After my escape out of Bangkok and the stressful hunt for an apartment that’s wheelchair accessible (see Backpacking Thailand, part 1) I finally found some peace and quiet. Now it was time to immerse myself in the thai culture. And that proved to be more difficult than I thought.
After the stress of the first couple of weeks I finally found some time to work again – I refined my website, wrote articles for various magazines and blogs and prepared a few presentations for the next year. On some days I was so immersed in my work that I completely forgot to leave my apartment. That was perfect, since that has been the plan for this trip in the first place: to continue my “normal” life – but to combine it with an adventure. If I needed a break it was just a matter of minutes to get to the beach or the market. It speaks for the cultural difference that it took me two weeks to find this main shopping spot of the thais even though it was only 200m from where I lived. I found it while I was lost again – a lifelong habit that always lets me discover interesting new places. Following a long tradition of tourists around the world, I tried to find back home by going into the next best dark and shady side street. The further I followed it, the more it got narrowed down by food and clothing shops. Alright, that way I’d at least not starve or get too much out of fashion.
Instead of leading me back into freedom the side street opened up into a huge hall with hundreds of different stalls. The smell of fresh and dried fish was in the air. Kitchens, veggie and fruit vendors und colorful delicacies cued up next to toy, clothing and buddha shops (that’s how I called the places that sold candles, incense sticks, bowls and flowers: ritual objects whose use is a daily habit for Thais and that can be bought pretty much everywhere).
During my time in Thailand I wanted to participate in the daily life as much as possible. I didn’t want to be the tourist who, equipped with a travel guide and a camera, studies the local sights in a book and then shoots a few photo’s from afar before moving on.
I wanted to be in the middle of it: I wanted to eat where Thais eat during their lunch break. I wanted to drink my beer where the Thais come together after a days work. I wanted to prefer the local markets with their puddles of water, stray cats and motorbikes to the shiny, western shopping mall. I didn’t want to learn about the surroundings and traditions in a travel book, but by talking to the locals.
That romantic notion of a travel adventure was a lot easier said than done, because there were a lot of barriers. I felt a bit like a toddler: most of what was said to me I could not understand. I myself could barely make myself understood. A lot of what was happening around me did not make sense to me. To read any writing was completely out of the question. And on top of all that I could not cope with even the smallest of architectural obstacles without someone helping me with my wheelchair. Realising all that was pretty sobering. It seemed like I would not be mistaken for a local within a week. Alright, so I had to approach that task a little bit slower.
On top of my list was the thai cuisine. Everywhere on the street are food stalls run as one man operations. Sometimes those are small carts pushed along the street by a stooped little man with a bell in one hand, selling fruit, snacks or drinks. Sometimes it’s motorbikes with a welded on sidecar big enough to hold an entire kitchen, including pots, BBQ and roof. Those simply park at the side of the road and, sitting sideways on the motorbike, the cook serves the prepared food to the clients driving past. A culinary practice that often led to traffic jams during rush hour. In the more quiet side streets there are permanently installed small kitchens: a small stove, a work area, a big umbrella and a couple of plastic tables and chairs, and that’s the restaurant. When all the ingredients are used up, the stove gets covered, the furniture put to the side, and everything is ready to go again the next day.
But how do I get my hands on that food, when I can’t read the menu on the signs, there are no photos to point to, and I don’t speak the language? A few vendors made it easy for me and I could simply point at the pineapple, water melon or bbq’d chicken wing and show a few fingers to add an amount to my order. At one point I tended to get fed up eating pineapple and chicken wing all the time though. But how do I order at places where the prepared food is kept warm in pots into which I can not look from my sitting position? And how do I order when the cook is waiting for an order before he or she starts preparing it?
After a few days this culinary frustration drove me to the supermarket in the city center, where I could at least read the price tags and names of the products written in english. This didn’t make much sense though – what was left of my plan to partake in the thai culture when I was already buying microwave meals in the supermarket? After a few of those it was finally time to declare war to the language barrier. Since I was feeling like a toddler most of the time anyway, it seemed right to finally claim my right of making a fool of myself. That’s just part of getting to know a new culture. Ready to drive around in circles, flapping my arms and cackling like a chicken if need be, I set out. Then I saw an elderly caucasian lady sitting there eating. That was my chance to gather some information about the oder process: “Excuse me, but how on earth do you order your meal here?” “Oh, that’s easy. There’s just two or three different meals anyway. Just tell the cook if you want chicken, pork or vegetarian. She understands that much english. And everything is delicious anyway.”
I made it even easier on myself by simply driving up to the cook with a wide and hungry grin, pointing to the old lady and ordering “The same.” That’s something I could have thought of much earlier. There were a few more questions coming from the cook though – I can only assume regarding the detailed composition of my oder – but since I got this far already it was no time to back out. So I answered the cryptic questions with a series of random nods or head shakes. And hoped for the best. I must have done it right, since I was rewarded with a delicious meal for under 1€. From now on I had all my meals together with the “other” Thais. Sometimes I knew what was on the menu, sometimes I’d just point at someone else’s plate. When confronted with pots I could not look into, I decided to just randomly point at one and face the surprise.
Did something go wrong? Yeah, sometimes. Once I got something completely undefinable (I am guessing kidney), once I ended up with ten-year-old eggs that smelled just like their name suggests, and one time I was just able to stop the cook who was already piling up chicken feet on my plate.
Learning Thai was part of my daily routine since I arrived in Bangkok. The free service “Memrise”, both a website (www.memrise.com) and a smartphone app was perfect for that. Half an hour a day was enough to make visible (or audible) progress. I made it a habit to study just before I was going to bed – that way all the new memories could be moved from my short term to my long term memory while I slept. I could easily learn about 30 new words or phrases each day if I did that. If I studied the same amount during the day I’d only remember about 10-15 of the words the next day. I arranged my vocabulary specifically so that instead of learning perfect, grammatically correct sentences that would have been very specific in their application, I only memorised single words and phrases. Those I would be able to use generically and support with gestures. However, I had missed out on one important fact of the thai language: each word can be pronounced in about five different ways. The difference in intonation is minimal, but could mean something completely different. “Mai” could mean both “no” and “now”, depending on a slight change in pronunciation. In a complete sentence that would probably be not so bad because it stands in context. But my single words and phrases did not have that benefit. Attempting to speak thai I could for example not know if I had just told the chef to make my meal “not” or “now” very spicy. I could only find out later.
So I gave up on learning the language a few weeks into my trip, and reduced its use to a few greetings and replies – I figured that since I am already dependent on the english speaking abilities of the locals, the very least I could do is greet and thank them in their language. I have to tip my hat to all the locals that spoke enough english to at least understand the gist of what I wanted of them.
While christmas went past the Thais unnoticed – apart from the shopping mall that in the best tradition of consumerism put all possible christmas decorations out in the boiling heat of their entrance – new years was a big deal. The bangs that sounded through the city let me think that Thais don’t use firecrackers but explosives. Next to classic fireworks there where also flying lanterns – khoom loys. They were not only nice to look at but also entertaining because many didn’t make it far – either the flame went out and they went down, or they set themselves on fire and crashed. Hunted by children that where looking for the crash site to salvage what’s left.
Shortly after new years my brother arrived at my door. My family had bought him a ticket for christmas, and he would stay the next two weeks with me. Our first trip through the neighbourhood and to the beach proved my initial worry to be true: our means of transport weren’t compatible. I was forced to avoid the inaccessible sidewalks and drive with my electric wheelchair on the side of the road, and had to make use of the 12km/h it could reach to stay as much in the flow of the traffic as possible. Whereas my brother was walking on the sidewalks, with a row of parked cars constantly separating us. That was neither sociable, nor would we be able to travel the distances I was used to – trips of 20km and more where not unusual for my daily excursions. There were several possible solutions. We could ride on a Tuk Tuk on longer trips. But my wheelchair wouldn’t fit into one of these, so I could either leave it behind and would then not be able to get around at our destination. Or I could have travelled to the destination on my own, which would not have been very sociable either and eliminated the possibility for spontaneous excursions around the city. So we decided to rent a motor scooter for my brother. That took a bit of convincing, since the first thing he said to me upon his arrival was: “They are driving like maniacs here!”
On top of that, he had to drive on the left side of the road in Thailand. I vividly remember my first attempts to drive on the left side of the street in New Zealand. It’s pretty difficult at first to stay on the “wrong” side. As long as one is able to concentrate on it and there are other participants ahead and behind one to serve as points of reference, it’s easy. But taking part in street traffic is so much of a routine for everyone who’s been doing it for a while that falling back into old habits can happen fast – especially when it’s stressful, when the road is empty or when there’s a lack of concentration. It’s important to play it save at first and to not do anything that hasn’t been thought through first. You can’t rely on your automatic responses anymore. The most important points:
- Before you take any turn, find a point of reference on the other street so that you can aim for it. Especially when turning it’s easy to end up on the wrong lane.
- If in doubt, always do what the driver in front of you does. That guy knows what he’s doing. Rather go in the wrong direction and then find your way back than to risk an accident.
- When it’s stressful and you don’t know exactly how to orient yourself on the road, and there is no one to follow, then always take a left turn. That way you are not crossing any lanes and it’s easy to stay on the left side of the road.
- The most mistakes happen after a few days when you’re starting to get confident.
We made a few test drives through the neighbourhood and then set out. In the regular traffic my brother would simply drive behind me. If it got more quiet and the streets less busy, we’d drive along side each other which helped a lot with communication. After the first day on the road he already revised his view on the Thai’s driving behaviour: “So much cooler to drive here. Everyone just does what he wants, and everyone’s considerate.”
In Khao Takiab – about 60 min away, given our mode of transportation – we had found a beach that was perfect for me. A concrete ramp led from the street to the beach, and the sand was hard enough to drive on it with the electric wheelchair. There where also sundbeds that were so close to the sea that they were almost in the water during tide. That made it easy for me to get out of the ocean since I could simply lift myself from the water on to the sunbed. But we had to be there early to catch the tide, otherwise the water was too far from our lounging spot for me.
But what to do with a wheelchair and all the valuables, when no one can stay behind to watch them?
I can lock the electronics of my wheelchair with a magnetic key – that way at least no one can drive away on it. To make sure no one can push it away either, a bike lock got wound around the front wheels. That was pretty much just for show, since the front wheels of this power chair come off at the push of a button – but who’d know this at the other end of the world. All the valuables went into the sturdy bag on the side, locked with an easily visible baggage lock. Granted, it could still be cut open – but that’s where the last step came in. On the seat, half-heartedly hidden under a blanked lay a small bag with 100 Baht (2.50€) in it. Our idea was that someone would grab the bait and run off, instead of making plans on how to get at the side bag. In the end nothing ever happened.
On one of these beach trips we decided to simply travel along the beach and see where it would take us. After a few minutes we had left the hotels and tourist places behind us and there where less and less people to see. After half an hour of driving we were the only two left.
It got adventurous when we had to cross a small river that flowed from the land into the ocean. The motor scooter, send ahead to test the ground, already got stuck in the wet sand. I didn’t feel like putting my wheelchair through the same exercise.
Besides, I couldn’t risk getting the electronics in the drive wheels in contact with the water. The explorers in us where already giving up when we remembered the telescopic ramp I was carrying with me at the back of my wheelchair. It was just long enough to serve as a bridge, and so I could set over in the best tradition of pioneers worldwide. Obstacles like this and the fact that the sand was draining my batteries fast let me hope that we would find a similar concrete ramp on the other end of the beach to leave it again. We had already driven for a couple of hours and I did not have enough trust in my batteries to go back the same strenuous way. Besides, I had no clue what had happened to that little river and other obstacles in the meantime. Maybe they had grown and where impassable anyway by now.
Our lonely beach ended at the idyllic Khao Tao. And there was also a ramp that – even though steep and uneven – got me back on an asphalt street. It felt good to hear the drive wheels purr quietly again, instead of their tortured groaning during the drive on the sand. That had emptied the batteries 50% until here. Even better that the way back would be along a smooth main road. First we had to find it though. Thanks to our enthusiasm for the beach we had both emptied the batteries of our smartphones by taking photos and videos. No chance to rely on the help of google maps now. Never mind, our task should not be too difficult: find the main street and travel up north on it. That would bring us back to Hua Hin sooner or later. Too bad that the ramp that had brought me off the beach was at the edge of a construction site.
No signs, and only one small road, we followed that towards north. After quite some time that turned out to be a dead end however. It would actually still be funny – an electric wheelchair, escorted by a motor scooter, both driven by two sunburnt tourists looking lost and exploring the thai wilderness. But the display of my battery charge had dropped another bar and by now I was getting worried if I could even make it back home like this. Well, I could save my worries for the farewell party of the last battery bar. As it turned out, instead of going north on our small road into the wilderness, we should have gone the other way. That soon brought us to the main road we had looked for and we could finally get on our way home.
We had about 15km of distance to cover, so because of our (that is, my) speed it was clear that it would be way past sunset before we got home. Time to lean back, enjoy the scenery and wave to all the construction workers standing on the back of trucks looking curious. A past time I had become an expert in.
Literally a few meters before my apartment I drove over a plastic bag that was against my expectations not at all empty. The ‘clack clack clack’ that I could hear coming from my rear wheel was a reason for an emergency stop. My crossing of the plastic bag had let to a wooden chopstick stuck in my tire. We decided to remove all the bits on the outside but leave the main splinter in. I could accept that without much worry, wooden chopsticks where all over the city, so why not in my wheel too. But this piece of wood was going to cause quite some havoc over the coming weeks.
After two weeks my brother left for Germany again. In the meantime I had decided to end my stay in Thailand early after only two months. I was going to fly on to New Zealand. After all, so my reasoning, I was half way there already. My ticket going from Bangkok back to Frankfurt had been bought as an open ticket, so I was already busying myself planning my four weeks in New Zealand. At that time, the TV news where full of the ongoing demonstrations in Bangkok, and the plan of the protestors to occupy the airport. Great. My flight was leaving on the the first of february, exactly a day before the countrywide elections. If there were any attacks on the airport, I would probably have a first class view.
Two days before my departure my trip into chaos started. On the way back from my last shopping trip the drive wheels of my wheelchair suddenly stopped, the electronics peeping loudly to alert me that something was wrong – as if I hadn’t realised that myself due to the sudden stop and all the food that had flow off. The wheelchair didn’t move anymore. A restart got it working again, but only for a short while. Then it all repeated. No matter, all repairs had to wait until I was in New Zealand. Here I could do nothing anymore. I just hoped that the wheelchair would work long enough to get on the loading area of the taxi, and then to the check-in counter at the airport. And it did, albeit stopping and beeping every couple of meters.
At the check-in I was then told that they could not transport my wheelchair, because the first on my three aircrafts – the one going from Bangkok to Singapur – was too small to store my wheelchair in the cargo area. Despite all my correspondence with the airline concerning size, weight and safety certifications for the batteries no one had thought about checking the cargo area.
It seemed as if the two months in Thailand had saved all their troubles for the last two days…