Same Same, But Different
It’s been 11 1/2 years since I first visited, and just over 10 years since I was last in Thailand, but I have been longing to return ever since I left. I imagine it will be same same, but different.
I chose this to be the title for several reasons. This phrase is something Thai people say quite often in Thai style English. In fact, in the immaculate and cab from the airport that smelled sweetly of the Buddhist flower offerings hanging on the rearview mirror, when the cab driver asked my name and I said Elizabeth, he replied with, “Same same Queen Elizabeth.” For me, returning anywhere after not having been there for 10 years it’s bound to be same same, but different.
I’m 10 years older and in a different phase of life. In 2000 before I left I had been living in Oakland, CA and teaching English as a Second Language. Now in 2011, I was living in Portland, OR with house, garden, and dog. I have a Masters degree and 6 years of teaching elementary school under my belt, but I’d like to return to teaching ESL. That in itself is same same, but different.
The things I’m looking forward to: amazing fruit and vegetarian Thai food, kind people, beautiful land, hot weather, Buddhist wats (temples) and culture, and monks everywhere, and both art and nature designs that make my heart sing. Thankfully, I’d imagine those will be the same. So far they are.
What’s different is I will be working here, I will not be a tourist…but first I will need to find a job and a place to live. Now I’m a lot more interested in connecting with Thai people than tourists. This means I need to learn a lot more than nit noy (a little) Thai quickly.
So far I’ve been here 4 days. In that time, the backpacker scene on Khao San Rd. was the same madness I remember. It is no accident that KhaoSan looks a lot like the word chaos. Wat Po was still just incredible. Thai massages are still cheap and wonderful, but a new thing are these “fish spas”, (picture to come) which I have not tried yet. I had the same intense urge to get out of Bangkok after about 2 days. I took the night train up to Chiang Mai, which was still comfortable and felt safe.
Now I’m up in Chiang Mai. My oh my do I love Chiang Mai! It’s a big city, but there is a lot of green scenery, it’s surrounded by lovely Thai countryside, wats are everywhere, there is art, culture, delicious vegetarian food, and I could go mad with all the beautiful clothes, jewelry, and decorations one can buy here. It has tons of tourists, but there are many reasons why.
I was pleased when I arrived in Chiang Mai that some of the things I remembered were still there: guesthouses I had stayed in, amazing and cheap vegetarian restaurants everywhere, the art supply shop, the Night Market with all its shopping temptations, and the place where I took my cooking class – Baan Thai.
There is always a danger of returning to a place you loved years later, things will have changed, and you might not feel the same about them. That much I knew, but this morning I got a change that I did not expect.
When I was here in 2001 I became friends with Khun Maew, the lovely Thai woman who taught my cooking class at Baan Thai (Thai house). I was in massage school and stayed at the guesthouse across the street from Baan Thai for about a month. The day after my cooking class it was raining really hard and Khun Maew appeared and said, “You want umbrella? You take as long you want, I know you bring back.” Then in the days that followed we started talking about family, future plans, love life, etc. After I returned to San Francisco I e-mailed her once to thank her for her class and that I had successfully made a delicious Thai meal. She replied with a humble, “You’re welcome, it’s my job.”
I know it had been 10 years and she sees thousands of tourists a year, but I looked forward to seeing her again. This morning when I went to Baan Thai, the Thai woman who greeted me thought I was in the cooking class for the day. I told her I had come to say hi to Khun Maew. She gave me a look and pointed to a painting of a woman hanging on the wall and said, “Khun Maew dead already.” I was shocked and saddened to hear this and started tearing up. I said, “How? She wasn’t even that old!” The woman proceeded, “She have cancer, she die 37 years old.” Damn you cancer!
Khun Maew, I dedicate this writing to you. To me you represent the kindness, generosity, and spirit of the people of Thailand. The genuine friendliness of the people of Thailand is one of the many reasons I returned. Still after visiting over 30 countries in my life that Thailand is still my favorite country in the world. On that note, a gecko with a mouthful just scurried by on the wall next to me. I just overheard the waiter say to a man at the table near mine, “Same same, but different.”
I am leaving now to do a 10-day Vipassana Meditation retreat outside Chiang Mai. I’m sure it will be difficult, but ultimately a positive experience and possibly even life changing.
Khup khun khaa Khun Maew. Khap khun maak khaa prathet Thai. Thank you very much Thailand. I’m so glad to be back. I know you will continue to be same same, but different.