You Never Know When Someone is Watching

The hordes of tourists that crowd Bangkok’s Khao San area can be a great source of entertainment and fascination. Hanging out in the neighborhood for two weeks, I had lots of time to observe both Thailand and tourists.

Tourist Observations:

  • “Gap-years” or “Gappies” are a very common brand of traveler. These are kids – mostly from Europe, Israel, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the U.S. – who have just finished high school, university, or military service and gone traveling. In many places, a “gap year” is a cultural right-of-passage. Everyone does it.
  • Shocker. What NOT to wear, ever, anywhere in Thailand.

    Many Gappies (and some non-Gappies) provide shock-value entertainment. Unaware or apathetic that they are ambassadors for all tourists, they like to hang out naked or in PJ’s – neither of which suits Thai culture. I’d estimate at least 55% of tourists wear things that they wouldn’t even wear in public back home. Others wear next-to-nothing – like a late-30’s Russian woman walking around dressed for the Sturgis motorcycle rally,or a teeny-bopper wearing Swiss-cheese for a shirt.

  • Young families make up a sizable chunk of the tourist demographic. It’s inspiring to see all these parents with babies, toddlers, pre-schoolers, and grade-schoolers.
  • It’s funny to walk through an internet cafe at night, as a majority of users are skyping with friends back home. It makes for a bizarre, hidden-camera/two-way-mirror look into lots of private spaces. Most of those on the other end of the video don’t realize they are on public display.
  • Would she guess she’s on display to a few dozen curious strangers?

    Anecdote 1: several nights in a row as I sat working on my laptop, a young woman next to me spent hours watching make-up application technique videos. Not clown make-up, or theater make-up, just everyday blush, eyeshadow, lipstick make-up. Bizarre.

  • Anecdote 2: a classic representation of the stereotypical gappie. At breakfast in a quiet restaurant, this boy, in his best “bro” voice, loudly regaled his female Skype listener (and the rest of us) with tales of surviving his first tattoo. Favorite “bro” boast: “The last two hours when they were coloring it in, I had to drink two buckets to keep me going.” Oh. Em. Gee.

Thailand (Bangkok) Observations:

  • 7-Elevens are everywhere! They multiply like rabbits. Sometimes you can stand in once place and see at least five stores. Stepping out the front door of hostel for a seaweed fix, I have a choice between walking about 40 strides to the left or 43 strides to the right.

  • The Buddhist attitude seems to lead to a less stressful life. Believing that one only has power over oneself, people seem not to get angry in long lines. Believing in karma, people seem not to cut others off in traffic or honk their horns in frustration or anger.

  • Thai Buddha

    Some parts of Bangkok feel incredibly futuristic. Elevated freeways convey vehicle passengers who have the privilege of looking into the 5th floor windows of buildings. Billboards literally soar, such that those on the 10th floor live under the watchful eyes of advertising models.

  • Bangkok’s trash system is not futuristic. Strolling around before 10 a.m. feels like wandering in the aftermath of a huge party. Trash has been half-heartedly collected into giant grain sacks and sits waiting for the trash truck workers to roll through the remaining litter and snap it up.

  • Cinematography in (bootleg?) movies is strikingly different. Watch Shawshank Redemption, Mary Poppins, or Back to the Future (in the lobby theater of My House Guesthouse) and the amateur angles will have you thinking you’re watching a play. It’s surreal.

  • You can’t use inflection to convey a question in Thailand. You’ll be gravely misunderstood if you say to a taxi driver, “Can you take me to the Statue of Liberty?” instead of, “Can you take me to the Statue of Liberty.” No matter how alike those two phrases sound to Western ears, the differences in inflection mean they are literally different words in Thai. Like saying, “Can you take me to dog run peanut?” vs. “Can you take me to the Historic District.”

My two weeks “living” in Bangkok, befuddling communications included, were just what the doctor ordered. After the perfect balance of time to work, time to observe, time to wander, and time to rest, I’m off to Bali! ♣

Photos of my final days in Bangkok are here.

Photo credits: skype, 7-11, buddha, elevated freeway.

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