I arrived in Bankok in April, knowing it would be hot, but was knocked out by the average 106° weather. After a chaotic trip to my guesthouse, through the most amazing traffic, I collapsed on the bed in nothing but my birthday suit. Prior to arriving in Thailand, I had researched what to pack. I wanted to bring comfortable clothing, but also pieces that would be appropriate for the various wats or temples I planned to visit.
To Thais, being sabai jai means having a contented heart, referring to a calm disposition. Foreigners or farang are thought to behave in a contradictory manner, being easily frustrated and exhibiting a quick temper or jai rawn. I promised myself that I would blend in to my new surroundings and maintain an inward tranquility so prized in the Land of Smiles.
On my second day in Bankok I was headed to the former Thai capital Ayutthaya and the Royal summer palace, Bang Pa-In. Forgetting all of my carefully selected couture, I threw on the coolest pieces I had. Dressed in a sleeveless tank and black cotton skirt that hit above my knee, off I went. That was the end of my inner and outer tranquility.
As soon as I stepped on the bus, I became acutely aware that I had forgotten the dress code, but it was too late. My seatmate was an impeccably dressed British woman who looked appalled by my very presence. She avoided conversation and eye contact with me, and we rode to Ayutthaya in silence.
Unable to fully enjoy the Buddha statues and architecture that spanned centuries, I was consumed by the thought that I was offending past and present Thais. I was especially distracted when all my bare bits were in the company of monks. Overheated, sweaty and blotchy red, we headed to our next stop, Bang Pa-In the colonial-style summer digs for the Royal Family. We were told that clothing would be provided to cover knees and shoulders if we weren’t dressed appropriately. I should have taken the offer. Instead I looked in my bag and grabbed a black sundress that I had stashed at the last minute. A frilly flamenco looking number, I looked ready for the stage than a stroll through a revered Thai attraction.
I was pleased with my find, and our Thai guide, always polite, said I looked fine. Off I went, and perhaps overly confident due to my modest attire, instead of opting for the covered golf carts, I joined the rest of the walking tour. I now understood how asphalt feels in the blistering sun. Trying to stay conscious, every so often I would sneak into a stream of water coming out of the sprinklers to keep the expertly manicure lawn looking green. How I envied that lawn.
Eventually I had to retreat from the walking tour and seek some shade. I looked up and saw two chic young Thai women in jeans and cardigans under a lovely umbrella. They were pointing and giggling. I must have looked a site, a large overheated, beet red woman in a formal black dress. I found out later that like Western culture, black is worn for funerals and can be considered bad luck. It was certainly bad luck for me.
I had become the traveler I vowed not to be, but now I knew better. The next day, wearing modest attire, I smugly hopped off the water taxi and headed for the gates of the Grand Palace complex. Unexpectedly, the clothing police directed me to a long line up of farang waiting to enter a small white building. On my turn a woman handed me a pair of socks. I put on the socks, slipped my sandals on and away I went. I walked toward the inner entrance of the Grand Palace but guards stopped me again, pointed at my feet, and gestured back the way I came. I wheeled around and was starting to get impatient, hot and frustrated. My jai rawn was showing up already, my second day in Thailand! As I trundled back in the hot sun, I watched smiling, perfectly poised Thai women dressed head to toe in warm looking clothing. I was so envious of their composure!
Back at the trailer, the attendants looked apologetic and handed me a pair of sport sandals. By the time I made it back to the entrance, I was sweating in the socks, long pants and modest shirt. After a few minutes I was again starting to overheat. I clicked a few photos and rushed towards the wrong exit. At first I thought I wouldn’t be let out, but when I kept exclaiming “mai sabai” the guards knew I wasn’t well and quickly let me pass. Embarrassed, I revived myself with ice cream and water.
Eventually, I began to adapt. Once I simply stopped to watch how Thais dealt with the heat, instead of trying to recall what I had read, I caught on to loose cotton clothing, and was much more savvy about sun exposure. In Thailand, the state of tranquility or sabai jai transcends physical appearances. It is intertwined with religion and philosophy, and to think I could attain something so intangible overnight was ridiculous. I needed to release the hold on what I thought I knew, in order to find my contented heart.
10 Ways to Beat the Heat in Thailand:
It’s hot in Thailand all year round, but if you’re affected by extreme heat here are some things to consider when visiting the Land of Smiles:
1. Although Songkran or Thai New Year is fun to experience, you may want to avoid Thailand in April. It’s the warmest time of year, with little escape from the blistering sun. I had to miss certain attractions in Bangkok because I simply couldn’t function in the extreme heat.
2. Keep hydrated. Buy lots of bottled water and be diligent about replenishing every hour.
3. Bring hydration packets with you. I met a woman from California who gave me this tip for my next trip to Thailand. You can pick up these packets at sports stores or drugstores and are usually used by athletes.
4. Make sure to bring loose, light colored clothing made from natural fibers like linen or cotton. Sport sandals are a must if you plan on visiting the Grand Palace in Bangkok, as well as a few modest pieces to cover shoulders and knees.
5. As soon as you arrive, buy an umbrella to keep the sun off. They’re cheap and work well to keep you shaded. They look pretty too!
6. Stay near or on the water. The Chao Praya River in Bangkok, or escape to an island. It’s much cooler.
7. Avoid too much sun and wear sun block. If you do get a sunburn, try a first aid vitamin E ointment. It worked wonders on my burned shoulders.
8. Wear a hat if you don’t plan on using an umbrella.
9. Get up with the monks and do most of your sightseeing early in the morning.
10. Enjoy the spicy and delicious Thai food! The spice tends to make to salivate and perspire which cools you off and quenches your thirst.
Jane Arnold is a freelance writer and travel buff. She has spent time in Europe and North America, and most recently traveled to South East Asia. You can read more of her travel stories at http://www.girlyside.com/girlyside.html The website is a girl's guide to health, beauty, love and leisure. Sign up for the free newsletter at http://www.girlyside.com/newsletter.html