Kicked Back in Kanchanaburi: Why Thailand is Cheap and How to Enjoy It

Want to cool your heels on the edge of an unspoiled tropical river? Consume limitless quantities of delicious food and drink? Be surrounded by the beauty of temples and a culture of cleanliness? Veg out all day on free wi-fi? Sun yourself in a hammock on a palm-tree studded green lawn? Cruise around town on your rented scooter?

The view from our porch - Kanchanaburi

What price do you suppose this laid-back list of luxuries fetches in Thailand? $50? $75? No, my friends. Depending on your tastes, in Kanchanaburi all this is yours for between $10 and $20. If you’re feeling especially extravagant, you can drop another $10 to get a massage or get rip-roaring drunk.

The joys of Thailand. Not only is it gorgeous, friendly, delicious, and clean… it’s unbelievably cheap. Add to the mix that Bangkok is arguably the hub for SE Asia, and you end up with a wide, wide range of tourists. Loudest, both literally and visually, are the very young backpackers. They haven’t got much in the bank, but they’re keen to “get shitfaced on a shoestring” – a motto proudly posted above sidewalk bars that serve three shots for a dollar to young bodies perched on stools in the streets.

Didn't have my camera during our evening outings to capture this place in its full glory. (I learned my lesson about playing with my camera while drinking.)

Runners up: old men. Because sex is cheap here, too. A western woman over 35 is a rare species. Western men sporting salt-and-pepper are more common than cockroaches. And that’s really saying something here.

Then you have the rest of us: families with children, couples on the cusp of settling down, mature pairs of friends, bachelors and bachelorettes wandering the world… Yes. I would prefer a Thailand minus the two most prominent groups. But tourism is arguably the foundation of Thai livelihood, so I’m betting most locals would be sad to lose two-thirds of their clientele – no matter how loud and proud.

Mmm... I thought this was the year of the dragon?

Yes, as long as you don’t come expecting an untouched, exotic paradise, Thailand is amazing. Kanchanaburi is a great place to start. We hopped off the airplane from Manila and straight onto a bus out of Bangkok. To celebrate Pat’s birthday starting the following morning, I was determined to land him in a suitable locale. The history of the area is perfect for a man fascinated by history and politics – especially war history and politics. Kanchanaburi is home to the “Bridge over the River Kwai” and has museums, memorials, and cemeteries galore to commemorate the thousands who lost their lives at the hands of the Japanese.

Cute baby animal for sale at night market

It also offers elephant rides, gorgeous waterfalls, a tiger temple, caves, Thai massages, and more. One of my favorite spots is the night market. As the sun dips toward the horizon, this concrete field comes to life. Vendors selling clothes, perfume, jewelry, sunglasses, baby animals, videos, popcorn, and a wide variety of Thai food set up as soon as the air begins to cool.

The papaya salad stand gave me an opportunity to practice my WWND skills – “What Would Nelienne Do?” Like most westerners, it is easy for me to shy away from the unknown and go with the familiar. Along the same lines, it is also common for me to be overly polite if I don’t understand the situation. Perhaps it is an aversion to appearing foolish? More often than not, the results are not in my favor. Unwilling to muster the courage to potentially embarrass myself, I either miss out on amazing opportunities or even get taken to the cleaners.

My buddy Nelienne and I on our way to Puerto Princesa in the Philippines

Let me take a moment to say that  don’t believe I am a dunce, and I consider myself to be someone with a very respectable amount of travel savvy. But I’m just being honest here. Sometimes I allow myself to be frozen with discomfort. And I almost always regret it.

Nelienne, however, forges on ahead. She credits her abilities to having spent the first leg of her travel expedition in India – the bowels of which are one of the most intense places in the world for a westerner to go. She unabashedly asks the “stupid” questions, negotiates, trusts, and demands.

My first celebrity hero

Now let me take another moment to explain my take on “heroes.” I used to suspect (with shame and horror, of course) that I had a abominably huge ego. Never in my young life, even as a wee girl in pig tails, did I ever have even one name in response to the question, “Who is/are your hero/heroes?” Probably this has to do with my upbringing. (Hey… no offense Ma and Pa, but we did and do spend a lot of time discussing what’s wrong with other people.) I’m trying to stop being so good at picking out flaws. It’s a long road.

My wise, confident friend Laurel (right), whose opinion I sometimes desperately need.

So imagine my delight when, in my mid-twenties, I discovered a welcome addition to my decision-making process. Suddenly, unable to reach a conclusion or find the confidence to get what I wanted, I began to ask myself, “What would _____ do?” Fill in that blank with (mostly) women who impressed me with their unique strengths. I found I had a loved-one in every situation whom I believed would sail with unblinking confidence through whatever challenge I was facing and come out the other side with exactly the right answer.

My illustrious and amazing friend Amy, with a bottomless supply of confidence and passion.

Now back to the papaya salad stand at the Kanchanaburi night market. This humble cart is quite a spectacle to behold. Three enormous mortar and pestles grace the back side of the stand. The proprietor presides over these vast mixing bowls from the height of a small platform. About thirty colorful ingredients, from the recognizable (limes, tomatoes, chilies, onions) to the bizarre (small crabs in the shell, chunky paste the color of caramel fudge, small dried shrimps) are lined up in front.

It’s such an explosion of foreign activity and color that nearly every westerner pauses to watch and snap a few photos. Locals actually ordering one of the delicious papaya salads compose the majority of the crowd, so I joined the throng and waited for it to be my turn. (This is one of the nice things about Thailand for me – it’s one of the countries in the world where people wait their turn.)

The cacophony of color at the papaya salad stand

I watched with fascination as the stand-owner expertly pounded, tossed, mixed, and pounded some more. After five minutes of politely waiting, I finally noticed Ms.-Papaya-Salad-Maker kept checking little sheets of paper on “the spike” – a standard restaurant tool for keeping order tickets all in one place. I also saw random people walk up and get the hand-off of recently made salads – totally out of turn! My understanding of the system fell into place in slow motion. Oh. Oooooh. Oooooh. Oh. Here’s what you do: write your order, turn it in, come back in twenty or thirty minutes. I caught myself wondering if there were base ingredients that can be assumed or if you have to write down everything you want in your salad. Moot point. Because I can’t write or speak Thai.

The delicious dinner I coveted

I felt like giving up. Too much effort. Too likely that I’m going to look like an idiot because I have absolutely no clue how this all works. And what is that light brown goop, anyway? But… ARGH! I really want a papaya salad!

I almost heard the unmistakable trilling of the chimes of inspiration as Nelienne popped into my mind. What would she do? She would try out a request in the world’s common language. And so will ILucky for me my new-found courage coincided with the chef’s realization that I wasn’t just there to be entertained. Much pointing, laughing, and wide-eyed gasps later (Ahhh! I didn’t ask for dried shrimp. Oh-oh-no! She just put that brown goop in there! Oh, um no fish sauce plea.. oh, never mind) I finally had my knock-yer-socks-off papaya salad.

Thanks, Nelienne! ♣

Click for photos of more night market animals, Thai stamps, and pretty flowers.

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