I descended into Thai airspace with thoughts of politics roiling in my mind. Thailand, the Land of Smiles as it is called, for its people’s cheery demeanor, was in turmoil. Seemingly overnight the military had staged a coup, overthrowing the government, and dissolving the country’s elected bodies. I was landing in a place of martial law and policed action. Protests and unrest. I didn’t expect to find many Thais smiling anymore.
I was surprised when I stood in the cavernous expanse of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport and all was calm. No soldiers. No checkpoints. No men with guns or riot shields. I had braced myself. I had been warned that I was surely dooming my travels by stepping into a world of demonstrations and tear gas. A place on the brink of collapse and violence.
As I traveled north, away from the capital I gradually felt more at ease. Looking out a bus window just outside Chiang Mai I finally spotted my first Thai soldier. Holding his helmet in his hands he sat reclined in a red plastic chair along the side of the road. Sitting in the shade cast by a tiny guard post he looked lazy and tired in the heat. Repelling resistance to his superior’s coup d’etat did not look as though it were on today’s agenda.
During the staff training for my new summer job my boss addressed the issue.
“Do you feel unsafe?” He asked, spreading his arms, presenting the panoramic Thai landscape of rice patty and jungle behind him.
Without hesitation we all answered with an enthusiastic, “No!”
Later, we all took a trip to the market in town for dinner and drinks. Walking along side a local staff member named Vong I got nervous as I stole a glance at my watch.
“Will we be back at the rice fields before the curfew?” I asked.
The Thai military had imposed a nationwide curfew on the country, forcing everyone off the streets at night. Talk from Bangkok had the time being pushed later and later as restrictions eased but this was the latest we’d been out. The hour was gradually reaching the midnight limit and we still had a drive back to the base.
Vong shrugged his shoulders as if martial law were a trivial thing.
“Yes, maybe.” He answered. “We have to dance first!” He nodded towards a stage where live music reverberated from. I skeptically looked at the stage and then at my watch again.
Sensing my hesitation he clapped me on the back.
“We will be back!” He said in reassurance. “Don’t worry, Thailand is still a safe country.”
He patted my arm, “Thai people love falang!” He added, giving my Caucasian skin a poke. He dropped a pair of bright green knock off Ray Ban sunglasses over his face and smiled through his teeth. He gestured towards the stage again where our coworkers, locals and falang, foreigners alike were dancing and socializing.
Later, I climbed aboard a songthaew, the open air truck transportation that would take us back to the rice fields. My worries had evaporated with the night. Lost in socializing, I got closer with my coworkers and had felt safe and comfortable with the handful of locals that had unknowingly earned my trust.
As the songthaew pulled away I hung off the back and gripped the handrail. Just as we began to move Vong jumped up to stand and ride along beside me.
“Justin!” He yelled as we picked up speed. “I’m stoked to be the songthaew for you!”
I laughed, trying to imagine what he was trying to say.
Sensing my confusion he defined his new word, “Stoked! Very…like…excited.”
I laughed again, more for the fact that he was using the word than the way with which he stumbled over its pronunciation.
“I’m stoked to be on the songthaew with you.” I corrected him.
He nodded. “Yeah! Yeah!” he smiled, sticking his tongue through his teeth again.
His eyes lit up as another songthaew approached. Leaning out the back he waved one arm in the air.
“Stoked!” he yelled, waving his arm out at the passengers.
As we rode through the night and the streets of Udon Thani whizzed beneath me I couldn’t help but consider how lucky I’ve been in my travels. I have stayed safe and out of harms way through all of my adventures with only a few minor hiccups. Was this something frequent travelers take for granted? Or did I just happen to be doing it right? I only knew that life would be a lot more dull if I had hid in my suburban American room, afraid to venture out. Afraid to take a little risk, afraid to meet all the Vongs in this world.
Pulling into the rice fields me and Vong hopped off of the back of the songthaew. As we were about to part and head to our separate rooms he clapped me on the back again.
“Justin.” he said in a stern voice. “I’m so stoked to be in Thailand with you.”
With that, he raised one hand, and with a gesture that would make any California surfer proud he extended his pinky and thumb and rotated his wrist back and forth.
Unable to keep a straight face anymore he smiled. Bigger than I’d seen him smile all night. Poking his tongue through his teeth.
I could only laugh and smile back.
“I’m stoked to be in Thailand with you too, Vong.”