Sawatdee - Travels in Thailand, Part 1
Explorations of Family, Food, Heritage, and Culture
A Distant Embrace
A journey begins with movement seen and hidden, simultaneously felt and unperceived. My journey to Thailand in April 2006 transported me from Kansas City to San Francisco, leaping the Pacific Ocean in one grueling aerial vault to Taipei and next necessitating another flight to Bangkok followed by a final two-hour drive to the countryside. Physically, my body underwent over twenty-four hours of travel across a dozen time zones and an international date change. Jet lag alone does not account for the mental and perceptual shift that accompanies this shunt across time and geography. This journey moved me from point to point, but it also involved movement in the way I thought, felt, and experienced other people and places. In the end, the outer journey rivaled the inner travel experienced as I took leave of, and returned to, myself.
You never step into the same river twice, according to an old saying. The person I left behind in the Midwest is not the same one that returned two weeks later as I immersed myself in travel as a river of experiences. Clouds passed overhead, miles were gained and lost, and days skittered past the way rabbits scurry through a fence. This, my third visit to Thailand was both a familiar embrace of family and a search for fresh clues about my heritage.
I have inherent advantages built into my DNA as a traveler to Thailand that defines my visits as something more than being a tourist.
Distance encourages illusions. I could easily take for granted fantastic or false notions of the world as described through the words and images of other people. We absorb our impressions of elsewhere secondhand until we actually visit these places for ourselves. Before I left Kansas City, acquaintances jokingly associated Bangkok with the sex trade and drugs. Admittedly, this city has contended with ugly matters that exist in red light districts and the seedy underbelly of metropolitan cities across the globe. But the truer nature of Bangkok, and Thailand itself, extends well beyond this moral and social decline, more than I can dispel with explanations that connect sex, money, and power to First World tourism, Third World opportunism, corruption, blackmail, difficult circumstances, personal (mis)behavior, and criminal intent. I suspect these same acquaintances would acknowledge these complexities as more than a holiday romp if prompted with some gentle reproach and thoughtful consideration. Our compressed notion of the world squeezes through the bandwidth of modern technology and inherited or acquired assumptions. When we immerse our feet and senses in the soil and language and culture of another land, we begin to comprehend.
Travel strips away the constructed artifice of guidebooks and encourages its audience to look beyond appearances and preconceptions fed by media and word of mouth. Travel decreases the distance between the passive viewer comfortable at home with his or her opinions and the world as a stage displayed at the click of a button. If distance encourages illusions, travel enlists the individual to transform from audience to active participant by means of engagement.
I have inherent advantages built into my DNA as a traveler to Thailand that defines my visits as something more than being a tourist. My mother was born in a country village 75 kilometers east of Bangkok. With the exception of her sister Tawee who lives in northern California, Mom's entire family still lives in this village or in the vibrant sprawl of Thailand's capital. Originally, she met my father in the mid-60s while he was stationed in Thailand at an Army base near her village. After marriage and emigration to the United States, she gave birth to me in Kansas City. I grew up in a household where both Thai and English were spoken actively and foods from both cultures appeared on the kitchen table. Other cues, such as figures of Buddha and Jesus on the cross, hinted at my Asian-American duality. Yet I grew up speaking only English and my Thai heritage existed as a fundamental yet filtered connection through my mother.