Culture Shock :: Thailand

17 10 2008

So we’ve finally arrived in the country that inspired our grand adventure, and yes, it is all that we hoped for. When we left the comforts of our home we went out searching for something different, something shocking. Starting in Eastern Europe was like dipping our toes into the pool of culture shock, and once we felt how pleasant the water was, we decided to jump in and get our hair wet. We’re quite thankful for the slow initiation into this completely different way of life. For now we can no longer blend in with the locals, we can’t squint at our surroundings and imagine we’re still at home, but now, finally, we no longer feel the need to do so. A different way of life is all around us and not only are we not scared, but we’re dunking each other in the water and splashing about like children playing in a Holiday Inn swimming pool. We’re finally ready for something this dramatic. The culture shock is everywhere, it’s everything, and we can only hope to skim the surface with the following obsevations.

:: They Know We’re Different ::

In Europe, if we tried hard enough to twist our tongues to the local accent and follow their customs so as not to stand out, we could easily blend in and not be seen as a visitor. But now, in this strange land, there is nothing we can do so smoothly as to not be noticed. In fact, many of the places we’ve been while traveling in Thailand, we’re the only farangs (foreigners) in site. We’ve seen children stare at us, at first with fright – probably wondering what awful disease we have, then slowly being reassured by their parents that we are just freaks, not diseased. Eventually they just peek at us through the seats on a bus until we notice them, at which point they giggle and hide their faces in their mothers dress, only to repeat the game shortly. The adults have obviously seen many more farangs, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t stand out (possibly because of my red hair and freckles).

Walking down any somewhat busy street we hear the sound of passing cars, motorbikes, and occasionally the beep beep of a passing tuk tuk who’s driver wants to signal that he has indeed noticed us. This honking is normally followed by a big grin from the driver and he slows down to a crawl on the street beside us and asked us if we need a ride or says that he can show us the city for only 100 Baht. After a few occurrences like these, we get used to smiling and saying “no thank you, we like to walk” – an excuse they rarely accept, but eventually they’ll smile at us and continue on to the next potential customer. The funny thing is that at first, we just get tired of saying no and of wondering if the price they’re offering is the local price or a farang price. Then, strangely, the attention grows on us. We start enjoying the stares from the locals also sitting at the food stalls wondering whether or not we’ll be able to handle the spicy food. We begin to notice that the people aren’t looking at us like an unwanted visitor, but just as someone different and interesting. Eventually we realize that, unlike in the US, their culture thinks being light skinned is a luxury, not something to be embarrassed about (and we’re probably the whitest people around). We even start to get jealous when other farangs take away our spotlight. Soon enough, we crave the attention, not just because it makes us feel special, but also because the Thai people are all so friendly and helpful.

When the Thai people see us staring at the train that just pulled up, trying to spot a sign that may indicate it’s our train, someone always seems to come up and save us from our confusion. It also seems that being the only farangs on the train also has it’s advantages because somehow, everyone eventually knows our final destination and as soon as we start looking around out the window, wondering if we need to get off soon, someone near us tells us that our stop isn’t this one, but in about 20 minutes. While touring around Wats (temples), we often get into conversations with locals who probably just find us interesting and want to practice their English because they’ll come up to us and just start explaining the shrine we’re looking at or asking us where we’re from. We always end up getting great tips about local restaurants or what market is better to visit. This country is known as “The Land of Smiles” and we’re starting to know why.

:: Meals on Wheels ::

Most people in the United States would probably assume that just about any food that’s made and served from a cart on wheels, parked conveniently on the side of the street is probably going to kill you, or at the very least make your stomach do back flips until the food comes hurling back out – one end or the other. And, in the States, this may actually be true. Except, of course, for those hot-dog and gyro vendors brilliant enough to wait outside bars for the inebriated masses to fill the streets in search of something to cure their late-night booze munchies. But here in Thailand, you can actually score some very delicious and inexpensive snacks, and even full meals, at one of the many road-side food stalls. In fact, you can barely avoid these mobile kitchens. First of all, they are everywhere, especially if you go to any sort of market street (which there are many). Secondly, even a lot of the smaller restaurants have their customer seating inside the building while their kitchen remains out on the street. My guess is that it’s either too hot here to keep the kitchen inside, or the aromas of the tasty Thai curries attract people like mosquitoes to a sweaty farang (foreigner).

If you’re wondering what kind of edible food could possibly come from a cart, then don’t you worry, because the answer is everything. No kidding. They have light snacks such as shish kebabs; mystery meat balls on a stick, pastries filled with meat or fruit, thin pancakes with banana, chocolate and condensed milk, roasted plantains, etc. For a larger meal you can get all colors of curries with chicken and rice, pad thai, rice noodles with pork and a clear broth, how about a whole grilled fish, roasted duck, seriously any food from around Thailand (and more). Maybe the best part is that most of the snacks run 5-15 Baht ($0.15-0.50 USD) and a lot of the meals are about 30-60 Baht ($1-2 USD). Now, tell me, how can two food addicts like oursleves not love this beautiful country?

Jen at a Food Stall Glorious Banana Pancakes

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