Running Thailand

New shoes for a new country

Each morning my phone buzzes and clucks. “Gobble, gobble. Gobble, gobble.” This same noise awoke me before 7am cross country practice when I lived in Eells Dormitory last September. This same alarm cued my roll out of bed to run around the National Mall before heading off to work in Washington, DC this spring and summer. Now it signals time for my morning run through Bangkok.

I moved to Thailand three and a half weeks ago to commence a yearlong Fulbright grant as an English teacher. This first month is spent living in Bangkok at Chulalonghorn University — Chula for short — while taking Thai language classes; listening to lectures about Thai politics, Thai culture, and the US-Thailand relationship; and practicing teaching. I live with 21 other Fulbright grantees going through the same training right now. At the end of the month we disperse throughout the country to different schools.

Arriving in Bangkok was overwhelming. The city is the largest city I’ve ever been to in my life. It is sensory overload. The new smells, people, noises. Every piece of space is utilized. And unlike other cities and towns I have moved to, there wasn’t a familiar face anywhere.

To compound this, everywhere I go, I stand out. People stare. Being noticed has become a normality.

As much as I was excited my first week here, I was scared. Everything looked topsy turvy, people could not understand me/nor I them, and my mind felt a jumbled mess. I wanted to go on a run, but I was barely able to find my way from my dorm room to the Thai class three blocks away my first day.

The first day I ran in Thailand, was the first day I stopped feeling terrified. A few nights after moving here, some of the girls were talking about hoping to run in Thailand. A few of us made plans to meet downstairs at 6am the following morning — it was easy that first week to get up early because of jetlag. Mimi, Crystal, Elaine and I went together. None of us knew where to go, so our run consisted of running to the campus and doing a few loops around the outside of the track. Short. Slow. Boring.

But it made me feel free. Happy. At home.

Since then, Crystal, Mimi, and I have formed a sort of make shift running club. We meet at 7am, and start out slow, talking about various adventures we’ve already been through:

The time Mimi ended up in the hospital because of a cut on her ankle.

The time I got chased by three angry dogs trying to get to MBK the shopping mall.

The time Crystal tried to wash her own shoes, which just made everything smell and resulted in her taking them to the Laundromat.

We talk about upcoming plans, like our trip to Koh Pi Pi next weekend.

Crystal and Mimi are fairly new runners, so runs with them are shorter. More of a social time to connect with new friends. At first, I ended my runs at the same time as them. But as I became accustomed to the hot humidity and the bustling city, I got the courage to continue to explore after doing the beginning portion of the run with them.

I have two favorite running spots now, the old side of Chula and Lumphini Park. The old side of Chula is across a busy street, so busy that they’ve build a bridge over it for pedestrians — busy streets and pedestrian bridges are by no means a rarity in Bangkok. Once over the noisy crowded street is serenity. A big open field. A pool of glassy water. Classically old buildings, one of which is the library. There are side alley ways with little ponds, sculptures, and such. Early in the morning there are few cars and people on this side of campus. It feels like a slice calm in the midst of the hectic.

Lumphini Park, although much smaller, reminds me of New York’s Central Park because of it’s diversity in what one encounters there. It is the only place I encounter other runners besides my friends, and boy are there a lot of them. Running in Lumphini Park makes me feel as though I am part of a large running community again; there is a sense of camaraderie in this run around the loop together. On the sides of the asphalt path that rolls around Lumphini Park are outdoor weightlifting gyms where Thai men — I have yet to see a woman use these machines — trickle with sweat as they pump iron. There are sculpture gardens — my favorite being a cluster of metal hearts larger than my body. Also, there are little lakes and streams that I’ve been told are inhabited by nasty monitor lizards, but I have yet to see one of these vicious creatures. School children hop around. Often there is some sort of synchronized aerobics? That’s the best description I can give to these group work out sessions that seem more about moving in unison and less about actual strength building.

This past week I did my first track workout in months. I entered the Chulalonghorn track, greeted by dragonflies the size of my face floating a few feet above the red surface. But as I started to sprint, they fluttered away. The speed felt good.

My favorite time to run is when it rains. The cool splashes against my skin feel like a baptism into the new country. In general, the weather here is like DC July, sticky. I have the advantage of having adjusted to it somewhat over the summer, but I still sweat more than ever before. After running beads run down my arms and legs.

I wash my running clothes by jumping in the shower with them still hanging on my body, stripping them off as cold water rushes away the salty sweat droplets. Then I hang the clothes on the balcony for the next morning. There is something beautifully simplistic about the routine.

As I run more the city ground feels firmer beneath my feet. Some of the other Fulbrighters and I have talked about doing a half marathon in January. Another first for this year. Running already has brought both connections with others and an independence. It has brought familiarity, as well as a chance to adventure.