After five years of thinking about it, the time finally came to do a South East Asia trip. I have been to Cambodia and Vietnam for ten days each, but this time, I have a tad over two months and am taking it in slowly.
My favorite thing about travel is the things you learn on the road. Sometimes you learn about great historical events, awesome places you never knew existed, or quirky little things no one really cared to know in the first place. Here are a couple of tidbits I learned in my first three weeks in Thailand.
1) There Are So Many Stray Dogs and Cats
Everywhere you look, cats and dogs. I am not complaining as I like both, but seriously, I’ve never seen so many in my life. One thing is for sure, the ‘mystery meat’ here is not the same as the one in Vietnam.
2) The Food Is Actually Spicy
Almost without fail, Thai people ask foreigners if they would like their food spicy or not. Having lived in Korea for years, I felt like I had been down this road before, with the assumption that any non-local would find the slightest spice unbearable. While 95% of Korean food is just slightly spicy, Thai food can sometimes destroy your mouth.
3) There Are Wild Elephants
After spending five days in Khao Yai National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), lady luck was not on my side and I didn’t happen to spot one. Nevertheless, it is one of the few places in the country where herds of this gigantic land mammal still roams without spiked chains and a cute little chair for you to ride on.
4) Gas in Whiskey Bottles
On top of gasoline stations, there are stands every couple of meters with whiskey bottles filled with petroleum. The idea is that gas stations can sometimes trick you by resetting their machines or that their gas scales are not well calibrated, so the whiskey bottle shows you that you are actually buying a liter. Another reason is convenience, as pretty much anyone can have such a stand and make a little profit.
There are a few downsides though.
For starters, you will notice that the bottles are rarely filled to the top. Also, the mark-up can sometimes be substantial and at about $5 a gallon, it quickly adds up (yeah I’m being cheap). Despite the increased price though, in places like Khao Yai National Park, there is no other choice, so you either buy it or tough luck.
5) The Buddhist Calendar is Official
Some of the more confusing things for first time visitors (like myself) to the many temples are the historical dates. Apparently, some of the temples were built in the 2100s or the 2200s. Having recently celebrated the 2557th birthday of Buddha in Korea, I was able to make the connection. I was under the mistaken impression that everyone had made the switch to the Gregorian calendar, but this made me wonder if there are other countries out there who use a completely different system?
6) It Was Once the Capital of the World
Four years ago, when I first set foot on the ancient city of Angkor, my mind was blown by the magnitude of it all. One million inhabitants in the 1200s was just phenomenal. For this reason, I assumed that Cambodia and its Khmer Empire had always been the dominant regional power. Then I discovered Ayutthaya.
During the 1500s-1700s, Ayutthaya sat in a central trading position between Europe and Islamic Kingdoms to the west and China / Japan to the east. This effectively made the city, which sits about 50 miles north of Bangkok, the economic center of the world. At its height, it could have had well over a million inhabitants making it the largest city of its time. The Dutch, Japanese, and Portuguese all set up settlements and paid tribute to this amazing city. While most of it was destroyed by the Burmese, the remains of this Ferenginar of sorts, are still one of the most impressive UNESCO World Heritage Sites I have ever seen.
7) Doraemon is Huge
I am not really a huge anime fan, but the blue robotic cat from the future fascinates me. I was amazed to find Doraemon everywhere in Thailand. From blankets, to bicycles, to cups, Doraemon is bigger here than it is in Japan!
8) The King is a Great Guy
After seeing the king’s face everywhere, I got a little curious about his actual political power (if any). I asked my Thai friend about it and mentioned that while he is very respected and many laws are in place to prosecute anyone who taints his name, he doesn’t have much direct power.
“So, kind of like the queen of the UK?” I asked.
“With all due respect, she doesn’t come close to our king!” she answered. I guess I was out of line.
Apparently, the king of of Thailand is as benevolent as a king can be. Despite being in his 90s, he works effortlessly to help the less fortunate in the country as he has done so his entire monarchy. While having no political power directly, he commands the respect, admiration, and support of all political parties as well as the current military junta. Many feel he is the supreme example to all Thais.
What are some little (and big) fun facts you have learned in other countries? I might do a similar post for Cambodia, but it is still up in the air.