…seeing the gurdwara was like coming home.
The transition from an over-the-phone purchase of a Thailand trip package to Bangkok to the actual hill tribe villages in northern Thailand, functioning with their own customs, language and culture is a product of an era into which I was born but still struggle to understand. However, it is this transition on which I thrive.
I began traveling at 6 months and I haven’t stopped since. The thrill of new food, different customs, and beautiful vantage points constantly keeps me visiting expedia.com and following National Geographic on Instagram. This past summer, I had the opportunity to indulge my senses into Thailand – a country alive with flavors, colors, crooked smiles, scams, and vegetation.
Bangkok. July 9, 2013.
The city smells of forgotten yet functioning industry. Food displayed in somewhat unappetizing ways – a means of sustenance, not luxury.
“Where are you going?” the tuk tuk driver is asking, so eager, waiting for us, me the tourist, to ask for a ride. He would take me anywhere. “The Grand Palace,” I answered. And before I could take another breath, we were off. He is magic – soaring though cars, diving in and out of lanes, forever in pursuit of the fastest route. The humidity and heat seems almost nonexistent as the breeze runs through our hair while a friend and I snack on mangoes at the back of the tuk tuk. Colors blur – the gold from the innumerable temples mixed with the brownish gray of contaminated river water, the washed white of buildings with the red and marigold and pink of the flower market. People don’t notice themselves as vibrant beings, lighting the electricity of Bangkok, making it a city full of noise with sounds and smells foreign, familiar and decrepit. I could feel the city, really feel it. Not through a window or a book or pictures, but rather with the engagement of all my senses.
After a muddled, frustrating and chaotic trek through the city, the tuk tuk stops in front of a six story, white and gold building. It is Bangkok’s only gurdwara; so clean even the bathrooms were impeccable. After the sweat of the city had seeped through my recently bought “elephant pants” (harem type cotton pants that were all the rave with tourists like me) and the water bottle I’d bought in the morning was depleted, seeing the gurdwara was like coming home. This was our guru’s space. This is where our minds and bodies could relax for a while. Wafts of langar smells filled our nostrils, reminding us that we had not eaten all day. Each of the six floors has a purpose – langar hall, reception hall, school, sukhasan. The divan hall is on the fourth floor. It was the middle of a Tuesday afternoon, so nothing was going on. But even to be in the presence of the Guru, thousands of miles away from my Babaji’s room at home, was powerful, humbling, and comforting. The langar had sticky rice with mango, so I was truly fulfilled physically and spiritually.
The sangat was different, however – more black and white about what should and should not be done: particular about where shoes should be kept, separate lines for men and women to get langar, and a separate langar entirely for gurdwara “staff.” It was home with more constraint that I was used to. Comfortable, but I didn’t feel welcome enough to completely sink in. Thailand has one of the largest Sikh populations outside of India. Each diasporic community creates its own culture and version of Sikh practice. Different Sikh practices in the United States may even befuddle Thai or UK Sikhs – it’s just the way community works. Despite my slight discomfort, I feel blessed to have a divan in the presence of the Thai sangat and the Guru Granth Sahib, who thankfully never takes on different forms.
I drink from a coconut that was cut right in front of me. Sweet, cold, effortlessly flavorful water.
Our dinner is a red curry with rice, spring rolls on the side; simple and yet effortlessly fresh and pungent. The food of Thailand is perhaps what I will remember most. Each meal surprises and tingles my taste buds: the lemongrass, coconut, chili, and Thai ginger all mingle together to create a symphony of flavors which each hold its own weight but always work together to create the resultant harmony.
Goodnight. Tomorrow, we travel to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. We will be trekking through the hill tribe region of Thailand. Mosquito repellent, my well-being is now in your hands.
This excerpt was just one day of a two week trip to Thailand. Each day was filled with something I could call the “highlight” of my trip – jumping into muddy rivers, hanging out with tigers, visiting orchid gardens, elephant riding, or dancing to 90’s music on a beach while looking on to the full moon. Despite these experiences, it was blatantly apparent that Thailand has been adapting and catering to the tens of thousands of tourists that frequent the country each year – high rise malls, fashion house scams, Irish food on an island, plastic everywhere. I fear for the loss of culture and traditions. But then again, I was part of the exact demographic of people who travel to Thailand to “experience” a new country, the same demographic that pushes modernization of this Buddhist country.
We must all learn to exist together, not for each other. I hope that despite the tourist adaptations, I was able to experience just a bit of what it means to be Thai. I imagine it would be hard to change the robustness of the flavors, so maybe I was successful after all.
Jasleen Singh is the creator of The Sikh Monologues Project, which “endeavors to record the diverse stories that the diasporic Sikh American community has to share.” Find out more at The Sikh Monologues Project website.