Monday, August 8, 2011

How Southeast Asia Broke My Internal Thermostat

It didn't actually rain the afternoon this was taken, so I'm
assuming that's mostly smog in the sky behind Wat Phra Kaew's
impressive ornamentation, not clouds - either way, it did a great job
of keeping Bangkok predictably hot and sticky.
I am not a hot weather person. Growing up in the temperate climate of Southern California, I was spoiled by summers that maxed out at about 27ºC and winters where temperatures of less than 10ºC were shocking. After an uncomfortable season or two on the U.S.' East Coast in college, I adapted to winters involving below-freezing temperatures without much trouble. I even, to some degree, learned to enjoy the cold that made spring seem all the sweeter once it finally arrived. Extreme heat, however, I stayed as far away from as possible. If I had a choice between bundling into a coat and baking in a tank top, I'd almost always choose the former - or the latter with a heavy dose of air-conditioning.

So while planning my April jaunt to Southeast Asia earlier this year, I expected to be pretty darn uncomfortable throughout the majority of my trip. April is the region's hottest month, meaning there are few places where the high is likely to be below 30ºC (or, really, more like 33°) and nighttime lows don't bring much relief.

On the evening of my arrival, I stepped out of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport shortly after 11pm and, rather than the cool ocean breeze I'd left behind in Sydney, felt the sticky Thai heat creep under my skin. After spending five summers in swampy Washington, DC, I'm no stranger to the unpleasant combination of intense heat and sky-high humidity, but there's a pervasiveness to the Thai atmosphere that's unlike anything I'd experienced before: the air has weight, substance and pushes back against your every movement. Slow down, it says, you're not going anywhere in a hurry, so just relax and go with the flow. Mai pen rai - no worries! (The only thing in the entire country that seems to be immune to this is Bangkok traffic.)

By the time I got into the taxi that would take me to my hostel near Siam Square, every inch of my skin was coated with a fine sheen of sweat that felt like it had been there since the day I was born. I walked into my hostel room and whimpered when I saw the request not to set the thermostat any lower than 23ºC - as hot as I was, 20º sounded like it might, possibly, after several hours, be cool enough. But I'd come to Southeast Asia wanting to experience it as it is (as much as possible for a blonde-haired, blue-eyed farang), so I set the thermostat for the prescribed 23º and eventually cooled off enough to fall asleep.

In sticky Bangkok, it's the little things - like
a 20-baht fan and a cold Diet Coke - that keep
you comfortable.
I split the next day between the overwhelming sprawl of Chatuchak Weekend Market and Wat Phra Kaew, home of the Emerald Buddha, and realized a couple of hours in that, oddly enough, the heat wasn't that bad. It was still sweltering and the lack of a breeze made it more so, but at some point it had stopped bothering me. Maybe it was that I'd slowed my pace to a leisurely stroll or that I'd purchased a hand-held fan from a vendor at Chatuchak for 20 baht (quite possibly the best roughly 65 cents I've ever spent) that helped stir the air around my face. Whatever it was, by the end of the day I was pleased to conclude that, while 36°C with 95% humidity would never make my list of favorite weather conditions, neither was it going to bother me too much for the next two weeks. (In the interest of full disclosure: I still spent the day covered in sweat and gulping copious amounts of water, but I wasn't unhappy about it. Although knowing I had an air-conditioned hostel to go back to at the end of the day might have helped with that.)

It wasn't yet 8am, but the heat was enough to
have already drained half my battery. (At least,
I assume it was the heat and not the repeated
attempts at getting a photo with both me and
Angkor Wat in it...)
Several days later I had crossed the border into Cambodia, where the intensity of the sun made Bangkok look like a nice, shady park in comparison. To me, Siem Reap didn't feel as sticky as Bangkok had, but it was several degrees hotter and lacked Bangkok's thick smog to cut the beating of the sun's rays. The clearest indication of the difference came during my one and only day at Angkor Wat. Throughout my time in Thailand, as long as I charged my camera battery each night, I didn't have a problem; in Cambodia, the heat was so intense that my battery started sputtering three hours after I arrived at Angkor and died less than an hour after that. (Angkor Wat tip: Take extra camera batteries!) I spent the little time I had in Siem Reap sweaty and flushed, but - just like in Bangkok - didn't really care.

After Siem Reap, I headed back into Thailand, this time North to Chiang Mai, where the first day of Songkran was winding down as I arrived. For those of you who are unfamiliar with your Theravada Buddhist holidays, Songkran is the Thai festival that celebrates the Lunar New Year in mid-April. The rituals surrounding the New Year have to do with the bathing of living spaces, Buddha images and monks and making merit or paying tribute to elders...but for all intents and purposes, what it's really become is a nation-wide water fight lasting from one to three days (or more!), depending on where you are. And, as most of the travel blogosphere will tell you, Chiang Mai is the place to be for Songkran.

Songkran-enforced cool. I think I've left
water parks drier than this. (If you're not
seeing any wet spots, it's because there
aren't any dry ones!)
What does all of this Songkran business have to do with the heat, you ask? Well, when I say water fight, I mean an all-out assault with water guns, hoses, buckets and bowls, being sprayed, thrown at or dumped on you by everyone on the street, from children barely big enough to walk to their grandparents. Let's just say that, whatever the weather, it's not hard to stay cool during Songkran, especially if you happen to be in Chiang Mai. (It's also a ridiculous amount of fun, but that's for another post.)

One thing I did notice about my reaction to the heat while I was in Chiang Mai was that I was no longer wishing I could set the air-conditioning down to 20°, as I had that first night in Bangkok. In fact, I often found myself setting it at 25°, or even shutting it off altogether. The same was true when I reached Koh Lanta, one of the Southern islands on the Andaman Sea side. The humidity there was especially brutal, so I kept the air-conditioning on at night to cut through it and set the fan on low to keep the air moving around the bed and blow the few mosquitoes that found their way into my bungalow away, but I found myself setting the thermostat to 25° or higher and still needing to bundle into my sweater to sleep. What was happening to me?!

Back in Sydney, I arrived toward the end of April to find that it had been raining for a week and would continue for most of the next. It wasn't particularly cold, but I was freezing. I wore layers of sweats and two pairs of socks. I huddled in bed at night, shivering until I warmed up enough to fall asleep. I drank copious amounts of tea and coffee, clutching at the mug until every remnant of warmth had faded. When the temperature dropped to 15° at night - a temperature I had greeted with a sigh of relief in Tasmania when my visit coincided with Sydney's 40°+ February heat wave - I whimpered and briefly considered adding a third pair of socks. After a month of this, I decided it was official: Thailand and Cambodia had smashed my internal thermostat to pieces. In two weeks of steamy weather, Southeast Asia had not only overridden my lifelong aversion to temperatures above 24° degrees, it had me longing for them.

While I've gotten a bit better in the three months since my return (read: I don't start staring wistfully at the heater until it drops to 22°, rather than 25°), I still find myself craving heat at temperatures I used to think were ideal and sighing in relief when I step into the bright Sydney sun, rather than looking for a patch of shade. I imagine that I'll continue to shift back toward "normal" until I'm once again grumbling at 30° temperatures, but it may be a while. Or maybe I should just head back to Thailand or Siem this point, I'm getting kind of sick of wearing two pairs of socks.


James Shannon said...

I got you beat ... I spent five months in SE Asia, and once I went back to Canada, I was wearing my parka in sunny and +13c weather! Took me 2 months to get re-acclimatized to Canadian ... summers!

Brutal! :)

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

Yikes! After how affected I was by just two weeks, I can't imagine what the impact of several months would be. I'm impressed that it only took you two months to re-acclimatize!

Kyle said...

I think as long as you go in mentally prepared, the human body can support anything!

And wow, two months to get back into "normal" climatization (whatever that was, let's just call normal the way you were before). That's crazy!

Chris said...

I think growing up in chilly (by Aussie standards) Ben Lomond has had the reverse effect on me. I'm perfectly happy to stroll around in t-shirts during the 'cold' Sydney days, but even slight heat has me a sweaty mess haha

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

Kyle - I think you're right about being mentally prepared. Knowing how hot it was going to be and accepting it beforehand definitely helped!

Chris - I used to be the same (although living in the swampy Mid-Atlantic in the U.S. for a while changed that somewhat), which was why acclimatizing to SE Asia so quickly was such a surprise!