Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Thailand With Kids: Then and Now

Thai Elephant
The first time I visited Thailand I was a kid. I was thirteen and my mom, dad, brother, sister and I were going to stay at my paternal grandmother, my Kunya’s, house. The flight was long and, because it was the 80’s, smoky.

We arrived at Don Muang Airport late at night. We stumbled jetlagged from the plane and walked straight into a hot, humid, rubbery wall of air. I’d just been introduced to Thailand. The smell wasn’t unpleasant, just distinctive. Each time I’ve returned to Thailand since, it’s been a nasal deja vu. I get off of the plane, and no matter how many years have passed, I’m greeted by that familiar smell.

By the time we made it to the arrival area, it was after 1 AM. My dad has a big family and they don’t call Thailand the Land of Smiles for nothing. We were met by a literal sea of cheerful people.  After all of the hugging and wai-ing, the real chaos began. We had a lot of oversized luggage; they had compact cars. There was a very loud and animated discussion about how the luggage and bodies should be distributed. Decisions were made and then unmade. I couldn’t follow the actual conversation, but I got the gist – rigorous debate was required. The floor on the New York Stock
Exchange looks placid compared to a group of Thais trying to arrive at a consensus. It is immaterial if the decision is large or small. No restaurant should picked, no hotel chosen, no price agreed upon without lively and noisy negotiation.

Finally we got all our big luggage loaded into their small cars, and we were off. It was very late when my aunt said we’d arrived at my Kunya’s house. I peered from the back seat window, but I couldn’t see the house. All I saw was a line of stopped cars with headlights beaming into the dark night. The problem it seemed was that the gate was locked. Finally, a key was produced at the same time the maid was roused from sleep, she held the gate open and the cars were ushered into the driveway, the gate firmly locked behind them.

But this time my brother, sister and I were beyond the realms of tired and overwhelmed. This was not only our first trip to Thailand, it had been our first international flight. We were shown to our bedroom. Brushing our teeth seemed like gratuitous overkill. All we wanted was to lay down. My seven-year-old brother threw himself onto the nearest bed and learned an important lesson. The Thais favor a firm but thin mattress. His gangly little body bounced back almost to an upright position. He looked stunned but crawled back onto the bed muttering something about the sheets. He was asleep before he reached the pillow. 

Once we stopped laughing, my sister and I gingerly laid on our respective beds only to discover what he’d been muttering about. There were only fitted sheets, no top sheets. We were too tired to care. 
The next morning when I woke up I made my way to the bathroom.  I was met by a huge water-filled blue and white cistern with a metal bowl floating on top of it. The cistern was more than waist-high and there were no steps leading to it so I couldn’t figure out how I was going to climb in. Before the trip, my dad had warned us that Thailand would be different from our Virginia home. In particular, he’d referenced the “squatty potties” we would find throughout the country. He hadn’t mentioned anything about the tub.

Eventually I learned that the cistern was not meant for soaking. Instead, you used the bowl to splash water over your body. The floor and the walls of the bathroom are tiled to accommodate the water. The cistern is kept filled throughout the day and although the water from the tap goes in cold, because of the tropical climate, the water rises to lukewarm. It’s actually a refreshing way to bathe after a long, hot day.

Cistern bathing, however, is an learned art and not one that this newly minted American teenager accustomed to long hot showers in a mauve and white bathroom had been taught. Do you suds first and then splash or do you splash and then lather? And what does one do about the lizards that languidly climb the walls as you bathe? It was all foreign - and fun.

Each ensuing summer’s visit to my Kunya’s was a new adventure. Much to my great regret, my ability to speak Thai only inched forward incrementally. My love for Thailand however grew exponentially.

I’ve since been back to Thailand many times and my love of this complicated, tradition-rich country continues. Thailand is often positioned as being a paradise of plush hotels or for the backpacking-inclined, hostels. There is so much, however, in between.

My most recent trip to Thailand was with my kids, ages 6, 5 and 4. As soon as we got off the plane, my oldest said, “What’s that smell?” I leaned down, ruffled his hair and said, “Welcome to Thailand.”

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