SE Asia — I: Leaving and Bangkok

Okay! Let’s get into it. This is going to be a long series of entries. In this one I’m only covering the very beginning, abstracting heavily from my journal, but I’ll pick up the pace after this now that I’ve got the background and the basics covered. There are a few pictures, but I expect I’ll be putting up most of them in a series of posts especially for pictures.

I woke up while it was still dark. It was cold in my room because I didn’t bother with heat on that last night. I sat in the cold, communicated with people on my computer, then turned it off and unplugged it and unplugged everything else I could find to unplug in my room. I brought along exactly two pieces of cold-weather clothing: my blue plaid long-sleeve shirt and my plaid pajama pants. When I was choosing these, I was only thinking about practicality and I forgot to consider that if I ever had occasion to wear them both together, I would look like a clown. Looking like a clown, I walked down to the bus stop and took the morning bus to Seoul, then a train to the airport, and left this little country for the first time since May, (unless you count my tour of half of a room in North Korea).

Shortly I was in Beijing, where there was snow on the ground outside and cold air inside, and while waiting for the flight to Bangkok I met a guy who’d brought along his bubble coat and was comfortable now but was going to have to carry it around for his entire sojourn in the tropics. I felt pretty good about my decision to pack light. I brought one backpack with me, with no checked luggage. The backpack had three T-shirts (one of which I lost later—sorry, Mom, it was one of your tie-dyes, but I still have another here) and two pairs of shorts, plus my journal, a guidebook, glasses, and my toothbrush and toothpaste. Tied below was a sleeping bag, and that’s all. In my securely zippered vest pockets I carried my passport, my credit card, all my money (about $670 US plus $167 worth of Thai baht), my camera, and my itinerary. Still, I often felt like I had too much stuff. I could’ve gotten by without the flimsy green blank book in my other vest pocket that I used for scratch paper, for example.

I stepped out of the plane at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport and after escaping from the secure zones I passed this sign:

I was in a very different country.

I latched onto a Caribbean woman I’d met at the Beijing Airport and, since all the buses stop after midnight, we shared a taxi to Khao San Road. Khao San is a street that you can walk down in two minutes, or you could if it weren’t for the extremely drunk people swarming it, wandering from bar to bar, and the pad Thai stands set up in the middle of the street all along its lengths, which you often see being moved from one place to another for whatever reasons, and the men trying to hand you cards telling you where you can buy fine tailored suits, cheap beers, and whores. Its name (which incidentally means “milled rice”) is familiar instantly to every Westerner traveling in Thailand or any country vaguely near it. I wasn’t expecting this when I arrived there; I only knew it from my guidebook (Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, borrowed from Sean) as a place where there were a lot of cheap guesthouses. I wasn’t really paying attention to the part where it mentioned bars. Half overwhelmed, I got a pad Thai and walked from one end to the other with my Caribbean friend while she looked for guesthouses, but they were all too expensive, so I left her to her expensive one and asked drunk people for tips on where to pay a bit less. Someone semicoherently directed me to a street a little ways away and I found a lot of hostels that were all full, finally ending up at a peaceful, white place on a sixth floor. I soaked myself in the shower to rinse off the sweat I’d sweated since stepping into the breathy air of this tropical country and fell asleep.

I woke up to my first day ever of independent traveling. Wherever I’ve gone before—Canada, Oregon, Costa Rica, that road trip around the West when I was 12—I’ve always had older, more experienced people calling the shots for me, booking all the motel rooms, stopping the car at reasonable-looking dinner places, and above all, deciding all the destinations. Now here I was in Bangkok with a little plan written out on a third of a sheet of paper and not a lot of confidence in it. Bangkok! It’s a place that exists in newspaper articles and surreal hearsay stories, but now here it was in real life, six stories below me. I just stared for a while, and then snapped a few pictures of how different it was, feeling like the strangeness was fleeting and I needed to make sure I caught it before Bangkok turned into Iowa City. I took a picture of some roofs from my window.

But almost everything in the city was more interesting than those roofs.

I went downstairs with no plan except to see whatever I could of Bangkok before about 5:00, when I would meet someone. At first all I could think of was my very brief time in San José. Of course, that was a bad comparison, based only on the fact that it’s the only other tropical city I’ve visited. I wandered confusedly toward Ko Ratanakosin, the area where all the old treasures and landmarks are. I found a big grass mall and didn’t understand it, and I walked along the street looking at anything that seemed interesting. Many people tried to scam me. One person succeeded. She was an old lady feeding corn to the pigeons. I was looking around, clearly clueless, and she took the opportunity to press three little bags of corn into my hands. I tried to give them back with a “That’s okay,” but she said no—”Feeding, feeding.” It seemed like a fun enough thing to do, and probably associated somehow with good luck, since she seemed like she was having a good time doing it on her own. I suspected at first that it was a scam, but she wasn’t aking for money, so I naively supposed she might not. After I emptied the bags into the aggressive flock of pigeons, she said, “Money.” She wanted 50 baht, about $1.60. Then she changed it and wanted 50 baht per bag. Then she calculated my bill for four bags, not three, and she and a man who suddenly showed up to enforce things lifted 200 baht off of me. I could eat for days on that kind of money! Here was my introduction to the importance of being careful and on guard. Much later, I became thankful that I learned the lesson so cheap. Other people told me stories of actually buying the fine tailored suits since they seemed like such a good deal, or accepting a courtesy ride to the sights around town that actually turned out to be a 1500-baht ride. At $6.50, I got off pretty light.

Anyhow, somewhat bitterly I continued toward Ko Ratanakosin, with no particularly clear destination in mind except maybe the Chao Phraya River. I found the famous and recommended royal palace and emerald Buddha, but they wanted a steep admission charge to get into the complex, so I figured there would be other good sights elsewhere in the district and kept wandering. I found myself at something labeled the City Pillar Shrine. I had no idea what it was. It turned out to be quite a few things. First was a stage where four women in golden spire hats were doing a dance that involved lots of moving their hands around in slow motion and striking poses. While they danced, two old men played marimbas tured to unfamiliar scales and another man played finger cymbals. I allowed myself to become entranced. This was when I started enjoying Thailand. Nearby was a temple with a Buddha shrine, and a lot of people inside bowing their heads to the ground in front of it. Next to it, under tents, there were people decorating Buddha statues. In one, they were tying rainbow-colored ribbons around him. In the other, they were pressing little rectangles of gold leaf onto the statue. Some of it came off, so there was literally gold floating around the air, bits of it everywhere like dust. It mixed with the incense. I just watched, eyes and mouth open.

Feeling a bit more positive, I left and eventually stumbled across a big complex of spires and shelters that was almost devoid of people. Access was through a driveway nearly corked up by a pickup truck. This was weird, because in order to get there I’d followed a little stream flanked by either lane of a thoroughfare, and despite not having any temples or anything besides houses and businesses, that stream was teeming. There were families sitting in the grass, a woman peeing in the street behind a car, and a bunch of people wafting incense at an elephant-shaped shrine built to commemorate the fiftieth birthday of some long-dead queen. Now here I was among dozens of spires and buildings all lavishly decorated over every inch with details upon details, the whole place a series of intricate patterns and artwork, all finished by hand, adding up to years of work, and I had it to myself.

I saw another Westerner, taking pictures. He was just as surprised as me at the emptiness there. I relayed to him the information some Europeans gave to me on my way in, that it was called Ratchabophit, and we got to talking. Mostly it was about traveling. He was only the first of many other travelers I met and talked about traveling with, but I never did get tired of it. He’d just been in Nepal for several months and made it sound like an amazing place. Now he was traveling on funds from teaching English in Korea, and when they ran out he would start teaching in Vietnam. We decided to walk around together for the duration of the evening—our combined senses of direction might be less easily befuddled. His name was Glenn. We went around looking for Wat Pho, which was supposed to be good, but came to some interesting-looking temples first, and inquired about admission prices. They were $3, and it looked good, so we got tickets and discovered upon being given a map that we had just entered Wat Pho. I was beginning to get pretty familiar with Buddhist holy architecture. The grounds were littered with dozens of spires—stupas, they call them—each one covered in tiled flowers, ceramic, colors, and spearing into the sky. Again, each one represented years of devotion by some unknown artist. We turned a corner and found ourselves in a courtyard whose walls were lined with seated Buddha statues, lining the walls like a guard watch from the country of King Midas. There were also statues of bearded men, men in awesome hats, dragons, sheep, and many more things that were probably residents of the Buddha mythos but unfortunately not the real world. We turned a corner again and found the building that’s the home of the largest reclining Buddha in the country, passing into final Nirvana. His ear was nearly as big as me. He was smiling inscrutably or serenely, it was hard to tell which, and lying there stretched out so far behind so many columns that I couldn’t see all of him. There was a clanking and clattering in the air. I reached his feet, which were decorated with a matrix of auspicious symbols, without figuring out what it was, and then came around the other side of the Buddha and found people dropping coins one at a time into a long row of black bowls.

We covered the rest of Wat Pho this way, then looked for the river. It was surprisingly hard to find. In Seoul there are (so far) 27 bridges across the Han River, but in Bangkok the Chao Phraya has been bridged about twice. Also, between the riverfront streets and the actual river are impenetrable rows of buildings, so you can’t stroll along the banks. After some lunch, we persisted and found the launch for the ferry that crosses the river, which is something they have there instead of a bridge. It took us to Wat Arun. More than anything else we’d seen today, this was a building composed entirely of patterns. Flowers, people or monsters holding up the next level, animals, friezes, mandalas, more things than I could count. I climbed up to the top and looked out over the boats whizzing up and down the Chao Phraya with their truck engines and elfin prows.

We returned, now halfway exhausted by the heat and the walking, and had some cold beer and talked about stuff. Then at 5:00 I had to say goodbye so I could keep my appointment, which was with Mom’s old student Yoshi. (Yes, it’s a Japanese name—he moved to Bangkok for business.) He came down to Tha Tien Pier straightaway (in a van that I later learned was owned by the company and driven by a professional driver because Bangkok traffic is so chaotic that ordinary mortals are often not trusted with the wheel), though the distance meant that I also got to have a chat with some tuk-tuk drivers. A tuk-tuk is a little three-wheeled contraption with motorcycle-inspired controls at the front and an open-air roofed enclosure for passengers at the back. The word is an onomatopoeia for the sound of their engines. I never tuk a picture of one, but here’s one from the internet.

The drivers are usually aggressively asking every passerby, “Hey, you need tuk-tuk?” But once I told these guys that I was waiting for a friend, they stopped thinking of me as a mark and turned out to be great people. One guy got on the topic of booze and said, pointing to another driver, “My friend drink, so much. White tongue!” His friends laughed. And I more or less understood, and laughed too. And finally, I was interacting with the locals on a chatting level, not a business level.

Yoshi appeared and we got reacquainted—I hadn’t seen him for at least 12 years—and he with tremendous friendliness took me to a swanky restaurant called The Deck that overlooked the river. We watched the sun go down behind Wat Arun (which ironically means “Temple of Dawn”). Sparkling boats chugged down the river. The air was cool and refreshing. We ate delicious Thai food and talked about languages and countries and got along great. Then, once we were done, he kept going with his generosity by driving me (that is, having me driven) to the bus station. He helped me buy a ticket to Chiang Mai, too, and because he’s good at Thai and I was lucky, I got bumped up to a VIP bus. We said goodbye and I sat around waiting, then got on the bus, where I finished out my first day of traveling by falling asleep. I was starting—just starting—to pick up the rhythm of this life.

File under: adventure · Places: Thailand

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I really don't know what to say except I am already stunned by what you did. I EAGERLY look forward to the next installment and the next and the next ……G.Pa.




Wow! Wonderful so far. Reminded me that I've been scammed in lots of countries the first few hours I'm there. Guess it's part of the experience, and fun to laugh about later, of course. We all admire your courage SO MUCH. Grandma




Shame you had only a layover in Beijing. You planning on spending more time there when you finish in Korea? Maybe the weather will be better in the fall. Hurry up and write the next installment.




Yeah, that's where the Trans-Siberian Railway leaves from. So I plan on hanging around for at least a few days. I'll have to buy a Chinese visa to go through there anyhow, so I might as well get a little more value out of it, is my thinking.

Technically I suppose it's the Trans-Mongolian that starts there, and the Trans-Siberian starts in Vladivostok. But I'm not worrying about technicalities… and I always still tell people "Trans-Siberian" because I join the TS when I get out of Mongolia to the north.

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