Heading South

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Heading South

If you’ll excuse the euphemism, I’m referring to the fact that this page catalogues my first trip to Thailand, a stopover on my way to Australia from Bhutan. The airport was like any other in South-East Asia, large, worn and crowded with the braying of taxi drivers. I avoided them, knowing that taxi is the most convenient and most expensive way of leaving an airport, and I’d been an international bum for months now. The shuttle buses were likely to be better, but I’d been reliably informed that the airport bus would take me right to Sukhumvit where I would stay. At only 100 baht, my choice was confirmed and I watched the rain for the better part of an hour while the bus carried me into town.

I was travelling without the Lonely Planet again, but my informants had told me that Thailand had only 2 or 3 seasons, depending on who you asked. It was either hot, hotter and hottest or hot and hot and wet. Whichever way you looked at it, I was here at the worst time. Wet express ways surrendered to wet streets crowded with stalls. The bus stopped and I looked around wildly for any sign of where we were. There was nothing obvious, so I asked the driver and had to repeat myself a few times. When he eventually understood (this was also my first trip to any country without being able to speak even a single word in the local language), he said that it was. Despite the famous composure of Thais who consider anger the worst of rudeness (I’m told by someone who used to live here), there was something in his tone that said he was in a hurry. I grabbed my day pack and dragged my suitcase off the bus.

The tropical rain pounded around me, drenching the map I’d procured from the airport before I could determine which direction I should go. No matter, it soon became clear that the side roads were numbered, with the odd numbers on my side. What the Thais lacked in imagination was a benefit to misplaced tourists. My hotel was even less imaginatively called Street One Hotel and by chance I was walking in the right direction. I passed streets 7 and 5, cursing the bad knee that was sending me back to Australia, before I realised that I was missing an item. My Drizabone. The precious Australian oilskin coat that would keep me dry in the Himalayan monsoon and warm in the Himalayan winter. It was on the bus, abandoned in my hasty retreat.

There was little I could do about it now, so I trusted in the honesty of the Thais and made for my hotel. At 600 baht per night, it was cheap and comfortable and that was all I needed for this trip. It hardly mattered that my reliable informants had directed me to the centre of the Starbucks district. I stripped off my Himalayan clothes and pulled out something lighter, then hit the streets looking for cheap electronics and real Thai culture in no particular order. My afternoon was less than successful. I could have been in any city in South-East Asia, but for the street vendors selling fresh tropical fruit, all diced and served in plastic with toothpicks, and the mobile temple dumped on the side of the main road. Many locals were passing the security guard, into the barricaded temple to make offerings at the foot of the yellow meringue. I didn’t stay for a better look – a decision I now regret. The temple is marked on the map, which means that this temporary looking structure is something of a permanent monument. I wonder if they guard it all night, or pack it away until dawn.

On the way back from a rather unsuccessful trip, I stopped off to buy some meat at a street stall. I chose two items, one of which was quite tasty and the other simply providing the sauce with a powdery texture that I wanted to spit out. The vendor offered me rice, but I could see no way of eating it. I asked in sign language if I should eat it with my hands, but everyone around laughed and he waved me away. I’d later learn that the locals would take it back home or to somewhere that they had plates and chopsticks. The friend who’d lived in Thailand told me that it wasn’t normal to eat alone and that Thais always liked to sit and share their food and it made sense that they wouldn’t eat as they walked – as I was doing. It would be time for a real meal soon and I was keen to start with a Green Thai Chicken, so I could compare it to Thai food I’d had in other countries, but all the restaurants in the area were of the Starbucks variety or foreign – French, Italian, Spanish. It wasn’t until I began to ask the bloke on reception at the hotel that I realised how silly it was to look for a Green Thai Curry in Thailand. Of course it would have its own name in Thai and I was being the sort of arrogant tourist that annoys me by expecting it to have a name I was familiar with. For the same reason, it was naive to think that you’d have a ‘Thai’ restaurant in Bangkok any more than you’d have a Chinese restaurant in Beijing. I explained that I wanted a local meal and described the green spicy dish I wanted and he sent me off to an old petrol station around the corner.

It turned out that they didn’t have what I wanted, but the market setting was the strongest feeling of culture that I’d found, and that was enough. The old building was still there and I was grateful for the protection it gave against the rain. Metal covers in the ground gave the prior positions of the bowsers, but they made good footrests beneath the tables and if there was a smell, it was overwhelmed by the cooking. I had a chicken dish, spiced with coriander and tasting quintessentially Thai, so I was happy, but I had no one to share my food with, so it wasn’t a truly Thai experience.

The hot evening demanded a walk, especially considering the heat that awaited me in the hotel room, so I wandered aimlessly along brightly lit streets, past dimly lit bars. A small part of me wanted to go in, just to see how Thai bars compare to other bars around the world, but I’m just not a bar person. I inevitably sit in a corner by myself, looking for some way of starting a conversation with any of the people there, but they all seem so far from my world. As I approached one bar, a girl amongst the many sprawled outside was pushed into my path. It was quickly clear that she was there to ‘help’ people like me into the scene. She actually grabbed my arm when sweet words and swinging hips failed to entice, but I kept walking, determined to go beyond this side of the city. Besides, for all I knew, she was a he. Some stereotypes are hard to ignore.

The episode got me thinking, though, about the life of these girls. She obviously wasn’t keen to spend the next couple of hours talking to me, if that’s all it was to be. But what if I’d been hideously ugly or had been picking my nose. She’d probably still have to be nice because it’s her job. I’m not against prostitution. It seems to me that there will always be men who can’t control their hormones and there will always be women willing to exploit that, and who am I to get in the way of supply and demand? But if a girl feels it’s her only chance to make a life for herself, there’s a problem. Something is wrong with the school system or the economy to limit their choices or at least their understanding of them. It¿s sad to see.

Depressed, I gave in and turned back to my hotel room, barging past the same girl. I was only metres from it when I noticed a billboard outside a restaurant advertising a Green Curry. Lunch for the next day was determined.

That was the highlight of the next morning. An early rise and a walk only showed me a park with a fitness trail in it. No. I lie. I stopped for a few minutes when I saw a giant snake head pop out of the river running through the park. It could only be a boa constrictor and I spent the whole time in mild fear that it would come out of the river and chase me. How could they so casually keep such a snake in a public park, or were they powerless to stop it? The head moved along, ducking under the surface and back up to scan for something to eat amongst the grass on the bank. When it reached a storm water pipe, it raised its head, put a leg out and climbed into the pipe. It was something like a goanna or komodo dragon and not a snake at all.

The curry surpassed my expectations by being very different to any Green Curry I’d had before. The general flavour was the same, but the vegies were different. Notably, in place of peas it had a small green fruit, double the size of a garden pea. As I bit into each, it burst, squirting a watery liquid onto my tongue. That would have to do for this trip. I was heading to the airport early to try to get my Drizabone back.

After a quick search for the Airport Bus desk, I was told to wait out of the way. I did so for half an hour, then went back to ask the girls for news. Their reaction made it plain that they still hadn’t called head office. Another half hour wait and they had good news. It had been handed in to Lost and Found and was being put on the next bus to the airport. Relieved, I waited again for two hours before deciding that I couldn’t leave checking in any longer. It still wasn’t there when I got back, so I waited more. Finally, I approached the desk in desperation to ask exactly when that ‘next bus’ would arrive. With a scan of the timetable, they smiled and told me that it would arrive at 18:50. My plane left at 18:55. I’d arrived 6 hours early to give them ample time. The Thai people are amazingly honest, but it’s countered by a lack of urgency or customer service.

By |May 17th, 2005|Categories: Thailand|0 Comments

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