The sticky humidity pricks our skin as soon as we alight the aircraft. It’s almost midnight and the three of us have had quite a day. Nonetheless, irrepressible excitement overcomes fatigue, and we make way toward the capital of the country: Bangkok.
The tune of the 80’s hit, “One Night in Bangkok” had basically been put on repeat in our heads. Stories of amphetamine-based energy drinks, terrible Thai whiskey, and of course, ladyboys had filled our ears in the months preceding departure. Immediately upon arrival, I understood why.
Our pink taxicab from the airport drove quickly and swerved smoothly. After safely reaching our hostel, we were unsure of a fair fare. At this point, anything between 500 and 5,000 baht seemed reasonable. Currency conversion from yuan to HK dollar to baht left us in an unknowing air. We settle at a rate later discovered to be excessively high, but at a difference of about US$3, we have no worries.
Lub D Bangkok hostel turned out to be fantastic. We held three of the eight beds in the mixed dorm and settled quietly as our ‘roommates’ slept. The place was clean, had hot showers, flushing toilets, and a sociable lobby. Our heat-induced thirst for beer would go unquenched as our first lesson in Thailand was learned: no alcohol can be sold between midnight and 3am. Also, sales between 8am and noon are prohibited. Good thing I usually drink between 3 and 8am……….. :-\
I woke up with my jeans on my face. Apparently they had fallen onto my bunkmate’s head during the night, and he returned them accordingly. I hadn’t yet a lock for the locker so I shared my twin bed with my overstuffed backpack.
Day one of seeing the city answered many of our questions right away. With zero background of the Thai language I was slightly concerned that getting around would be very difficult. Fears were placated when we saw first hand how the economy of this country is run: English-speaking tourists and their linguistically capable vendors. Nobody had excellent English by any means, but they know enough to convince you to give them money. Sometimes you get had, and others you can’t believe what a steal you get. I bought shoes and some tanks and still don’t know if I got a good deal or not. All business transactions held a degree of uncertainty.
We took a river boat North to the Grand Palace to see what the hoopla was about. This is probably the single biggest tourist hotspot, and the locals know it. We are approached by a friendly man explaining that the Palace is closed until 3pm. He recommends us to a TukTuk driver who drives us around the city to see a number of attractions. First we see the ‘standing Buddha.’ It was cool, but nothing outrageous. I think they just built it because most other Buddhas are depicted in a sitting position. Donation boxes were available.
A man outside was selling birdcages with beautiful little sparrows or something. If you purchase the cage for 100baht and release the birds in the temple you will get good luck for one year. Then the man’s family catches the birds again and sells them to the next sucker. Poor birds. We decide not to perpetuate the recidivism, and would take our chances without the good luck.
We check out a few more temples during our guided TukTuk experience. We had to intermittently act as though we were genuinely shopping in a jewelry store and a couple of suit shops so our driver could get free gas. Transporting hordes of tourists to these locations has great incentive for drivers making ground-level wages. The suit salesmen were pissed that Gianmarco and I live in Shanghai, as suits are cheaper in China. They assured us that the quality was ‘no as good.’
Our ride ends where it started, and we get excited to see the Grand Palace. We pay our driver the equivalent of $1 before scrunching our noses upon realization that the palace was closed. These people just stand outside and direct the unknowing away to ensure their return. No worries. We grab an excellent Thai lunch including prawns and the smallest chicken wings I have ever had.
That evening we went to the Patpong Night Bazaar. About 200 small shops brandish pretty much the same shirts, handbags, shoes, and bracelets. Surrounding them are some of the bars that give Bangkok the reputation that precedes arrival. Smut and sex shows are solicited to anyone looking older than 13. Go Go dancers line the tops of bars and beckon your entrance. Some girls stand outside and literally grab your arms and tug at your will power. Even definite declines are somehow interpreted as acquiescence, and we were left with no other defense but physical refusal.
We find a relatively classy bar and enjoy a few drinks. Emphasis on ‘relatively.’ We grin and ask each other a few times if he really believes that we are in Thailand. After a while, we believe it. The bar manager brings us a laser pointer and tells us to point out which girl we want. Really.
We leave for a disco and play some pool with some local girls. One was really good. I swayed in pitiful attempts to connect with the 8ball. And then I realized that I had to hit the cue ball first. I ask if they are ‘professionals’ and they ensure us that they work together in a hotel. I later find out that they were, in fact, ‘on the clock’. The cab home loses his way and I decided to get out at a street corner. I find my way back unscathed.
We arise the following morning at a decent hour to pack in as much of the city as possible. We take the river taxi even further north this time so see Kho San road. This turns out to be my favorite area as it is comprised of hippie backpackers and friendly shopkeepers. I buy a lock for my locker and a few flag patches to sew onto my backpack. We have brilliant mariscos for lunch and soak up some sun while trying to get lost in the markets and festivities. Gianmarco buys a sweet Om tapestry and I consider cornrows. My hair is definitely long enough for them by now, but it takes 3 hours and I can’t deal with that kind of commitment right now.
We buy some comfortable canvas clothing and take a cab to Chinatown. I’m excited to use some mandarin, but the opportunity never really arises. We buy some fresh pineapple and find a sweet spot for photos over the river. Far from the tourist epicenter, we draw stares and smile back. Hailing a cab is difficult in these parts, so we are forced to wander a while before finding one.
We eat dinner adjacent to a rainbow club called “Dicks” and I think it was Gianmarco who asked if Matt and I thought it was actually a gay joint. We laugh.
I want to buy a pair yellow Asics from the Bazaar so we return. I haggle as hard as I can and think I got a good deal; for a while he didn’t want to do business with me. I walked away comfortably.
Matt has a concerned look on his face when he and Gianmarco find me again. Gianmarco had apparently been haggling a little too hard and was threatened with evil spirits. I think she told him: “You wake up tomorrow and you dead!”
Evidently, the 5 baht argument, once succumbed to, was ameliorated as she motioned to grab the cash. Gianmarco then raises his arm and demands an apology before handing over her asserted amount. I heard something like “soddy” mixed in with a muttering of street Thai, and Gianmarco grabbed his tees.
Matty Matt returns home to crash out, so the Guice and I prowl. Tiger beers are bought at the cleanest of places. The perimeters of these bars are lined with booths and paired tables such that everyone inside is facing the center. They are cookie-cutter; some only differentiate their name by adding a 2, or 3, or 4 after oft used names: King’s Corner IV, Queen’s Castle 3, Super Pussy 2.
Guice snaps a few discreet CoolPix and we decide to walk around. I feel a little wild and mention something about getting into vice. So we do…
I had heard enough stories and had been tugged at by enough people to have built up a curious image of the so-called ‘pingpong show.’ Four of our UK roommates, all of whom female, had seen one the night before and were shocked that we hadn’t already indulged in the likes. It was hardly an indulgence.
The show was vile. The most morally reprehensible thing I have ever seen in my life. After being a target for halves of bananas, returning ping pong balls with a real paddle, and something to do with blowdarts, we had had enough. I thought it would be something erotic- not in the slightest. Just, gross. It was kind of like an obscene horror movie which you peer through your fingers to see. A discrepancy then arose about the difference between ‘three’ beers and ‘free’ beers. We were, once again, wished upon death before leaving.
To avoid nightmares, we enjoyed some Long Islands at an outdoor bar and regained an understanding of what normal people look like. Actually, it was more like a ‘sad dad’ marathon. White, swanky sixty-somethings paraded around their 20ish-year-old Thai ‘girlfriends.’ Relationships blatantly based on love. Or sex and money. Undignified personae were shown through contrived veneers. Open-shirt types boasted with shoulders held back- until one would take notice of the people not paying for arm candy, and sigh in attempt to exhale the humiliation. Eyes averted, he would tell himself it doesn’t matter, and take another drink before planting a wet one on his investment’s lips. We took turns guessing who was a ladyboy, and discussed the value of youth before walking back to the hostel.
On our last day in Bangkok, we once again returned to the river taxi and took it to the Grand Palace. The same stop, same crowds, and same people outside turning away the unknowing. We nod through them and enter the gates.
Purple pants are rented to show respect for the King’s temple. Not by the fact that they were purple, but persons wearing shorts are not permitted entry. I looked like an LA Laker with my yellow shoes appearing only in stride, below the billowing parachute pants.
The temple is AWESOME. Huge statues of Arhats and fantastic creatures overlook the golden-thatched roofs and tiled paths. A scaled version of the famous Angkor Wat in Cambodia is chiseled out of stone and lays in the shade adjacent to the main house of prayer. Cameras incessantly click. Crisp colors show vibrantly from artwork dating more than 300 years. Some buildings appeared to be constructed out of gold. All are at least plated with it.
We take off our shoes and pay homage to the Buddha. Sacred water is dripped atop our foreheads by use of a lily. After entering, care is taken to avoid sitting such that our feet face the venerated statue. I sneak a flashless photograph, as cameras are prohibited, but the allure was overwhelming.
Silent nods signal enough prayer, and we return outside. Within a matter of 60 seconds, our first Thai downpour is experienced. Caught without umbrellas, we briefly embrace the wetness as an escape from the heat, but quickly realize that is not really convenient. We run under another roof and are dripping soaked by the time we get there. We laugh and hail a cab.
Gianmarco buys a camera at the mall to replace the one we think had been swiped from his pocket the night before. After going just 6 hours without taking pictures, we conclude that 3 and a half weeks of traveling one of the coolest countries of the world will require a camera. His investment was quickly proven worthy.
Repacking our backpacks takes less than 5 minutes and we are headed to the airport. Jumping a mere puddle, we are Koh Samui bound.
For more stories of my initial days in bangkok, visit our website at www.talkbangkok.com