Last Fling: A Week in Thailand

When you’re about to be unemployed, and have an already-mostly-paid-for (nonrefundable) trip to Thailand in your pocket, you go. Or that’s what we did, anyway. It’s a four-time-zone trip from Riyadh. After we go home, it’s an other-side-of-the-world trip. No-brainer.

People go to Thailand for a variety of reasons. I’m quite sure the 75% unaccompanied male population of our flight from Doha to Phuket were going for a different reason than I was. (Claim to be religious, do you? For shame.) But I think we managed to hit most of the others:

  • stunning beaches
  • unmatched hospitality
  • fabulous food
  • exotic experiences
  • pinch-yourself sights

Okay, so the beaches are a gimme:

Beach at Khao Lak, Thailand Pina colada, Khao Lak, ThailandWe were in Khao Lak, north of the Phuket, for the first few days. We were there for a detox, decompression trip, and the quiet vibe there—families, couples, older folks—was just what the doctor ordered. I was there to feed off of happy people:

Toddler on the beach, Khao Lak, Thailand

Toddler on the beach

Family at sunset, Khao Lak, Thailand

Family at sunset

A decade ago, a tsunami consumed everyone and everything in its way here, leaving this police boat stranded far inland.

Boat left inland by the tsunami, Khao Lak, Thailand

Boat left inland by the tsunami

But that’s the only sign you’ll see now. As Ann, our cooking instructor (ahead) told us, Thai people aren’t big for remembrances and memorials and looking backward. They want to be happy. So seeing simple joys on the beach, one drop of joy at a time replacing a flood of tragedy, was extra moving to me. This mother and daughter, for example:

Mother and daughter in the waves, Khao Lak, Thailand

Mother and daughter in the waves

For more than an hour, they held hands and waited for incoming waves to knock them over so they could come up laughing. This mother of the year wasn’t being self-sacrificing; she just loved doing what her daughter wanted to do. Life is good.

The hospitality is harder to take a picture of. It feels kinda awkward to say, “Can you reenact that warm greeting so I can take a picture of it?” So I’ll settle for this:

Elephant Towel Art

Towel Art a la Elephant

Which only tells part of the story. I mean, those are some mad towel-folding skills, but now check this:

Still Life, Dog Towel with Glasses

Still Life, Dog Towel with Glasses

Yeah, those are the Beloved’s glasses. We’ve gone beyond having people make the bed to getting the sense that they purely enjoy having us there. Then there were the ladies giving massages on the beach (1 hour, $15), who took one look at my nails and said, “Manicure? Pedicure?” ($12 total), then laughed when the Beloved accidentally dragged our bag across the wet nails so that they had to do one hand again, swatting at him and scolding him and laughing more. The beach shack restaurant owners, so excited to share their food with us (MaMa’s, best masaman curry around).

Which brings us to the food. Much easier to capture:

Tom Ka Gai soup

Tom Ka Gai soup, made with my own hands

We both LOVE Thai food. The complexity of the flavors, the freshness of the ingredients, the variety… oh, my. So when Trip Advisor tipped us off on a private cooking class, had to do it.

Thai Cooking Class with Ann

With Ann, at her Thai cooking class

Ann (her Facebook page is here) took us shopping first at the Khao Lak market, where I swear I recognized only half of what I saw there.

Vegetables at the Khao Lak Market, Thailand

Vegetables, vegetables

Chilis at the Khao Lak Market, Thailand

Chilis, and more chilis

Dog at the Khao Lak Market, Thailand

Market dog

Curry vendor at the Khao Lak Market, Thailand

The curry vendor

My takeaway? Suddenly the American diet looks impossibly boring. Apples, oranges, bananas. Green beans. Lettuce. You wanna guess what the greens on the left are?

Morning glory stems and duck curry

Morning glory stems and duck curry

Okay, so the caption gives it away, but seriously–morning glory stems. They’re delicious. I am clearly not taking advantage of all the resources available to me. It’s time to mix things up a little more. And thanks to Ann, I feel better equipped to do it. (She travels, as well, and teaches when she’s traveling–follow her Facebook page to see if she’s in your area.)

In Bangkok, where we finished the trip, we dove into the street food.

Street food, Bangkok

Suppertime on the street, Bangkok

Mango sticky rice, Bangkok

Yes, a disproportionate portion of our diet was made up of mango sticky rice.

Noodle man, Bangkok

Noodle man, Bangkok

Kebab street food, Bangkok

Kebab on the street

Street food dining table, Bangkok

Restaurant table along the street

Cooking salt crusted fish along the street, Bangkok

Cooking salt crusted fish along the street, with goggles and a hood

We learned that most Bangkok flats come without kitchens, and in the interest of minimizing fire risk and troublesome cooking odors, people are not allowed to cook at home. The public dining room is along the street, so street food is excellent and everywhere. And you can buy even the most incidental thing you might want to eat, the same way you’d pull something out of the fridge at home–a single piece of fruit, a cooked egg, a baggie of broth and vegetables. Our guide in Bangkok, wanting to be sure we were well taken care of, kept asking, “Are you hungry? Do you want a piece of fruit?” Yeah, that’s how people live in a place where wonderful fresh local things are available all year round.

Then, of course, there are the exotic experiences.

Bridge over the River Kwai, Thailand

The modern bridge over the River Kwai

The picture may not look like anything special, but that’s the bridge over the River Kwai. (The modern version–the original was bombed during the war.) If you get there, spend time in the prisoner of war cemetery, too.

Prisoner of War Cemetery along the River Kwai, Thailand

Prisoner of War Cemetery along the River Kwai, Thailand

Headstone, Prisoner of War Cemetery along the River Kwai, Thailand

Headstone, Prisoner of War Cemetery along the River Kwai, Thailand

If that wasn’t surreal enough, that was followed by this moment:

At the Tiger Temple, Thailand

Chilla with a baby tiger, Tiger Temple, Thailand

Yup, that’s a real tiger, no stuffing, no photoshop. I’m VERY ambivalent about this. The Tiger Temple started when a orphaned baby tiger was brought to a group of Buddhist monks decades ago. One thing led to another, and there were 141 tigers there as of the time we saw it. Endangered Asian tigers, treated as a sideshow attraction. In response to international outcry, the Tiger Temple was due to be shut down the day after we were there, but received a temporary stay of execution. The problem is that there’s no good solution–this extremely unnatural life is the only one these tigers have known, and they have nowhere else to go. They’re healthy, with normal life spans, and seem quite at ease in the life they have. Should they be having this life in the first place? Now that I’ve seen it myself, I can unequivocally say no. But the ones who are already here? Eesh. That’s a tough one. Just closing it is not the answer.

I’m less worried about the elephants, though:

Elephant bathing

Elephant bathing

Yeah, these elephants have it way easier than their grandparents, who spent their lives hauling logs. I’m glad to have done it, but I’m not sorry that I’ll probably have access to only horses and bicycles in the future. Elephants are uncomfortable, especially when you’re sitting on the shoulder blades, trying to not get pitched off when one side goes up, then the other side goes up. And holding awkwardly onto the rope behind you because it seems like a l-o-n-g way down when you’re up there.

This, however, is not put on for the tourists:

The train market outside Bangkok, Thailand

The train market at Maeklong Station

This is known as the Train Market, at the Maeklong Station at the edge of Bangkok. The nearby market area was overgrowing the available space when somebody got the genius idea of setting up shop on the tracks. I mean, the station is right there, so the train is going super slow, and it doesn’t come by all that often, so…why not? The full width of the train reaches from building to building, so when it approaches, people fold back their awnings, pull in their tables, leave the items you see on the ground beside the track for the train to pass over them, and then pop everything back up again. Easy peasy.

Fishmonger at the Train Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Fishmonger at the Train Market

Fruits and vegetables at the Train Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Fruits and vegetables at the Train Market

Market stalls at the Train Market ready for the train to pass, Bangkok, Thailand

Market stalls at the Train Market folded up and ready for the train to pass (the train will pass over goods on the ground).

Honest. Everything was back in place within a minute.

And then there are the moments when you pinch yourself and make sure you’re really there.

Fruit seller at the floating market, Thailand

Fruit seller at the floating market

Noodle vendor at the floating market, Thailand

Noodle vendor at the floating market

Elephant along the road, Thailand

Elephant along the road

Buddhist monks along a temple staircase, Thailand

Buddhist monks along a temple staircase

Child at Sunset, Khao Lak, Thailand

Child at Sunset, Khao Lak, Thailand

Ann’s take on the Thai way is a good one for me to keep in mind right now as our Saudi departure date comes careening toward us. Look forward, and be happy. Life’s good.

10 thoughts on “Last Fling: A Week in Thailand

  1. 59steps says:

    My wife and I have been coming to Thailand for more than 30 years. The first time, as in your case, was from Saudi. It never disappoints.

    Sorry to hear that your spell in KSA is coming to an end. I can relate to everything you said in your previous post about your husband’s experiences. It can be difficult, even though you know that as a foreigner, and especially as a consultant, you are there to offer help and advice and smile gracefully if it is not accepted. Your instincts sometimes tell you otherwise.

    But not all assignments are like that, and perhaps an opportunity for another stint will come up, as it did for me – more than 20 years after the end of the last one in my case!

    For all its problems, blemishes and frustrations, I loved the country then and I still do now. Perhaps it will be the same for you.


    • margocatts says:

      Thank you for your kind words. I have a completely baseless, irrational sense that we’ll be back. Maybe it’s just self-comfort as we’re being sent off so suddenly. But yes, we would welcome the opportunity to return in another capacity. This place has a deep hold on my heart.


  2. drjohnread57 says:

    Margo, for me the alarm bells ring, some good, you have made a wonderful contribution to Expat reflection on life here in the Kingdom and thank you. And your note above about American food looks boring is the thin end of the transition back experience, life itself can look very boring, unless you plan for it to be otherwise. I never like the term either, going back, sorry nothing will take me back anywhere, I look forward, move ahead and sure don’t mind visiting places I’ve been before, but they’ve changed and so I have. So I don’t look forward to going back(wards) at any time. I plan to do be new, show the world I am new, and expect them to be new too. And if they aren’t, well I’ll have fun raising my eyebrows at the monkeys in their cages…metaphorically speaking.
    Transition is fraught with danger, better don’t transition but plan to go ahead. And go ahead with your plans…ha ha ha. Discovery, adventure and wanderlust are great things that help keep us young, vital and challenged. Never say die!
    So…Margot please keep posting but surely not about your backwards experiences…oh and who says this is your last fling in Thailand, why should that be so?
    You know your shift in ‘voice’ from the old posts to this one is palpable…I hope the rest of your experiences are go ahead one’s like this. OH and kudos for your husband the financier of all this frivolity.


    • margocatts says:

      No worries! I’m old enough, and have moved enough, to understand that all that’s ahead is an adventure I don’t know about yet. However, I would be unsurprised if in my husband’s line of work the best opportunity at some future point would be here again, meeting new people, carving out a new life. Meanwhile, yes, I’ll keep writing. I remain a foreigner in all kinds of settings–as we all do–and look forward to seeing what there is to discover through those eyes. Thank you for your wonderful conversation through this journey. I look forward to keeping in touch.


  3. Laura says:

    I discovered your blog shortly after my husband interviewed for a job in KSA and I launched into a research project to learn as much as I could about the lives of the ladies who move there! I can’t tell you how much I looked forward to updates, and I’m sad to learn that your time is up. I hope that your next transition goes smoothly! (I’ve also lived in Thailand and you guys did an excellent job with your itinerary! The morning glory dish is one that I miss the most, though my pad thai is coming along nicely)


  4. vinneve says:

    Hi I love Bangkok too and been there many times last time was a year ago with my son. One of the reason i got interested in your blog is because of KSA. I heard lots of people say that there is something in KSA that hold them dear and some call it “Home”. Perhaps it’s the money but perhaps it is more than that?


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