Monday, 18 November 2002

THE JOY OF TRAVEL - 1. BANGKOK






14/11/02: Arrive and book in at the Asia Hotel. Go to a bar called The Rock and see a covers band; just a shame their staple is American rock – My Sharona goes down well, though. Proceed to get thoroughly plastered.


Customs is pleasingly slick and Bangkok’s airport surprisingly modern. There aren’t people clamouring for your attention and there are no beggars. This does not surprise me at the time but retrospectively will seem quite odd (the lack of people clamouring for my attention, as opposed to the absence of suppliants – it is an airport, after all). I guess such places exist in their own world, exempt from the conditions and the customs of their host country.
Step outside and the predicament really hits home, the heat and the miasma and the noise illustrating the distance travelled. I sit down for a moment whilst my colleague asks somebody about buses. It is a straight-forward operation and within 20 minutes we are aboard a moving vehicle. It is approximately 15:00.
The airport – as airports often are – is located a little way out of town, and it takes some while for us to breach a suburbia comprised of parking lots, warehouses selling car-parts, garden centres, and opulently green fields dotted with grazing cattle. Quite a sight, then, as we near this city’s hub: all tall buildings, advertisement hoardings and flyovers, a metropolis of intimidating proportion.
So this is Asia, this is inter-continental travel, and nothing has remotely prepared me for it. The conductor announces so when our bus reaches the intended point of disembarkation, and already I’m desperate to escape this stultifying humidity, to change clothes and discard any traces of airborne travel. Mercifully, the Asia Hotel is not hard to find, and we book in without too much trouble (although a little more than you’d think: they give our paperwork a thorough going over). Ours will be a basic room with air conditioning, a television, mini-bar, normal things like that. The décor within will be rather drab in hue and the bathroom will have seen better days. But I am unconcerned; looking out over the city from our window, I cannot quite comprehend where I am, or why.
It is nice to be able to stretch one's legs and have a shower after such an arduous journey, but I am not as hungry as I might be, even if I did eat twice on the flight over. I do want a drink, however. Actually, I need a drink, however. After venturing no further than 50 metres in either direction of our hotel – because it all appears a bit too redoubtable to gamble on any further than that – we settle for a bar across the street called The Rock, a real American effort.
It is pretty empty inside, save for a group of Thai musicians executing competent renditions of other people’s hits. It becomes apparent that this is supposed to be a Karaoke night, but nobody seems willing. You can count me out, as always. Besides, I'm just here to familiarise myself with the Thai beer, which is strong one might add. Despite my tiredness, I opt to get really rather drunk, as much to curb my nervous excitement than anything else. I am on holiday after all.


15/11/02: Have buffet breakfast at hotel. Leave to seek suggested accommodation on the Khao San Road - they call it a palace! Gulliver’s for food – pork chops have never tasted so good. Weather very hot but a thunderstorm alleviates the humidity.
Find Hole in the Wall, play pool and get drunk and talk to English couple. Three ‘Beer Changs’ for the price of two.

Bangkok is a beast of a city. It reminds me of the sprawling metropolis from the computer game Grand Theft Auto, only if Hounslow Borough Council had been given the job of maintaining it for the previous 30 years. This is to say that a lot of the low rise buildings have been poorly maintained, giving rise to some rather dirty concrete fascias, although litter is conspicuous by its absence.
Amongst the rudimentary construction, the city is regularly punctuated with pristine monuments and temples. The airport looks alright too, which is most welcome, as the last thing you need after a 10 hour flight is chaotic architecture. I guess it's a question of priorities…


The next day, after exploiting what is a disappointingly insubstantial buffet breakfast, we check-out and catch a bus to the Khao San Road. If I thought it was hot when I arrived then have I got a surprise coming to me. The particular bus-stop that we somehow deduce we require is protected by the shade, but succour remains elusive, the preponderance of concrete radiating heat from all directions. Alas, our bus, when it arrives, fares no better. There is no air-conditioning on these things – just wooden framed windows that push outwards at the top – and the traffic is heavy, emitting fumes that prohibit the influx of any draft that might ordinarily be generated by the speed of such a vehicle. We then miss our stop and have to walk back over an imposing bridge crossing the Chao Phraya River, fully laden, under the midday sun, and can only hope that it will be a straight forward job when we reach the other side.
It is. By the time we reach the Khao San Palace (a guesthouse recommended to us by friends, because it’s cheap and conveniently located) I am drenched with sweat, clothes almost sodden. Thankfully, this time around booking-in is a pleasingly straight-forward process. We are given a key with a plank of wood attached, presumably to prevent us from losing it, and shown to our room, which is basic and small with no air-conditioning to speak of – just a Bakelite fan hanging from the middle of the ceiling, looking shaky. It is very cheap, though, (about 350 baht). I suppose we should be grateful for the two scrawny, orange hand towels that are provided.
After a quick shower and a change of clothes I visit the internet café at the end of the road to check in with anybody who cares; only the Khao San Road stands in my way. I feel myself tensing up the moment I pass reception. I have quickly established that I will be confronted by taxi drivers the moment I reach the end of the tiled floor that acts as some sort of outdoor atrium, with a pharmacy just to the right. Anticipating this, I can keep my head down, mumble something in English and break on through this commercial picket line with relative ease. Once out on the street itself I will feel an invisible force guiding me down the centre of this semi-pedestrianised zone, protecting me from the unwanted attention of the hawkers, eager restaurant staff and crippled beggars that line the street. In all of this I will momentarily forget about the unremitting heat and humidity, until some vehicle starts snaking its way through the throng, and I can smell the burning petrol mixing in with the aromas of unknown food-stuffs. If this wasn't enough, all the travellers who are here with me – and there are many indeed – all seem mad. There’s no dignity amongst them, just delirium, and I can’t understand it, not yet.
The internet café exudes a mellower timbre, and I can relax a little. But the computers are too slow, and I can’t lose myself in the ethereal link back to the world I'm built for and that could offer me a degree of comfort right now. I have no idea what I want to do or where I want to specifically be, but the idea of being out of doors seems particularly unappealing.

By now my appetite has started to recover from its flight induced disorientation, so we look for somewhere to eat. We opt for Gulliver’s at the end of the road by virtue of its air conditioning. I order the pork-chops in pepper sauce, with fries. The place is done out like a bar back home – dark stained wood, sport related paraphernalia, spirits piled high behind the counter. We are waitress served, which brings with it a welcome sense of formality. It is the air-conditioning in particular that I am finding particularly salubrious, and the food when it arrives has a positive effect. I am also glad that it is now becoming dark outside, because in the dark nothing is ever as frightening.
Then we go out and get drunk at a place called The Hole in the Wall. Boy, is everything a little bit irregular.


16/11/02: Wally’s for brunch; walk to a gallery and then down to the river; back to our hotel and then to Gulliver’s again, this time for egg fried rice; then to Dong Dea Moon; back to Hole in the Wall where ‘Pipi’ scams me for 40 baht via the medium of pool.

17/11/02: Breakfast followed by a spot of mild depression and a certain anxiet. Take a nap, followed by a shower, grab some pineapple from “the road” and feel all the better for it. Come the evening we’re out drinking again and discover two new bars “off the beaten track” – Dong Dea Moon and what my companion and I christen the ‘Hendrix’.


That first week took some getting used to not least because of the fervid heat and humidity. Lying spread-eagled on one’s bead, with the fan rotating as fast as its modest motor would permit, I just couldn't get comfortable. The sound of the neighbouring 7-Eleven’s door relentlessly bleeping open and closed did not help. It was no less incessant by night than it was by day, perhaps even more so. Consequently I spent a not insignificant amount of my time boozing. This was not so surprising in some respects, given that I was on a kind of protracted holiday, but I had five months of this to get through and if I couldn't get a hold of myself soon then the possibility was that I might end up developing some sort of drinking problem.
The Hole in the Wall on Khao San Road was my favourite hang-out. There, some Thai guy called Pipi – a rangy, wide-eyed guy who wears old clothes – will insist you play him at pool. He’s a hustler but charming with it, so to hell with the expense (such as it was). Anyway, they were doing a three-for-the-price-of-two offer on bottles of Chang and Singha. This worked out at no more than 60p for a bottle of premium strength lager (6.4% and 5% respectively), and they’d keep your second and third bottle on ice for you.
On my first visit to the Hole in the Wall I recall being very aware of an earthy odour to the water in the washroom. Standing there, sweating buckets – for many of the bars lack any air-conditioning – it struck me how completely trapped by my predicament I was, this not un-redolent smell a sort of metaphor for the miasma of unfamiliarity that had me so completely in its thrall. I wasn't unhappy about my situation but felt overwhelmed by it. I’d committed to five months abroad, and almost four of them in a climate as relentless as this, so counting down the days as a mechanism by which to cope seemed hopelessly futile. How to go about it? I could drink some of the time, but not all the time, and I would need to move around and occupy myself somehow. And what impact would this have on my relationship? I didn't know. I felt that an extended company of sorts would be hugely beneficial, and meeting up with other people was part of the loose plan. In the meantime I would need to get a grip, maybe think about what I wanted out of this. Perhaps I could reflect on the alternative, because if I wasn't here I’d be in England struggling with the entirely unappealing prospect of finding work, and of ruminating on what it is what I wanted to do with my absurd life.
And then some local gent walked in and offered to sell me some marijuana. It’s alright, mate, maybe some other time…

Come Sunday and I had reached something of a watershed. I felt emotionally desolate during the morning, and then, after taking a short nap, I began to feel physically unwell. I tried sleeping some more, with some degree of success, until a fan induced chill had me scrambling for one of the scraggy, orange hand-towels for protection. Relief was only momentary and I suddenly became aware of an all-encompassing itching about my form. The dampness of the towel had attracted many small, red ants, creatures that I was now transferring onto my body, encouraging them to bite. They were everywhere, yet I could not identify an obvious point of origin prior to them descending on my miserable, titian towel. There were no holes, no nooks, no nests. The room was clean, I could give it that.
Insects eliminated, and starting to lose my mind, I decided to leave my room and buy pineapple from one of the many street vendors that work the Khao San Road. This proved to be of great benefit as I soon witnessed a significant improvement to my constitution. By the early evening we were out drinking again.
What this lugubrious episode represented, I will never know for sure. Maybe I had heatstroke, maybe I was homesick, or maybe I was suffering from a sort of culture-shock that grabbed my psyche, twisted it around a bit, forcing me to stare deep into the abyss.

There is a road around the corner from the Khao San Road – do a right at Gulliver’s and then first left – where proceedings are a bit more laid back (emphasis on ‘a bit’). You can eat out on the street without too much interference, take a drink in one of the many bars there, with travellers who don’t seem so intent on drinking themselves into a stupor. Dong Dea Moon (now deceased) was particularly pleasing, run by a Korean guy who could flick the tops off bottles with the end of a lighter at a high velocity, for entertainment purposes only.
Further on down there used to be the Mango. It amounted to little more than a sort of garden with wooden tables, a wooden bar, a few small trees, and a pond – the perfect environment in which to breed mosquitos. Their music policy was good. They would normally play an old BBC Jimi Hendrix session on rotation, the tunes inter-cut with the broadcaster Brian Matthew providing a bit of background on the recording. (This bar went the same way as Dong Dea Moon, although alarmingly sooner.) They didn't make a big show about calling themselves Mango and so neither did we, referring to it as ‘The Hendrix’ instead.


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