Some sneaky insider tips on meeting the locals.
A fantastic article on how to explain it to those who don’t have it or understand it. Another trip?!
Scene One, Take One
Enter – BANGKOK
You know you’ve travelled far when you disembark from the skybus to find yourself overwhelmed with a new hellish temperature, a staggering humidity index and an assault of new smells. You’re walking around the airport like a child in the Red Light District, eyes glazed, subdued with the sensory overload and feeling like a rag doll carrying a body bag. Yet again you’ve plunged into a strange and foreign land with little working knowledge on how the hell you’re going to get on in this place, except for maybe the currency exchange rates and the name of a hostel and its address chicken scratched into your journal. Well, that’s the way I travel anyway – impulsively and by the seat of my pants. Had you asked me only a few weeks prior, I would have told you that I had no plans of going to south east Asia but did that ever change with the planting of a single idea. Standing at an airport ATM trying to do quick math in my brain on how many Thai baht to the Canadian dollar and how much should I get out in one go, I start to consider, after a level of experience with getting ripped off, pick pocketed and hustled, how am I going to get to Smile Society Hostel in the Silom Soi district without being made a numpty. Bangkok, or the Beast from the East, was the big next step into the unfamiliar and unknown. And this time I was attacking my (at this point) fleeting and withered Westerner’s travel virginity on my own, at dusk, in the City of Sin.
The name of Bangkok itself is rather unclear. Bang is a Thai word meaning “a village situated on a stream”, and the name may have been derived from Bang Ko, ko meaning “island”, a reference to the area’s landscape which was carved by rivers and canals. Another theory speculates that it is shortened from Bang Makok, makok being the name of Spondias pinnata, a plant bearing olive-like fruit. This is supported by the fact that Wat Arun, a historic temple in the area, used to be named Wat Makok. Officially, however, the town was known as Thonburi Si Mahasamut (from Pali and Sanskrit, literally meaning the “city of treasures gracing the ocean”). “Bangkok” was likely a colloquial name, albeit one widely adopted by foreign visitors, whose continued use of the name finally resulted in it being officially adopted with the creation of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration.
When King Rama I established his new capital on the river’s eastern bank, he named it Krung Rattanakosin In Ayothaya, and the city and the Siamese kingdom during the period became known as Rattanakosin. Bangkok’s current Thai name, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, is a shortening of its full ceremonial name later given by Kings Nangklao (Rama III) and Mongkut :
Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit
Anyway! Led by signs written in various languages, including English, I followed the umbilical cord of escalators and corridors until I was birthed into the heavy thickness of the outdoor taxi parking. Now, I knew from the get go that of course I was going to be paying extra as a tourist to get into the city because that’s how the machine moves forward but I didn’t want another Serbian gypsy cab incident. I wasn’t quite ready to barter with the drivers and after a long sticky showerless flight, I just needed to get to a bed and a wash basin. It didn’t help that the second I walked out the automatic doors, my shirt was stuck to my back and my face was shining like a diamond in a goat’s ass. (Take that Rihanna!) I gave into my ignorance and just went for the driver with the warmest greeting to take care of my fate for the evening. I was surprised, upon reaching my destination after a mini tour guided taxi ride into the city, that he didn’t try to bargain me into a relative’s Tuktuk for a famed ping pong show. I did however, realize that I probably did end up getting ripped off as he had a “set price” rather than turning on the meter. Folks, that’s how you know you’re going to get swindled – no meters. Regardless, I was there and I was ready to degrease.
It was late and there weren’t a lot of youngens still kicking it at the hostel, probably out engaging in various libations and tomfoolery as young rapscallions do, but that didn’t matter. My date was with the shower, a toothbrush and a bar of soap. Ahh, soap – the catalyst of every healthy prison relationship. Post soap-on-a-rope, I found myself feeling a tad more revitalized and a touch too excited to be horizontal. After all, it was my first freakin’ night in Bangkok. And bloody oath, I ain’t no sissy. The shower ended up being a massive fail because as I discovered, you’re only soaked with sweat again moments later with humidity this high. Attractive. Get used to it. I decided to grab a couple tall cans of Tiger from the 7-11 across the road and sit outside the hostel on the bench smoking, making friends with the Moby Dick of a blood thirsty cockroach living on the tiny patio and waiting for some fellow yardbirds to appear. And as luck would have it, out from the woodwork they came.
My first night out in Bangkok was not to Kao San Road as most would do but to a Japanese karaoke bar down the road from our hostel which I conveniently found out later to be in the gay/ladyboy district. Ooh lala. We sang a few songs terribly and admired the glittery drag performances outside before sleeping off the crazy lizards in our brains.
I only spent one full day in Bangkok as I knew I would be back again at some point during the adventure and I was on a tight schedule to catch up with Team Cobra (formed over a future discussion less than appropriate for the dinner table) who were trekking in Chang Mai. That day however, was spent with a nice girl from Seattle cruising up the Chao Phraya river on a traditional Thai boat to the Grand Palace.
One thing travellers need to be weary of is the actual open hours of the palace. As any local would have it, many scams are in place for green Westerners. Often times, folks will make the journey through Bangkok only to be told by someone seemingly official that the palace is closed that day for a particular holiday or what have you. Do NOT fall for it as this is often a scheme to direct you into a tourist trap that will often times cost you money and waste your time. Or so I’ve been told. The Grand Palace itself however, rather than being a single structure, is made up of numerous buildings, halls, pavilions set around open lawns, gardens and courtyards. Its asymmetry and eclectic styles are due to its organic development, with additions and rebuilding being made by successive reigning kings over 200 years of history. It is divided into several quarters: the Temple of the Emerald Buddha; the Outer Court, with many public buildings; the Middle Court, including the Phra Maha Monthian Buildings, the Phra Maha Prasat Buildings and the Chakri Maha Prasat Buildings; the Inner Court and the Siwalai Gardens quarter. The Grand Palace is currently partially open to the public as a museum, however it remains a working palace as several royal offices are still situated inside. The palace is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Thailand and if there is one sight you should see in Bangkok this would be the one as it is undoubtedly the most famous and elaborately dazzling landmark in the city.
Upon our arrival we were hustled to rent the appropriate attire to enter the palace – Hawaiian t-shirts and sarongs. The picture of fashion. I managed hustle the hustlers by making money off the fashion faux pas. I never put down a baht deposit on the colourful uniform but received one back when I returned it. That can’t be good for karma can it? The smiling Buddha would have been frowning if his chubby cheeks would have allowed. Beers were to be had on Kao San Road prior to some successful bartering for a new tropical wardrobe (minus the Hawaiian flare) including a scoop neck dress, beer logoed tank tops, fake Ray Bans and a straw fedora which ended up being one of my distinguishing features among the rest of the fedora toting tourists. Anti-conformity is the new conformity, don’t you know? Seattle ditched to meet an ex-pat friend and I haggled with a Tuktuk driver for a ride back to the hostel. Success was mine – no forced ping pong shows and no sneaky merchant Thai labyrinths to escape. All things I was previously warned about, although, I am strangely fascinated about the idea of a ping pong ball being popped out of a woman’s loins… Ahem!
The evening at the hostel turned into drunken games of Jenga, eating street food and discovering that you can buy Valium over the counter in Thai pharmacies. Very exciting news for an uncomfortable day long train journey to Chang Mai the following day. Jesus tap dancing Christ, you can get away with almost anything in Thailand. Happy as a tornado in a trailer park, I stocked up on some pharmaceutical narcotics for next to a dime and continued to revel in a miscreant’s kingdom come. Tip toeing like Tiny Tim through the tulips back into my dorm, I found Seattle passed out face down and bare-ass out of her purple sun dress on the bottom bunk. Good onya, Sheila. So, I took her lead and followed suit. I pulled myself up the dark bunk ladder like a paraplegic sloth, peeled off an appropriate amount of clothing and drifted into a pigeon-eyed coma. While the city and it’s salacious sin continued into the wee hours of the night, at that moment I was still none the wiser that my second experience in Bangkok six weeks down the road would be less than wholesome and unscathed.
Sneak peak of the next episode: Hungover and almost missing the train, I decided to tune out to metal and Valium only to wake up not in Chang Mai but still on a train that has gone quiet, tense and motionless. Cause of break down and delay – the train track suicide of a small town local.
The ride from Budapest to Belgrade certainly could have been disastrous as we went to the wrong train station – a small one out of the way from the main international station that was actually only walking distance from our hostel. We took a cab out to this almost industrial looking rail station to only to find out that we couldn’t actually buy tickets at this station to get to Serbia. So, in a panic, the Poo Crew are frantically running around like chickens with their heads cut off asking anyone and everyone whether or not we could just get on and pay the conductor and if the train even stopped there. We decided to risk it and knowing which train was which, thanks to one of the staff members at the station, we hopped on, fingers and toes crossed. All the cabins were full and the slim corridors were…
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Oh, Istanbul. The city of seven hills. This place is so spectacular I don’t think I could find it within myself to ever want to leave. Even after the hassle at the border, the second we got into town I could just feel the energy. The place has a wildness I’ve never felt anywhere else. The population as it stands is about 18 million so you can imagine what kind of life you must lead in a city as big as half a Canadian province with quadruple plus residents. The cars appear to hold no rules and neither do the pedestrians as they dodge and jay walk on the regular. The seas and seas of people some would find overwhelming but I was surprised to find myself completely at home in this sardine can of a polis. We arrived into our hostel after the taxi driver had to ask the police for directions. They were holding M-15s as casually as walking sticks. As the Poop Troop rolled in, we were surprised to see that Alex (from Belfast) who we had met in Belgrade, Serbia was still there for one more night! Our plan for the Friday evening as we strolled, or rather dodged, our way into Istanbul was to hook up with Serkan and have him take us to Taksim. Taksim square is potentially known as the busiest area in Istanbul. Along Istikal Street during the day is a plethora of cafes and shopping, but when the sun goes down, that’s when things get really mental.
We started the evening off by enlisting a troop of around 20 of us from the hostel for some shisha. After filling our lungs with melon and apple smoke we were off to get legless in Taksim. Off every side street for about a 40 minute walk there are labyrinths of clubs and bars. You’re literally shoulder to shoulder with Turks all in the mood to party. Our first night in town we went to a metal club called DoRock. It’s down a short side street where, in front, were parked over half a dozen motorbikes and the streets were littered with Turkish metal heads. My adrenaline shot up like the first monkey into space. Beers were cheap and you could drink on the side streets. Word for the night wise, don’t even think about going to a bar or club before 1 AM or you’ll be bored as a eunuch in a whorehouse on discount Tuesday. Inside DoRock was a live band playing all the metal classics so you could imagine that I was as happy as a pig in shit. This is where I met my first few local friends, Kadir and Barbaros. After drinks had been consumed and an intense chucking around the crowd when Painkiller was played, we stuck to the drinking on the side streets. For all the women out there, Turkish men refuse to let you pay for anything (Hooroo!). Drunk as lords at 6AM we went for the classic boozie munchies at the top of Taksim square – wet burgers. They sound disgusting, but by Golly, they are delish. It’s a simple hamburger similar to ones you would find at Maccers but they are kept inside what looks like an incubator – sweating like a well-diggers ass crack – so that all the flavors marinate into each other. After consuming these delights, I managed to get my smokes pick pocketed. The thieves in Istanbul are as slick as a greased pig so make sure to keep your bag and wallet in check at all times.
Saturday was spent taking a tour around the Old Town (Saltanahmed) across the Galata Bridge where one of Serkan’s childhood friends, Benan, took us for the tour of the Grand Bazaar, the Palace and the Blue Mosque. Benan also knew where all the best places to eat traditional Turkish foods were and so we were lucky to get the best of all words sans the cost of an actual guide. After a good walkabout, we jumped on the ferry across the massive harbor to Kadikoy, which is officially my favorite place in Istanbul. Far less tourists know about this place and it is considered the alternative neighborhood in Istanbul with tons of pubs, tattoo shops and street performances.
Many of the locals that I met love Istanbul but hate living there after much political change has taken place over the years. Ataturk founded the country on freedom and liberation; he wanted his people to be modern and make their own modern decisions about the ways in which they wanted to live. After an influx of Kurdish and Islamic people, the government has now become very conservative and right wing to the point where alcohol bans are taking place and strict laws and policies are being instituted as a way of containing the freedoms of the Turkish people. On that note, never talk politics while in Turkey or you’re in for an ear full. There are fundamentally different and diverse views on how the country should be run and it is a source of contention for many. All that aside, the locals I met are increasingly angered over the right wing and corrupt government who manages to stay in power through means of pyramid schemes.
We met up with some more local friends at an Irish pub called Belfast where we recruited the Turks into the Game of Life. We learned what the word M-I-N-E was in Turkish which sounds a lot like “demin” and so any time we heard them even slightly utter the word, BOOM, ten push ups! We ended up getting Barbaros about six times forcing him to do 60 push ups in the middle of the street with stares aplenty. This too is where a cat attacked us because we wouldn’t let him jump onto our table to eat off our dinner plates. After getting well watered, we then decided to buy some beers and go drink in the park by the water. During this time, a poor stay cat had been chased up a tree by a stray dog and was whining for help. One of our new friends actually dangerously climbed the tree to save the cat.
I’ve never seen so many strays in my life. You know they are all safe however, as they all have tags on their ears which mean they have been sterilize and had their rabies shots. For many of the locals, the strays are as much Turkish citizens as the people. Unfortunately though, the government in power just recently passed a law declaring that they are going to exterminate all the strays and that families are only allowed one pet per household. This was quite the upset when I found out about it as these animals share the same friendliness as the Turkish people do. There was a demonstration and protest held the following day in support of animal rights to which I did not attend because, as a traveler and foreigner, I do not want to meddle in another countries political dissonance and end up having to contact the embassy after getting jailed. Don’t drop the soap.
Continuing on! The camaraderie and hospitality of the Turkish people is truly amazing and unlimited. We met up with some more local friends after some wobbley pops in the park before heading to Taksim again for another last wild night before the Poop Troop had to part ways. We ended missing the last ferry back to Taksim so we had to take what is called a Darmus (“dar-mush”) which is basically a hybrid taxi mini bus – faster than the bus and heaps cheaper than a taxi. There are no stops for these vehicles, you just have to flag one down and hop in before they speed off again. That night we went to Machine Club which is probably one of the most mental clubs I have ever been to. It’s in a dark and dank basement where the Djs are inside a cage that people climb and shake themselves off of. The music is so dirty and the strobe so fast and intense it could induce anyone into an epileptic fit. This is where I made my new girlfriends, Dilek and Gulay. Two stunning and amazing women. We spent the entire evening dancing our arses off all the while, the girls protecting me from skeezy men who, like snakes in the grass, move in on obvious naïve foreign women to either drug or pick pocket them. Another night that lasted until early morning.
Sunday was a sad day for us all. Our Aussie boys had to fly to Vienna to transfer over to Bratislava to meet their cousin. A slight depression sat in after we said our goodbyes (probably also due to too much booze I reckon) but I have no doubt in the future I will see my Team Brown again when I visit OZ. Adelaide, I’ll be heading your way have no doubt! And that is a promise and a threat! Serkan had a tattoo appointment at about noon that day but I needed more sleep so we agreed I’d find my own way there and meet him later over in Kadikoy. This is where I almost had the classic Western woman assault incident. On the ferry over, a couple of younger looking men took a liking to me. They couldn’t speak a word of English save for “You are beautiful”, “I love you”, and “Will you marry me?”. They seemed quite harmless but when abroad, especially in countries where you don’t speak the language, we weary of who you trust. In retrospect, I reckon they were dodgey characters as they were very poorly kept and their teeth looked like they’d brushed with Marmite. They were very adamant about helping me find where I needed to go despite me knowing my directions just fine. Now, this could have been all and well but having traveled enough up to date, I was aware that “going for tea” with absolute strangers of the sketchy variety generally means “going for a mugging or rape”. Needless to say, I dodged that bullet with the help of a cellphone and my knight in shining armor, Serkan Tabanli. After the tattoo session was all said and done, we went to a tea garden that overlooked the water. What a peaceful place. Later on we met Dilek and one of Serk’s old childhood friends for a walk along the water. Dilek, what an amazing woman. Upon our second meeting she gifted me with a beautiful silk scarf that was handmade by her mother. When Turkish women come of age, the women in their family start making linens and scarves that they keep in a chest until the time of marriage. These are very special and carefully thought out pieces. The scarf that Dilek gifted me was from her wedding chest which she was not suppose to open until her wedding. I was completely floored that only upon our second meeting she would give me such a significant gift. People like this don’t exist everywhere. This is something I will cherish and remember forever. After big hugs, we got to drinking some very delicious lemon beers on the water. (If you ever go to Turkey, you MUST MUST MUST drink the limonata/lemonade; literally the best I’ve ever tasted). A few drinks and smokes in, along comes our entertainment for the evening – Istanbul darbukacilari (drummer boys who busk for money) who sang a love song rearranged for the love of Julia and her deep cold eyes!
Monday marked the day when we met a fellow Victoria-ite, Jessica. Turns out that despite her living in the same Victoria neighborhood and working at the bank we all frequented on a regular basis, we had never met until Istanbul. Fucking oath, it’s a small small world. We all headed over to Kadikoy again where we met another one of Serk’s childhood friends, Bahrin. We went back to the tea garden where he read our Turkish coffees. It was definitely an emotional and grounding day. Serk’s friend has been practicing reading fortunes from the dregs of Turkish coffee (similar to tea leaf readings) for 11 years. How it works is that you tip the muddied cup upside down on the saucer, spin it, and then let it rest opening down for the mud to paint the sides of the cup. His reading floored me. Keep in mind this man had never met me until this moment. He turned the cup over and read the painted sides of the cup. He said, I have come here from a lot of sorrow but am happier now that I am here. He said it was difficult reading because my present state is very very mixed up and complicated (we all compared cups and mine was definitely a mess in comparison). He asked me, “Do you think of your father often?”. I cried instantaneously when he said this because how would he know that? He told me that I am having a hard time making decisions because I’m feeling weak inside and that I question myself a lot. He told me it’s time to basically get my shit together because I cannot remain in this state. He then moved on to say that the places I want to see, I will go to but beware of an older woman in a head scarf. She cannot hurt me physically but she can very much harm me spiritually, mentally and emotionally depending on how I react/deal with the situation. I have to be strong and smart. Finally he said that I need to chose a direction because when I do, I will be very successful. He said something about being in a very high position where people will stand to show respect when I enter the room. Basically, I’ll make it to the top if I chose my direction and stick to it. He then finished by saying that despite the sorrow I feel inside, he can see that it has caused me to treat and care for others in a more passionate way. In the meantime, I am weak and need to be very careful. I need to get my shit together because even right now I’ve been having trouble with parting ways with people and finding the confidence to be on my own. Waking up with doubt. All this was translated to me through Serk from a man who I had not known for an hour. Apparently he is known for his accuracy. It was an altering moment, I can tell you that much.
Later that evening we went on a pub crawl with the owner of our hostel who doesn’t generally organize crawls but will come up to the terrace around midnight with the declaration that he is going out to party if anyone wants to join. Inevitably, the majority of folks staying there do. After another heavy evening, one thing led to another and a small romance develops between myself and the owner which was to continue for the next few days after.
The remainder of my days spent in Istanbul before heading out on a Turkey tour of my own included going to a traditional Turkish pop concert that our friend Bahrin was the drummer for which was definitely a good cultural experience; a private tour of the Galatasaray soccer stadium (with the most VIP seats in Europe next Madrid); a street art festival and party in Kadikoy to which was quite dissonant as they had famous global graffiti artists painting enormous murals on the sides of buildings with very political connotations and messages with regards to religious extremism; more Taksim partying at Machine and various other clubs; a ferry tour up the waterfront to see some more Istanbul architecture; a hardcore show with Benan and Kadir (who I met the first night); and DoRock one last time before hitting another bar in Taksim called Pendor where they served shots called Honono. The Honono shots are similar to the Fane shots in Budapest (carbonated vodka and black current syrup). Meant to get you legless if you do enough of them. Oh and don’t forget the Turkish ladyboy street where painted nymphets were hooting and hollering out of second and third floor windows beckoning sexual favors. We ended our evening with a couple glasses of Raki which is an unsweetened, anise-flavored hard alcoholic beverage that is popular in Turkey and in the Balkan countries. It is similar to several other boozie delights available around the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and in Colombia, e.g., ouzo and sambuca. Raki is a clear alcohol on its own but when mixed with water, which is how it is suppose to be drunk, turns into a cloudy white delicious liquid for all those licorice enthusiasts out there. You only need a couple glasses to start feeling the tinglies. To the Turks, three things are considered sacred among the gastrointestinal scene – Raki aka medicine (sometimes even drank in the morning), Cai (Turkish tea; drunk all day every day at any time of the day; I’m now addicted), and bread (a Turk will not eat a meal if there is no bread present). Prepare for a spare tire round the middle while in Turkey because the locals love to eat and they love to eat in enormous groups so prepare for constant meal invitations. No one goes hungry here.
Stay tuned for my trip down the south west Turkish coast and a very racey Raki romance with a young and dangerously handsome local captain on a traditional Turkish yacht. Swwwwoooooonnn, c’est l’amour!
As the Turks say, “Seni cok seviyorum, askim.” ❤