Where we’re at: I’m recapping my travels in 2020, including this trip to Bangkok in March 2020.
When I first arrived in Thailand as a bright-eyed teenager (seriously, I was nineteen!), my time in Bangkok revolved around important pursuits like ticking off major bucket list sights, and drinking alcohol out of buckets. Over a decade later, the contents of my trips changed enormously — to soon-to-be birthed babies.
I have to admit I was both touched and nervous when one of my dearest friends, Janine, asked me to be with her for the birth of her firstborn. One one hand, I literally could not have been more honored. One the other hand, I don’t know if you guys are aware of this, but stuff goes down in the delivery room.
Yet it felt written in the stars for me to be there — the due date fell directly in the week between my graduation from my aerial yoga teacher training on Koh Phangan and when I needed to get down to Koh Tao to prepare for my annual Wander Women Retreat there. I booked my flights and crossed my fingers that this baby would be more prompt than his future Auntie Alex!
With Janine’s beloved sisters back in the US, it was a privilege to step in and be both photographer and family communications director, keeping the relatives back stateside in the loop and informed as the week went on.
If you’re wondering what brought two Koh Tao gals to Bangkok for such an occasion, no, it was not pregnancy cravings for fast food unavailable on our little island (though, from what I hear about such things, it’s not a bad guess.) In fact, all my mom friends in Thailand decamp to Koh Samui or Bangkok for the final months of their pregnancies, as the tiny island of Koh Tao has a tiny (new!) hospital to match.
However, in early March of 2020, suddenly hospital sizes felt like the least of our health concerns. In the final week before precious Kai Martin entered the world, we tried to stay calm while it felt like the planet was falling apart. We’d be glued to the news every night watching while they discussed the cancellation of the Olympics, the closing of borders, and the pending classification of a pandemic. When it got too intense we’d switch the TV off abruptly for a swim in the condo pool, a walk to 711 for ice cream, or to go cool down in the sub-arctic blast of a Southeast Asian mega mall. And we’d wait.
When I’d left Israel, my boyfriend’s mom had urged me not to go to Thailand — it had been the first country in the world outside China where cases of COVID-19 were officially reported, and at the time, that mattered. It was only when I explained I was going to support a friend having a baby that she conceded. By the time I arrived in Koh Phangan, talk of the virus was a low rumble. A Russian girl in my training who introduced herself as living in China winkingly assured us she’d fled the country weeks ago, to which we all laughed. A bar on the beach in Srithanu advertised a cocktail called “The Antivirus,” which made us chuckle. Lighthearted COVID-related memes about $8 flights to Italy began to fill me feed.
When I arrived in Bangkok, I marveled at an unfamiliar world. Smiling fitness instructors squirted hand sanitizer on my outstretched palms before a spin class, a security guard startled me sideways pointing a temperature gun at my forehead entering an embassy building, and about twenty percentage of the population wore masks. Never could I have imagined that a year later, all this and more would be a part of my daily routine.
But still, the baby about to arrive to the world felt like bigger news. I remember thinking, no matter what happens next, this week is precious. To get this time with my friend before her world, our worlds change. I had no capacity to understand how greatly they were going to do so.
While we waited for Kai to make his debut, I patiently marveled at how Thailand had changed in the long year and a half I’d been away; the longest stretch in my adult life, I believe. In the country that once seemed to have the strongest disposable plastic addiction I’d experienced anywhere in the world, I now found zero waste shops, robust recycling programs, incentives to bring your own containers to big box stores, and more.
It really truly inspired me. Positive change is possible, even in the places you’d never dreamed it might be!
Janine had posted up near Samitivej Hospital, which just so happens to be in my favorite Bangkok neighborhood of Thonglor (so considerate of her, no?) And when the Airbnb I booked turned out to be right around the corner from the adorable Get Well Zone, well, it just felt like fate.
This will now be a requisite stop to refill my plastic-free essentials when traveling through Southeast Asia! (Which yes! We will do, again!)
While I was in Bangkok to support Janine and her now-husband Tam however I could, there are plenty of hours to fill when patiently waiting for a baby to decide to make their big debut. So, I filled some of it with retreat research for a Wander Women aerial and yoga retreat in Thailand that I thought at the time would take place in 2021 (now, we’re aiming for 2022 — maybe?)
This retreat will be a beginner-friendly multi-location one enjoying the aerial communities and facilities in Bangkok, Koh Phangan, and Koh Tao. I had so much fun starting to dive into the circus world in Bangkok! Taking a class in Thai was a real trip — the instructor definitely tried to help me in English as much as possible, but mostly I had to pay close attention to her demos. Hoyhon Circus, I’ll be back!
And that sanitized spin session I mentioned? While I’m not normally a cardio queen, I had lingering ClassPass credits to wear out, so I burned them — and a load of calories — out at Absolute You (I have an absolute love hate relationship with this snooty Bangkok brand) and Ryde (my favorite spin studio in the city). Try one of their Thai Pop Rydes if you really want to immerse yourself in the local culture.
And while it took basically all my remaining points, I also couldn’t pass up the opportunity to check out the new Vikasa Bangkok after a fellow yoga teacher friend recommended it to me. I’d visited the Vikasa Retreat location on Koh Samui while my girl Shannon was doing her own yoga teacher training there, and couldn’t wait to see what they’d dreamed up in Bangkok. (Someday I’ll blog about it…)
It was the kind of experience that made me pinch myself — the kind of innovation that always made me crave a few months living in Bangkok, someday. The design of the studio was nothing short of wow, and the light and color softly shifted through the room while we practiced.
Little did I know at the time this would be one of the last yoga studios I’d visit for a very long time.
After all those sweats, some pampering was definitely in order! Janine and I met for our fair share of foot massages and pedicures — she introduced me to the Thai-loved app GoWabi, which allows you to book discount services at nearby spots — but I couldn’t resist trying one luxe little boutique spa for a full body Thai massage. Number 38 Spa was a fabulous find in the Thonglor area, and I’ll definitely return here again for a little oasis escape in the big city.
Wow, writing this post makes me miss Bangkok so much — and feel like it’s time to finally tackle my goal of writing an ebook to the city to complement my Wanderland Guide to Koh Tao!
Of course, fitness studios and spa treatments aren’t the only kind of self care I indulge in when I’m in Bangkok. I’d been waiting a year and a half to get back to Thailand to see a dentist so I could get a long overdue cleaning, get three fillings replaced, and have a root canal for $750 at my favorite luxury dental hospital in Bangkok (that bill would be 3-4x that, stateside.)
Funny enough I hemmed and hawed about whether to get the root canal, since they told me it wasn’t super urgent and I worried it would make my Smile Direct Club retainers not fit properly. In the end, the fact that I was heading soon to Sudan (or so I thought!) pushed me over the edge — I did not want to have a dental emergency there.
While my trip to Sudan was a COVID-19 casualty I wonder if I’ll ever be able to revive, I did get the tiniest taste of the country while procuring the visa for my trip (which has since expired, of course.)
When I realized that applying through the US consulate would cost over $200 more than applying through the Thai one, I decided to try my luck despite gathering conflicting information if I as an American citizen without Thai residency would be able to apply there.
My morning gamble turned out to be the most fascinating bureaucratic moment of my life. When I finally located the office — no small feat — and walked in, I was greeted as a curiosity. Upon receiving the surprising news that I was in fact, there to receive consular services, I was offered coffee and tea and welcomed with the warmth of being in someone’s living room. Upon realizing I’d forgotten a copy of my passport, one was cheerfully made for me (I contrast this to years of visiting Thailand’s immigration offices and applying for a Brazilian visa, where one astray photocopy can send a searing panic into one’s chest.)
Perhaps I should have had an inkling that this wouldn’t be a typical experience when the visa application had asked me both my religion and my blood type. Still, I was caught off guard when I was called into the personal office of the Minister of the Consulate, who offered me chocolate and more tea, and chatted to me for more than an hour about my trip. After giving me plenty of advice, handing me his personal email in case of any issues, and profusely thanking me for visiting Sudan, I was handed my shiny new visa on the way out! If that’s a preview of what it’s like to actually travel there, I hope I get the privilege of applying for a new visa again someday.
It turned out I was so, so lucky to have made that Sudan-inspired dental decision after all, as just a few weeks later I’d essentially be locked down on Koh Tao with no access to any tooth fixing facilities at all. Had I desperately needed an emergency root canal, I would have had to have left the island on a speed boat and wouldn’t be allowed to return, stranding myself mid-global lockdown.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. That was weeks away. At the time, I was just tooling around Bangkok, getting my teeth cleaned and my skin zapped. At Dermaster in Thonglor, I arrived for a laser hair removal appointment (just trying to keep up with my schedule with my normal laser goddess back in New York!) and was so startled at being asked to don a mask for the first time, I memorialized it with a selfie.
But, back to babies. We were so thrilled when our dear friend Paivi and her youngest baby Sami passed through Bangkok en route back to Finland for a quick visit, and we got to spend some brief quality time with them. Paivi had been such an incredible friend to me from afar for the previous eighteen months, always sending me warm messages and cute videos of her kids even when I was too overwhelmed with my mom’s illness to respond.
Sitting around Janine’s condo dinner table one night, her man cooking us a beautiful Thai feast with one baby by our side and one on the way I thought dang, have we come a long way from three single ladies who loved a wild party on the beach (I mean, that still technically totally does define me, but like, you get my point about the passage of time, ya know?)
As Janine’s due date grew closer and eventually passed, the circumference of our movements got smaller. I procured us smoothie bowls from Summer Bowl, which naturally both of us classified as competition research for Janine’s first baby, Living Juices. (Heartbreakingly, Living Juices recently closed its doors after seven years due to COVID — but again, I’m getting ahead of myself, here.)
What a waiting game it is, wondering when a baby will come, when a pandemic will officially be announced. (Oh, and don’t mind my blood red bath bomb below. Very, very interesting hue choice for that product.)
I can tell you that the minute I got the call that it was go time — while walking into an eyelash perming appointment, of course — and we walked into that hospital and got scanned and screened into the delivery room, the world shrunk to the size of those four walls.
The next eight hours were some of the most humbling of my life. There was an hour when it was just Janine and I in the natural birthing suite, going through her contractions together while a nurse occasionally popped her head in to check on us (and I’m sure Janine is majorly entertained at my use of the world “together” as she reads this, over in Thailand!).
Though I immediately had these impulses of whoah, I’m not prepared/qualified/ready for this, we just dove right in and it is hard to describe what a powerful and intense shared experience that was, two women bonded by this uniquely female experience of bringing new life into the world. (Again, I’m sure Janine is positively howling at this as the one who did all the pushing, ha, but let’s just say I was awed by the experience of stepping in as pinch-hitting doula!)
Later, Tam returned and we moved over into a surgical suite and there was a whir of doctors, machines, and cords. More hours passed.
And then, suddenly, it was go time. After all these hours, it felt like the delivery went by in a blink. Maybe it was the adrenaline. But in that mili-second before we heard Kai cry I felt pretty much every emotion accessible to the human mind, which all came releasing out as tears of relief and joy and awe the moment we heard that first wail into the world.
I am truly forever changed by the experience, and I don’t know what words I could possibly pluck from the English language that can describe the power of labor, or the experience of seeing a new mother hold her baby in her arms for the first time — especially when that mother is one of your best friends, who you’ve been through life and death with. Yet, I will say that as a woman who does not expect to have children, it was a gift to have this moment of clarity over the incredible bond between a mother and child and reflect on how I shared that with my own mom.
I’m so honored to have documented Kai’s last days in the womb and first moments in the world. Thank you Janine and Tam for letting me be a part of such a perfect moment in your family — and for letting me share them here. Janine, you are superwoman!
Of course, I had no idea that I was about to spend the first few months of Kai’s life with him, when COVID shut down the world and I decided to stay put safe and sound in Thailand. It was one of the great honors of my life when, months later, Janine and Tam asked me to be Kai’s godmother, forever cementing the bond we shared in those early days and weeks and months of Kai’s life together.
I distinctly remember leaving the hospital that night at about 2am, walking by a bunch of raging Thonglor nightlife spots and being almost bewildered, like, wait, life was just going on as normal out here?! It seemed almost incomprehensible that the rest of the planet had kept spinning for those hours that it had felt frozen, to us.
The next morning, I came back to the hospital to visit the new family again. I’d pushed back my flight to as late as I could; and it was taking off that afternoon. I thanked little Kai for making his appearance before I had to go, tipped my hat to his keeping us on our toes, and told him I’d see him down in Koh Tao.
And so I said goodbye to Bangkok once again, a familiar farewell but one that I never love making.
But, off I went into the world. It’s a big beautiful place I can’t wait for all of us to show Kai someday — and tell him the wild story of the year he came into it.
Up next, Koh Tao, where I’d spend far longer than planned…