Dispatches from Thailand…Vol. 1

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I’ve debated for the longer part of 2 years whether I wanted to publish this, either on my own blog or pitch it out. Out of fear of ashaming and outing a once good friend due to circumstances beyond my control, I believe the friendship is exhausted, unfortunately. There’s no reason to keep the following a secret. After all, all the best writers make plenty of enemies.

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I’d never go back for only a week. And that’s only the beginning.

The trip was Madeline’s idea: she’d backpacked through southeast Asia just after high school. She raved about the food, the culture, the amazing scenery. I was all in.

Here we were 23 hours from where started, somewhere on the other side of the world – a far cry from Chicago. Three girls on a half-brained scheme to tour Thailand in one week. The plan was simple: Meet up with Madeline and her flight attendant friend Jess, use their airline benefits (thank you flight attendants of the world!) to jet off to the other side of the world, practically for free, and take in the sights. Stupidly, I had agreed to let Madeline play tour guide, given she had been to Thailand before. There was no backup plan. It was all here and now.

We were hot sweaty and jetlagged at Bangkok’s airport. First order of business: money.

We elbowed our way through the crowds as best we could on the moving platform to the ATM. First rule of international travel? Let your banking institution know you’re going.

Jess and I successfully withdraw the equivalent of $100 US money to play around with. It comes in the form of Baht, the Thai currently. It’s enough for the cab fare to the hotel and a beer and a bite, at least.

It’s Madeline’s turn. Her card won’t spit out any Baht; it’s been placed on temporary lock. She didn’t tell the bank she’d be out of the county.

“It’s okay Madeline, we have you covered this time,” I offered.

“I can’t believe this is happening to me!,” Madeline lamented. “This trip just isn’t meant to be! I’m leaving on the next flight home!”

The luxury and curse of at-your-fingertip flight access is that you are afforded the opportunity to make rash decisions. If she really wanted to, in her frustrated, travel-wearied state, Madeline could have caught the next flight out to Narita, Japan and wait for the next plane back to Chicago. How anyone could manage that, mentally or emotionally, after flying so many miles is beyond me, but it was certainly possible.

I had never seen someone so angry over something so little. Surely neither I nor Jess would leave her at the airport empty-handed. We would spot her some cash until tomorrow.  In any case, Madeline stomped off, leaving Jess and I bewildered and abandoned in a foreign city I knew next to nothing about (*Note: always have a Plan B in case you tour guide loses it).

Jess and I spent the next hour trying desperately to find Madeline in the seemingly endless airport, which was somehow BUSTLING at 1 a.m. After traveling 7,000 miles in 23 hours and dragging around our luggage, we came across the “Lost and Found.” Miraculously, through a combination of broken English and sign language, we were able to croak out, “We lost our friend! She ran away. Can you page her?”

The search was futile. Resigning to the fact that Madeline was probably listening to the safety procedures and preparing for liftoff to go back home, we grabbed a cab from the tourist booth- another mistake that cost us 1000 Baht, about 600 more Baht than the standard fare.

It was hot and muggy, even at 1 a.m. I could tell we weren’t in the states anymore. Hello Bangkok!

We were driving on the left side of the road. Our cabbie didn’t speak a lick of English, nor did we speak a lick of Thai. He tried to find our hotel for the better part of an hour, circling around the immediate vicinity, but not quite able to pin point it. I can’t lie: I was scared. The cabbie drove, backed up, turned around, doing this ugly dance about 10 times, narrowly avoiding a family of five on a motorized bike zooming past us.

We saw the streets. In Bangkok, it’s all about the STREETS. The streets were alive. They breathed and omitted pollution. They sold sex and dinner for 30 baht and offered Thai massage, lottery tickets and turtles in a bag. Stray dogs were everywhere. And so were the lady boys.

Jess, rather naively, questioned: “Who are all these girls? And what are they doing out so late?”

Only the discerning eye could tell that these girls where actually lady boys, or transgender/cross dressing Thai men who make natural women look like dogs. They are every bit as beautiful as natural women, but their disgusting offerings cheapened them to the likes of a whore. Lady boys continuously primp themselves, hoping for a fare, some business. Like robots on a programmed schedule, they pull out their compact, cake on some more powder and touch up their lipstick. A lady boy’s vanity rivals any sane (or insane for that matter) woman’s.  When not putsing around in mile-high heels over open sewers and smoking cigarettes, they traipse over to 7/11 to buy Pepsi, not making eye contact with anyone, but hoping desperately to be seen, if not touched.

We finally make it to the hotel and start a frantic plea to the overnight concierge: “Our friend Madeline’s not feeling good. She went home–” we start, as the room was in her name, with her credit card.

“Madeline from Chicago? She’s already here and checked in,” the concierge offered.

A cruel joke.

We ride up to the fourth floor, our jaws agape in disbelief and anger. We’re speechless. We walk into our room, and there she is: completely showered, relaxed.

“What took you guys so long?” Madeline asks.

She’s been looking for us! What a laugh. We try to avoid an all-out war. My head is spinning with images of the Bangkok streets and in the battle of me versus jetlag, the latter is the promising victor. Madeline offers a lame apology and we all simultaneously collapse into bed.

No one sleeps. Like on the plane ride, I lay with my eyes closed for five hours and think “good enough” around 6 a.m. to head down to breakfast.

By 7 a.m. we’re down at the continental breakfast, happy to be alive, munching on home made Pad Thai, fruit, and fueling up on the best goddamn coffee I’ve ever had. Three cups later we make a loose plan of action.

Madeline suggests the tourist mecca known as Koh San Road to start, so we head in that direction.

Again on the streets. Every other corner is a rummage sale trying to peddal worthless and probably illegal goods. I contemplated buying one of many passports lining the sidewalk. Surely a cool, albeit illegal souvenir.

After a few blocks, a friendly Thai history teacher intercepts us.

“It’s your lucky day!” the teacher began. “Today is a holiday!”

Yes! There was some light at the end of the tunnel after a long and shitty travel day. Little did we know,  any scamming Thai local will lead you to believe it’s a holiday for 20 Baht!

According to our new tour guide, today was the one special day of the year that an extra special Thai temple was open to the public. He even summoned a “Government Official” tuk-tuk for our traveling needs. Our driver agreed to take us all around Bangkok for 15 Baht.

I felt so special. “How could I be so lucky?” I thought as we piled in for the ride of our life.

Tuk-tuks are more of a novelty turned headache. We crammed in, the 3 of us, and zoomed off into the streets of Bangkok, destination and destinies unknown. All we knew was that we were going to see some rare shit, and that was good enough. Who wouldn’t want to be us?

We weaved in and out of traffic, our driver beeping indiscriminately at anyone who dared cross his path or THOUGHT about crossing his path. In a pair of gray Converse, the peddle was to the metal as we whizzed up streets, over bridges and through neighborhoods. It didn’t matter that none of us knew where we were going, where we would end up. We were going somewhere, doing something, somewhere far off, exotic. How many people could say that?

We arrived at our first Buddhist temple. I didn’t quite know how to act. I’m sure this place was sacred, so I just acted cordial, on my best behavior. I heard Monks chanting in the distance.

“I’ll wait here,” our driver said beside his Government Official tuk-tuk.

We took pictures outside of the temple before removing our shoes and entering. There were a few people inside praying along with the monks who make a sea of orange with their cloaks. I stared in awe at the giant Buddha. It glistened in the hot Thai sun. A magnificent sight, surely, but a whirlwind nonetheless.

Back to the tuk-tuk driver. We zoomed through the streets again, choking on pollution, snapping selfies and making up for lost bonding time. We continued to visit random temples. They were all beautifully adorned with gold, statues, and outfitted with chanting monks. All of them were nice, but the trip was becoming repetitive. Jetlag was starting to settle in along with exhaustion.

Madeline piped up to the driver that we wanted to be dropped off at the water taxi so that we might cruise up the river to get to Chinatown.

“We have to get gas coupons first,” the driver said.

We arrived at a tailor shop. Upon walking in I saw expensive coats, jackets, furs, ties and other accessories. It was hot as hell outside, much too hot to think about buying a winter coat. I wasn’t  interested and neither were the girls.

It turns out we had been scammed. We were harassed to buy cashmere coats and silk ties for an exorbitant amount of money. No wonder our ride only cost 15 Baht. When we refused to pay or counter offer them, the shop owner called us stupid and chased us out of the store.

Jess talked to our driver and pleaded with him to drop us off at the river ferry.

“I want my day of pay!” the driver demanded.

He made off with $6 US, obliged to drop us off at the ferry.

We rode the ferry toward Chinatown. The river was pretty nasty. In fact, a lot of areas of Bangkok are pretty nasty. The streets are strewn with litter, people are sleeping in the streets, feral cats and dogs with open wounds and mangy hair are scrounging for food, komono dragons lurch out of city sewer pipes, I mean, you name it.

The river ferry is fun and no-nonsense. Every stop is a dock, and the ferry stops ALMOST long enough for everyone to get on, but hardly. The ferry driver routinely leaves behind around a dozen people who may or may not have had one foot on the boat already. The ferry zooms forth, and poor, unsuspecting suckers are left stranded, scratching their heads with no choice but to wait for the next maniacal captain.

We arrived to Chinatown and I was feeling bad, dizzy. I was tired, cranky and starving: I was hangry (*Note: Hungry + Angry = Hangry).

Asian food is good, probably one of my favorite cuisines.  I have my first of many street vendor meals in Thailand from a Pad Thai cart. Basically the rule of thumb for ordering food in Thailand is to just point to what everyone else is eating and say, “1 please!” Minutes later, steaming hot noodles with mystery meat, peanuts, cilantro and chili arrive. You have to top it off with chili flakes, fish sauce and peppers (all found on any respectable make-shift table in S.E. Asia) and you’re set for foodie bliss. Let the magical ingredient combination wash over you and save your tortured soul! Sweet misery!

I down my noodles and some water and feel better…if only for a moment. My travel companions turn out to be typical women: shoppers. I’m screwed.

We hit the markets of Bangkok’s Chinatown. If you really want to go a bender, go to Chinatown jetlagged. It’s crowded, and I mean arm-to-arm, can’t move, just-get-pushed-to-the-next-place-like-you’re-on-a-conveyor-belt crowded. A veritable labyrinth of stalls, women, junk selling for mere pennies in wholesale quantities. There are women in colorful burkas from the middle east buying purses in bulk, people snatching up umbrellas, fans, stickers, earrings, wallets, shirts, sunglasses, junk upon junk for as far as the eye can see.

In between what appears to be a never-ending alleyway of stores, going deeper and deeper into a dark abyss (sunlight is void the further you meander), turning you into a shopping zombie, the occasional motorbike nearly bowls you over and you come back to your senses and try some meat on a stick or freshly squeezed pomegranate juice.  I opted for a good old-fashioned Pepsi, which was served to me in a plastic bag with ice and a straw. Welcome to Asia: Land of waste and weird.

We escape Chinatown. Jess and Madeline make out with hello kitty stickers, 3 purses each and a menagerie of what I perceive to be worthless shit.  Next on the agenda is Koh San Road.

Bangkok streets never sleep. They’re fueled on haggled dollars, Chang beers, cheap smokes and doomed backpackers like ourselves and Koh San Road is no exception. It’s the stereotypical tourist trap, though I felt a lot of places I meandered to unsuspectingly turned out to be tourist traps, too.  For example, one lady trying to make a buck was wearing a court-jester hat and was draped in every gimmick you’d ever see for sale at a Fourth of July fireworks show in the States. She shoved a wooden frog in our face and wanted us to buy it. I guess those are the experiences you remember when you try to cram a tour of Thailand into one week.

Backpackers inhaled cheap beer and Pad Thai that had been sitting out for hours. Rhianna over the loud speakers reminded everyone that she fell in love in a hopeless place. This place really did feel hopeless in some ways. After getting our fill of cheap thrills, we stumbled home and crumble into bed at midnight, scarred for life, but exhilarated.

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*Names have been changed.

 

 

 

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