Much has happened since my last post: I climbed the razor-sharp pinnacles in Mulu NP, I dived one of the world’s premiere dive spots at Pulau Sipadan, I attended a Hindu festival in Singapore and spent an exciting and informative ten days in Bangkok. But I’ve never intended for this blog to be a been-there-and-done-that list, so I was looking for a nice little angle to write about.
After arriving in Bangkok, I immediately fell in love with the city. There’s a Flemish saying that states that “The love of a man goes through his stomach”. The love-affair between me and the “City of Angles” started off when I first laid eyes on the abundance of street vendors, who were selling their delicious dishes on every corner of the street. It has been almost eight years since my last visit to this country and I had forgotten just how good the local Thai food was. The Thai dishes, customized to the blend European taste – topped off with fat coconut cream out of a can – they serve in the Old Continent, had driven the Thai cuisine down to the bottom of my preferred food list.
While many men fall in love with Thai women and decide to stick around, for me it was the incredibly good food that wanted me to settle down and be fed 1 Euro street dishes for the rest of my live. Before filling in the application papers, I decided to try out several aspects of the Thai lifestyle to see if I’d really fit in.
Massage as a Thai
Wat Po temple is a world renown institution for teaching Thai massage, since I’ve always been a hands-on person and had a couple of days to spare I decided to register for the five day course. In the Thai society this school is accepted as the highest level of training and all the massage shops in town will claim – rightfully or not – that they have gotten their degree their. The course is very costly investment for Thai standards (210 euros) and all of my classmates were very surprised when they found out I just did this for fun and did not see this as an amazing, well-payed career.
The composition of my group was mainly Thai women and an older French guy. Since the two of us could speak the same language we soon were assigned to be massage buddies. At the start of the course you get a booklet with the 163 different steps of a full Thai massage. We were supposed to memorize these by the end of the course and thus be able to give a perfectly wholesome massage in one and a half hour.
Although you build up this knowledge in a gradual way, learning all the steps to give a great massage turned out to be quite challenging on the mind as well as the body. Because you’re supposed to pay attention to the position of the customer, your own position, the direction of your hands, the force you apply, the sequence of the massage steps, the duration of your pressure, etc… you have to be very attentive. The massage itself is pretty intense for the person on the giving end as well as on the receiving end, thus by the end of the day you’re pretty worn-out.
But let all this bad news not deceive you, my teachers and especially “Mami” – a sixty-five year old strong-willed masseuse – were impressed with my skill-set. According to them they had never seen a “farang” (stranger) show such forceful but delicate technique. Hence I passed the exam with flying colours and I’m now officially certified to give massages. If anything went ever wrong with the consulting career track, at least I’ve got a back-up plan now.
Party like a Thai/American
During the Halloween weekend I luckily did not have to attend massage class. I decided to couchsurf with two Thai girls who lived a bit out of town. If you’ve never heard about couchsurfing; look it up, it’s an amazing way to open up your world and improve your faith in humanity.
When I arrived at the girls place, there were two American brothers staying with them as well. Under the influence of these American guys “Halloween is the best holiday of the year”, our five-some decided to get some costumes and have a great party weekend. The shopping at first was a bit of a disappointment, because none of the shops in all of the shopping malls of Bangkok had any costumes for grown-ups.
Trying to keep the spirits and body going for our costume hunt, we had a little dinner. And all of the sudden we got lucky and found very colourful wigs. Combining these with matching t-shirts, sunglasses, nail polish and lip gloss made our outfit complete. Then in a moment of genius it struck me, we were dressed up as the Thai national saying. Same same, but different.
When we arrived on Kao San road (the meeting point for backpackers and every Thai who wants to sell something) on Friday night, it soon turned out that we were the only ones dressed up this early in the weekend. After overcoming the initial discomfort of having everybody stare at us, we walked on down the road. Soon people were coming up to have their picture taken with us and the local buckets of alcohol started to flow. The start of an amazing party weekend.
Barter like a Thai
There doesn’t seem to be a single thing in Bangkok where you do not have to discuss the price first: Tuk-tuk rides, t-shirts, sunglasses, … etc. Luckily enough my experiences in South-America have prepared me for this. By now I’ve learned how to discuss prices as a pro:
1. Getting the information from a local how much you’re supposed to pay,
2. let the driver/sales-person state their price first,
3. make a little joke about how much he’s overcharging you and then state the price you’ve been told.
4. Let them come down with their price, but stick with yours. If they come within 10% of what you’ve been told, just agree.
5. If not, just walk away. There’s a good chance they’ll agree, if not the next person will do for sure.
Sometimes I wondered why I was going through so much trouble to save something that would have very little real value (shaving off 25 Eurocents of a taxi ride). But then there were always two reasons why I did so. One was the fact that I didn’t like to be perceived as a walking money dispenser that they could overcharge just because I was foreign. The other is that if we as tourists do not go against these prices, they will perceive them as logical and acceptable and will continue to rip us off.
Cook like a Thai.
On my final day I decided to go for the grand test, following a cooking course at a local school. Kicking it off at the local market, we were introduced to the products that make Thai cuisine so recognizable: kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, four different kinds of ginger, fresh coconut milk, five different kinds of basil, two different kinds of cilantro, … A lot of the things that were bought, I had never seen or tasted before in Belgium. Probably the best explanation why our Thai food never is this good.
After coming back to the school we prepared our own Tom Yum Gung (Spicy shrimp soup), Pad Thai (Fried noodles), Nam Phrik Kang Khiao Wan (Green curry paste), Kang Khiao Wan Gai (Green curry with chicken), Laab Gai (Laos chicken salad) and Kluay Buad Chee (Banana in coconut milk). All of it tasted delicious, the combination of excellent products, good instructions and a lucky chef I guess.
After all these tests I felt like a true local and considered staying a bit longer. Unfortunately my next flight was already awaiting me. This time it was going to take me to Nepal, another destination I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. Luckily enough I’ll be back in Thailand at the end of my trip, so I can let the romance between me and Thai food flourish once more.
In a next update I’ll tell you about the amazing activities I’m planning in Nepal right now: rafting, canyoning, trekking, mountainbiking, …