Wow, what a whirlwind of a trip it has been in Thailand! I’ve been super quiet on the blog for 2 months for a good reason. I was preparing to go on a very special trip back to Thailand. You can read more about it here on my last blog post.
I originally was going to be gone for 6 weeks, but I shortened my trip to 4 glorious weeks. It was the right decision to come home a little early and I’m thrilled to be back and share so many stories and out-of-this-world-delicious recipes I had while there! I swear my family and friends in my village in Surin, Thailand cook the tastiest food in the world!
On this trip, I had 5 goals in mind. Those are:
- To reunite with my family after 7 years of being away.
- To find healing for some of the hard memories I walked away from when I was last there. (Read about it here.)
- To be there for my youngest niece’s wedding.
- To introduce my kids to the Thai culture at a young age, so they know a bit more about a culture that is a part of them.
- To explore all 4 regions of Thailand to get a better feel for each area. And guess what? All those 5 goals were accomplished on this trip, and I couldn’t be more thrilled!
There were some highs and lows throughout the entire trip, but overall, I must say, it really was a beautiful trip- the best trip I’ve had in Thailand! I’m so happy with how it all turned out. I had a very loose schedule on purpose. I was traveling with my two kids ages 5 & 6 and I knew not to force too many planned activities on us. I also know how Thai culture works, (at least with my family anyway). We tend to be pretty spontaneous, and flexible, and just go with the flow in most things. (: There are a few words in Thai that sum up this laid-back attitude of Thai culture.
1) “Sabai, Sabai” meaning “It’s well, Let’s chill, it’s all good.”
2) “Mai Pen Rai” or “It’s ok, It’s alright,It’s all fine.”
- “Jai Yen Yen,” or “Stay Calm, Calm Down” A literally translation for “Jai Yen Yen” is “Heart Cool Cool” or “Have a cool heart”, “Stay Calm”, as in the opposite of being hot headed.
Without further adieu, here are the top 10 highlights of my Thailand trip.
1. Speaking in Thai, Khmer and Lao again.
I love using my Thai language again. I don’t use it much when I’m home in the US, so when I go to Thailand, I’m a bit rusty, especially on the reading and writing part. It didn’t take long though to pick it back up again as it is a necessity to get around as well as becoming the unofficial translator for my American and Thai families. My favorite part about the language is the shock value Thais have when I speak Thai back to them after they speak to me in English. Thai is a tonal language and it’s extremely difficult for non-native speakers to get the proper accent when speaking. They are constantly shocked that I speak Thai like a native. Without fail, almost all of my conversations with strangers start with them being shocked at how well or I speak in Thai. It’s a fun little shock factor experience that I never tire of since it tends to lead to many subsequent conversations. It usually goes like this:
“Oh! You speak Thai!! I thought you were a Farang! (Foreigner). How do you speak Thai so well? How long have you lived in Thailand?”
I usually tell them I’m half Thai half American. Then the Ah-ha moment and a relief that they don’t have to try to communicate with me in English. The next series of questions they usually follow is: “Is your mother Thai? Where is she from?”
Then we just went from there, and I got to know many people this way. It’s an icebreaker moment for me almost every single time. It allows me to have many great conversations with strangers and practice my Thai at every opportunity. I’ve made many contacts and friends and discovered many local inside scoops this way. They usually tell me the best places to visit, eat, and do. I also get the much cheaper Thai prices, menu, and fees reserved only for locals. Foreigners get charged higher rates for those things in Thailand. I’m not exactly sure why but it’s always been this way for as long as I can remember.
2. Introducing my kids to my Thai family, the culture, and the language.
It’s endearing to teach them to speak Wai in Thai. (Traditional greeting where you place your palms together like a prayer). They picked up a few words, and it’s fun to see them acclimating so quickly. This trip made me realize how valuable it is to speak more than one language and what a special gift it would be to my children to teach them a new language besides English. They met many cousins and new friends while in Thailand. Watching them interact with Thai children despite the language barrier confirms my belief that play is a universally spoken language.
3. Eating dinner with my family.
Let me rephrase that. FEASTING thanksgiving style each evening with my Surin family. Nightly. Each night had a different flavor profile, and each household, there are 3 in my family, brought a complimentary dish to share together. Everyone sits in a circle on a straw mat on the floor in a circle with food set in the middle. As is customary in Thailand, your feet are always tucked away from food. Every meal is a family-style feast. That means there are a few main dishes in the middle, several complimenting side dishes, plates of vegetables, a few different types of chili dips or relishes, and then rice on our individual plates. Each person has a plate with rice and a spoon so you can scoop out small amounts of food to your rice plate from whatever dish is closest to you. Then you pass around the dishes to one another the entire meal. Meanwhile, there’s non-stop talking, chatting, and laughing. We eat dinner late, usually after dark, so the overhead fluorescent lights are turned on, attracting bugs like crazy. Every other minute or so, a bug or two would land on our plates. My Thai family scooped them out and continued as if nothing had happened. My kids, on the other hand, freaked the heck out and screamed like one of those harmless bugs was about to chomp down on their faces! I’d then scoop out the bugs from their plates then it’d take the kids a minute or two to calm down until the next bug landed on their plates again. My Thai family usually laughed hysterically at each episode. The other Thai kids looked on with wide eyes at us as if we were from Mars. Our nightly feast never had less than 10 people per night. In addition, my family also takes in at least 3 other village members, family or not, to join us nightly for dinner. These folks either don’t have other family members with them anymore or don’t have much to eat. One little girl lives next door with her cousins since both parents work in Bangkok and left her with family members to raise. My family takes her in, feeds her, and lets her sleep at our house if and when she wants to. They all look out for each other in good and hard times.
4. Daily Night markets.
I can walk, photograph, and buy local food at Thai night markets every night. There’s’ so much life, sights, sounds, and smells during these nightly markets. Everything comes to life, and we don’t even notice the scorching heat that beats down on us until we are done with the market. It’s extremely exhilarating to see locals shop for fresh produce, meat, spices, and special home-cooked meals displayed for all to buy for dinner. Nightly markets and street food has been a big part of Thailand for as long as I can remember. I especially loved the one near my village in a small town about 10 kilometers away (4.5 miles). The people in my province speak several different dialects specific to the province, Surin. Surin was once a part of Cambodia before World War II. Afterward, the French drew boundaries that included Surin as part of Thailand. But the people of Surin, though part of Thailand legally, culturally continue to hold on to Cambodian ways of life, including the Khmer language with a distinct dialect specific to this region. Only those from the region can speak it. Some in Thailand have considered it a lowly dialect and not worth learning. I grew up with it, along with a few other languages and dialects.
The most hilarious moments happen when I walk around my local market, take photos, listen, and observe the market life. I could hear the vendors talking about me, making up stories, and trying to see if anyone could talk me into marrying their sons, cousins, or brothers. All the while, I smile at every one of them and snap away photos as if I had no idea what they were saying and dying to burst out laughing inside. I hold on to this card for as long as I can until one inappropriate man makes an inappropriate comment. Then I would give him an evil eye, say something like, "That’s not appropriate," all in the perfect Khmer dialect, and then walk away. The market would erupt in surprise laughter and get on the man about how it served him right. He would then get embarrassed and make silly excuses to save face. All in jest and fun and no one took anything too seriously. That's what I love about it all too. No one's easily offended.
5. Touring Surin and surrounding areas and seeing places I used to go to as a kid.
I’m extremely happy I hired a private driver to drive us to Surin. Not only was his van a super pimped-out van that looked like a fancy limousine, but he was truly like a dear friend and family member to us. I met him about 10 years ago through Dr. K when she employed his service for her team to travel throughout Thailand several times a year. His name is Mr. Ju. He was lively, fun, funny, helpful, extremely considerate, and willing to do anything we requested of him, including driving us to a morning market at 3:30 am. (I changed it to 5:30 am instead since the sun wouldn’t rise for at least 2 hours if we had gone earlier). He treated us so well, and we loved him back just as much. It was one special treat I wanted to splurge on. He took us everywhere! He knew where to go, what to do and see and happily drove us around to many important sightseeing spots in my beautiful province of Surin.
6. Seeing the people in my village and reconnecting with old and new friends again.
Especially visiting 1st generation leprosy patients that are still living. (More detailed story here) If you are from a small town, you can relate to this. Everyone seems to know your business! In my case, everyone “seemed” to know I was in the country again, where I was going, when I was coming to the village, who I was coming with, and how long I will be staying. On our 1st day back in my village, I stayed at a newly built resort nearby my village. A resort in the sense that all rooms are small, separate buildings with air conditioning and decent bathrooms. After arriving, we walked to my village, and of course, I wanted to take pictures of every inch of everything, from the dirt to the trees to the tiny village buildings to the worn-out flags. My kids and niece went ahead of me to the house to meet my family while I took pictures and chatted with old neighbors along the way. At the front of my home stood all 4 of my childhood friends waiting for me. It was close to dinnertime, and they all left their chores behind to greet me. I hurried to them, and they were all smiles and full of chatter and questions. They asked if I remembered them after being gone for so long. I told them I remembered each one of them. They didn’t believe me, so they said, well, let’s see. Who am I, and what’s my name? I smiled and rolled my eyes, hugged each one of them, instead of the traditional Wai” and called them each by their nickname that I knew them by. They all belted out, laughing with me as I hugged the last person. Just like that, I was back again.
The women I grew up with came by to greet my family and me as we entered the village to my family.
My family, sister, nieces, and nephew in their "dining area."
My families, Thai and American. One of our last group photos before saying goodbye.
7. Visiting Dr. K and some of the leprosy patients in my village.
Since leprosy has not been contagious for many decades now, the effects of the disease on the patients have taken a heavy toll on their physical and mental health. Life’s been difficult for them in a developing country like Thailand. Many of those patients are very old, and most have passed away. The few that are left are pretty frail. I visited with many of them as much as I could. It was amazing to see them again, and even more special that they still remember me. They were incredibly happy to see my family visiting with them and especially delighted to see my children. I also connected and visited with Dr. K for a bit. She’s a retired leprosy doctor who left her prestigious position as a renowned Thai doctor to follow her calling to help leprosy patients in different leprosy colonies throughout Thailand. She’s changed a lot of lives with her decision and her work. Mine included. She’s been like a mentor and mother to me throughout the years.
7. My Niece’s wedding.
This wedding was the one big factor in helping us decide to come back to Thailand after being gone for so long. She is the youngest of 4 of my nieces and nephew. Her mother, Bunmee, is my sister, also adopted by my aunt and uncle in infancy. Bunmee is 15 years older than me. We grew up together as siblings. She has 4 children, 1 boy, and 3 girls, and her children are closer in age to me than I am to her. I grew up in the same household with these four children, and they are more like a brother and sisters to me than nieces and nephews. The youngest niece, Douy, and I are 9 years apart, and I’ll always remember her as the big brown-eyed, caramel skin and chubby little arms and legs baby. All grown up as a beautiful woman now, her wedding brought family, friends, and strangers from near and far. People I haven’t seen in 20- 30 years! It was a beautiful wedding- a Christian Thai wedding. They asked my son and daughter to be ring bearers and flower girls at the wedding. The wedding was a perfect ending to our time in Thailand as I reconnected with many friends and family again. We laughed, told stories, cried, ate, and danced all night. The wedding was on Thanksgiving weekend, our 1st Thanksgiving in Thailand. It couldn’t have been more perfect.
8. Personal Healing
This one is quite personal, but it was good to be back at the charity house that Dr. K, a leprosy doctor (more story here), bought as an office for her leprosy work. We call it the BLS house (Beaulah Land Services). It’s a large house just outside of Bangkok, and it’s being used as an office and a place for guests to stay when they visit Thailand to help her with her work with leprosy patients throughout Thailand. I stayed here for 6 months after I graduated college to work, volunteer and travel with Dr. K and her staff. I’ve been in and out of this office many times with each visit I take to Thailand. It’s almost like a 2nd home to me because my niece works and lives there and is the primary caretaker of the house. When I was here last, I had just gotten out of surgery for my miscarriage (Story here), and Dr. K suggested that I stay in this house to recover for a few days before flying home to America. I also asked Dr. K if I could plant a couple of lime trees to honor the loss of my baby and mothers’ lives from the last trip. Dr. K said yes and took me to a nursery to help me pick out the best lime trees to plant on her property. I cried while digging up the dirt to plant those trees. I wanted a life where I felt the loss was all around me. My niece had told me that the trees had died because she was traveling so much and couldn’t keep up with watering them. When I arrived at the BLS house, I looked for it where I had planted them. I am happy to report I found a very healthy and pretty large lime tree covered and surrounded by other shrubs! It was in the same spot I had planted it 7 years ago. There’s life growing there!
9. Visiting all 4 regions of Thailand.
Even though the trip wasn’t as carefully planned as I had initially wanted, I had a rough idea of what I wanted to do. I knew better than to have a strict, set plan while traveling with my 5 and 6-year-old. I also knew that it’s harder to plan in Thai culture. They are more laid back and less uptight about plans falling apart. Remember, “Sabai Sabai” is a saying many Thai live by. It means, “It’s all good, it’s all fine,” or something similar to that meaning. I adopted this mindset very quickly once we were in Thailand. We often visited Bangkok because it was a hub for picking up/dropping off friends and family traveling in/out of the airport to travel with us. Though busy and crowded, we got to experience the busy life in the central region of Thailand in Bangkok. For the Northeast region, we spent several days in Isaan, our favorite region where I grew up. Then we hit the Southern region of Thailand to explore the sandy beaches and beautiful islands in the Krabi area. We also enjoyed going to local markets to grab local food and sample Thailand’s Southern cuisine, which was amazing. For the Northern region, we explored the Chiang Mai area. We hiked up the city's tallest peak, ate Northern food, drank good local coffee, and enjoyed a more relaxing pace outside of the busy downtown. The cooler weather in Chiangmai was exactly what we needed to escape the hot heat and humidity from the rest of the country.
Overall, our Thailand trip was amazing. It was a good visit, and we accomplished everything we had hoped to do on this trip. We connected with family and friends, explored, ate great food in local markets in Thailand. There was healing and growth in all of it too. What I learned about this part of my story is that Thai people know how to live life to the fullest. Life may be difficult, but they grind through the hard parts. They help one another through difficult times and focus on life's good things. Big or small. Be it eating, drinking, telling stories, or enjoying sunrises and sunsets. I was again reminded of this distinctive Thai character- people smile easily here. Especially if you initiate one first, some have criticized it as a façade for what’s hidden behind those smiles. I beg to differ. It is a strength to utter a smile when life is freakin difficult. When life is hard, it takes true inner courage to choose to smile at strangers and at one another. Smiling is permitting yourself to be happy. Therefore, when you smile at strangers, you permit them to choose happiness. Have you ever noticed how easy it is to smile back at someone when they smile at you? Try it! Thailand truly is a land of smiles. True to its core. I learned this important lesson on this trip. I hope you choose to smile despite what life may throw at you.
Thank you for reading this far.