A Tale of Two Cities: Tokyo and Bangkok (Part 2 – Bangkok)

November 13, 2012.

The first thing I noticed upon arriving at Bangkok’s airport was how non-descript and unassuming the place was. Unlike Tokyo, Bangkok’s airport could have been any other airport in the world. The culture shock arriving in Thailand’s capital was markedly less than in Japan. Thai culture seem gentler, less forced. It didn’t hurt that all of the signs and advertisements were all in Queen’s English!

At the airport, I befriended two gypsy girls from Northern California, Isis and Navi. Isis was a dancer and frequent world traveler with third eye on her forehead. Navi was a make-up artist. The two were best friends. Both had quirky off-beat personalities so we clicked instantly. We had decided to share cab out of the airport. Many Thai men stood around the taxi area and eyed the girls hungrily as we stepped inside the cab.

Isis had been to Thailand before and had the driver take us to Khao San Road, a backpackers’ hub of Bangkok. As I always do arriving on in a new and exotic land, I kept my eyes glued outside the window, taking everything in excitedly. I saw my first ornate arch over the road with a picture on it of some important Thai government official. I recall being struck by the dilapidated state of some of the shanty townhouses close to the freeway.

It was very early on a weekday morning when I arrived in Bangkok, and I saw a coffee shop with people streaming in as they prepare to go about their day. For me though, it was a far from business as usual. I was stepping into a new, unknown world for an indefinite time, and can only tell what new experiences, people, and trials would await me in the days ahead.

Navi being all gangsta.

Navi being all gangsta.

The gypsy girls are amiable and we became fast friends. We flirt a bit in good fun. When we arrived in our destination, I was a bit put-off by the neighborhood. The girls checked in to a hotel together and there we parted ways.

I decided to follow up on my friend Jared Heyman’s advice and searched for lodging in the Silom District. The first thing I needed was a map. A man on the street offered to take me to the Tourist Information Center; I accepted. I stepped into his tuk-tuk and off we went. A tuk-tuk is an odd, motorized poor man’s car, with no windows, sides made of tin, and a loud motor and handrails.

A tuk-tuk in all it's glory.
A tuk-tuk in all it’s glory.

I soon found the Tourist Center was a little more than a travel agency. But the man did tell me how to get to Silom and I declined his offers to provide accommodation and travel tours. After searching 30 minutes for an ATM, I was flushed with cash, Thai Baht, and found a cab. I was at a loss trying to tell him where to go so I simply pointed at a hospital in the middle of the Silom District. Silom is the banking and financial center of the city and was bustling with activity, commerce, and hustle.

Streets of Silom, Bangkok's financial district.

Streets of Silom, Bangkok’s financial district.

I asked the desk for directions to a hostel which my friend recommended, and got lost several times. Breathing the smoky air, feeling the sun on my face, and adjusting to the pace of passers-by, I acclimatized to my new home. The hostel I tried was full, and I was hard-pressed for several hours trying to find another. Finally, after getting online and making several sojourns, I found the HQ Hostel and checked in.

At the hostel, I made two new friends, a Canadian from Vancouver named Adam and a Belgian. The Belgian was big, masculine, and a likeable fellow. Adam was friendly but more subdued. These two would become my companions over the next two evenings.

My two travel companions in Bangkok.

My two companions in Bangkok.

Adam and I found lunch at a street stall. A lot of stalls had strange, exotic foods such as ground up meats, and we stayed away out of apprehension. Eventually, we found a place that served Western-friendly food, noodles. I came to learn as I visited the different areas of the city that there is a stark contrast between the traditional ethnic food and foreigner-friendly Thai food. We definitely were more appreciative of the latter.

After lunch, we set out to explore our surroundings. The Silom area was packed with buildings and noise and the packed-in mass of people. There is a “Skytrain” that ran above the streets we were in, a public transit rail system built up above and all around us. Many vendors had set up their wares, and there were performers, and all manner of other goings-on around us.

Adam making a new friend in Silom.
Adam and his new friend in Silom.

As the day lingered on and the sun was on the cusp of falling, we made our way up to road to Lumphini Park, Bangkok’s version of Central Park. We were amazed by all the different groups we saw. Teens practicing cheerleading; a horde of people, perhaps two hundred or more, following a lead dancer in some type of aerobic dance exercise; a smaller group of elderly practicing Tai-Chi; and yet another large group of a hundred performing some type of Muay Thai dance to Thai house music.

Of course, when in Bangkok, we do what the Bangkokians do, and so we joined the fun. Adam and I joined the large group and danced away until nightfall when the moon came out. We were surprisingly coordinated for beginners, but far from perfect.

After the long flights and lengthy layover, letting loose this way felt so good. That night, the Belgian joined us and we hit the streets. Before we did anything, I wanted to make sure I found a decent restaurant with vegetarian fare that was reasonably priced. I have succeeded.

The Belgian had traveled around the region for several months and had many fun stories to share. During his travels, he apparently had several Asian girlfriends and he talked about his experience a bit. He said he’s gone through about 80 condoms altogether.

One of my favorite things that he told me was that he bought a motorbike in Vietnam and rode it from one end of the country to the other. It sounded amazing, and I had another item to add to the bucket list. Though this time, I’m still unclear whether time, budget, circumstances will permit me to undertake the journey during this current trip. My ambitious designs are lofty and far-fetched but I am of but meager ability to attain them. Anyway, the Belgian said that he bought the motorbike for $270 and later resold it for $260. Apparently, motorbikes are ubiquitous and inexpensive in Vietnam.

It was evening in Bangkok and we were eager to experience what craziness and fun the night had to offer. In the area we were in though, it was a mixed bag. The establishments mostly cater to Thais and not Westerners. But we know there were young, foreign girls in this are that we could talk to. I walked up to a Thai girl and joked with her a bit with the guys watching, but the conversation didn’t go too far. Incidentally, we were located next to perhaps Bangkok’s most infamous area, Patpong, the night bazaar.

As we walked down the streets around Patpong, numerous Thai men speaking limited English approached us, each trying to hustle. We heard about something called a Ping Pong show, where strippers perform various acts such as smoking using their private parts. I wondered what kind of person that sort of thing appealed to. Others were promoting a place called Super Pussy. “Really big pussy,” they will say. “Very good!” We all laughed at this.

I think we wanted to find a place that was busy with lots of energy and a good music and a good vibe. The place we found was a strip club with high octane poles and loud pumping music. We decided to check it out. I think we were all a little ego-driven and had images of acting like rich mafia bosses with women dancing on our laps. Meanwhile, I had the song “One Night in Bangkok” looping over and over in my head, so I went in.

When we entered, we realized we weren’t the ones in control. The maître’d led us into a VIP booth and from that moment, they were all over us. Three women came and sat on our legs, one for each of us. A man came and told us we had to order drinks.

The women began coaxing us, working their game, touching us and asking questions. I think we all enjoyed the attention and our egos were certainly stroked. I was guarded from the start, however. All the women looked very tall, perhaps 5’9” or a little higher, and people had warned me that Thai women over 5’6” were lady boys. Nevertheless, the girl on my lap was pretty determined, and when she asked me to buy her a drink, I eventually did so as a minor concession so as to avoid a confrontational and uncomfortable situation.

After some time, she could sense my unease, I told her she was nice but lied about having a girlfriend. I think she could sense my feelings of uncertainty regards to her gender. She took my hand and pressed it to her groin. She was a woman. Meanwhile, in the club where we were, there was one small center platform with above twenty-five women, each in different color of lingerie. It was all very overwhelming. I asked the guys what they wanted to do. While they nursed some doubts, overall they were inclined to carry on with things further with the girls.

The guys expressed intentions to leave the club and extract the girls to a private location. They were negotiating price with each girl, or, as I found out later, at least the Belgian was. I was very hesitant about this sort of thing.

The rest of that whole night was a blur.

I’m a relatively “normal” person, certainly not a sex tourist, but I wish men and women could me more upfront and open about sex. Life would be so much simpler. Think of all the wars and suicides it would prevent.

The Skytrain arriving at Sala Daeng station.

The Skytrain arriving at Sala Daeng station.

The next day, I woke a fresh man and set out to conquer the city. I took the Skytrain to the Chidlom area as there were a couple of sites there that I wanted to check out. I visited an Arts and Cultural Center which really turned out to be a collection of shops selling artistic products, nothing too exciting, but there was a really nice bookstore where I checked out lots of cool books on Chinese and Japanese art, contemporary and modern.

What I’ve come to learn is that Thais love to shop. Bangkok has more shopping malls than anywhere I’ve seen by a huge margin, and all of them are big and daunting. CentralWorld in the Silom area is the third largest shopping complex in the world. I ended up in MBK Center, across from the Arts Center, which is easily the most massive mall I’ve been in. Eight or nine levels, hundreds of restaurants, thousands of stores, stands, and kiosks. There seemed to be little order in the orientation of the shops. The entire place was brimming with hordes of humanity. I had one primary goal which was to find a camera.

Simple enough, I stopped at one camera shop and found the good quality cameras too expensive, and the inexpensive ones of poor quality. At any rate, the iPad mini that I lost in Tokyo was intended to serve many features, chief among them to act as a camera with which to record my travels. With it gone, I had no other options for taking photos.

Eventually, I found a section of the mall with many small vendors buying various small electronic items over counters and glass cases. I found one selling used Apple products and eventually decided to get an iPod touch instead of a camera. It was small, versatile, and had many other uses which I can employ. The vendor would not negotiate price with me despite my best efforts.

A group of middle-aged Australians came and one of them, a boisterous chap with a curly white beard, rather rotund fellow to boot, in a yellow golf shirt, was able to heckle the guy enough to get a small discount on two iPads. At any rate, I bought the iPod for 4000 Baht which is $133.

Pleased with myself, I decided to head back to my lodgings, but not before heading to an upper level where I can get some food. There were two food courts on adjacent floors to one another, and both were unlike anything I have yet seen in my lifetime. Each one looked like one restaurant, but there were a hundred different kitchens with cuisine from every country in the world available. There was Mexican food, Indian, Thai, American, Korean, Japanese, and so many variations which I can’t recall. It was incredible. They actually imported chefs from different parts of the world to serve this fare.

I finally just settled on an Indian place which served all of my favorite dishes. The young man who was from India who spoke perfect English explained that I had to first buy food vouchers, and then come back and redeem them. I went to the counter where the vouchers were sold and I gave them 1000 Baht, $33.3. They gave me back a huge stack of paper money vouchers, most of which, values of 5, 10, 20. It was quite puzzling. I counted the amount and realized they’d only given me 905 Baht worth of vouchers. I told the security guard who was standing there. He returned the vouchers to the woman, who recounted them, afterwards issued me the correct amount. It seemed questionable.

I sat down and began to savor my meal. I shared a table with three Asian men, two of whom were Chinese, the other was Thai. There were all middle-aged, I think they work together. The Thai men understood and spoke good English. He was from Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand which was to become my next home after Bangkok. He had also been to Washington, D.C. and many other places. We talked a bit about our homes and lives. He was an incredibly warm and sweet man, and I enjoyed the company.

After my meal was done, I took a long time to finish because I had an awful lot of food and the spiciness of Indian food tortures me greatly, I headed to the opposite end of the food court to hand in my extra vouchers.

Sure enough, the amount I got back was incorrect again, and by the same margin – 95 Baht. I was incensed, but once I’ve already handed in the vouchers, there was nothing I could do to prove the amount I previously held. No one seemed to understand my English anyway.

I felt cheated – because I was. I only lost about $3, but it was the principle of it that disturbed me. It was as if they were knowingly scamming people, not just knowingly, perhaps they were trained to, and believed it correct to do so. Whatever the case, this event would prove to be a valuable lesson. In Bangkok, I would have to be on my guard constantly. Targeting a foreigner for scams and rip-offs was very common in that city. The troubling thing is there seems to be no moral dilemma in doing so. Plain and simple, dishonesty is dishonesty – no matter how you spin it.

Later that evening, the guys and I set out again to discover what fun we can get into. For the first part of the evening, there wasn’t much and we had no particular destination to head to. We found an outdoor bar that looks inviting and grabbed a few drinks. A table over, I saw a Western guy and a young Thai in a mock wrestling match. I asked the Thai guy if he wanted to arm wrestle for real. Moments later, we had hands and arms locked and were going at it with at least a dozen people standing around us, screaming and cheering. Passersby at the street looked over curiously. I won the match after about 20 seconds. I had barely time to rest however, as a big Malaysian guy challenged me next. He was buff, with big arms and a puffed out chest, like a quasi-sumo wrestler.

‘Why the hell not’, I thought, as we were having so much. As I begin this next match, even more people surrounded out table. My opponent was tough, and he sees an early advantage. But I brought my A-game though, and applied more force as the match lingered on. He brought his best, but I had help. Now the edge was mine, and I brought him down about half a minute later. It was such fun. I later wish that Adam had recorded it.

After the second match, an even bigger man took the seat opposite me, beckoning for a match. This time, I was at an even greater size disadvantage, and after two back-to-back matches, I had to decline. However, I urged the Belgian to face him, and as the Belgian was almost a foot taller than me and heavier to boot, spurred on by my heroic example, he agreed and the two faced off.

He didn’t last very long. The man non-farangs cheered.

Just after the crazy Bangkok arm wrestling matches
Moment after our crazy arm wrestling competitions in Bangkok. The shirtless lad on the right was the guy I faced in the second match.

After, we all became good friends, foreigner and local alike, and had a great time all in good fun. We took several wild group pictures together with big, stupid grins on our faces. It was a special event and a night that will remain in my memory.

After we left, we got a cab and followed up on a lead the Belgian had for a big nightclub. Off we went, looking to party and let loose. When we arrived, however, we learned there was a pricey cover charge and decided not to take our chances on this place. At this point, we were at a fork. It was already after midnight and the Belgian advised we head to Khao San Road, the area I had originally arrived in after the airport. But Khao San was a 30 minute drive away and I had to make two calls to clients in the U.S. very early in the morning. If we headed to Khao San now, we might not be back till 5 or 6 A.M.

So the two guys grabbed a cab to Khao San, and I hopped on a motorbike, and I went back to the hostel. I slept well, and my Skype calls with clients went all right. Both were held between 7 and 8 in the morning. About mid-morning, I encountered Adam, the Canadian. I learnt that he had become separated from the Belgian at around 2 AM last night. The last he saw him, the Belgian was in a confrontation with two other Canadian guys. He had never made it back. We puzzled over this as we both prepared to check out of the hostel. As it was now Friday, we decided to find lodgings around Khao San where we can easily find nightlife and save some money as well.

Before leaving, we left a note for the Belgian, notifying him of our movements. The Belgian never made it back to the hostel. It was not until several days later that we heard from him on Facebook. He had left Bangkok and was now several hours south at a place called Koh Chang. He wished us well. In the meantime, Adam and I arrived in the Khao San area and found a room there.

I met a cute brunette from Connecticut named Tiffani, who would become a new adventure buddy over the next few days. She, like me, was planning to travel for a long time and had no particular, specific itinerary (only a vague one). Tiffani and I spent much of the day together, visiting several culturally significant spots. For an East Coast person, she was laidback but also witty and funny. I thoroughly enjoyed the company.

I began warming up to Khao San as well. The entire area is known as a “backpackers’ destination,” but it could just as well be considered a “Westerntown,” in that the entire place is basically oriented towards Westerners. I liked the thorough number of cafes, restaurants, and other amenities. Behind the Buddhist temple, there was a back street with kitchens serving inexpensive food. I got breakfast each day with eggs and toast for about $1.50.

A taste of home - Starbucks on Khao San road.

A taste of home – Starbucks on Khao San road.

As my travels had just begun, I had no inclination to spend all my money just yet, and Khao San (and Bangkok) proved a worthy launching pad for what was to come. At this point, what lied ahead was anyone’s guess. But I made important contacts and learned a lot from stories of other travelers, many of whom were ending their trips in Bangkok. In all, I spent 6 days in Bangkok which was plenty, but here I only covered the first two nights. Enough happened over the weekend to warrant several dozen more pages of scribblings, but it is here where I must sign off and wrap up this recap of my first experience traveling to Bangkok.

Namaste, friends and fam!

Namaste, friends and fam!

For more photos check out the “Backpacking in Southeast Asia” album on my Facebook page.IMG_0064

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