Going local in Thailand

If you’ve stumbled upon my column a time or two, or perhaps used its remnants for packing materials while stowing away that box of valuables in your basement, you know I’m keen on a holiday every few months — be it Nashville or Nicaragua. I was bitten by the wanderlust bug many years ago — I’m a firm believer in travel as self-care, and that staying put in one region of our planet can foster intolerant, parochial views. After all, Mark Twain did make quite the point when he said that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” To celebrate the start of my third decade on this planet, my partner, Jamie, and I decided to check off quite the destination on our figurative bucket list when we ate and drank our way through (some of) Thailand this January. After all, you only turn 30 once (formerly YOLO, now YOTTO), why not spend it in the middle of bustling Khao San Road in Bangkok with a searing hot bowl of street noodles in one hand and a 40-ounce Chang lager in the other? My most cherished boozy moments from the Land of Smiles often included both these indulgences.

One thing we learned very quickly in Thailand is that practically anything goes. It’s a culture of extremes, from the looming, ornate Buddhist temples that rise between modern, glistening towers, to the respect that must be paid to Buddha, to the odors and distinct flavors permeating the air from just a humble wok in a street stall, to the nightlife that some might argue transcends Miami’s or New York City’s. Can you purchase a Singha and meander down any street drinking it while perusing the wares of local artisans for souvenirs? Certainly, and the attendant at the 7-Eleven will ask if you’d like it cracked open for you, as well. Walking beers clearly became a staple throughout our travels. Can you buy a bottle of SangSom (a popular Thai rum distilled from sugarcane) and pour it into your fresh mango shake procured from a street vendor while getting a foot massage for 200 baht (a little over $6, mind you) at 1 a.m.? Please, do. Might you dine on the delicacy of a scorpion on a stick, while being offered a balloon of nitrous oxide? Could you potentially be drinking a daiquiri in sheer disbelief as you watch a woman shoot ping pong balls out of her vagina? Hypothetically, of course. Anything goes.

Perhaps the best luck a traveler can stumble upon is a welcoming local willing to show you the way or, at the very least, provide some worthy tips for an organic experience in their town. On our way to Bangkok from Chicago, we landed ourselves in Hong Kong for the night due to flight delays. While being dealt the details for our hotel accommodations from the airline in HK, Jamie noticed a lad in a UofL T-shirt amongst the displaced. We soon discovered our new friend, Alec, was from Kentucky, had lived in Louisville and now lives in Bangkok with his fiancée.

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Alec and Jane were kind enough to invite us out to dinner in Bangkok, which led us to a seafood restaurant on the rooftop of a guest house, with sprawling views of the Chao Praya River that we certainly would have never found (a wild tuk-tuk ride down dark, swirling alleyways and Alec’s precise directions still had us wondering if we were in the right place). While at what seemed to be a Bangkok best kept secret, River Vibe, we sampled local craft beers including a crisp Cha La Wan pale ale, had some whiskey and essentially trusted Alec and Jane to order food for the table. They didn’t let us down, and we meandered onto a nightcap at one of their favorite hole-in-the-wall bars in Bangkok, The Overstay. Our visit to The Overstay, reminiscent of a Thai hostel’s version of Third Street Dive, led to far more than a nightcap as we shared a plethora of beers, shots of Thai rum and quite a few wild stories from its ex-pat owner.

We stumbled back to our guest house around 2 a.m. (with complete situational awareness, of course) in awe of what we felt was our truly local Bangkok night, and I was reminded of how much I love to do the same for travelers that come to Derby City. If I can help map out a local, special experience for an out-of-towner, I can only hope that they’ll see the heart of our town in their travels. How fortunate were we, to have found some of that Louisville love in Thailand to show us the way?

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