Thursday, November 10, 2016

Thailand: Relearning fundamentals

Today marks one week since my initial arrival in Seoul, South Korea, but with every day that passes I continue to re-learn behaviors that have been ingrained since toddlerhood. From the moment I arrived in southeast Asia, it was immediately clear that this way of life is much different.

America is loud!

After deplaning in Seoul, I entered an airport environment that was distinctly different from any United States airport I have encountered. The airport looked the same externally and internally, and the weary travelers didn't look much different than those of America. But it sounded so drastically different that it demanded my attention even in a jet-lagged state. It was silent!

Hundreds of people were lined up to board the train to transport travelers from one end of the Incheon airport to another, but nearly everyone was silent.

Not to mention the bathroom that had a small soap dispenser attached to the wall with instructions to clean the seat before sitting, and the array of mysterious Korean labeled buttons attached to the toilet seat (which I later learned to be a bidet).

Which brings us to our next topic...

Don't sit on the toilet!

In Thailand, I don't have to worry about enigmatic Korean buttons on the toilet, because many toilets are simple 12" tall rectangular pieces of porcelain better known as "squatty potties".

While city and well-developed areas in Thailand usually have access to western toilets, most developing or rural areas of Thailand rely on the more traditional toilet. There is no handle to flush, either. The small spicket on the right (photo above) is used to fill a basin with water. Pouring the basin down the potty is what flushes the waste.

Don't put toilet paper in the toilet!

If you ever want to feel confused at the most primitive level, try re-learning how to use the toilet. Due to the dated and struggling water treatment system that Thailand utilizes, toilet paper cannot be flushed. This includes both western and traditional toilets, although I have been told that large new developments, like swanky hotels, can handle toilet paper being flushed. There is usually a sign by the toilet warning you to not flush toilet paper. This is all assuming you remembered to bring toilet paper with you - notice the absence of a toilet paper dispenser in the bathroom?

Adventurous eaters welcome

Ok, enough toilet talk. If you are someone that finds the thought of exotic dishes like chicken heart, coagulated blood, or langsat enticing, you will enjoy Thai cuisine very much! The crucial re-learning process of eating in Thailand has revolved around two things. 

First, try a small bite, and be ready for some spice. Many of the flavors are brand new to American palates, and spice is used liberally in Thailand as the essence of flavor. Second, get used to using a spoon. Rather than forks, Thais traditionally use a spoon with raised edges (seen in photo above). If forks are provided, they are traditionally used to scoop food onto the spoon.


Last but not least, smiling is the foundation of socializing in Thailand. Natives have smiled at me and my American colleagues with every encounter, and they always start with saying hello in the native tongue; an enthusiastic sa-wat-dee-ka! This is a stark contrast to how strangers are greeted back home in America. 

Yes, we are visitors here, and that could be responsible for some of the friendly welcoming. Nonetheless, I constantly observe natives greeting each other in the exact same way - a warm smile and a happy hello. Thai people are kind, welcoming and selfless. We have traveled from bustling Bangkok, to small urban cities, to rural villages. Everywhere we go, the warm embrace of friends and strangers remains constant. It's a very special feeling to feel welcome everywhere you go.

The Thai culture is simply beautiful, and we are truly privileged to be here.

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