Bangkok Bound: 1987
Note: This previously unpublished story chronicles our first visit Bangkok in 1987- we thought it would dovetail nicely with our current trip nearly 26 years later…
See also: Travels With Barney (Bangkok, 1996)
Bidding adieu to our latest favourite paradise – the southern Thai island of Koh Samui – Elaine and I traveled by boat to the port of Surathani. There we boarded a second-class sleeper on an overnight train to Bangkok. Chugging out of the station at around 6 p.m., we discovered our latest mode of travel to be surprisingly comfortable. Our two seats faced each other and we had half of the aisle to ourselves.
After a lovely dinner served at fold-down tables directly in front of at our seats, we could have stuffed ourselves even more thanks to a never-ending parade of hawkers selling drinks and snacks. The porter materialized and pulled down the upper berth, then produced some cushions, bedding and pillows to create a lower bed. Curtains were drawn and we settled in to our cozy nest for the night. But alas… the lights were left on to deter thieves so Elaine had trouble sleeping. It would have been so smart to have also purchased a pair of eyeshades to go along with the earplugs we bought in Singapore.
Around 4:30 a.m., we were rousted from our beds and asked what we would like for breakfast. The only thing I wanted was more sleep, but Elaine was hungry and ordered up what turned out to be some rather bland victuals. As the soft light of dawn crept over the rice paddies and palm trees, we were surprised to see entire families crammed into tiny shacks abutting fetid ponds and streams. Crossing over the mighty Chao Phrya River we knew we were nearing our destination and we soon spotted a horde of buses, automobiles and whining motorbikes stuck at the railway crossing as the train clacked by. It was 6 a.m, – twelve hours since our departure but a world away.
Pulling into the station we felt quite frazzled, as if we’d left our brain behind somewhere in Koh Samui. We purchased a bus map to help us find the budget travellers’ ghetto known as Khoa Sahn Road. Although we learned what bus to take, we paid a hefty price as we somehow left behind our yellow bible, “South-East Asia on the Cheap”, which was crammed full of notes about accommodations we might consider, plus reviews of places we’d stayed at throughout our trip from Bali to Bangkok.
For the first time we felt like we’d had enough of independent travelling; we had reached our proverbial Waterloo.
Somehow, we made it to Khoa Sahn Road, where we couldn’t believe the number of farangs hanging out everywhere, despite the early hour. The sight of saffron robed monks with their alms bowls walking through the area contrasted sharply with the hippies and euro gals and guys in every cheap restaurant reading their Bangkok Times newspapers as they scarfed down scrambled eggs and gulped steaming cups of coffee.
Leaving Elaine in one of the joints to guard our gear while she tried to revive herself with her own cup of coffee, I scoured the street and laneways looking for a place to crash. Much to my dismay, every budget hotel was booked as we’d arrived during peak season and it was too early in the morning for proprietors to determine who was leaving that day.
But then, a bit of luck. Down a narrow alley I struck up a conversation with a very cheerful Thai named SukSom who said he owned a hotel on the outskirts of the Khao Sahn district. If we could wait about an hour, he promised he’s drive us there and we’d have a room for the night. An hour later he returned at the appointed time, loaded our gear and us into his car and drove to his little hotel about ten blocks away. It was close to the Chao Phrya River and by the pier where travellers caught the ferry up or down the river. The room was rather basic, but it had a fan and screens, washroom down the hall, and was fairly quiet. Since we couldn’t be too fussy given the vacancy rate, we booked it.
After a refreshing nap and shower, it was time to meet up with friends we had made while exploring Bali – Brad and Emily from California – who were staying at The Swan Hotel.
We crossed our very busy and noisy street (like most major thoroughfares in Bangkok) to the pier. The price of a ticket on a water taxi downriver to The Swan, which was next to the world-famous Oriental Hotel (at that time the number one hotel in the world), was about 20 cents. Boarding the wooden ferryboat was an adventure. After it neared the dock, the engines were thrown into reverse and then the vessel came to an abrupt stop. A young crewmember jumped off and held the boat fast against the pier with a rope looped over a metal piling. We had about 10 seconds to jump on board – no time to hesitate. At this pier it was almost always farangs who were boarding and it wasn’t uncommon for some to be left behind because they had wavered a couple of seconds.
As we quickly discovered, travelling by water taxi up and down the Chao Phrya was the best way to get across town as long as one’s destination was anywhere near the river. Traffic was a nightmare in Bangkok during the day, since the number of cars far exceeded the street’s ability to hold them all. What with buses of every shape and size, trucks, motorcycles, taxis, and Tuk Tuks (aka golf carts gone berserk), with most of these vehicles lacking mufflers, the noise level on some streets was ear splitting. Belching diesel smoke and then the mad rush of steel when the light finally turned green made walking anywhere a waking nightmare. So, whenever possible, we took the express water taxi.
The traffic on the river was sensational: water taxis of every description, rice barges lugging their cargo down from the north, long-tailed boats draped in flowers, with engines screaming along at ridiculous speeds, and tourist boats gliding past golden temples and palaces. The Royal Palace and Wat Phra Keo were especially beautiful. The unique spires of these ornate buildings were unlike anything we’d ever seen. Thai architecture is Buddhist influenced, and the gold and red roofs provided a uniquely exotic setting.
Further along the Temple of Dawn, Wat Arun, dominated the sky over Thornburi, and our jaws nearly dropped as we gazed upon its mysterious spire. The ornate carvings of this 270-odd foot edifice are a mosaic of Chinese porcelain, according to the tourist propaganda. People flocked to it like flies to honey and were clambering all over the tower.
We disembarked near The Oriental Hotel and were astonished by the number of rich tourists in the area. It had been quite some time since we’d been in a first-class tourist zone. The lane way beside the hotel was filled with hawkers selling knockoffs of everything one could possibly lust after: watches, Polo shirts, Lacoste bags, etc.
Arriving at The Swan, which was certainly not first-class but much grander than our humble abode, we had to wait a little while for Brad and Emily to return from their business errand. Seeing them again after several weeks apart was like reuniting with family.
“We expected you to call us from the train station,” exclaimed Brad as he grabbed me in a bear hug.
“Well, we didn’t want to wake you up at 6 a.m.” I replied.
“Good thought,” he laughed.
“So where are you staying? Down at the tourist ghetto?” asked Emily.
“Yeah, and it’s completely sold out. It took us over two hours to book a room, and were actually not even in the ghetto.”
“Too bad you got a place!” Brad responded much to our surprise. “We were planning to book a bigger room here, so we could all stay together. Well, no problem. We’ll worry about that later. What say we go down to the pool and lounge for a while?”
We had liked Brad and Emily the moment we encountered them in Bali: they were staying at the guest house as us, although in a much larger and air-conditioned unit of course, over looking the rice terraces while we made do with an adequate but much more basic interior spot. The pair had sold everything and dropped out of a high-rolling lifestyle in California, where they’d been selling Porsches and making bucket loads of money. After realizing nirvana had turned into a rat race three years ago, they had reinvented themselves as they travellied all over SE Asia, China, India, and Nepal.
“We had one of the first passports to China, but it was very hard traveling in those days,” explained Brad over a beer one night in Bali. “At one point, we got so fed up with eating noodles and rice, we booked a flight to Italy, and spent a month there eating and drinking real food!”
They were now in the jewelry business and were currently in the process of designing rings, pendants and other items for manufacturing in Bangkok after successfully finishing a huge shipment in Bali, where we’d first met them months earlier. The Bangkok order was turning into a nightmare, however, but they were still game for having some fun with us.
“Bangkok has the best food of any city in the world, when it comes to prices and quality,” explained Brad with a grin. “I know places where you can get delicious bar-b-q’d honey duck on a bed of spinach for $2, accompanied by free Thai cultural entertainment. There’s great Indian food, Japanese sushi, vegetarian food too – you name it, it’s there.”
With eating well being such a big item on their agenda it was no small wonder we liked to hang around these folks!
Brad continued, “We’re going to be fairly busy during the day, but if want to hang around the pool, there’s no problem with the hotel management. This place is like our second home and they don’t care who we bring in ‘cause we spend a lot of money here every year.”
We desperately wanted to take in the sights and sounds of Bangkok, but took their advice and lounged by the pool our first day. Afterwards we did manage a walk up Silom Road, the commercial centre of Bangkok and then to the Canadian Embassy to retrieve a pile of mail. Silom Road was busy, crowded and noisy, and we encountered lots of food stalls and knockoff hawkers everywhere, all trying to entice us into buying some fake goods. To our surprise the quality seemed to be quite high, so we thought at some point during our stay in town we should invest in some new clothes.
That night, we gathered in B & E’s room, which luckily had an air-conditioner. After a few drinks, some friends of theirs named John and Colleen stopped in and Brad informed us this was the couple that had shown them the ropes on importing and exporting jewelry; John was from Wales, Colleen from British Columbia. John had been travelling around Asia since the late sixties – over 20 years! For those two, the jewellery business was a means to support a lifestyle, as they so enjoyed being in Asia for six months of the year. The rest of the time, they travelled around the west coast of Canada and the US, selling their wares at fairs and boutiques.
Brad was anxious to get busy with a fork and a knife, so we headed up Silom Road where the nightlife was in full swing. There were countless street stalls selling bootleg audiocassettes and their speakers blasted our ears as we strolled by. We noted there was plenty of food to be had down the little laneways off Silom Road but Brad wanted to take us to Silom Village, which looked rather inauspicious from the street but once inside we discovered a modern mall-like interior with shops selling antiques, silk and many traditional Thai items, before we entered the restaurant area. Here the walls were lined with huge tanks, housing all manner of seafood and fish. Prices per kilo were posted and if one wanted a certain specimen, it was simply a matter of pointing to your prey, and it would be quickly served with a flourish as fresh as could be.
The restaurant featured an open garden, complete with bamboo trees and palms, designed to represent a Thai Village. At one end, a huge stage was set up where Thai dancers were performing to the rhythms of a huge band, whose seated members were playing exotic reed and percussive instruments. Along one wall, chefs in tall white hats prepared bar-b-q meats; in the centre court, beautiful Thai women sat at propane stoves rotating satay skewers and various exotic hors d’oeuvres. There were also several private rooms where tour groups could eat together. The restaurant centerpiece was an authentic teak Bangkok house. It was all so impressive and very much like being in a Thai village, albeit tourist style.
The place was crowded, but as Brad knew it was important to arrive early, we easily found a table up front near the stage. The service was dazzling, as we had about four waiters taking care of our every whim. Since labour was so cheap, it was fairly competitive to work in a place like Silom Village.
From the looks of the surroundings, we worried it was going to be very expensive to dine here even though Brad and Emily had assured us not to worry. The menu contained about twenty pages of items, but to our delight, almost everything was under 100 bt (less than $5). I decided to try Brad’s recommendation of b-b-q honey duck on a bed of spinach, while Elaine ordered the jumbo prawns. We also requested the hors d’oeuvres platter, which contained a mix of Thai treats.
While waiting for our food, we were entertained by the exotic movements of dancers, dressed in beautiful silk outfits, topped by out-of-this-world peaked headdresses. Their unusual finger movements apparently took years to perfect. We noted that the rhythms of the band were reminiscent of sounds we’d heard in Bali, albeit a bit slower.
Two Thais dressed in traditional warrior outfits suddenly appeared on stage, hoisting intricately detailed swords. They began to swing them and soon they were a blur of movement; from our vantage point it looked very much like they were really trying to slice each other’s head off! Sparks flew and the noise was nearly deafening; we were almost breathless with relief when they ended their battle without having spilled a drop of blood.
Our food arrived and it was simply delicious, despite the inexpensive cost. With drinks and other delicacies, the bill for the two of us came to less than 200 bt, ($10), which would’ve been the cost for the hors d’oeuvres alone back in Windsor. Brad’s star kept rising; he was definitely a man of his word.
His next suggestion was that we all jump into a Tuk Tuk and pay a visit to Pat Pong Road, the world-famous sex and sin centre of Bangkok that had begun as an R&R district for GI’s on furloughs during the Vietnam War. An industry based on serving the sexual needs of soldiers quickly developed here.
Our first glimpse of Pat Pong was a wide street full of neon signs the likes of which we had never seen before. “Pussy Galore”, “SuperStar”, “Jugs”, “The Pink Panther”, “Pussy Galore II”… our heads were spinning! The street was humming with activity with mostly western men cruising up and down the street. We were immediately approached by a knot of Thai hustlers, one of whom handed us a card as he called out a menu featuring some of the exploits the dancers performed on stage with their dexterous vaginas: shooting ping pong balls, swallowing bananas, picking food up off a plate with chopsticks, filling a goldfish bowl with goldfish, pulling out 20 razor blades with a string, on and on it went! We were definitely not in Kansas anymore!
Laughing our heads off we managed to brush off the touts. As we walked down the street past darkened doorways, we were encouraged to enter by attractive scantily clad Thai girls. “Come inside, good looking girls, we show you good time,” they chanted. “No charge for lookee, cheap drinks, ladies welcome too.”
By this point, Elaine was rather taken aback, but Brad said he knew of a bar down the street where things were pretty tame. “We can have cheap drinks, watch the go-go girls dance, no live sex shows, and just have a good time,” he claimed.
After deciding ‘what the heck?’ we walked down a narrow gang and entered a small bar. The place was full of scantily clad ladies, who we quickly ascertained were employees, but as there were very few westerners our appearance was quite conspicuous. Nevertheless, we piled into a booth and ordered drinks. The girls, who seemed so sweet and innocent, quickly surrounded us. It was difficult to imagine their bodies were for sale. Numbers were pinned to their outfits in case a person couldn’t keep track of which one they desired to have a little hanky panky with.
They were very interested in Elaine and Emily’s blonde hair, which they couldn’t resist touching for they believed blond hair was good luck. Since a lot of couples come to Thailand to swing with Thai girls, they weren’t sure what we were up to. Brad explained we’d come to listen to music and perhaps do some dancing. The girls thought this was great and encouraged us to join them on the dance floor, which resembled a 1970s disco with its giant mirrored ball and strobe lights.
There were two stages, one on each side of the room, and girls took turns dancing, hanging onto the bar and swinging around. This wasn’t a strip club, so there weren’t any nude dancers; it was a pick up joint, where westerners could meet Thai girls and take it from there.
On Koh Samui we’d seen and met many western guys who had hooked up with Thai “girlfriends” who were gorgeous and incredibly naive young village girls they’d met in Bangkok. It was a Thai village street girl’s dream to meet her western Romeo, who would bring her with them to Europe or America, where she imaged they would get married, send money home to her village and then live happily ever after.
It was great fun dancing and drinking with the girls even though they knew we weren’t going to be taking them back to Canada or the States with us. Brad and I fascinated them because we were so tall, but they respected the fact we were not interested in kinky threesomes. One of the girls slipped on Brad’s size 13 flip flops, and her tiny frame looked hilarious as she tried to dance with them on her little feet.
Next stop for us was SuperStar Disco. This was an enormous dance club decked out in bright lights and packed with westerners. We couldn’t believe the number of people frequenting this section of Bangkok; there were lots of bahts being spent on girls, drinks and food, as most establishments stayed open all night.
Stumbling out of the SuperStar around five am, a rush of TukTuk drivers roared up. All four of us piled into one of these whacky souped up golf carts to head back down Surawonge Road toward The Swan. It was amazing how fast the driver was able to get his cart to scream down the now quiet street, given his payload of four big westerners. Riding in a TukTuk was like taking your life in your hands, but apparently they had a pretty good safety record, despite their habit of zipping between cars, trucks and buses.
Since our friends had to work all day, we decided to catch a boat back to Khao Sahn Road and the tourist ghetto. The ride up the river was soothing but surreal given the hour. Back at our guesthouse, we spent most of the day sleeping, but managed to drop off some laundry at one of the cheap local services. Returning to The Swan just before sunset, the four of us decided the best solution to our hangover was to start drinking heavily. I was very impressed with Brad’s stamina, as he’d managed only a small nap in the afternoon and had been mostly on the go since we had left him in the early morn. After the sun dipped into the river and another night began we decided to head up to a district where there was a great night market, so we could dine on duck soup in anise for a mere 10 baht (50 cents). John and Colleen joined us and the six of us piled into a pair of Tuk Tuks. The drivers began raced each other up Silom Road and then ours decided to pop some “wheelies” – pulling the front wheel into the air while cruising at about 40 miles per hour. This really upset Emily, as she didn’t trust TukTuk drivers and she started yelling at him. I gave him a tap the top of the head for good measure.
Later, Emily said it was fortunate the guy wasn’t a total nutcase because touching a Thai on the head is considered taboo, as this is the sacred spot on the body. “If he had had a gun in his glovebox, like a lot of them do, he might have blown you away for that,” she warned.
An important lesson learned but fortunately the duck soup was worth the trip, although I did notice a rat disappear down a hole in the restaurant floor right at our feet (I didn’t tell the ladies).
Afterwards we crossed the street to the night market, where we munched on many more wonderful delicacies. At this point I decided Brad’s word were true – Bangkok did have the best street food on earth.
After we had finally eaten our fill, non-stop Brad wanted to check out the other infamous travellers’ centre and some notorious Vietnam era GI hotels: The Malaysian and Boston. This area wasn’t as budget-oriented as Khao Sahn Road, as prices had risen in the past few years. John reflected on the days he had stayed there in the ‘60s. “I remember you could stay at The Malaysian for dirt cheap. There were girls and US soldiers everywhere, and some pretty wild times, to be sure,” he remembered with a far away look in his eye.
We hung out at a bar for drinks and met some Americans who were on their first trip to Bangkok. They were pretty amazed at the number of hookers in the district and appeared to be in hog heaven. “These Thai girls are incredible,” drawled one. “They’ll do anything you ask, and have all kinds of suggestions too. They really want you to like them so you will finance their trip to the beach. I’m exhausted from screwing my brains out for the past few days!”
I couldn’t help but laugh to myself. Was this was what “Bangkok” really meant?
For the remainder of our time in this fascinating city we continued this pattern of eating, drinking and dancing at night and resting during the day. Consequently, we didn’t explore one single solitary temple or palace during our first weeklong visit, to the amazement of our friends.
Despite the heat, the noise and the pollution, Bangkok was one of our most favourite destinations so far during our year of backpacking round the world. We vowed to some day return.
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