Day 1, Friday 9th September
8 PM. Lifting a stomach filled with a bucketful of rice and fried chicken, I trudge down the hallway towards the plane. My bag hangs on my back, heavy with unstudied material for next week’s Psychology test. I promise to do some revision during the flight. I don’t.
Two and a half hours pass by without much notice, consumed mainly by sleep interspersed with videos on my brother’s phone and Math questions from my sister. The queue at the Bangkok customs is horrendous. I try to help myself feel less guilty by telling my siblings about some cool Psychology facts that are completely (mostly) irrelevant to my upcoming test.
Eventually, we make it through (we are a large group as my mother’s entire company and their families are on the trip) and the first thing that catches my attention is the text of the Thai language, painted with delicate precision upon logos and signs. There has always been something mystical about written Thai to me. It has a distinct air which separates it from Latinate forms in English and the 字characters presented in Chinese and Japanese; my three languages. An almost alien feel.
Being the gluttonous family that we are, it doesn’t take long for my sister and I to identify the aroma of frying eggs wafting from the street across the hotel, and that’s all the stimulus my mother requires to herd us out of our comfortable room at midnight in search of toothsome delights. The street is dark and warm, the wind passive. I remember passing a sign with the words Wa Chocette or something of the sort.
The first stalls we come to boast colourful banners as menus, each dish adorned with an English name at the bottom. Phew. They serve food akin to traditional Chinese hawker fare, coupled with local specialties such as pad thai. In Singapore we would call them zi char stalls. A group of Chinese tourists occupy one of the tables, visibly enjoying themselves: a good sign when trying street food.
We wander down further and find another stall selling a traditional Thai desert: sticky rice paired with mango slices and coconut milk. My mother buys a packet, just as my sister whispers to me that she saw the storeowner drop a coin into the pile of rice and pick it up like nothing happened. I shrug. I’ve had worse.
Returning to the first stall, we are joined by another family from my mother’s company, and she orders a plate of prawn fried rice and a bowl of kway teow in soup. The fried rice is an amazingly crafted donut of flavour, with the outer ring delicious enough to elicit delightful ‘Mmm!’s but the innards disappointingly bland in comparison. The kway teow soup is infested with vegetables, to the extent that every drip is saturated with olive green in both colour and flavour. I quickly finish my bowl with as little contact with the soup as possible and dig into the packet of sticky rice. It is love at first bite.
While we dig in, a family of rats squeal and scamper in the shadows of shut-down stalls behind us, darting amidst the iron legs of tables whose tops are covered in tarp. A slight discomfort settles in my heart. At first, I consider it to be the result of the scene. Was it my privileged self rejecting the black-stained chairs, the tainted cutlery, the thrash-filled gutter in the corner? My mind returns to the image of my younger self (7-14 years old), a time when I could have been considered a veritable ‘spoiled brat’. I remember back then, I had difficulty even looking directly at dirt stains, and knowing that there was something unclean in my environment, though out of sight, was more than sufficient to cause discomfort.
But I had long grown past being that baby. That I know. Frequent trips to my mother’s hometown of Batu Pahat in adolescence, which essentially made Malaysia my second home, in addition to other overseas experiences plus service in the army had made sure of that. Yet, I am still far from perfect, and I reprimand myself for allowing that seed of discomfort to bloom and being unable to fully (no holds barred) accept the environment I had arrived in. But the discomfort of the scene is only a mere part of the restlessness in my heart. There is something else, a jarring sense of alienation. It is odd because I normally do not feel this way when travelling.
I watch as my mother communicates with the storeowner. Barely. And I wonder how I would fare alone in a land of whose language I had no knowledge of. A dash strikes across my dreams of wanderlust, bronze-tinted trains and roads with no end. A rucksack, a map and nothing else. I tell myself to try and travel alone more often in the future. Especially to places with languages I cannot speak.
And with that half-promise in hand, I return to the hotel under the fluorescent glares of street lamps. As I walk, the screen of a telephone-like machine flashes blue through a curtain of tarp. It is 2 AM.
And I am in Thailand.