I had stopped in Thailand for two weeks on my round-the-world backpacking trip back in 1996. It was one of the two countries I visited at the time where people actually hounded me on the street to work for them. It seems both Thailand and Egypt were so short of English teachers at the time that schools would send reps out to the tourist areas to try and recruit a few vacationers to stay on. Needless to say, when I decided to live abroad a couple of years later, a handful of business cards I’d collected from employers in those two countries heavily influenced my decision of where to go.
I had originally thought that I’d to go to Egypt. I found the people there remarkably hospitable during my travels – it was the only country out of a dozen I’d visited where anyone had invited me to their home. In Cairo, at Tahrir Square, I enjoyed the coffee and date-bread at a local bakery so much that I returned there the next morning – and the next. The proprietor asked me if I was a tourist or a new resident of Cairo. I jokingly said that I hadn’t decided yet – and he insisted that I come to his house for dinner. I enjoyed a fantastic meal of grilled lamb, salad, and hand-made bread, seated in the floor of his home with many of his brothers and cousins. One of his relatives was a taxi driver, and he insisted that I call him the following week so that he could take me to the airport – he refused to let me pay him, not even for the gas he’d used.
However, I think being short and dark-haired, like me, has its advantages in the Middle East. If I didn’t dress in unmistakably Western attire, I could pretty much wander from India to Greece relatively unnoticed. Even in east Asia, locals often approach from behind, tap me on the shoulder, and ask me questions. Only when I turn around and they see my obvious gaijin/laowai/farang features do they realize I’m not a local – really freaks them out when I answer in the local language.
My brother, Stephen, on the other hand, is unmistakably American. Taller, paler, blue-eyed, ex-Air Force, an accent somewhere between Tennessee and Texas, fond at the time of wearing Cowboy hats – I’m thinking he’d stick out like a pig roast at a bar mitzvah. So when he decided he was coming with me – well I just thought Thailand would be more welcoming. (I wasn’t wrong – I stayed there 3 years, he lived there nearly 7).
We lived in cheap guesthouses while we looked for work, but once that was secured, we needed a ‘home’, not just a cheap room with a shower down the hall. Actually, on the measly salary that teaching in Thailand offered (and still offers), the guesthouse wasn’t really so cheap – at 200 baht a night it amounted to nearly a quarter of my salary.
Then we discovered Pin Khlao. It’s actually not that hard to find – just across the river from the backpacker ghetto – but no one, not even most Bangkokians, ever goes there. If you head to the Phra Athit pier to take the well-known tourist boat down the Chao Phaya river, you can see my old apartment building on the opposite bank.
It’s amazing that you can walk across a bridge and step into a different reality. (There was once a ferry, but at the time of this writing, March 2017, it was not in operation. Walking across the bridge was always faster than waiting for the damn ferry anyway.) Gone are the skyscrapers, tourist attractions, and English-speaking restaurants and hotels. Gone also are the tourist prices – I’d venture to say that Bangkok, already a cheap travel destination, suddenly becomes cheaper again by half in Pin Khlao.
For example, we were paying 400 baht a night at the guesthouse between us – at the time, a measly $10. But our apartment – Thai style, but completely furnished, western toilet and air-con – was 3400 baht – roughly $75 a month for the two of us. And we could see the Grand Palace from our balcony.
This is actually the neighborhood where people from Isaan, the poorer countryside region of Thailand, populate when they first arrive in the big city. The food here is oh-my-GOD spicy, and lao-lao, a potent alcoholic beverage popular with rural farmers, is ubiquitous – and cheap. Street food is half what you’d pay across the river at Khao San Road. The locals, not jaded by years of dealing with tourists, are charming, welcoming, and a hell of a lot of fun to spend time with. Conversations consist of their few words of English, your very few words of Thai, and lots of laughter and drinking. It’s like living in a rural Thai town – without ever leaving Bangkok.
I’m wondering around the old Pin Khlao neighborhood again today – nearly two decades since I first moved there. So little has changed in the narrow sois and slow-moving khongs since I left. The old apartment building remains – still only $100 a month. The laundry where I had my shirts ironed, the Chinese pharmacist, the same old restaurants and bars, still going, with a few newer ones added. Pata Department store, purveyor of sheets, towels, rice cookers, tea kettles – everything a guy needs to get started – still there. There are still quite a few houses here made of traditional Thai teak – they are built on stilts, high off the ground, because the streets I’m walking on we’re actually canals not so long ago.
I could almost imagine the last fifteen years never happened.
It seems to be a habit of mine – not sure if good or bad. When I find myself in an unhappy situation, I want to go back to wherever the last place was where I WAS happy. Kind of like when your computer starts acting up, and you hit that re-set program that takes it back in time to when everything worked the way you wanted it to. When my mother was ill I went back to Ohio, where I’d lived as a kid. When my life in America unraveled I returned to Beijing. And now I toy with the idea of returning to Pin Khlao, where there was laughter and the excitement of living abroad for the first time.
But, as familiar and ‘homey’ as it is to me, I don’t think it’s where I belong – not for now at least. If you, dear reader, are looking for somewhere to start an adventure, I can think of no better place. My future, however, lies elsewhere – not sure where just yet, but elsewhere.
I’ll let you know when I find it.
If you’re thinking of moving to Bangkok and are interested in Pin Khlao, drop me a line and I’ll give you detailed directions. Don’t search for Bangkok apartments online – most anything listed in English will be way overpriced. Do look for teaching jobs at ajarn.com.
And please ‘like’ Never Coming Back on Facebook to see photos from my latest travels!