Bangkok. I first went there in 1994 or 1995, some time in March. I was 22 or 23. I feel like I’m narrating like Charlie sheen (or one of those other Sheens) in the opening scene of Apocalypse Now. I’m struggling existentially. The government, some faceless bureaucrat sitting in Washington (Canberra for me, being from Australia). Fighting some ideological war we couldn’t possibly win. Sending me down a river in Laos and to find some crazy fat dude as the ceiling fans rotate like they’re chopper blades.
On my first visit I got out of the plane by msylef at sometime after midnight, I think. I went down to Khoa San Road and found a place for 60 baht, maybe $3.50 AUD. It was still so warm, I was able to wander the narrow side alleys in comfort, there were still plenty of places open, and I got a packet of cheap cigarettes, even though I hadn’t been smoking for about a year.
This time around it was my daughter and I. My daughter on the way back from a school excursion to Germany. I never went on a school excursion farther than Brisbane from the Gold Coast, an hour’s drive. I was on the way back from getting engaged to my now wife in Guadalajara, Mexico. I had wanted her to come with us, but apparently it’s a lot harder for Mexican to get visas than Aussies.
I think of my first trip to Bangkok as my coming of age tour. Where I almost literally, if there’s such a thing, came of age. After getting a few hours sleep I took my 20 something year old self, with his fancy new scarpa brand Italian hiking boots, out into the early morning Bangkok streets, I think heading somewhere towards Chinatown, I didn’t even have a map in those days. I soon met a friendly Thai guy who, as it turned out, had been circling like a shark around the tourist area, waiting for some dumb naïve shit like me to show up. He showed me around, got me to hire a boat which I explored the rivers and a temples in, before he took me to a place to buy sapphires, telling me I could then go resell them in Bond Street in London. Sounded fucking great! All those stupid people working when I was going to get some easy money. You can guess already I’m sure the guy was dodgy as all fuck, and although the sapphires they sold me were real, they were dark and not of much value in London, meaning essentially I wasted around $1500, or almost all the money I had at been saving for the last six months. It was a learning experience, to say the least, and I’ve since been back twice, each time older, and perhaps a little wiser, not so much the innocent pussy cat.
The guy above wasn’t the dodgy guy I met in the 90s, I did get a photo of him though as we whizzed past some riverside homes, but I think I might have ended up cutting him out of it, just as you might do to a picture with your old girlfriend. I appreciate the skills required to fleece people out of their money, I guess well done!
Back to the 2000s. I had a Lonely Planet travel guide, they still warn off the gemstone scam, you can’t beat the classic scams, in fact they seemed to have improved on it since my time! Just keep saying gem, scam, gem scam, in your head. The scam part is the most important part to remember. Because it’s Bangkok, it could be any number of dodgy scams. There’s also one where they sell crappy polyester suits as fancy silk ones.
The Airbnb we were staying at, was close to a railway station. No longer was it 60 baht, more like exactly $104.41 AUD a night. It was an apartment in a condominium and the Airbnb listing warned in all caps DONT GO RECETIONIST, THIS IS NOT A HOTEL, DO NOT TELL AIRBNB… JUST TELL YOU ARE A PRIVATE GUEST, FRIEND OR STAFF. And in the lobby there’s a giant sign saying IT IS A CRIME IN THAILAND TO RENT APARTMENTS WITHOUT PERMITS FROM THE GOVERNMENT. YOU COULD GO TO JAIL FOR THIS etc. We sheepishly sneak past into the elevator and up to find a nice clean apartment with a view. Not a super view, just a view. It’s October and super wet. I remember a TV show on ancient Rome which had a line, ‘wet as October’. But that has nothing to do with anything, I just like references to ancient Rome. It also has another less innocent connotation.
It’s still early in the morning, we’ve flown in from Rome, so our body clocks are all screwed up. I plead for some sleep, but are only permitted an hour before we hit the sites. We make our way on a train down towards a part of the river where we think we can get a ferry across to a temple called Wat Arun on the main river, Chao Praya. I’m not trying to further emulate Apocalypse Now, or the original book The Heart of Darkness, it’s just a big river runs through Bangkok, so you kind of have to write about it. The train doesn’t goes all the way to the river, so for the last part of our trip I suggest going in a Tuk Tuk, the cool three wheeler things. Again, while Tuk Tuks are fun, remember that word SCAM, you should tattoo it in Thai on the back of your neck. Literally every time you get in a Tuk Tuk, there will be some scam involved. But they are also a thrill, probably like diving with Great White Sharks, just realise they could turn on.
I can’t remember if we knew where we needed to get a ferry, I was too tired, but the Tuk Tuk driver took us down this road, which had a private boat company at the end of it. And when we expressed our interest in going to Wat Arun by a public ferry, which should be only 40 baht or less, we were told, with the most sincerest sincerity, that both the public ferries and the temples were closed today because of some religious holiday, and that our best option would be to hire our own boat and go on a river cruise for a few thousand baht. It always comes down to hiring a damn boat, just like in Apocalypse Now. Even though I’ve got this word scam tattooed into my brain, I’m tired and I’m still thinking, in my severely sleep deprived way, or the way someone tripping on acid, trying to keep track of reality might think, that perhaps things are closed, but I fight that thought, and I remember, that this is crazy talk from that damn fool ivory trader Kurtz (Heart of Darkness, if you don’t know) and that it’s all going to end up in a gem store, or a fucking tailor selling me a silk suit which is polyester.
After a few minutes of one-sided haggling over the price of this boat I had no interest in, where the guy just keeps lowering his previous offer until it’s about half of what he started at, I persistently and firmly, but politely, let’s not forget they know kickboxing, and that I’m not quite sure where we are at this point, and although these guys are the ones scamming folks, they’re going to be highly offended if I come out and say they are scammers to their faces, and that I don’t believe the ferries or the temples are closed, refuse his offer and walk away, not being able to trust the Tuk Tuk man to take us any further. We end up seeing some interesting back streets and after half an hour or so, find a public ferry place where we get a ticket for around 14 baht down river to Wat Arun, which of course is open as you can see from the fabulous templey photo below.
I won’t write much about Wat Arun, you can see it’s awesome. My choice of shirt, below, by the way, was heavily influenced by my lack of clean clothes. I’m pretty sure I’d been to Wat Arun before when the dodgy guy who sold me gems took me on my magical mystery tour of Bangkok back in the nineties.
After we took another, perfectly functional and operating ferry, across to see another, perfectly open, temple housing the golden reclining Buddha. I probably didn’t see this on my first trip because a.) I didn’t have a guidebook the internet, and b.) I was too busy getting taking to gem shops. Even though I consider the reclining Buddha a gem, I think we didn’t even have to pay to get in. You do have to cover up though, so if your one to show your butt crack or hang your tantalising cleavage out you’ll have to garb one of the temples bath robes to wear. You can let it hang out elsewhere in Bangkok, outside of the temple areas, and probably the royal palace, which I had been too on my last visit, but which we couldn’t visit this time because the king had died the previous year and this was one place that was actually legitimately closed. The king’s death, and I believe upcoming cremation (I was almost by accident going to write circumcision, but that’s not funny, and quite possibly literally illegal in Thailand as it might constitute making fun of the king, just to be clear I am not making a joke about the king) was marked on the trains by loops of pictures of him doing noble things throughout his life, he seemed like a nice cool dude (in a very respectful way), and in some ways seemed to emulate the Buddha. The Thai people loved him and everywhere on this visit we saw shrines and pictures of him which people were making offerings to. On my second visit to Bangkok, back in the nineties again, I’d arrived on the king’s birthday, which is also my sister’s birthday which is why I remember the date. I don’t recall much of the day I arrived that time as I’d helped a fellow traveller in New Dehli smoke some hashish because he couldn’t take it on the plane. And boy was that hashish like the strongest shit you’d ever come across in your life. I literally didn’t recall the entire flight and I suspect I may have passed out at that point. It’s not a bad way to travel actually, I also did that from Puerta Vallarta, Mexico to Havana, Cuba. I had to chuck quarter of a bag of weed in the rubbish bin at the airport, it was so sad.
Our earlier Tuk Tuk driver was on his way to breaking two of the five basic Buddhist precepts, or rules: don’t tell untruths, gossip etc, and don’t steal. As with the pirates code on Pirates of the Caribean, maybe they think Buddhist precepts are more guidelines than rules.
I’m pretty sure we saw more awesome places nearby, like the one pictured below. No idea where, or what, it was, by this stage the sleep deprivation had reached true Heart of Darkness insanity levels and I was just praying to Buddha that we could get home and sneak past the big sign that said we could be prosecuted, and go nighty-nite, even though it was still only three in the arvo.
We headed back to the hotel via a chicken skewer vendor situated by a storm water drain teaming with giants lizards, and potential typhoid, which, whoops, my daughter showed signs of when we got back to Australia – the typhoid not the lizards – and which the doctor in Australia berated me for, because a.) I didn’t even know what typhoid was, though I’d heard the term b.) didn’t know how serious typhoid was and that we should get immunised for it and c.) I really love chicken skewers so much that I was willing to risk my daughter getting typhoid. My daughter is still going strong and continues to love chicken skewers by the way.
You also may be able to spot the two giant lizards swimming around below.
By this stage I was a certifiable zombie, looking back on the photos we seemed to have seen a bunch of amazing stuff, but all I wanted then was a beer, some stir fry and another beer, or a mojito. And this lady tucked down an alleyway kind of the way back to a train station somewhere, was able to provide 2/3rds of my needs.
As I drank, and enjoyed the amazing Thai street food, that many idiots pay three times as much for in the fancy restaurants catering to western tourist, I felt dazed, but proud, that I had spent another day in Bangkok without being fleeced like a fluffy sheep. Is it fluffy or wooly, I guess wooly, since they make wool from them.
And at some point we made it back to our slightly illegal abode, without any help, or further misinformation, from the tuk tuks, and slept, that deliriously special and overdue slumber.
The next day we hit some of Bangkok’s markets. It was a much less scam filled day. We had some of the best soup we’ve ever tried at the Wang Lang Markets, and we seemed like a bit of a novelty in the little restaurant. Wang Lang are nice old fashioned, laid back markets. I don’t think we bought anything but it was the kind of place you can just spend a relaxing hour or two wandering around and taking in the sites.
We enjoyed crisscrossing the river, although the weather was a bit shitty, being the height of the rainy season I think. Of the times I’ve been to Bangkok, I’d recommend March the most, though it’s very hot at that time, but perfect evening temperatures. I don’t like the wet too much.
The next markets we tried out were the Platinum Fashion Mall. They had level upon level of cheap clothes, jewellery etc. If the photo below wasn’t from there, it looked pretty similar to that. If you were in the mood to swing a cat, this would not be the place to do it. It was cleaner, newer, and lacked any of the charm of the old markets. They had a food court where you charged up some foodcourt card with foodcourt dollars, which you paid bhat for, and then you bought you food and then you had to go back and get a refund for any money you had left on the card. I preferred earlier in the day when I just used bhat to pay for soup. The whole place was not at all my cup of tea.
We went from there down to Khao San Road, where tourists almost outnumber locals. I think we walked all the way from the river to get there, and it took the best part of an hour as we had to take a huge detour around the king’s palace, and we were too cheap and weary to get into another tuk tuk. The detour seemed mainly because of preparations for the king’s cremation, again, not his circumcision, they are very different things, each with their own characteristics. It was just on sunset when we arrived. Just the right time for another amazing kerbside stir fry and, for my daughter, another chicken skewer. I’ve never seen someone eat so many chicken skewers in a single trip. Again, caution with the ‘typhoid’.
I’m pretty sure the guy below was selling the same film when I last visited the area in the 90s. Back then I took maybe 10 photos. Now, most of the time I can’t stop.
My daughter got herself a henna tatoo, which drew a few closer inspections and comments from tourist passer-by’s. Not sure why, people were just interested in the design she was getting I guess. Then she got herself a foot massage in an alley, as I drank a mojito just a but further along the same alley, being a responsible father not wanting to go far from his teenage daughter, listening to some travellers, who sounded like they’d been in Bangkok quite a while and had happily, but probably temporarily, divorced themselves from the mainstream of wherever their homes were. I’m can’t even remember what they were talking about, I just love listening to that traveller type talk, it’s just not the normal banter you here back home, more about where you’re going, where you’ve been, not having any particular goal or direction, and having all the time in the world to get there. The sort of talk that makes you want to leave the comfort of your sofa.
We found ourselves one last tuk tuk for the night, and headed down to another lot of night markets. I think it was Patpong markets, which, as it turns out, has market stalls in the centre and bars where they do very questionable things with ping pong balls. We kept to the centre, haggled over some gifts, including a butterfly scarf for my fiancée, and then headed back to the train station via another tuk tuk.
Of course there was time for one last bit of dodginess. With the driver offering to take us to one of the girly bars.
‘No!’ I said, ‘just take us to the train station. I’m watching on google maps, and if you don’t take us straight to the train station, I’m not paying’.
The tuk tuk driver looked like he wondered why it might be inappropriate to offer such a service when someone is travelling with their teenage daughter. But that’s Bangkok for you.
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