… on Bangkok
Location: Bangkok, Thailand
Music: The Getaway People – Soi Cowboy
The smell. It’s the first and most oppressive thing you will notice about Bangkok. From the minute you leave your hotel, it is your ubiquitous compass everywhere you go in this congested, incredibly busy metropolis. The best way to describe it is a combination of raw sewage; a potent, very sweet ginger; and some other unidentifiable Thai smell (rotting street food, perhaps?). Needless to say, my first few jet-lagged days were quite an overwhelming introduction to southeast Asian travel.
After checking into my moderately-priced four star, my initial night was spent in the confines of the comfort zone that was my room. I ordered some spaghetti carbonara from room service and laid down in my plush bed. Exploring the depths of Bangkok could wait until the next day, which my internal clock decided would begin promptly at four in the morning. Dream Bankgok turned out to be an excellent choice, however, with their breakfast buffet that included one of the freshest, most delicious omelettes I’ve ever had. The coffee suffered for it, but overall, I would stay there again. The friendly Thai manager helped me with learning some key phrases and also pointed me to the closest mall to purchase a few things that I neglected to pack. After my omelette and two cups of stale insta-coffee, I set forth into the cesspool that is Bangkok.
There’s something to be said for your first day in a new country; it’s an exhilarating, eye-opening experience. Weaving through the maze of street stalls selling everything from Valium to Viagra (plus a wide selection of vibrators); past the strong stench of random beef on a stick complete with assorted flies; to a lone Thai vendor selling socks for $1 a pair (picked up three pairs); I finally made it to Central World. Central World is a very westernized shopping mall, but I use the term ‘mall’ loosely. I think ‘world’ definitely more accurately summarized the seven floors of shopping that greeted me. Waking up at 4, I was disappointed to look down at my watch and realize it was only 10 in the morning, roughly the time I start my day in the western hemisphere; but my fatigue was assuaged when I discovered the top floor of Central World contained “Happy Time” movie theater and that Jurassic Park 3D was playing. I had heard that the Thais take their movie-viewing experience seriously, so I quickly bought a ticket and anxiously awaited to be allowed into the theater. I was not disappointed.
I had the whole theater to myself until two other westerners showed up right before we were called to rise for the King’s anthem. I previously read about a man who was arrested when he failed to stand for the anthem, so I made sure I rose poignantly to my feet and motioned for my fellow farang (foreigners) to do the same. The viewing experience definitely lived up to expectations, and my brain quickly adjusted to the Thai subtitles before adequately filtering them out.
Day three started a little later, roughly about 6:00 a.m. I killed time until breakfast by perusing the internet and planning my day. It was finally time to venture out of my familiar hotel and experience all the city had to offer — at least to tourists. Luckily, on my way out of the hotel, I met a fellow American and solo traveler named John (named changed to protect the innocent). After striking up conversation, he had arrived on the same day as me but was just switching hotels. I told him I was going to check out the Grand Palace and asked if he wanted to tag along. He agreed, and we quickly bonded over talks about life, spirituality, and why everything was always closed for a Buddhist holiday in Bangkok (insider hint: it’s not. Never listen to Bangkok tuk-tuk drivers).
That night John suggested we visit a street only known as the Soi Cowboy, the street where scenes from The Hangover 2 were filmed. Questioning the contents of this street, I found out it’s where all the Thai prostitutes hang out awaiting their usually overweight and upper-aged customers. Always up for exploring the seedier side of society, I tagged along and was not disappointed. From the moment you turn the corner onto the Soi Cowboy, you are met by throngs of all types of women vying for your attention. Many of them wore the uniform of their associated bar; others were just walking the street, grabbing your arm (among other things) as you passed by. John decided to indulge his curiosity with a lady of the night, and after escorting he and his date off the street, I stopped at the last and seemingly least shadiest bar on the street to have a night cap. Drinking with Thai prostitutes was an interesting experience, but they were surprisingly good company. They spoke good English and make a mean drink, and if you tell them you have a girlfriend at home, they won’t be too pushy when you get up to leave.
After only four nights surrounded by Bangkok’s smell and pollution, I needed a respite. The overnight train down to the islands in the south was full, so I booked a cheap flight on Bangkok Air direct to Koh Samui. Later that day, 45 minutes into my taxi ride to go a few miles, stopped dead in Bangkok traffic, hungover from the night before, my thoughts drifted to something my father said before he dropped me off at the bus station in Providence: “If you find that traveling in Asia is too uncomfortable, you can always come home.” If only I had listened, I would have never left the airport…