I found John waiting for me downstairs, which was a spacious hang out area I ended up calling the living room. The living room had wooden lounges with individual body length cushions and pillows thrown around, all well-worn, and wonderfully comfortable. They lined one side of the room in two parallel rows with low coffee tables in between; the other side was an informal dining room with square tables fit for four people, occupied mostly when all of the couch space was full, or for the occasional dining patrons. The area was open, as most Thai buildings tended to be, allowing in natural light and breeze. Adorned with antique chandeliers and images of Buddha, the space was unique, appealing. I would also see throughout the week that it was always home to travelers. Lounging, napping, drinking, chatting, or all of the above. It was the place…where everyone inevitably got together. So John and I reunited in the living room and walked back out onto Soi Rambuttri, wrapped around the curve to the right, and back towards the Khao San area.
Street vendors called out to us as we walked.
“Sir, t-shirt, sir?”
“Hungry sir? Pad thai sir?”
“Hello sir, maaaaahhhsaaaaahhhhge sir?”
By the time we reached the intersection with the main road, and the cavalcade of tuk tuk drivers, I was fluent in another Thai phrase. It was one that John had mercifully taught me, which I always said with a smile and a slight wave of my hand.
“Mai ow kap.”
“Mai ow kap.”
“Mai ow kap.”
“I don’t want.”
Traffic zoomed by us. I was still a bit paranoid about crossing the road with traffic coming from the left. I had also learned about the moto drivers. They knew no lanes, rules, or regulations whatsoever. They were much more liquid than solid, morphing to fit into the spaces left behind by traffic or pedestrians. So I looked left. I looked right. I looked left again. I waited, as tuk tuks, with their unmistakable engines sounding like revved up chain saws, crossed the barely visible double lines into oncoming traffic and dipped back into their “lanes” just in the nick of time. All the while motos zipped past me on the “shoulder”. As I waited for a clearing, John barged his way right into the thick of it. I watched as he crossed, the traffic spilling around him, like a rock diverting the flow of a river. Once I saw my chance, I sprinted across the road and caught up with a stationary John, who only looked at me with a slight hint of amusement.
“Are you hungry?” He asked.
“Actually, yeah, I could eat.”
“That’s good. Man, there is so much food I want to show you and for you to try. This is one of the best parts about Khao San; the street food is as good, if not better, than anything you’ll find in the restaurants, and it is dirt cheap. You can get a good, basic noodle bowl for like 20 baht, or Pad Thai for 30, or kabob for 40 or 50. As you can see, I love to eat. I remember when I came here I was, well skinnier, not like you, but anyways, the food here. It’s just so good!” John gleamed as he patted his stomach, a healthy Buddha belly.
“I’m gonna go over to one of my favorite ladies for this amazing dumpling soup. Feel free to join or go off on your own. Trust me, you can’t go wrong with any of it.” John declared as he turned towards his right and motioned to a woman standing behind a cart that held an enormous orb shaped pot with steam rising steadily out of it, framed by glass containers that displayed various sized dumplings. A tiny lit marquee with Thai script advertised meals for 30-60 baht.
“Actually, I wanna walk around a bit, if that’s cool. I will grab some food and meet you back here.” I responded.
“Alright, sounds good. I will be sitting right over there.” He pointed to a small aluminum table with two red plastic stools that was behind a stall selling t-shirts emblazoned with images of different Western pop culture icons. I made note of the table, as well as the surrounding area, as people walked past me in every direction. Then I turned back and continued further down Rambuttri, past more tuk tuk drivers, hosts and hostesses of restaurants and suit shop owners. They all eagerly offered me goods and services.
I walked past the green glow restaurant, where the Chang girl and a zealous host beckoned me in with the same pitch they hollered earlier.
“Buy one Chang, get a free one, sir!”
“Yo, I was just here. Don’t you remember? I already had drinks here. Food now.” I responded with a smile.
“Oh, oh, oh, sorry sir. We have food, too. Here, here menu.” The host thrust the menu in my direction with zero recognition in his eyes.
“Mai ow kap.” My new refrain.
I continued on down the street and around a bend to the left. I passed a copper and rust colored antique car loaded with papers, a typewriter, a sewing machine, boxes, and other “junk”. I laughed. Interesting storage unit. To my right was a restaurant with iron furniture on the patio, blaring techno, a curious choice given it was still not yet ten o’clock. To my left were several street vendors, one selling fried cockroaches, scorpions, spiders, and other novel delicacies. A small horde of people gathered around, some paying the 10 baht for pictures, others paying the 30 baht to sample the treats. I stood for a few moments watching the lively reactions before moving on.
A woman behind a small cart, handling two spatulas, deftly mixing, flipping, and sorting portions of noodles, vegetables, spices, and proteins caught my attention. Two people stood in front of her and she interacted with them as she continued her work. I walked up and stood in line. A rectangular piece of cardboard box was posted on the right of her cart. There were four options. I decided on Pad Thai with shrimp and fried egg. I placed my order and watched the woman work. Less than five minutes later, she handed me my steaming, plentiful dinner on a paper plate with a plastic fork. I handed her two twenty baht bills and a five baht coin. I smiled and thanked her. She thanked me back without looking up from the next order she was already busily preparing.
I sat down on the curb next to the woman’s cart, across the street from a restaurant that had two musicians playing Thai folk songs, as well as western favorites. My food was spicy and savory, the noodles and shrimp tender, the vegetables crisp. I smiled. $1.50 US got me a meal straight from the source, made fresh in front of me. I handed my money to the person who did the work. I scarfed it down while singing along to “No Woman, No Cry”. As I walked past the woman, I flashed a smile and patted my stomach. Her mouth turned up as she nodded her head and thanked me in Thai. It was the only time I saw her interrupt her work. I walked back down the street with the lingering smile. The same vendors, the same solicitations, and my same refrain as I walked. I found John finishing up his meal.
“Ready to drink some beers?” I greeted him.
“We can do that. Where do you want to go?”
“I’m a fan of walking with no destination in mind. Figure it out as we go. Whatever piques our interest or feels right.”
“Well, I’ve been here enough times so I will just follow you. But we should stop by 7/11 and grab some big beers for the road.” John suggested.
“I’m down with that.” I responded, slightly aware of the ubiquity of 7/11 stores and their popularity for having almost anything a backpacker needed, especially cheap beer. There was no open container law, or at least if there was they certainly were not enforcing it on tourists. I never missed out on the opportunity to walk down street with a drink in hand, whether in Key West, New Orleans, or Bangkok.
We walked into the nearest 7/11, which was half a block away. With over 3,000 of them in the city, it can feel like you are always a half a block away from one. This comforted and troubled me. Another western encroachment, a prime example of the consequences of importing an exotic species into an area with little to no competition or predators. Without natural controls, the exotic species ends up multiplying and choking out its native competitors. 7/11 certainly cannot be good for the independent business diversity, especially local Thai businesses. But that did not stop me from going inside to purchase a liter of beer for 45 baht. I was part of the problem, feeding the damn creature, a painful self-awareness I could only drown in the big bottle of Chang.
We walked down Khao San road, the Bangkok backpacker hub, the 24/7 party, the place where western money floods into the hands of the ever-present, ever-hawking locals selling anything and everything, the Bourbon Street of Bangkok, the source of tonight’s hedonism and tomorrow’s hangovers. That little voice, I think someone named him “Conscience”, was being drowned out by what Freud named “Id” and drowned in what I call “Booze”, all the while being encouraged by a creature named “Bangkok”. Three against one are not fair odds. One last cry echoed through the neural circuitry, processed as “There will be consequences to your actions, you fool! Make smart decisions!” and faded away. I took swigs of my Chang in between steps and dug all of the helter skelter action.
John did his part in playing host. He was on his fourth tour of Southeast Asia, a legitimate backpacking veteran. I noticed his repeated fiscal analysis of potential establishments.
“Well, we could go in there, but it says that a large Leo is 80 baht, which is about 20 more than I really want to pay for, as well as almost twice as much as what we just paid for inside 7/11. But it’s cool if you want to, I know it’s your first time here. Buckets over there are only 150 baht, and everywhere else is selling them for 200…I wonder if they are real buckets, or just barely filled up.”
“That street vendor wanted 300 baht for that crappy back massager I bought that probably won’t work for very long. I got her to sell it to me for 100, but it’s just ridiculous how they think they can rip you off.”
“Yeah, but man, you are complaining, or at least it sounds like a complaint, about what amounts to a couple dollars or even less. And things are still way cheaper than back home. I know you have been here longer and I know how shit can add up over time, especially when you’re on a budget…but at the same time, this is exactly the same kind of shit that people back home get hung up on. Dollars, cents, money, money, money. Then I think about how much it is to them; all of this money is what they survive on and they certainly aren’t getting rich off of us. We’re spending money for our leisure, pleasure, and entertainment and they’re making the money for basic needs.”
“Yeah, I know, I know. It is just hard to not get upset after being here for the past four years. I know exactly how much things should cost and when they think they can rip me off just because I’m a farang, it gets to me. But you’re right; I shouldn’t let it bother me this much.” He shrugged his shoulders and tilted his beer.
“Well, enough about this shit. Let’s focus on the positive. Here we are drinking beers in Bangkok with no worries. No job, no wife or kids, or anything else we are supposed to have by this age. No obligations to anyone but ourselves. Life is pretty fucking good.” I replied and raised my beer.
We toasted, the bottles clinking together, producing a somewhat hollow sound, signaling our need to refill. John relented on paying a bit more than he was accustomed and we agreed on finding a bar to continue our conversation and consumption. As we walked through the throngs repeating our Mai Ow Kap refrain, John scooted up the sidewalk to a bar on wheels outside of a nightclub that was spewing the unmistakable futuristic musical vomit of bass, sound effects, mixed with top 40 hits. Dubstep. He chatted with the bartender and soon was motioning me over. Several different employees immediately sprang into action, nearly falling over one another, and set up a table for us in the midst of the aluminum tables already crammed with patrons.
“I got us a bucket and made sure it’s a good one. Plus I talked him down to 200. I promised him we would have more than one. I hope that’s okay with you? We don’t actually have to have two if you don’t want to, but it was a good selling point.” John looked at me with a smirk on his face as he informed me.
“Right on. When in Bangkok…” I shrugged my shoulders, just along for the ride.
The blue plastic bucket, much like the ones I filled with sand as a child, was now filled with an array of booze, juice, and Red Bull. There were six straws jutting out of the bucket. I suppose they wanted to give the appearance that more people were involved, or maybe it was a sort of unspoken guideline. Whatever the case, I leaned in, grabbed three straws, put them to my mouth, and sipped. John did the same. I watched the liquid shrink as I tasted the potent, yet sweet concoction. I had heard stories about buckets. I knew the general consensus. Bucket stories were always told with a laugh and/or groan. I knew what I was getting myself into.
The first bucket went quickly. We ordered a second. As we waited for its arrival, a couple wandered into the crowded seating area, attempting to find a table. There were none. They walked up to us. The guy, with a shadow beard and English accent, asked about our drink. John explained the concept of a bucket
“It’s basically this wonderful mix of Sangsom, vodka, gin, Red Bell, Coke, lime juice, or whatever they feel like putting in it, and it’s somehow delicious, and it will fuck you up.”
“Sounds lovely.” English dude responded.
“It is quite lovely.” John responded, mimicking the English accent with a smile. “You should probably order one or three and have a seat here with us.”
They both laughed.
“Well, awright. If you insist.” The guy walked to the bar while the employees all got a hop to finding two extra chairs for our new friends. Two chairs were delivered and the girl began introductions as she sat down.
“Allo, I’m Jules. That’s Nate. What are your names?”
Nate rejoined almost immediately with two buckets in hand. We went around with the introductions. We ran through standard travel procedure. Abbreviated personal history, travel history, and travel itinerary. It was odd to repeat a refrain I stated often back home while preparing for the trip. Now it was true.
“Yeah, I graduated university about four years ago, taught third grade for three years. I wasn’t happy, so I quit my job. I planned to go back for a Ph. D in philosophy but beforehand I traveled the U.S. in my car with a backpack and a tent. I balanced hiking and camping in national parks with crashing on couches or in hostels in towns and cities. Midway through the trip, I realized I had everything I wanted: the freedom and time to think, read, write, and travel. I figured I’d be crazy to go back to a life with unnecessary obligations. So I threw away the applications and said ‘fuck it’. After I finished my U.S. trip I landed back in my college town, picked up a job at a restaurant, moved in with family, and started saving and planning for Asia.” I explained my personal summary.
“So here you are.” Nate spoke with a smile and that distinctive English accent. He had a glimmer in his eye. He either found my story to be exciting or he was already drunk. Maybe both.
“Yeah, so here I am, man. So what about you? What’s your story?” I responded with a smile.
“Well…I had a job and I was married. I hated my job and the marriage fell apart. The job was a basic nine to five, it was just something to do to make some money, and have a nice life. When everything went to shit, I asked myself what the hell was I doing with my life and who was I living it for. Who told me I needed all of this shit? An expensive flat in the city with nice things in it and living out a little domesticated existence. It was okay. It was comfortable. But fuck, I wasn’t happy. Obviously neither was my ex-wife. Then I met Jules and we had a good time together, got along well. When she told me she was traveling in Asia and then moving to China. I said ‘Fuck it, I’m going with you’.” Nate burst into laughter and leaned forward to take a long pull from the bucket.
“And what did you say Jules?” John asked with a wry smile on his face.
“Well, as you can see,” she motioned to Nate, “I said BANG! Alright then.” They kissed amid cracking up.
Nate straightened up in his seat, peered off down the street for a few seconds, then turned back and confessed in a level tone.
“Obviously my friends thought I was crazy, thought I had gone absolutely bonkers. You know, maybe they’re right? Maybe it was crazy to quit, sell everything, and move across the world with someone I’ve just met. But I figured what’s the worst that could happen? Really, what is the worst thing that could happen? That I go on an epic adventure with someone I really get along with and care for, do something that scares the shit out of me, but actually makes me feel alive? And if we break up or it doesn’t work out? Well, so what? Been there, done that. At least I am doing this now. I’m taking the risk to see the world, figure out how to live it my way, and doing it with someone who feels the same. And who knows, maybe we fall hopelessly in love and are together for the rest of our lives? I don’t feel that I’ve lost my life by giving up what I had in England. Really, I feel like I have regained it.”
“Well, cheers to that!” John exclaimed as he raised our bucket. Nate and Jules did the same with theirs.
As we all dove into the buckets, I thought about Nate’s story. I felt a deep camaraderie with him, but I also thought it sounded crazy. What made him do all of this? Was he running away from his previous marriage? Running away from himself, his job, what? Would he regret his decisions once the excitement from the novelty and spontaneity wore off? What if things didn’t work out with Jules and it ended terribly? How would his story turn out?
As I wondered these things, it dawned on me that I was asking the same skeptical questions people had asked me. Family, friends, strangers all wondered. What are you doing? Why did you quit your good job? How can you leave behind the nice life you had? What’s wrong? What brought on all of this? What are you running from? What’s in Asia? How are you going to afford it? How are you going to get around? What are you going to do when you’re done? Why are you doing all of this?
A new appreciation for Nate burst forth. I did not know the answers to my questions about him. They weren’t questions for me to answer. They were his questions. Maybe he had already answered them. Maybe he was asking entirely different questions. And maybe the journey was the attempt to answer them.
I recalled a line of lyrics that often played in my head when I was confronted by the questions. And while I did my best to answer the inquiries, I often felt that my words failed at illuminating the answers to the whats, hows, and whys. I never did seem to feel I had completely connected with others when explaining all of this. I wasn’t giving the wrong answers, but was being asked the wrong questions. At times while planning and working for the journey, I became discouraged and would become skeptical of myself, my plans, my life. But I had my own questions. I was asking them. I was trying to answer them. There just happened to be a whole world I wanted to explore, needed to explore while doing it. So here I was in Bangkok, Thailand. Asking my questions, searching for my answers. That line resounded in my head.
So when you run, make sure you run/to something, and not away from