December 16, Bangkok
First night in Bangkok, I check in to Born Free Hostel and hit Khao San road with a group of folks from all over the western world. I have one of the infamous “buckets” — that’s a cheap vodka and a gallon of sprite, drowning in a bucket of ice.
We end up in a rowdy bar full of just about every kind of person. Around 2 AM, the bar girls and ladyboys of the night are making their rounds. The bar is busy. It’s a full red light district by this time, and the police pass through to collect their bribes. I stumble home alone, buying a chicken wrap with the last of my Singaporean dollars. I’m laughing, tipsy and exhausted.
The next day I have to switch to Born Free’s second hostel closer to Khao San now that the place was booked full, and end up in another ultra-mall called the MBK Centre, a vertical sea of vendors peddling everything imaginable. I sell my old camera in the sea of nearly identical shops on floor four, stopping for a short chat with my buyer about business in Bangkok, and how American street food would do well with the locals. I am completely lost in that mall, still lost on my way home. I’m unable to get the right bus with my backpacker’s Thai vocabulary. I end up talking with a local who wants to visit his sister’s hostel in Khao San on a whim. We agree to split the fare on a taxi, but he insists on paying the whole thing when we arrive.
One of the first things I notice about Bangkok is all of the vibrant colors, especially pink and lime green. Most of the taxis are pink, as are a few of the public buses and rickshaws. Street food is awesome, cheap, and diverse. But you do need to know where to look and when to look, if you want authentic dishes. Venders serve fried tarantulas and roaches in Khao San, but I don’t see the locals eating that stuff. When I think about it, it’s pretty hilarious that the locals round up some pests, dip them in hot oil, and serve them to tourists for the price of a full course meal in a decent sit-down restaurant.
Bangkok, my kind of city. But then there’s something I like about every city. The city is a special creature and is its own ecosystem. Sure, all cities share some fundamental characteristics, but each city also has an essence which can’t be found anywhere else. Bangkok is one that vibrates with opportunity and transformation as much as it does despair and hopelessness.
Finally rested away that hangover, booked a big flat mattress upstairs for 100 baht on an over-booked discount. I’m not done with Bangkok. Trying not to plan much — action tends to spill into yet more action, planning into more planning. I have breakfast at Hong Kong Noodle, just a street corner away from Khao San, order the egg noodle with jumbo shrimp wontons, topped with Hong Kong roasted duck, a great meal for 90 baht.
I have a good chat with the lady in charge at Born Free. She and her husband have a terrific story. She grew up in the area and tried many different things before opening a travel agency when she was my age. A little while later, she met her husband, a graphic designer from Europe who’d quit a secure job back home to work on a wildlife reserve in South Africa. He’d been there for two years before dropping everything again to visit Thailand. Everything fell into place and it took them about one year to establish two hostels in one of the busiest tourist locations in Thailand. “Starting a hostel is easy,” he says, “but maintaining one is difficult. Use what you know to try what you don’t know. The best way is to watch others who have already got the skills you want to master. See your failures as part of the journey. Over time, you’ll know what works and what doesn’t work for you, and your failures will become a positive part of who you are.” She smiles. I get what she’s saying. You must find your own way.
I spend the evening at a local bar, have a glass of whisky and sit for a while. I order a drink for a lady who’s been sitting alone for nearly an hour, it was something I’d never done before. What I didn’t know is that in Bangkok it’s typical for a foreigner to purchase “lady drinks” for the bar girls they want to eventually take home. That doesn’t come up in conversation, but her boyfriend works at the bar and she is just waiting around for him to finish his shift, case closed.
There’s Thai music playing from the stereo until a young guy walks up and starts to strum the guitar.
I meet two Bangkok locals on the way back to the hostel, brother and sister. We exchange words over some street food and decide to go to Khao San, on a whim. It’s a fun night, and we can hardly understand one another. A tower of beer has the magic to break down the language barrier.
I spend a good part of the day writing, and in the evening meet with some Bangkok friends who live and work here. They’re both Thai, he’s an assistant manager at a five star hotel in Bangkok, bouncing from branch to branch for the past eight years. He’s great with English, which is a big help for his sister. She’s just graduated university, and has a well-paid job in a big company.
My friends show me to one of Bangkok’s better Thai restaurants, by the river. I took the taxi boat down that river the other day. Between the river and the long bus ride back to Khao San via Chinatown are some of Bangkok’s best sights. I finish the day off with an authentic Thai dinner among good company, then take the boat home.
The Hua Lampong station can be reached by taxi from Khao San road for about 60 baht. The train station is much smaller than I expected, especially with the memory of the metro in Singapore, Perth, and certainly anywhere in India. By comparison, this station seems to be empty, and more than a quarter of the passengers are tourists. Maybe there’s a rush hour I’m not aware of, or people simply don’t leave Bangkok.
There’s a food court, where you have to exchange your cash for coupons. Upstairs is a Black Canyon Coffee, downstairs a Dunkin’ Donuts and a couple of hawker stalls selling local coffee or fried meat. Like the airport, there’s a seating area reserved for monks and novices. When we all stand for the national anthem, the monks interestingly remain seated. I sit on the top floor for a while to observe.
For the first hour the train slowly moves through a sprawling city, the outskirts of Bangkok. This city is huge. Graffiti and mismatched, colorful buildings, shrines and billboards portraying King Rama IX. Everything has a clear, sepia tinge to it this morning, especially when seen through the view of any passenger window. Plenty of empty seats, maybe they’ll fill up along the way.
It’s almost an hour and a half before we pass the old capital of Ayuthaya. I dip my complimentary cream filled bun into coffee and catch up on some writing, snapping photos through the window whenever inclined to do so. I think the first half of this trip will consist of empty-looking farm towns, not quite what you’d call villages in this stretch of the world. Much of it is wetland, rice paddies laying fallow or out of season.
Occasionally I spot cloud-shaped mountains among what could be endless fields of rice and wheat. My memories of the Australian bush are still fresh and this all mixes together with emerging memories of India, Nepal. Slowly the new landscape becomes familiar. Here is less populated than India, far more wild and nearly incomparable to Australia. There is prominent Thai architecture and Buddhist temples all around, often encased in patches of jungle flora. There are mining projects cutting away the hills near Bangkok, reminiscent of the Western Ghats near Mumbai. Infrastructure appears to be pretty good, particularly concerning the roads, and I see more personal cars than motorbikes. Many of them are brand new, heavy-duty trucks of the sort I seldom see used to their actual potential. Some of them were no doubt bought for status.
The sun sets, assuming a red tinge that paints whole sky a peach color. I visit the toilets and look through the only open window to a serene countryside. The fields smell of lightly roasted peanuts. The train is about two hours away from Chiang Mai now. I haven’t booked a room anywhere and don’t know a thing about the city. That excites me. Slowly, I feel the experiences of the past year rolling further behind, composting. It was a tough year, a boring year, and now in the belly of this vast and welcoming new culture, I’m finally back where I want to be.