Farang-ed Five Months

My experience in Bangkok has been a lot like my dinner the other night at Sun Moon Dumplings. It was a place I’d hyped up, a place completely out of my element where there would be abrasive servers, fluorescent lighting, and hopefully the food would live up to its reputation.

Sun Moon Dumplings

We got there and it was as harsh as predicted. Shortly after we sat down, the place filled up and a line began to form outside adding to the restaurant’s lore. We ordered some Singha beers and a handful of dishes to share.

The permanently annoyed server brought the plate of steaming shrimp dumplings to the table first. As a pescetarian, these shrimp dumplings were the only dumplings I could order on the menu. I bit into the soft doughy ball to find out it was 10% shrimp and 90% pork. Nothing like a mouth full of pork when your M.O. is avoiding pork. Chris, Etty, and Abhi continued on happily with those and the other pork-filled dumplings while I cleansed my palate with Thai lager.

We ordered some other food to fill my dumpling void. Eggplant Fries, Tomato Egg, and Sesame Balls sounded like good vegetarian options, but the place was out of Tomato Egg so we ordered another eggplant dish. The Eggplant Fries were coated in a sticky glaze and tasted like savory caramel sweet potato fries. They were good but you felt weird after eating a lot of them. A plate of pigs feet was put on our table by mistake before the second eggplant dish arrived. Hooray! More Eggplant Fries! I hadn’t looked at the photo in the menu closely enough and accidentally ordered the same thing twice. Also combining sweet and savory were the Sesame Balls that turned out to be fried balls of mashed taro.

I had envisioned being knee-deep in dumplings that night but ended up having a meal of weird dessert vegetables instead.

Eggplant Fries

When I was moving to Bangkok, I expected it to be jarring, confusing, and overflowing with delicious food — and it is, but the experience is different than I thought. Now nearly five months of expat life under my belt, I have a completely new view of this city.

Everything is still so foreign that I find myself making stupid mistakes (like ordering the same Eggplant Fries twice) all the time. That being said, other glossy first impressions continue to get exposed, revealing less romantic realities. At Sun Moon Dumplings, a Chinese silk painting of eight horses had something written beautifully in the corner. I asked Etty what the text meant and it turned out to mundanely say “Eight horse picture.”

Every minute living in Thailand adjusts my image of the exotic Far East. Bangkok is a city with an Ikea and an Outback Steakhouse, a city where the locals’ go-to dumpling restaurant has a menu translated into English for Farang like me who feel like they’re the only foreigners to eat at the place. The real Bangkok is a mix of insane and unsexy normalcy.

IMG_5052

Five months here has been a test of my willpower. Sometimes a warm memory will pop up in my head or I’ll scroll through Instagram and see something so homesickening that it feels like someone hit me in the chest. Those heart pangs are the real deal, and when that hurt/nostalgia wells up I tend to lose focus of what I’m doing here. Suddenly it’ll occur to me again how bizarre it is to be Bangkok.

I’m far away from so many things I love (Market Street, my family, burritos) and surrounded by a lot of things I don’t love (heavy pollution, bad pizza, monitor lizards). In the wake of a pang, I’ll open up Kayak.com and frantically look for an escape. Copenhagen, Los Angeles, Paris, Lithuania – I panic travel plan until I feel like I’m in control again. This wave of comfort washes over me when I remember I can buy a plane ticket out of this hot, tropical life at any time.

But things are good here, weird good like the Eggplant Fries. Every care and stress melts away when I hover over a plate of $1 Som Tam, which is excellent minus the rats in the gutter next to the table. It feels right to drink wine on the balcony at Small’s, even though the wine’s just mediocre and I’m sweating into the glass.

There are more days when I’m generally happy and not freaking out. My weeks are filled with rewarding challenges and fun times with people I like. I’m doing my best to live in the moment and stop seeing the months spent here as Girl Scout badges, something to collect for bragging rights. Each day here in Bangkok brings exciting opportunities to learn new things or find out non exciting things (like there are three Sizzlers here).  Even when I head out and things don’t turn out the way I’d hoped, it’s still a pretty great feeling to know that I tried.

60 Stitches

This is not one of those stories where a bad thing just happens to a good person. This is a story where my unbridled spontaneity got me into very predictable trouble. Heads up, this post is long and contains ugly scar photos.

 So here’s my mediocre cautionary tale:

The Accident

It was a Friday, and I was so excited to be traveling to Petchaburi with 40 of my friends and coworkers for our HotelQuickly work retreat. We arrived at our remote hotel in the evening and gathered around the pool for dinner. We had barely finished eating when I saw my friend Gin getting thrown in the pool with all of her clothes on.

“Poor Gin!” I thought  to myself. “I’ll jump in with her.” 

I took off my shoes and trotted down to the pool to join her in solidarity. Without a second thought, I dove into the pool.  In America most pools have deep ends. In Thailand, that fact is useless. My point is, this pool was shallow. Very shallow.

I immediately hit the bottom of the pool with my head.

Things went orange with pain for a second, and I was instantly embarrassed for the mistake. “I CAN’T BELIEVE I HIT THE BOTTOM! I HOPE NO ONE SAW ME!” were the first thoughts that entered my mind. As I came up for air, I realized that my neck and back were in extreme, tense agony. I kept my back to the group as I waded around waiting for the pain to go away.

I heard someone behind me ask, “Is that blood?” I was hoping no one had noticed my diving fail, and was really hoping that I wasn’t causing a scene with blood in the pool. I walked over to the edge of the pool and people rushed over to me. Everyone seemed panicked and I wanted everyone to know I was fine. “I’ll just walk it off, I’m totally fine!” They helped get me out of the pool and sat me down away from the group.

Thank God for shock, because I had no idea that my head was cracked wide-open, gushing blood.

My company’s Co-Founder and COO Christian (a former Captain in the Swiss military) and the QA Manager Kat (a first responder) sprung into action immediately. They joined forces to hold my split head together and stop the bleeding. Kat tried to keep me awake by getting my adrenaline going, yelling out things like “NAT, LOOK AT ME!” and “I can see her brain!” On the other side of the spectrum, Christian tried to tone down the situation and downplay the injury. The two balanced each other out perfectly, and I am deeply indebted to them both for their help coming to my rescue.

With the blood loss, I was beginning to drift off. My memory starts to dilute at this point and I can’t remember what  exactly happened when the ambulance arrived. What I do know is that Christian, Tomas (the company’s Co-Founder and CEO), and Noi Na (the company’s Executive Assistant) climbed into the ambulance with me, and we left for the nearest hospital.

In the ambulance, everyone continued keeping me awake. We talked about Christian’s idyllic childhood in Switzerland and In-N-Out burgers to casually pass the time. Despite everyone else’s calm demeanor, I was having outbursts of sobbing.  I was so embarrassed and horrified by what was happening. Was I fired? Was this going to cost a fortune? Would I ever walk again? Had I ruined the company weekend? 

The ambulance came to a stop and I was rolled into the Petchaburi public hospital. I stared at a gecko crawling on the ceiling while the adults took care of business. I don’t know what I would have done if Noi Na (a native Thai speaker), Christian, and Tomas weren’t there to help. They didn’t wait passively for things to happen; they actively made sure I was properly cared for. While I wallowed in despair, they handled everything.

My memory isn’t great recalling what happened at this point, but we were ultimately told that the hospital could not handle my wound (NEWS FLASH FOR ME, THIS WOUND IS REALLY BAD). We had to go to a private hospital some 40 km away where there was a better/more clean operating room. I kept moving my toes and hands to make sure I wasn’t paralyzed yet.

Back in the ambulance, the shock was wearing off and I cringed in pain with every bump in the road. Far from chill, I was a hot mess crying in pain and embarrassment. We finally arrived at the second hospital. I had some x-rays, a CT scan, and it was finally time for the suturing.

Problem: I had to pee, badly. The nurses brought me a bed pan and encouraged me to relieve myself as they stood around waiting. My First World-conditioned body failed me, and I couldn’t do it. I was too shy to go, even though my bladder felt as though it was going to burst. A team of six or so prepared for the procedure. I asked if I could try going to the bathroom again, and again wasted everyone’s time. I gave up and they went back to, you know, saving my life.

The nurses gave me local anaesthesia and waited for my head to go numb. I didn’t like the idea of being awake for the process, but OH WELL, WHO AM I TO MAKE REQUESTS? The team covered my eyes with cloth and strapped my arms and legs to the operating table which was extremely unsettling. I must have been loopy during part two when they lowered a metal cage/shield over my head and torso. Only my scalp and legs peeked out of the mechanism, but I wasn’t aware of what was happening thanks to the drugs and confusion.

After an hour of disgusting flesh-pulling noises, a panic started to boil inside of me.

I became very aware that my limbs were strapped to a table and my eyes were covered and I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t move holy fuck get me out of here what is happening I can’t breathe.

“I NEED AIR, I NEED AIR!” I cried out from under the shield. “I WANT TO MOVE MY LEGS!” 

Despite the language barrier, the doctor stopped suturing and the nurses scrambled to unstrap my legs and one arm. They put ice packs on my legs and removed the cloth from my eyes. The machine monitoring my pulse beeped wildly.

Like any good nightmare, they couldn’t fix the major cause of my terror. No matter how panicked I was, they 100% could not lift the cage/shield more than a few inches. The whole point of the contraption was to keep the area sanitized. I pawed at the green padding that covered the cage, and strained to look through the opening. The staff waited for me to get myself together before getting back to the stitching.

To distract myself from the hell, I tried to recall all of the Michelin star restaurants in the Bay Area. It worked for a while, but soon the claustrophobia flared up again. This time was more intense than before, and I wept as I begged for the cage to be lifted. They explained that they could not meet my request, and I sobbed in panic and misery. I was really losing it.

The nurses did their best to help me. They sang, held my hand, and told me that I only had 15 more minutes to go. There was nothing I could do but weep quietly and try to keep things in perspective. Nothing bad was going to happen to me because I was in a small space.

Skull tissue cleaned and 20 centimeters of 6o stitches later, the procedure was finished. I cried tears of joy as the cage was lifted.

Still desperately needing to pee, I was rolled out of the operating room into a lobby. I was surprised to find more of my friends had come to support me after the accident. True to form, I began to cry.

The Aftershock

At about 2 am, I was taken to the ER where I would be monitored for at least 24 hours. The doctor needed to watch for signs of serious brain injuries. TOO MUCH INFORMATION ALERT: I was on my period and forbidden to use the restroom alone. What is a hospital staff to do? Swaddle me in an adult diaper of course! Just some icing on the cake.

After the pampering, I could finally go to sleep across from my new Thai roommates. Across the room, a middle aged guy who made no noise and one of the oldest men I’ve ever seen laid peacefully. Unfortunately, the peace would not last long. The old man would vomit loudly throughout the night and into the morning.

At 6 am, I was woken up for a congee-like breakfast that tasted great, but I couldn’t eat it. I was too nauseous to down the shrimpy porridge.

I drifted in and out of sleep as doctors and nurses briefed me on my condition. A neurologist looked at my CT scan and x-rays and determined there wasn’t any major damage to worry about. HALLELUJAH! The doctors wanted more time to decide whether or not I needed t0 stay a second night for observation.

Christian, Noi Na, Chris, Gin and Abhi came back to the hospital that afternoon, and we soon got the good news that I would be released. The doctors were confident that my brain was ok, and I could return to the resort where I had ruined a perfectly good evening the night before.

The sun set over beautiful Petchaburi as we drove back to the resort. The hotel gave me good will gift basket – jars of bird’s nest and essence of chicken for my health. Instead of partaking in the fun company retreat activities, I tucked into bed and slept.

For the best recovery, I was told to return to a hospital daily to get my wound cleaned. On Sunday morning, my friends and I hopped into a hotel truck and went to the Petchaburi public hospital as ordered. The bumpy ride was bad, but not as bad as spending hours getting your head stitched back together.

At the hospital, the other patients were in pretty bad shape. One woman had a motorcycle accident and a hot part of the bike had burned her leg to the BONE. Another woman had been BITTEN BY A SCORPION. I felt lucky to be in little pain (in addition to feeling lucky for being alive, not paralyzed, mentally unscathed, and so on).

We returned to Bangkok as a company, and I stayed the night with Chris and his girlfriend Etty in case I needed to get to a hospital in an emergency. Not to repeat myself, but I am so completely grateful to the people in my life who were here to help me. In the morning, I was even treated to a homemade breakfast by Chris before we headed to Bangkok’s St. Louis hospital for more x-rays and stitch cleaning.

On Monday night, I had another source of help come to my rescue. My family was so worried about me that my mom bought a plane ticket and traveled more than 13,000 kilometers to help me recover. Although my injury was horrible, it reminded me of how much love and support I take for granted.

The Aftermath

Dirty hair recovery shot!
Dirty hair recovery shot!

Hospital visits, countless naps, foot massages, pill swallowing, head wrapping – the week after the accident was leisurely , complete with constant spoiling from my mom. My recovery was moving along quickly, and I would be back to work in no time.

Despite the luxurious care, the time was still rough emotionally. I held back tears at dinner explaining my fears of mental damage to my mother. I was left feeling so weird and confused. I had to fight to stay positive.

I’m so lucky it wasn’t worse” I constantly thought, and by constantly thought, I mean constantly think – present tense. I’m  still afraid that I’ll never be as mentally sharp as before. I’m worried people will think, “Natalie was never the same after the accident.” Did I ruin my chances of achieving my life goals? Will my hair grow back normally? Should I change completely? Should I abandon this authentic self that keeps getting me in trouble? Should I start running marathons and work for a nonprofit?

This New York Times article couldn’t have popped up on my Twitter feed at a better time. The author had suffered a trauma much worse than mine, but I could still relate to her recovery experience. She offered an explanation to make sense of why I felt like I did.

I instantly felt better after reading her conclusion “I’m not a better person. I’m the same person. Which is actually kind of a miracle.” I feel less pressure to reinvent myself. I can appreciate that this stupid, stupid accident left me pretty unscathed, and it’s time to be thankful for the life I still have. I am overwhelmed with the support from my family and friends.

As far as cautionary tales go, this one is mild. I am miraculously walking away from this trauma with just a scar, and I will go on to sweatily explore Bangkok another day.

Drinking it all in

Milk tea, Singha, milk tea, milk tea, iced latte, Chang, Singha, mojito, Chang. Two months in Bangkok and my drinking history was embarrassing (and way too full of dairy). The city is crawling with well-reputed cocktail bars, and I could sadly count the number of Negronis I’d sipped on one hand.

When some freelance writing opportunities came around, I decided to focus my stories on Bangkok’s food and beverage culture. I spent all day dreaming of street food and amaro, why not write about them? First stop on my ever-growing list of places to try was U.N.C.L.E., a convenient two streets from work.

The façade reminded me immediately of LA or San Francisco (until a lizard scrambled behind the neon sign). U.N.C.L.E. is a speakeasy tucked above Lady Brett, a tavern in the Sapparot Group portfolio. My friend Mike and I crept up the stairs to the bar uneasily, because it definitely feels like you’re going the wrong way. We successfully found the right room and grabbed spots at the four seat bar. The Swedish bars owners were personally slanging drinks, and we delighted in the carefully crafted libations.

A few drinks and a shot of Fernet later, we left in a happy daze. This place was leaps and bounds better than the watered-down cocktails served at many Bangkok watering holes. I would definitely be back.

My buddy Abhi and I started Sunday right with brunch at Brooklyn Baker. We had egg-y comfort food at the restaurant, which is nestled in a relaxing spa down a street I could never find again on my own.

After brunch, we cut through Bangkok’s treasured Lumpink Park and I suddenly stopped in my tracks. I had seen my street food white whale – ไอติมขนมปัง, or the Thai ice cream sandwich. People told me about this wicked treat, but I had never come across it on my own.

Holy mother of God this thing is good. What is not to love about a white bread bun, sticky rice, fresh coconut ice cream, drizzled in condensed milk? WHAT IS NOT TO LOVE. Type 2 Diabetes? Worth it.

Post ice cream sando, Abhi and I lazily walked through the park in the blinding heat. I was literally dripping sweat when we emerged on the other side of the beautiful park. We parted ways and I went to Vesper Cocktail Bar & Restaurant. This place gets me – barrel aged Negronis, uni, antique maps. I am putty in its imaginary hands.

My mission was to photograph some of the cocktails, although I was distracted by the torrential downpour of sweat I was drowning in. Being 9 million degrees outside, I was unable to cool down when I got to the swanky bar. I continued to sweat excessively throughout the shoot, soaking through the paper towels I swooped from the bathroom. Clearly my body was meant for places like France or Antarctica, not tropical Bangkok.


In addition to the many other wonders (like the magical, dry ice finished War of the Roses), Vesper has a fun selection of cocktails to share that are served from a teapot. The sweaty struggle aside, I was semi-confident I got the photos I needed of the bar’s precisely executed drinks. I thanked bar manager Colin for his time and went back into the heat. Instead of being cash conscious and heading home, I went around the corner to the highly-revered Eat Me Restaurant.

In an attempt to be frugal, I ordered but a snack at one of Asia’s 50 best restaurants, guzzling the complimentary mint-laced water to rehydrate. I had the delightful Zucchini Carpaccio along with most of the free bread.

After spending a day and a half spending money like it was on fire, it was time to figuratively cool it on the semi-fine dining front (for at least a meal). Dinner was spent in my go-to coffee shop, Glur, where the green curry is delicious and the staff extremely welcoming.

Up next on my gluttonous agenda: nahm, Sugar Ray (not the band), Bar:School, and very predictable obesity.

I went to a Bangkok cat cafe

Chubby cat mingling and fur in my mouth. Overpriced drinks and oil paintings. It seemed as though Caturday had just about everything you could ask for from an animal-filled cafe.

With National Cat Day just around the corner, my friend Chris and I decided to go do some research for work at one of Bangkok’s finest cat cafes. What happened at Caturday was a mix between magical, gross, weird, and beautiful.

Chris lead me through a rambling maze of restaurants and alleyways until we got to the cat lover’s paradise. I would have never found Caturday on my own,  and what a disappointment that would have been. My life would have never been the same.

We took off our shoes, washed our hands and went inside the feline oasis. Insane cat paintings hung on the walls. Some Halloween decorations completed the kitschy decor.

Chris informed me that the place was usually packed, and guests have to get on a waiting list to enjoy the wonderland. I guess luck was on our side that night, and we were given a seat on the floor immediately.

Someone has a case of the Caturdays
Someone has a case of the Caturdays

At first, the cat interaction was a little slow to roll. We looked around at the lounging cats and wondered what we could do to win their attention. After ordering some food, the cats slowly made their way toward us, although they didn’t really want to be touched.

We started watching the professionals work, and by professionals I mean the other guests who clearly knew a thing or two about wooing cats. One lady was a particularly giddy genius. She brought some large plastic shopping bags with her, and the cats went nuts. They frolicked in the bags and she scooped them up for hugs (totally against the “do not pick up the cats” rule, but clearly she was a regular and way beyond the laws of Caturday).

I had been amazed by the bag lady’s expertise, but she turned out to be a TOTAL AMATEUR compared to the next regular to stop into the cafe. I will forever remember this woman as The Cat Whisperer because she was truly amazing. Not only did she know every cat’s name, but she was a pro when it came to playing with them.

She knew exactly how to feed the cats (see photo below for the moment she let ME feed them, and I laughed like a maniac) and was generous enough to persuade them to pose for our photos. I don’t know what she does for a living, but clearly this was her true calling.

Chris and I ate very mediocre “Cheesy Fries” and took 40,000 iPhone photos of the cat-filled alternative universe. Sometimes we would be very disturbed by how much cat hair was covering us, and sometimes we would be grinning like idiots at how cute the cats were.

Just hanging out
Just hanging out

While everyone (including us) was taking photos left and right, some people were really getting into the photography. Cute cat snapshots were turning into full-blown photo shoots. Selfies in Thailand are no joke.

Munchkin cats everywhere

When the soggy fries were gone and I got cat hair in my mouth, it was time to leave. Do I need to go back to a cat cafe? No.  I’m not really a cat person. While they are cute animals, I don’t need to hang out on the floor taking pictures of them forever. Caturday seemed to be a wonderful escape for people. At the cat cafe, they could get away from the rest of the world and be around adorable animals. It was special to see people experiencing such pure joy, even if it left me very, very itchy.

Wats and a Water Taxi

I write this holding back tears, the tears of an idiot. I’ve been in Thailand a month now, I can handle Thai spice [eats Thai chili and immediately regrets it. Eyes water. Mouth burns.] 20 minutes later, my mouth is still on fire are I am dangerously low on water. Kill me.

Anyway, despite the physical suffering, the weekend was a great one filled with sightseeing, galavanting, and not losing a single thing. I woke up Saturday on a mission to see some sights. I hadn’t had my fill of temple visits, so I decided on heading to Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn.

Pro tip: Wat means temple.

Wat a cool entrance!
Wat a cool entrance!

After renting a long skirt (for modesty), I entered the hallowed grounds of the riverside Wat. I was immediately overcome with awe. I’ve been to religious sites before, but I’ve never had such a physical reaction to a place. I felt calm and was filled with respect for the beautiful grounds. I’m not a sappy person, but it was really special. I stalked a monk and took his photo, because that’s what a tourist does at a Wat.

I wonder wat he would think if he caught me being a creep
I wonder Wat he would think if he caught me being a creep

I spent about a 45 minutes touring the incredible place. To get to the best vantage point, you have to climb up narrow stairs that are essentially a ladder. Very nerve-wracking, but totally worth the experience. I couldn’t help think about all of the teeth I would knock out if my foot slipped. Positive thinking! 

Watever you do, don’t look down

One thing that really stood out beyond the splendor of the holy temples was the presence of the guys pictured below. I’m sure they are really wonderful to some people, but I was sort of like, why are these giant-headed baby monks here? They’re a little off putting and way less majestic than the rest of the area. I mean, those heads!

I don't even know Wat I'm looking at
I don’t even know Wat I’m looking at

I took a tuk tuk to the nearest BTS station and spent the rest of the night enjoying the nightlife of Bangkok. Beervana’s anniversary party, dive bars, and street noodle soup were the perfect end to another great day in Thailand.

[Insert stupid Wat pun here]
[Insert stupid Wat pun here]
That's a cat on a pool table!
That’s a cat on a pool table!

I woke up late on Sunday with a mean hangover, but still wanted to get my Wat on. My mental capacity was a little less sharp due to said hangover, but I managed to wait in only two wrong lines before figuring out how to take the Chao Praya river taxi.

Bangkok barge
Bangkok barge

I got off at the taxi port across from Wat Arun near the Grand Palace. Having been to the Grand Palace in 2013, I didn’t need to go back before seeing the other sights of Bangkok. Instead, I wandered in the direction of glimmering temple roofs until the sun went down.

On point roof game
On point roof game

Without a destination, I wasted a lot of time wandering through less eye-catching areas, but still enjoyed seeing Thais go about their sleepy Sunday.

Just a basket full of cabbage

Ended the day with some Szechwan food while it poured rain. I can’t remember the names of all of the Wats I saw, or even the names of the neighborhoods I walked through, but still a win in my book. I’m getting better at my Thai numbers, and getting used to Thai people laughing at me when I practice.

My weeks are spent keeping up with the hustle of working at a startup, and weekends exploring this massive city. Breathaking, confusing, sweat-inducing – I am falling deeper in love with Bangkok with each passing day.

An Update with Photos That Don’t Match

-For my first month, I’ve been saying “not expensive” when I meant “expensive.” This exchange happened countless times, confusing merchants around town. Example from my Samsung shopping experience: “How much is this cell phone? Oh that’s not expensive, may I see a cheaper one?”

-I got a wonderful rash on my face! Red raised dots sprinkled my cheekbones like diseased freckles, and they itch! My guess is that the rash came from swimming in my apartment pool, which I did two times that week compared to never before. Hooray!

Orange milk anyone?
Orange dinosaur milk anyone?

-New on the HotelQuickly front – we are moving into a new office, so I can kiss these 37th floor views of Bangkok goodbye. Plus side: our new office is very cool. It’s reminiscent of startup offices in ol’ San Francisco.

Work with a view
Caffeine, a startup must

-My local motorcycle taxi drivers have given me the nickname, “Chong Nonsi” after the location they drop me off at everyday. Night or day, when I walk by they say hello and add “Chong Nonsi” although I can’t tell if it’s a term of endearment or if they’re mocking me. Let’s say ignorance is bliss, and I’ll just think it’s a sweet new tradition.

-Pointless observation: International men don’t have any hesitation to order sweet/fruity drinks here. There are different opinions on asserting masculinity, and ordering a whiskey straight up is not one of those ways. I’m trying to stop thinking its funny to see a table full of men ordering sugary cocktails, because who doesn’t want to sip on a delicious coconut-laced drink?? They’re delicious and have no relation to one’s gender.

Fish ball soup / So spicy, so good
Fish ball soup / So spicy, so good

-My new iPhone from the US arrived locked. This meant that a Thai SIM card did not work in it. The guys at True (basically the Thai AT&T) cut my SIM card into a micro SIM card in order for it to fit in the iPhone, so they taped it back up to go into my terrible Samsung. Thanks to the hack job, even my terrible Samsung didn’t work anymore. By the time I figured that out, the stores had closed. Another wonderful hassle to deal with.

Friday night from the BTS
Friday night from the BTS

-My computer has forgotten I’m American. It wants to change “favorite” to “favourite” and “organize” to “organise,” and so on. I continuously Google the spelling of simple words and feel like an idiot these days.

Ok this picture matched the update
Ok this picture matches the update

-I haven’t picked up that much Thai, but Thais are extremely generous in complimenting my Thai skills. They do this to any farang that can speak a sentence or two, so I can’t feel too special. Even though it’s undeserved praise, it does feel nice. I’ll take what I can get!

-Bangkok is ageing me physically and rapidly. Even with all of the sunscreen I slop on every morning (60 SPF y’all), I am getting more and more freckles – aka skin damage. I feel like wrinkles are deepening, and I’m not very stoked about it. In a sea of ageless Asian beauties, it is starting to really bother me. I may be donning a beekeeper’s mask soon.

#CatsOfBangkok

-One month in and I still haven’t gotten Internet for my apartment. With all of the other hassles, I have been too lazy to figure out how to set it up. This avoidance of stress only creates more stress, as I have to hunt for an Internet cafe every time I need to surf the web.

-I’ve grown accustom to seeing cockroaches and rats everywhere. Both critters are huge here, and definitely still gross, but when you see them all the time, you just sort of just accept them.

Bangkok, an iPhone Photo Recap

Surprise chicken bones. Shimmering Buddhist shrines. Tuk tuks out of transit. I am doing my best to absorb everything around me and get to know Bangkok. In no particular order, here are some mediocre iPhone photos taken of sights seen, foods eaten, and tattoos inked.

License to chill
License to chill
Korean skittles
Taste the rainbow
Good karma
Good karma
I'm going to be honest - I  truly have zero idea what this is
I’m going to be honest – I truly have zero idea what this is
Durian on lock
Durian on lock
You know, for the homeless
You know, for the homeless
Was not kidding about the bones
Was not kidding about the bones
#NotBangkok
#NotBangkok

Bangkok, you’re doing it wrong

4 ways you’re doing Bangkok wrong:

  1. You lost your debit card in the first three days of your move
  2. You lost your iPhone in the first month
  3. You’re renting an expensive apartment with a year lease
  4. You’ve only had Pad Thai 3 times

What the f is wrong with me? How could I possibly lose my cell phone? HOW HAVE I MADE IT THIS FAR IN LIFE?

On Friday, my friends and I went to Khao San Road, one of the most touristy nightlife destinations in Bangkok. It wasn’t until we were back at home that I realized it. Phone = gone. I thought back to the timeline of the evening. We started the night at Khao San posted up at a bar where we drank buckets of soda that were allegedly alcoholic. At the bar, I definitely had my phone, but couldn’t remember using it after we left to dance in the street. Whether someone stole it out of my purse or I left it at the bar, it didn’t matter. It was 4 am and it was gone. We ate street food noodle soup and I tried not to be too upset about the fail.

More like, "VERY BIG IDIOT."
More like, “VERY BIG IDIOT.”

My friend Chris (pictured above) helped me try to get it back, even though it was super late and I’m sure he wanted to go to bed. We talked to the person who had taken my phone, trying to persuade him to return it for a reward. Instead, he kept asking us to give him the phone’s password (tempting, but no). He said that he already had a phone, and didn’t want to steal mine. Great, but not convincing, considering he took it two hours south of Bangkok. Shortly after talking to him, he disconnected the phone number he had called us on.

So it was gone, the phone was gone. The next morning, Chris, Etty (his girlfriend) and I went to the Fortune Town IT Mall at Rama 9 to look for a new iPhone. It was going to cost me a lot and no one took American Express. After realizing this was going to be a herculean task, we parted ways and I continued my hunt.

Fast forward 5 hours, and I was the owner of a terrible new $100 Samsung. The graphics were pixilated and the downloads were slow; I missed my iPhone so much that I could have gotten a tattoo of it’s serial number on my foot. Fortunately, my dad went to the AT&T store in Fresno, California and was able to get a replacement iPhone 5s for $99! Until it comes in the mail, I’ll be able to survive in my Android hell (first world problem alert).

I wanted to move to Bangkok for the challenge, but not the challenge of dealing with my own avoidable mistakes. One month under my belt in Thailand, and I had already gone through a slew of bad moves. At the end of the day, it could have been worse. No one got hurt – unless you count the hangover of the next day – and it’s just a phone (but who am I kidding, it’s 2014 and I’m addicted to technology).

Just another learning experience here in Bangkok.

Four Days in Manila

Disclaimer: this is an insanely long post. 
TL;DR - Manila was stressful, but ok.

Part One: Figuring out the Philippines

It was pouring rain when I arrived at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport on Saturday night. As soon as you step outside, people bombard you with overpriced taxi services, but you can get a metered taxi if you wait in a slow line. The majority of the cab ride to my hotel was spent sitting in choked traffic. When we arrived at my hotel, I gave the driver 500 Filipino Pesos and asked for change. He pretended to be confused by my multiple requests, so I gave up and overpaid resentfully. I ordered room service, checked my email, and went to sleep early. Living it up in Manila, heyooo! 

To get a long-term Thai visa, you have to go through a complicated, stressful process. The country has a rule that applicants must submit the visa paperwork outside of Thailand, so I would be spending the next four days in the Philippines. I was nervous about the journey, still being without a debit card (THANK YOU WELLS FARGO). I didn’t want to take all of the cash I had to my name, so I packed money very modestly which would definitely be an issue later in the trip.

Many people had warned me that Manila was dangerous, so I was wary about leaving my room on Sunday (flashback to Bangkok day one!). Pressing through the (probably irrational) fear, I took a taxi to sightsee in the city’s historic area, Intramuros.

One of the city’s many Jeepneys

Driving to Intramuros, I had my first glimpse of the city in the daylight. I had never seen this sort of poverty in my life, and felt really terrible about holding an expensive iPhone. The closer we got to Intramuros, the more I started to worry. I had given the driver a very vague request and could only hope he would drop me off at the most tourist-infested spot.

I started freaking out when we passed through the gates of Intramuros. This wasn’t Disneyland, this was definitely still Manila. Stores made out of sheet metal crammed together selling soda and cigarettes. Rusted bike taxis lined the streets, their drivers waiting idly for customers. I didn’t see many tourists and was starting to panic at the idea of getting dropped off to fend for myself. We pulled up to the Manila Cathedral, Intramuros’ shining star, and I got out of the cab.

Before my eyes could adjust to the piercing sun, hawkers and beggars began to crowd me. Yelling “Hello, ma’am!” they tried to get me to buy things or donate money. Most were men, but there were also girls around six years old begging, a heartbreaking sight. The barrage of requests mixed with my unease put me over the edge. I was the closest I’ve ever been to having a panic attack. Nearly hyperventilating, I stepped into the church and felt an immense relief. No vendors or homeless, just a bunch of tourists taking photos with their iPads.

I wanted to hide out in the church the rest of the day, but didn’t want to give up so easily. I couldn’t travel all the way to Manila and give the experience a half-hearted effort. I walked back out into the street and followed a group of Asian girls way too closely. Doing a horrible job of being subtle, I was soon discovered and they stopped, assuming I wanted to pass them. I smiled and went ahead of them into the abyss of Intramuros, clenching my jaw in fear.

I tried to relax and thought to myself: Be cool! Act like you’re not about to cry! I ducked into a souvenir shop and calmed down again. The cashier gave me a recommendation for lunch and a sightseeing spot. Feeling better, I bought some post cards and went to Barbara’s restaurant.

It’s probably a good rule to avoid lukewarm seafood paella, but I’m a fan of breaking the rules! Kidding of course, but I did eat the cold buffet paella at Barbara’s (and lived to tell the tale). Bonus: there was a spanish guitar quartet playing live throughout the meal. I though the singer sounded a lot like Elvis, and lo and behold, he played Elvis’ I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You. Side note: that song is 100% more awesome performed by a Spanish guitar quartet.

Post paella, I went to Fort Santiago where I paid an entrance fee to tour the historic site. You would never guess you were in the Philippines if not for the Filipino security guards pacing the area.

After sightseeing, it was time for another taxi back to Makati. I’m pretty sure every taxi I took had a different meter pace, and will never be sure which one was fair. I walked around empty Makati (people stay at home with family on Sundays) and went to the Shangri La Hotel for dinner where I knew they would take American Express.

The skyscrapers of Makati
The skyscrapers of Makati

At the Shangri La, I went to the hotel’s (totally empty) bar and Tapas lounge, Sage, where I ordered a cliché tiki drink. The food was good, but my body has been very sensitive since moving to Southeast Asia. I become overwhelmed with nausea from time to time without ever getting sick, which is confusing and unpleasant. This sensation often comes up when eating seafood, so I ate my ceviche very slowly hoping to avoid throwing up at the luxury hotel. After dinner, it was back to my hotel where I slept for 10 hours.

Shangri Laaaa!
Shangri Laaaa!

Part Two: Operation Thai visa

On Monday, I arrived at the Thai Embassy at 9:45 am surprised to find only one other person there. I walked up to the window happily and handed the teller my documents. She started to scowl and ask rapid fire questions. On the airplane, a Filipino woman had warned me that the embassy workers would be tough, and that advice gave me the courage to stand my ground. After she interrogated me, she told me that I was missing documents. I asked a round of useless questions until she finally offered the option of emailing her the missing papers.

I left the embassy feeling very panicked. I had no desire to stay in Manila longer than necessary, and set to getting the missing documents from my work. I walked to Greenbelt Mall and found a cafe to work from. I ordered a painfully sweet iced tea and figured out how to get what I needed from the team back in Bangkok.

I had a Facebook notification – new friend request! Who could it be? Oh, just the security guard from the embassy. Needless to say, I did not accept the request, although I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice guy.

I emailed the missing documents back to the embassy and immediately received a message that my email bounced back. With 15 minutes before the office closed, I literally sprinted through the Makati streets back to embassy. In Manila, taxis honk at pedestrians in hopes of getting business. They honk incessantly if you’re running like a maniac who definitely needs a ride. I ignored them and ran in the 86 degree heat until I found the embassy with minutes to spare.

At the empty embassy, the teller said that the email address I used was wrong (even though I double checked when she gave it to me) and handed me the correct version. I went to a cafe for WiFi and ordered an even sweeter iced tea. Someone tell me what idiot keeps ordering iced teas when they hate them every time? I sent the email (then confirmed it was received) and could only wait until Wednesday afternoon to see if my visa application would be approved.

Part Three: The wait

I spent the majority of my time in Manila at the Museum Cafe in Greenbelt 4 where the food was good and the service was friendly. In between periods of piercing sunshine, raging thunderstorms brought down insane amounts of rain. The thunder was so loud that it hurt your ears. Security guards carried giant guns while daintily holding umbrellas to stay dry.

Being a food-focused tourist, I was excited to try Filipino food. A Shangri La valet attendant recommended his favorite place, Fely J’s, to get a taste of the culture. I ordered Ginataang Nangka at Lamang Dagat, a jackfruit and seafood dish cooked with coconut milk. When the server placed it in front of me, I was taken back and had to ask if it was the dish I ordered. The dish before me looked 100% like a big plate of stewed meat.

After he assured me it was the jackfruit / seafood mashup, I still was freaked out. Not knowing what jackfruit even looked like, I Googled it to see if it resembles a corned beef.

The results were a bunch of shredded pork-looking pictures, so I accepted the meal as jackfruit and gobbled it up. It was delicious, albeit concerning.

At my hotel, I tried a Filipino breakfast of eggs, milk fish, and garlic rice. Do not ask me what milk fish is, but I had yet another bout of nausea eating it. I fought the reflex and tried my best to eat as the wait staff smiled attentively at me. I need to get over trying so hard not to offend people; it’s probably not going to kill anyone if I just say “this isn’t for me.”

The milkiest fish there ever was!
The milkiest fish there ever was!

Days glued to my laptop gave way to nights searching for ways to pass the time. I can’t tell you where local Filipinos hang out, but I can recommend some good luxury hotel bars in Makati. On Monday night, I tried the Fairmont Hotel’s Long Bar where a 70 year old Japanese man tried to buy me drinks. On Tuesday night, I met up with new Israeli friends at the Peninsula’s smokey cigar bar, aptly named The Bar. In the massive lobby, complete with live orchestra, I made a mental note to one day earn enough money to casually stay at Peninsulas around the world.

One bar had a chalkboard in the bathroom, so I obviously threw my home state a shoutout.

Whatup Cali?
Whatup Cali?

Part Four: Getting the hell out of Manila

On Wednesday, I checked out of my hotel and anxiously waited at the ol’ Museum Cafe for 3 pm to roll around. Would my visa  application be approved? Would I rot in Manila for the rest of my life? These questions ran through my head as time crawled by. Even though the city was starting to grow on me, I was homesick for Bangkok.

At 2:50 pm, I walked in the gloomy drizzle to the embassy as people on the street stared at me. There aren’t a lot of white women here, and I stick out no matter how subtly I creep around. Side note: if you need a confidence boost, head on over to the Philippines where people are very up front with compliments! You will get a “Hello beautiful lady!” every few blocks, which makes for great self-esteem. Even women will throw out unwarranted compliments while you’re standing in line! 

There were more people at the embassy when I arrived, but it only took about 10 minutes for my turn. The teller gruffly gave me my passport without any heads up on whether or not the visa had been approved. I flipped open the booklet to find that

THEY APPROVED MY APPLICATION!!!

I almost cried when I left the embassy. I had my visa! I could go home! So much happy! Having only been in Thailand for about three weeks, I almost felt like I had moved to Manila for all the time spent there. I went to Mondo Juice to work and wait to head for the airport.

My parents swooped in for another win by wiring me some money, as I was running dangerously low on my cash supply. After my visa win, I still had to pick up the money before the Western Union closed. I looked up the bank on my phone and had time to make it before closing. Got to the bank and had looked at the hours for the wrong day – the bank was closed! Thirty minutes of power walking around Makati, I finally found an open Western Union and got the money (dripping in sweat, of course). If my parents hadn’t sent the money, I wouldn’t be able to take a taxi to the airport or paid the surprise 550 Filipino pesos it cost to leave the country. THANK YOU PARENTS FOR SAVING ME YET AGAIN! 

Another traffic jammed ride to the airport and my time in Manila was coming to a close. I ate a delicious vegetable noodle soup at a place called Kaishu near my gate and felt a pang of sadness to leave.

Pre-plane noods

Manila may not have been my favorite place in the world, but the more time I spent there the more I fond of it I became. The people are welcoming, kind, and helpful. I’d have to come back again and get out of the urban jungle and see the islands.

Happy times in Manila street art
Happy times in Manila street art

I didn’t have to be as scared as I was when I arrived, and should remember that going forward with my travels. People keep referring to my worries as “so American” and maybe being raised on Fox News wasn’t so great for my trust in strangers. The move to Asia, one big learning experience after another.