Thailand is an ex-boyfriend I just can’t get over. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t get him off my mind. “I think of the things we used to do and my whole world turns misty blue.”
I still remember the first time we met; touching down in Bangkok was like a dream; the sticky air enveloped me as soon as I stepped out into the bright night, and I found it difficult to breath; it was like being in a chaotic sauna. It wasn’t love at first sight; I recall pleading with the night guard at our guest house to use the phone to call my mom. He rubbed his eyes, and shook his head, while his four-legged companion barked away behind the counter. That night I did manage to reach my mom, and between choked back tears, I realized I was on my own. This wasn’t summer camp on the Island — it was a summer in Southeast Asia.
Over the next month, I fell in love with a place that I thought I would never understand. I was enamored by the beauty of the land — the ornate temples, silver beaches, bustling markets, and rugged forests — and the generosity of the locals. Even when my traveling partner abandoned me for a week on the beach, I hardly felt lonely. In fact, I befriended a sarong seller, and promised to return to Thailand within five years. Somehow I felt at ease in a world where there were so many unknowns. And when I left Thailand a quiet sadness came over me. I was no longer crying over the receiver because I was unsure how I would manage on my own, but because I was returning to a place so familiar — a place I was out growing.
I kept my promise to the sarong seller. When I was 21 I embarked on an exchange at a university just outside of Bangkok. Actually, Thailand was my second choice; I was hoping to go to Indonesia on a language exchange program. However, that didn’t pan out, so I was Thailand bound. The transition went remarkably smooth. I had a Thai friend over there who just happened to be looking for a roommate. We moved in together, and I had a group of instant friends! It was meant to be.
This time I fell hopelessly in love. I never met the sarong seller again, but I started getting to really know Thailand. The language that I once thought was impossible was now starting to roll off my tongue. I wore my school uniform with pride, and felt more comfortable chatting over a bowl of noodles with Thai friends than drinking with other exchange students. My weekends were spent studying by the pond, swimming in the campus pool, and visiting temples. When I did make a love connection, my world expanded as I discovered the many layers of Bangkok and Thai life.
Worst Breakup Ever
Leaving Thailand after my exchange was the worst breakup I’ve ever experienced…EVER. After a year as an international student, I was leaving a world that warmly embraced me and at the same time gave me independence. At the airport, all the faces that had come to mean so much to me were waiting to send me off with letters and hugs. As I moved through customs and converted my last baht to a foreign currency, I knew that I had also changed. Once on the runway, I had to fight the urge to fling off my seat belt and run off the plane. Instead of running, I cried all the way to Seoul, and then slept the rest of the way ‘home.’ While at ‘home’ for a little over a year, Thailand was always in my background; I wrote my final thesis on Thai lady-boys, took Thai lessons, experimented with Thai food, and dated a Thai guy. Thailand and I had shared a lot of firsts, and I wanted to continue the history.
In 2004, we were reunited. This time touching down in Bangkok felt like returning home. A Thai uni friend picked me up at the airport, and I spent my first few days and nights reliving my university days. For a brief period, I tricked myself into believing that I was a student again, but then reality hit. We were taking our relationship to a new level.
Over the next six years, my classmates and dearest friends, who had held my hand and introduced me to Thailand, started travelling abroad to continue their studies. I was striking out on my own and living in two different worlds — the expat world and the Thai world. Bangkok is a melting pot of contradictions, and as an oxymoron, I felt right at home. My Thai friends used to say, with equal parts admiration and disdain, that I was so (too) suphap (polite), and more Thai than falang (foreign). Funny enough, it was standing up for what I believed was right (in a not so Thai and suphap way) that spearheaded my job hunts more than once.
For the most part, I felt at ease navigating my life in Thailand, and through our ups and downs leaving never crossed my mind. Even after such a long time together, I looked at life everyday with fresh eyes. On my long bus rides to and from work, I kept my eyes and ears open to witness the vendors selling jasmine garlands, and my colleagues discussing office gossip. I never tired of mundane Thai chit-chat.
Farewell, My love
“If you love someone, set them free. If they come back they’re yours; if they don’t they never were.”
In 2010, I decided it was time to return to my home country. At the time, the little things were getting to me — the long commute, the falang treatment, the flashy malls –, so I thought I’d give the west a try. It wasn’t an easy decision, but somehow after postponing my flight ‘home’ several times and a meditation retreat in the mountains, I felt at peace and a bit excited …..maybe it was because I thought I had found a new love. That new love was no replacement though, and I couldn’t get my mind off Thailand, even though part of me felt I should forget. I wasn’t glad we were through.
Last year I made two trips to Thailand, and contemplated getting back together, and in May I went back for a wedding, and started planning our reunion, right down to home decor! Needless to say, I am still in Victoria, but rather than trying to forget, I am trying to slowly rekindle the fire.
Thailand, you’ll always have a place in my heart. “Oh honey, just the mention of your name turns that flicker to a flame.”