Thailand travel guides warn you of exotic diseases that melt your brain, shopping scams that gut your wallet, and cultural no-no’s that may send you to the slammer, but seldom cover the day-to-day, life-threatening hazards you only learn about if you survive them. On my first day in Thailand, I almost died just trying to walk.
Don't touch this.
Don't touch this, either.
Absolutely do not touch this. Just don't touch anything !
Uneven Floors and Teflon Tile. I didn’t notice the five-centimeter drop when I went into the guesthouse bathroom. On the way out, however, with wet feet, I smashed the toes on one foot into the imperceptible step, and catapulted into the next room, as my other foot slipped on the smooth tile coated with Teflon to assure that the maids would be able to clean up the caked blood after my landing. While airborne, I somehow avoided the sharp edges of the teak furniture heading toward my skull. Wear socks, or step on a throw rug, and it’s like sledding down an icy hill. Add water and you might as well crawl.
Dangerous Doorways. A bumpy, black and blue forehead is the badge of courage worn by foreigners trying to negotiate low doorways. The midget doorways, where you obviously have to stoop, are not the problem. Doorframes two centimeters lower than the top of your head – depending on which sandals you’re wearing – are deadly, especially the ones with rough plaster that will peel off a long strip of hair and skin. And, of course, you don’t notice the height of the doorway, when you’re focused solely on the height of the step out of the toilet.
A slow, but safe, prevention for the above hazards is the Centimeter Shuffle, which I learned from my 93-year old stepfather. His feet never left the floor, nor moved ahead more than a centimeter at a time. I’d wake him up, and say, “Time for breakfast!” I’d take a shower, go to the market, prepare a meal, mow the lawn and read the Encyclopedia Britannica, Volumes A to F, before he made it into the kitchen.
Bare-naked Wires. Neither safe, nor technologically sound, Thai electrical wiring is more like a surrealistic painting by Salvador Dali, where reality stretches beyond the absurd. You can marvel from afar at the deranged maze of cables out of your reach, but it gets personal when it’s a bare, live wire in the bathroom, or under your feet at a street market during a downpour. Electrical Tape 101 is apparently an optional course here at Electrician Tech. I don’t know how many times I’ve gotten a full dose of 240 volts, but I’m definitely half-baked, and probably sterile.
Cute Caterpillars. In America, the friendly reputation of hairy caterpillars comes from the familiar, red and black, wooly bear caterpillar, forerunner of the Isabella moth. We’d gather them up, stage races on our bare arms, and mystically predict the length of winter by the width of their stripes. Not in Thailand. Think of the Thai varieties as grizzly bear caterpillars, with poisonous hairs instead of teeth. Welts swell, spread, burn, itch and drive you crazy. You may not even see the caterpillar that stung you. Some eject their hairs into the wind, which reportedly can kill a small dog. Treat them as you would a grizzly with cubs, or someone playing Britney Spears hits: Run away!
Issan Cuisine. Issan is a large, flat, oven-like area in northeastern Thailand near Laos, where they eat most anything raw, and have to add things besides heat, to kill the germs and worms. When you see Issan food on a menu, Issan stands for “It’s Severely Spicy And Noxious.” A typical recipe must say, “Add the same number of hot peppers as you have added grains of rice.” If you survive eating one or two of these tiny Thai peppers, and want to remove the rest from your plate, do not use your fingers to pick them up, then rub your eyes and scratch your crotch. You’ll be blind, screaming, and your pubic hair will be on fire. And that’s just the beginning. You’ll soon be aware of other parts of your body, specifically, the entire food processing and exit tunnel. The next day you’ll be saying, “Where’s all that ice cream I ate? Send down the ice cream!”
Teflon Flip-flops. Most sandals are also coated with Teflon, so Thai folks can slip out of them in one quarter second, while prancing fluidly into one of the countless No Shoes Zones. Do not try this in public until you’ve had at least a decade of practice, alone at home. Remember: Thai people have this skill imbedded in their DNA and come out of the womb wearing flip-flops.
User-loser Errors. Sometimes you can’t blame anyone, or anything, but yourself. A snow-white skinned friend from frozen Minnesota came to the islands during January. After a couple days he complained that his suntan lotion was weird, and more like sunburn lotion. He showed us the tube he’d bought here in Thailand, which said “30” on the label. He thought 30 was the SPF number, the Sun Protection Factor. It was actually the price, 30 baht, of the Thai shampoo he’d been spreading liberally on his body. Although his skin was the color of a burning ember – red underneath with a white coating – he was very, very clean.
It all comes together… or apart. Sunburned to a crisp, you sample an Issan dish from a street vendor to take your mind off the pain, but the peppers quickly become a bonfire on your tongue, which sends you scampering across the sidewalk to the snack store for a Coke to douse the flames. You prematurely try the Thai flip-flop removal flick, but the sandal caught on your lagging foot snags the uneven floor, launching you over the 103-year-old storeowner. While careening down the aisle in a useless attempt to right yourself, your flailing arms sweep goods off shelves and disrupt a family of hairy caterpillars, who eject a cloud of venomous hair into your nostrils, escalating your panic, causing you to crash through a rack of potato chips, and smack your skull on the low door frame. Life slows to snapshots as you lose consciousness, slip down Teflon tile into the split level toilet, grab a bare live wire for support, and finally collapse headfirst into the dark water trough, which looks like it’s used for baptizing rats. Game over, man.
Well, maybe not. It’s the Land of Smiles. Everyone is laughing and clapping. They want you to do it again.
©2012 by Scott Jones
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