Sunday, June 1. 2008
Next stop was Phuket. I don’t want to enervate myself further, but let’s just say that I hated every single square centimetre of the island and one night was one too many. Perfect beaches with sand like talcum powder, covered in disgusting resorts and fat Eurotrash. Nights filled with neon and more go-go bars than you can count. If I was sixty, divorced and relatively wealthy, this would be heaven – and that’s exactly the target market. It’s almost no fun and totally the wrong scene if you’re me. Or have standards. Or morals. Or decency. Not to come off like a puritan – I spent quite a while looking at the menu, so to speak, at the bars, but it was just too much. A longer description would probably be ideal, because it’s quite a scene, but maybe some other day. Why couldn’t this shitehole have been ground zero on Boxing Day 2004? Maybe it would have been wiped off the map altogether and we’d all be talking about it in the past tense. Maybe all the resorts would have gone away and something more rustic, close to nature, something with some vibes would have sprung up – instead almost nothing was washed away, except the people who deserved it least. The whole place needs to be crushed. So I got the fuck away, ever more jaded at the whole of southern Thailand and what it’s become, the circus it’s become, the excuseless parade of crap that it’s become.
OK, that would be a cop out, to not tell you how it is, what the place it like. It’s paradise lost, it’s a natural beauty covered in horse shit, it’s an amazingly tasty looking plate of ribs covered in ants. I like the last one best. You can still see what it was, before the infestation, and you know how good it might have tasted. You might even still be able to eat it, if you were desperate enough, or didn’t care, or didn’t know, or didn’t realise. It is an island, blessed with some incredible stretches of sand, sand so soft and powdery you almost won’t believe it. It squeaks underfoot and doesn’t stick to your skin at all. The water, for all the people who come and visit and in spite of all the boat traffic, remains clear and blue. You can see the bottom all the way out as far as you might dare swim, lest you get hit by a passing longtail boat, and all the other factors, like the weather, are everything a tropical resort should be. It has everything, and after year upon year of being the it destination in Thailand, all the amenities and all the infrastructure is there. Hell, you can fly direct to the airport from most every major city in the region, and quite a few well connected terminals further afield, like Sydney, LA and Frankfurt, making it no more than a connection away. Getting there is easy, and as expensive as the top end might be, go mid range or budget and your winter holidays just became sun soaked at a more than reasonable price. Everything else is mostly Thailand prices too, from the drinking and eating to all the little bits of life. I see the attraction, don’t get me wrong, but I’m a snob sometimes, I admit it, and I like my beaches a bit nicer.
Nicer in this case means trash all the resort umbrellas on the sand (they stretch from one end to the other), get rid of all the people selling things (you want to eat, drink or get rubbed down? Get off your arse and cross the road) and move the development back (even just a little, so it’s not right on the edge of the water, and preferably a kilometre away, so some semblance of nature can be felt). How relaxing can it be to lie under one of a hundred or more identical umbrellas and be constantly badgered by sales people while the road thunders behind you? Not all if it is like that, sure, but enough if it is to make me think some folk are getting shafted there. But it’s been there for years, and my complaints are nothing new. If you don’t like it, leave. I follow my own advice. But not until I’d seen the nightlife.
Patong beach is just one stretch of sand that turned this place into a circus. And it’s the main spectacle once the sun goes down. Platinum card users but expensive seafood and deluxe hotel rooms, wine imported from God knows where, over-zealous locals shout about everything they want you to buy at inflated prices. Suits are the most vividly hawked item, for some reason these guys try 100% harder than the rest. The only thing not showed in your face are the strippers – and that’s because you’re in the wrong street.
Venture down that street and you’ll be blinded, either by neon or God himself, and more shouting girls than you could ever hope to grope. Or be groped by, because that’s how they get you in. Stand in your way and grab you. There’s nothing subtle about it, nothing at all, and each and every one of them could be yours. For a price. I’m telling you, it’s almost too much. Each place has its own name (I’d call mine ‘Slutte Garden’) and each laneway has a name, my favourite being ‘Soi Easy’. That’s ‘Easy Street’, more or less, and nothing could be more appropriate. There’s an average of two girls to a pole and not nearly enough guys to go around. This means they all try extra hard to get you in. It’s an experience, to be sure, but would I want to go back? The soullessness of it all sours me greatly, in hindsight. I’m not travelling to get a fill of that kind of action and if I wanted mindless titillation, I’d watch a porno. If I wanted to get off but didn’t have a consenting partner, I can jack off no problems. That’s what it’s all about, you getting off and them making their share for doing it.
So that’s Phuket. Pray for an earthquake, or go running directly there, because I’ve either described your heaven or your hell.
Next stop, Gulf of Thailand coast. The islands of legend, the real heart of why Thailand is the place to be, the real deal. Right? Dare I say I was disappointed by it all, again? Already? It was already clear to me that Thailand, or at least, the dirty south, was not going to be my gig. Still, I had to see it and I was fast regretting that I’d budgeted so much time to do so. The gulf coast islands are, in order of south to north and, incidentally, popularity – Ko Samui, Ko Pha-Ngan and Ko Tao. Samui was the first to be discovered, and it was backpackers who did the uncovering. Back in the seventies when all this was new, the original hippy trail types came upon an island of amazing natural beauty and splendour, a place so amazing that they couldn’t believe they had it to themselves. It wasn’t even a place the Thais were hip to, indeed, the whole tourism industry in Thailand would have been in its infancy. So they found it and enjoyed it and word got around about it. It started off in the hippy trail, but it was always going to get big, and eventually the 80’s happened and boom – now it’s famous, now it’s developed. Pha-Ngan was always there, visible from Samui, but was always more rugged and harder to get around, unruly to non-existent roads meant the first generation of beach seekers hired local fishermen to take them around. It remained more or less a low-key little sister to Samui, and still is in many ways, except once a month when the full moon comes around. Then it explodes. Back in the nineties, they say, at Paradise bungalows, I hear, it might have been someone’s birthday – they had a big party on the beach at Hat Rin and it was awesome. They went back the next month, and so it began. Now it’s the biggest beach party in the world, the new year’s event pulling near 40,000 people. It’s the stuff of legend and me, not jaded by it all, was planning to hit it up – hence the timing and all. Ko Tao, it’s there, it’s got a good diving scene – it’s not part of the story, so let’s let it go.
So what happened out there? I arrived in Surat Thani, the main transit point for getting a boat out there, and getting off the bus there was no public transport in sight. Just some asshole travel agent guys. I followed one and he wanted 650 to get to Ko Samui – I nearly swore at him. As I left he tried to get me to haggle. Haggle over the price of transport on a major route! This wasn’t a taxi to a distant border town or a boat to a far off beach, this was one of the most travelled routes in Thailand. He was set up just right to rip people off. I should have spat at him. I walked out and up the road, wondering where the bus station was. After all, the bus had left me there, so it couldn’t be far. It actually is, some ten kilometres away, so my conclusion is that the bus company gets a slice off one or more of the local travel agent guys to deliver ignorant tourists like me. Angry and confused, and it was late, I went up the road in search of something, and came across another travel agency (I passed a few but no-one talked to me) and the guy working there asked me where I was going. Ko Samui, I said, how can I get there? He’d sell me a ticket, and gave me a reasonable price. Lulled into a sense of security, I sat down and talked to the guy.
I had just met the friendliest, most honest travel agent in all Thailand, no shit. He was the real deal, and he talked me out of going to Samui. Why? The new moon was but two days away, and there’s half moon and full moon parties as well, you know. I knew of them, and didn’t mind the idea of seeing one of them, so I agreed and he told me the best way at this time would be to take the night ferry, leaving at eleven, and I’d be there at the crack of dawn. He was open about his commission and I was cool with it, so I got the ticket and thanked him. He let me leave my bags there so I could go get some food (it was about seven o’clock by now) and I did. Surat Thani is another concrete jungle that looks just like Hat Yai and with about the same amount of charm. The night market is big enough, and sees hardly any foreigners that they don’t even think to rip you off a few baht here and there. I got fed and went back to the travel agency. The guy was still there (his name was Joke) and we got to talking about the industry he was in and all of that, about how many rip-off guys you meet, and he told me I wasn’t just paranoid, it was all true. They’ll go for any white guys they see, some of them, unscrupulously. He didn’t use that word, his English was kind of sketchy, just good enough to get by in a conversation, but he would have used it if he had known it.
He was pretty grateful for the conversation practice and since his boss had gone, he let me use the internet there for free. I later heard he charges 50 an hour, a little steep, but seeing as it’s a duck shoot for tourists along that street, I understand. We talked until nine, when he closed, and then he gave me a lift to the dock and we ate dinner together, had a few beers, and then he paid half even though I had more. That’s how I knew he wasn’t just being nice to a customer – he’d just made himself a new friend. The boat left on time and he waved me off. What a nice guy.
The other backpackers on the night boat were not interested in talking. So much for that. It was easy enough to sleep, but before I knew it we were there, even before the sun was up. Off the boat and into the waiting arms of the taxi mafia. Waiting with laminated signs with the names of beaches distant, and vastly inflated prices. I tried to bargain, to reason with them, but no, they wouldn’t move – this was the ultimate example of the attitude towards tourists in this part of the world. Take them for all you can, especially when you have them over a barrel. Me, I walked. The shouted at me that it would take too long, but I still walked. The haven’t reckoned with the likes of me yet. And so I walked, and the sun came up, and it was hot. Bags heavy. Long way to go. A few people stopped and tried to get me to go to their bungalows, but they weren’t in the right place or price range. The girls (or whatever) still at the go-go bars from the night before called me over with the same vigour they would have been shouting with the night before. That’s stamina.
Eventually, not 20 minutes off the boat, a lady on a motorbike stopped and gave me a ride on the back. She asked no money and took me where I wanted to go. Well, almost. There’s Rainbow Phangan Bungalows, right in the middle of the south coast, and Rainbow Bungalows, almost to the end of the beach, right near Hat Rin. I wanted the former, but got the latter. It was no difference in the end, and I didn’t realise for days that I wasn’t actually at the place I thought I was at, and the price was 300 for a bungalow. I settled in. It was stuffy and the bed was hard, but that’s what three hundred Baht buys you there, I guess.
After food and a sleep, I rented a motorbike (fully auto this time) and went exploring. Hat Rin was right next door, which was surprising given that I thought it had been further away. A little home-away-from-home village is there these days, plenty of cafes and restaurants, guest houses and books shops, dive shops, travel agents, internet cafes, bungalows and bars. The only Asians you see are working there, the only foreigners you see are there to party in the sun. The atmosphere I didn’t find all that evil or wrong, but there’s nothing Thailand about it at all. It’s the difference between milk fresh from the cow and processed cheese that comes in plastic wrapped individual slices – it all came from the same place, only one is worth going out of your way for, and only one is any good for you in the end. It’s the junk food side of Thailand, the Disneyland style of backpacking. It all looks nice, inviting even, but it’s all priced like the taxi mafia and outside of full moon times it looks half empty. The legendary Hat Rin, now the epitome of modern Thailand.
Around the island on the bike and the west coast proved to be as disappointing as anywhere. The promise of nicer beaches and maybe some solitude was wiped away as every square inch of sand has been co-opted by some resort or another. No public beaches to be seen. So I went back, ate some pedestrian Thai food at the Thong Sala night market, walked around Hat Rin a little more, feeling incredibly lonely amongst all the people. So many nice faces and so little of them wanted anything to do with me. Even the people working there were indifferent, lest I go and partake of their service. For sure, it’s a BYO friend situation. It started raining and I went to go sleep.
The next day was Black Moon party. I took the bike out and went to the site of the party and met some English people there. It was at one of the beach side bungalows and they were going to be staying at ground zero. The site looked pretty cool and the staff told me that there would be several hundred people showing up. No kidding. Happy enough, I went out further on the bike and found the north of the island was simply amazing. The kind of quiet beaches with white sand and longtail boats I imagined. Bungalows scattered on the sand like Lego blocks dropped from the sky. And the water was turquoise, shining like a jewel in the sun. Hat Rin, on the other hand, looks distinctly grey, like there’s too many people nearby. The accommodation operations there are pretty cheap too, the only issue is getting there. The taxi mafia will sting you around 500 for a ride there, possibly double what the room costs. Still, if you were going to stay a while and not go down to Hat Rin, and if you squinted hard enough, you could pretend it was old-school Thai travel again. Almost.
I caught the sunset at a beach I had almost to myself and then got some food. I drove up to where the party would be and had a beer at the Seven Eleven across the road. There I met some people doing the same thing – an older Canadian guy and a pair of Japanese girls. We got some bottles and went to their place, where another older guy came and met us. The music was already pumping next door but people don’t rock up to those things for a while, and we had plenty to drink. The older guys were retired and semi-resident (as much as a foreigner can be in Thailand) in Phuket and had some very informative stories about the seedier side of life. The Japanese girls were fun until they drank themselves into an early night; in the end I went to the party alone. There were plenty of punters there, but on closer inspection it was mostly Thais selling things. Body paint, fake drugs, massages and drinks. Still there were enough people dancing to make it fun. Things get quite wobbly at this point, for reasons best not explored here, but suffice is to say that it was a memorable, if kind of stereotyped, night dancing in the sand.
Next day I managed to check out the bungalow and fully intended to get off the island, having had more than my fair share or things. This too proved to be a step too far on the ambition scale and I got as far as a café in Hat Rin, where I’d stopped for a drink two nights before. They remembered me, as I’d stayed chatting for a while. One of the guys there was Burmese and I was eager to hear about his story, as a bit of prep for my upcoming side-step to Myanmar. He told me a lot of the staff on the islands were Burmese, either with a proper working permit or not, because the Thais can pay them half the proper rate. I heard about life in Hat Rin from his point of view and felt disappointed I wouldn’t be there for Full Moon, but there was no way I’d be staying that long. I sat and got some water and discovered that my hangover was worse than anticipated. Family Guy swirled on the screen in front of me and it was raining like the end of the world outside. Eventually it eased off and I wandered off to get a room. I found a cell-like place for 200 Baht and was happy enough. It didn’t look terribly secure so I kept my valuables close by. I made it back to the café and stayed another few hours and by then it was getting dark. What a day.
The next day it rained some more and I thought about getting a bike and going looking for the people I met at Black Moon party, but apathy got the better of me. I went and bought a book at one of the shops (the lady remembered me from the last few days but despite her friendly ribbing me – ‘that three times you come my shop now!’ – I didn’t get a discount. No haggle zone, indeed. I hung out at the same café again, eating this time, and in the evening my Burmese friend took me for a walk around and onto the beach. It’s kind of nice there at night, the distant sounds of music and TVs far enough away to make the waves the principal soundtrack, and the lights glittering like candy in the water. Neon on salt water is an appetising and tempting combination but I was feeling the paranoia creeps and half expected the guy to try something, or sell me something, but his agenda was clean. I feel bad for brushing him off now, in hindsight it’s clear now that he too was a good guy on an island of shysters and punks.
I made it off the island the next day, on a boat to Ko Samui. In giving Ko Pha-Ngan one last summary, I have to note that not having seen it during Full Moon, I can’t give a full picture, but as much as my personal distaste for the place might be, I don’t outright hate it, and might well go back in days to come. It’s not genuine anything, it’s an arcade game where you have to keep feeding coins to get the fun coming out, but taking it for what it is, hell, there are much worse places you could be. It just isn’t my scene, it just isn’t what I’m searching for, it just isn’t what I’m about. But there’s worse, and I was just about to find out how bad things could be.
The 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami hit the wrong island. As much as Phuket needs a biblical flood to purge the earth of its stinking taint, Ko Samui needs it even more. If there ever was any natural beauty about it (and I’m sure there was, once) it’s all gone now. And endless stretch of concrete and buildings, I haven’t got the intestinal fortitude to describe it in any kind of gory detail it deserves. It rained on the boat on the way over and a lot of bags got wet. Not mine, you understand, because I am vigilant. Off the boat and the taxi mafia are waiting, this time with double extortionate pricing. Chaweng and Lamai are the it beaches and they were taking 200 and 250 for a 15 minute ride. That kind of money would be a rip off to get all the way across the island. I walked right past, found a friendly looking place and ordered an ice tea. The people there were good sorts and let me leave my bag while I went searching for a room. That was harder than expected, made easier and harder by a guy giving me a ride on his bike, but to an expensive place where he would have got commission on my room. But he cut down a long walk by half, and I managed to track down a 300 Baht room and a cheap bike. I went back for my bags and set off around the island.
It was horrific. Worse than the ecological destruction in Phuket. Did I ever think that was possible? Ko Samui has been known about since the early seventies and forty years is a long time for people to get busy with the concrete, especially in a land where tourism is the big dollar. I understand how it happened, but on my loop of the island I still shuddered to see every piece worth taking advantage of has been taken. Everything even remotely worth cashing in on has been cashed in on. Around at Lamai it’s clear the beach is stunning, but lined with crapola and bars. All the pretty girls are either for sale or currently rented out. There’s no love for a solo guy surviving on his wits and morale. Chaweng was worse, you can’t see it from the road. You have to dismount and wade through car parks and gardens attached to hotels to even see it, where it’s lined with restaurants. I didn’t find it till after dark. I missed nothing. I got a curry at a local market and cruised past the girlie bars but found I didn’t even have the get-up-and-go to be groped by a stranger over an overpriced beer. That’s how defeated the place made me. I went to the bungalow and checked out first thing in the am.
Taxi to the dock, boat to the mainland, bus to Surat Thani and back to hang out with Joke at the travel agency. He was still there and happy to see me, and talk about where I’d been, and what I thought of it. He sounded like he agreed with my take on things, but not too much out loud. He was impressed at my bargain room finding skills and looked up the train times heading north, then we parted ways.
The bus leaving to Phun Phin, where Surat Thani’s train station is, went nowhere for a long while, then rolled along for a longer while, getting to the station too late to make the 6.30 to Bangkok. I could wait for the nine o’clock train, but that would land me in my destination at 2.30 am. Undesirable. Dismayingly I sank into the gutter and went for the Lonely Planet. I could quote exactly from it, but it pointed me around the corner to the Queen hotel and it was indeed around the corner. And cheap. Not all was lost. The first train in the morning I could get on was at 10.40, so I was only really half a day in arrears. I would be there in plenty of time to look around and be able to leave the following day. So it was I wandered around Phun Phin at night. It is a real nothing place, the sole redeeming feature is that lost travellers seem to be common enough not to earn too much attention. I think I planned to do some writing there but ended up jerking off and going to sleep, the frustration at the island experience melting away.
To be honest, I don’t know what I was expecting from that end of the world. A budget tropical escape, a truly cheap getaway in a poor land, where service is bad and conditions worse, but it’s cheap. That’s what I wanted, but somewhere the locals figured if you build luxury of varying degrees, people will still pay for it. And then there’s more money for everyone. I wanted what it once would have been, but like I already said, 40 years too late. It’s a recurring theme in Asia. The hippy trail is long, long dead and anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar and a charlatan. There’s traps for people who go looking for just that and I’m glad my sense were up to the task of sniffing it out. I could go on, but like all adventures, this one has to move on.
Prachaup Khiri Khan is about halfway between Surat Thani and Bangkok, and so even if there wasn’t any good reason to stop I might have done anyway. After Indonesia I shudder at the thought of longer than needed bus or train rides. So at about two in the afternoon I got off the train (the only one to get off there) and found no-one. No people, taxi drivers, travel agents, nothing. It was so refreshing I can’t even tell you. That it was blazingly hot didn’t help but didn’t hurt either. I ambled (yes, it’s the kind of laid-back town where ambling is possible!) down the street to the hotel and checked in then went for a walk. The esplanade curves around three semi-circular bays, each with a little mountain at the end, and from the point right in the middle you can see almost all of them. The ocean is dotted with fishing boats and small islands and the road is lined with racks of drying fish hand squid, so it smells pretty rank. But it all looks pretty, none of the soullessness of the south to be seen, and later on I found out how fast this kind of town can shut down. Past sunset there’s the night market and not a great deal else going on. A good time to get some reading down, or whatever.
I walked south down the esplanade and jumped a wall onto the beach and walked toward the hill. There’s an airstrip and air force base there, so you can’t wander too far, but along the water was fine. It looked amazing, not quite the scenery I saw in Krabi but still a wonderful tropical stereotype of a picture. Up the hill I was beset with local monkeys and the view was outstanding – two of the bays stretched off in perfect half circles as the town lay below. It was even hotter up there as the breeze bypassed it all, but it was an astoundingly good moment. I wandered back down and looked at the other bay and unfortunately it had the same problem as the other side – jellyfish. I’m sure they weren’t killers, or even painful, but better not to find out. Still, a swim would have been nice.
I walked back into town and found some food and internet café, had a lie down and then went to the night market. Wonderfully mundane and not another tourist in sight. Every face at the market gave me the same reaction, and I ate for cheap. I ended up sleeping pretty early that night. There wasn’t all that much to do there but for a laid back little fishing town, a brilliant overnighter between more vivid adventures.
In the morning I walked north and climbed the hill there. That one is in town and there’s a temple on top, which I had to myself. There’s even more monkeys there, and a statue and pond at the bottom. The cheeky little devils have the most fun climbing the statue and leaping off into the pool below. The view at the top was as good as the day before and I also figured that you could see over to Myanmar, since it’s at that point that the border is closest. It looked the same to me, but I know things are different over the other side.
All that was left to do was get a bus to the next town. Hua-Hin would be it. Less than an hour later I was there, almost leaving town because the conductor didn’t let me know it was time to get off. It was on the way out of town he dropped me, where the locals came to my aid and pointed me in the right direction, even calling ahead to the guest house I had picked out. That was another unexpected moment. The guesthouse was called the All Nations and it was run by an old English man who was most helpful and friendly. I got the room above the bar, which was a nervous moment because it had the potential to be noisy, but it turned out that I wasn’t ever there at a noisy time. For the best, really.
I took a walk to the beach and was instantly annoyed. Massive hotels crowd the shore and the usual mix of package tourists line the way, some clinging to their Thai women, all depressing as hell. I guess the beach epidemic is a nation-wide disease. I took a swim and went right on back, nearly getting brained by a kite-surfer. Getting back to the guest house there was another guy talking to the owner, and we got to talking, and then another English guy came out and that is how the drinking began. It all spiralled out of control, from the bar at the All Nations to a karaoke place to a few go-go bars to the Seven Eleven to another karaoke place… It was a classic bender of a night and all appendages were kept pantsed. But it was a close thing, since Hua-Hin has a healthy selection of go-go bars, and the ladies are much less aggressive than further south. So you can hang out with a drink or two and play pool or table tennis and not get groped too violently. Still, it leaves a man with ideas, and the power of ideas is not to be taken lightly.
Woke up the next day with a horrific hangover. Stumbled out and bought some water and went right back to bed. Emerged again past midday and had breakfast with the English guys. There was breakfast beer. It wasn’t bad. The day was wasted hanging out and talking. By the time we felt right again it was dark and we went for a walk around the streets we’d been on last night and we remembered not very much of it at all. A few of the girls knew our names, which was a little much. We chose a few places and had fun flirting with the girls but had a pretty early night. I went out for one last look around, about when things were closing, and a girl picked me up. Took me back to her room, showered me and then didn’t want to sleep with me. I found it impossible to sleep next to her, and she was quite open about being a working girl – she told me that she hadn’t gotten paid that night because her client’s dick was too big for her. That’s honesty. I think she just wanted to wake up next to a nice looking guy (and no bonus points for bigging myself up – there was no hard sell to pay her for it, it was quite odd) and it’s as simple as that. I couldn’t do it and ended up walking home at about 2 am to my own bed.
I took these adventures as a sign that maybe Hua-Hin could be addicting, and character destroying. So I up and left to the next town down the road, Cha-am. That was a mistake. It just wasn’t much fun there. The beach is ok, but the main activity is jet-skis with banana boats tied to the back. It’s a Thai thing. They go flying along, fully clothed (Thais really are quite conservative, the ones who work in ‘entertainment’ industries learn how to act around white guys so they can make it) until they wipe out. It’s great fun to watch but a real hazard if you’re swimming. And that’s all there is – a strip of buildings, foreshore full of food stalls and souvenirs, beach. I walked the length looking for a place to stay that was reasonable, and eventually found it, but by that time I’d seen most of the strip. In the heat. With my packs. So I hung out at night and got going in the morning. No adventures, funny tales, interesting bullshit, nothing. And then it was onto Bangkok.
The bus arrives at the southern bus station and I swerved past all the taxi guys onto a mini-van. Not the real bus but he was cheap and going my way, and the locals paid the same. There was a Swiss guy in there too and he’d been to Khao San before, so he helped me find my way. Khao San Road is another part of backpacker legend, since the hippies set up their first guest houses in Bangkok away from the city centre all those years ago. It has now evolved into a monstrous mess of neon, street stalls, taxi drivers, shysters, massage places, guys selling suits, guest houses, classy hotels, restaurants, everything the traveller of any budget might require. Everyone knows and everyone goes. It has its fair share of scams and dodgy business but for the most part its safe fun. But like all circuses, it gets old fast and is much better when you have someone to laugh at it with.
The Swiss guy took me down the road and onto the next street, the blessedly laid back Soi Rambutri, where there’s no booming music or neon. It’s more like Hat Rin than its neighbour and actually has trees. The guest house was right at the end and featured prison-cell like rooms for cheap. Can’t complain. I had several things to organise so I hit the ground running and went to soak up the atmosphere, weigh it up and judge it for myself. Mostly, I felt lonely. I figured that meeting people would be easy there, but how wrong I was. Backpacking in Thailand is a lonely experience if you came alone, don’t think it’s any other way.
So Khao San Road. The first issue and number one bugbear is not surprising at all. Taxi drivers. All of them need to go and die in a hole. I know they’re just making money, making a living, but the Khao San crew are a tight bunch who fix prices and don’t budge. So they sit around all day waiting for the one or two foreigners they can rip off, instead of making an honest living driving around the city picking up real fares – that they don’t make as much money from. So they sit around all day, leeches that they are, and shout ‘hey where you going’ at every foreigner walking past. Lazy, indecent pieces of shit. I dreaded walking outside because I hate the inevitable hard sell, and I hate having to stone cold ignore all of them. After that, the ‘buy anything’ places were pretty damn annoying. They have signs claiming to buy anything, but give terrible deal and then re-sell at vastly expanded prices. But they don’t shout, so it’s ok. Then there’s the suit guys. They work the hardest, following you down the street with the sales pitch, and if you shake their hands, they don’t let go. I guess they don’t sell many suits – and they get quite a commission. Everything else is just a minor annoyance after that, from the people selling t-shirts and books outright refusing to bargain, to staff being all too willing to short change you or otherwise fuck you over.
The rest, as I say, is a circus. After dark it really comes alive. And on a Saturday it goes crazy. Things get worse, too, as the taxi drivers morph into dealers (who then call their policeman friend down the other end of the street with your description so he can bust you easily) and the working girls emerge. But sitting at the street side bar and watching it all go past is easily a Bangkok highlight, even if the beer is overpriced and the girl got the order slightly wrong. And if you happen to be in the market for fisherman’s pants, novelty t-shirts, souvenirs, dreadlocks, second-hand books, spice-free Thai food, fruit shakes and tailored suits, you are in the right place. If you want peace, quiet and any kind of connection to real Thailand, you are shit out of luck.
So I took myself off on my little two legs that night to go looking for it. Down alleyways and lanes, over bridges and in doorways, should you go looking? You can catch a city with its proverbial pants down, maybe checking its makeup in a side mirror or even adjusting itself in a shop window. You can steal a sideways glance at how the locals see it, you might even catch some colours. That night I saw a little slice of Bangkok and it’s nowhere near as noisy, crowded or chaotic as reputation would have you believe. Sure, next to the rest of the land it is the ugly beating heart, but that’s because it is home to so many people, where the next biggest city doesn’t even come close. It is the biggest city in mainland Southeast Asia, and the only cities it really rolls in the same division with are Jakarta and Manilla. It’s not as dirty as legend would speak of, but again – compared to the rest of the land… This reputation clearly comes from the fact that a lot of travellers land here and get their image of it out of context, then go on to the more sedate corners. Up against a city like Jakarta, Bangkok is almost serene at times. Not to say it’s quiet, but it has corners of no hassles. I walked to the centre of things, Siam Square, and the footpath was jammed with an impromptu market and hard to get through. The only logistical issues are pedestrian related – walking around is a bitch, and local train-based public transport doesn’t go nearly far enough. If only the underground Metro went as far as Chinatown, maybe even up to Baglamphu, then everything that needs to be connected would be and life would be grand.
Bangkok is just too big to be taken in like that. So I went back, overwhelmed, perhaps more than I care to admit, because the next few days I felt like shit and emerged only when necessary. Part let down at the lack of meeting other travellers, part being overwhelmed by the big city, part the heat – I didn’t get too far.
A few more night and day time excursion out on foot, some experiments in using the local busses (when all the destination are in Thai script only it’s kinda hard) and a trip to the biggest market I ever saw later, plus a run-in with a familiar face from Indonesia, and I had to get out of there. I packed my things and made a dash for the southern bus station. I made it, two busses later, and had a ticket to Kanchanaburi.
In the meantime my passport was in the capable hands of a travel agent. I had a copy, so I was all good to leave it there. Kanchanaburi arrived in the window and I ran past the now-obligatory gauntlet of taxi drivers to walk into town. I found the guest house area without issue and set up shop at the Jolly Frog. The plan was for a few days at most, but the story will unfold that I was there a good nine days. I don’t stay anywhere for nine days, so clearly something happened. Long story short, after seeing the war cemetery and couple of museums around town (Kan is the site of the POW cemeteries from the Siam-Burma Death Railway and home to the Bridge on the River Kwai) and getting out to Hellfire Pass and hiking along the old railway bed, I actually met some cool people.
First was Dan and Jenny, followed by Dan, and then Jack and Ben. They all happened to be English and easy going. Later there would also be Tim and Carrie but we’ll get to Carrie later. We took to hanging out in the guest house and drinking, mostly in front of the Seven Eleven and the little pier that the guest house had. It’s as simple as that – I spent a week partying on down, budget style, with some friendly folk, while waiting for my visa to come through.
Dan and Jenny were a couple who had been travelling for a long while and were getting to the end of things. Dan had been there for three weeks already because a local Thai girl had got her claws into him. Ben and Jack were just starting a month in Thailand and were proper English lads. Together it was a good combination, although hangovers like that I can always do without. Later, during a beer run, we would find Carrie barefoot and we took her in. Carrie was a Salt Lake City refugee, running away from being a Mormon by doing as much crazy shit as possible. She was very much the catalyst for a lot of what came after. It all started drinking b the river, and someone suggested swimming. It looked kind of dirty in there, but what the hey, and we jumped in. Soon it was diving off the side and off the rails, and then from the roof when we could get up there. Someone spotted a building overhanging the river down the way – the next day we swam down there and there was a ladder to climb up to it, leading to a nice platform to jump off. Eventually Dan went first and it was deep enough, so it was on for young and old. We went from one dare to another, jumping, diving, backwards, naked… it must have been nearly 20 metres up, and the ladder to get back up was right there.
It turns out it was part of the water tower facility in town, so when attempts to swim up the river back to the Jolly Frog failed, we just walked through the buildings and out onto the road and back in the front. No problems, no security issues. It’s kind of a laid-back place.
Such days were good fun, and the people were awesome fun to hang out with. It turned into kind of a sepia montage toward the end, some four consecutive nights drinking at the dock and into hangovers the next day, and into more idleness in the end. I had to leave because I had a flight to catch – and I escaped the days of Thailand, the nights of loneliness, all of it – the bus back to Bangkok, one more night at the same guest house, collect passport, get bus ticket to airport for the four am run. All this was done, and after negotiating Bangkok International, I was finally the fuck away from it.