BANGKOK | THAILAND
AS WE STEPPED OUT INTO THE BALMY HEAT OF A NOISY BANGKOK MORNING I TOOK A DEEP BREATH AND EXHALED. HERE GOES NOTHING.
I had been flying separately from my friends to reach Bangkok. After a short hop from Dublin to Amsterdam it was a long slog to arrive in Bangkok. From there I’d wait a few hours for the rest of the gang to arrive : My cousin Ben, brother Francis and his girlfriend Charmain and our friend and resident alcoholic Jimmy Two Cans. They had booked round trip flights but I was on a one way ticket. I didn’t know exactly when, or if, I’d be home.
It was the start of something I’d been craving for years: a round the world trip. Something to satisfy the boyish explorer in me before settling down to a life of god-knows-what. In the meantime I read a book while I waited for my friends to arrive. It was about a guy called Tom Slick, a millionaire adventurer who made a name for himself hunting for Yeti in the Himalayas. If I’d wanted something to calm the nerves this probably wasn’t it.
After being secured into two tuk tuks from the SkyTrain station we careened into the bustling Bangkok streets towards the backpackers mecca of Khao San Road. All of us made it intact. Except Jimmy who fell out the back of a rogue tuk tuk and was quickly devoured by rush hour traffic. We hadn’t expected to loose Jimmy so quickly, but a delicious Indian curry soon had us forgetting and looking forward to what Bangkok had to offer.
Bangkok is , in equal parts, a squalid den of debauchery, and a gleaming religious centre, resplendent with temples and palaces the likes of which need to be seen to be believed. As the cultural capital of the Kingdom of Siam it has an enviable collection of gems such as the Grand Palace (containing Wat Phra Kaew – the Temple of the Emerald Buddha), Wat Arun, Wat Pho home of the Reclining Buddha, the Marble Temple, and Chang Beer.
It also takes a hell of a lot longer to get to where you wanna go, having been ripped off by the tuk tuk mafia at every turn. On our first day to visit the Grand Palace we were told by an official looking guy that it was closed and to take a river tour instead until it reopened. Happily he had two tuk tuks on hand to help us! Later that evening having reached the Grand Palace we were told it was again closed. But Don’t worry! The friendly guy there knew two tuk tuk drivers who, selflessly, would drive us around the city to visit other well known temples and shrines. Thank god for Thai hospitality! The thai word for “temple” is obviously “shop” because that’s where the tuk tuk guys brought us. Again and again. Language barriers huh? One clothes shop had a very threatening mafia-like atmosphere. We were ushered inside and made sit down at a small circular table while we were ringed by well suited goons. It was like a SPECTRE meeting in a James Bond film.
“Please sit down and we will explain what is about to happen”
“We’re fine really”
“Look at these catalogs for fine suits! Very fine”
“Yes, they’re lovely”
“Excellent! How many will you buy?”
“Huh? No we’re not interested in buying suits”
“Yes you will be. Fine suits. Very fine”
“Yes, but I don’t want a suit”
“You’re crazy. Where are you from?”
“England eh? In England you would pay several hundred pounds for a suit of this quality. Here? £20”
“I’m not english. And that’s good value. IF I wanted a suit. I don’t want a suit”
“Just one suit”
“Look at me. I’m a backpacker. Does it look like I need a suit?!”
But the Marble Temple was good, as was the Grand Palace the next day. Apparently its rude in Thailand to point your feet at the buddha, hence the pose. Tell that to Ben who sat sprawled right in front of the Emerald Buddha – the holiest in Thailand, like he was in a play school coloring group. We lured him outside with an ice cream before he was arrested.
Our mood was improved when we had a replacement Jimmy flown in by chopper. The mood was dampened when we realised this Jimmy was a carbon copy of the old Jimmy.
The next day we headed out to Kanchanaburi, a few hours west of Bangkok and home to the infamous Death Railway and Bridge over the River Kwai. During World War II the Japanese used slave labor to build a railway from Ban Pong into Burma. While it’s an interesting place I gotta say that despite my love of gory history, I wasn’t enjoying it to the full. After a few days of rich Indian curries at the hostel my colon had enough of peaceful protests and had decided on violent revolution. When we got to the war museum I engaged in a battle of my own with the coin operated gate that guarded the toilet. I won the battle but lost the war. There was no toilet paper. Lesson number one of travel. The Brown rule : always, always carry your own with you. You will make this mistake once, and only once.
We walked across the famous bridge and rode the death railway through a section of jungle before stopping at the tiger temple. There are a few a these in Thailand, all seem equally dubious. They claim the animals aren’t drugged, that they are simply sleeping during the day as tigers tend to do naturally. I’m not too sure that wild tigers would be this docile when presented with slow and juicy tourists in the wild. It was a bit of a guilty thrill to be this close to such a dangerous and powerful animal (as my girlfriend tells me all the time when we’re together) but we all came away feeling a little unsettled by the while thing. Recently I read the place has been shut down pending an investigation into animal rights abuses. I can’t say I’m shocked.
Then Francis got sick.
“Do you want to take him the the cheap hospital or the good one?” Our hostel manager translated from the ambulance crew. “The good one for gods sake!”. Thankfully it turned out that it was a simple enough case of dehydration, and after a few hours rest and fluids, he was good to go. So the ambulance, treatment, and medicine prescription from the “expensive” hospital amounted to around €25 with no health insurance to boot. I’m guessing the cheap hospital would have paid us for our visit.
So while Francis rested up the caring thing to do was leave him behind and go out drinking on Khao-San Road. So that’s what we did.
Having traveled the world for 18 months now I can safely say I’ve seen a lot of crazy things, but still, nothing compares to the first few nights along that god forsaken road. It’s the first and only time I’ve been confronted by a sign saying “Monkey Blowjob?”. Since then I’ve asked fellow travelers what this would actually entail. No one can give me a satisfactory answer. At least no one admitted to having tried it. I think it’s one of those things best left alone.
Next time : Taking the bus to Cambodia and the ancient city of Ankor, Ben refuses to look at things, Jimmy perishes, and Ben looks at things.