Sunday, February 9, 2014

Bangkok is One Big Food Court

And now, I will attempt to recall my two weeks of travel in Thailand and Laos with one blog post per day. It will probably take more than fourteen days.
The Chinese Gate in Bangkok.
Day 1 (Jan. 24): Travel.
I first flew from Busan to Kuala Lumpur with AirAsia, a super low-cost airline that leaks advertising out of its pleather seat cushions and turns its aircrafts into billboards. They know the importance of branding. Stepping out of the plane in KL was my first experience in Southeast Asia, and it was muggy. Waiting in line at the international transfers hall for over an hour was my second experience in Southeast Asia, and it was annoying. Beginning and finishing The Things They Carried while waiting five hours for my next flight was my third experience in Southeast Asia, and it was alternatingly confusing, captivating, and boring. I was pleased to leave the KL airport.

I arrived at Don Muang Airport in northern Bangkok near 11:00pm. This was when I actually felt like my travels had begun: exchanging money, seeing signs everywhere in the Thai script, which I can't read at all, and walking around with my heavy backpack on: all of this certainly kicked my wanderlust into high gear. I'm somewhere I've never been before! I'm alone! I have no strict schedule! This is going to be awesome.

Bangkok travel tip: don't take a taxi from either of the international airports to downtown. From Don Muang (DMK), take the A1 airport shuttle for 30THB and 30 minutes to the Mo Chit metro station. From there, take the subway or the Skytrain (BTS) downtown. From Suvarnabhumi (BKK), take the airport link. I don't like taxis. Use this transportation website to help you plan.

So I caught the last airport shuttle (11:30pm) heading out and then the last Skytrain heading downtown just after midnight. Bangkok's metro system seemed really clean and modern; on the other hand, its streets are not. And it was these dark, dirty, post-market, traffic-fume-clogged streets I walked through for twenty minutes before finally arriving at my hostel.

Bangkok hostel rec: New Road Guesthouse (run by Visit Beyond). +1 for $7 dorm housing, +1 for proximity to Chinatown and Sukhumvit Road and distance from the craziness of Khao San Road, +1 for computers and wifi, +1 extremely friendly and helpful staff (among the best I encountered in my entire trip), and +1 for the cool map of Bangkok they gave me.

My first night, I actually stayed up long past when I should have passed out after a day's travel, because I met some local Thai guys working at the hostel and chatted with them at the bar. Like I said, friendly and welcoming staff!
Bangkok Chinatown: gold stores and red charms for the Lunar New Year.
Day 2 (Jan. 25): Bangkok is one big food court.
So, my first "cultural" experience in Thailand was in the Chinatown of Bangkok. It was a pleasant half-hour walk away from my hostel, full of different sights and sounds than the ones I'm used to in clean, organized Korea. I wended my way through streets overflowing with vendors as the early morning traffic turned into late morning traffic. I bought a whole sliced mango for a dollar! There were tons of food stalls, restaurants, and a string of gold shops. Many vendors were selling red lanterns and gilded decorations for the upcoming Lunar New Year. It was funny that I was surrounded by the symbols of Chinese culture rather than Thai culture, but obviously the cultures have influenced each other greatly, so who's to say what icons and traditions belong to whom?

For breakfast, I met up with two fellow South Korea Fulbrighters who happened also to be in Bangkok, although they were going to leave for Cambodia that day. I really enjoyed catching up with Taxi and Jessica and hearing their thoughts on Southeast Asian culture as they'd experienced it so far. What they told me -- and what I eventually came to experience for myself -- was that the poverty was so dire at times as to be physically arresting, and that I could expect to be made uncomfortable by the tourism industry's complete lack of subtlety. Although our time together was brief, it was nice to start everything off with a set of friendly, familiar faces.
Taxi, Jessica, and me in front of Wat Traimit.
For lunch, my dad set me up with an old colleague of his from Taiwan. Dr. Weng moved to Thailand five years ago to do Christian missions work. He had gotten to know many Thai immigrants to Taiwan(1) whose accident-prone industry jobs landed many of them in his hospital. He had ministered to them and encouraged them to bring the Gospel back to their rural hometowns in Thailand.

Later, he heard that they were having trouble establishing Christian communities in this 90% Buddhist and 0.5% Christian country, so he felt called here to help. Fortunately for him and his wife, they found support at the Bangkok Christian Hospital, where he is now based. He travels regularly to other cities in Thailand, especially rural areas, to aid their church congregations and also preaches (in Thai! He found it easy to pick up the local language, partly beacuse it is pentatonemic, just like Mandarin). Dr. Weng gives sermons regularly at a small community church in Talat Phlu, and he invited me to visit the following day.

Also, lunch was delicious. We had papaya salad, steamed fish, sticky rice, and a variety of spicy dips for the rice. I found it easier than I expected to get to know my dad's colleague, since we spoke for most of the time in Mandarin, which I haven't used in years. But anyway, I was happy to get to know him and his work and was blessed by his gift of a Thailand-shaped wall hanger.

After lunch, we took a walk in a nearby park. That park turned out to Lumphini Park, one of several sites of the anti-government protests that have taken over the capital city. More on that later...

For dinner, I made a date with two Americans I'd met in Changwon. Chris and Leah were teachers in Korea for one year, but then moved to Thailand, where Leah now teaches at an international school she loves and Chris is starting up a sustainable carpentry business. They are such a lovely couple.
Chris and Leah in Soi 38 of Sukhumvit Road, with burgers from Daniel Thaiger's food truck.
They took me to the area around Sukhumvit Road, which is famous for its food alleys. Soi 38 is a dead street(2) during the day but comes alive with restaurants and food stalls at night. It is home to what Chris calls the best burger truck in all of Bangkok. I didn't get a burger, but I did try Thai noodle soup and coconut-mango sticky rice for the first time (and fell in love). "Well, this is a neat little food court," I remarked.

"All of Bangkok is a food court," said Leah. She is so right.

In the evening, we went to their church. It's called Newsong, and I thought that that name sounded very familiar... Then, one of their members made the connection for me: they're a church plant of Newsong in Irvine, CA! That's the megachurch my missions team visited every single summer before and after our week-long service trip in Tijuana, Mexico. I was really astounded by how small the world became; however, I wonder how many people at Newsong are actually aware of this passionate, sixty-odd-strong group of urbanites over eight thousand miles away?

Anyway, Newsong Bangkok was delightfully friendly and welcoming, expats and local Thai alike. I liked how comfortably they squeezed into a renovated space the size of your average Korean cafe, how everyone wore flip flops and a smile, how energetic the music was -- and they sang some songs in Thai! I was touched when one of the guitarists shared a song he had written during a time of depression, and I was impressed with the simultaneous interpretation of the sermon (given by their super chill bro-y American pastor) and announcements into Thai.

By the end of just one short service, I really missed church. I attend an international fellowship regularly in Changwon, but it's not the same by a long shot. Yes, I love my community, but to be honest, I haven't felt like I've received much spiritual nourishment from the services for several months. Newsong has a lot of the typical factors that appeal to Christians of my generation and a definite hip (or hipster) aura: young congregants, Saturday-evening services, relevant teaching rooted in real life, and even a fair-trade coffeeshop. Its diversity is also stunning; not just in having a congregation that is 50% local Thai, but also the wide variety of foreigners.

As Taxi and Jessica had told me earlier in the day, and as Chris and Leah reiterated when I asked them, Bangkok's diversity is pretty difficult to rival, and its foreigner population(3) is comprised of all sorts of unique and awesome people. It's not like Korea, where most of us waygooks are English teachers. People come to Bangkok from all over the world to study, to sell jeans, to start businesses, to "find themselves", to teach, to learn, to open up gyms, to get married, to do missionary work... Bangkok is crazy multicultural. I suppose it's comparable to Seoul, but Jessica said that even Itaewon has nothing on Khao San Road.

Mmm, and with cultural diversity always comes a smorgasboard of delicious food. So that was my first full day in Thailand: I met awesome old friends and made new ones, and I got just a taste of something "different" that would come to define the next two weeks. Oh, and I also went to the Bangkok anti-government protests, but that's a story for tomorrow.
Mango with coconut sticky rice; this stuff is amazing, and it only costs a dollar or two!
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(1) Confusing, isn't it? Even a lot of Koreans mix up my ancestry, thinking I'm from 태국 and not 대만.
(2) Soi means "alley", and many streets in Bangkok are numbered and referred to as Soi 1, Soi 2, etc. of the nearest large road.
(3) So we're not even counting the dozens of different ethnic groups that are all Thai by citizenship.

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