“Khao San. That’s where everybody stays. I know a cheap place if you don’t care much about comfort. We can split a cab there if you like.” We extinguished our cigarettes and found the line for cabs into the city.
I think his name was Chris or Nick or something like that; unmemorable and arbitrary. He was a Canadian dive instructor on Koh Tao and the only person I could hold a conversation with in the hostel on my last night in Saigon. He had completed his visa run in Vietnam and happened to be taking the same flight to Bangkok with me the next morning. At first, during the first cab that we split to the airport, I was sure that this guy would know the ins and outs of at least a small part of this massive city that I knew nothing about. After all, he had been living in Thailand for five months now.
We got in a cab and had the good fortune of being approached by another passenger seeking cheap and convenient fare to the same location. I don’t think there was a single white person in that line that was going anywhere other than the infamous Th. Khao San. The girl was from Israel and had just arrived to Bangkok for her first time after spending six months in India. After a good forty minutes of congested traffic and totally irrelevant conversation, we made it to our destination and “Chris” took us to the cheap hotel that he had been telling me about.
I should mention at this point why I chose to fly to Bangkok and why Juli did not, though she planned to. I flew here to meet up with a very close friend of mine by the name of Marsha Mack. She had decided on a whim to come to Thailand for a month before she continued her studies at a grad school in New York. Seeing to how I had never had the opportunity to travel with a friend from home before, and I imagined that this one would end up being an excellent traveler, I decided that it was worthwhile for me to temporarily skip over Cambodia and see what adventure I could find with this avid “yes sayer” that I loved so dearly.
Juli already had a plane booked from Saigon to Bangkok over a month ago, but the night before her flight and visa expiration date, she received an e-mail from the travel agency in Chiang Mai saying that there was no flight, and she should not waste her time going to the airport. In an act of desperate spontaneity, she booked a bus to Cambodia the next day and I was left tragically alone for the first time since my trip began. It would only be a week or so until we planned to meet again, and less than that before I would see Marsha, but I have to admit that it was a bit strange walking the streets with no one around to compare notes with, even it was for a short while. In the end, I figured that a bit of solitude would do me some good before I my scheduled meetings with the two girls, but as you can see here, it did not take long before I accidentally found myself in the company of others before I even had the chance to leave Vietnam.
So we were on Khao San, and it seemed pretty apparent that the girl from Israel had in fact spent the last six months in India. Unconventionally beautiful with long flowing hair bleached from the sunshine, she was still rocking a bindi and wandering about in a free spirited way. Though she had expressed interest in sticking with us until she found a hotel, Chris and I were constantly stopping in the street in an attempt to locate this girl who was always distracted and disappearing without notice. After a bit of struggle, we eventually found the Marco Polo Hotel in an alley off the main drag.
They wanted 400 baht and I got them down to 320. It was quite the deal for a private room with air con and its own bathroom in Bangkok. The cockroaches, loud noise and rock hard mattress did not bother me, but the Israeli was not contented and disappeared, this time for good. Once my bag was dropped, I met up with the Canadian at a bar he selected just outside my hotel.
The beer was expensive and the food was far from authentic. Even though he had made himself out to know a lot, I was not impressed. I would not have settled for this place had I been alone, even with it being my first hour in the city, but I was not in the mood for random stumbling about just yet and he was now the only option I had if I wanted to stay social and not find myself reclusive behind my journal or computer. It seemed that he was just another tourist in the end and I realized that simply spending an extended amount of time in any given country is never really enough to change that. If you don’t take risks, or at least do things that are perceived as risks, then your temperament tends to stay pretty stagnant. Either way, he was fun and knew how to drink, which was all that I required on my first day there.
We drank steadily. For the first time in a while, I actually struggled to keep up. There were two young German fellows at the table next to us and we eventually managed to conjoin our tables. They were young and easily impressed, having just showed up in Asia, they were easy prey for our ego inflation. We were in our mid twenties, sun-tanned and confident. Not only that, but we were willing to talk at them somewhat steadily due to the amount of drinks we were rapidly consuming. When our conversation took its occasional hiatus, I had time to look around the street and start evaluating my surroundings.
Khao San is, without a doubt, the main tourist strip of Bangkok. The street is always busy, filled with travelers either looking for shit to buy or trying hard to avoid buying anything. Later I learned that it was not uncommon for many people to come to Bangkok for several weeks and barely even leave this strip. Why? I guess that it is a nice little island of Western food, shady pharmacies and a very well planned chaos that people either expect or are happy to find when arriving in city that has a prominently taboo and/or zany reputation. Most backpackers can find anything that they want when coming to Khao San: buckets of booze, fried scorpions, ping pong shows, shady night clubs, tuk tuk rides, other backpackers, over priced bus tickets to the Full Moon Party, etc. Day or night, you can expect to constantly fend off people hawking everything from suits to cigarette lighters. One man wouldn’t leave our table until I at least tried one of his lighters. When I did, I received a nice strong shock rich in voltage. He may not have gotten any of my money, but at least the bastard had a good laugh as he walked away in search for the next drunk sucker.
Chris decided that he would like to smoke some pot. I was a little hesitant at first. My tolerance was low, I had not smoked any in over a month, and Thailand is notorious for handing out the death sentence to pot dealers. After another drink and a bit of convincing, I ended up with the “fuck it” mentality and we convened with the young Germans to the rooftop of my hotel.
“We roll it pure in North America, no tobacco.” I warned the Germans. Chris nodded in agreeance. The two little guys looked a little scared, but it was too late to back out now.
After we burned one down, I felt a little higher than I was comfortable with. I started to realize that I might have gotten high a little to preemptive in this new country. My mind was in no way ready for this. Once I noticed my own bit of paranoia begin to take hold, I looked over at our younger comrades. One of them was doing his best to hold it together in a plastic chair, staring at the ceiling, while the other had been laying on the ground for god knows how long, covering his face in horror of what was to come. I understand his fear a bit. It wasn’t until after he was thoroughly stoned that we began explaining the harsh punishment that Thailand tended to enforce on drug users. Then we began talking of poverty and disease and all the things that you will probably be exposed to once you leave the beaten track of South East Asia. They were probably in shock and deeply regretting their decision to join these two obviously insane people on the roof of this shady establishment. After nearly an hour of Chris and I holding the conversation, the guy laying on the ground sat up abruptly and began to speak in frantically in German.
“We need water.” it seemed that the higher one had forgotten how to speak English and was now using his friend as a translator.
“Okay… go get some water.” I replied.
“Do you have a glass?”
“Uh… no. Even if I did, you shouldn’t drink the tap water. You have to go buy a bottle.”
“Seriously?” his eyes widened.
These guys had never so much as even glanced at a travel guide before.
“Where do we get water?”
“Anywhere, dude! Just go down the stairs, walk into a corner market or cafe and buy some water… with Thai money… and take the change.”
“Okay… can you come with us?”
Chris and I exchanged a glance and knew that it was probably the nice thing to do seeing to how we were partly responsible for their little predicament.
As we got downstairs, we sat at the same bar we were at before and ordered another round of beers. Our two completely blown counterparts just stood there and stared at the ground.
“Sit down guys, they have water here.” Chris said.
The two of them deliberated while whispering German to each other in an attempt to come up with a plan that did not involve being seen in public or staying with these guys who just awarded them the death sentence.
“Okay guys,” said the less high one “we are going to get our bags and catch our bus now. It’s been awesome.” Their bus didn’t leave for four hours. They must have forgot mentioning that fact earlier.
“Alright,” I laughed “take care!” And they were off to god knows where. Probably to cuddle their backpacks in some storage closet until the visible effects of that terrifying drug had worn off.
Chris and I remained at the bar until the early evening when he had to leave and catch a similar bus to the south. Once he was gone, I felt far from social. My homeward instincts kicked in, but instead of returning to my usual apartment filled with couches and video games, I had no choice but to retire in front a book that I could barely read at my roach infested hotel room.
The next couple days I basically waited for Marsha to show up. During the day, I would usually wander aimlessly around neighborhoods that held no points of interest on the tourist map or go and find the attractions that were. I always preferred the first option. Temples and Buddhas hold no interest for me. I actually only spent about three hours of one day wasting time on the “sights” before I gave up entirely on any hope of giving a shit about such things. I couldn’t wait for Marsha to show up so we could leave.
Three days in, I was totally sick of Bangkok. I wanted to find the good places, the spots that the locals would go, but the city was too large, I knew no one and did not speak the language. When I was nineteen, I moved to San Francisco mostly because my high school girlfriend had done the same a couple months earlier. Naturally, we broke up a month or so after I signed a year long lease on a studio apartment. I was alone. I knew no one in the city and I wasn’t exactly sure what I was even doing there in the first place. Though I was from the Bay Area, it took me well over a year to acclimate, know how to behave, make friends and know where to go for fun. The notion that someone like me would be able to do the same thing I did as a resident of San Francisco as a backpacker in Bangkok in one week is completely absurd. Though I tried, I found nothing of real interest while I was there; just ping pong shows and cockroaches, both of which I will spare you all the details of.
One morning, sitting in a cafe, communicating via facebook, I learned that Marsha had finally arrived.