WARNING: some content in this blog is not suitable for work or for my grandmother
There is a reason it’s called Bangkok, sweetie. -The Hangover, Part II.
I was surrounded by animals for sale. On one side, cages full of puppies. On the other, kittens. Down the alley there were rabbits and groudhogs. In the other direction, parrots, parakeets, and fish of all varieties hanging from thin plastic bags high above the ground. There were bamboo tubs of baby turtles and frogs trying to leap out of their barrels. Giant Tupperware containers full of live, squirming maggots were at every intersection. Everything reeked of the business my father affectionately calls, “Number Two.”
I was utterly lost. And although I was surrounded by more farangs and English speakers than I’ve seen in the past two months combined, I was utterly alone.
I turned around and tried to go back the way I had come. The alleys full of pets were endless. I strained every mite of my meager navigational prowess trying to find a way out. And in an hour, I was still surrounded by the animals. I was certain: the puppies would be my doom.
And then I was out. To my right hand side was a market stand selling large, smooth, wooden, intricately-carved, inhumanly large…dicks.
I breathed a sigh of relief. At last, I thought. A familiar sight.
How did it come to this?
On Friday afternoon, Ben, Hannah and I left Bunditnoi early to spend the weekend in Bangkok. We hopped on a bus in Pak Thong Chai and 4.5 slow hours later we arrived at Mo Chit 2, the same bus station I spent two nervous hours in two months ago as I waited for the bus to my new home. From there we hopped a taxi to our main destination: Khao Sarn Road.
If you have never heard of it, Khao Sarn Road (pronounced: Koh-Sahn) is probably most simply described as, “Bangkok’s Bourbon Street.” Except that here, every night is Mardi Gras. Accordingly to Hannah, who has spent Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Khao Sarn Road is “more Bourbon Street than Bourbon Street.”
As a farang living in Pak Thong Chai for the past two months, I was immediately struck by the number of, well, white people there were on Khao Sarn Road. That sheer quantity of people who look like me is not something I am used to anymore and it was absolutely disconcerting. In fact, a good deal of my time in Bangkok felt more like a return to American culture than a further exploration of Thai culture, and my reaction to it all was a confusing mix of joy, derision, annoyance, and relief. But I’ll get to that.
Our first mission was to find a hotel. After several misfires, we ended up at Kawin Place, a dinky hotel separated from the noise and light of Khao Sarn by at least a hundred yards. We got a room with three twin beds for the wonderful price of 600 baht a night. We put our packs down. And then we went out.
Khao Sarn Road on July 17th is as bright as Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Along its two or three blocks there are countless bars, tattoo parlors/body piercing shops, bars, massage parlors, bars, hotels, and a couple more bars. There are restaurants serving genuine Thai food, there are Indian restaurants, a Mexican restaurant, and most of the bars offer a sampling of your typical American food (hamburgers, pizza, etc). There are vendors selling clothing that have “Thai” patterns. I put Thai in quotes there because in two months I have never once seen a Thai person wear clothing in the styles that were for sale on Khao Sarn. There were standings selling fried bugs, coconut ice cream, or a quick dish of Pad Thai. At this point in the night, the street was essentially closed to traffic—all of the restaurants and bars and even the massage parlors had spilled onto the road itself and were conducting business in the middle of a crowd of thousands.
There were also the somewhat more risqué businesses—while Thailand’s recent military coup cracked down on such things as hookah bars and other recreational drugs, there is still a thriving business of prostitution and ping pong shows. In the latter, you pay to watch a woman use her pelvic muscles to shoot objects from within her vagina, such as ping pong balls. I did not attend one of this theatrical marvels, but not for lack of opportunities. Every several yards a man will hold out a sign to you that reads “Ping Pong” and make a sound with his mouth akin, I assume, to the sound a ping pong ball makes as it is forcibly ejected from a woman’s vagina.
Most of the spectacle and debauchery all appeared set up to appeal to a specific type of tourist in order to reflect what the tourist’s assumptions about Thailand are. This is what bothered me most about Khao Sarn—that people would come to Thailand and spent their first night drinking American beer, eating an American burger or pizza, buying a T-shirt that says I ❤ Bangkok (or even I ❤ New York), etc. None of it spoke to me as remotely similar to the Thai experience I’ve been having so far.
And at the same time…after two months, it was very nice to even have the option to eat a hamburger. It was nice to look around and be reasonably sure that anybody I approached would speak some English.
Anyways…that first night, we had a beer in a bar where the band was playing covers of the Beatles and Eric Clapton. We were at first relegated to standing by the bar, but when a table opened up we shared it with a Polish man who had been in Thailand for a week and his Thai girlfriend. But soon after that Ben retired—as he was to take his GRE exam early the next morning. Hannah and I explored the rest of Khao San Road together, but retired ourselves not long after Ben.
The next morning Ben was already gone when I woke up. So Hannah and I walked together to the nearest Sky Train station and road that to Chatujak (alternatively spelled Chatuchak or Jatujak), Thailand’s biggest market at 32 acres. As soon as we arrived we split up, agreeing to meet up again at the entrance at 11:30 am.
If you know me you won’t be surprised that the first thing I found was a used bookstand that peddled books in many languages, mostly English! Wow! That is unheard of in Pak Thong Chai. My city is too remote and too, well, Thai to sell any English books. I made four book purchases that day at three different bookstands:
- Don Quixote (because I’m tired of straining my eyes to read it on my tablet).
- To Kill A Mockingbird (which I have never read).
- Red Dawn.
- Warbreaker, by Brandon Sanderson.
The market was full of wonderful goods—more traditional Thai clothing, handbags, toys, jewelry, furniture, decorations, Buddhist statues, more categories of goods than I could see or remember. Very close to the bookstand where I made my first purchase was the kindly old lady selling the intricately carved, inhumanly large dicks.
After an hour or so I took a wrong turn and found myself lost in the animal kingdom. When I asked Hannah about it later, she said she hadn’t seen the pet section, nor did she even know that there was one.
After the dicks helped me get my bearings I continued to shop, and left that day (after another almost comical hour in which Hannah and I tried to reconnect but kept missing each other) with two shirts (one tee; one Thai), a pair each of shorts and pants, some postcards, and two bracelets.
While shopping at Jatujak I experienced another odd sensation. I listened to all the farangs try to express themselves to the Thai shop owners—try, for instance, to insist that they pay two hundred (200) for a garment that the shop owner insists is worth sam roi (300) baht. That’s when I realized how much I’ve been learning over the past two months. I am nowhere near fluent in Thai but it was an easy thing for me to say to the woman from whom I bought the bracelets, “Sawat dee don chow” (Good morning), “Sabai dee mai, kop?” (How are you), “Tao rai ni?” (How much is this?), and when she replied “Hok roi (600) baht,” I was able to respond, “Mai hok roi baht, ha roi!” (Not 600 baht, 500!). To which she graciously responded, “G’dai” (okay). That might be the extent of my Thai, but it was still a nice confidence boost to watch all my ethnic peers struggle to accomplish that much.
Returning to the hotel that afternoon, all three of us were beat. We spent a good couple of hours relaxing in our air conditioned room, not using our feet. But eventually we did get up and explore a little more of Bangkok—we passed a couple of temples and visited Tammasat University, where Ben spent 40 days on study abroad in 2013.
But the main event of that night was to take part, wholly and shamelessly, in the kitschy tourist wonderland that is Khao Sarn Road.
It started with a burger and a beer. I was mostly over my strange anti-tourist prejudice and was truly delighted to enjoy some American food—though the beer was delicious Thai beer, Chang. After eating we strolled about and down Khao Sarn, constantly saying “Mai kop” (No thanks), or “Mai wani don yen” (Not this evening) to the men trying to reel us into the ping pong shows.
While strolling I decided to do one thing that was very much in the spirit of things tourists think are Thai but are really just for the tourists: I bought a bag of fried grasshoppers. I ate mine first—if you are my Facebook friend you can see an 18-second video of my reaction. As I say in the video: “It’s not terrible…but it’s also not good.” Hannah tried one next and her reaction was somewhat more adverse than mine. Then Ben, and he seemed to like it!
We continued to peruse the road and I ate another grasshopper (For scientific reasons: to see if they’re an acquired taste. They’re not.)
We sat for our second beer of the night at a bar that, like the others, had merged with the street itself. Partway through the conversation Ben stood and I assumed he was in the bathroom. Several minutes later I looked to my side and realized he was sitting at the table next to ours, where an attractive blonde about our age was chatting with him merrily. Hannah and I finished our drinks and mutually agreed to leave Ben to the girl and to his luck. I left the bag of grasshoppers on the table, for whomever was fortunate enough to sit there next.
Hannah and I got some more drinks elsewhere along Khao Sarn and I enjoyed getting to know her that night better, I feel, than I had so far in the past two months.
The music was loud and American (such classics as Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” and Pharell Williams’ “Happy”), the people were loud and drunk, I was constantly having to turn away trays of fried scorpion or woman selling woven bracelets brandished with catchy slogans such as “I ❤ eat pussy,” “Up bum = no baby,” and “Welcome to Bangkok.”
It was past one in the morning when Hannah and I decided to return to the hotel, and strangely enough we ran into Ben who was making his way back at the exact same time.
Night #2 in Bangkok: more touristy, more boozey, more fun. It was very good for me, in my current situation, to have a short dip into something practically American in culture. All the same I feel bad for the many, many people my age whose only experience of Thailand is Bangkok and Khao Sarn Road. That is not truly Thailand.
I am now back in Pak Thong Chai after a long but happy bus ride reading my English books. This morning before leaving Khao Sarn, we ate American breakfast food, which in my book is counted as something of a miracle. In Pak Thong Chai, people eat the same foods for breakfast as they eat for lunch and dinner. And it’s never scrambled eggs or pancakes.
More on everything to come!