I’m not quite sure about when I first wanted to visit East Asia but I do know it was a long time ago, probably inspired by great movies like The Empire of the Rising Sun or spectacular photographs I used to stare at in National Geographic magazines when I was about 10 years old, give or take a few. The people and cultures that I saw appeared to be so different yet so unique and mysterious that I had to find out how special East Asia really is, and immerse myself into civilizations that pray to Buddha in the mornings and eats scorpions and other insects in the afternoon. It was weird- too weird, but it was fantastic.
About a decade later I had my first opportunity to travel to East Asia, the stop being Bangkok in Thailand after a spending week in Cairo and on my way to Australia. I didn’t have much time (just a couple of days or three) but it was a dream that was becomming true. I still remember there was a storm near the airport, with lightning visible in the distance when looking out the starboard windows of my Thai Airways flight. However the flight was pretty smooth all the way to the end and we landed on time, at around midnight or 1 am. I remember thinking that the airport was huge and empty, and I was among the first passengers to get through the health screening area (the SARS virus was big news at the time). I got my Eagle Creek backpack and the rest of my belongings, bargained for a cab ( I saved 500 Baht) and was taken to the hotel I had booked online somewhere in Sukhumvit, a 4 star (or was it 3?) deal at 25 USD. I remembered my first surprise was learning that in Thailand you drive on the left side, like in the UK. For some reason I had never expected that.
The phone rang at 4:30 am (family making sure all was ok) and after a few more hours of sleep I woke up early and headed to the restaurant for my buffet breakfast. Sure, it was a buffet, but not international. Breakfast included all sorts of veggies, soups, rice, salads, beans and everything but milk, cereal, bread, croissants…none of the things I was used to. But I wasn’t upset, quite the contrary, I was excited about beginning to experience life as it was (is) in this part of the world. I helped myself with some rice, eggs and juice and made it out the front door, straight to the tourist booth I had seen the night before. I was given a map, indicated where the Royal Palace is as well as some other tourist hot-spots. I had been told not to use public buses because they are quite confusing and use the sky train instead because “it’s much easier and quicker”. I had the time, and I was in Bangkok. Why would I go for the easy stuff? I made my way to the bus stop and hopped on the one that that would take me where I wanted to go.
Less than 2 minutes later an old lady was mumbling something in my ear and staring at me with questioning eyes. I had no idea about what she was saying until I spoted an artistically decorated metal cylinder she was carrying with some colored papers. She was probably asking where I was going and would charge accordingly, but there was no way we could communicate, despite we each understood what was going on. However yet another lady popped her head and asked in perfect English where I was going and things went smooth from there. I payed, we all smiled, and to each his own.
As soon as I got off the bus I spotted a group of tuk-tuk drivers and surely made my way to them. This had to be the ultimate Bangkok experince I thought, and after negotiating we agreed he would take me to all the tourist places I wanted and more he knew if we stopped in two taylors and carpet sellers along the way and pretend I would buy something. The tour was awesome. I couldn’t feel any better than what I did, and the tuk-tuk driver knew enough English to explain things. I was given cold Coca Cola at the taylors’ and eventually did buy a taylor made suit for a ridiculous price.
Things got a little bit more complicated after that because I had to decide if I wanted a Thai massage or a body massage.
“It will be dropped in your hotel tomorrow morning” I was told. Perfect! One less thing to worry about, and a story I knew my mom would never believe ( I’m the kind of guy who hates wearing suits, ties…or leather shoes!).
The day was perfect; the sun was shining brightly and everybody seemed to be in a happy mood. The lying Buddha was grandiose and the Royal Palace portrayed everything I had imagined (minus the crowds), and I had a blast visiting it on my own. A group of travelers from Burma took a picture with me, but that was all I spoke during my 3 hour visit. Still, I was stoked.
My tuk-tuk driver was waiting for me at the door, and when I was about to pay the ridiculously small fee we had agreed he enquired if I wanted a massage. It sounded like a great idea so I said “Sure”- as long as it was cheap. Things got a little bit more complicated after that, because I had to decide if I wanted a Thai massage or a body massage. ???
“What’s the difference?” I asked? Things were explained graphically when he pulled out the business cards of the places he wanted to take me to. I wanted a Thai massage, but wanted to visit one of those “body massage” parlours anyhow. And so I did, stopping at two and wondering why all those gorgeous girls would be willing to engage themselves with the fat sweaty guy at the corner.
The tuk-tuk driver told me that I could get my Thai massage on the second floor of this parlour, and I did. It wasn’t as posh as the lower level where all the cute girls were but it was enough. I got my massage for 4USD (I gave the old lady an extra 4) and said bye-bye to the 4 year old girl who had been playing with my toes for the last 15 minutes- she was the masseur’s daughter.
It was around 9:30 pm as I was walking out the front door and asked the Tuk-Tuk driver to take me to a place where I could have a great Thai dinner-anywhere he wanted. And he did. I enjoyed a magnificent 3 course meal with shrimp, exotic rices, splendid pad-thai and I don’t remember what else. I was alone, as I had been all day, and felt tired but pleased with what I had just done. I was not new to traveling (had visited around 40 countries already) but I had just spent my first day in East Asia and enjoyed every little bit of it. It was raining, pooring in fact, but that couldn’t erase my smile either. After so many years my dream of visiting East Asia had become true and although I was no longer the 10 year old boy who read National Geographic magazines for fun I felt like him from head to toes. I had experienced different foods, different people, had witnessed tolerance as I hadn’t elsewhere (ladyboys are just as normal as you and me in thailand), had observed oriental behaviours, had ridden a tuk-tuk and had admired ancient Asian architechture in a single day. My first day in East Asia. It simply couldn’t have been any better, and that’s probably why I remember it so well.
Since then I have been 3 more times in Bangkok and travelled extensively in this part of the world, but there is more to come. And the best part of it is that I enjoy every single minute like I did then.
What are your travel dreams? Is there any place you fantasyze about visiting? Have you already visited that place you dreamed about visiting when you were a kid? How did you feel? Please share this post if you liked it!