I’ve recently spent four days in Thailand, the venue for our first team retreat since the back-to-normal time. There were twenty-five of us. Our itinerary included visits to Bangkok and Pattaya, with a short spin on Ko Samui. I appreciated and enjoyed the trip and think it’s worth a few words to mark it, hence this post. As the title suggests, this is not intended to be a serious account, but rather a grab bag of random memories and thoughts.
Improvise all the way
I’m putatively a planning freak, but definitely not when I’m traveling. Instead, I tend to discover new destinations by wandering. The only thing I know before the arrival? Gonna walk the heck out of it.
Bangkok thus earned from me a favorable first impression by being welcomingly walkable, at least in the areas frequented by travelers. To quote from Lonely Planet Thailand (which I sincerely recommend over the emoji-ridden “homework” posts on Xiaohongshu):
Nearly all of Bangkok’s big-hitter sights are found in the two linked neighborhoods of Ko Ratanakosin and Thonburi. Combined, they cover a relatively small area, and it’s possible to tackle most if not all sights in one (hot and sweaty) day.
But the most memorable walking experience in Bangkok wasn’t an outdoor one. Instead, it was the walking inside Buddhist architectures where a shoe-off and camera-off policy is enforced. It may sound like a hyperbole to say so, but the policy turned out to be both a detox from the touristic superficiality and a catalyst for spiritual experiences: The tactile connection between bare feet and the earth beneath brought a heightened awareness, and the surrender of phones ensured a realm of total presence and a moment of sober appreciation.
(To take a page from the Kantian aesthetic theory, photography can disturb the aesthetic experience by yielding a false sense of measurability and controllability, while the pleasure of mathematical sublime is impossible without the means of a displeasure that’s caused by realizing that, despite efforts, the imagination is insufficient to fully comprehend the grandeur before us.)
It should be noted that the walkability of Bangkok is hindered by two factors, with the first being the taxing weather. The tropical sunshine knows no rest. Even though we were technically visiting in the winter, it would become oppressively hot by 9 a.m., no less than in high summer. I remember gulping down a large jar of fruit smoothie at a streetside juice bar at 2 p.m. after an intense walking session. I didn’t feel the need to visit a bathroom until sunset.
The second problem is with the pedestrian infrastructure, which can be described as best as inconsistent. The pavement may suddenly become makeshift or nonexistent, and one can only pray not to be knocked off by motorbikes and tuk-tuks while competing for the right of way amid their cacophony.
On the brighter side, navigating Thailand proved to be a low-effort task despite unfamiliar territories and languages. Google Maps works fine, even arguably better than in the States, where it’s overwhelmed by shameless monetization. And with a growing Western crowd, English is so widely understood that one can travel the country as if it were anglophone; just look for the obligatory English translation on every sign and talk with the simplest vocabulary possible and assistive gestures.
(Mandarin, on the other hand, is hit-or-miss. It seems that most in the service sector can at least greet, tout, and offer with a repertoire of imitated syllables, but any conversation longer than two exchanges shouldn’t be expected in Mandarin-only.)
The spiritual paradox
On the shady side of Thailand’s profound exhibitions of deity, though, looms large the hedonism. It’s not news that the country’s economy is pillared by the sex trade and that dispensaries have been springing up since the gradual legalization of cannabis a couple of years ago. But it’s a completely different experience to witness them in action and in situ.
I was particularly disillusioned by the street scene in Pattaya. Instead of the tranquil and chic seaside resort I was imagining, there was an American suburban-style squalor, interspersed with modern but dull shopping complexes. The weed industry was thriving more blatantly than in Bangkok, where one dispensary can be expected for each block. Here, one often finds themselves counting the third occurrence of a green leaf signage before they see another corner.
The traditionally nocturnal economy has also become an all-day one in Pattaya. I remember walking along the main street when a random turn brought me into a nondescript alley, which turned out to be the Soi 6 passionately referred to by dudes on r/pattaya. It was only half-past four in the afternoon, but an orgy was apparently already in full swing. The bars, already huddling shoulder to shoulder, were literally swarming with skimpily dressed hookers, overflowing all the way to the center of the soi. With the risk of being sanctimonious, I’d say the scene is far better described as uncanny than arousing.
For disclosure, I’m biased as I find both of the said trades profligate as a matter of personal values: It’s my understanding that sex work, if organized and commercialized at scale, is inherently exploitative and depersonalizing, and that it’s self-derogatory to submit the mind’s ultimate control of the body to any external substance. But what’s more amusing is how the prevalent Buddhist teachings can tolerate the pursuit of bodily pleasures in its most blatant form — Isn’t the desire for impermanence a cause of dukkha?
Disposable People, a book I found when leafing through the references on Wikipedia, attempts to explain by spitballing the particularities of the Buddhist branch as practiced in Thailand. Basically, it argues that the canons have a misogynistic slant that objectifies women, rationalizes extramarital sex, and obliges those of the trade to accept their ineluctable result of karma. Without further research on this topic, I can’t be sure about how accurate the interpretation is, or it suffers from its own orientalism and patronization, but it’s definitely a sobering thought.
The legalization of cannabis, on the other hand, seems to be primarily driven by economical incentives and particularly sponsored by a former Minister of Public Health. Most Thai people did not support recreational cannabis use, according to a 2020 survey, and the government has recently decided to reverse course with a proposed new law to restrict the use to medical purposes.
I tend to stick with my morning workout schedule even while on a trip. Thus, it was a pleasant surprise to find that most hotels in Thailand have an outdoor pool, either in the courtyard or on the rooftop.
Don’t expect to complete a serious session of lap swimming in Thai hotels, though. The pools are designed for leisure, not athletic purposes; instead of swimming in a lane, you have to figure one out. Among the three hotels we have stayed in, two of them have a somewhat oval-shaped pool with idiosyncratic convexities, and the third is H-shaped, forcing the swimmer to pinball across.
This little peculiarity wouldn’t, however, disturb my devotion. Every morning during the retreat, I went to the pool at 7 a.m. and swam for an hour, a timing benefited from cool breezes, gentle sunbeams, and total solitude. It may seem a waste of time for a traveler to expend energy in the pool when there’s so much else to do out there. But travel needs not to be all about stimuli; by reducing the traveler-swimmer to monotonous movements, the pool spring-loads them for the day’s experiences ahead.
(Re)learn to be a cashier
The trickiest question before departure was… how much cash to take. There’s a frequently mentioned peculiarity that you’re required to carry a sufficient amount of baht to be allowed in, but all sources can’t agree on the exact number, with some saying 10k and others 20k. Indeed, conflicting answers can even be found on the websites of multiple embassies and consulates. (Thai government websites are competitive with Chinese counterparts in their aesthetical and technical awkwardness.)
The most unambiguous and up-to-date instructions were found on the website of Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs: 20k baht is the requirement for applying for a tourist visa, and the applicant needs only the evidence of having the fund, but not the cash; while 10k baht (or the equivalent in foreign currencies) is the amount required to be carried by a traveler from select countries to enter under either the visa-on-arrival (VOA) or the tourist visa exemption programs. The figures are further corroborated by a “Q&A” correspondence providing chucklesome justifications for the adequate-finance policy.
So, I brought with me 7k in baht and 600 in yuan (~3k baht), which was never checked for at the customs anyway.
The adoption of cashless payments has apparently improved from what was described in many online discussions from a couple of years ago. A credit card in VISA or MasterCard networks can take foreign travelers like us a long way, including swiping your way in and out of MRT stations. (I hadn’t learned about this and had a hard time fighting with the creaking ticketing machine running Windows 7.)
That said, for smaller, roadside transactions like those at food stalls and handicraft vendors, there is no Thai equivalent of the scan-and-pay QR codes provided by WeChat. It’s therefore recommended to bring a pouch for the inevitable coin influx and familiarize yourself with all kinds of coins and banknotes.
Our last team retreat took place during November 2021 in Dali, Yunnan. Looking back, we were fortunate enough to hustle the plan into reality right before the upcoming period of collective trauma. I remember listening to a newly released album one night, in which the lyrics of a song foretellingly went (unofficial translation mine):
Ever in doubt I dwell, what future adversities may swell.
Thus, I strive so. After this feast, dost thou know,
Where in the world, the stars do show?
And the rest is history. For more than a year thereafter, days in Shenzhen were tallied by covid-testing swabs, while Dali turned from a resort to a refuge for those who were tired of the insanity. Coming two years later, the notice of the reunion felt bittersweet, reminding one of the thankful resilience of the band, as well as the remorseful gap left by the scourge.
An emotional autonomy, I generally don’t seek or think much of such things as “belongingness” or “camaraderie”. I must concede, however, that it does feel nice to encounter your online coworkers in their offline — and off-duty — instantiations, at reasonable intervals. Even more so, given that the terrain beneath us did shift slightly between the two occasions, and the shared compass at times spins with a subtle uncertainty.
Wherefore, the most unexpected bonus to the trip was the nightly frivolousness with the group: the snack party across hotel rooms, the souvenir hunting around the Siam Square, and the beer tasting amid the beachside breeze. With cans popped, chips snapped, moans uttered, and gossip traded, the reassurance of fellowship abounded. Odi et amo.