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Trusting in Thailand

Bangkok is a massive city. It makes NYC look like a Rockefeller painting (of Topeka). You can’t even begin to see it all (nor would you want to) and given a short visit, you can only expect to tackle a few small sections. Getting around is mostly by tuk-tuks (imagine a 150 horsepower golf cart). The problem with a tourist traveling by tuk-tuks in Bangkok is that the driver is paid more by getting you to his destination than he is by taking you to yours. It’s not impossible to get where you want but it is a constant struggle. Leave any room for wiggle and you will find yourself looking at precious stones, getting measured for a suit, or at a house of human pleasure.

There are temples in Bangkok that are nothing short of amazing. The Palace is a magnificent structure and the theater and shows dazzle in a way that gives a cultural appreciation that you simply cannot predict. I only scheduled 2 days in Bangkok – one more than Murray Head claimed back in the 90s “would make a hard man crumble”. The first day was one amazing site after another. I was excited about being in Thailand more than I could have ever imagined. After trying to take in everything I possibly could, the only thing that was going to serve my aching back was a traditional Thai massage.

It was my first day and I didn’t have the tuk-tuk procedure down just yet. It took two tries to get to the kind of place I was looking for. The first stop was a place my tuk-tuk driver said was “just the place”. It seemed to be a converted dance club and inside was a long glass wall that served the purpose of turning the next room into a full sized fish bowl. Only instead of fish on the other side of the glass, it was a full fleet of Thai women. Obviously, this place was a “full service” establishment. Maybe at another time in my life, most assuredly in my college days, but on this day, I was like a pregnant woman on a focused hunt and only a traditional Thai massage was going to do. The tuk-tuk driver would have to try again.

Near tourist central (AKA Khao San Road), a sign for Thai massage was just the calling card I was looking for. I entered a large square room with mattress-pads covering the entire room. I suppose it was possible for 50 people to get massages at once but on this occasion, I was joined by only one other. To be honest, I could not imagine a scenario where they would need that many mattress pads. My massage began and within minutes the entire staff (most of which was family) began piling in one by one and lying around to chat with their strange guest. Hotel California from the Eagles blares across the stereo downstairs followed by Kalifornication from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The entire family is sitting and lying around me with a flurry of questions that range from what my favorite kind of music is to how much this massage would cost in America. Two hours, 1 masseuse, $8, and 176 questions later and I’m completely refreshed from my long day. Thai massages are a world away from their comatose inducing sensual massages in the West. They are equal parts massage, chiropractic alignment, and yoga and every woman (and no men) in the country seems to know the art. Yet it was this odd group participation that made the entire experience so surreal and it would continue to define my entire stay in this wonderful country.

Everywhere I went the people were just amazing. They wanted to sit down and talk, know what my life was like, and help me enjoy their country. I have traveled for years and had never experienced anything remotely like this. This hospitality was inspirational and at the same time overwhelming. If this had been happening in the U.S., I would have been filing restraining orders by the fistful.

I moved north. More cities, more temples, and a long barrage of fantastic meals followed. More importantly, the extraordinary warm and rich spirit of the Thai people continued uninterrupted. In Cheng Mai, a woman I had met at a side-of-the-road tiki hut bar 2 hours earlier took me on a midnight tour of the city. In Cheng Rai, I got sick. The owner of the Guesthouse brought noodles to my room.

I wheeled into Cheng Sean late one night. I garnered a place to stay and conveyed to the owner that I was seeking a tuk-tuk to a restaurant. With her limited English, she tried to tell me that someone was coming. I had fully expected a taxi ride to a restaurant where I could eat, relax, then go to bed early. When it was the owner’s brother who showed up (instead of the expected tuk-tuk driver) and said he was on his way to dinner with a group of his friends and that we were going there, I knew my plans had been dramatically altered.

There are two ways to approach traveling. There’s the “tour bus” strategy where everything is planned out, meticulously scheduled and generally safe. Then there’s the “seat-of-your-pants” method, which is everything the tour bus method is not. This type of traveling is filled with a lot of moments where you enter into a situation having absolutely no clue what is in store for you. It can be stressful. Too stressful for some.

We arrived at a restaurant and 7 people were waiting for us. Actually they were waiting on him. I was a bonus for them. A low rising bamboo table was the setting for a meal that somehow managed to surpass every delectable meal to this point. It was a visually enthralling presentation of food so far beyond the standard I had become used to back home. The hostess was a dainty young Thai woman who managed only our table. She refreshed our drinks at the first hint of anyone running low and somehow managed to keep pace with 9 people, who seemed bent on consuming their way into a state of long-term culinary happiness. We ate, drank, and danced to the Thai music for hours and when it was all over this group of strangers would accept no money but demanded that I go dancing with them – a continuation of the unrealistic fun and excitement that would last well into the morning hours.

Every Thai town I enter, I encounter another group of people that shows me what is really right with the world. Every town gets harder to leave than the one before. Every 2-day plan turns into a 4-day stay. The Thais seem to have never lost sight of the knowledge that life is about the people and little else. It started on my first day with the masseuse’s entire family circling me and it ends as I (equipped with a hangover from the night before) stand atop a majestic temple buried in the mountain. This place is nowhere to be found on any guidebook. One of the people from last night’s surprise dinner offered to close her store and show me around –just more of the amazing same.

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