The taxi cab finally arrived on Khao San Road around 8:00 PM. I paid the driver, grabbed my bags, and got out along the side of the road. Traffic buzzed past me. Street vendors called out. Backpackers milled about. I stood there, wondering where to go. No doubt John had already left Gecko Bar seeing I was over two hours late. I stood in place, looking about in all directions. The sounds, smells, sights. My senses overloaded. I walked in a daze, trying to formulate a coherent plan. I had no place to stay, no way of contacting the only person I knew in the city, and no idea of where I was, where I was going, where I ought to go, or what I ought to do. As I walked along the street, I glimpsed a familiar face, outlined in green on a façade above the building which showed a cozy glow with wooden furniture inside. I gravitated towards it, the familiarity pulling me in like a magnet.
“That’s it. I will stop in and get some coffee, try to use the internet, chill out, and get a plan together.” I thought to myself.
I swallowed my pride and paid the steep price for a Tall Caramel Macchiato, then found a seat where I unloaded my gear. I opened my laptop and discovered there was no free wifi. I sipped my 100 baht coffee. I meekly glanced around the room, making eye contact with the other westerners, and looked away feeling ashamed in my comfort. I tried to focus on the reason why I came here, instead of the guilt I felt for being there. Get over the shock of being alone in an unfamiliar place. Create a plan of action. As I continued to drink, a woman walked up to me.
“You look like you are looking or waiting for someone.” She asked with an accent I could not place. Her olive skin gave off a dull shine, her slightly hooked nose served as focal point of her round face. But I could not help but feel ingratiated towards her when I looked at her smiling hazel eyes. I wondered if she was Eastern European? Israeli? Greek?
“Oh, well, actually no. I was supposed to meet someone at the Gecko Bar over two hours ago. And I don’t even know where that is, anyways.” I replied.
“Have you just arrived in town?”
“Yeah. I got into the airport awhile back, but the taxi got stuck in rush hour traffic in the rain, and I just got here to the Khao San area. And I’m pretty exhausted from two days of travel and the strain of culture shock. I also have no reservations with a guesthouse, nor any idea of how to navigate this area, let alone the city. I feel a bit like a fish out of water.” I confided.
“Ah, yes. I understand. Well, have no fear. You find many guesthouse all around. Just take a walk. I am staying in Chada guesthouse on Khao San. It tis very nice, but quite nozeeh. But, as I zay, many guesthouse. Bangkok, my friend! Remember, relax. It may be a beet craze, but it tis very nice here and much fun.” She responded with a matter-of-factness, and finished with a smile on her face, and a nod.
I returned a smile and “Thank you very much”.
“Ciao.” She sauntered away, the smile still on her face.
With newly found confidence, I settled in on a familiar plan whenever I am in a new town or city. Simply explore. Just get up, walk around, take everything in. You can’t get lost if you don’t know where you want to end up. It’s all the same; it is all brand new and different. I finished my coffee, spirits and energy lifted, shouldered the packs, and walked out into the humid, sticky night. I saw a neon-lit marquee directly to my right with a counter and two primly dressed young Thai woman standing behind with enormous smiles. I approached the marble countertop, taking notice of the chic appearance, and the properly spelled English on the brochure.
“Sawadee ka” they greeted me in cheerful unison.
“Saweedekap. How much for a room?” I responded back.
“2,000 baht. You have your own private room with air conditioning, hot shower, wifi, and full toiletry items.” The beautiful one on the left responded.
“Ohhhh nooo. Way too expensive for me. It looks very nice. But that does not fit my budget. I am sorry.” I responded with a half-laugh and smile.
“Aw. Are you traveling alone?” The equally beautiful one on the right inquired.
“Yes. I am. So I have no friend to split the cost with me. So I cannot stay here.” I admitted. Though I would have gladly split the cost with either of them…and what an effective marketing tool, I thought to myself. I would come to find out that Thailand, even more than the U.S., uses its women and namely their physical bodies and images as exploitative resources. But, that is a rant for another time.
They both continued to smile and told me it was okay and hoped I enjoyed my stay in Bangkok. I assured them I would. I smiled back at them once more before turned and walked away and continued to wander. I took a right away from the posh hotel and Starbucks and walked along the sidewalk, in through a gamut of street stalls, selling paper lanterns, small Buddha statues of varying design and color, postcards, and other knickknacks. I came to a street that bisected the road, and turning to my right saw more street stalls and food carts lined side by side all the way down the street, with restaurants and bars up along the sidewalk, and people streaming up and down in the street. Thai women approached me offering up various goods, from wooden frogs that they stroked with a wooden mallet, producing a sound strikingly similar to the croaking of a real frog, to bracelets with vulgar western sayings like “Fuck My Life”. Thai men standing next to three wheeled vehicles with a bench seat in the back approached me, asking me simply: “Tuk tuk?”, with an ew sound. Two what? No, no thanks. I don’t need. Restaurant employees, who I took as hosts and hostesses, stood out in front of their establishments brandishing menus and encouraged me to come eat.
I felt much like Johnny Depp’s character in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas after he and his attorney take Ether and walk through the sideshow circus completely lost in a hallucinogenic daze. What circus had I stumbled upon? I did not ask to go to the circus? I hadn’t even taken any drugs, what was all of this? What were the sounds these people were making when they talked with one another. Gibberish? Who were these costumed women offering up frog god statues that came to life with the stroke of a mallet? Why wouldn’t people just leave me alone? Couldn’t a man with his life packed away on his shoulders just walk down the damn street in godknowswhere? Was that a dog? My god there are dogs, everywhere! And cats! Cats on the roofs, cats in the restaurants, dogs and cats wandering like street urchins looking for their fix. I looked around at all of this with a mixture of wonder, horror, and confusion. I heard a buzzing noise overhead and was scared to look up. I mustered up the courage to do so and saw electric lines running just ten feet over head in a mangled mess, crisscrossing, tied off, with no apparent independent structure. It was the sinews of the damned beast. Bangkok!
A green-glow restaurant displayed a “Free Wifi” sign, with a man playing the guitar and singing into a microphone at the edge of the inside and the outside. The two only distinguishable differences were a step up and a ceiling over the inside portion. No windows. No doors. Completely open. I just thought “My god, get me a beer and some connection to the rest of the world.” I sat down at a table for two on the patio outside and ordered a Chang from the girl dressed in the slim, low cut green dress displaying the Chang logo.
“Big oh small?” The girl asked while pantomiming with her hands as if she were playing charades.
“Big, yeah sure, big. I mimicked her larger gesture back at her. She bowed and then disappeared into the restaurant.
She returned with a liter of beer and poured a full glass, then set the beer down next to me and left me to my thoughts and drink. I leaned back in my chair and tipped the glass, taking a deep breath after the first sip. Ahhhhhhhhh. Live music. Cold beer. Bustling environment. I had found my preferred concoction of elements for a great night. The novelty just provided new flavors to a familiar magic potion. I smiled. By then I had lost count of these ninja smiles. The ones that appear seemingly out of nowhere, and for no apparent reason, just mystery. Then a plunge into a wave of deeply satisfying “This is it!” sensation. Yes. I was a stranger in a strange place surrounded by strange scenes. I let myself float on into it, like on my back drifting on this strange river looking up at the strange blue sky. I looked all around me at the strange people, strange language, strange yes, strangeness. It was all so strange. So beautifully strange. The beer and music so familiar. Beautifully familiar. I saw countless other backpackers walking around with that same drugless daze, or maybe not drugless, for all I knew. But that cartoonish stars in the eyes daze of “whoooaaaaaaaaaaa, check this all out, man.” Bangkok! Belly of the beast! Yes.
As the beer disappeared, so too did my fears. As my discomfort lifted, evaporating in the convective heat of the intestines of this beast, my acceptance of this strangeness was absorbed. This whole digestive process. I was being transformed. The city was extracting all of the shit I didn’t need; the fears, the worries, the preoccupations, the expectations, and was leaving me with wonder, curiosity, appreciation, excitement, in another word, leaving with what would nourish me. I realized this purge that was happening, that needed to happen, was making me feel much like I do after a good poop: like I had taken a load off.
By beer number two, I was completely in it. Just lost in that mess of entrails, trying to become part of it all, to experience it all, to just be there. As I drank, good providence! I saw a familiar face as he walked past.
“John! John! Yo, Belushi!” I cried out, reverting back to his nickname in university.
He turned my way, and flashed a beautifully big smile. A smile of recognition, anticipation, pure fucking excitement. He and his friend, Troy, sat down to join me, pulled up an extra table, and immediately had extra booze and food brought to the table. We exchanged pleasantries and sat with smiles affixed to our faces.
“It’s so damn good to see you man.” I remarked.
“Yeah, this is great. You made it! You are one of the few. A lot of people have said they would travel and catch up with me over here sometime, but you actually did it. I’m excited.” He replied.
“Oh, man. So you went to the United States embassy?!” He exclaimed while laughing.
“Starbucks…The US Embassy. It’s the first place Americans come to when they arrive in Bangkok or other foreign cities.” He explained.
I burst into laughter. I was relieved to be able to laugh at my previous discomfort and spot on facetious metaphorical homebase for Americans abroad. I wondered what other foreigners sought out as refuge when traveling abroad.
“So you haven’t found a guesthouse yet?” John inquired.
“Nah, since I got in late, I figured you would already have left Gecko Bar…and after I stopped by Starbucks, I thought the best plan of action was to grab a spot outside, drink some beer, and eventually we would stumble across one another. And literally, within less than an hour, I see you strolling along here…it was perfect.”
“Yeah, I stayed at Gecko Bar until like 7:00, having a couple of beers. I had never been there before. It’s actually pretty cool, and they have free wifi. I figured you had some setback and that we would cross paths at some point. So when I started walking around, I looked for places with live music. I knew you’d be at one.”
“I am stoked it all worked out. It really is great to see you. What’s it been, like 2 years? Since the last Q family reunion?”
John and I had known each other from college. A college roommate and hometown friend introduced me to him my freshman year. I still recall the first time when he showed up at my Grandparents’ house, introduced himself as “Belushi”, paying homage to the famous American actor, as well as I would learn due to resemblance in body stature and overall hilarity, and explained why only one of his arms was sunburnt. He had driven straight down to Florida from Maine, 24 hours of driving, with his window down and arm out. From the first time I met him, he was a character. Now, here I was meeting up with him in Bangkok, after seeing him intermittently over the past five years, and without seeing him for the past two years. It was surreal. And wonderful…a familiar face in the sea of strangeness.
We proceeded to catch up, drink beers, and as my father would say, “shoot the shit”. Troy excused himself at some point, and left John and me to explore the night. We finished up our beers and then headed for the guesthouse he was already checked into.
“Guesthouses are all about knowing what you need and want. For some people, air-con is a non-negotiable, a must have. For others, a hot shower. For some people, it’s got to be on the main strip. For me, all I need is a decently clean room with a fan and preferably a window or two. This place is very basic, but very cheap. It works for me. Feel free to check it out and stay there if you’d like as well.” John described.
“Man, that’s all I need. It sounds good to me. I’m used to living in the heat, just like you, and I rarely use the A/C, even in Florida.” The description sounded fine to me, and if it was super cheap, I was excited about that. But frankly, the greatest reason I was down for this place before seeing it was that I was relieved to have a suggestion and an excuse to dump off all of my shit and then head back out for more beers, more conversation, and more novelty. I was still alive in the belly of this beast!
I checked into Your Place guesthouse for 180 baht a night. My room was simple. Clean, two windows, a fan, an electrical outlet, bed, pillow, blanket, and towel. There were shared bathrooms and showers for the floor. . I dropped my packs off, closed and locked the door, and headed back downstairs to go back out. Little did I know what lay in store on my journey to the end of the night…