BANGKOK — The first time a waitress brought pad see ew out to our table, then picked up my 2-year-old, Kai, and carried him into the kitchen, I thought my boy was being kidnapped. We had been in Bangkok for less than a day. Fresh off an epic journey that spanned 26 hours with stopovers, we were exhausted, famished, and completely spun out. The woman smiled, motioned for me to return to my table to enjoy my lunch, promising that she would entertain my child, who was now pointing in the direction of the chef making faces at him from the kitchen. Eat in peace, she ordered.
My impulse was to lunge at her, snatch my toddler from her arms, and run. Who takes a woman’s child? Then as I stood facing her, another patron came by and petted Kai’s back, saying something in Thai and laughing. The waitress’s forearm tensed, as she gripped my child tighter and turned her back ever so slightly from the leering patron, a man with drops of sweat beading from his brow. Her message was clear to him: I will not let anyone touch the farang (Thai for white person) child.
I wish I could say I returned to my seat and enjoyed a couple of Singha beers and some mango with sticky rice. But the truth is that although I could see Kai the entire time, and hear him laughing, I could not relax with this act of what I realized was generosity. And the second my husband finished his plate of food, I urged him into the kitchen to grab Kai, who was now rattling off a few words in Thai, easily contented with the attention and kindness of strangers.
Of course US culture is so vastly different from the Thai way of living. My guidebook had explained that where Americans tend to put ourselves ahead of the society, Thai people generally attend to the community above all else. We noticed this again the next day as we explored the 35-acre Chatuchak Market — a weekend extravaganza packed with 8,000 vendors selling souvenirs, hand-tailored clothing, outstanding Thai snacks, and massages.
The heat was oppressive as we chased Kai past statues of Thai idols, kids’ clothing, shoes, chickens, and furniture. Kai paused before a group of local kids, playing a version of tag in a central seating area as their families chatted with customers, or ate meat on sticks. A foot masseuse invited my husband and me to sit for a few minutes and indulge in the common Thai practice of caring for one’s body — something every shopping area should offer.
Used to tag-teaming our parenting, my husband let me go first, saying he would watch Kai. The ladies in the stall insisted that we both sit and that Kai would be OK with everyone watching him. At first he sat on my lap, then, growing bored, he leapt toward the center of the eating area to watch the kids chase one another. When he wandered a touch too far for my comfort level, I motioned him to come closer. The fan that attempted to cool the massage stall attracted his attention. He reached a finger out to touch the spinning blade. No fewer than 10 adults sprang at him, pulling his hand to safety. He wasn’t their child. Yet they all looked out for him as if he were one of their own. And in his youthful exploration, he was safe from harm once again.
The next day, on a tour of Wat Pho, a massive golden reclining Buddha statue in the heart of Bangkok, we met a lovely college student, Pim, interested in practicing her English. She explained that the root of Thai altruism is attributed to Buddhism. The majority of the population practices Theravada (the doctrine of the elders), which teaches believers that all of our actions affect our next lives. Many children are taught in religious schools; indoctrinating them early, Pim explained. This delayed reward system teaches that we are a part of community, a world much larger than ourselves.
I considered this as we traveled on a plane, to a bus, to a boat and then to another boat to check into our beach shack on Rai Le Beach in Krabi, a comma of land, hugged by the Andaman Sea on three sides and limestone cliffs on the other. Accessing the resort area can only be accomplished by sea — a feat not often accomplished by travelers.
In our short time in Thailand, Kai had grown comfortable with Thai people’s attention, the playful tickling, the silly faces, the foreign words, all offered with smiling eyes. As he would race naked along the beach, there was always someone there to protect him from the sea, a rock, a fall. On a snorkel trip to Koh Phi Phi (just a short boat ride from Rai Le Beach), we stopped at Monkey Beach, one of those touristy atrocities littered with water bottles, fronting a stunning blue sea. The area got its name from its precocious monkeys that climb aboard boats the second they dock and steal food, water bottles, anything they can get their paws on.
Kai was safely tucked in a carrier, far enough from the monkeys that I was not worried, but close enough to see them. My husband was snapping photos of us in front of a particularly ambitious little primate, when our boat’s driver seemed to leap across the beach to spread his arms wide and shoo the monkey away, protecting Kai (and me) from its bold claws.
At home, the work of protecting my son is generally my and my husband’s responsibility. But in Thailand, the comfort of a community of eyes on my son allowed him (and us) a sense of safety. That day at Maya Bay (the crescent of sand embracing sea so emerald it seems fake), the three of us swam delightedly for hours, rejoicing in the warmth of Thai culture, feeling suddenly freer, and less alone in the insane universe of parenting.
That evening, we watched the sun descend over the sea from our perch at Railay Bay Resort and Spa. In the twilight, a woman constructed an impressive sand sculpture, while a collection of backpackers strummed guitars and sang Beatles tunes on the sand. And when the waitress dropped off our seafood and Singhas and then scooped Kai up to show him the sand sculpture and the musicians, I kept an eye on him but also looked between my husband and the gorgeous beach laid out before us. In a culture with a set of boundaries so very different from mine, I had learned to go with the flow — and what a difference that made in our Thailand vacation.