At Home Living in Bangkok, Thailand
| Nancy in a Bangkok temple.
I left the United States in protest, mere months after my President made the decision to invade Iraq, funding his efforts with my hard-earned tax dollars and the tax dollars of millions of my fellow Americans who protested vehemently against his proposed invasion. In disgust, I quit my job, left my apartment and decided that it was time to go exploring. I needed to leave. It was the way I chose to voice my disapproval for the invasion beyond simply complaining about it and continuing to pay into the war fund via taxes. Instead, I saw this personal protest as the perfect opportunity to pursue a lifelong dream—living in Africa. Africa was sweaty and dirty and noisy and messy and as perfect as I wanted it to be. I enjoyed my time there immensely—until that wanderlust came a-knockin’ yet again inside my restless soul. That was eight years ago, which have provided me with a remarkable set of experiences, living in no less than six different countries. Along the way, I have found a husband who is equally nomadic, and we have produced a child who is a wanderer in his own right, holding four citizenships, two passports, and a stack of visa stamps unparalleled by most 5-year-olds.
We have most recently settled in Thailand, a place like nowhere else. We have been living in the same house here for three years—a true record for us. In a word, we are simply enchanted—enchanted by the grace and kindness of the Thai people. Their charm and demeanor are genuine; we feel like we have won the expat lottery. In the midst of the early nonviolent protests of 2010, I would bicycle to work passing right through the throngs of protestors who would march down my small soi. The thousands of red-shirted protestors would clog my street, but I had to get to work. I would ride my bike ever so slowly down the soi, ringing my little bell and the crowd would part, all smiles and waves, and wais. I would nod back, huge smile forming on my face as I pedaled past them. Some wished me a good day in Thai, more of a parade than a protest.
The smells of meat kebabs roasting over an open flame, fried dough boiling in hot oil snapping at the sides of the pan, the sharp fresh tang of pineapples sliced in the hot muggy morning air, the stench of oil burning from cars, trucks, buses passing perilously close to the stalls. The shouts of Thais calling to each other across the market, joking, laughing. The sights of Thais carrying small plastic bags bearing their breakfasts or midday snacks back to tall cool office buildings, where they will complain against the arctic-cold air conditioning, all wearing bedroom slippers as they shuffle between cubicles. I am awoken each morning by the ting-a-ling of a bicycle bell of the man hawking freshly made brooms and dusters, followed by the unintelligible loudspeaker of a newly formed political group pushing the current politician seeking election, re-election, further corruption. The dogs start to barking, the birds are jarred awake by all the activity and the koel begins it noisy calls. This is morning in Thailand.
Our entry to Thailand came after a year of living in the jungles of Sri Lanka. Bangkok was a startling shift from steamy jungles, but a welcome one at that. While I will always be a farang, or foreigner in Thailand, I no longer have to endure the friendly but constant staring, the random touches from passers-by wanting to feel white skin. And being accepted as someone whose skin felt no different from anyone else’s or that I was not interesting enough to be stared at everywhere I went, made it feel like home to me.
The contrasts within the steaming concrete jungle that is Bangkok are abundant. I walk home past Soi Cowboy, a raunchier version of New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, the streets covered with trash, I see rats the size of cats, women of all age ranges catcalling to the men looking to buy some affection, yet a street that is full of life. In any other town, but in Bangkok, I would steer clear of such a street—but here it is merely part of the scenery. The women of each establishment are dressed in identical hotpants and sit out front, braiding each other’s hair, sharing a plate of som tam, showing off pictures of their children—each woman trying to earn money to send to her parents or her family in her village. There are several I chat with—a simple “hello, how are you,” a quick check-in, as though we were swapping recipes over a picket fence.
Once I pass Soi Cowboy I am immediately in a residential area—my residential area. I live on a tree-lined street that intersects with one of Thailand’s noisy, smelly klongs, or side canals, transporting people and goods through the concrete island of Bangkok. On my way home, I pass a golden Buddhist temple, its golden accents glittering in the heat. The roof and gables of the temple point skyward, sending blessings, prayers, and good wishes to the universe generated by the monks and worshippers within. The building is stunning; its elegance never fails to amaze. Outside the temple on the street one day I see five beautiful katoeys or transvestites handing out condoms, passersby taking what is handed to them, a giant condom mascot holding a boom box blasting out a song that is a health message in Thai about condom use dancing in the center of the katoey group. The mascot is prancing between the katoeys, dancing and generally acting silly, causing me to wonder how the person can stand the heat of the costume, not to mention the incongruity of seeing five men dressed as women and handing out prophylaxes. I watch them dance as I remove my shoes at the stairs to the temple and enter, a cool refuge from the steamy heat outside.
Monks of all ages, ranging from young boys of 6 or 7 years of age to older men in their 80s roam the temple grounds. As I ascend the stairs of the main temple, the boys who are novice monks start up some kind of game with a wadded up piece of paper serving as a ball, shouting their encouragement to each other until an older monk comes out to admonish them to get back to their prayers. I softly walk into the cool dark temple, drop a few heavy coins into the donation box and kneel, edging forward on my knees closer to the altar. I make an offering of incense to the Buddha, the pungency of the burning stick giving myself a few minutes to quiet my mind, to meditate, before going home and switching my role from government worker to mother and wife. I observe the sounds of monks chanting in Pali in some back hall of the grounds as I simply sit and reflect. When I open my eyes, I bow deeply from my position on my knees and then gently move backwards on my knees, mindful to not turn my unclean feet towards the Buddha—a foreigner, yes, but one that tries to respect Thai norms in a temple.
I finally leave the cool quiet of the temple, locating my shoes in the jumble of footwear at the base of the stairs and am amused to see the katoeys and the giant condom dancing in the temple grounds, their boombox at a lower volume but still relaying its health message about safe sex. The novice monks laugh and clap along to the music, the ladyboys laughing with the children and pretending to hand them a condom, the young boys covering their face and giggling. As I walk across the grounds to leave, the katoeys come and dance around me, ensuring that I receive one of their condoms before I leave. I smile, bow to them in gratitude and proceed home, my mind refreshed. My love affair with Thailand continues…
Nancy Claxton is a nomad who lives in Bangkok, Thailand with her husband, her 5-year-old son, and enjoys traveling and living around the world. Nancy has been able to do just that over the last 21 years by teaching, designing, and delivering training and courses for students, teachers, staff, government workers, the military, and program staff at all levels in over 20 countries.