When Brian and I first arrived in Bangkok, a new anxiety hit me. I was excited and a little bit afraid for my life. I relate the feeling to being next in line at the county summer fair’s rickety roller coaster: you figure it’s safe enough because hundreds of people do it every year, yet you know that one wrong turn or small lost piece in the system can send the entire thing crashing down, thus ruining your summer and maybe your life.
My passport is a testament to my fair experience in travelling abroad. However, this was my first time being in a new country where I didn’t know the language AND I was travelling with only one other person (who also didn’t speak the language) AND I wasn’t a part of a tour group, AND a million other ingredients for disaster.
I somehow decided that first thing’s first: we needed a map and local currency. It was nice to have something to focus on: a goal. Two, in fact.
We slowly made our way through immigration (we were confused about whether or not we needed a visa even though our family members already told us, no, we didn’t need visas, and every sign around us at the airport listed the countries that did not need visas, and official looking people were waving us ahead without making us fill out an application form). We picked up our luggage. We exchanged a tiny amount of money because 1) we couldn’t tell of the money exchange booth was ripping us off and 2) we had no idea how far $20 could get us and we didn’t want to be left with Thai baht after our short 5-day stay in the country.
We sat around for a bit wondering how to get to our hotel. Our printed reservation was in English and it only included a tiny, zoomed in Google maps drop pin of the location. No map. We didn’t have a phone or change for a payphone. We knew that if we hailed a taxi, we wouldn’t know what to tell the driver and we wouldn’t know if we were paying a fair amount. I started to fear that the next two weeks in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam were going to be spent like this; not know how to get from A to B and strangers waiving us off as we desperately asked for help in English.
I started wandering around and asking airport employees all the questions we had. Where’s a payphone? Where can I get change? Do you know this hotel? Where is the shuttle for the hotel? I mimed when necessary. My favorite part was at the end of my encounters with the Thai workers. They pressed their palms together in front of their chest in a prayer position, bowed royally with their eyes closed from their neck (not at the waist, unlike the Japanese), and held their head down for an extra second before raising their head again. I felt awkward at first – what do I do, copy them and look like a wannabe fool or not copy them and look awkward anyway along with rude? Luckily, I wouldn’t have to choose because my culturally sensitive instincts acted faster than my decision making brain cells: I laughed nervously and quickly dipped my chin towards my chest before quickly walking away.
Brian and I were the only passengers in the 15-seater van, but I insisted to Brian that we sit in the back seat, furthest from the driver (whom I was still suspicious would charge us too much for this ride) and closest to our stuff. I was still getting over the shock of having our luggage taken out of our hand by the driver before I knew that he was a good guy and on our side. The driver stepped into the front passenger seat of the van and looked at us in his rearview mirror sitting all the way in the back of the van. I could only see his eyes, but I could tell he was laughing without making any sound. And then we started moving. Wait, moving?! Who’s driving the car?!
Oh, Thais drive on the left side of the road. And no, we are not driving into oncoming traffic. Whew.
So, we were on our way. The ride was about 6 minutes long and consisted of two or four turnabouts on a freeway. One more U-turn and we were there. Wow, I thought. That was fast; Bangkok must be small.
The hotel was indeed very small. We would learn later that most taxi drivers has no idea of its existence; it was hidden away and, to make things more difficult, its name was in English, not Thai. We checked in and was led to our room by three bellboys. Truth be told, they were running around so fast, that they accidently grabbed our luggage and the room key and ran off to the room before we could figure out what was going on. We got left behind and had to go back to the receptionist to ask him where our room was and baggage went. The bellboys had to return down the four flights of stairs (no elevator in this hotel; I wondered if it was because of frequent power outages and guests stuck in elevators like in –spoiler alert- Hangover 2) to come get us and lead us to our room.The room was beautiful, comfortable, and had a view of little houses buried in lush, green forestry just across the street. Not bad for $20 a night. Brian and I “wowed” about the room for a total of about 5 minutes. We then knocked out for the rest of the morning. The combination of a week in the Philippines, spending a late night at the recording studio for a television show in the Philippines, the 4AM wake up call, and the relief of getting from point A to point B in a brand new country made for the perfect traveller’s morning tranquilizer cocktail.