We arrived in Bangkok via a long walk, a taxi, three airplanes, and a train into the heart of this sprawling Asian capital. My friend Mark picked us up accompanied by his girlfriend, Meiw. Mark works for the U.S. State Department traveling around Asia assessing aid programs and deciding who gets grants from the huge USAID budget. He came to Thailand almost three years ago after a two-year stint in Mongolia, also doing aid work. And after five days in Bangkok, we came to see why he loved this place so much.
Mark, Meiw, Jenny, and I walk into a bar. As my eyes adjust to the light I realize that I am surrounded by 30-40 of the absolute most beautiful women I have ever seen in my life. I had heard that Thai women were gorgeous, but this was ridiculous. It defied the laws of physics, biochemistry, and statistics. They are flirty and smiley and I can feel that weird, pleasant sensation in the pit of my stomach. And then Mark drops the bomb.
“Brett, they're all dudes.”
“Huh? No way.”
“Yep, every single one. They're called ladyboys”
It's not possible. Okay, yes, I like athletic looking women, but these (wo)men have a sublime, lithe beauty that is anything but masculine. They are not cut or muscular or toned. They are just – beautiful.
My head is spinning and I feel all weird inside. I'm about as open as they come about my sexuality, but somehow I feel confused and weird and guilty and... I don't know – it's just strange. My heart goes out to these guys who feel compelled to drastically alter what nature has given them. But in some way I feel better knowing that, at least in Thailand, they are free to live life as they see fit. Another part of the world puzzle clicks into place.
So I have always thought of poverty as a lack of adequate money to fulfill one's basic needs. But we are discovering on this trip that poverty can take many forms. Southeast Asia is full of local officials who have become rich off of corruption and bribery, but who are educationally poor. We have encountered farmers who have plenty to eat, and a roof over their head, but who could not pay for a doctors visit no matter how urgent or necessary. One could easily argue that many of our peers in America are spiritually poor, given the pervasive nature of gods, karma, and puja rituals we have experienced here in Asia. And what of the joy of living every day just to live? I am a perfect example of one who has wealth, shelter, friends, family, and a bright future – but who thinks too much about what may come to pass some day. What I should be doing. What my future might hold. A poverty of peace? I have met more happy people who have nothing. But I am getting ahead of myself...
Post-festival we moved on and finally found the peace we had been looking for in Pai. We felt like we were on the verge of imploding. Jenny had given the ultimatum. We stop for two weeks. Daily naps, writing, yoga, running, and chess games served to keep us busy during week one. But after about five days, Brett was getting fidgety and feeling like we were wasting time. Week two we moved about 4 km outside of (the already sleepy) town to an organic farm/fish pond and decided that we had found heaven on earth. Morning breakfast of home-made, organic muesli (over 32 ingredients including popcorn and pumpkin chips!), “good morning juice”, and “love tea” started each glorious day. Indeed, the menu stated that the food was made with “110% love”, and you could taste it in every bite (one morning Orn, the owner/chef told me she was upping my dosage to 120%). Brett settled in and began to enjoy this slower-paced life. And Jenny was getting her mojo back.
But vying for the highlight of northern Thailand was our day playing with our 13-year-old elephant. You really have to see the pictures to understand how much fun we had. After a bareback stroll through the local hills we lumbered down to the water and played. And played. And played. We got sprayed, we played bucking elephant, we got tossed into the river, and we laughed and laughed and laughed. Brett is not much of an animal person, but he fell in love with these gentle giants. Did you know that elephants live to be a hundred years old? Did you know that they are pregnant for over two years!? If we ever settle somewhere for long enough, I now know what kind of pet I want...
We waved goodbye to Orn and Run at Bueng Farm and boarded a bus heading east towards the mighty Mekong River and the mysterious country of Laos. We thought we were leaving the “land of smiles”, but little did we know that we were about to meet the nicest, friendliest, happiest people on planet Earth.