Soledad / Adulthood / Jaded on a Beach


Long Beach, Koh Phi Phi Don

From early January, 2018

I am lounging on a golden, palmy beach on the southeast end of Ko Phi Phi Don, a butterfly-shaped island in the Andoman Sea off Thailand’s southwest coast. I sailed over on a long-tail water taxi for 100 baht in attempt to avoid the beach in town.

All my holiday modulates between two main activities: One, trying to achieve serenity by relaxing in pleasant surrounds, in an attempt to forget my life at home, and Two, trying to look at beautiful and unique things to distract and immerse myself, in an attempt to forget my life at home. Activity Two is usually accompanied by Instagram photos.

Both of these activities are somehow degraded by the presence of other humans. I don’t believe it’s just me and my misanthropic ways. Everyone wants to “beat the crowds”. Humans find civilization convenient but are not really pack animals, and the presence of other beings often alarms us, if quietly, down to some mitochondrial core. It’s not that we have anything against any of these strangers, personally. We can empathize with them, certainly. But we’d find it better for our peace of mind to be in a place that is pure–by which I mean, free of our species.

All I seek on this vacation is peace of mind. Adulthood is but a constant stream of stressors that one must deflect, as if in an endless game of Galaga. I am more self-aware than when I was young, and more aware of others. Mostly this awareness empowers, because everything is manageable, because the world follows rules and reason, which have grown more apparent, clearer and clearer like a loading JPEG. But it also means that I am very aware of the stressors, and can almost quantify the exact of brain energy spent on each external stimuli.

So I’ve come to “recharge my batteries”, as they say. This means attempting to wipe my mind clean, letting everything fade, fade, fade.

The world follows rules and reason, which is why we can all predict things, for example:

  • This beach will be less crowded than the others on the island because it’s not physically spectacular enough for day trippers and is not connected by land to the hostels.
  • If you get there earlier, it will be even less crowded, as people on vacation tend to get out and about at around 10 or 11 AM, and more like 1PM if they are young.

Such are the rules and the reasons. The predictions are usually more or less true. In this sense, adulthood is kind of boring.

We feed this knowledge into a calculator in our brains: Is it worth 200 baht? Is it worth the effort? We make our prediction and make our decision accordingly. Sometimes risk arises. We’re on a quest to optimize.

“I thought it would be more ____”, we say to each other, with either pleasant or unpleasant surprise. We like to run our thought processes by others, to check for concordance. We also like to disseminate new information to others, to improve the hive mind, to aid others in their predictions and calculations. This is what passes for conversation in adulthood.

In fact, I am a little disappointed because this beach has a solid hundred or so people also partaking in the lounging and swimming, even at 9AM. I observe that the beach has six or so villa hotels which have guests pleased to stay put, in addition to those of us who all have sailed over here with same idea about avoiding the crowds in town. The world is also a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, and we end up at some Nash equilibrium. I have new inputs, but the calculation still makes sense.

What was youth but lack of experience? I’ve taken many vacations now. I’ve visited 25 countries. Each time I learn some boring new rule of travel arithmetic.

  • Try not to check luggage.
  • Ask for prices before getting in cabs.
  • Always wear sunscreen.

As a result of these learnings, I make fewer blunders, and experiences are more optimal.

Of course, my adult self does not compare to my 19-year-old self. The 19-year-old was blissful in ignorance. The 19-year-old did not even have a sense of optimal. The 19-year-old faced no material stressors. The 19-year-old allowed dopamine to rule. The 19-year-old would chat with strangers and find these points of interface exciting and hilarious, instead of tedious and forgettable.

Like I said, adulthood is kind of boring. I don’t feel bored though, I feel relaxed. I’m sitting on a beach, eyes closed, listening to waves, trying to clear my head. I often hear coworkers tell me how they dream of sitting in a cabin in the woods by themselves, or maybe with their dogs, or how much they enjoyed their weekend of “doing nothing”. We’re all hurtling toward hermitage. It doesn’t upset me. It seems like the natural byproduct of working within capitalism. I happen to work in the most capitalist place on earth and I happen to live in an individualist Anglo culture. I noticed the Cubans seemed more sociable. I noticed the Brazilians seem to find crowds invigorating.

Next week I’ll be on the subway.


Travel Joy Among Thai Temples

Morning at Sukhothai, Thailand

I spent most of the first five weeks of traveling through Southeast Asia with others, including my boyfriend, my sister and my best friend from college. Traveling with these loved ones was definitely a treat, and I felt so grateful to be able to make amazing new memories together. Yet, as an introvert, being glued to other people 24-7 became trying at times, and I found myself craving some time and space for myself. Thailand was a perfect place for some solo journeying, and the many moments of solitary joy I felt in that magical country were oddly among my favorite memories of that whole nine-week SEA tour.

Whenever I travel I always visit ruins–I guess I just love to see Man’s work wrecked by Time and Nature–so I went to explore the old capitals of Siam. A short public bus ride out of Bangkok brought me to Ayutthaya, where I rented a bike. Nothing says independence and freedom like a bicycle. With the wind in my hair, I rode all around the historical park. The second capital of Siam, Ayutthaya was a bustling, magnificent city from the 14th century until sacked by the Burmese in the late 18th century. I saw Angkor-inspired towers leaning, chedis lopped off by time, a Buddha’s head in a tree, red Buddha murals down in the crypt of a pyramid, a huge stone reclining Buddha and a stately complex where school children were roaming on a field trip.

I biked around the modern town, which is on an island at the confluence of three rivers. I biked by brutalist-leaning concrete buildings, and the local market where locals were breakfasting and selling fruit. I biked by more golden wats, by low, wide schools, by small storefronts selling coffee. I biked through residential areas crammed full of vaguely Asian two-story houses light in color, with slightly sloped corrugated roofs; a handful of open-air restaurants and a few traditional wooden, pitched-roof Thai homes were scattered among these residences.

A lot of bile had been building up in me due to difficulties handling a certain travel buddy who had been suffering anxiety attacks, but with this adventure I felt the bile was beginning to drain. At the root of this healing was mainly distraction, but if that sounds too cynical, you could call it some kind of experiential immersion: To physically exhaust oneself. To tackle new logistical and spatial problems. And most importantly, to fill one’s brain with a host of new, interesting sights, sounds, tastes, etc. The more I experienced of this huge world, the more I forgot any dramas in my head.

Biked by these concrete beauties in Ayutthaya

I took an overnight bus up north to Chiang Mai, a popular tourist destination and base for trekking between hill tribe villages. The place is rife with Americans chatting loudly and other various white folk on yoga retreats, but I couldn’t help but fall in love. Chiang Mai is so mellow. With just a little walking from the tourist center, the gangs of farang thinned out and I got to appreciate the city’s street art and lovely tropical brutalist buildings in whites and pastels. I also visited the various wats scattered around Chiang Mai. Built by the Lanna kingdom (separate but allied with Siam), these temples boasted intricate wood carvings on the pediments and steeply pitched roofs. These temples never bored but were full of wonderful details like stone elephant statues, colorful banners hanging and wise but whimsical proverbs on placards. And of course, they all had As Many Buddhas As Possible.

Temple time in Chiang Mai

Listen to the sign, people.

I took to meditating and donating at these Theravada temples, and with this practice, I felt emotional poisons finally left my body. When people go on solo travel journeys to find themselves, one might think they are trying to think about their problems and find paths to resolution. Well I began to feel most at peace by meditating, by not thinking about anything whatsoever. I eventually felt, maybe for the first time ever, that my mind became clear. “Problems” just didn’t seem to exist anymore.

Chiang Mai is not only amazing for these “spiritual” reasons; it’s also just a lot of fun, and I think fun is pretty good for the soul too. I smiled my face off while riding an elephant, bamboo rafting and hiking among beautiful rice paddies and cliffside forest on a tour (most hilarious part of this day: the mahout gave me distilled longan liquor which he was swigging from a water bottle; it appeared he was drunk driving our elephant!).

Elephant is hong-ray

Chiang Mai also boasts some of the best food in Thailand, which remains cheap and authentic despite the tourist factor. When in Chiang Mai one has to try khao soi, noodles in a rich coconut curry. Outside Wat Phra Singh, I also feasted on a grilled omelette, spicy sausage and deep-fried pork with green chili thread sauce from a small market. Yet, the best food selection is on offer at the Saturday night market, which is a food paradise that is also fairly happenin’ due to the slate of bands and performers–I caught a very cool and talented young band while chowing down on fried rice. The Sunday Walking Street also has food vendors, plus stalls selling actually covetable products and various musicians who are performing every ten meters or so. I felt so happy there, walking among the throngs of young, Chinese-leaning tourists, who also seemed so happy to be there, hearing musicians expressing themselves and eating amazing food.

Khao soi

Some food offerings at the Saturday night market

Chiang Mai, city of music

Finally, I visited Sukhothai, the old capital of Siam, to look at more ruins. Because I was lucky enough to go at about 7 AM with zero people around, this experience, for me, was less about ruins and more about the feeling of total tranquility. My world was bathed heavily in morning light. The images of Buddhas, stupas and palm trees were reflecting in lightly lily-padded reflecting ponds. I walked and biked around, wandering across small bridges, to tall brick chedis, among all sorts of trees, even plumeria. Cranes flew by, a few dogs were resting in random spots. I just so calm and happy to be alive experiencing this peaceful place.

Total tranquility

I realized that for the first time in my life, I was truly living in the present, not thinking about the past, nor what I should do weeks, months, years in the future. Typically on vacation I might stop thinking about work for a while, but I am still usually thinking about the future, what is the next step in my life and what I should do differently going forward to fix the mistakes of my past? But after more than four weeks of this condition, traveling had finally become my life, my only reality, so it seemed dumb to think about what I should do in my non-travel life. In fact, non-travel life just seemed to be full of cycling trivialities; at least that is what I felt while meditating before these centuries-old monuments to the universal struggles of Man.

Of course, this zen feeling, one that came about after a very long break from routine life, is probably not easily replicated. I have no grand lessons to impart, no hippy-dippy ideas about healing. Just go out and explore! That goes a very long way.

Sensory Overload in Bangkok

Market scene, Bangkok

I also used to analyze Thailand for a living as part of my job as an emerging markets economic analyst, but frankly Thailand is too damn culturally interesting to examine purely through a lens of dry economics*. Financial discussions, data aggregations, tracking of growth rates, and so forth are the domain of my brain’s mathiness. Thailand does not ignite that part of my brain. For me, Bangkok was a place of lights and music, of amazing tastes, of cultural complexity, of magic, of feeling, of style, of the sublime. It’s a fascinating place, the kind that made me thrilled to be alive and traveling.

One of my well-traveled colleagues once noted that two world cities bring about SENSORY OVERLOAD: Istanbul and Bangkok. Films like The Hangover 2 would also clue you in to this reputation of Bangkok as sensory playground. We landed at the massive Suvarnabhumi airport with about ten thousand other foreign tourists, and after a long day of sitting down traveling from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh to Bangkok, we were itching to eat and hit the town. We cabbed to our a tiny apartment in a high rise in Huai Khwang.

Luckily Huai Khwang, besides being full of “massage parlors” and gentlemen’s clubs with big bright signage, hosts a fairly large market. This market specializes in women’s clothing of a sexy kind, some of it actually quite cute and modern–high-waisted swimsuits and bustier-skirt combos. But the market also sold DVDs, stores full of Hello Kitty home goods and lots of FOOD! We had a hard time deciding between the many options, but ended up feasting on skewers of grilled sausage and chicken, a plate of the best pad Thai ever, fried chicken, green curry, sweet sticky rice with mango and some pomelo.

That night we perhaps overdid it on the Bangkok nightlife, intending to just go for a couple drinks but instead staying out til 4 AM. I suppose the city is just a saucy seductress when it comes to partying.

We started out on Silom Road. This street is known as the Wall Street of Bangkok, containing the skyscraper residences of the big banks and Western hotels, but we started walking on the bright busy end full of tourist stalls and bars. Silom is crossed by seedy Patpong 1 and 2, former R&R destination for horny GIs and home of the infamous “ping pong shows”. We eventually made it to Maggie Choo’s, a cocktail bar owned by a Perth-born bar mogul, housed in a colonial bank vault and dressed up to the nines as a 1920s Shanghai speakeasy. The central bar area is behind bank teller-like bars and above that floats a cage full of lounging girls. They wear cheongsams, black Velma Kelly wigs and falsies, and they match their sisters on swings hanging from the ceilings. We had some top quality cocktails among the other expats and well-to-do Bangkok residents, while listening to an Aretha Franklin copy (from America) belt out jazzy tunes, both modern and classic.

My friend Numan, a Bangkok local, came along and this is when it started to become more of a blur in my memory. After my third delicious cocktail we decided to hit up Soi Cowboy, the more current strip of go-go bars and the like. As we exited the cab, we were assaulted by a barrage of lights and loud tunes, with all kinds of people on the street, patrons and bar girls and a few food carts too! We had way too much fun at Cockatoo, full of ladyboys in pink and yellow string bikinis who had spot-on tuck game, toned hairless bodies and winning smiles. They weren’t dancing much despite being on a long narrow stage with stripper poles, but rather gyrating in our faces and occasionally nipple flashing. Numan was a good sport and instructed us to not buy them drinks (because you should be wary of surprise tabs) but rather stick 20 baht notes in their bikinis.

We also went to a cowgirl-themed go-go bar, full of skinny possibly underage girls in bra tops, jean shorts, white cowboy boots and cowboy hats. They all looked about 16 and were even lazier than the ladyboys. One of the girls was giving a lap dance to a 60-year-old white man–almost comically gross. At about 3 AM as we were ushered out we exited to the still-busy Soi, where some of the bikini-clad ladyboys were spilling out of the bar now heading home. My drunk treat was a grilled rice ball, shaped into a round patty and slathered in a yummy Thai sauce.

We experienced some more Bangkok nightlife for New Year’s Eve. We had no real plans for the night, as we could not be bothered to either wait for fireworks or purchase tickets to some larger event, so we headed on the MRT to bright, modern Sukhumvit to just see what we could find. As soon as we emerged from underground we encountered a series of pop-up bars selling cheap cocktails out of small van and carts, pumping electro and pop music on the street. We ended up at Sukhumvit Soi 11, not at one of the foreigner bars but on the street at a plastic table ordering margaritas and Singapore slings from a smiling lady playing electro music from her cart, next to a family with some underagers and maybe an Indian couple. It felt like Vegas or Halloween night, with people all over the streets: many foreigners, many girls wearing light-up cat or mouse ears. Competing music was blasting from the different bars. This made me sure that Bangkok is, indeed, the world’s best party town. People barely even blinked when the clock struck midnight–no countdown, no squares anxious to get home.

Bangkok was simply crawling with foreigners, or farang as the Thais call us. Many of these foreigners are expats, others just visitors. In fact the city is the world’s most-visited after New York and London. To me, tourism in Bangkok took on a very different tone than in other regions of Southeast Asia. After decades of international tourism and trade in Bangkok, the locals seemed quite used to the farang, in the way that my relatives in Hawaii are used to mainland and international visitors: people from somewhere else are an everyday presence.

I can’t say the Thai interactions with tourists I observed followed some broad trend. Some seemed jovial, fulfilling Thailand’s promise of being the Land of Smiles. Others were perhaps totally indifferent. The unscrupulous are known to use to take advantage of dumb, inexperienced tourists by extorting them–they have developed a whole bag of tricks.

But there was a lot less begging, which was a plus. [I will note that throughout Thailand, due to more robust economy, I saw very few people standing around, underemployed.] Another plus is that the experience runs cosmopolitan. In Bangkok, you get many internationals bumping into each other, and locals whose world is pretty damn big. Unfortunately, some of the international visitors, especially the backpackers, cluster in tourist areas like Khao San Road, which is full of hostels, Europeans drinking al fresco and carts serving only pad Thai with all-English menus, but still, foreigners are everywhere.

Thai street snacks

Heavenly pad thai

For me, the highlight of the Bangkok sensory overload was obviously the street food. Though things were relatively quiet due to the New Year, I visited a few markets. The best in terms of selection was probably the huge local market in across the river in Thonburi, near the BTS Wongwian Yai, comprised of carts all over a long street and under a covered structure. This area had no English signage but offered noodle soups, fried chicken, whole grilled chili fish, fried rice, fried noodles… talk about spoilt for choice. Besides the market at Huai Khwang which I frequented, I also checked out the Sukhumvit Soi 38 night market. This one had downsized slightly for the holiday but still had plenty of noodle soups, roast pork and duck, fried noodles, mango sticky rice and curry. I had noodles from a cart in an offshoot alley where we spotted some delectable-looking roast pork and crowds of people waiting.

Even outside the big markets, food carts were on practically every corner! Food carts selling sausage, food carts selling pork rinds, food carts selling all kinds of crazy snacks, like these mini toasts with spring roll filling and sweet sauce (see above). I also had some amazing roast pork with rice noodles in Chinatown off Charoen Krung Road. If I lived in Bangkok, I would never cook. Every day there is a feast!

My time in Bangkok wasn’t all eating and drinking. On New Year’s Day we relaxed in Lumphini Park, a big public park near the muay thai stadium. When I got a chance I wandered all over the place, though Bangkok is gigantic and fairly car-based, so we did get stuck walking along eight-lane thoroughfares sometimes. We walked down big commercial streets, such as ones full of Japanese restaurants and massage parlors catering to Japanese men, and through leafy expat residential areas full of modern apartment buildings and villas behind walls. I most enjoyed walking around Chinatown and other areas toward the palace, where the cool nineteenth and early-twentieth century architecture and brutalist apartment buildings all contributed to Bangkok’s variegated mix of old and new.

Wandering around Chinatown

As Many Buddhas as Possible at Wat Pho

We also saw some of the very old by visiting Wat Pho, one of the largest and oldest temples in Bangkok. You might think after Angkor Wat and Bagan I would have temple fatigue, but I was curious to see how Thai temples would differ from Khmer and Burmese ones. While it shared the steep roofs and curved spires with the Cambodian temples, and various scattered stupas with the Burmese ones, Wat Pho was quite different than anything I’d seen so far. The focal point was a giant reclining Buddha housed in a rectangular building, but Wat Pho also featured white stupas covered in colorful lacquered flowers, pavilions decked out in golden multi-tiered roofs and rows upon rows of four-feet-tall stone Buddhas. It seemed to be aiming for As Many Buddhas As Possible, with over one thousand Buddha images across the giant complex. The place was stuffed with tourists, including foreign females wearing skimpy beach dresses which you are not supposed to wear to a Buddhist temple, but many locals had come to visit, meditate and donate.

Anti-government protests at the Democracy Monument

Walking from Wat Pho, we ventured by the Democracy Monument and encountered an uptick in uptick in street vendors, not just selling food but also whistles and flags. I noticed a couple tents and realized we were going through the encampment of the anti-Yingluck protest, which ended up toppling the Pheu Thai government and leading to a coup just a few months later. Here I was facing the politically active Thailand that one reads about in the headlines, the Thailand of coup d’etats and Thaksin and Yellow Shirts and Red Shirts. I found it somewhat ironic that the pro-monarchy, slightly fascist-leaning, anti-populist protesters were camped at the Democracy Monument.

To my surprise, it mostly had the atmosphere of a summer street festival. When I happened to walk by, there were very few cops or army; a couple authorities did make us walk through a controlled entrance, but did not check our bags, or bark at us in the way New York cops often do. At a large stage in front of the monument, a guy who looked like Ai Wei-Wei in sunglasses crooned along with instrumentalists playing Thai classic rock, the bands’ images projected onto screens like at Coachella. A mass of middle-aged  people were leaning back on plastic chairs, cheering, blowing whistles, waving flags. One of these ladies motioned for us to have a seat in the chairs.

This all seemed largely peaceful to me and I questioned the alarmist Western media and financial analysts who condemn these acts of political expression. These demonstrations do turn violent sometimes when the authorities flex their muscles, and often can be quite economically disruptive (remember the airport takeover?) but when I actually observed these protesters, I could not see what was wrong with citizens expressing themselves. We point fingers at protesters for disturbing the peace, but even though I do not agree with their anti-Thaksin sentiments, I found myself kind of proud of these peaceful demonstrators. [No comment on the extra-Constitutional events that followed.]

What I liked most about Bangkok, though, was the modern, young Thailand–the stuff not encompassed by headlines or landmarks or stories of prostitutes and ladyboys. Taking the Bangkok MRT and BTS I quickly noticed the locals’ great style. They seemed to dress very hipstery, with high-waisted shorts and hipster glasses. Men sported trendy haircuts and wore denim, floral or polka-dot button-downs. Girls were not afraid to show skin or wear sheer clothing, and it usually looked cute not slutty. Spending just a few days there, I was convinced Thais are the most stylish Asians; they dress in a way that is edgy and youthful unlike the more conservative Shanghainese or Singaporeans. I was also convinced, seeing young people playing in rock bands all over the streets, that Thais are the most bad-ass Asians.

While traveling around with Alicia and Keala, I went to a few of cool-people joints in Bangkok, besides Maggie Choo’s. Near the Sukhumvit Sky Train we went to Gastrobar 1/6 at the RMA Institute, a contemporary art space with an adjoining cafe. Among hipsters with perfect hair and sunglasses, we enjoyed a New Year’s brunch–including a long black!–in this leafy oasis full of natural light, with some modern millwork accents and an eclectic collection of Asian and Western antique furniture. We also got beers at HOBs, which had a serious beer selection heavy on the Belgian brews and played Empire of the Sun and Santigold, and tequila cocktails at BADMOTEL, which boasted a white and silvery but low-lit courtyard, similar to some of my favorite bars in Los Angeles and New York.

Brunch at RMA Institute

Lounging with a drink at BADMOTEL

I also really enjoyed the Bangkok Art and Culture Center. I hopped a couple trains to get there at rush hour, and now that the holiday was over, Bangkok was alive with energy. I felt the greatest “I fucking love Bangkok!” feeling as the public spaces were blazing with a never-ending stream of people, many of them young, getting egg tarts and tea outside the Skytrain entrance on the way home from work. I love that Asian megacity feeling, one you might get watching the sea of people going in and out of Shinjuku station. At the BACC, I was short on time so had to quickly peruse the contemporary shops in the lower floors, which turned out to be pretty tempting. The official galleries on the top had an amazing, well-curated selection of works by Thai, ASEAN and Japanese artists, with some interesting commentary. The place was full of well-dressed young couples at 6 PM on a weekday, which furthered my opinion that Thais are fucking cool. Outside the building as I left, a gathering had blossomed. A man had been giving an impassioned talk earlier, and now the attendees had shaped themselves into a glowing peace sign.

Gallery time in the BACC

Stand for peace

* A quick synopsis: agricultural powerhouse (it’s a Top 3 exporter of rice), tourism, auto manufacturing, vital manufacturing location in Asian supply chain, a bit of finance (lest we forget the Asian Financial Crisis).