As an unexpected consequence of my career and family life, a few dream destinations of mine have turned into near second homes. Take Paris for example. I grew up thinking of the City of Lights as a distant and almost mythical place. At fifteen I went there for the first time and spent most of the week-end gaping at the sights with my mouth hung open. Now however, it's not special at all. A few of my most cherished friends live there, I enjoy visiting them and do so as much as I can. But it's just a place, and Paris-Nord is only one stop on Northern Europe's superb transportation network, only two hours from my front door and not that much more interesting than Bourse, a metro station in central Brussels near a couple of very fine Asian restaurants.
I feel almost the same about San Francisco and Vancouver. I remember hours spent in the family car going who knows where, listening to Maxime Le Forestier or Véronique Sanson singing about the charms of these two cities, and to me they seemed supernaturally awesome. Granted, that was from a cramped backseat I was stuck on for hours on end, but even arriving in a very comfy airliner my first sights of both cities were rare treats.
Now, however, I go to these places often enough that I reach them without feeling any excitement of discovery. I'm still extremely happy to go there, but simply to bask in the city's ambience, as one enjoys a walk in a well-known park. I love idling through Yerba Buena cultural center, or crawling through Mission for the best burrito, or gazing at the Pacific from Canada place or Stanley Park… not because these are strange and dreamy places, although that's certainly the case, but in the same way I still enjoy walking around Brussels' Abbaye de la Cambre or the charmingly seedy Rue du Midi.
To this list of once-mythical places turned mundane, I'd tentatively add Bangkok. As I landed at Suvarnabhumi airport, my thoughts turned to a small fast food stall next to the 2nd floor Starbucks which serves fiery hot Som Tam and creamy Thai iced tea. I really hate sounding blasé, but it seems fair to say that when your excitement about arriving somewhere comes mostly from airport food, you've grown somewhat past the wondrous initial culture shock.
For the moment though, standing between me and that much desired papaya goodness was the forbidding crowd at immigration control. Apparently a huge number of people want to spend new year's eve in Thailand, and the queue was absolutely ridiculous, fully blanketing the humongous immigration hall. I aimed for a marginally sparser part of the crowd, but still the pace was glacial. Every ten minutes or so we'd walk a single step forward. Thai immigration is as efficient as can be. When I eventually got to the counter, the immigration officer took my passport and arrival card, checked them, stamped them and wished me a pleasant stay, all in about 20 seconds. There were dozens of immigration clerks and they all seemed diligent and efficient, but the crowd was so ridiculously massive that they could barely keep up. The whole thing had taken 90 minutes.
I rejoined Glenn and Julie and we went for a bite. Feeling reckless, I eagerly ordered my favorite Thai dish: extra-spicy green papaya salad or Som Tam. Huge mistake. I've had it many times in Thailand and when acclimated it's an absolute delight, but with my palate now adjusted to the watered-down asian food we get in Belgium it tasted like rancid fire in my mouth. I went through about a fourth of the dish while drinking four soy iced tea, then gave up. Two hours later we boarded our flight to Koh Samui.
Our friends were waiting for us as our shared taxi pulled at Lamai Inn 99, and despite our severe fatigue we quickly dropped our bags and all left together towards the open air "Lover Bar", a big city square sprinkled with bars and pole-dancing girls entertaining the mostly Caucasian clientele. Some of this clientele can only be described as the scum of the Earth, part of that exceedingly rare category of people that I would happily watch drowning without lifting a finger to help. Most of them however were like us, only there to have a drink, and the Thai girls were universally good-natured and extremely funny.
Pretty soon the clock turned to shortly after midnight on the 31st of December, Glenn's birthday. As soon as the barmaids learned of the happy significance of this date for us, we were instantly upgraded to extra-special-VIP service. Long story short: going to Thailand for your birthday might be a mistake. On the other hand, going to Thailand for a friend's birthday is awesome.