Bangkok was not my first choice – nor was it my second or third. I wanted to go to Saigon or Dien Bien Phu, where my uncle had snapped Rambo-esque photos of himself and his fellow Marines during the war. Or perhaps Siem Reap, where the fabled temples of Angkor lay half-swallowed by the jungle. In the gentle Christian upbringing of my youth, Thailand was the destination of missionaries and NGO types, not adventurers. Tales of Oriental dens of iniquity do not polite dinner conversation make, so consequently I grew up hearing nothing of Bangkok’s infamous reputation. I went there for the simple reason that the flight from Tokyo to Bangkok was hundreds of dollars cheaper than the one to Saigon. I didn’t even bother to buy a guidebook. I had absolutely no idea what to expect.
You know you are truly not in Kansas anymore the moment you step off the plane at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. The heat and humidity immediately overwhelm you – not just a slap across the face, more like falling suddenly into a heated pool. Say goodbye to dry underwear for the next couple of weeks. That unfamiliar scent hanging in the air – a potent, take-your-breath-away combination of fish oil, jasmine, chili sauce, and diesel fuel – is the smell of adventure. You hate it the first hour you are there, get used to it after a day or two, dream about it longingly months after you leave.
Thailand is the only country in the world where immigration cops smile at you. The guy in my line is so friendly it almost seems as if he is flirting with me. He’s wearing a police uniform straight out of a gay review – polyester, super snug, cap slightly askew, very campy. The Village People would be jealous. When he asks me if I’m there for business or ‘pleaZURE’ I don’t know if I should laugh or blush. I answer ‘PLEAsure’, and he casts me a knowing smirk. I pray he doesn’t call for a strip search.
Once past immigration, I experience for the first time the pandemonium that is distinct to airports in developing nations. It seems half of the city has jammed into the sweaty arrivals hall. It is a riot of shouting and activity, of brown-skinned Thais in colorful silks chasing after disheveled tourists. Touts offering everything from transportation to ‘lady massage’ press in from every side. I politely decline all offers, trying to imagine what kind of person would be so anxious for a happy ending that he would be looking for a masseuse five minutes after getting off the plane. It’s hard to describe how tenacious some of these guys can be; when I pass through the revolving exit door, three of them are in the door with me, still insisting I avail myself of their services.
Outside, I see a dozen or so backpackers queued up at a bus stop, and decide to join them. Unfortunately, no one in line speaks English, so I can only hope that our mutual mimes mean we are all looking for a guesthouse, and said bus is the way to get there. I have been told that Khao San Road, a backpacker slum, is the best place to hole up for a few days – I am happy to see that name on the front of the bus when it arrives.
Transportation in Bangkok can be more of an adventure than many people bargain for. The city’s major arteries are eight lanes wide, but it’s not exactly clear how many lanes are supposed to go in each direction. This is decided by consensus of the drivers, and it changes several times throughout the day as traffic requires. If a particular driver feels traffic is moving too slowly in his direction, he will nudge out into the on-coming traffic lane. If a few other vehicles are daring enough to follow, on-coming traffic yields the lane. Needless to say, something as big as a bus demands quite a bit of respect in this might-means-right-of-way system, so our driver speeds recklessly down the center lane, swearing, honking, swerving from time to time to avoid the odd truck or other vehicle not intimidated by his aggression.
We finally disembark – all of us a bit green around the gills – near the Phra Athit pier, a couple blocks away from the infamous Khao San. The driver motions towards an overpass – “turn left there,” he says, “go two blocks. Khao San Road.” He roars away, eager to terrorize his next group of passengers. I start to follow the group in that direction when an older French couple motion for me to hold back. We had chatted on the bus as best we could with my high school French and their non-existent English. He is a retired postal worker and the two have been living in Thailand for nearly a decade. In the other direction, they explain, in a soi behind the main road, are a couple of places to stay. Separated from the 24/7 revelry of Khao San by a Buddhist monastery, these places are quieter, cheaper, cleaner – all around a much better experience. We walk down a leafy alley to My House Guesthouse, a laid-back hippy hangout with Thai-style chaise-lounges in the lobby and $4-a-night single rooms. They decide to stay at the New Siam next door as they need a room with air conditioning instead of just a fan, and with two of them, are willing to pay the going rate of $10. I take the cheaper one.
There’s no lift, and walking up to the fifth floor with my backpack isn’t much fun. But the room is clean, simple, comfortable. I shower, change, and step out to the balcony with a cold Singha and a pack of Dunhills. The smell of fish sauce and chili fill the tropical air. In the leafy street below, laughing barefoot children play soccer, while women in sarongs slice papaya and lemongrass. Men sit around smoking, laughing, drinking beer. Monks in saffron robes shuffle slowly towards the temple. The slow, easy pace of Thai life.
Tokyo was exciting – this is exotic. Looking across the pointed roofs of the monastery, I realize that I have accidentally stumbled upon a real adventure.
Prices on Soi Rambutri have hardly budged since I first went to Bangkok years ago – you can still get a decent room for between $10 and $20 a night, although you’ll have to scour the place for that $5 dorm bed. It’s not quite as peaceful as it once was, as many more guesthouses have opened up in the area (check out this handy map), but it’s still a great introduction to the city, and closer to the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, and other popular tourist attractions than any of the 5-star hotels.
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