Travel & the Female Body: Why Thailand is a Safe Space for My Skin
I bought a glass of cold coffee at a small coffee shop in Bangkok and walked to the bus stop on the road. There was nobody about and I sat on the bench. I am not a huge coffee drinker but for the next 40 minutes I sat there and sipped my cold beverage like it was an elixir and watched the Thai world pass me by.
Many would find nothing remarkable in this. But for me, it was extended exhilaration. I felt like I was in a hot air balloon that was gaily floating about for much longer than expected.
Not many things matched up to my feeling during the next few days of my stay and travel within the country.
Because, if the intention of travelling was to see a new world, mine was unfolding within my body – right then, right there. To wear a dress, have a leisurely coffee on the road and not be stared at, was the most remarkable novelty.
"The Streets Belonged to Them”
My body’s flashcard stored no such memory from back “home” in the city of Delhi, where I lived.
As a college student, I had once been heckled by a stranger in a twisted combination of outrage and mock politeness: “Button your shirt, ma’am.” The sense of entitlement with which the man had expressed anger at the clothes I'd worn, had in turn induced an anger in me white-hot enough to blur the memory of what happened after.
What I do remember is reporting the incident to my friends, during which I had probably added, that in the confrontation that followed I had ended up hitting him. I don’t think that had actually happened, and in later years when I looked back on the incident I felt surprise and guilt at my own lie. It was not something I usually did. Perhaps my sense of violation had been so steep – and the desire to retaliate so strong – that I had started believing it myself. Without that bit of fiction, possibly, there would have reigned in me a helplessness that would have been too humiliating to live with.
With a history like this, to be in Thailand with a girlfriend spending – with pride and caution – our nest eggs, and not to be constantly reminded of my gender while being outside, was the best kind of ‘tripping’ I could ask for. Encouraged by my friend and finding the place a haven for first-time try-outs, I wore a two-piece swimsuit on the island of Koh Samet and for the first time as a grown up, that much of my skin rendezvoused with sun, wind and water.
My heart warmed up when at night in Ayutthaya, the old capital, we saw a bunch of women going around on motorbikes, long after the markets had closed.
They weren’t handicapped at dusk; the streets belonged to them and they were the lights.
As we returned from Ayutthaya to Bangkok on a train, my friend had a can of beer in her hand. She initiated a conversation about the country with the guy sitting next to her – and at no point did she have to face judgmental remarks or fend off unsolicited invites from him.
Beyond My Gender
A lot of this can appear laughable or naive to people depending on their gender or context. But living in a world where I get reminded of my gender before, and sometimes without, it being acknowledged that I am a person, I do not have the luxury of taking these things for granted.
Women in Thailand have their own struggles and it is not as if gender hierarchies, or crimes, for that matter, do not exist. World Nomads, a popular website for travellers, has this piece of advice, or rather, admonition, to dispense about being in the streets or back lanes late at night in Thailand:
“That’s as silly here as it is in your home town...”
But, just like Maya Angelou had surmised about people (“At the end of the day people won't remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel”), with places too, what I end up remembering is how they made me feel. This was a place that had its priorities right, that helped me feel like a person again, without constantly tagging my gender.
(Ankita Anand is an independent writer-journalist based in Delhi. She can be reached @anandankita)
(We Indians have much to talk about these days. But what would you tell India if you had the chance? Pick up the phone and write or record your Letter To India. Don’t be silent, tell her how you feel. Mail us your letter at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll make sure India gets your message)