Entering Thailand

We rode a shuttle, “Melayani Dengan Bus Eksekutif,” otherwise known as International Bus Service, to Soekarno-Hatta International Airport for Rp. 20,000 (about $1.75 USD). Taking some moments to rest before our flight, we parked ourselves in a coffee cafe and wrote postcards with the intent to send them off that same day. What was interesting was buying postage: I had purchased stamps in Bali and paid face value for them; I bought postage on Gili Trewangan and experienced a nominal markup, but in this airport they simply charged twice their worth without even a flinch from the cashier. I was not yet jaded to let this roll off my back, no matter how familiar I was with it. My tip to travelers would be to purchase postage stamps at an official post office in a small town or village in order to not get ripped off or (negligibly) fund micro-corruption.

I set up my laptop to go online, which irritated Rebecca a little bit, perhaps because she wanted to be present with me or while away the time with cards. At the same time, it was a necessity for me to email Gene to transfer some temporary relief funds (from my Idaho account to my MN bank), just a cushion until we could do our own banking in Thailand. He was very helpful any time I needed this, and modern tech made it easy to make it easy for him: I took a picture of my credit union’s deposit slip, cropped it in Picasa, emailed the JPG to him and he used that for the transfer. I shudder to think how laborious and time-demanding such a process would’ve been 50 years prior.

There are times in the course of world travel when, despite plunging into nation after nation of strangers and foreigners living abroad, you nonetheless run into the same people over and over again. They stand out because you actually recognize them: a good-looking face, a distinctive t-shirt, a certain buzz of activity about them, etc., there’s always some factor that makes them stand out to begin with and then latch onto when you encounter them the next time.

In this case, while we were checking in to Soekarno-Hatta, I noticed two young Japanese women lugging their luggage around, one of whom was probably my height. That’s going to stand out, that’s something you’ll notice, right? As my wife and I wrote postcards and had coffee, I noticed the pair walk back and forth through the concourse. And once we boarded our Air Asia plane and departed from Jakarta, Java, the 6′ tall Japanese woman happened to sit across the aisle from me.

That’s all. We didn’t talk and I never saw those two again. It was just kinda funny. This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.

We touched down in Thailand around 8:30 p.m., taxiing into Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK). Immediately I was struck by how vast and spacious the interior was, everything being brushed steel or aluminum. That doesn’t sound like a great surprise for a major international airport, of course, but the previous month had seen a couple small storage garages repurposed for vinyl chairs and puddle-jumpers, by comparison.

The other travelers ran the gamut of physical appearances: two tough-looking young Thai men with stubbly scalps and rounded, bulging muscles; a boisterous and barely controlled Indian family with several small children; two tall and angular Scand couples in attractive and expensive travel gear; two swarthy and round-bellied Turkish men with leather jackets and unbuttoned collars showing rows of gold chains; the ubiquitous roaming hippies, dredded-out hair, sleepy and slack-jawed expressions, clothes in disrepair, at least one musical instrument, etc. It was, I venture to call it, one of the top ten best people-watching junctures in the world. Until we establish intergalactic travel and brook friendly relationships with truly alien races, hanging out in BKK is the next best thing to a bustling starport.

One facet to traveling through multiple nations is that your appreciation is multilayered: you can stay grounded and compare the shops and food to what you have back home, or you can access a higher plane of contemplation and compare all the nations against each other. It gets dizzying, not just to be dazzled by what you’re discovering and adoring what you left behind, but to get the slightest hint of all the hundreds of different ways there are to do the most elemental aspects of living. There were qualities to this airport that were standard and familiar, like the unsmiling Customs officials, the tedious multihued cards to interpret and fill out, the enormous display screens, such like that there. But then we’d seen several different airports since leaving Minneapolis: there was the layover in Singapore which was an event in itself, and there was the abandoned strip mall-cum-airport in Banjarmasin, and now we found ourselves in a testament to first-world infrastructure. As much as we enjoyed the humble and efficiently functional previous airports, coming into BKK was like releasing pent-up breath, the sense that certain responsibilities would be taken care for us, that we could relax and let infrastructure hustle us along on a smooth-gliding conveyor belt. It was nice, to me, to come off my guard and trust in the System as I found it in Bangkok, to drop certain considerations and focus only on getting our passports stamped and finding a taxi.

There was absolutely no problem with finding a cab. After the gleaming steel and blue accents of the interior of BKK (their thematic blend of what BKK should be and a nod to Christmas), we stepped from the air-conditioned lobby and belly-flopped, horizontally, into the hot and moist Thai atmosphere, but before we had time to sweat one single bead we found ourselves before a row of garish, hot pink taxicabs. Our enormous beige bags were hustled into the back, our destination was carefully enunciated to a capably fluent driver, and off we went in search of Sukhumvit, one of the main streets in Bangkok.

Rebecca and I stared out the windows and tried to take in as much preliminary metro information as we could, through the evening’s blackness: the telephone poles were heavily laden with ropy black cables; we drove beside the concrete elevation for the Skytrain; scooters were still a thing here, weaving in and out of traffic with cars, though the cars were smaller and more reasonable than what plagues the streets in the U.S.; and many things seemed to be brightly colored, as though attention-grabbing hues were coded into Thai culture. The reverse-ethnographer in me tried to reason whether this was a synaesthetic echo from intensely spicy food or simply hearkening to vibrant floral displays indigenous to the region, but of course I’m completely unschooled on such matters and doubtlessly this scientific exposition has been debunked several decades ago. There is nothing wrong with playing the gazetteer as a private, internal mental exercise, I think. It’s when you go back home and insist brashly to friends and family why the little brown people do what they do that you come off as an unapologetic racist. Perhaps.

Best not to think too hard about such things. I just wanted to memorize the area around the airport, in case we would be staying near it, but two dozen labyrinthine twists and turns disabused me of my naivete. Our hotel was nowhere near the airport, so anything I committed to memory would be a wasteful exercise; I unhinged and simply enjoyed the colorful lights and urban cacophony.

When we showed up at our hotel, Imm Fusion (a chain hotel throughout Thailand, I would discover), there was an unremarkable flatbed pickup sitting in the entrance. Not parked in front, but actually lodged in the front opening where people should go through. There was nothing in the back to be unloaded, and in the next several days we stayed there, there was nothing to be unloaded that I could detect, but that pickup was always parked right in the entryway, which I frankly thought degraded the classiness of the joint. Despite, we stayed there for longer than we intended because we loved the hotel.

What’s interesting about the Imm Fusion, across from Tesco Lotus, next to depot On Nut, is that it’s a hotel between two buildings. The “main office”, as it were, is what would ordinarily be an alleyway. There’s the front desk, and behind that is a swimming pool, but neither of these have a roof. All the rooms of the hotel are in the buildings to the left or the right; when you’re checking in, there is no effort involved to look up at the sky. How bold a venture, is it, to buy the adjacent buildings and turn them into the dining facility and residential rooms? Yet there was the young, punky woman behind the counter, taking our reservations and slipping me the printed paper with login info to the Imm Fusion Wi-Fi, with no ceiling above us. It was as trippy as it was beautiful. On our left was a small cavity in which to store luggage while their owners went off and had city-wide adventures, conceivably. On the right was an alcove with beanbag chairs and TV sets, in which residents could just chill out and mind their own business.

We looked forward to this.

When we first checked into Imm Fusion, there was a pickup truck parked in the entrance. You could walk past it and enter the building, and feel that the truck was left behind in some less-refined structure that nonetheless led to where people did business before going up to their rooms and falling asleep, but that was the fact of it: there was someone’s utility truck lodged in the front of the building. I know there were some nights we walked out and the truck was not there, but I feel the predominant feature of the exterior of this otherwise exquisite hotel was that of a truck being lodged in the entrance, forcing patrons to climb and shimmy around it, rather than walking straight into a building like a normal human would.

After checking in we walked over to the vintage elevators. The walls on the main floor and up on our floor were painted plaster, lending something like an exotic Middle Eastern feeling to it, in a way. That was my impression. Our room was moderately spacious with a nice TV and fridge. You’d think there’s no value to watching TV in a language you can’t read or speak, but in Thailand that rule doesn’t apply: their commercials are eye-arresting and cute or wry and surreal. Quite a few degrees beyond watching Tom and Jerry in a ramshackle puddle-jumper airport.

Tired though we were, we didn’t collapse on the bed and lose the entire night. We went right back out on the street, leaving our keys at the front desk, and hit Sukhumvit to see where the action was. Right away we were met with a small metal cart and some plastic lawn furniture: they were cooking chicken for anyone walking around that late at night. Heading in a northwesterly direction, we crossed the street and entered a parking lot filled with temporary tents, the kind that are large enough for an adult to stand in. What would that be, a pergola? From the outside it looked like a lawn-and-garden store, not that I saw any plants but just the two or three rows of outdoor tents reminded me of something like a plant nursery. I figured we’d figure it out tomorrow.

Beyond all this was a shopping complex called Tesco Lotus. I know Tesco is a U.K. chain, and without doing any research I figured “Lotus” was their nod to the nation in which they were established. Inside it was just craziness, which started with the McDonald’s on the ground floor. Posted outside the front doors was a life-sized Ronald McDonald statue in fiberglass, posed in the traditional polite Thai greeting.

There was something wrong about this, and maybe it was limited to this gesture on behalf of a soulless corporate behemoth contorting its spokesclown into an apish rendition of legitimate culture; maybe it was this cartoonish, iconic clown-sculpture that hadn’t crawled all the way out of the Uncanny Valley. Yes, yes, clowns are creepy, this is the dusty old truism people like to joke about in lieu of original humor, but there was something unnerving about this statue. I didn’t like its face; pair that with the fact that I won’t willingly enter a McDonald’s in any nation, and we walked around the building to access the steps leading to the Skytrain.

If we had wound our way around the building, we could have entered Tesco Lotus, and we would the next day, but I had caught a glimpse of a night market, and after Luvina and other Indonesian spots, I had developed an attraction for just any night market. We hustled across the overpass, where the BTS depot crosses the always-bustling artery of Sukhumvit, and we descended into the brightly illuminated and colorful tents of the night market.

This was just for a taste. We were physically and mentally exhausted, but my urge to experience the local event was overpowering. And yet we spent no time on detailed analysis here: I bought a snack, we got a sense of the place, and we worked our way through a few rows and columns before heading straight back to the hotel, where I logged on once more, very late at night, before succumbing to a well-deserved sleep.

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