*Pushing my mother out of her comfort zone*
06.12.2011 - 11.12.2011 20 °C
Last summer as I was planning this trip, I decided my mother should visit me in Thailand. I figured it would be foreign, exciting, exotic, really something new and different for her. So I floated the idea, and was pleased when she seemed to actually consider it. Encouraged, I applied the most potent leverage I could think of: I, your only daughter, will be all alone in a strange faraway land; don’t you think you should come make sure I’m safe? Not surprisingly, this worked. She is now boarding a plane to fly halfway around the world, and I am heading for Bangkok to meet her.
The bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok takes ten hours, in theory. I settle in for the ride, seated next to a nice Thai girl. We exchange a couple words, which is all that is possible given that neither of us speaks the other’s language. I start to read but my attention span expires, so I begin making a necklace out of hemp; just something to occupy my hands. I notice my seat mate watching me, and decide to see if she likes arts and crafts. I show her how to tie the knots, and soon we are making the necklace together, using ‘box stitch’ and ‘spiral stitch’ – leftover knowledge from summer camp a couple decades ago. We exchange a more words with the help of the language section in my Lonely Planet book – it does come in handy sometimes.
Around 10:30pm, we appear to be reaching the outskirts of Bangkok. I am looking forward to getting off the bus. At this point the interior lights cut out, the motor dies, and we cruise slowly to a stop on the side of an elevated highway. Our driver attempts to restart about ten times; the engine only wheezing pitifully. We sit. The lights flicker on and off at random. While it is dark, there is not much to do; we can neither continue the necklace nor communicate by drawing or pointing to words in Lonely Planet. When the lights come back on, we ‘talk’ some more. She has to use the bathroom. I don’t know how to say, “whatever you do, don’t think about water” in Thai, so I playfully start to draw droplets of water falling. “No, no!” she laughs. I open LP back up and we search out phrases to comment on our current situation. At the same moment, we both spot this most relevant sentence that was thoughtfully included: “The motorbike won’t start.” We laugh… We wait… Some passengers are flagging taxis, but I have nowhere pressing to be. I get up to stretch my legs and peer over the side of the highway to a surprising and sobering sight below: Street lights reflected in water. Weeks after the worst of the floods have subsided, parts of the city are still underwater.
I get back onto the bus. The lights go back out. I fall asleep. Close to midnight, my friend shakes me gently awake; another bus has finally come to the rescue.
I had thought we were close to our destination, but we drive for at least another hour. Thus my first impression of Bangkok: This city is MASSIVE. Arriving at the Mo Chit bus depot around 1am, I get off and consider where to head. I figure the easiest place to find a bed for the night will be the well-known tourist corridor of Khao San Road. I do not hire a tuk-tuk – those are for tourists, ahem – but rather ascertain that there is a No. 3 bus into the city. I am the only non-Thai on the bus and have no idea when to get off, but the driver is kind enough to let me know when we reach Khao San. I wander down the street, check prices at a few guesthouses, and settle on one next to a bar with a guy on a guitar playing Pink Floyd’s “Wish you were here.”
The next day, I meet Ema at the airport. She emerges from the throngs of travelers with a bounce in her step, looking swell after her long trip. As for me, after two and a half months of traveling alone, I am excited to see her. Our first day is spent doing Bangkok. We tour Wat Po, walk along the river, walk around trying to find Chinatown, walk around trying to find our way out of Chinatown, walk through the amulet market, walk down countless random streets, walk through bustling and bewildering markets… and limp back to our hotel. We end the day with much needed foot massages at an upstanding establishment that states for the record, “No Sexy Massage.”
Our next destination is Erawan National Park. To get there you catch a bus up to Kanchanaburi and another bus on to Erawan. Lonely Planet has a sentence about there being bungalows for rent in the park, and although searching online I cannot ascertain the exact nature of said lodging nor actually book a room, I decide to go for it. I have spent a fair amount of time planning for Ema’s visit, trying to ensure that we have something of an agenda and lodging with flush toilets. But really, what is the fun of having your mother visit you in Thailand if you don’t push her at least a little out of her comfort zone?
First, on a bustling Bangkok street, I tell her, “Wait here with the bags while I go figure out which bus we need.” I disappear, return a few minutes later with bus tickets and a bit of food (she tends to forget to eat, poor thing), and we squeeze ourselves and our luggage into a minibus designed with truly petite people in mind. As we ride she asks where this bus drops us off, whether that is where we catch the next bus on to Erawan, and if I know when that bus leaves. I don’t make her suffer on purpose, but I honestly do not have any answers beyond, “We’ll see.” To her credit, she accepts this. Not that she has much recourse.
When we arrive in Kanchanaburi after three and a half hours, Ema needs to use the facilities, and asks if they are squat toilets. Having just been myself, I reply to the affirmative. She makes an unhappy face. I urge her to take advantage of this opportunity to have an authentic Thailand experience right here in the Kanchanaburi bus depot. Again, she does not have much recourse. She returns shaking her head and laughing. I commend her for her fortitude.
Meanwhile, I have purchased tickets to Erawan Waterfall. Ema wants me to ask the bus driver if there is lodging in the park and I attempt to oblige. Between my lack of Thai and his lack of English, I think I am understood and think the answer is yes. She then wonders purposefully aloud where in the national park the bus stops, whether it is near the bungalows, and if we can maybe call ahead to see if they have any availability. I am pretty sure no one here speaks any more English than our bus driver, and tell her I have gotten all the information it is possible to get for now so, once again, “We’ll see.” Again, to her credit, she accepts this. As we sit on the bus watching the scenery change from urban sprawl to forest, I mention that as a very last resort, I have a tent; is she okay with that as a fallback option? She thinks for a moment, and says yes. Good woman.
Our lesson for the day: Even when you cannot verify online exactly where you are going and what you will find, things can work out very well. The bus drops us right at the entrance to the park and the driver points us to an office where we can arrange lodging. We go in and ask about bungalows, they quote an absurdly low rate for the next two nights, and hand us a room key. Then we are walking down a forest path, out into a clearing with graceful trees and a bubbling brook, and into a beautiful cabin with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the stream. The only catch, we later discover, is that the hot water shower is not working. On the up-side, it certainly saves time and helps conserve water.
After a long day of traveling, we both succumb to a siesta. When I wake up it is dark and Ema is snoring, no doubt thanks to jetlag compounded by an exhausting workload prior to leaving Chicago. I know she is not getting up anytime soon, dinner be damned. As for me, I am hungry. I recall some food stands by the park entrance, and know that you can get food just about anytime and anywhere in Thailand. So I walk back up the road, find a little restaurant in operation, and return to our room bearing pad thai, chicken curry, a bottle of coke, and a pineapple for dessert. She wakes up slowly but surely. Says I spoil her. I reply that there has to be some reward for putting up with a slew of quirky logistics and squat toilets.
Erawan waterfall is beautiful, but is decidedly ‘discovered.’ The good thing about staying in the national park is that you can get to the falls before all the tour buses arrive.
We have a lovely couple days swimming in the falls, watching monkey mayhem, and visiting the Phra Tat cave. Tucked into a beautiful bamboo forest and reached by ascending 597 steps (Ema counted) and squeezing through a very narrow passageway (one of us has claustrophobia), Phra Tat cave is an immense echoing cavern the size of several grand ballrooms combined. It has vaulted ceilings where bats make their homes, and is adorned with all manner of otherworldly rock formations.
Next stop, Kanchanaburi. Again we are on a bus to a city with no lodging booked. Ema is a little concerned, but is starting to get used to this. We get off the bus and wander down the street with our bags, view a couple rooms that are a little rough around the edges, then find a floating hotel on the River Kwai with a large bright room and - dare one hope - a hot shower.
Kanchanaburi was a major node in the infamous Thailand-Burma Railway, a.k.a. Death Railway, built by the Japanese during WWII using forced labor. We rent bicycles and pedal around to two museums, a temple built into a series of caves, and finally a restaurant called Jukkru which takes some finding but is SO worth the effort. I am enjoying traveling with my mom. And she is being a darn good sport; see claustrophobia-inducing cave below, and note that the hoped-for hot water shower is not actually working.