I found the anonymity of a big city appealing. I confess that I still love that. At home, there was nowhere to hide. In our local town, if I walked up the main street at any time of the day, I would meet and see people I knew, or worse, who knew my parents. Guaranteed. I was never anonymous. But in Bangkok, I was gloriously anonymous, even as a ridiculously tall, pale foreign schoolgirl wearing a Thai school uniform. I just wasn’t inconspicuous.
We found it very easy to slip away for a few hours, or more commonly (given the length of the time it took to get anywhere in the congested traffic) for the entire day. My travel companions were my school-mates, Sharon from Delaware and Madeline from Ohio, and often we met Cecilia from Washington, who went to another school. There was no real guilt involved in skipping class, and so all we needed was a pocketful of baht, and we were off. Sometimes we planned excursions to the Indian markets or Chinatown, or to the temples or the Indian food shop down by the river. But more commonly, we just went into the central city.
We’d usually start at the AFS office at the AUA (American Alumni Association) on Rajadamri Avenue, to chat to the staff and see if any of the other exchange students were out and about in Bangkok. It was an agreed meeting place, and we could often link up with other students also at a loose end, looking for someone else to spend the day with them. After that we’d often go to nearby Siam Square, a commercial centre packed with shops, restaurants and cafes, western fast food joints and movie theatres. It backed onto Chulalongkorn University and the city’s most prestigious public school, Triam Udom, and so catered to the crème de la crème of Thai students. Cecilia attended Triam Udom, so we often met her there. We’d sometimes also meet Chai (a Thai AFS returnee). He was a student at Chula (as the university was known), and liked to go to a great little khao mu dang restaurant. To this day I still salivate over the memories of the red pork in sweet sauce that we enjoyed there. But if we were just going on our own, we might end up at Dunkin’ Donuts (because it was American, tasty and cheap). This was a novelty to me; donuts have never really taken on in New Zealand. I have a sweet tooth, and marvelled (perhaps more accurately, drooled) over the selection of sweet, sticky delights.
We’d occasionally go to a movie in – wonder of wonders – English. Chai told us he had improved and practised his English by attending movies frequently, sometimes three movies a day. He would listen to the English, and when he didn’t understand he would check the Thai subtitles. We weren’t so studious, and enjoyed just relaxing into our native language.
On our day out, for a few hours, we could relax, chill out, and just be kids. Afterwards, we’d feel rejuvenated and refreshed, ready to immerse ourselves back into our lives, intent on being good exchange students trying to fit into the lives of Thai teenagers.