When I was a kid, one of my favorite movies was The King and I. It’s been many years since I’ve seen it, but I loved the story of the British governess, the king of Siam, and the intrigues of the royal court. I knew fairly little about Thai history other than the events and historical figures in the musical, so I was eager to learn more about a country that had always held a special place in my imagination.
I arrived in Bangkok the morning of January 19, after my ten-day trip to Vietnam. When I think about my trip around Thailand, the first word that comes to mind is “influence.” Thailand is a country that has been influenced by Chinese, Indian, British, and American culture (among others), while maintaining its own culture and influencing others in the region and around the world. While the rest of southeast Asia was carved into colonies during the nineteenth century, only Thailand retained its sovereignty–with the caveat that it would modernize and westernize, as alluded to in The King and I. Though seemingly trivial, the first thing I noticed when I walked out of the airport was that cars in Thailand drive on the “wrong” side of the road, and it was like I was in England again. I witnessed many of the effects of westernization as a result of the last 150 years, from technology to language to cuisine, but I also learned about history, politics, and a culture that was uniquely Thai.
The streets of Bangkok were not flanked by communist flags, like the highway in Hanoi, but images of the king were mounted in the intersections and on buildings. Rama IX is currently the world’s longest reigning monarch, and his presence pervaded the city.
Interestingly, Thailand also has strict lese majeste laws, and disrespecting the king or his image could result in severe punishment. It was such a different political landscape than I was used to in America and Korea.
Thailand is 95% Buddhist (that Indian influence!), and Bangkok in particular is known for its ornate temples. At least half of my pictures have a Buddha statue! My favorite part of Bangkok was the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, a well-known temple in Thailand. The massive grounds had royal quarters, Buddhist temples, and colorful statues that glistened in the sunlight. My pictures do not do it justice, but I will post a few anyway.
In addition, Wat Phra Kaew is famous for the emerald Buddha, which is a symbol of Thailand’s wealth and its dedication to religion. Seeing the emerald Buddha adorned in gold and perched upon a high golden throne, it felt like walking into Aladdin’s Cave of Wonders. The walls were decorated with thick gold and rich jewel tones, the flecks of blue and red and green creating a kaleidoscope of color. It was so visually overwhelming, it didn’t seem real.
After the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, I went to Wat Pho, which is famous for its large reclining Buddha statue. Wat Pho has also been instrumental in preserving the ancient art of Thai massage. The architecture at Wat Pho was similar to the architecture at Wat Phra Kaew, though not as jewel-encrusted nor as vividly colored.
Across the river from Wat Pho, I saw Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn. At this point, I should note that the Chao Phraya River runs through Bangkok and its neighboring provinces, and Bangkok itself was once a city of canals. Years ago, boats were used to ferry people to different parts of the city. With modernization, the canals were filled in and replaced with roads, but the express boat along the Chao Phraya River remains a vestige of older times. It was this boat that took me from Wat Pho to Wat Arun.
Though the temples are, first and foremost, places of worship, the constant influx of tourists has led to the rise of some unscrupulous practices. Near the ticket windows for each temple, I saw large signs that read, “Buddha is NOT for decoration!” and urged tourists not to buy Buddha souvenirs or get Buddha tattoos. But sure enough, on the streets outside of the temples, men and women sold Buddha statuettes and tattoo parlors advertised Buddha tattoos. At one of the other temples I visited, a man was sitting on the steps, holding wild sparrows in little cages and cajoling tourists to pay him a fee to set the birds free and receive good luck forever. I hadn’t witnessed these practices in Vietnam, nor in any other country I have visited, so I was surprised to encounter them here.
As the sun was setting, I visited one more temple, the Golden Mount. The city was just starting to light up, and I had a great view of the temples, monuments, and skyscrapers. Like Korea, Bangkok is an amazing fusion of modern and traditional, old and new.
In all, I spent two and a half days sightseeing in Bangkok. But I realized that after the first day, the temples and the architecture seemed less exciting. I was becoming desensitized to the splendor. I wasn’t sure if that was because of how tightly I packed my schedule so I could see everything, or if Thailand was just so magnificent that I couldn’t process it all.
I did have a brief experience that was quite different from seeing the temples. I wanted to visit a palace that was further away from the main thoroughfare, so I took the express boat down the river and tried to find my way with a map. At one point, I took a wrong turn and wandered onto a university campus by mistake (I quickly turned around when I saw I was the only one not wearing a school uniform). When I finally arrived at the palace, it had closed for the day. I was disappointed that my search had come to nothing, but I did see some of Bangkok and its more obscure temples outside of the tourist areas. In fact, when I stopped in a convenience store, the woman behind the counter smiled brightly and said she couldn’t wait to tell her friend she saw a foreigner! Only then it occurred to me that I was the only non-Thai person I had seen walking through this area, which was only a fifteen-minute walk from the Grand Palace.
After a few days, I was ready to leave Bangkok and see some more of Thailand. The big cities only tell part of a country’s story, and I wanted to learn more.
Getting away from Bangkok, I took a day trip to Ayutthaya province for some more historical sightseeing. Ayutthaya was founded almost 700 years ago, and it served as the ancient capital of Siam for about 400 years. Even after the capital moved to Bangkok, Ayutthaya remained an important place for the royal family, historians, and devout Buddhists.
My first stop in Ayutthaya was Bang Pa-In Palace. Before I arrived in Thailand, I was most looking forward to visiting Bang Pa-In, the summer home of Rama IV (King Mongkut, the famous King in The King and I) and his son Rama V (King Chulalongkorn, widely regarded as the most influential king of Thailand). Though the palace was originally constructed in the mid-seventeenth century, many more buildings and structures were added over the next few hundred years. Like the architecture of English cathedrals that were built over hundreds of years, the architecture of Bang Pa-In was an amalgamation of different cultures and time periods.
Bang Pa-In fully exemplified the influences I mentioned before, featuring architectural styles from Thailand itself, China, and the West. For much of my visit, I felt like I was walking through an English mansion rather than a royal residence in southeast Asia. Greco-Roman statues and columns adorned the gardens and the waters, while many of the buildings were painted in soft pastel colors rather than gold. It was beautiful, but seemed out-of-place when I compared it to the architecture in Bangkok.
Of course, there was still traditional Thai architecture, as well as the Chinese-style royal palace with bright red and gold colors. Living in Korea and traveling through Vietnam and Thailand has taught me how closely architecture is linked to culture and cultural exchange.
Half an hour away from the palace, I visited the ancient Buddhist temples of Ayutthaya, including a Buddha’s head entwined in tree roots and another large reclining Buddha.
It was quite a bit different than the temples in Bangkok! I enjoyed learning about the older history of Thailand. As always, I wished I had time to see more.
The day after Ayutthaya, I took another day trip to Kanchanaburi province, which is two hours west of Bangkok. As with my trip to Saigon and Cu Chi in Vietnam, this was the serious part of my visit. Kanchanaburi is home to the infamous Burma Railway and the Bridge on the River Kwai, both of which were built by prisoners of war for the benefit of the Japanese empire. Once again, I learned new perspectives of a war–this time, World War II.
My first stop was the war cemetery, where the prisoners of war were buried. I saw the graves of Western soldiers and Asian civilians who had perished during the construction of the railway and the bridge. Many of them were younger than me. That was the most chilling part of all.
Not far from the cemetery, I saw the bridge itself. I admit, before going to Thailand, I knew very little about the bridge other than that it had been constructed during World War II and there was an old movie about it. The bridge is part of the Burma Railway, which was constructed to connect Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand for the benefit of the Japanese army in the 1940s. It is also known as the “Death Railway” because of the high number of casualties among those forced to work. Some of the railway is still in use today, and the bridge remains a popular tourist attraction and a reminder of this dark history.
Next to the Bridge on the River Kwai, the Jeath War Museum recounted the horrors and abuse that POWs and civilians faced during their forced labor on the bridge and the railway. As I saw the artifacts and read the exhibit posters, I couldn’t help but contrast what I saw in this museum with the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. There was some anti-Japanese sentiment, yes, but it was not nearly as overwhelming as the anti-American sentiment in Vietnam’s museum. In fact, the English language descriptions of World War II emphasized that, “It was the result of the action of a handful of power-crazed and inconsiderate people. They did all these things without thinking about the hardship of other human beings.” I thought once again about the war cemetery, the soldiers, and the civilians. I also wondered why the history classes I took in middle school and high school taught so little about how World War II affected Asia and the Pacific.
After visiting the bridge and museum, I did one of the “must-do” activities in Thailand–riding an elephant. I was with a group of people, and there were about ten elephants that took us on a ride around their sanctuary. As I eased myself onto the seat on the elephant’s back, I realized it would be a bumpy ride. I had the elephant version of myself–clumsy, snack-loving, and competitive. My elephant was the first of the ten to start walking around in the circle, but she stopped after a few minutes to eat some bamboo from a tree. The elephant handler laughed and commented that she must be very hungry. After five minutes of the elephant eating the bamboo, the handler finally steered her away. She took three steps and saw some grass. Apparently, it looked like dessert. Increasingly frustrated, the handler snapped a few words in Thai and jerked the bridle. The elephant looked up, saw she was behind the other elephants who were walking around the circle, and bounded toward them to make up for lost time. I think I’m still sore from all the bouncing.
The elephants were beautiful creatures, but I sensed that they weren’t well treated at this site. Later on, I read in a guidebook that elephants in Thailand are still classified as a mode of transportation, so regulations for tourism are not very strict. The ride was an interesting experience, but I wouldn’t do it again.
I left Kanchanaburi with a new appreciation for Thailand. Stepping away from the glitz and the glamour of Bangkok, I saw some of the modern, yet dark history that has shaped the country into what it is today. Though a sad day, it was probably my favorite part of my trip.
Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai
After five days in central Thailand, I took an overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. With the exception of my first day there, the weather in Chiang Mai was rather dreary; in fact, it was the coldest weather Thailand had seen in quite a few years. I visited a few temples, went on a night safari at the nearby zoo, and traveled to Doi Inthanon, the tallest mountain in Thailand.
I also took a day trip to Chiang Rai, the northernmost part of Thailand. On the way there, I visited the White Temple, which was designed by a modern artist as a gift to his country. The entrance to the temple features a lot of imagery of heaven and hell, especially with the skeletal hands reaching from the ground as if to grab the people walking by. The indoor exhibit was closed, but I have heard it is equally as interesting and symbolic as the exterior.
The White Temple also had a golden building off to the side. Beautiful, isn’t it?
Turns out that is the toilet. It’s a great commentary on being deceived by outward appearances–but, I wondered, is it meant as a larger commentary about the magnificence of Thailand itself?
Just past Chiang Rai, I stopped to visit the Golden Triangle. The Golden Triangle is the place where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet, separated only by the Mekong River. In the middle of the river, there is a small piece of land, a marsh, that doesn’t belong to any of the three countries. Until a few decades ago, it served as a center of the opium and contraband trade, where goods were bartered and no currency was used. Opium was so valuable, it was called “black gold”–and thus the name Golden Triangle was born. The tour guide said that the northern hill tribes in Thailand used to survive by growing opium and taking part in this illicit trade, but the government has since provided additional jobs and alternative sources of income. Indeed, in some of the markets at Bangkok and Chiang Mai, I had seen merchants from these tribes selling traditional artwork and handicrafts.
In the picture above, the golden Buddha to the left is Thailand, the brown building in the center-left is Myanmar, and the golden dome to the right is Laos. I took a brief boat ride along the river, disembarked at a small market in Laos for a few minutes, and then returned to Thai soil. Another stamp in my passport!
On my return to Chiang Mai, the tour bus stopped at a small village. The tour guide told us that for an additional fee, we could see the long-necked Karin, a northern Thai tribe that is famous for the rings they wear around their necks. It sounded uncomfortably voyeuristic. I remembered what the guide said about these tribes leaving the opium trade for “alternative sources of income”–was another source of income being gawked at and treated like animals in a zoo? To my relief, the other travelers in my group also demurred and wanted to continue home.
By this part of the day, the dreary weather matched my mood. I was ready to go to better shores and see the sun again.
To end my trip, I left the chilly mountains of Chiang Mai for the tropical islands in the Gulf of Thailand. It’s always been a dream of mine to go scuba diving, so I took the initiative and signed up for a PADI Open Water diving course at Crystal Dive Resort on Koh Tao (I highly recommended it). The course took four days and included classroom instruction, a day of learning how to use the equipment in a swimming pool, and four dives. I realized that I haven’t gone swimming for a few years, so I was eager to make up for lost time.
I mentioned before that I am clumsy and not athletically inclined, so I was really nervous on the first dive. I felt a small surge of panic when I saw the rope descending into cloudy nothingness, but after our group started to descend, it wasn’t bad at all. By the second dive, everything was much easier, and by the third and fourth dives, I could enjoy watching some of the fish. On our last dive, one of the students in my group proposed to his girlfriend under the water!
I wasn’t allowed to use my underwater camera while on the dives, but I do have some screenshots from the video that the dive center made for us.
Unfortunately, I was sick for my last two days on Koh Tao, so no snorkeling and sun-tanning for me. I was hoping to swim with the black-tip reef sharks, but I was too ill to leave my room. While I was resting, just me and half a dozen medications from the health clinic down the street, I finally saw the disadvantages of honja. It would have been nice to have a buddy to make sure I was okay!
In order to return to Korea within the time frame that Fulbright allowed us, I had to travel from Koh Tao to Gimhae in one day. And when I say one day, it literally took a little more than 24 hours. I took a high-speed ferry from Koh Tao to Chumphon, a van to the Chumphon airport, a domestic flight to Bangkok, an international flight to Seoul, a subway to the Seoul train station, a high-speed train to Gupo (Busan), a subway to Gimhae, and a taxi home. I was still recovering from my illness, and I was exhausted when I finally arrived home. In retrospect, I probably should have planned my return trip a little better. But, to my host family’s relief, I came home in one piece and with a lot of pictures, stories, and souvenirs.
Traveling has not only exposed me to new people and cultures, but it has also forced me to think more deeply about Korea, the U.S., and my own place in the world.
While in Korea, I am constantly aware of my American mannerisms, but going to Vietnam and Thailand reminded me of how many new mannerisms I have adopted in Korea. For the first few days of my trip, I found myself using habits like bowing in greeting, saying kamsahamnida rather than “thank you,” and using chopsticks even though I also had a fork. It was like I had to press a reset button in my mind to remember that I was not in Korea anymore and that I would have to adapt to my new surroundings. Though most of the places I visited were catered to tourists, I also tried to adapt to Vietnamese and Thai culture, whether it was using a phrase in their language or greeting a certain way. Now that I’m back in Korea, I have to adapt to bowing and kamsahamnida again. It’s like being a cultural chameleon.
I also reflected on honja, what it meant to travel alone. Before graduating from Villanova, I had told a professor that I wanted to travel around Korea and to other countries, but was afraid to do it alone since I didn’t speak other languages. A lot has changed since then. I was “alone” in the sense that I didn’t have a specific traveling companion. But I wasn’t as alone as I expected to be. Just a short hiatus from Korea has reminded me that I am part of a broader international community. I met backpackers who were around my age or a little older, families, local people, students, seasoned travelers, and people traveling for the first time. I met fairly few Americans, though I met other English speakers from the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Almost everywhere I went, I met someone who I bonded with for a short period of time. I’ve always been shy, but I enjoyed meeting new people and talking about my experiences in Korea.
The most fascinating part of my journey was that everyone I met had a story. It usually went like this: “I’m from (blank), but…” I’m from Slovenia, but I live in Portugal. I’m from LA, but I’ve worked in the Czech Republic for five years. I’m from the UK, but I teach English in Hanoi. I’m from the countryside, but I go to university in Saigon. I’m from Korea, but I moved to New Jersey after university. I found that in telling my own story–as an American living, teaching, and volunteering in Korea–I had a lot more self-confidence and better awareness of my own national and cultural identity. And the people I met genuinely thought my experiences were interesting! I hadn’t realized how much I have grown as a result of my time in Korea until I spent some time away.
But now, I am back. My experiences over the last twenty-seven days have given me a much greater appreciation of my time in Korea and my life in the U.S. I recognize how fortunate I am to have had the opportunity to travel, to speak the world’s lingua franca, to live in a democratic country, and to learn more about countries that are so rarely talked about in my home country. As I look forward to my second semester as an ETA and to my return to the US over the summer, I intend to carry these experiences and this gratitude with me.