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.
Ho damn, life has been too fast paced to sit down for even in hour to write. Where did we leave off? Krakow I believe. Wroclaw, (actually pronounced “Frutzwoiv”), was a time and a half, mate.
It is quite a smaller place in comparison to Krakow but has a plethora of history behind it. One of Wrocław’s most popular, memorable and iconic attractions is not a cathedral, not a castle or monument, but a legion of little people: Gnomes, or ‘krasnale’ (in local parlance), to be precise. In Wrocław’s city centre these merry munchkins are simply ubiquitous, dotting doorways, alleyways and street corners, constantly underfoot but seldom seen by the unobservant. Although it sounds like little more than a twee tourist gimmick, gnomes have long held a place in Polish folklore, and their current iconic incarnation as symbols of Wrocław actually has a direct correlation to the political climate of the 1980s. Under communism gnomes became the absurdist calling card of the ‘Orange Alternative’ movement – an underground protest movement that used absurdity and nonsense to stage peaceful, yet subversive protests. Armed with paint cans and led by Waldemar ‘Major’ Fydrych, an artist and art history student at Wrocław University, the group specifically ridiculed the stablishment’s attempts to censor public space. During communism, any anti-establishment graffiti or public art was quickly painted over by the militia; upon seeing fresh daubs of paint, the pranksters of the Orange Alternative quickly painted over them yet again…with gnomes. As the movement gained popularity, gnomes became inexorably linked with the Orange Alternative and Wrocław, though they soon began appearing in other major Polish cities as well. Most people have lost count of these quaint little creatures over the years and nobody knows exactly how many of them there are. We stayed in a really chilled out hostel there called Babel, where the staff were the most helpful and friendly up to date. Apart from touring the town afoot whilst getting laser eyed by the townies, we asked them what the locals like do to in Wroclaw at night.
Second best night of our lives after breaking into the abandoned spy tower in Berlin. Both nights we were there, we went to Niebo Cafe, which is a small local bar. The toilets are Trainspotting, the music is heavy, and not a single tourists other than a couple of Canadian louts (yours truly!) were there.
Needless to say, being the only Canadians at that bar, the Polish flocked to us. Leaving out the greasy details, let’s just say that I’ve received several emails from a guy named Grzegorz about how he’s in love with me. Sorry ya punta, but I only have time for two feet and a heart beat. Anyhow, for those travelers out there who are looking for a less tourist clogged city where you can party down with locals, go to Wroclaw.
Prague was next on the list and lets just say, I’ll have to go back to see if the city can prove itself to me again as our manky hostel set the precedent for our trip. It was a Saturday so granted the majority of good hostels were booked up. We stayed at the Prague Lion which was the most UNcharming and lifeless place. I highly do no recommend the place. Well, unless you just want a dark unpopulated room to put your head at night and not meet a soul. The staff there also weren’t the greatest of people. Whatever, moving on. Being Saturday night in Prague, despite getting maybe 2 hours of sleep the night before, we had to go out. For all the vagrant metalheads out there, check out the website metaltravelguide.com for all the sin dens all over the world. After looking through the ratings on several metal clubs/bars in Prague, we decide to attempt to find Hell’s Bells. It’s tucked away in a quiet and seemingly lifeless little area of Prague. Hard to find but well worth the effort. Once you find the tiny little sign, you walk down a few flights of stairs into a huge brick cellar blasting heavy tunes with a giant mural of Eddie on the ceiling. There are hidden rooms that are only lit by candle and the bathrooms have painted on them a giant dominatrix (for the lasses) whipping her gagged male slave (for the lads). The bartender saw my Death tshirt when I walked in a instantly put on The Sound of Perseverance. Kiiiiller place. All local Czech metalheads too. Despite it being a Saturday night, the place however, wasn’t heaps busy but this was a blessing in disguise. After a few savagely cheap beers, sleep deprivation sunk in. What’s the point in staying out when you don’t have the mind or the energy to attempt meeting locals? We decided to call it a night and head back to the hostel. Not before getting drive by super soaked by screaming Czechs. We couldn’t help but split our guts laughing. Oh, quick word for the wise – Czech bartenders love their heady (cough!) beers so, if you’re anything like me, you will get a wicked case of the bloat toots.
Sunday, was basically spent touring the city and going to Prague Castle. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the Prague Castle is the largest coherent castle complex in the world. On the other side of the Charles Bridge, where the castle is situated, is a swath of steep cobble streets so for a couple of bangers such as ourselves on a blistering day found ourselves a wee bit MOIST. Swupper lip, swass crack, the whole fandangle. Because it was as hot and sticky as Hades bullocks, we eventually just caved and climbed our way up to a hill top beer garden that overlooked the city. It was too hot to do much else so we just relaxed in the shady citadel over a few wobbley pops.
Eventually, we trekked back through the town hitting some touristy buildings on the way back to the hostel (museum, opera house, etc). Prague is definitely a very beautiful city. I will have to go back when I work my way up again.
Our second last night in Prague was definitely the best. We decided to move to the Czech Inn hostel that day for a change of scenery. CZECH YOURSELF BEFORE YOU WRECK YOURSELF. And ho damn, am I glad we did. We couldn’t get our rooms until 24 hours later so in the meantime we went to a restaurant nearby that was recommended by the Czech Inn staff. The food was glorious. The lamb (baaah) was some of the best I’ve had yet I reckon; flake off the bone best. After a late nosh, we hit up this reggae club nearby. Picture a huge concert hall with various labyrinths of dank dark bars featuring sounds from reggae to dub step depending on your fancy. It started out slow with a couple of Rastas dancing in overalls at the front and me drinking the most enormous Hoegaarden the size of my head, drooling over the godly bartender. As the night went on into the wee hours, BANG!, a random couch surfing group showed up. We met the chillest most laid back guy from South Africa, Chris. I’ve always been told that south Africans aren’t the nicest of people but this guy destroyed that rumor. He had just arrived into Prague that night via hitch hiking and literally had no clue where his hostel was and no map to find it. No worries, mate! Bangerang. He went up and grabbed his bongo drum from the ride’s vehicle and brought it down to jam with the reggae dj. I was chuffed as nuts. Then the reggae dancing began and things start to get more interesting. I went to the bathroom and on my way back out this rugger from Liverpool sitting with a wasted and toothless Czech local flags me over. Why am I such a magnet for British munters? Needless to say, after bantering with this Brit and the Czech for some amount of time some certain unmentionables were put on the table. Hey, when in Rome! Uhh, Prague? Things are a bit of a fuzz thereafter as we just got rat arsed. Serk and I exchanged info with the likeables and then got lost as a ball in high weeds on the way back to hostel dank. Drunk vision and tiny map script are not a good combination. Made it back however with only a few hours to spare before “czech” out time. Crack of sparrows power nap, engage. The walk from hostel dank to Czech Inn was hot and brutal but upon arrival we had an all-you-can-eat buffet before putting the head down for the rest of the day. Prague was too hot to do anything as it was. Our last evening there was spent relaxing and playing a bit of trivia at the hostel bar with some Yanks who had freshly moved to Prague to teach English. Aimed to go to bed early but ended up staying up a touch too late for a 6 am bus ride to Budapest the following morning. BY THE BEARD OF ZEUS, I fell in love with Budapest!
Finally! A moment to sit down. My last couple days in England were spent with my cousin Matt at Thorpe Amusement Park riding insane roller coasters and drinking with the rugby team. Thorpe park was tons of fun but if it’s any indication of what England is about, it is staggering long queues, a rubbish sense of fashion that supports camel toes, and is largely overpriced everywhere you go. Said goodbye to the fam damily on August 25 and my mother indeed had a bit of a wobbley. Pray she doesn’t lose sleep for the next four months. I stopped in at Oxford for a quick tea with one of my great aunts who ended up paying for my fare up to London again. Pays off to visit family, yanno! Got to London just a-okay on the bus and tubed it back to Auntie Rosie’s and Uncle Guy’s. They treated myself and my cousin Clara to a lovely Indian dinner which was coincidental since the night prior, the Olney rugby team took me out to another Indian restaurant that Snoop Dogg got helicopter take-out from. Damn, it feels good to be a gangster. The ruggers definitely live up to their reputation.
Clara and I stayed up drinking gin until 4 AM and I only slept two hours before getting on my flight to Berlin from Heathrow.
Holy doodle, Berlin is wicked! We stayed at the 36 Rooms hostel in the Kreuzberg district after meeting with Serkan at Alexanderplatz. After organizing the room sitch, we then proceeded to walk around the city whilst legally drinking 1 Euro beers in the streets. We went over to the East Side Gallery which is the largest remaining chunk of the Berlin Wall turned into a giant canvas for graffiti artists. Amazing art. Photos to come.
By the beard of Zeus, there are so many good looking punks and metalheads in Berlin. Yoooow Mammy!!! This was a nice refresher to England because there, I could carve a better man out of a banana.
After stopping for some eats, we then met up with some folks from our hostel dorm. Two girls from Miami, one of whom was originally from Puerto Rico who when asked she would wiggle her shoulders and say, “I’m from PUERRRRTO RICO!”, rolling her R’s. The other two were a couple of handsome party animals from Holland. They slept all day until we got back but were down to break into the abandoned spy tower that night. We took the train slightly out of the city to Teufelsberg ( http://www.abandonedberlin.com/2010/06/teufelsberg-abandoned-spy-station.html ) an American spy tower left over from the Cold War. It was built on top of old Berlin ruins entirely from rubble after the war.
We hiked down this winding road to a dark cobblestone path through the woods quite a ways before finally hitting barb wired. We had to dangerously climb up an old iron gate where the wire had been cut and had to reach out to slide down a pole to the ground. I caught my leather choas pouch (my fanny pack) on the barbed wire and slashed it up pretty good. Casualty of war! Good thing I brought my punk rock sewing kit – needles and dental floss.
I spent a lot of the evening trying to scare the piss out of the Miami girls with horror movie what-if-scenarios like a total asshole. I don’t mean to toot my own horn (boop boop!) but I think I’m hilarious.
So! We find the big entrance to the largest part of the tower and treck our way up like 20 flights of stairs in the dark following Serk who had the only headlamp that didn’t crap out on the way there. GRAFFITI ON EVERYTHING! And I’m talking straight up graffiti, incredible artistry. (Photos to follow)
We had to be careful for guards, squatters, and rapist demons from Hell. Luckily we ran into no such things. Each tier of the tower had a completely open level balcony with plastic sheets flapping in the wind and secret rooms where no doubt a number of depraved things could take place. Wink wink nudge nudge.
We finally reached the top and are inside this GIANT dome that echoed even a whisper. We sang with the echoey acoustics and made weird noises while drinking and overlooking the entire cityscape of Berlin city for a good 45 mins.
We almost missed the last train back into town but hot damn, thank the dark lord we didn’t. Once we got back into Berlin, I stayed up drinking with the Dutch boys in a park until 6 AM or some ungodly hour. No rest for the wicked they say! But I’m probably dumber than a planet of unemployed peas for burning the candle on both ends so often. Some drunk as a skunk Scottish dude took quite the liking to me but he definitely was not my type. *Shudder*
I plan on returning to Berlin again as I move my way back up from Istanbul at the end of this month because we only stayed a couple days before heading to Poland. Berlin and your metal underbelly, I will be coming for you!
After a 12 hour night bus, we got to Krakow to meet some friends so we could go to the mountains all together.
Anything could happen at this point. We are all bugs suspended in amber.