Okay, after being in Thailand for almost 3 weeks, I believe it is time that I acutally write about this place.
Upon arrival in Bangkok and entry into my cab, we began to make our way around a freeway ramp to merge. Instantly, I was flashed back home to being picked up from the Detroit Metro Airport, making my way home after 2 months in the Gobi Dessert summer 2015. You still had the tropical greenery here and there. But that and the fact that the citizens were Thai were the only initial reminders that this was not home. All around were huge modern sky scrapers and well lit businesses. My jaw dropped seeing a foreign city that placed me so much at home as if I was cruising around someone`s downtown area in America. I mean way nicer cars, more modern infrastructure, and clear signs of healthier economy than the previous countries I had visited.
The socioeconomic differences were striking – men and women in business causal, suits, the latest fashionables. Nice haircuts, heels, brief cases, and purses. The sheer number of cars and taxis on the road juxtaposed to motor bikes. Fancier Tuk Tuks. Less dirt. The majority of the people weren’t haggard, tired looking, dirty or barefoot. They weren’t begging to give you a ride in their Tuk Tuks – all signs pointing to the pervasiveness of their poor socioeconomic status. In Bangkok, people are out and about shopping, working, eating, living. It was almost New York-esc to me. The ability to enjoy down time and to enjoy the luxuries of consumerism and entertainment; every moment not being consumed with trying to make a dollar was the biggest indicator of economic privilege that I had not seen since I had left home. I mean, there were still street food hustles and trash here and there, but definitely not like the impoverished state that most people were in during my time in Cambodia, save for the ex-pats who had settled there. Taking notice of these social similarities and differences between here, home, and the previous countries I’d visited left me with conflicting feelings of being home and being a stranger in a strange land.
Since I had spent quite a bit of time alone during my visit to Cambodia, I decided to step outside of my comfort zone of quiet and solitude and try staying in a hostel in the city center, where it is more likely to be packed with drunk foreigners and great accommodations - Lub D Bangkok. Thankfully my stay there was comfortable and lively despite staying with seven other chicks. My stay was informative as well. I quickly made friends with some pretty awesome and intelligent people – most of which were from the States!
My first bonding moment was over writing/blogging and throwing shade at a douche-y white guy with an Indian American from New York, then came a tall blonde white dude from Maine. The three of us bonded over social justice, liberalism, conscious travel and the ubiquitous millennial angst over what the hell we are going to do with our lives. After meeting those two, the BEST thing happened – I walk downstairs to the lobby area and saw not one, not two, but SEVEN other melanated folks from the States!!! Words cannot explain the rush of warm joy that I felt seeing beautiful Black faces after 2 months of being virtually the only one like me overseas. I met eyes with one of the women from Chicago and I saw in her face a similar joy of familiarity – the same familiarity I longed to see from the Black Papuani guy in Indonesia.
I knew that that moment was my chance to connect and bond over being black and abroad. There was my chance to relieve the exhausting feeling of otherness. Turns out, this group was a part of travel group put together by two of the Black men of the group – founders and owners of CP Travels, a Black owned travel agency based out of Taiwan!!! So after I picked my jaw up off of the ground, I proceeded to converse and network because you know I had plenty of questions!
The CP Travels owners and another Black woman from St. Louis are currently living and working abroad in Taiwan teaching English at their respective schools. I wondered what the ex-pat life was like? As a Millennial ex-pat? And as a Black Millennial ex-pat at that? While I am temporarily backpacking abroad for the first time alone, frequently struggling to soothe the intense ache of missing home, family, and comfort; How were they able to leave it all behind? Do they ever experience similar feelings as me? What prompted them to take such a non-conventional path, especially as Black youth, so early in life and in such a grand way that I wasn’t even able to conceive of the week before? This isn’t school related. This isn’t overseas privilege granted by the U.S. government. This isn’t even connected to corporate America. This is me seeing for the first time in my life that though I have not witnessed this before, there are young Black folks out here taking risks and bringing into fruition their dreams and aspirations like me, and figuring it out as they go – growing and learning, like me! So at the conclusion of exchanging introductions, we swapped Facebook info, I got a CP Travels card and they proceeded to carry out their itinerary for the day.
It must have been my lucky day because no sooner than that relevant encounter concluded, I start endlessly chatting with a Saudi Arabian guy from Pakistan, who also happened to be living and working abroad as project manager of the hostel I was staying at! Conversation drifted from Japanese Anime, favorite TV shows and suggestions, why we travel, poverty abroad, tourism in Bangkok, love/relationships (He was newly engaged!), social ills, and living and working abroad – the second conversation of its kind so far that day! In comes two more ex-pats from Australia who shared with me their experiences living and working in Bangkok for a travel company. Through this conversation was the first time I learned about “Passport Value/Passport Discrimination” and its social impacts on people’s career opportunities and ability or inability to travel. This conversation planted the seed in my head to help me to recognize and begin processing the privilege of being an U.S. citizen and further put into perspective the great privilege of travel (more about this coming at a later date).
By the end of the day, I was packed with new information, new life possibilities and perspectives, and the fulfillment of interesting and intellectual conversation. A day or two later I was able to meet up and swap experiences with Scott, a fellow Bonderman recipient (the first of 3 meetings at the time). And that was a highly unexpected and therapeutic meeting for a random 5 hour night session in freaking Bangkok city!!! Saying this aloud and realizing this moment in time made the night EPIC. Like, when does this even happen?!?! Like is this really our lives now??! HAHA!
I traveled to Ayutthaya via train and the feeling upon arrival was much different in comparison to Bangkok. It’s a mostly quaint, small town that used to be the capital of Thailand if I am not mistaken. I can`t really remember how long my stay here was – but for the most part, it was quiet and pleasantly decorated here and there with ancient temple ruins. Far more laid back than Bangkok and a lot more culturally traditional and less touristy. The people seemed a lot kinder in my opinion. My time in Ayutthaya was a lot less eventful as I chose this time to rest after the morale crushing, anxiety inducing shit-show of an election America just endured. Definitely was not a time for smiles and blind exploration for me.
One interesting conversation did leave a mark on me and solidified my time in this town. Right before my Tuk Tuk arrived to take me to my night train to Chiang Mai, I had a parting conversation with one of the foreign English Teachers, a white South African woman, also staying at my homestay. As she shared with me the ins and outs of teaching abroad from her experience, she thoroughly surprised me with her knowledge of racial privilege and oppression, her commitment to social justice, and her commitment to facilitating the unlearning of racial bias in favor of whiteness in that community. She told me that the preference for whiteness affects who’s hired into teaching positions there as well. She’s had fellow foreign teachers in her program, who were Black, struggle to find placements in Ayutthaya - despite their qualifications for the position.
[ I later heard this same sentiment about teaching positions in Taiwan and that in Taiwan there is a lack of knowledge /acceptance of the fact that English speakers who are qualified to teach are not all white. Taiwan even have trouble coming to grips with an Asian American English teacher. In my mind, I’m thinking “Do ya’ll wanna learn English or naw???” I get that language is often dictated by culture and geography, but we are much more interconnected now. Anyone can speak any language. Languages are universal and can be taught by anyone qualified to teach it regardless of skin, creed, culture, geography. Anyone can be born and raised in a culture that contradicts who they are or what they appear to be ethnically.]
Any who, though doing so is not in the program’s training curriculum, She incorporates racial and gender equality into her English lessons (women’s rights are less of a thing here/Black female teachers have it bad) to let the Thai babies know that black, white, and brown women all brush their teeth the same…
[The colorism and racial prejudice is a lot more widespread than I had ever considered. I wonder how these biases will show up in Africa, if it does. It’s unsettling to say the least…]
Chiang Mai, the city where I was able to run wild and go anywhere my heart desired via motorbike. Here, I stayed in a bungalow for the first time. When I arrived at my hostel, I wanted to turn back around and find somewhere else. But because it was the annual lantern fest that weekend, booking this place 40 minutes out was the only option I had at the time. I initially felt duped, expecting to book a private room with an ensuite bathroom like I had in Ayutthaya. However I was met by large wooden structures as rooms, a mattress on the floor with mosquito net attached. Large open spaces in the walls – small enough to keep people from seeing inside, but big enough to let house lizards and who knows what else in.
It was hot, I was tired, the bathrooms were outside and I wasn`t feeling it at all. I slept that night with one eye open since there as no space completely closed off from nature. I heard every bit of the natural night life outside, as if I was camping out in the woods. It was my first time staying somewhere so open and since at the time I was the only guest, I was doubly afraid.
However, after all of that, I am glad I stayed! The owner and his family were extremely nice and hospitable and I learned a lot about their lives and the origin of the hostel! The owner placed a lot of meaning and passion into the idea – once three traditional houses with real walls and windows turned into works of art made of wood, some structures made of brick and formed around a large tree that assisted in upholding the structure and contributed to the natural aesthetic of the entire property. Truly “Stone Free” as the name implied and fondly named after a band that I think the owner and his friends were a part of back in the day.
The entire place was open to fresh air, lush greenery, and a beautiful garden that the owner cares for himself. Sea shells, dream catchers, paintings of blues artists, classic rock tapes, books and old trinkets and gadgets gave a very laid back and stoner vibe. You can tell that a lot of work went into creating this haven and that this place is near and dear to the owner’s heart. Did I mention that he was an amazing cook? Spoiled and fat was I eating all of that good Thai food (by far the best food I’ve tasted in any of the countries I’ve been to so far! I’m talking all kind of soups, rice, dips, chicken, fish (Lordt.) squid, crab, jellyfish – you name it! Every night I ate at Stonefree was a feast and when the owner’s family came to visit, it was a party filled with music, laughter, stories, whiskey sodas and memories! Musicians at heart, the owner’s friends would sing and play guitar and dance ‘til way late – I never could hang.
Oddly enough, one of the first guests to show up at the hostel after me was a Dutch guy I’d met at Bhumi in Indonesia! I was so surprised like “what the hell are you doing here???” Haha! This time he was with a lady friend and after catching up on the last month of our travels since Indonesia, they invited me to a canyon. Having no plans that sweltering day, I went and got to swim in the Thai Grand Canyon! – With life jacket assistance of course haha! But they did teach me how to move around in the water and I had a blast! Later that evening was one of the first days of the annual lantern fest and so we had a blast ripping down the highway and around town on our motorbikes searching for the location. By late evening we had found it and after making a wish and releasing our lanterns into the night – a whole horde of lanterns sprang up from another location, illuminating the skies in unison. ‘twas a beautiful night to see…
Afterwards, we grabbed food. They were planning to go for drinks but by that time I was beat from the day’s adrenaline rush and hours on a motorbike does a number on your butt! So I sped through the night, got lost on the 40 minute ride back and thanked God for the spontaneity of the day’s adventures…
I also made new friends, a couple Nepali and Chinese. I was super intrigued by the Nepali guy as I had never met anyone from Nepal before and at first glance, I thought he was from India.. We all quickly became friends because they were hilarious! After a huge feast of self barbeque over a table top, we decided to go on a crab run for lunch the next day. I would like to disclaim that I was not a huge fan of seafood for most of my life, but Thailand did something to me! The first three restaurants we walked into were dead ends; Two didn’t serve crab and one was still under construction. Thinking that we would have had to travel 40 minutes into town for crab, my Nepali friend and I were ready to turn back, but my Chinese friend was determined and lo and behold! We found a place to have a crab feast! Two plates of crab legs, a seafood soup, a plate of chicken, and several cokes later, we were finally stuffed, satisfied, and waddling back home. Those two can EAT I tell you! Haha!
A day or so later we went to the largest night market in Chiang Mai and it was a great experience! I am not much of a shopper, especially since I am living out of a tiny backpack, but even I couldn’t resist picking up a few gifts for myself. I also rediscovered how poor I am at bargaining! I just don’t have it in me to be arguing with folks about prices! Yet, I see how necessary it is. One could go broke real quick at these kinds of places! I also saw plenty of lovely Black folks at the market and had a brief conversation with a Black woman from New York who was out in Thailand with her brother for his birthday. Again, it is super therapeutic to see like features and see that they too appreciate the instant camaraderie that that representation brings. The night ended in a dance bar off of the river. We ate, had a few drinks, shared a Tuk Tuk home and parted ways for the time being. The night was a success. Next stop was Pai.
I took an early bus to Pai, witnessing one of the most scenic routes winding through the mountains. Plenty of greenery and the subsequent drop in temperature was welcomed after roasting in the heat and humidity for the past few weeks. Pai really is that tiny hippy town in the mountains (plenty of dread head folks), surrounded by some of the most gorgeous natural landscapes. The town reminded me of a sleepy western town initially (western as in cowboy era) because aside from the tourists exiting the bus with me, there was far less hustle and bustle than the last three Thai cities. But this perception changed of course. The town is tiny and mostly a tourist circuit but locals still carry on life as they normally would, tending to animals, going to school, etc.
Fresh off of the bus, I rented a motorbike and headed to my first hostel. It was nice though noting to ring home about. My dorm mate was also American and suffering trough the post-election blues, so we talked a little about that that night. After she checked out the next day, I had the room to myself.
Not long after arrival, I took off to explore the countryside – almost endless views of hills overlooking valleys, livestock going through their daily lives. I was surprised by just how small Pai really was! Before I knew it, I was entering the neighboring town! Physical explorations aside, there was much growth taking place for me personally.
It was my first holiday away from home. Thanksgiving is like the only “holiday” that I readily acknowledge because I get to eat! Almost everyone was at my home celebrating, but I didn’t entirely miss out. Aside from eating a sub-par pizza while everyone else smash some of my favorite foods, I was able to video chat back home and talk to my Mommy and fam and see my little cousins. I even got to see my Grandma (she was also video-calling in for the holidays from Georgia). Being away didn’t really weigh on me as heavily as I thought it would pre-trip. In fact, I was just fine.
It was the first time I received a gift – a tangible one and the gift of information. And it was all because I chose to eat at the wonderful restaurant No. 9 @Pai (Hi Chef Aik!) for the majority of my time there. If ever in Pai, I deeply encourage everyone to try the food here! My final hours in Pai, I decided to have my final lunch there. When I just so happened to look up from stuffing my face with their good old fresh water bass with sweet chili sauce, I’m surprised with a beautiful scarf, intricately embroidered with elephants!
I received so much wisdom from Chef Aik’s wife. Like the matriarchs in my family, she assured me that I was doing the right thing. That by being young, single, and traveling, I’ll have something for myself. Personal experience and growth that is unrelated to anyone else and that will prepare me for my future. Free from obligations and the distraction of men/children, I can benefit greatly from taking things slow and investing in myself first. There’s no rush. She told me about her journey as an entrepreneur and how she and Aik came to develop No.9@Pai. Within that conversation came the lesson of the importance of patience, study, trusting oneself/listening to MY inner voice and no one else, asking the important questions of myself (i.e. what do I want out of my life?) and enjoying the process of life. Whether it’s business or personal, no step in this life can be skipped. So, rather than trying to rush ahead to an end goal, enjoying the good and bad of the process for the sake of learning and growing in lasting and positive ways.
The importance of guarding the spirit came up as well – by embracing happiness and positivity from within. There’s no need to react or take in so harshly the negativity that we may encounter in our lives. I feel like this conversation was an important one that I needed to have. It still baffles me – when something I am uncertain of weighs heavily on my mind, somewhere down the line, I’m engaged in a conversation that seems to be speaking to my worries. It’s as if someone is listening and waiting for the right time and place when we cross paths to relay a message that gives me the strength that I need. I’m forever thankful….
Lastly, for the first time, I decided to take a major detour from my itinerary to follow my curiosity and to have the chance to have my burning questions answered. I hit up the owner of CP Travels that I met while in Bangkok and asked if it was possible to grab someone’s couch for a week in Taiwan. I figured with this opportunity to pick up and go as I please, why not go see what’s up from the source? At the very least, I’d get to see a new place that I’d never considered before. And so, I booked a flight to Taipei, Taiwan having no clue what was in store. With just the willingness to learn and the joyful anticipation of spending time with other Black faces.