I often dispute the millennial stereotypes out there that we’re lazy, entitled, live in our parents basements. To be fair, I am a frequent visitor of my sister’s basement but that doesn’t count, I’ve spent my life crashing in on her to watch her TV and eat her food (she has a much better selection of junk food than our parents). And now drink her wine but what are house guests for if not to entertain you and help you replace your provisions?
This whole stay-at-home/social distancing/self-isolation/pandemic situation has meant that for the first time since I was a teenager, I’m living at home with my parents for an extended period of time. Usually I max out at a week for a holiday or occassion of some kind. But this is indefinite. The Virginia Governor has extended his stay-at-home order until June. That’s a long-ass time.
Remember when you were a kid and you were mystified at what your parents did all day and then you would get to their office and play work? My brother and I would play ‘businessmen’ and have cookies for breakfast, pretending they were donuts (that did not fly with our parents). We would set up a little mini desk and raid the supply closet at my dad’s office and scribble memos, write fake checks and generally pretend to be very important business people.
That’s basically what my life feels like now. I set up my little tablet and bluetooth keyboard at some sort of table (usually a kitchen table but currently a coffee table) and check my emails, make notes of who I need to call to cancel something, check my budget spreadsheet and cry a little on the inside, and sometimes bang out a post such as this. It all feels like the make-believe version of life.
I am stubborn. Not in a ‘my way or the highway’ way but in a ‘anything you can do for me, I can do for myself’ way. I don’t like being made to do something I don’t want to do. Such as cancelling my trip half-way through: partially because I was looking forward to it but partially because it was already planned and cancelling would mean making a new plan without time to consider or waffle on it. So before I could change my mind, I up and bought a one-way ticket from Vietnam back to London, in fear of the UK border closing (I am a non-citizen who had been working and living in London but moving out).
I write this not from Vietnam or Cambodia where I intended to be, or even Nepal where I had planned to go in another two weeks to conclude my long-awaited epic journey in Asia. Alas, I write this from the safety of my friend’s home in Surrey. Having decided to leave Vietnam early and with 4 hours until the last minute flight I booked, it was a bit of a whirlwind coming back to the UK. I no longer have a flat here but it was my final destination for my trip and where I had booked a flight back to the US and left my non-Asia clothing. Yes, I could have gone back to the US without going via London but as you’ve noticed, things are changing day by day and at the time, London seemed to be the place to go to lay low for a month until things quieted down.
First lesson: how to pronounce ‘Laos’. My guide told me that it is the Lao (silent s) people but the country of Laos (hard s). So I’ve been saying it wrong thinking I was all cultured and knew how to properly pronounce the country’s name. If you leave now, I will understand.
Although Laos is sandwiched between Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and China, it is surprisingly far different from Thailand than I expected. I had read that it is a bit more western feeling because of past French influence but it’s still distinctly not French in many ways.
Walking down the streets of Luang Prabang, it actually feels more like small town America or an old saloon town than France or Asia. Two story buildings line the main street with tour agencies, restaurants, spas and shops repeating themselves with Wats book-ending the main street. The restaurants are a mix of cuisines with some French bakeries as well as expat restaurants lauding (see what I did there?) burgers. Much of the food is similar to Thailand but they do have their own beer, Beer Lao (hard to miss the connection there).
The shops stay open late (okay, I’m an old lady but they’re at least open at like 9pm) but the street turns into a night market after sunset where you can wander amongst textiles, baskets, art, jewellry, coconut pancakes, until you get to THE Night Market (capital letters here) which has food stalls galore.
Some of the lessons from Laos are similar to Thailand: haggle, BYO toilet paper, but they have far more cash machines and smaller fees (20,000KIP which is $2). But they also seem to have more card options (still with the 3% charge) and accept USD which is handy when you’ve mismanaged your cash and don’t want to pay an ATM fee just to pay the cab driver $10 on the way to the airport. Or so my friend told me…
Another big thing in Luang Prabang: happy hour. Some places it’s 3-7pm, others it’s 7:30-9:30, you see the opportunity here, right?
So I’ve been planning this trip for probably 6 months now. It all started with a yoga retreat to Thailand and I thought “well, if I’m going to be in Thailand for a retreat, I might as well see more of Thailand” which grew into “well, if I’m in Thailand, I might as well see other countries in Southeast Asia while I’m there” which turned into “well, my lease is up and my will to work is up too so might as well just quit and travel for a bit”. It was always my intention to return to the US via traveling east (aka: the opposite direction from where I needed to go).
So when Coronavirus hit the news in January, I figured it would blow over by the time I left in late February for my adventure. Obviously it did not. Instead, it spread, as diseases are likely to do in the age of super connected travel and fear of inconvenience. But still, I went on my trip because the countries I was planning to visit had very low occurrences and where there were cases, they were from direct transmission from visits to China. Obviously community cases were bound to start as they do with every flu season and airborne disease back to the plague.
There were some things I was expecting from being a tourist in a country where I am blatantly an outsider. I expected a lot more staring or general attention for being a tall, white, female in Asia than I’ve gotten which is great! And I was also expecting there to be more indoor refuge from the heat (literally everything is outside) which is less great but manageable. Here are some expectation-setting tips for if and when you are preparing for a trip to Thailand.
1) Cash monies. As in have some. Or a lot. Depending on how long you’re staying. But ATMs charge you a flat charge of 220 baht which is about the cost of a meal or $5. It might not feel like a lot when you’re buying a meal but it feels a lot like extortion when you’re withdrawing money. And everywhere is cash only. I think I used my credit card once in 2 weeks in Thailand. And the places that do take it, charge a 3% fee to use it (which honestly might be less than the 220 baht cash fee but the more you know!). It’s hard to know how much cash you will need but things in Thailand are cheap. If you’re thinking just food, my hotel included breakfast so was spending maximum $20 a day on lunch, dinner, water, ice cream and beer. And elephant pants.
2) Embrace the power of massage. I think it’s fairly well known that Thailand and massaging go together like peas and carrots (if you’re scratching your head at this reference, we can’t be friends). At first, I was like “naaaah, I don’t need to have a massage every day, I have one like annually for my birthday back home, one is pleeeenty”. When they cost $10, one is not plenty. In fact, daily is pretty friggin’ awesome. When on Koh Samui, we headed for a chain endearingly called My Friends where everything is orange and yellow and you’re lined up next to each other on curtained beds while some solid 60’s hits play in the background. Great massage, not the most relaxing atmosphere but still managed to pass out. In Chiang Mai, I went based on Google ratings but there are so many massage places, you’ll find them everywhere and seem to all be good. I highly recommend Time to Massage which has more of a western spa feel with instrumental music and you undress behind a curtain but I also had an amaaaazing foot, neck and shoulder massage at Relax & Enjoy where I also fell asleep. These cost between 220-400 baht.
3) Tipping. Not a city in China, or in Thailand for that matter (so far as I know). I’m honestly not sure what the ettiquette is officially on this. I did tip sometimes to my massage friends and did about 10% and they never seemed annoyed or disappointed in the amount. But I also didn’t tip on eating out and was equally not met with scorn so hard to say. Since things are so cheap and tourism is down due to Coronavirus, any extra I’m sure would be appreciated. But I’d also heard that too much tipping is also considered rude so stuck with 10-15%.
4) Haggle. My Malaysian friend told me that you should always negotiate price in markets and they will single you out for being not Asian. I believe tourists will be singled out everywhere but is mostly just the price you pay for being a tourist. It’s good business sense on their part! And I am terrible at negotiation. Mostly because I feel like I have something to lose, they have something I want. But in the markets, if you’re going for a souvenir, most likely there’s another stall with exactly the same thing so they would lose your business if they say no to your price. So I just kept in mind the maximum price I would pay for something and then if it was over that, suggest a number. And sometimes, all you have to do is look hesitant and they just throw out 10% off. Like I would’ve paid 100% but 90% is cool too.
5) Toilets. They have them! And they’re even western style. But they often don’t have toilet paper and when they do, I’ve seen a lot of signs indicating you are not meant to flush it. Forces of habits won out but keep an eye out, my guess is this has something to do with their sewer systems. Other fun fact, if you can’t find the flusher and there’s a bucket of water with a ladle in it next to the toilet…it’s a gravity flusher so pour some water in when you’re done to ‘flush’. Also, the featured photo for this post is the ‘Golden Throne’ which is in fact the lovely (and complete with TP) toilet facilities at the White Temple in Chiang Rai.
What are some things that have surprised you when traveling abroad? Any horror stories of etiquette gone terribly awry??
Even before I came to Thailand, I knew that elephant harem pants are a thing. Like a huge thing. What are elephant harem pants, you ask? Well, they are these loose fitting pants (trousers for the non-American subscribers) that are cheap, lightweight, temple-approved and readily available with about 100 different variations of print and color with elephants on them.
I also learned that you are never to pay full price in a market (turns out they give you discounts in stores too, FYI) and, as a non-Asian, am a prime target for paying full price. So haggle! My elephant pants cost a whopping 100 baht (or $1) and for the photo opp aka the ‘gram, I bought some.
But as I perused for the least tourist elephants, I also noticed how in their lightweight glory, these pants were almost certainly see-through. Which brings back memories of another adventure and embarrassing story.
When I was in high school, I participated in the People to People Student Ambassador program which hails from the days of Eisenhower and promoting international relations, starting with the youth of America. Now, it’s really just a chance for kids to travel the world without their parents and say it’s for volunteering/school. But it is fun! And a good primer on what to do when you are away from home with 50 kids you don’t know at all.
Anyways, we went to Italy and part of that trip included a tour of the Vatican. Now the Vatican has a similar dress code to Buddhist temples: women must cover their shoulders and knees. So I borrowed a skirt from my mom’s closet that was appropriate–until I left the hotel and was politely informed by a friend that my skirt was 100% see-through. In retrospect, this is funny. The same thing happened to Princess Diana! In the moment, it was mortifying, especially to a self-conscious 15 year old who was trying to play it cool in front of her crush and the cool kids. So naturally I hid in a crowd of my friends until we could get to a market where I frantically went stall to stall until I found one that sold something that could serve as a slip and paid the full price of 15 euros for a pair of black pants to wear under my skirt, convincing myself that I could wear them again like a horrible bridesmaids dress and laugh about this encounter. Spoiler alert: I never wore them again.
I then scurried away to a public toilet to put them on. Except for the small fact that I had NO idea how to put them on. The contraption involved some kind of step into, unfold, refold, tie front, tie back situation which my rattled brain could not understand. So there I stood in my underwear while a friend (who I had met approximately 1 week prior) basically stitched me up into these trousers. And then I put my skirt on over it and away we went. The Vatican was lovely and ironically they stopped me because too much of my shoulder was showing. Rather than yelling “for the love of God!”, I wrapped up in my trusty cardigan (probably also from my mom’s closet…in fact I think the whole outfit was borrowed) and went with grace.
Now, this harrowing adventure, combined with another unfortunate incident in my impressionable youth involving light jeans and chocolate cake, have left me with an aversion for lightweight and light-colored bottoms. So beneath my trendy, airy, lightweight elephant pants are also tight, dark, yoga shorts. Because I don’t intend to make the same mistake twice.
When I was a kid, every summer I would make a list of goals to complete by the time school started up again. As nerdy as this sounds, which it was, it was also self-preservation as I spent a lot of time in isolation in the middle of the woods with the closest kid in age for miles and miles being my older brother (and we tired of each other quickly).
Usually this would be broken down into daily or weekly tasks such as ‘run a mile every day’ (to be fair, the mile test was a real thing I was awful at and our driveway was legitimately half a mile long so it seemed like a good way to practice). I would learn calligraphy or study algebra (again, I was bad at algebra so I wanted to stay on top of my lessons). I even went so far as to concoct a Hogwarts-themed schedule a la Hermione Granger to keep myself busy and motivated to study. During the school break…
Recently, the video narrated by Cynthia Nixon entitled ‘Be a Lady They Said’ has been circulating amongst my friends. It highlights the contradictory messages we as women receive from society, the media, our partners, basically everyone.
I had actually written this poem last month, feeling like throughout my life I’ve been told I’m too this or too that, not enough this not enough that. It’s similar to the sentiment in the video which makes me feel a sense of solidarity with women, that I’m not the only one who feels this way.
But where does that leave us? Acknowledging there’s a problem, commiserating and then things staying the same?
So you arrive in Bangkok airport, yay! And you’ve had a restful 12 hour flight, ready to hit the ground running, yay! If you’ve got a long layover, it’s easy enough to get in and out of Bangkok to have some food and see some sites, luggage free.
I had read beforehand about a luggage storage at the airport for 100BHT (which is like £2) but couldn’t locate it so asked at Information and they sent me to the right place. The price is per bag, no matter what the size so try to consolidate as much as possible if your storing things.
Once you’ve dropped your stuff and maybe freshened up classily in the bathroom, follow signs for Airlink. This is one of the public transportation options which will get you into the city. Token machines are located at the entrance (and in English), you simply input where you want to go and it will calculate the price (from end to end was 45BHT so stupidly cheap).
I took the BRT airlink train (it’s handy to remember BRT to tell taxi drivers or ask for directions to the nearest station) to Itsaraphap and switched to the MRT train to get to Wat Arun in the western part of the city. Again the fare was quite cheap but if you’re taking more than three rides, it’s worth a day pass. Both the BRT and MRT give you fob tokens, you tap on the way in and drop the token on the way out. They aren’t very big so keep track of it!
On my agenda were some of the big sites including Wat Arun or Temple of Dawn, Wat Pho for the Reclining Buddha, and the Grand Palace. Starting at Wat Arun, it should’ve been a short walk from the station and there were some signs buuuut I got a little lost. Nothing to be worried about but you wind up in neighborhoods and small streets ha.