Last week, I took my first Thai-style trip. To begin, I should explain what I thought this trip would be. It was explained to me mostly in Thai, with some broken English thrown in. My understanding was that the entire SAO (local government building where I work) staff would be leaving late Wednesday night, would be arriving in Hua Hin (a beach town about 5 hours from my site) early Thursday morning to attend a seminar at our beachfront hotel, and would be leaving Friday and driving right back to my site in Korat. Because we were driving through the night, I wore comfortable clothes and was not worried about looking good. I brought nice clothes to change into for the seminar, and a bathing suit because I was told to bring one.
We left Wednesday at 11:00 pm, as planned. We had a VIP bus with air conditioning, a TV, and a very loud speaker system. We started off watching The Mask Singer, a popular Thai TV singing competition where the contestants wear costumes that disguise their identity. It was unbelievably loud. Luckily, I was exhausted enough that I was able to fall asleep anyway. I woke up intermittently throughout the night, and again around 6:00 am with the sun. We were still driving, and a quick look at google maps showed me that we were nowhere near Hua Hin. I thought we would have arrived by then, so I was then confused about our plan. We soon stopped for breakfast at a giant roadside stop. When we got back on the bus, everyone began singing karaoke with the bus’s built-in karaoke system. This was around 7:30 am, 8 and a half hours into the trip. Then, around 8:30 am, my coworkers began passing around whiskey, which would continue the rest of the trip.
Finally, at 9:30 am, we stopped. We seemed to be surrounded by mountains, so I was confused as to where our beachfront hotel was. We got off the bus and were greeted by people dressed as cowboys. There were horses wandering around free and signs that seemed to indicate that this was some sort of ranch. I was told that this was the seminar we were traveling for. We then sat through a presentation, which, from my understanding, was about an agriculture initiative that the late King had started. As soon as it ended, we got back on the bus and were once again driving. After less than an hour of driving, the bus began smoking so we stopped and everyone got off. The driver grabbed some Febreze, sprayed it all over to get rid of the smell of smoke, and we were right back on the bus driving again.
Around 12:00 pm (13 hours into the trip) I began to see water, and thought, “Finally!” but was once again confused when google maps showed that we were still nowhere near the beach. We stopped for a lunch at a lake-side restaurant in the middle of the mountains with really beautiful views. Here, my coworkers all asked for pictures with me. By “asked”, I mean they said “Sah-lah!” (the way most people here pronounce my name) and just started posing me and taking turns standing next to me for pictures. I wish I knew exactly how many photos I’ve been in since arriving at site, but my educated guess would be somewhere around three hundred.
Leaving lunch, I thought, “Okay, seminar is over, we have got to be heading to the hotel now. We’ll be there soon!” Around 3:00 pm (16 hours in), we stopped at a big Buddha statue, where we all sat at a coffee shop for a half hour. Then we were back on the bus and drove for another hour and a half. We arrived at Rajabhakti Park, which has 7 giant statues of former Thai Kings. Everyone took countless pictures, and I was essentially being passed around because everyone wanted a picture with the farang (foreigner). At one point, someone grabbed my arm and started pulling me away. I expected to look up and see an SAO staff member, but I had never seen this woman before. She pulled me over to a group of random people, and suddenly I was surrounded by strangers taking pictures with me.
We got back on the bus and drove for a while, and finally I saw signs for Hua Hin! As we drove through, I saw so many places where I wanted to stop. I saw other foreigners and was excited by the prospect of speaking English with someone, even if just to say hi. I was once again utterly confused as we drove straight through Hua Hin and kept going. We ended up in the next town over at a “resort” by the sea. This resort had many small houses clumped together, and I was told I’d be sharing a bed with one of my coworkers. Someone told me we were going to the beach, so I asked if I should wear my bathing suit. The woman who had originally told me to bring it then told me I should not wear it because Thai people do not wear bathing suits to the beach, they wear t-shirts and shorts.
We walked to the beach around 7:00 pm, as the sun was setting. To my excitement, several of my coworkers were in the water, so I joined them (wearing a t-shirt and shorts). This was the highlight of the entire trip for me. We only spent 10 minutes in the water, but I was so excited to finally be swimming in the sea. In typical Thai fashion, we took many photos before heading back to the resort. That night, we had a private dinner, complete, of course, with karaoke. I went to bed around 9:00 pm because I was exhausted.
The next morning, I asked if we would be going straight back to Korat or if we would be making many stops like the day before. I was told that we were going straight back. I thought, “Oh great, we’ll be back by 2:00 pm and I’ll be able to relax the rest of the day.” That illusion was shattered when we made our first stop at Mrigadayavan Palace, a former royal residence by the sea. We all paid to get in, and my coworkers formed a line to take pictures with me in front of the palace. After everyone had gotten pictures, they decided we could leave, so we got back on the bus, the karaoke continued, and I was told that we had to attend another seminar.
We stopped around 11:00 am (36 hours in) and I was told that this was about another initiative started by the late King. It lasted roughly an hour and then we were back on the bus. Around this time, I was getting hungry, and I thought for sure our next stop would be for lunch. Thai people love to eat, and it had been almost 5 hours since our last meal (not eating for 5 hours is unheard of here!) We started driving through very rural areas, and finally stopped at what appeared to be another presentation.
This presentation had a big sign which had two English words written on it: “Herbal soap.” After a woman spoke, we were brought to a room which had all kinds of lotions and soaps for sale. I thought, “What a random place to stop….in the middle of nowhere so we can all buy soap?” But at this point, I was not surprised. Everything so far had been strange and confusing, so why should I be surprised at this?
The stop after lunch might have been the strangest, though. It was a huge market with seafood everywhere, just sitting out on tables. Google translate explained that it was an “unrefrigerated seafood market”. Many of my coworkers made purchases here, which really made for a pleasant smell on the rest of the bus ride home. At this point it was 4:00 pm (41 hours in) and google maps said that we were 3 hours from site.
Even though we only made one more stop, it took 8 hours to get back. During those 8 hours on the bus, the karaoke was still going strong. At one point, I was handed the microphone and a chant of “Sah-lah! Sah-lah!” broke out because they wanted me to sing. I had a number of excuses, the most important of which was that I can not read Thai. I was told not to worry, because they had “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion. Everyone was extremely disappointed when I refused, but really, I think they should be thankful, considering my singing skill level.
Finally, we arrived back at the SAO after midnight. These 50 hours had truly been some of the strangest of my life. My inability to communicate effectively in Thai made for some funny misunderstandings. I learned that I shouldn’t rely much on my interpretation of our plans, because most likely, it would be very wrong. I learned how much Thai people actually love karaoke. Every day so far has been an adventure in some way, but these few days were unlike any other. I am already both scared and excited for the next trip!