I’ve just returned from a trip to Thailand! The whole thing actually came into fruition fairly quickly — I was feeling burnt out from the usual post-grad woes of unemployment and self-doubt that came with it, and my friend Tim was itching to leave the country around that same time, so we both kind of just were like, f this, let’s go.
So, we went. Here are ten general observations:
1. Thai spices are no joke. That shit is legitimately spicy, son. Keep in mind, I love spicy food and am always that person who’s always dousing her food with hot sauce, Tabasco, or Sriracha, even when the cuisine/meal doesn’t really appropriately call for it. But, yeah, pretty much every street stall, restaurant, cafe, and food-nook-and-cranny in between that you visit all over the country will accompany your meal with a rack of 4-5 different condiments. They are usually sugar, fish sauce, vinegar with chilies in it, and this ground up red pepper powder. Most of the former is pretty much safe and what you’d expect it to taste like, but I made the (not regrettable) mistake of always going after the red chili powder and putting heaping spoonfuls in my food and being unable to finish the whole bowl/plate without feeling anything but this searing, sharp, hot pain in my mouth. Even the noodle soup at the hotel breakfast we had in Bangkok had intensely spicy chilies, and I’d assumed that since hotel breakfasts are fairly Americanized, it would be safer. Uh, it wasn’t.
2. Fish sauce is a fairly prominent ingredient in Thai cuisine. I was actually surprised by this, maybe because my limited knowledge of the use of fish sauce consists of the assumption that it was mostly used in Vietnamese cuisine. But, it was not only offered as a condiment (that we used fairly generously) at every meal, but in the food as well. We took a cooking class in Chiang Mai and this was where I learned that fish sauce is a pretty primary ingredient in Thai curries, stir fries, and noodles (including the popular-amongst-American dishes of pad thai and pad see ew, etc).
3. Last food point, for now — all their noodles are delicious. I’m finding that, in particular, the wide noodles they use there for stir fries are fresh – as opposed to the U.S. where they come in packages dry, and need to be soaked in water/boiled first before being cooked. But, in Thailand, most of the noodles were fresh, and the result? A world of difference. A great bite, while still soft, and just so fresh-tasting. Think of the difference between fresh vs. dried pasta, and with rice noodles, it’s like 100x better. (No offense to fresh pasta, of course – it’s pretty delicious, too).
4. There are only two seasons in Thailand. Hot (and humid), or hot and rainy (and humid). We encountered both while we were there, and I don’t think my San Franciscan blood adapted really well to this, though I didn’t personally mind the temporary change in weather from our cold Bay Area summers. It was actually the most foreign experience I’ve had to date regarding the weather. Especially to be standing in the pouring rain that constantly fell in the still heat (no wind) all the way down, while simultaneously still sweating profusely.
5. You can easily tell, sometimes, when someone is local vs. a tourist or a visitor, especially in the big cities like Bangkok. This is an extension of my observation about the weather, but obviously locals are accustomed to the heat and their body temperature levels are way more conditioned to handle it. So, while T and I would be leaving our hotels in shorty short-shorts (especially him ;)) and skimpy tank tops, we’d be running into locals who would brush past us on the street with their thick jeans, blazers, and even scarves, all while dry and cool as cucumbers. Really, a scarf?! In 90 degree humidity? Yes, they’d scoff.
6. They don’t really scoff much in Thailand, though. With the exception of cab drivers, I found that everyone was mostly kind, accommodating, and pleasant to deal with, despite the often frustrating language barrier at times. This especially is a nod to children smiling and waving at us as we passed them, and the ladies manning clothing booths and such at the markets. While they’d be simultaneously trying to sell you their products as you bargain with them, they were rarely pushy, misleading, or tried to guilt trip you (save for this one surly girl at the mall – but I’m going to chalk her up to an anomaly). T tried to buy a shirt once, and the lady honestly told him that the size he had in his hands wasn’t going to fit him, as opposed to just taking his money, which he was ready to hand over. (She was basically calling him a fat-American and I lol-ed, so, really, I’m the bitch here. Oops.)
7. Nobody could tell we were from the U.S. – like, literally nobody who we encountered, at least. I know that T and I are both ethnically East Asian (he’s Korean, I’m Chinese), so we may have stood apart from the rest of the Thai/Southeast Asian folks, but nobody thought for a second that our nationality was American. This surprised me, a bit, actually, considering how much Thailand has blown up in recent years as a major tourist destination. I also would’ve thought that our Californian accents and the fact that we’re not rail-thin like most of general Asia would’ve tipped us off as obvious Americans, but everyone – cab drivers, airport workers, hotel workers, and Thai folks in between would be shouting “ni hao” at us and when we’d tell them we were American, they’d always seem incredibly surprised. I did get asked once if I was Filipino once by a cab driver, and when I asked why he thought that, he said it was because my English was so good, and Filipinos spoke great English.
8. The Bangkok train/railway/underground bus station was incredibly easy to navigate through, efficient, cheap as dirt (less than a $1 USD/30 baht to get clear across town), and super clean. Far cleaner than Muni in San Francisco. But, then again, most underground stations in other places are cleaner than Muni. Except, maybe the NYC subway system.
9. There are far more stray dogs everywhere than cats. Also, all the dogs and cats (the cats more so than the dogs, by a mile) have super small frames. In other words, even the animals are not fat-American animals.
10. I lied — one more food point. Thais are strangely obsessed with the American hotdog. You see them at hotel breakfasts (more understandable) and pretty much on every block with a street stall (whyyy?) Where there is a skewer stand (and there were literally hundreds that we came across), there will be a hotdog. They also weren’t even as good as American hotdogs (less salty, more rubbery), which I learned the hard way by purchasing one out of curiosity.