents, even people--random citizens--standing beside queues, handing out baggies of fried rice and spoons. All to make merit, to do some kindness in honor of a King who showed so much to his people.
In some cases kindness was even forced upon me. Example: I encountered a group passing out cold bottled water. I already had water, but I was sweating (hello Bangkok). He offered. I showed him my lukewarm bottle and waved him off. He was having none of it, came into my path, and pushed it into my hand.
I was better for it, too. Khap khun khrap.
And as the night rolled on, as we bounced through crowds, looking and listening; as we caught a glimpse of King Rama X's all-Mercedes motorcade; as I even got to make my own offering of a sandalwood flower, I felt around me a sense of relief and release. That in the air, the tension and pain and discontent so many in this country have felt was rising to the heavens with their beloved departed King.
Does Thailand still have problems? You bet--just like every country and mine is no different. And I think the Thai tendency to deem harmony sacrosanct can mask problems and create new ones. But I also see how the love and community Thais feel for one another, and the sense of unity that comes from having a Good King who served with true dedication to his people, can heal wounds and prevent new ones.
I wish we were a little more the same back home right now.
My first blog post was a short one, and included this:
Boy it looks profound in those big italics, doesn't it? [no]
Back then I was looking at 40. Now I'm seeing it inside parallax just before it hits me in the nose.
And I say "back then" because even though I posted that just 10 months ago, my life has gone down a completely new path--yet again. I traded the stability of golden handcuffs to bet on myself, I waved goodbye to a relationship that breathed like oxygen but ultimately sustained like cyanide, and I learned how much I love and miss my family and a handful of dear friends.
I also set out on a truly once in my lifetime experience, to see parts of the world I'd only dreamed of. In the 5 months since I left, I've seen stunning natural beauty in Cambodia and Chiang Mai and Vang Vieng; breathtaking works of manmade art in Bangkok and Chiang Rai and Vientiane. I've also seen man's inhumanity to man in Kanchanaburi and Saigon.
I got soaked with strangers during Songkran, knew joy with old friends and family over coffee and beer, and made new friends and relationships I'll forever treasure.
And I have written, because that's what, above all, I came here to do.
On my 25th birthday I was working in the coolest job ever with the coolest people ever. I thought I'd found my path. But I also wanted love, and I'd reconnected with the woman I was supposed to be with. Three months later I would move to Washington, D.C., and we would forge a new path together.
On my 30th birthday I was in a job I hated, but using it as a stepping stone on the new path for more. The woman and I had been through a lot together (and at times apart), but we had made it through. We were on the same path. And I was starting to taste a bit of the good life she promised--we were even making plans for my first trip outside the U.S.
On my 35th birthday I was a freshly minted MBA, stressed out in a lucrative job with a massive learning curve, but excited for the challenge. I was newly hitched to that woman: we'd been through so much, and now all the hard work and stress and struggling was paying off. We'd had a lovely wedding and honeymoon in the Dominican Republic, sparing no expense. Living the dream that we had built. We'd built me into something more than I ever could've imagined. I even thought I was happy.
On my 39th birthday, that path was gone. The job had become even more lucrative, but it led down a path I wasn't willing to walk much longer. I'd survived a divorce, and was in a beautiful, intense entanglement with a Girl who happened to have a boyfriend. I'd given The Ultimatum, trying to convert myself from ho to housewife (so to speak).
And it was around that 39th birthday that I realized this new path I'd imagined, walking hand in happy hand with this new Girl while figuring out the next stop in my six-figure professional tour was destined to be like those before--not a dead end, per se, but one from which I would have to turn in order to continue my journey.
I don't regret any of these twists or detours or dead ends, just as I don't regret my childhood plans for being a pro baseball player or POTUS not panning out, nor when at age 14 the first girl I really fell for LYLAB'ed me, or when at age 18 my first real girlfriend cheated on me with my then-best friend and his girlfriend ("Dear Penthouse Forum, you'll never believe how I got cuckolded").
Far from regret, I am thankful for all of them. Because without the love, the loss, the opportunities, the rejections, the false promises, and my own personal failings and "mistakes", I wouldn't be right here, right now--exactly where I am supposed to be. Doing exactly what I am supposed to be: writing and traveling.
Now I know what happy is. Because I Am Happy.
Rudyard Kipling wrote a lot about what it takes to be a man. His words, along with a few others, helped sustain me during my divorce. In leaving everything behind on this Next Episode of my journey, I drew on those words and inspiration from sources diverse as fuckable friends and Stewie Griffin and the Rocky movies.
And now, as the days between me and four decades on earth reduce to single digits, this path that I have walked has led me, not only to deep gratitude and appreciation for all I have become, but to a sincere understanding of what the great philosopher-king Gundy the First said:
I've always been a communicator. In Kindergarten I won "Most Talkative" and repeated the feat in 6th grade. Had they collected superlatives at each school year's end then I no doubt would have been reigning defending. I wrote short stories and poetry through middle and high school--self-published an anthology of my and several friends' work. My first major was journalism, and my second college try was in broadcasting. I dropped out again to work fulltime in talk radio.
But I went corporate because that's where the money was. Even so, I wanted more than numbers. I had zero desire to be a consultant until multiple people I trusted described the job as storytelling. I found that to be true, though through less appealing media (maybe some would rather read a slide deck of frameworks than a novel but I'm not among them).
Oh, and there was that whole divorce thing. It left me with a lot of processing to do. I heard the voice of Stewie saying if you can't get that novel written now then you never will. So I did. Wrote my first draft in five months--finished it on Christmas Day 2014. I expect the final, publishable draft of it to be complete in 2019. 2022, tops. But the catharsis was worth more than any agent contract.
New relationships, new priorities. My ex liked calling us "joyless little strivers". My new girl was a hippie at her core, despite being a good little company drone 9:30-6. Soon my time away from the office was filled with lots of sex and laying around--far preferable to fretting over bills, optimizing future vacation plans, and trolling Crate & Barrel for the perfect silicone spatula.
But unwedded bliss had its costs. She's young and in a complicated relationship, which complicated our relationship. Still the writing gave me solace--and the complications gave me creative fuel. Meanwhile, work didn't do for me what I wanted anymore.
So I face a convergence: single, no children, not getting any younger, no need for a big house, no desire to climb straight up the corporate ladder. And a burning wish to find out, can I write for a living? Can I tell the stories I want, the way that I want, and do it well enough that people will pay good money just to read them?
Tall order. I'll be "competing" with great storytellers--people who've been at this for decades, logged tens of thousands of hours more typewriter time than have I. Authors who long ago corrected errors I don't even know I'm making. So I need runway. Time and space to make those mistakes and continue learning by reading rejection letters and best sellers and Pushcart Prize winners. I need an arbitrage play--time arbitrage, since servicing a McMansion mortgage ain't cheap, and the very thought of that hanging over my head without a predictable income stream makes the walls feel closer.
Turns out one of the cheaper places to live in this big world is also among the most exciting and inspiring: Thailand, and the whole of Southeast Asia. I have friends from school in Bangkok and a stepbrother just across the border in Cambodia.
Now or never. And if the worst thing to happen is I work a few extra years on the tail end then it was worth the cost. Money may have a time value but so does life.