Quick story about my travel partner, Mel.
In the summer of 2014, I met her in Barcelona during a sun-washed jaunt around Europe. Over the two-plus days we spent together, we beached, coffee housed, marketed, took a gondola up a hill, got tattoos, ate lots of tapas, drank lots of sangria, and at the end, when she left for Marseilles and I, for Rome we vowed to have a reunion sometime, maybe in Southeast Asia.
That time is now! We’re doing it all over, with perhaps the exception of the tattoos, which my travel doctor strictly forbade. (Well, maybe.) After my quick stopover in Tokyo, I flew to Bangkok and met Mel — who was flying in from her home country of Belgium — at the airport. The next 48 hours were a haze of temples and street food, river ferries and motorcycle cabs (or tuk tuks) and criss-crossing the city in sweltering temperatures, stopping to cool ourselves with icy gin and tonics on fan-laden, shaded patios.
We stayed at Nappark, a hostel near backpacking-central Khao San Road — the beer-pounding, eardrum-crushing paradise or hell, depending on your perspective. (It’s hell, OK?) Thanks to the location, our hostel nights each featured drunk westerners singing loudly and puking in the wee hours of the morning. I’m probably too old for this — I’m sure these people will start calling me ‘Mama’ any day now — but the reality is if you want to travel a lot, you learn to sometimes do it on the cheap. With my flights paid for with miles, our lodging averaging between $5 and $15 a night and drinks and meals landing between $2-$8, frankly I couldn’t afford not to take this trip! For sure I’d be spending more money in Minneapolis right now. Which is further proof that if you do it right — you maximize reward and loyalty options, wait for deals, stay flexible with timing and destination and visit less expensive locations — travel can be quite affordable for most people.
Bangkok is another overwhelming city with neighborhoods that couldn’t feel much different. Unfortunately, it’s also extremely touristy. Khao San presents some terrifying mix of an Asian-speaking New Orlean’s Bourbon Street, the Las Vegas strip and Satan’s lair, with peddlers hawking hits of laughing gas and candied scorpions on sticks and American music blasting at max from every bar, creating a tornado of sound and smells and far too many white faces. The city’s center, especially around Siam Square, is a concrete jungle filled with American chains and designer stores — in jutting contrast with streets covered in trash and canopied with drooping tangles of power cables. Too many restaurants tout burgers and American breakfasts and the taxi and tuk tuk drivers have been trained to squeeze as high a price as possible from these often bumbling foreigners.
Yes, we are white bumbling tourists ourselves, but we also couldn’t help but wonder what the old Thailand was like, before it hit every travel guide in western civilization, before we all flew over by the truckload to ride elephants and gawk at the beaches and add our trash to streets that struggles to handle its own. In many ways, it seems Thailand has adapted, negatively, to tourism, and it feels like we’re not really seeing the full thing. I’m so glad I got to go — but there were many times I felt ten years too late.
After walking around the first evening — eating our first pad Thai, sweating on a roof top, drinking gin by the river — and exploring the next day, we started to unfold the city’s edges a little bit and there was a lot to like, too. The temples, enough impetus for an entire trip for some, were as astounding as one could hope. Thai massage, which we indulged in our second day, is like wonderfully passive yoga where the instructor puts you in the positions upside down (be prepared to be swung around like a rag doll). The food, while inconsistent (you have to try hard to escape the tourist areas) was cheap and the drinks were too. And we discovered our love for tuk tuks, the motorcycle cart taxis that swarm the chaotic streets and whip riders through the sticky heat.
The city is fairly spread out and huge, so we spent a lot of time criss-crossing back and forth for one thing or another, although we failed in a few areas — to find a couple temples, to see Thai boxing (it was crazy expensive for Thailand) and to make it to the lady boy show. A lady boy show is about what you’d think — trans women performing burlesque; Thailand is known for being a leader in sex change surgery. But we were three minutes late and they wouldn’t let us in.
By Tuesday, we’d found our nook — a neighborhood Southeast of the center, called Silom, which is one of the city’s major gay areas and filled with hidden markets, closet-sized bars and adorable cafes and some of the best restaurant food we had in the city — particularly at Bitterman, a sprawling plant-filled fusion eatery.
Lumpini, the city’s central park, is just a short walk away and after lunch we strolled over to see if we could find the huge lizards we’d heard about. Sure enough, three of them about the size of small dogs, were lounging in a swampy moat around the exterior, flicking their blue tongues at us as their snake-like tails writhed in the water.
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That evening, after taking in Wat Pho, we headed to Chinatown, which was abuzz with motorcycles and street vendors selling lanterns and trinkets and charred sausages and dumplings and bao buns.
Earlier in the day, we had dropped our bags at Bangkok’s main train station, so we picked them up then boarded our night train to Chiang Mai — the only other plan on a trip meant to be open-ended. The train was arranged in sets of two seats along either side with large compartments overhead and a table top which could be inserted between hiding in the floor. We left at 7:30 and ate the fruit and spicy rice that we’d brought on board and then one of the attendants came and converted each of the sets of seats into a single bed, dressing it with a fitted sheet, a pillow and a thin blanket. The large compartments above pulled down into top bunks, which he also dressed. Each makeshift bed had a blue curtain that could be pulled over, creating a small, private bed. It was a bare bones train otherwise: dinner was available to order to have at your seats, but we had been advised against it. The bathroom consisted only of a hole in the floor, which went directly through onto the tracks. And later we realized our attendant was sleeping on the floor, in a corner by the bathroom, a sheet thrown over his head.
(We’re a long ways here from Tokyo, where the toilets included about 15 buttons that offered sound effects — waterfalls, crickets — as well as several spraying, cleaning, scent and flushing options. Most toilets here require squatting over a hole and toting around your own tissue.)
With Mel on the top bunk and me underneath, we shut our curtains and slept eight hours for the first time in days, rocked to sleep by the rock of the train and the glow of the moon over the emerging mountains.