Saturday, January 15, 2011

Culture Shock

It’s 3:35 in the morning. The wild dogs started barking at each other about an hour ago, and I can’t go back to sleep. They’ll stop barking for a couple of minutes sometimes, but before I can even get close to drifting off again, one of them will go on a crazy barking spree. I kind of need to go to the bathroom, but I’m wondering if it can wait a few hours, because…well using a squat toilet just doesn’t sound appealing to me right now. Also, I don’t want to have a run in with the huge spider that was sitting on the toilet paper.

The dogs stopped barking five minutes ago...I’d better see if I can race to sleep before they start up again.


I made it through the night, and was woken up by what sounds like an infuriated rooster—although I’m not sure it’s not a strange dog howl. Time to go brave the bathroom.

It’s a rooster. I’m pretty sure.

Wow what a trip this has been. I felt like I had left the country as soon as I found the international departure section of the LA airport. I made my way through check-in and security for Korean airlines, and already I was getting excited any time I heard someone else speaking English. The flights to Japan, Korea, and then on to Bangkok all were very long, but comfortable enough. We hit turbulence a couple of times, but I only feared for my life the first time we hit it and one of the airline attendants fell over.

I was pleased by the options on the mini entertainment center in front of me. I watched “The Social Network,” “Despicable Me,” and “Money Never Sleeps,” as well as clips of a few other movies. I tried to listen to the audio book, “The Art of Being,” but just couldn’t get into it. I played one game of hangman, and placed in the top ten of people that had played it before me even though I got sick of it after just five rounds. My favorite was probably the screen that showed information about our flight; I could see our speed, altitude, the distance away from our destination, and a little map that showed our flight’s progress. It was pretty handy.

As far as the airline food goes, suffice it to say that if you ‘re on Korean airlines and they offer you a choice between something you don’t recognize (Bi Bim Bap, I think) and fish, don’t choose fish. It’s not exactly appetizing. Everything else was ok though—I especially liked the meat filled rolls they fed us as a snack. I had eaten three meals by the time I landed in Korea, but when I got on the flight to Bangkok, they kept offering food (that I kept refusing).

There was snow all over the runway of Korea’s airport, so when we landed in Thailand and stepped off the plane, the change of temperature was immediately noticeable. The humidity was incredible as well. Walking through the Bangkok airport was exhilarating to me; the smell, the paintings (many old Thai paintings of topless women), the heat, the chatter of Thai people, you could practically taste the exoticism of it all. I made it through immigration, found my baggage easily enough, and made it through customs. I stumbled my way through exchanging my money for Thai baht; I tried asking the lady at the exchange booth some questions on how to use the ATM, but the only word she seemed to know how to say was, “baht,” and she kept repeating it over and over again.

I’m sitting at the Baan Unrak bakery as I type this enjoying a cold coconut drink and waiting for my fruit salad breakfast—the cute Thai girl that works here just informed me that the salad will be a few minutes more because they ran out of bananas, so they someone ran to the market to get one. I can’t put my finger on why I find that so enchanting, but I do.

After I successfully exchanged my money, all that was left to do was to figure out how to get a taxi to the bus station. I asked one of the booths that arranged tours where I could get a taxi and before I knew it they had arranged one for me, and charged me 1000 baht—about thirty dollars—a grossly extravagant amount for a 45 minute taxi ride. I tried to explain to them that I wouldn’t need a taxi for another hour or so and I wanted to stay in the airport so I could send an email to my family, but I don’t thisnk they could understand me, and a Thai lady was gesturing for me to follow her. She led me to the bottom of an escalator where a well dressed Thai man took one of my suitcases and proceeded to lead me out of the airport, and across the street where a stealthy black taxi was waiting. I admit, there were moments that I contemplated the idea that this was all a scam and that they were whisking me off to some white slavery institution….but I kept telling myself that I booked it in the airport, so it should be reputable service. I prayed lots anyway.

The cab driver was nice, and we tried to hold a conversation, but with his limited and broken English, and my lack of any Thai, our conversation often times consisted of us taking turns pretending we understood what the other person was saying.

My salad is here, and worth the wait. It’s a blend of Pappaya, pineapple, banana, and apple pieces, all incredibly fresh. I’m having trouble finishing it off though….My appetite has been practically non existent since I arrived in the country. I didn’t eat breakfast lunch or dinner yesterday, and I’m still not hungry today.

I arrived at the bus station safe, sound, and un-kidnapped. My friend, the cab driver, helped me bring my luggage in and inquired after which bus I should get on (which I was incredibly grateful for since no one at the bus station spoke English, and all of the signs were in Thai—it made the whole ordeal worth 1000 baht to me). He pointed out the right booth to purchase my ticket and went on his way. My bus was scheduled to leave at 5 AM…and it was still only 2:30. Jay Sinclair, another volunteer met up with me at about 4:00, and it was an incredible relief to have someone to talk to.

Jason (Jay) wasn’t the handsome, funny English man I had hoped for, but he’s nice enough and normal enough, so that’s what counts. He’s paranoid about the bugs here...the way he was talking about them on the way here made me a bit nervous. But it’s really not a problem—though he’s told me about how he’s gaffed up holes in his wall, and under the door in case any spiders want to get in. I’ve seen one bug of note since I’ve come (a giant spider on the roll of toilet paper in our bathroom) but left it alone, and it showed the same courtesy to me.

The bus ride was long, but I was able to catch some much, much needed sleep. When I wasn’t sleeping, I either discussed religion and relationships with Jason, or gazed out the window at the incredible scenery. For as much as we learn about the way people in other countries live from books, movies, and tv, it doesn’t come close to the experience of seeing it in real life. These people actually live in huts! Little shabby buildings constructed crudely out of wood. Some are houses on sticks, others just a ceiling supported by poles, and some look like glorified garages (glorified for a Thai garage anyway). You can see people cooking outside; steaming food stirred in giant black woks. There are clothes lines hung about the yard with various brightly colored garments stirring in the slight breeze.

Speaking of bright colors, EVERYTHING has color here. The taxies range from green and yellow to a bright pink, which is a favorite color here (I think it’s a color symbolic of royalty). Even the garbage trucks and carrying trucks are decorated with yellow blue and red stripes and varied ornamentation. This preponderance of color and ornament would probably be considered extravagant and gaudy in the US, but it works just fine in Thailand. It somehow fits in with the bright, yet guarded, smiles of the Thai people, the practically drinkable warm air, and the exotic and pungent smell that seems to permeate into every corner of this country.

I’ve been contemplating for the past couple of days on how to describe that smell to someone who has never been here. I wish so badly that I could bottle up a sample of an hour here in Thailand to give to all of you, but as far as I know, that technology isn’t available yet, so I will keep trying to describe the un-bottleable details to you the best I can. The smell isn’t a fresh and clean one, but nor does it smell stale and polluted. It is a very human smell, surely created by the effect of the stifling humidity and heat mixed with lots of human bodies—add a hint of peanut sauce, curry, and fish oil, and that’s about what it smells like. In the less densely populated and more forested areas, it’s a less intense version of the same smell--Very similar to the smell of the monkey area at the San Diego Zoo (only with a curry-like smell mixed in).

About half way through our bus ride, we stopped at a little restaurant hidden in the lush greenery on the side of the road. The little eatery didn’t have walls, was covered in beautiful flowers and green vines and trees, and had several caged wild animals throughout, including a mina bird and a squirrel that was repeatedly doing somersaults in it’s small cage. There were also two rather shabby house dogs lounging under one of the tables. The hostess of the restaurant served rice and Thai dishes to the bus drivers and to any one else who wanted some. She somehow communicated to Jay and I to each choose a drink out of the fridge, which was ours on the house. Jay had coffee, I think, and I had a can of orange soda. I drank it while wandering around admiring the plants growing all around the place, and gazing at the caged animals. It was probably the most exotic, foreign, and magical place I have ever been.

The rest of the bus ride was uneventful except for the one stop that some kind of security guard or military man came on board to check our passes. When he got to Jay and I, I had my bus pass already to show him, but somehow Jay figured out he wanted to see our passports. I fished around for mine while the security guard continued to the back of the bus, assuring me he would be back to make sure I had one. He never did come back—but he escorted the lady sitting behind us off of the bus…I’m not exactly sure why. It’s at moments like those that I wish I understood Thai.

After about seven or eight hours of driving, we finally pulled into Sangkhla Buri, a town of about 50,000 (I think that’s the number I was told) people of varying nationalities including Thai, Burmese, and Mon, as well as your occasional farang, or white foreigner. And very few of them know how to say much more than “hello,” “water,” and “toilet” in English, which caused a problem for Jay and I.

We knew we were supposed to find the Baan Unrak bakery and tell whoever was working there that we were the new volunteers, and then they would call someone to come pick us up and take us to our houses. Sounds easy enough, but it’s surprising how complicated things can get when no one speaks your language. We stopped about seven different people to ask about the bakery. Either they didn’t have any clue what we were saying and would point us somewhere else (which we finally figured out wasn’t there way of showing us the direction of the bakery, but was just there way of saying “I don’t know what you’re saying, maybe someone over there does.), or they would start trying to communicate things to us and we would have no clue what they were saying. We finally gave up and decided to lug our luggage (suddenly that word makes sense) into a nearby internet café.

The café was gloriously air conditioned, and as luck would have it, there were two other farangs inside. A gentleman from Switzerland, and a lady from the states. They’re here for some kind of national meeting…..or something…..I didn’t really catch that part. They didn’t know where the bakery was, but it was fun taking turns playing “name that Disney movie” with them when ever a new song came over the speakers (they were almost all from Disney movies….never have I been so happy to hear western music). It turns out that the American women whooped the European men—so is life. I got onto my hotmail account, and after sending off a quick message to let my family know I was ok, I checked the email that Anne-Cecile had written me concerning what to do once we got into town. I discovered that were were supposed to catch a “moto taxi” (which is just a motorcycle driven by an orange-clad Thai) to the bakery. Well, there was absolutely no way we were fitting my big fat green suitcase onto a motorcycle, so I asked permission of the internet café owner to leave it there for a bit while we went in search of a moto-taxi. We found them down the street, but when we asked where the bakery was, they merely pointed down a different road. They didn’t offer us a ride, and I didn’t ask for one since I wasn’t too keen on the idea anyway. Jay and I started our way down the street they had pointed to, luggage in tow, Jay complaining all the way. “I can’t believe they didn’t offer us a ride! This is such a long walk….I didn’t realize it would be so far away.” After about five minutes away we saw a sign advertising the bakery, and saying that it was 1 km away. Then the complaining really started—“1 kilometer! Why didn’t they tell us it would be so far away?! They pointed as if it were just around the corner!” I’ve decided that English accents are not in the least bit attractive when they turn whiney. He was whining about 1 km of walking? That’s not even a mile….33 year old men should not be allowed to whine about things like that.

We found the bakery in good time, and the girl that was working there called someone to pick us up ( I think she was Thai….but I’m not entirely sure). After waiting for about 10 or 15 minutes a truck pulled up and three volunteers hopped out: Paul from New Zealand, Mailynn from Nevada, and another guy—I honestly can’t remember his name or where he’s from. They were all very open and friendly, and all spoke English—hallelujah! They willingly took me back into town to pick up my abandoned suitcase, and then showed me to the house that will be my living quarters for the next six months.

I guess I shouldn’t have been shocked by it’s appearance, but when I was told I would be living in a house, the word sparked images of….a western-like house I guess; sturdy walls, in-door plumbing, a stove and oven, a soft bed. This was not the “house” I had envisioned. I would describe it as a rather large, wooden shack raised on stilts.

They showed me my room first. The three rooms inside are already occupied by other volunteers, so my room is the extra room out front that isn’t connected to the other areas of the house. The walls and floors are made up from wooden planks—I can see down to the ground through the cracks in the floor, and I can see outside through the cracks in the walls. I’m not sure what the ceiling is made of --some kind of crude insulation supported by wooden crossbeams, I think. Right by my bed, I have a large window that faces the front yard. It’s the kind with glass slats that can be raised and lowered with a little windy gear on the inside of the pane. My bed has a solid wood frame that is about a foot and a half off the ground and covered by thin foam pad. The entire thing is encircled by a pink mosquito net canopy, which I rather like. It makes me feel kind of like a princess…albeit a poor one, with a wooden bed.

The rest of the house is just as crudely made—wooden floors, walls, ceiling, and window shutters. No glass panes in the main part of the house, which means the shutters usually stay shut to prevent bugs from coming in, and the house is pretty dark. There is one long fluorescent light in every room, which takes a few seconds to flicker on after you flip the switch. The “kitchen” is just an area of the house with a long tall table in it covered in bowls, pots, and utensils. There is also a wok and a plug in warmer (like a stove I guess…I haven’t used it yet). There is no sink, no fridge, no cabinets, and definitely no oven.

The bathroom is just off of the kitchen. It’s covered in dirty blue tile and has a little squat toilet (essentially a porcelain hole in the ground, with a surface on each side of the hole to place your feet as you squat) with a small tub of water and a bowl near by in order to clean your self with and then scoop water into the toilet to “flush it” after your done. There is a hole in one corner, and a shower spigot in the other. Also, there is some kind of large tub-looking construction on the same wall as the squat toilet. I still haven’t figured out what it’s for yet. It looks like a very tall deep bath…it has a spigot that enters water into it, and yet I can’t find a drain, and the floor inside the bath-like structure, is FAR too filthy to ever bathe in.

After giving me a tour of the girl’s house, Jason went back to his house, and the other volunteers went back to the home, assuring Jason and I we could take the weekend to settle in and wander around the town a bit.

I went into my room and sobbed. It’s the first time I cried since saying goodbye to my parents…and it felt strangely relieving, even though I was miserable.

After crying a bit and sleeping a bit, I thought it would be a good idea to take a shower and freshen up—I’d been traveling for over two days after all. (Shout out to Mom and Dad: THANKYOU for convincing me to wake up and take a shower at the hotel even though it was 3:30 AM).

I used the squat toilet for the very first time, and it was an interesting experience to say the least. I’m not going to go in to detail here, but if you’re interested in the process, I found a pretty good description at, so feel free to check it out =)

The shower was ice cold. Luckily, it’s a hot country, so it was manageable. After I finished, I used a push broom to get the water in the drain at the other end of the bathroom. I brushed my hair, put it in pig-tail braids, and made the mile walk back into town.

I'm having trouble getting my pictures posted in the order I want them, so I left some here, but I'm going to post the rest of the videos and pics under the tab at the top of the page that says, "more pics." You should really go look at them. They'll make this post come to life a bit more I think.


  1. Wow Kimber! that is a complete culture shock. I admire you for trying new things and going out there! p.s. the Squat Toilet does not sound that appealing. but you'll get some nicely toned legs from it ;) haha Keep up the good work!

  2. Tell me about legs are already kind of sore, haha.