Bangkok is not what we have been led to believe it is (although Jenny has made the astute observation that in some places it “did smell like poop a bit”).
“It smells a bit like poop” – Jenny M., Feb. 2013
My entire preconception of the place had been built around what popular culture and the occasional news snippet had told me it was: a vast crowded, sweaty, disease ridden slum full of drug dealers and prostitutes. Naturally, I had decided this was the perfect place to spend my 27th birthday. The reality is that Bangkok is rich and varied, and a truly global city. Sure, there are cracks where the second world/developing nation reality of Thailand peeks through and the less well-off Thais slip into and find a niche in which to survive, but the city can and will surprise anyone coming in with the same impressions I did. Imagine my disappointment.
We arrived in Bangkok near the infamous Khao San Road at about 5.30 am. We had about a ten minute walk to get to our bed and breakfast. The area around Khao San at this time was mostly deserted, although reasonably well lit with a couple of open-fronted hostel bars still serving a few straggling patrons. It was hot and muggy, and we still felt half asleep after our overnight bus trip. We were initially quite disoriented but a mysterious, friendly Thai shopkeeper who looked like he was about to begin opening up pointed us in the right direction without any prompting. Most Thais are very friendly but every now and then you will encounter one who will fall over himself to help you out.
We were lucky enough to be checked into our overnight accommodation by about 6 am and therefore had an air conditioned room in which to catch a couple of hours sleep. Whilst we were waiting to check in Jenny spotted a bloated bed bug on her bag and if we hadn’t been so exhausted we would have been horrified to contemplate the possibility that they had decided to hitch a ride with us. Another possibility is that this particular one had been living on the bus we took down. We would later learn that the tourist buses are a bit dirty and dodgy, and it is a given that on them your bags will be rummaged through and anything expensive will be taken. We were prescient enough to put all our electronic stuff in our small backpacks we kept with us, though Jenny’s bag had clearly been repacked and they had probably taken a 20 pound note from her. I realise this conflicts with my statement in the last paragraph about Thais being nice and helpful, but there’s this weird duality about the Thais as a people; some are super nice, others will try and take as much as you can give. Some will fit into both descriptions. Author Alex Garland describes the Thai people as “mercenary”, and to an extent he is absolutely right. Don’t let that put you off them though.
I found shortly after arrival some weird blisters on my forearm. A pharmacist told me it might be herpes. She gave me some cream. What the actual fuck.
Khao San Road is a crowded free for all, although it seems as though 80 per cent of the population are foreigners. Almost every shopfront on the street and surrounding area is now a hostel or guesthouse, each with its own bar, restaurant or bar/restaurant acing the street. The seating for these places spills over onto the footpath, and so this leaves little room for things like souvenir and clothes vendors who would no doubt be able fleece the transient tourist population for a few hundred baht here and there. The vendors’ solution is to set up shop on the road itself, invading the tarmac from inside the gutters, or wandering around with a portable tray of gimmicky bullshit or roasted scorpions. In any space of gutter not occupied by a temporary stall is a tuk tuk or taxi driver ready to rip you off to take you some place.
Standing room only
A particularly useful travel tip we learned about Bangkok: refuse the relentless offers of tuk tuk and taxi drivers who are parked and waiting, they are always going to over-charge you. Instead, flag down one in motion, and if it’s a cab driver, make sure they turn their meter on. The prices the parked guys will charge seem reasonable to me, but I’m an Australian and used to getting fleeced in my own country every day of my life. A normal cab trip in Bangkok should cost next to nothing.
We only stayed in Khao San Road for one night, and after finding out the sights in Bangkok were very expensive and overly crowded we gave up on them and on the morning of my birthday moved into the serviced apartment we would be spending the next few nights in. It was balls-out awesome. For the price of some minimalist, shitty motel in Aus we got a 70 square metre apartment with an outrageously big bedroom, an awesome shower, a kitchen and living room, and a completely-useless-save-for-one-excellent-feature washing machine. The washing machine was some inspired, computer driven hunk of shit that could take 12 hours to complete a cycle and still not dry your clothes. But it had a sterilisation feature that blasted your clothes with heat and air for 45 mins and killed anything that might be living in it that wasn’t a volcanic ocean vent dwelling exophile. This includes bed bugs. Pretty much everything we owned was systematically piled into the machine and any sneaky blood sucking little fuckers that had hoped to see the world were smote by the righteous and unforgiving hand of the Samsung wd-j1255c (but seriously, don’t buy it. It’s terrible at everything else.). I may have gotten too excited about a washing machine there but we had also moved to a different, larger and much more important part of the city called Silom, which was very nice and I guess something approaching a CBD. It was much less crowded and generally much nicer than Thanon Khao San. I had to walk about 3 blocks to see someone who wasn’t a Thai.
We had intended to meet up with a few course friends for the evening of my birthday but due to a series of unfortunate coincidences, accidents, and the fact that I’m actually kind of a jerk that I’m surprised anyone can be bothered putting up with, it ended up just being myself and Jenny hanging out. Regardless we still did some pretty rad stuff, including visiting the kind-of-famous-but-not-really Sky Bar, which apparently featured in the film The Hangover 2. I don’t remember it being in the film though, probably because it was kind of a shitty, forgettable film.
However, 64 storeys of excellent view.
We then headed up the other end of town toward an infamous party district called Patpong Road. Upon arrival we were swamped by upstanding, eloquent Thai gentleman trying to convince us that we should see a ping pong show. Eventually they wore us down, and we agreed to enter the classy and respectable establishment called “Super Pussy.”
I admit, I had wanted to see a ping pong show. It wasn’t a dirty, sexual thing. I was generally intrigued with this incredible ability these fabled women had to launch a ping pong ball from their vagina. Let’s call it the result of an inquiring mind, an expedition to confirm it actually happens and not accept the heresay of untrustworthy sources. Well, Super Pussy rapidly proved to not be the upstanding establishment its name had implied it was, and we quickly realised we had just paid 800 baht for two small Chang beers and then were expected to tip our waitress and some other random girl to the tune of 100 baht each. I was then promptly handed a paddle and forced to defend poor Jenny and myself from a relentless barrage of high velocity projectiles of a genital origin. I was genuinely impressed with the girl’s power, accuracy, and ability to take our money from our wallets. Once she had finished we quickly departed the Super Pussy before the next girl could get started on her pack of cigarettes, having spent about AU$50 in ten minutes.
The next few days we spent hanging out with friends from our course who had managed to finally arrive or overcome their bout of food poisoning. We spent some time on the Bangkok equivalent of Oxford Street, where we met the author of a heart wrenching biography. As a young boy he had had a rough childhood, being forced to enter the sex trade. We shared some drinks and laughs with him, managed to subvert his advances on everyone in our group, and felt slightly bad about not guying his book (but not that bad).
The man and street in question
I also twice survived a gauntlet of gay club promoters who grabbed my arse and pleaded with Jenny to let them have me for just one night. It was all in good humour, but I have often regarded the universally irresistible combination of my manly musk and beard as a burden.
We left Bangkok with vastly changed impressions. Whilst I was generally interested in experiencing what it had to offer, my misconceptions had led me to believe it was not a place I could tolerate for long. Whilst this little piece may have focused on some more sordid aspects, after experiencing Bangkok first-hand I now genuinely think Bangkok is a place I could live and work in. It really is a modern and functional city, even if the pollution is quite bad. We even managed to find a decent Lebanese restaurant. Apparently most of the work for teachers in Thailand is centred in Bangkok, and it now presents a realistic possibility for us to find employment, at least in the short term.
Bangkok. It’s alright.
We had booked a last minute flight to Surat Thani, the transit lounge for people wishing to visit the isles on the Eastern side of the peninsula in Southern Thailand. We had said goodbyes to some good friends, but hoped to see them again.
I have about another week’s worth of stuff to write about, Mum, so I shall try and get it up directly.