Farang in a Foreign Land: Dyed Baby Chickens and Lotus Pods

If I was an executive from New York on a Vocation Vacation, this blog entry could read as a major drama.

What I feel like after a particularly trying stretch of travel. (This picture was actually taken just after sunrise on a wilderness backpacking trip with striking similarities to traveling... living out of a bag, sleeping almost anywhere, eating strange food, lowering cleanliness standards...)

It’s tempting to write it like that — it would be more fun for you to read while surrounded by the comfort of “western” conveniences. But the truth is, for “third world” travel to be fun, you just have to take things in stride. This is one of the lessons of travel I value most and that I hope to carry with me into the future.   To nearly quote Liz Gilbert, traveling – particularly cheap and dirty traveling – is pretty much nothing but one glitch and hassle after another, interrupted by the occasional stunning sunset, gorgeous temple, or fantastic meal.

I value finally getting to internalize a bit more each day the conventional wisdom that attitude and flexibility-of-perspective are choices. Example: five years ago in Boliva , a child puked on my feet on a bus. I lost it. I was overwhelmed with disgust and horror. If that happened to me today, I’d wrinkle my nose, shrug, and go back to reading my book. Nothing I can do about it until we get to a bathroom, and letting horror overwhelm me is a waste of my time. “Disgusting” is informed by culture, but ultimately it’s a matter of choice. And I hope I’ll be happier in life now that I have so much practice choosing not to be horrified.

Enjoying dinnertime - another amazing spread!

I’ve also gotten lots of practice adapting to different lifestyles: living in a van, living out of a backpack, living out of huts, living as a nomadic house guest…   One would hope, at least compared to many of my fellow Americans, I’ve become pretty malleable.   While some might find life in a typical middle-class SE Asian home akin to camping in the U.S., for much of the world’s population, this is just daily life.   Often the kitchen is outdoors. The toilet is always a squatting affair. Laundry is usually done by hand in tubs. Meals are taken on the floor — a dining table is an usual sight. Often there is no sink for hand washing or teeth brushing (use a pail of water).

Pat killing two birds with the proverbial stone: showering and stomping laundry at the same time. Thanks, Honey!

Getting to be part of the lives of our earth bag building hosts involved doses of each of the above, plus fun and education. When we first arrived, people from the neighborhood would stop by to check out the “farang” (white western) newcomers.   The days in the community are filled by the noises of food vendors rumbling through the streets with their sidecarts and motorbikes.   It’s like the U.S. version of the ice cream truck, only the horn toots announce a myriad of products for sale.

Our first or second evening, we chatted with locals and I cuddled an adorable baby named Lola. One afternoon, early on in our volunteer stint, the local mayor stopped by — drunk as a skunk and looking for company. Easy-going-guy that he is, our host just said, “Why not?! What the mayor wants, the mayor gets! Bottoms up!” So we drank whiskey combined with local moonshine and listened to the mayor tell us he was “top of the mountain.” Funny!

Typical Asian squat toilet. They might not be that nice to look at, but when it comes to their intended purpose... I actually prefer them. The adjustment back to "western" toilets is annoying.

Our evenings had one element in stark contrast to any genuine camping trip I’ve ever heard of: showers. The Thai especially (but south east Asians in general) are  very clean people. By comparison, I’m generally as filthy as a pig. However, each night I’d come in from the building site covered in dried sweat, dirt, and insect bites. Holding the water sprayer above my head and slowly chasing the heat and grime of the day away was heavenly.

After dinner my all time favorite activity was playing cards with Cake. It’s her nickname, but it suits this sweet, responsible 8-year-old. She’s had a tough life so far — irresponsible parents who allowed her to float from home to home for almost a decade. When our hosts arrived/returned from the U.S., they put a stop to her wandering. This little girl is whip smart, dedicated to her studies, quick to smile and laugh, confident, a role model for her friends, and FUN! She speaks a bit more English than I do Thai, but during my stay we worked on growing our respective vocabularies. I can count to ten, and say rice, water, delicious, no, yes, good morning, stop, and hot.

Where Pat and I rested our weary heads each night

Before Pat and I retired to our hut out beside the building site with its bamboo platform, Cake and I would play the games I taught her – “slap jack” and “memory.” I wanted to teach her “war” aka “Egyptian Rat Killer”.     She’s definitely sharp enough.   However, when I first brought out the cards, she asked her new mom “Isn’t Jema afraid of getting caught by the police?!” Her only experience with cards was her biological father gambling illegally and hiding from the cops. So I thought it better to start with simple, fun, legal concepts before moving into “Ace is highest, King is second, Queen is third…” etc.

All in all, it was a memorable week spent in the countryside of Det Udom. Thanks, guys! ♣

Click for pictures of edible lotus pods, community net fishing, hot-pink-baby-chicks, fun with Cake, neighbors paying visits, and the Det Udom countryside.


  • February 10, 2012 at 10:05 pm

    Loved the picture of you Jema 🙂

    • February 12, 2012 at 10:11 am

      Ha! Thanks, Ma. I will continue to post extremely unflattering photos of myself, as long as I know I’ll still be loved. 🙂

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