From 2011-12, living in India inflated my ego. I thought that I had seen and experienced everything: from teaching ESL to hundreds of over-zealous middle schoolers, to navigating through West Bengal villages and trekking through Himachal Pradesh. In short, I concluded living in India had made me tough. But the truth is, nothing really makes you tough: some experiences just give you the illusion of invincibility, and Thailand shattered this illusion.
So when my friends Zoe and Sarah talked me into booking a trip with them to Thailand, I expected a fairly laid-back affair compared to our daily adventures in Kolkata. However, Thailand, on 4 separate occasions in Bangkok and Koh Chang, crushed my ego and taught me that I wasn’t SHIT. Here are 4 experiences that kept me on my toes and cut me down to size.
- The Scorpion
Sarah, Zoe and I walked past this food cart about 7 or 8 times, remembering what our friends had said about the street food: “You HAVE to try the insects–they’re a snack you’ll never forget!” It was a hot March evening and we were exploring the Khaosan Road area just outside of the Rikka Inn, where we stayed for 3 nights. With each pass, we tried to build our courage to stop and look closer at the neat rows of seasoned and skewered grasshoppers, cockroaches, scorpions, and meal worms. The first few times we could only muster side-long glances at the goodies, but we finally stopped long enough to consider the prices and the clusters of happy customers tucking into a cuisine that quite honestly scared me. Back in Kolkata, we encountered all kinds of bugs each day–gnats, centipedes, cockroaches of all sizes–and even critters like lizards and rats. The critters were terrifying because of their speed. They came out of nowhere, seemingly without any other purpose besides terrifying you–and disappeared just as quickly under an appliance of piece of furniture. Their power lay in the fact that any time you looked at that same appliance or chair, you would always imagine them lying in wait. But here they all were before our eyes again: dead and presumably edible. Perhaps feeling satisfied that our place on top of the food chain had been reiterated, we each bought a skewered grasshopper, scorpion and a handful of toasted meal worms.
My heart pounding and my palms sweaty, I considered the scorpion, its thorax impaled on a small wooden stick. What if I get stung? What about the poison? Clearly no one else around me cared, and clusters of satisfied customers were chowing down on the black, curved body. I chewed the surprisingly crispy goodness, salty and crispy, and looked over at my friends. We smiled and exhaled sighs of relief before handing over another few bhat to try some more.
- Wat Pho
The next day we walked to Wat Pho to visit the Reclining Buddha, the largest such statue in the city. The temple grounds themselves have the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand. Tucked among the many stupas and spaces for monk rituals is the Reclining Buddha, a luminous, golden figure that occupies the entire space of the temple, leaving just a few feet between it and the walls for visitors to walk and admire. All 150 feet of the statue are covered in gold leaf, every part of it reflecting the temple’s natural light into a golden glow.
There is no single best angle for viewing the Buddha–its immense size not only dwarfs every visitor, but resists a complete beholding. Craning my neck to see the Buddha’s half-smiling face, eyes cast down in a bemused expression, observing the hundreds of visitors circling his body, and possibly even listening to the tinny clinks of small bhats being dropped into the donation jars placed around the temple.
The halfway point of the statue walk is the Buddha’s feet. Measuring about 16 feet high, the sole of each foot is inscribed with 108 intricate mother-of-pearl symbols. Each symbol is a representation of the Buddha.
After a complete walk around the statue, it’s clear that all the visitors put together do not match the Buddha’s size. He’s laying down, yet still above us, looking not at but through the crowds shuffling around him. Not only does the Buddha outsize me and look through me, I’m also just another body in the crowd, awestruck by the golden symmetry melding with the silence of so many visitors. He has been around for much longer than all of us, yet manages to regard us with patience and joy.
Walking out of the temple grounds for the day, still wondering about how much time and ingenuity it took to create the Reclining Buddha, I passed by a sign for traditional Thai massages. There’s a Thai medicine school on the temple grounds, and it offers expert, “invigorating” massages. Tired from a full day at Wat Pho, I made a note to get a massage at our next stop, Koh Chang.
- Muay Thai Massage
While in Koh Chang, I finally decided to get a traditional Thai massage. I had never gotten any kind of massage ever in my life prior to this, so I had no idea what to expect aside from a feeling of “invigoration” advertised on the flyers at Wat Pho. Strolling down the main street of Koh Chang near our hostel, Independent Bo’s, I found a Thai massage place and walked in to find a smiling, Christmas ornament of a woman. She looked sweet enough, and since there weren’t any other customers, she immediately pointed to a bed by the window and directed me to lay down on my stomach.
She began by pounding my shoulder blades, my spine, my butt, and the backs of my legs. Tossing me onto my back, she straddled my stomach facing my feet and picked up each leg to deliver lightning fast jabs to my calves and hamstrings. She performed the same maneuver on my shins, knees and thighs, followed by more vigorous shaking of my legs. As her fingers dug into the small tendons underneath my kneecap (tendons that I didn’t even know were there), I realized I may not be able to walk for the rest of the day and made a mental note to call Sarah to come pick me up and carry me back to our hostel.
Then, she turned me back on my stomach and straddled lower back, grabbed hold of my wrists to yank my arms back towards her in what I call the “surprised cobra” pose. Now, with my chest parallel to the ceiling, I strain to breathe and my eyes water. When will this end?
During what I have come to understand as the grand finale, she helped me into a cross-legged position and sat behind me with her small, powerful legs creating a vise through which my lower half was squeezed, making me grunt awkwardly and turn red in the face. Then, with her little old lady fists, she began punching me on either side of my head, just above my ears. I could feel my brain sloshing from side to side and saw stars, like in those old fashioned cartoons. I wondered if I really needed all my childhood memories and the ability to read and write. As she used my skull as her own personal punching bag, she spoke very softly into my ear. I don’t understand Thai, so if she was trying to soothe me, I had no idea. After about a minute, she stood gave me a glass a water and waited until I drank the whole thing before I left.
I hobbled back to the beach in front of the hostel and spent the rest of the day floating face up in the water, my entire body throbbing. This is what invigoration feels like.
- Elephant Riding
On our second day in Koh Chang, we visited the Ban Kwan Chang Elephant Camp. Located in the middle of jungle away from the island’s sprawling tourist developments, the camp has a reputation for offering more humane living conditions for elephants in more natural surroundings.
While I was initially excited about the opportunity to interact with elephants, seeing them up close made my throat dry and my pulse race. These animals are bigger in person than you imagine: at 10 feet high and about 12,000 pounds, a human is like a nasty pest to be stomped on and forgotten about.
During the wait for our jungle trek, I saw the trainers playing with and feeding the elephants, getting lifted to the top of the animals’ massive heads by their trunks. Somehow, the elephants trust these humans (many of whom are young men who have grown up in the elephant camp and have a lifetime of experience communicating with and training the elephants) and the trainers ensure that the elephants trust all the other humans that come visit them each day.
Each elephant is outfitted with a seat for two just below the highest part of its head, and you hop on from a 2nd story platform (yes, they are about the size of a house). I boarded the huge, powerful creature that could easily crush me or thrash me around like a rag doll, and it didn’t crush me; at first it barely moved. The trainer explained you have to bribe them a bit with bananas and other snacks to get them going. Apparently I already have a lot in common with elephants!
The elephant did not crush me, but instead made me feel really comfortable with its slow, swaying gait. After about 30 minutes, I felt bold enough to lean forward on its skull–about the size of a lazyboy recliner– with is dense, kiwi-fruit like hairs poking in through my thin linen pant legs. Lumbering side to side, the elephants back was surprisingly relaxing in the dense green quiet of the jungle.
During the ride, the young elephant trainers showed off their singing abilities and were kind enough to take photos of us. I appreciated the animal taking care of me, and it was clear that the employees regarded the elephants as non-human companions. I liked the feeling of being up close to the highest point of the elephant, feeling its massive shoulder blades shift underneath the craggy, hairy surface of gray skin. The elephants ate as they went, sighing occasionally through their trunks.