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.