….Stays On Khao San Road (Bangkok Pt 1.1)

Bangkok: “Sawat dee ka, farang.”
[Worn wonder, told by Western backpacker thrown immediately into the fire]

Bangkok. Hectic city that never sleeps, or sleeps restlessly. A leisurely-chaotic cultural haven plagued by gawking and griping tourist rats, or farang (ฝรั่ง pronounced “falang”) as the locals say. But the Thais have mastered the plague, learned to channel it literally into their open and waiting pockets. Smiles and scams, as a Thailand veteran once told me. And it is quite true. Let me start at the beginning, though.

It is Thursday, January 16, 2014, and I have landed at Savarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. My reality shifts the moment I exit the plane. I trudge into the airport, still weak from traveling halfway across the world on the dregs of stomach flu and prescription Valium—a muting cocktail, to be sure. But context switch is a healing art, and I quickly ascribe to the practice by drinking in my surroundings. And what novel sights, even in the familiar setting of an airport! The curly squiggles of Thai signs and posted directions, the images and figures of Buddha and ….the vast sea of short, wiry Asians with jet black hair and matching eyes! It is my inaugural experience as part of the superficial majority and I will expound later, but for now I will simply state [mild sarcastic relapse] that it is quite refreshing to be one of the taller people around [end relapse with stomach grimace].

The novelty wears off quickly, as I must become business-like and handle step one of countless: get through customs. I bought a one-way ticket, which poses a slight issue. Often times customs officials will check for proof of onward travel, which on principle I do not have [2]. Instead, I had “purchased” a one-way flight itinerary from Chiang Mai (Thailand) to Phnom Penh (Cambodia) in early February, printed off the confirmation page, highlighted my personal and flight information, smudged out the “you must purchase this itinerary within four days of making your reservation” with an ink pen and eraser, and crossed my fingers that a young and bored customs official will let me pass. I had also retrieved a couple bank account statements—my way of saying, “Look look! I have money! I won’t stay! Promise!” Now at the airport, I prepare my documents and winningest smile, find the youngest looking customs official with the longest line in front of him, and enter the queue feeling a bit anxious.

Mission: Unclassified Adventure

I am positively let down, like a young cop witnessing neither crashes nor explosions on his first high-speed chase. The customs official, a cropped haired and boyish Thai whose half-smile states “I know why you’re here,” glances at my passport, then looks back up at me and asks laughingly, “who is this?”

“It’s me!” I laugh, muscles relaxing and immediately at ease, “that picture was taken in 2007, I was much younger then [cheesy tourist smile].”

“Ok” says the official, shaking his head. And that’s it. No further checks or questions. A stamp and a smile, and suddenly I’m in Thailand.

[Brief reflection] In truth, I do look very different from my picture. Then: Beatles-mopped hair; thick glasses covering shallow, shy eyes; a thicker body from six years of playing football; and of course no smile—it wasn’t cool to smile back then, or something idiotic like that. Now: true long hair pulled into a tight bun; glasses gone and [vain moment] eyes that pierce and challenge and engage [end vainglory]; body thinned by the grad student budget and a full mustache that the right people love and the best people hate; and always smiling—especially for customs officials. Reflecting as I moved past the booth, I’ve come a long way and grown quite a bit. My personality and demeanor carries a great deal more experience now, and perhaps a wink or two of wisdom…perhaps [end reflection].

There is only a small hiccup in the enjoyable saga of the first day. At the airport taxi counter, I am confronted by my first labeling of faranghood. I greet the two Thai ladies at the counter and engage in the “please talk loudly and slowly and gesture frequently” to get to my hostel: Suk 11 on Sukhumvit Soi 11. They jabber with themselves about where the place is, and say, “OK! Taxi! 500 baht.”

I know this is a gross overcharge meant for unwitting tourists, so I ask, “Can you have them run the meter please?” with a smile that drips sweetly. “Meter. Kob kun kap [thank you].”

The reply I receive is a narrowing of eyes and “[rising crescendo] Whaaat?! No! 400 baht or no taxi!”

So much for fitting in (though I will talk later about the wild experience of being an Asian foreigner here). I know that the confrontation is a show, but I’m tired and not willing to fight, so I fork over the cash and take the taxi to Suk 11 [3]. A note for those reading this and following in my footsteps: brave the BTS public transit. It’s a very cheap, very clean and well operated sky train with ample announcements and postings in English. Next time.

BTS transit map–in English!

The joy of travel resumes at the hostel, a uniquely quaint wooden and bamboo complex operated by friendly but informative Thais. Suk 11 is a multistory complex; the ground level composes the main room and office with a stairway going up to three floors of rooms and dorms. The public area walls are festooned with decorations made by employees and guests alike: drawings and paintings, strings of prayer flags and thank you notes, colorful bits of recycled flair, and pictures of the Thai king. Upstairs, long bamboo planks passing between lantern-lit shrines and art installations form the hallways between rooms. The rooms are clean and cared for, though I still put my own padlock on the outside door after I stash my backpack. Don’t want my stuff to be stolen at the first place I visit.

At around 6pm, I go downstairs to talk to my fellow backpackers. What a United Nations we are at Suk 11—United Nations +1 even! In the six short days I spent there, I spoke with people from China, Japan, Sweden, Britain, Australia, US, Germany, France, Estonia, South Africa, India, Italy, Spain, Israel, Iran, South Korea, and of course, Thailand. The Asians all ask me curiously about my background, and I alternate between saying I’m from the States and from Korea to test the difference in reactions [4]. There’s also a wide range in age—from the young high school age backpackers to the graying early retirees—and socioeconomic backgrounds—ragged longhair dirtbaggers all the way up to the collared business elite vacationers. It’s a scene from my traveler’s dream: meet and engage the entire medley of backpacking culture.

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Canadian friends inside Suk 11, the guesthouse rooftop grotto, Sukhumvit Soi 11, and the guesthouse restaurant by night

Tonight, however, I am tired and hungry and so I begin to speak earnestly with a pair of mid-20s Swedish backpackers. Their names are Anton and David; I soon learn that they are fellow climbers and following the continental European practice of working hard to take some time off. The three of us hit the streets, hungrily window shopping the rows of Thai food carts boasting seafood and fish (fried whole, not a scale missing), chicken and unidentifiable skewers, noodles, brightly colored vegetables and other fantastic edibles. I haggle my way into some pad Thai for 30 baht (less than one US dollar), and it is beyond delicious. The three of us sit on the concrete stoop of a 7/11 behind the cart, eating greedily and sipping beer, all the while lightly discussing our respective countries and listening to the cart owners banter with each other in their tonal language. It’s all quite a trip—the new sights and smells, the loud and hectic bustle, and the jet lag make me feel euphoric, and bewildered.

At 9pm, the jet lag wins. I feel like I’m back in college—bleary eyed and watching the sun rise out the window of an academic building. I bid my new friends a good night, promise them that I’ll join them on Khao San Rd (more later) tomorrow, and head to bed. In what must be the shortest time on record falling asleep, I smile contently and think to myself, This will be epic. This will be irreversibly mind-altering. I have arrived.

Footnotes for the Curious Reader

[1] Thank you Anna for the heads up on onward travel, though it was not needed. Thank you Ashley for the drop on Suk 11—incredible place to stay!

[2] This is probably to ensure that you are not some poor or bankrupt urchin hoping to make it in Thailand but more likely destined to drink and dine your dwindling money away and end up grovelling in the streets, fatefully gripping the country’s philanthropic dress hem and contributing nothing but needs. Also, I feel that this is my dad talking through me, but I mostly agree with him.

[3] I do not begrudge or scorn these women, or any Thai working the farang thing. From one angle, Thailand is practically raped by tourism (not exactly my views). I will continue practicing Thai and watching how the Thais do, so to speak, and hopefully will have better experiences in the future.

[4] Admittedly, I get a better reaction when I say that I’m from Korea—comments on my English, questions about whether both my parents are Korean, and many smiley greetings of “annyeonghaseyo!”

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