“300 baht,” the Tuk Tuk driver said, holding ten fingers up. I scoffed.”No. Goodbye.”
“Wait! I give discount.” I stopped and turned around to listen. “250 baht!”
“Are you crazy? No!” I repeated.
“Okay, how much?”
He stopped to think for a minute. He had become aware that I knew what I was doing and wasn’t pleased by it. Sweat was dripping slowly down my forehead and joining the pool currently soaked into my clothes, the humidity in the air preventing it from drying.
“Okay. 30 baht. I take you to…”
“No! No shopping! Goodbye!” I waved, not yelling angrily, but somewhat frustrated by the unbearable sun beating down on my half-bald head, scorching my skin and making me regret I hadn’t brought my water bottle with me.
As I walked, the golden tip of a temple gleamed brightly over a whitewashed concrete wall– the only thing that shined for miles around. Everything else was obscured by old, run-down food carts and hundreds of people pacing littered streets, waiting on buses and looking just as miserable as me, but wearing long pants and thick shirts.
A mural of the king looking off in the distance and waving to his people watched over the intersection. And this wasn’t the even the beginning of Bangkok.
Days earlier, on May 30, I’d arrived in Bangkok by Spring Airlines from Shanghai. I had no idea what to expect from the capital city of Thailand apart from cheap food and something I’d seen referred to as a Tuk Tuk which was supposed to resemble some kind of taxi service. Immediately on getting to the airport at 5AM, I set up a SIM card with plenty of data for the month and bought a whole meal for 100 baht (almost exactly 3 U.S. Dollars).
The city is linked with the airport by a rail service called the ARL (Airport Rail Link), and the price of your ticket depends on which station you go to. All public transport in Bangkok is based on relative distance, unlike most cities in Europe that require you to pay a flat fee for a ride (with exceptions for distant zones). The ARL intersects with the “Sky Train” which is like the metro but it runs a few stories above the ground and only has two lines. There’s also a metro system which consists of only one line, and to compliment the other systems there is a river transportation system with several types of boats that vary in speed and price.
All the transportation signs are in both English and Thai, so I found the station called “Wongwian Yai,” got my token from the machine at the airport and walked directly to the train. So far, the temperature wasn’t bad. It was a little humid, even inside the airport, but it wasn’t musty like they carpeted areas in Shanghai Pudong. Men in police uniforms stood sternly every few meters, directing people where they needed to go and blowing whistles as the doors opened and shut for the train. Everyone needed to be in a neat line, and the people getting off came straight out before the new passengers filed in. In a V shape converging inside the car. Totally unlike other metro systems I’ve seen where people just pile out and then in.
Heading directly into the city, we sped past pools of green water and tropical trees arranged in rectangles around dilapidated houses and lean-tos. The ground was covered with wood where people needed to walk between buildings.
It had been far too long without sleep for me, however. I followed the instructions to get to the U Baan Hostel near Wongwian Yai station west of the river. I only needed to walk down two streets and turn two corners to get where I was going, but in the five minute walk from the Sky Train to the hostel, there was so much out of (what I as a westerner would consider) the ordinary.
There were food carts lining the street. Almost exclusively run by women, they were serving soup, meats on a stick, fruit, various fried things and some dishes I dont even have words for. And everywhere I looked, the prices were unbelievable for these meals. 20, 30, 35 baht– somewhere between 75 cents and a dollar for almost anything. 10 baht (33 cents) for a stick of roasted chicken and 10 more for a bag of sticky rice to go with it.
It was about this time that I could really notice the heat and the humidity. The effect of the air conditioning from the Sky Train was now completely gone and I was starting to collect water from the air in my clothes in addition to the sweat I was already making in vain. I checked the temperature on my phone: 87 degrees. The sun had only risen an hour ago.
I reached 961 Soi Rat Ruam Charoet at 7:30 AM, and was trying to figure out where the doorbell was for a solid minute. There’s just a big gate in front of the residences here, and they don’t really have bells that I saw. Once I figured that out, I just banged on the door. A young Thai woman who goes by Joy welcomed me into the lounge area.
“Oh, you the American guy. Brandon, right?”
“That’s right. Is it possible to check in yet?”
“Well, the boy who sleep in your room not wake up yet so maybe you have to wããit,” she said, the tonal nature of Thai coming through in her English. “When he wake up I wash the sheets, okãy, then you check in.”
“Ah okay, is there a place I could leave my stuff?”
“Well, I don’t know you trust them, but you can leave your stuff in here if you trust mèéê.”
“Awesome, thanks. Um, what would you recommend I do here?”
She was working on moving sheets around, hanging things to dry and clearing trash up from the previous night where people had obviously drank a little too much.
“Well, I hate this question becãuse Bangkok is big city and everyone is different.” She pulled out a map and showed me where we were. “There are many temples here, food market is just down the street and turn right, or maybe mall in the middle of the city.”
“Okay, I’ll go check out a mall or something and come back later then.”
“Alright, see you!” she said, bowing her head. I wasn’t feeling that great and the idea of searching around the city for places to hang out for a while didn’t sound that appealing, especially in the heat. I made it to the corner and saw a woman making someone else soup and it smelled heavenly. There was no price listed, but I took a seat at one of the metal tables in the shade.
The woman greeted me in Thai and realizing I was a total failure who hadn’t even learned to greet properly in Thai asked me in English, “Soup?”
“Yes, please,” I said, smiling widely to make up for my linguistic uselessness.
“Want chickên, põrk?” She pointed at the cuts of meat sitting on her work station.
“Chicken, please. Thank you.”
Less than a minute later, I had a cooked bowl of soup in front of me and I loaded it up with some of the sauces available on the table.
Best (and most filling) noodle soup I’ve ever had. When I was done, a young man too my bowl and said “35 baht.”
I couldn’t stand to walk around any more so I hit up the 7/11 (which are ubiquitous in Bangkok – someone told me Thailand has the most 7/11 of any country in the world, and they all run 24 hours), picked up a jug of water and some desert and brought it back to the hostel.
“Why you already back!” Joy cried.
“I’ve been flying for two days, I don’t think I can move anymore. It’s okay though, can I just hang out here until later?”
“Õh, I guess,” she said, smiling.
“Do you ever get used to this heat?”
“Oh nõ. We hate it just as much as you. It’s too hot to be out today maybe. You stay here, rest.”
“Do you want help with anything?” She was still cleaning up after other people and I felt bad.
“No, this my job. You sit and relax. Just enjoy the heat.”
I sat for just a couple hours on the couch, talking to her a bit about Thai culture and language while we waited for people to check out so I could get into bed and pass out until the end of time. The very second my bed was made, I was in it and asleep.
By the time I woke up it was nearly 10pm. I went downstairs with the intention of finding food and going immediately back to sleep, but got trapped in a conversation with some other visitors. All of them were guys from New Zealand, Ireland, and Sweden who had obviously already met each other. They were headed for Khao San Road, the tourist street in Bangkok, in a few minutes and convinced me to go with them.
At first I thought, “But I’m sleepy and I haven’t done research on it and I’m not prepared,” and then reminded myself that I was never ready for anything including breakfast so I might as well make an adventure out of it. So we walked out onto the street, I the only sober one, and piled of us in the cart of a Tuk Tuk.
Tuk Tuks are like taxis but on motorbikes with a cart in the back that has no safety features whatsoever. They’re cheap, easy to find, and open to bartering unlike taxis. This was by far the fastest I had become friends with anyone– stuck in closeness with four drunk guys screaming about “tits”, the Tuk Tuk driver grinning at us in the rear view, and the street closer to my body than it would be if I were standing.
Video of tuk tuk
Urban planning in Bangkok has been almost nonexistent since its foundation. A period of incredible economic and population growth forced the city to both expand and build upwards and fill out in weird ways. Over a million people in Bangkok live in slum areas, but the population of the city is over 8 million (not including the metropolitan area which makes it something like 14 million). Because of this, you can see really terrible conditions that people live in, showering with a hose outside and playing on abandoned railroad tracks that run only meters from wooden shacks that are in the process of falling over, and one block over there are nice, new, furnished, multi-story apartment complexes. And just next door, one of the over 120 skyscrapers caresses what’s left of a cloud’s whisper.
The ride from our hostel to Khao San was like trying to speed read a book on the replication of mitocophondrial DNA with pages of Plato’s Republic spliced in. We passed temples, residences, crossed a bridge with heavy night traffic, plazas, and parks– too much in ten minutes. There was no rhyme or reason to this city.
We paid after arriving and took immediately to the street, passing expensive food carts (60-100 baht per item as opposed to the earlier 20-40). There were somewhat Western-style bars and restaurants with Thai women in very tight clothing serving hordes of white people. Everyone I passed was trying to get me to sit down and buy things.
“Dude, it’s almost like a game,” one of the Swedes said. He introduced himself as Tor. “Just count out how many prostitutes you see, they’re all over you here.”
“Really?” I asked, surprised. I knew Bangkok was a popular hub for sex tourism (partly as a result of American military investment in the area during the war… *ahem*) but I didn’t know to what extent. If you read any of my older posts, you’ll remember Jeff from Santorini, Greece, who spoke about loving Bangkok because of all the “sexy, depressed-looking prostitutes.” We hate Jeff.
“Yeah, like there’s one,” he said, pointing out a woman standing right next to me and speaking something unintelligible at us. “And there, and that’s one, and her too. It’s sad. I mean, I know they make good money, but there’s a lot of them. Have you heard of ping pong shows?”
“No? Do I want to know?”
“You should go to one. It’s really cheap. Even if you don’t like it, it’s worth the experience.”
“What is it?”
One of the Irish guys piped up. “It’s where a girl gets up on a stage and shoots ping pong balls across the room using her vagina.”
“Oh, oh my god.” I couldn’t tell if I was giggling from amusement or terror.
“Yeah, and they shoot darts…”
“They do! And they smoke cigarettes with their vaginas and do all sorts of stuff. And then at the end a guy comes up and has sex with her while doing a hand stand and in all sorts of crazy positions and then it’s done.”
“Wait, so people do it to get off?”
“I don’t think I could handle that.”
Also on Khao San were many “ladyboys” (I’m not sure how correct it is to refer to them that way because I didn’t talk to any to ask them about their lives). They’re men that dress and sometimes live as women, in which case I guess they’re transgender women, but I don’t want to make assumptions without actually speaking with them first, so I’ll leave it at that. But they are really all over the place and no one seems to make a big deal out of it.
We sat down at a restaurant and got delicious Pad Thai (my first Pad Thai ever!) and a whole bucket of vodka red bull. Then stuff got crazy.
Tor was realllly drunk by this point and commissioned a bracelet maker to make a bracelet for me and a French guy that had joined us from the hostel as our sort of induction into Southeast Asia. He tied my around my wrist before I could read it. The message was something I won’t repeat on this blog… The poor French guy got a misspelled message: “Up the but no baby.” Then he showed us the tattoo he had just got on his chest of Mjollnir (Thor’s hammer) which was still oozing like a fresh cut. He was shaping up to be one of the most interesting people I’ve met, and also one of the craziest.
As the night went on, we lost our group members one by one to dance parties and sleep, until it was just me and Sebastian the Sponge talking drunkenly about family issues. Tor had left us just after we purchased a tower of beer and were left to finish it ourselves. The bar was shutting down and the lights had been turned off when a woman came up to us and sat across the table from us.
“Hello! Where you from?”
“Sweden,” Sebastian said.
“USA,” I said.
“Very nice! Why you here?”
Sebastian went on a monologue about something I don’t remember, but she pulled out lipstick and put it all over his mouth. I remember being really confused.
“How do I look?” he asked me.
“You kiss boyfriend NOW!” she said, and then he smothered my cheek in lipstick. I was wary of what’s was going on but I still found it hilarious.
“Alright, we need to go,” I said, wiping my cheek clean. Sebastian and I were pretty far gone. Everywhere I looked, bars were now shutting down and people were beginning to disperse. I didn’t want to know what happened if we stayed here even longer, so I dragged us to the end of the road.
I remember haggling with a Tuk Tuk driver and telling him he was charging way too much, but to be honest I don’t remember how we got home. And out of all the six days I was in Bangkok, that was the only time I drank.