cities. bangkok, koh samui
We wake up early to catch our flight to Bangkok. This is my first time back to Thailand so I’m excited to show Dovi around. Also a bit nervous that he won’t like it.
The first thing we do when we get to Khao San road is to stop at Starbucks to get our first normal coffee of the trip. While I go to get the coffees, Dovi strikes up a conversation with a couple sitting next to him. By the time I get back, they’re chatting away, so I join in. Turns out that they’re both Arab and he works in Saudi Arabia while she works in Dubai. They’re both consultants. The conversation flows (they like my stories about China), so as we get up to leave I ask them for their Facebook.
[I mention this because a few months later, the girl, Aya, would help me get an internship at her company in Dubai where I am currently sitting in a Starbucks writing this story. So, thank you Dovi for always being the friendly one!]
We check into our hotel just around the corner from Khao San and it’s an immediate step up. It has pretty much the best shower in Asia. I take Dovi to my old neighborhood so I can see my old home and we grab our first pad thai at a local little shop in an alley. It’s good to be back.
From there, we grab a tuk-tuk to take us to the National Stadium metro station where we take the train to Sukhimvit to check out the malls. We stroll around Terminal 21 and since it’s getting dark already, I bring Dovi to Bangkok’s pride and joy: Soi Cowboy.
Soi Cowboy is the infamous road where the Hangover movie was filmed. It is lined with strip clubs, some specializing in ladyboys, a local delicacy.
After rescuing Dovi from the arms of several girls, I bring him into a large club where one of the Hangover movies was filmed. We sit back with our drinks and huge smiles plastered on our faces. We are no longer in grey Vietnam with its empty hostels and dreary suitcase markets. No, we’re in Bangkok. Land of laughter, fun, and beauty.
After a few more beers, we head back to Khao San where the party is just getting started. We’re immediately engulfed in clouds of flashing lights, pounding hip hop, and dancing strangers. We grab a couple of balloons of laughing gas and get to work…
A few hours later, we collapse into our cool beds in the Lucky House. Vietnam feels a million miles away.
Thursday is a pretty chill day. I head to the UN to visit some old colleagues while Dovi goes out on his own to explore some temples. [I interned at the UN ESCAP in Bangkok for a summer back in college.] Walking around the UN, I feel like I’m going back in time. It’s hard to believe that this place still exists and that my colleagues have been working here for the past two years. It feels like it’s stuck in time. I get lunch with an old crush and her current boyfriend. It’s a bit awkward, but feels nice to put that all behind me. We can only move forward.
I’m a bit worried about Dovi, but from his texts he seems like he’s doing fine. It’s good that we can do our own thing now and then. I get back to the hotel before him and take a nap. When he gets back, we review our options for the next several days and all Dovi has is one question: what is the most famous thing to do in Thailand. The answer is obvious: Koh Samui. A lush island deep in the Thai gulf that’s filled with luxury resorts and party animals. The neighboring island, Koh Pha Ngan is (in)famous for its monthly full moon party where Thailand takes it to the next level.
We book our flights, have a few drinks on Khao San, and head to bed.
The first thing I do in Koh Samui is rip open my foot. But let’s back up.
Arriving at Samui International Airport we make our way into the outdoor baggage claim and wait by the single carousel. After grabbing our bags, we make our way through outdoor paths lined with palm trees and the sound of trickling brooks.
When we arrive at our hotel, the staff brings us to our own private villa, with two large bedrooms, a patio, a semi-outdoor living room, and a view over the sea of trees and singing birds that never gets old. We paid like $50 a night, and we feel like kings.
We immediately drop our bags and head down the hill to the nearest beach. As soon as I jump onto the sand, my right food lands on a rock, ripping through the skin and sprinkling warm blood onto the soft white sand. I limp over to the nearest resort and a team of Thai workers huddle over my foot, with a seriousness that belongs in an emergency room and a kindness that would make Hillel blush. They clean, bandage, and re-clean it until I finally leave with a series of bows and kop khun khaps.
We continue on our way around the lush scenery, exploring beached boats and gazing at faraway beaches. We reach an impasse, so Dovi dives into the water to swim around it while I go get some beers and promise to meet him on the other side. In this way, we arrive in Chaweng for the first of many visits. After lounging/swimming at the beach for a while, we make our way into the beachside village, famous for it nightlife. Although it’s still light out, trucks blasting advertisements for a boxing match (Fight, Fight, Fight. 9 pm Tonight) make their rounds, and the streets are lined with restaurants, bars, and shops.
We jump onto the scooter and drive off in search of the Big Buddha temple. For anyone who’s been to Koh Samui, the Big Buddha is really … big. It’s the first thing you see when you’re flying over Koh Samui. There’s also a beach nearby, so we figure we’ll do both.
When we arrive at Big Buddha, we make our way up the wide stairs and bow before the massive buddha statue. From the edges of the temple, we are treated to beautiful views of the surrounding island and have childish fun ringing the large golden bells. It seems like childish fun is something that Dovi and I are very good at. We take are photos and make our way back down to the street level where we encounter a monk who invites us to receive some sort of Buddhist purification. As he sits upon his throne, Dovi and I take turns kneeling before him on a straw mat while he recites some prayers and sprinkles water on us with a bundle of twigs. It feels kinda nice. When we stand up to leave, he starts saying “photo, photo”, motioning for us to take a photo with him, before he ties a colorful string bracelet around each of our wrists.
Whatever you have to say about the outdated practices of Buddhism, at least they know how to make tourists feel special.
After we’ve paid our respects at Buddha Temple, we scoot off in search of the best beaches in Koh Samui. We first try Big Buddha Beach (we have to casually stroll through a resort in order to reach the beach), but it isn’t what we’re looking for. But then, on the third try, we find it: Choeng Mon Beach. We park between a scooter and an old boat in a run down parking lot made of sand, duck under a barrier, over some tree logs, and find ourselves on a quiet, peacefully, and sunny beach.
We deposit our stuff near a group of jolly Brits and jump into the water where we discuss the advantages and disadvantages of being single. But let’s back up.
The reader should recall that I have just spent 6 weeks living in China, utterly alone in a strange and overpopulated country. Understandably, then, the issue of companionship is something that has been on my mind. After all, I deeply appreciate and crave quality company, and yet, I repeatedly leave my friends and family in order to live in increasingly foreign lands. Sure, it generates lots of excitement and richness in my life; but it comes at the cost of spending the majority of my time either alone or far away from the people I care most about. Is it worth it?
It seemed to me that my dilemma was quite similar to the more common problem people face in their relationships. While it is more exciting and adventurous (and in some ways easier) to be single, this comes at a sacrifice of things like care, partnership, stability, consistency, security. Is that worth it?
These questions seemed even more pressing to me personally since I’ve come to a point in my life where I feel productive across my intellectual, financial, work, social and health lives; but increasingly feel like a total failure in the realm of relationship. It’s not just that I can’t hold down a relationship; no, I seem incapable of forming a (more or less stable) romantic relationship in the first place. Well, I have to ask myself why this is, and how does it affect my life?
Returning to the beach. I broach this topic with Dovi. Well, maybe I’ve broached it a number of times. By way of analogy, I use our trip as an example: Dovi and I each have different ideas of what makes for a good vacation. Although I recognize this, I still try to encourage Dovi to do things that I think will be valuable experiences for him. Naturally, this creates some tensions when there are many expectations, frustrations, hopes, and desires involved. And so, I point out that these are some of the disadvantages of traveling with someone: the loss of organic adventure and exploration. These, of course, are by far outweighed by the pleasure and satisfaction I (and I hope Dovi) gain by being in each other’s company. However, even if the instance of our trip to SouthEast Asia is an example where the benefits of companionships clearly outweigh the losses thereby incurred, in the case of a girlfriend or wife, the return on investment is less obvious to me.
(All this is not to say that there aren’t distinct psychological and philosophical benefits to traveling solo. I highly recommend taking at one or two solo trips to anyone. I think they will be surprised by what they learn about themselves, the world, and the interaction between the two.)
Now fast forward to later that afternoon, when Dovi and I are relaxing in the sand. Dovi is on his phone, texting with his half dozen or so Tinder matches. [Now, I can only relate the following exchange from my perspective, but I hope that it is at least half accurate, and that Dovi will fill in the gaps later.] I feel responsible for the value and quality of Dovi’s vacation. He’s been struggling a lot lately and I hope that this trip might help him process some of that. Travel has shaped a lot of my own outlook on life and has helped me deal with mental struggles during various periods, and I want to extend this tool to Dovi. And so I try to draw Dovi’s attention away from his Tinder matches (half of whom I presume to be prostitutes) and bring it back to the beautiful beach around us and the interactions between us. What I failed to notice, and Dovi helped point this out to me, was that I was trying to help Dovi deal with my issues, not his own.
While I struggle with romantic relationships, Dovi feels insecure about his sex life. Getting a dozen matches on Tinder, with girls who express interest in him and his body, is something that might be far more valuable to him than watching the waves break over the gentle sand. While I focused on my own feelings of being ignored in favor of random Thai girls, I ignored Dovi’s entirely justified desire for sexual intimacy. In poking at this disconnect between us, I touched upon a nerve in our friendship. Dovi pointed out that I was complaining about being ignored even while I spent so much time talking about the benefits of traveling alone. Again, due to my reliance on the depth of our friendship, I hadn’t fully considered how Dovi would interpret and react to my comments.
That being said, I thought (and continue to think) that this 30 minute tense exchange is perhaps more valuable than several hours of friendly laughter. As Leonard Cohen says, "There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in." By noticing the points where Dovi and I might disconnect, I gain a deeper and more accurate understanding of our friendship, and (I hope) become a better friend.
But enough depressing shit! As the sun slowly sets over the tranquil bay, we eat some dinner and make the long drive back to the hotel where we prepare for the night’s dawning adventures.
We’ve heard a lot about ARKbar where there’s a dj on the beach, with dancing, girls, and fire dancers. By the time we arrive at the party, we’re both nicely wasted and Dovi immediately strikes it up with a tall, slim Thai girl.
The following events are heavily fueled by alcohol, and my memory is hazy. Let it suffice to say that at certain points over the next 5 or so hours I see Dovi and his girl disappear along the beach, go on a scooter ride around the city squeezed between two weird looking chicks, bump into Dovi (et al) wandering around a small alley, take over a stage at the incredibly insane [Blue Mango?], and wake up in bed with one of the weird looking girls and some used condoms. Oh, and a couple thousand bhat is missing from my wallet. Yolo.
I make my way back to the hotel where Dovi is holed up with his tall friend, and say hello while they head out for some breakfast.
About an hour later, Dovi returns alone with a big smile, empty wallet, and sore body.
The tension of yesterday afternoon has disappeared and we take a lazy day of sleeping, swimming, and eating.
Our flight lands back in Bangkok and we check into a new hotel on Soi Khao San. This one has a beautiful pool on the roof, which we use every day.
Our days become filled with food, beers from 7/11, and naps, along with trips to the mall to see the aquarium and watch Crazy Rich Asians.
One more conversation that we shared now comes to mind. While relaxing in our hotel room, the topic of Kierkegaard came up (which can only happen with Dovi). We discussed Kierkegaard’s unrelenting and uncompromising search for ultimate truth. When Kierkegaard was young, he (as all of us) had to decide what to dedicate his life to. If we have only one life (as far as we can tell), it’s is of paramount importance that that life is spent well. After all, consider the sorrow of a man on his deathbed looking back over the stories and trials of his life and realizing that it had all been for nought, that it had all been a simple misunderstanding. (It strikes me now that if I was to write a book, it would be titled A Simple Misunderstanding.)
And so, Kierkegaard mused, if he was to dedicate himself to the church because he thought there was good evidence for the religious historical truth of that tradition, it is entirely possible that one day all of that would be disproved, and his life along with it. He would always be haunted by the possibility that his life was being wasted; he would be living in perpetual limbo.
Instead, Kierkegaard decides that the only truly justifiable life is one spent in pursuit of an “infinite leap.” This occurs when one is fully conscious that one’s decisions cannot be fully justified and says “I don’t care. I’ve chosen this life, and that is what grants it importance. It is my life, and it is the only one I will have.” Like a young husband who is explaining why he loved his wife even if she is not the most beautiful, the smartest, or best wife possible. He loves his wife, he is infinitely dedicated to his wife, merely because she is his wife. From the moment that the young lover recognizes and internalizes this reality, he can stop looking around him, considering his other options. He can stop weighing his decision in his head, wondering whether he made the right choice. All that matters is that he’s made a choice (and choices are sometimes the hardest things to make), and in so doing has granted the object of his love eternal justification that can never be stripped away from her.
Kierkegaard goes on to live a deeply committed and religious life, but not because on the grounds of some argument or his belief that the christian life is the one that makes the most sense; no, in fact he believes that christianity is founded on the most irrational principle: the trinity. But instead of turning him to doubt, this compels him to further love and cherish that tradition. A tradition that makes no external sense and is only as meaningful as the content with which you personally endow it, is the tradition that will never frustrate or deceive you.
Kierkegaard demonstrates this in his essay “Fear and Trembling” where he shows that Avraham struggled with this same dilemma. God asks him to sacrifice his son. This is perhaps the single most evil thing a father can do. But Abraham has pledged his life to God. Does he now forsake that pledge simply because it has disappointed him? Does he turn back from God and return to the millions of gods of his youth? If this is the case, then his trust in God was never really certain in the first place. Even before God commanded him to sacrifice his son, Abraham’s belief would only have been partial. It would have been a belief with “terms and conditions”. Like some legal document, it would read:
I, Abraham ben Nachar, hereby dedicate myself to God. But only under the following conditions: a, b, c.
And so, Avraham does what Kierkegaard terms a teleological suspension of the ethical. He disregards an ethical truth for the same of some greater system that transcends it. He recognizes that the act he will commit (and he does intend to commit it) will be evil. And yet he is ready to give up everything, he is ready to become an evil person, for he has pledged himself to God.
Do we have commitments in life that are transcendent? Ought we have? Would we be happier, more fulfilled people if we had?
We arise at dawn to catch the bus to the airport. Dovi is flying back to Tel Aviv and I'll return to Beijing for a day to catch my flight to New York. The trip has come to an end.
As we stare at the Thai skyline shooting past, Dovi turns to me asks, “So, what did we learn?”
Sitting here now, at an outdoor cafe in Dubai, I can’t remember what I told him. But I remember it was good. I spoke of friendship and love. I spoke of struggles and success. I spoke of endless travels and eternal returns.
Sitting here now, alone, I ask myself, “What did I learn?”
I learned that all of the philosophical and psychological and historical and moral and sociological and sexual and artistic and cultural and religious concerns that seem to occupy so much of my headspace and seem so very important, all of this holds only a speck of significance under the grand shadow of a true and lasting friendship.
Can this be my infinite leap?