“My friends thought you might be worried that I would rob you,” she said as soon as I met her outside of 711. Prae, a 24-year-old University of Oregon graduate and Thai local has invited me to stay with her in her studio apartment on the outskirts of Bangkok.
We only knew each other for 5 quick minutes during a political rally back in December. I was behind her marching with thousands of locals, wondering out loud what was going on. She heard my English and began filling me in. In the midst of the chanting, I managed to type her name into my phone and later added her on Facebook. Three months later and she has welcomed me in to her home.
I am grateful to leave the closed-off world of Khao San Road and see the real Bangkok, where the majority of the country’s population lives. On this backpacker street, every beautiful part of Thai culture is removed and replaced by the grotesque expectations that many have of this exotic country. Middle-aged men pop their lips, indicating that they want to take you to a ping-pong show. If you’ve never heard of it, look it up. They’re the most degrading thing to a woman I’ve witnessed. The food is crap – it’s overly salted and under-spiced, since they assume westerners can’t handle the heat. There are Irish bars and massage parlors everywhere. Prae has never been to this street and despite growing up in the south, she’s lived in Bangkok for a year now. It’s just not where the people go to party.
Now that I’m in her neighborhood, I see the real Thai lifestyle. It’s a crazy busy city but everyone moves with such grace. Around me as I write from a small coffee shop that too closely resembles one I would see in the U.S., people are working. It’s noon, so some business-dressed young adults have headed to the fruit stands and food stalls on the sidewalk. Many carry umbrellas, as it is getting to be the hottest part of the year. Women walk in heels and have put a great deal of time into their stylish appearance. Sweet tamarind sauce and dumplings fill the air. Skewered chicken roasts on a mini barbecue to one side, while to my right at “McDang’s” they’re serving up rice dishes with an array of white balls (I think it’s tofu flavored with fish or pork). Whole chickens and duck hang from hooks in the window, and the older men and women behind them concentrate in preparing each meal.
The part I still can’t get over is how common it is so smile at strangers. I am the strangest person in this neighborhood, and as I walk around curiously looking around at all the sidewalk shops, my welcoming is genuine.
A typical exchange with a Thai local is one of curiosity from both sides. I want to know what they’re up, and the Thai woman or man wants to know what I’m doing. For a second, we stop and question each other mentally, then a smile spreads easily and a simple head nod completes the gesture. It happens this way with every single person I cross paths with. I guess, put simply, there’s nothing to not smile about.
The friendliness of Thai people is exemplified by Prae. Just as she could have robbed me, I could easily have robbed her! She heads off to work in the morning around 8 and let’s me have free range on her things – things that after backpacking for 3 months feel like a spa resort! My clothes have been hung, I’ve used products on my hair, and I’ve slept in a comfortable bed that didn’t need a mosquito net! She leaves me her keys and her computer, with a note telling me when she’ll be home from work.
Because her English is perfect, I take full advantage of the ability to ask questions. We swap ghost stories from the floor of her studio apartment, try foods from the street vendors and wander around the park close to her house. I imagine that in the United States, it would be unheard of to let a stranger stay with you, but here in Thailand, most people have good intentions. It’s happy here in the “land of smiles” and I can’t wait to learn more from my new friend.