Land of Smiles

Two years ago, Raisa invited me to play a hockey tournament in Thailand. I wanted to, but declined because my niece was due to be born around that time and I didn’t want to put off meeting her.

One year ago, Raisa invited me to play in the same tournament. I wanted to, but declined because Aaron and I had a wedding to attend in India shortly after.

This year, Raisa invited me to play once again. I enthusiastically said yes.

Then I had to stop playing hockey.

I wasn’t about to let that stop me from doing all the fun things related to hockey. I asked if I could still join the team in Thailand and Raisa said yes.

I needed that, to not feel like I was leaving everything behind.

The Saturday before Halloween, I set off to explore Thailand with the team.

Flight Notes

I chose my airlines and transfer airports for this trip based on food. On the way out, I connected through Hong Kong so I could eat between flights. On the way back, I connected through Narita so I could bring home some Tokyo Milk Cheese Factory cookies.

My flight to Hong Kong was quite the language experience. I was seated among a large South American tour group, and between them and Busuu my brain was deep into español. At the same time, announcements were made in Cantonese, and there was an assortment of Cantonese language videos available. I took advantage of these videos to practice my Cantonese, and by the time I landed in Hong Kong I found that my Cantonese made for much smoother interactions than the locals’ English. Multilingualism FTW!

On the flip side, I listened to flight deck communications over Chinese airspace in horror. How do people understand each other between two different languages and a world’s worth of English accents over a fuzzy channel? Verbal communication for something so structured and critical feels so outdated. There has to be a better way.

After a week in Bangkok, we flew out of DMK for Krabi. The taxiway at DMK cuts across a golf course. There’s a traffic light for crossing. Definitely not something you’d see in the US.

The return trip had me flying ANA for the first time from Bangkok to Narita. I was pleasantly surprised when I entered the bathroom: The toilets had bidets. I loved it so much I made my aisle seat neighbor get up more than was necessary so I could use the bathroom. A fresh bum makes traveling so much better!

You can quote me on that.

Thailand Notes

I brought a hot pink Field Notes notebook to document this trip, and filled most of it by the end. I’ll start with some general impressions before diving into specific excursions.

Cars are right hand drive here. I had not expected this. For some reason I had thought only a handful of countries were right hand drive. Clearly, there are more. Now I wonder how many more. (Update: The internet says many many more.)

Many people here have monks bless their cars. Every taxi and Uber I rode had some sort of blessing on the ceiling.

Table pepper is white here. I like that very much. Also, it reminds me of home.

Tasty tropical fruits FTW!

Spirit houses abound. Many residences have one on their property.

Tiny “curbs” also abound. It’s not uncommon for boundaries between spaces to be separated a ~1-2 inch difference in ground height. I tripped a lot my first couple days there.

The cost of living here is cheap. Food is cheap (protein on skewers is abundant), non-imported goods are cheap, massages are cheap. I did all my touring, eating, massaging, and shopping over 8 days for about $400.

Shopping malls are everywhere, and they have everything: Multiple levels of restaurants and food courts, bakeries, supermarkets, movie theaters, arcades, hockey rinks, karaoke, and clusters of banks, in addition to shops you’d normally expect to see in a mall. Some of the ones we frequented were 8 levels high, with themed neighborhoods of shops from around the world.

Hokkaido cheese tarts exist in Bangkok. I’ve been searching for these for a year, since Japan last November. We came across both Hokkaido Baked Cheese Tart and BAKE CHEESE TART at the mall and airport. Each time I spotted one I screamed and shared the joy of these tarts with my friends. A handful of us consumed about 14 tarts in 3 days.

Bangkok traffic is terrible. It’s somewhat rule bendingly flowy, but less so than in than India. Motorbikes and scooters are abundant, and work through the traffic much more quickly than taxis and Tuk Tuks. Uber works here, and you can even use it to call a motorcycle.

Public transit is the way to go. The MRT (subway) and BTS (Skytrain) are cool, clean, and efficient. At the final station, cleaners run from one end of the train to the other before new passengers are allowed to get on.

I never quite got over my jet lag. I alternated between nights of super crappy sleep and sleeping like a rock until 5:30 AM. On the upside, this meant I was always awake and ready to adventure as we formed spontaneous outings over breakfast.

Once again, two thumbs up for international travel on Project Fi.

Hockey Notes

We planned for me to assistant coach / work the bench door during our games. Due to a bike tour that ran longer than expected, I arrived at the rink in a tank top and shorts for the first game, so I watched from the stands above, where it was warmer.

Seeing my friends out there tournamenting, my jersey out on the ice, made me miss playing for the first time since I stopped.

I was properly dressed for the rest of our games and was fully occupied with my coach and door duties. I had a great time.

Final game scores:
– 9-0 vs. Kuwait
– 0-3 vs. Malaysia
– 7-0 quarterfinal vs. Dubai
– 0-5 semifinal vs. STC (Singapore Thailand Canada)

Things I Ate

I ordered curry every meal I could. I tried a variety of curries and proteins, and never encountered two similar dishes.

Skewers are common on the streets, and I ate all sorts of things on a stick: beef, pork, chicken, sausages, squid, jellyfish. I also bought bags of freshly cut fruit, sold with a skewer as utensil.

The night markets I visited all had the occasional fried bug stand, and I tried both crickets and grasshoppers. The crickets were fairly palatable, and tasted like dried shrimp. The grasshoppers were more crunchy, had less flavor, and ended up getting stuck in my teeth. I found myself picking grasshopper out of my teeth for an hour. Crickets: 1, grasshoppers: 0.

One thing I wanted to hunt down was the very Thai drink-in-a-bag. It felt as if this is becoming less common as plastic cups become more prevalent, but on my final full day in Bangkok I found a drink-in-a-bag stand in Chinatown. I couldn’t quite communicate to the lady that I wanted whatever herbal thing the locals were drinking and not a Thai iced tea, but it was cool because she made my tea in a sock and I got to check that off my list too.

We came across a lot of random sweet things on our adventures. I ate most of them: mango sticky rice, coconut ice cream, mini coconut pancakes, deep fried gluten things, deep fried bananas (from a market, from a floating market, and once from our Uber, purchased from street vendors selling in traffic), khanom buang pancakes.

If I could eat mango sticky rice every day I would.

If I could eat piles of tropical fruit every day I would. Mango, pineapple, papaya, dragonfruit… I also got to try a custard apple for the first time. It’s custardy, and nothing like an apple.

I made a point to try fairly western snacks in Thai flavors. The local 7-Eleven had all sorts of chips and crunchy pea snacks in flavors I’d never seen before, so I bought them. I couldn’t read all the flavor names, but from the pictures on the packages I gather I was eating sushi, miang kham, cuttlefish. I encountered a bag of scallop butter garlic Lays but didn’t buy them. Regret.

I also made a point to try the local McDonald’s. Ate a pork burger, a deep fried pineapple pie, and a deep fried corn pie. The pineapple pie tasted artificial, but the corn pie tasted like creamed corn in a crunchy shell. Would eat again!

Not related to Thailand, I ate jook almost every day this trip: first at the Hong Kong airport, every morning at our fancy hotel international buffet bar, and finally on my morning ANA flight home. I love jook; it reminds me of my childhood, when I hated jook.

Night Markets

Closely related to much of the food I experienced: night markets. On Thursday night, Linda and I went to a small one we saw in passing: Talad Neon. It had a mix of snack stands, outdoor sit-down food stands, and shops. There were also small food carts on the side street bordering the market. A nice gentle introduction.

The next night, a group of us ventured out for Loy Krathong, and ended up walking down a street along the river. It was lined with street vendors as well, krathong stands on one side, street food on the other. Mostly locals. This didn’t really count as a market, but it’s way more like one than anything we have stateside.

The night after that, Katie and I went to Talad Rot Fai Ratchada. This one was new and hip and bustling and HUGE. There were hundreds, possibly over a thousand, vendors hawking foods, goods, haircuts, and even tattoos. We saw maybe a third of it. I’d totally go back.

Temples

On my first full day in Bangkok, several of us visited a couple of the many temples in the city. We took a ferry down and across the river to start at Wat Arun. It was intricate and shiny and jingly in the wind, and many of its structures were surrounded by what seemed like hundreds of statues of dogs that are actually lions.

Next, we took a shuttle across the river for 45 cents. The river levels were high, and shops on the other side were flooded. This did not pose a problem; shopkeepers simply kept their goods on raised platforms and offered customers bags for their feet off the raised sandbag walkway.

On the other side of the river was Wat Pho, home of the Reclining Buddha. This statue is HUGE.

There are people in that picture, in the lower right.

We walked around for food after touring Wat Pho and found our way into a back alley dried seafood market. It smelled as you would expect. We watched other lost tourists recoil in horror at the smell, then forged on in. This was where the locals purchased their ingredients. A most excellent accidental detour.

Bang Krachao by Bike

On the second day, Eula, Jimmy, Kim, and I toured Bang Krachao by bike.

Getting to the meeting point was an adventure in itself. Pro tip: If you need to get across Bangkok during morning rush hour, do not expect any taxi or Uber drivers to be willing to pick you up.

Crowded rush hour Skytrain and walking FTW!

Bang Krachao is something of an island in the heart of Bangkok. It’s actually referred to as the “green lung” of Bangkok, a lush urban oasis in the middle of a bustling city.

To get there, we rode to a pier, then took a long tail boat across the river. They ferried us across, then ferried our bikes across the same way.

Once across, everything slowed to island pace. There were fewer cars, fewer people, and the locals seemed extra chill and friendly. Not that they weren’t in Bangkok, but we definitely noticed a difference.

We rode through neighborhoods, ate at a local noodle shop, off-roaded through a park, fed some very ravenous fish. Much of the island seems to be build on marsh-like terrain, and side streets were often raised walkways the width of sidewalks. People, bikes, and scooters travel on them. Everyone makes way, and on the day we visited, no one fell into the water.

It was a very enjoyable way to spend a day.

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market

One morning, we woke up to a message on the group chat about a visit to the floating market. Jumped out of bed right quick! We spent a fabulous morning touring a maze of canals and trying all manner of street food from passing long boat vendors. People sold goods as well, mostly from shops on the sides. How to get what you want? Signal! The driver will maneuver you over, and often the vendor will extend a staff to pull your boat in.

After the market, our driver pulled over at a random house in a neighborhood… and a guy came out with a can of gas for the boat. No need for special gas station infrastructure.

On the way back, I convinced everyone on a passing longtail boat to high-five me. I was especially pleased that the passengers were an Asian family that seemed unaccustomed to such silly antics, and that I even got the grandma to give me a high-five. Our boat cheered loudly. Hopefully I’ve sparked in them a lifetime habit of high-fiving passing strangers.

A happy floating market crew, at the end of our tour:

The Grand Palace

We may have spent more time getting into the Grand Palace than actually being in the Grand Palace. There were lines for passport check, bag check, metal detector check, dress code check, buying tickets, and checking tickets.

After that, we were in! Wow, so crowded. But grand! And gold! Very very gold. And ornate. Everywhere.

We looked at some gold buildings, then some gold paintings, then located the Emerald Buddha. Then we headed out so we could procure more tastiness from the market outside.

Cooking Class

On Friday, Eula, Jimmy, Fuller, and I took a cooking class through Courageous Kitchen. We started with a tour of a local market, where locals buy produce, meats, dried goods, curry from giant spicy mounds, and fresh coconut milk.

We finished our market tour with a sampling of street snacks, starting with fresh roti sai mai. We followed that up with fried bananas/taro/sweet potato, coconut custard with pandan jelly, and grilled bananas.

Next, we experienced the magic of butterfly pea tea. 8th grade science project, yaaaaas!

Then we got to cooking. We each made our own tom yum soup and pad Thai, then combined efforts to make bua loy (rice balls in coconut milk) for dessert.

Tom Yum prep:

I cannot say enough good things about this class. I loved our hosts, the non-touristy location, the tour and samples and teamwork and of course, learning to cook some Thai dishes. Even better, it’s all for a great cause. Way to be, Courageous Kitchen!

Loy Krathong

Friday night was Loy Krathong. A group of us ventured out to partake.

Getting there was, um, a bit crowded. And we didn’t actually end up where we had intended, because after waiting forever to get on a water bus we ended up going the wrong way on the river.

All good. We got off at the flower market and walked back down along the river. This was much less of an extravaganza than where we had planned to go, and it was nice to just wander amongst the locals.

We each got a krathong, lit it, and sent it downriver.

The internet says a lot of different things about the significance of releasing a krathong. As I watched mine float away I thought about the end of my hockey playing days and letting that go. It felt appropriate, given why I was there.

After that, we stuffed ourselves with skewers and grasshoppers.

Chinatown

On Saturday, I teamed up with Katie, who had been adventuring solo through Bangkok all week. Destination: Chinatown.

Chinatown is huge! And crowded. Storefronts and open markets and alleys everywhere, every inch of space used. I loved ducking from the main open market into side alleys, shielded from the sun by buildings and awnings from both sides.

I loved popping out from a side alley onto a side street, so full of carts and people and vehicles that they felt just as crowded.

It was so tight that sometimes carts had to relocate to allow vehicles to pass.

The neighborhood itself was divided into sub-neighborhoods. Certain alleys specialized in hot foods, others in dry goods, and still others in household items. Katie tried all sorts of new-to-her Chinese foods. She needs to go to dim sum with us more often.

Shark fin and bird’s nest are commonplace here. It was a weird shift in worldview to be surrounded by that.

Also available here: fish foot spas. Yes, it’s a thing. And it tickles like you wouldn’t believe.

Eventually, you get used to it.

Koh Lanta

On Sunday, Jenny, Fuller, Linda and I journeyed to the island of Koh Lanta. This involved taking an Uber to the airport, a flight to Krabi, a taxi to the car ferry, my first ever car ferry to the island, and taxiing some more to the resort. It think it took us 7 hours to get there, and at least that much to get back. I only had one night to spend there, but it was totally worth it.

Arrived, checked in, to the beach! The water was warm and the weather was perfect. We instantly decompressed from our week in Bangkok.

I touched the Indian Ocean for the first time in my life. Even better, I floated in it. I’ve never floated in any ocean before. I’d never been comfortable enough in water to do so. Until now.

Got massages on the beach, watched the sunset, ate dinner, then headed back to our resort. We encountered all sorts of new creatures in the dark… including a scorpion. Yikes!

The next morning, Jenny and I rented scooters to check out Old Town on the other side of the island.

Rentals don’t come fueled up, so we stopped at a local gas station.

“Where you going?” asked the gas station / activities booking lady.
“Old Town,” we replied.
“Old Town far, need two bottles.”

Bottle service, island style:

Then we were off! We rode to the other side of the island. So green and lush and breezy!

My scooter felt a little squirrely, but I wasn’t sure if that was just the scooter. I’d never ridden a scooter before, so I wasn’t sure if it was because the wheels were smaller compared to those on a motorcycle or bicycle.

Shortly after reaching the other side of the island, I heard a pop while leaning into a turn. After that it was obvious that something was wrong.

We stopped, and examined the rear tire. It was flat. And had a nail in it.

Fortunately, we were able to call the scooter shop. They asked to speak to a local, and we were lucky enough to have stopped in front of a house with a lady on the porch, talking to… a neighbor? I walked over and put the shop guy on speakerphone.

They had what sounded like a very fun conversation for about five minutes. Then the shop guy told me to go up the road to get the tire fixed. “Two minutes,” he said.

I realized later he meant two minutes by functional scooter.

The lady was super nice, and did her best in Thai to direct us in the right direction. She even grabbed her bicycle to prepare to take us there. Except pushing speed isn’t anywhere close to biking speed. We thanked her profusely and started pushing.

All along the way, locals would stop to ask what was wrong. They consulted with each other and invariably directed us onward, up the road.

When we finally reached the repair shop (which was actually a scooter rental shop out of someone’s home), the entire town knew we were coming. A local we hadn’t yet seen had pulled his scooter up by the entrance to wave us in.

The two guys there propped the bike up and got to work.

I didn’t have much time before the shuttle back to the airport, so I hopped on the back of Jenny’s bike and we continued on to Old Town.

Success! We enjoyed a nice lunch on the water, did some souvenir shopping, picked up my scooter, and got back to the resort in plenty of time.

I loved that many of the shops and restaurants we visited in Old Town were also people’s homes. Many of these establishments had kids’ playpens in the back. Our resort was the same. It was run by a family, and the outdoor “lobby” felt almost as if we were visiting their home.

In a broader sense, we were visiting their collective island home as well.

Thanks Koh Lanta for a most excellent 26 hours.

Back to Bangkok for a few hours of sleep. Then it was time to go home.

What an amazing trip this was. I got to adventure with and get to know some truly incredible hockey peeps. Just as they all contribute differently on the ice, I could see how each of them contribute in their own way to the technicolor of our world.

I’m so grateful to have had this experience.

All the pics: Thailand 2017 on Google Photos

2 Comments

  1. As always: Excellent write up! A++++ would read again! (all the way to the bottom)

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