|A somewhat less-than-perfect panorama of part of the skyline of Bangkok from the Asia Hotel, circa 2005|
I was drawn into a conversation yesterday with a fairly well-to-do physician friend - I'll call him Tim - who will be off to Thailand tomorrow for five days. Personally, if I wasn't going to be flying in the lap of luxury (so to speak) I don't think I'd even bother going that far for that short a stretch, but to each their own.
Tim was sharing the story of his first visit to Thailand, a somewhat spur of the moment stop on a "suit shopping" trip he'd taken to Hong Kong many years ago; a stop suggested by a Thai woman he'd sat next to on his outbound trip from here.
He was worried (OK, afraid) he wouldn't be safe, that his lack of knowledge of the language would leave him helpless and vulnerable in a strange land, that he would be lost and alone in what he'd always thought was a third world country. He spoke with his airline while in Hong Kong, re-routed his homeward flight and stopped for four days in the Land of Smiles. He's been back many times since.
Stepping onto the Thai Air flight that would take him into Don Muang airport he was taken aback by the smiling woman who welcomed him aboard with a wai and said to himself "Wow... this might not be quite such a primitive place after all", and settled in for the short hop. He arrived near midnight and was directed by another airline employee to what he felt was a reliable ride to the old Meridian (now part of the Holiday Inn chain) hotel, and off he went. The taxi driver spoke very little English, which didn't make him any more at ease, especially when he was asked why he was visiting and he said he wanted to go to the Night Market.
He wanted to look for the knock-off merchandise friends at home told him was so inexpensive, but the driver began wiggling his eyebrows up and down, beginning the sing-song routine most of us who have been there have heard. "You want girl?" he asked, and Tim, somewhat taken aback said "no". "Boy? You want boy? I know where you can find," but that wasn't the idea, either. My friend just said "No, no girl - no boy. I'm going shopping." That brought the standard offers for tailors and jewelry shops, but Tim was peering out his window, ignoring further questions as they moved along quickly through the darkness.
Turning off of what Tim thought looked like the "right" way they went down a darker side street, and then onto another, darker still. Tim worried where the hell he was being taken when they pulled up to a hotel that didn't look anything like the Meridian he'd expected. Going inside, he found he was at the wrong hotel, and got an employee out front to let the driver know that.
Soon they were pulling up to the correct hotel, where again he was greeted by the pleasantly gracious staff. His room was waiting, and the bell boy, instead of merely dumping his bags in the room and holding his hand out for a tip, showed him all the features of the room and explained how they all worked. Tim was impressed, and fumbled for what he hoped was an appropriate gratuity.
Still too spooked to go out anywhere that first night he holed up in his room, took a shower, and went to bed. The next morning he had a fine breakfast at what he thought at the time might have been the best buffet in the city, stepped outside of his hotel, climbed into a cab the man out in front had hailed for him and was off to the Grand Palace.
He's been back at least a dozen times since, along with another few dozen countries around the globe. The tales he has to tell are plentiful and colorful.
The point is this: don't let fear choose your path. I'm not advocating just landing blind in a completely new country or culture, but with a bit of legwork there's a wide, wide world of adventures out there. Stretch your comfort zone a little and try exploring some of it.