Sitting in a bed of lush-lush-green-green plants, I looked under a gigantic banana leaf at the waves beyond the sand before me. (Having traveled exclusively to coastal cities so far, I half-believe Thailand revolves around the aquatic—the ocean, long tail boats, monsoon rains, and perhaps even the air [which I’m inclined to describe as such since it’s so humid I feel like I’m floundering around in some type of airwater.]) As I watched a wave, a monkey ambled over from across the beach, followed by another, and another swung down from above that giant leaf I was mentioning. I gazed up the trunk behind me to see perhaps hundreds of monkeys clumped together on branches and vines all the way up the tree. The thought of being pelted with monkey-rain on my mind, I slowly side-stepped away from the hoard and onto the beach, pushing the leaf away to find a small pond at the foot of the limestone cliff beside me teaming with more monkeys swinging like little Tarzans from the branches and plopping into the water. Since the day I arrived, I’ve run into monkeys at shrines and on sidewalks and on buildings and in the middle of walkways. Monkeys everywhere, eating little bananas and staring me down and digging in my unattended bag for food. Monkeys are one of my very favorite parts of Thailand for no deep reason at all.
As if this troop of primates weren’t a clue enough, I’ve since been swept up in a Thai whirlwind of The New and The Different and The Unfamiliar. On my way to lunch, I follow the unpaved sidewalk through the mud, perusing food carts that line the streets and I’m met with a tornado of delicious smells like banana pancakes and horrible smells that I can’t identify but probably hail from sewage and open trashcans. This was initially confusing, but I feel as though this mixture prevails throughout the places I’ve visited in other ways, too. Although in America I’m familiar with a range of distinct wealth-bound neighborhoods, I’ve never seen such an intertwined wealth gap right before my eyes. Off to shoot some b-roll footage on the beach, I cross a resort (which I later found out to be over 2,000 dollars per night—yow) settled right beside a little wooden restaurant where I eat Pad Thai for a dollar and a half. Driving in the countryside in the back of an open air truck, I pass hundreds of little houses with small shops open in their yards, attended by a lounging woman and a cat or a cow, and I wonder who the customers are and where they’re coming from. Initially walking through the streets I felt as though I wandered into The Twilight Zone because they seemed completely abandoned mid-day despite the motorbikes and tuk-tuks hurdling past me (more on this in a second,) but I soon found the streets to come alive at night, when it’s (much) cooler, and people emerge to shop and to sell and to work on construction projects. Back to the traffic, it, too, is quite different. You drive on the left, and it seems you may go as fast or as slow as you want without angering anyone around you, even if you completely stop in the middle of the road. Other drivers adjust their patterns and paths to accommodate you, overtaking you with a courtesy beep or moving aside. A party they do not seem to accommodate is the lowly pedestrian (read: me) who must run for her life to survive.
Bounding into the Indian Ocean for the first time was all I had dreamed of, as the sand was white-white sand and the water was blue-blue water and best of all, it was warm. I found myself sprawled on a wooden long tail last week basking in the great shadow of a limestone cliff and eating a slice of pineapple. The waves gently caressed the boat. In these moments I realize I’ve arrived at the Mecca of paradise and I feel like I must become as zen as possible and that I must mentally meld with the calmness of the ocean, but I can’t help my active mind from wandering to other things: Thai desserts and worrying if I’ve captured enough footage of the new things I’ve seen and replaying the sights of monkeys and sunsets and people I’ve met in my head. I often see burnt expats basking on the beaches, content with occasionally rolling to the water’s edge and ambling back up the sand, and I don’t think I can fit into the beached-whale lifestyle (although perhaps I’d be happier in life if I could.) But if I’ve learned anything from this year so far, it’s that travel teaches me a great deal about myself, and these lessons seldom pertain to the area in which I’ve traveled. It’s a strange sensation to share a love affair between where you are and where you’ve been. Where I am is exciting and fresh and new: where I am is biting into a mango, and yanking out a camera, and diving in backwards, and meeting a parrot fish, and having my cheeks splattered with ocean spray, and tossing my shoes aside as I enter a building, the cool tiles on my toes. Where I am is packed with sensory shocks and bright colors. Where I am is so stunning I worry my footage cannot convey it. Where I’ve been, however, is stained in my memory as well, through the warm light of Clark I 210 and the Cascade Mountains and the glow of the In-N-Out arrow. With all these pictures swirling and flickering in my mind, I’m growing increasingly excited for the lights and side streets and bustle of my next stop: Bangkok.