Day One: Bangkok

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Saturday, January 1, 2005

It is nighttime in Bangkok.  

The streets are ablaze with neon signs pulsing their reflections onto streets and windows like oil on a polychrome puddle. On the corner a black-toothed woman stirs a wok of noodles onto a Styrofoam plate for two laughing ladyboys. I pass unfinished concrete monstrosities bullying up to dainty golden temples, their roofs swooping upward like the bent-back palms of a Thai dancer. I can see straight ahead over the tops of glistening black hair illuminated by the tin drum fires of the food stalls and traffic lights.

Their voices like candy, "You buy? You like? Hey lady, you like? Silk-on-silk, you like Thai silk, lady?"

Their voices like darts through a straw, "You want tuk-tuk? Hey lady, you need ride? Where you go?"

The sidewalks spill over with tables selling everything from gold plastic Buddhas, Coke tee shirts in Thai script, and cigarette lighters slick with images of cleanly-shaved, very young women. Clogging the flow are bloated white men, their arms like sides of sweaty ham crushing the shoulders of their rented girlfriends. Having returned to the land of their R-n-R playground during the Vietnam War, they now descend en mass smothering the nubile offspring of their leftovers.
An old woman wobbles her weighted poll, crab-like through traffic. A Buddhist monk points the way to the skytrain to two bowing Japanese girls. White boys squatting curbside, twist their mildewed dreadlocks atop their heads, and showing off their newly acquired worldliness yawn loudly to themselves and those within ear shot of how much, "hotter this place was last year, man" and how they've got "to get the hell out of Bangkok, man." Next week it'll be Hanoi and they'll complain about that, too.

Down a narrow soi off Sukumvit near the Nana skytrain station is my guesthouse. A sort of collection of faux tiki-tiki huts carved out of an old office building just a few steps back from a 7-Eleven. At only 10 bucks a night, including breakfast it's a relative bargain.
Next to my hotel is an open-air restaurant, where for the price of a cola back home you can have a gin and tonic topped with an orchid, placed gently in front of you with a bow and prayer-like wai. The food is less coy than their counterparts beyond the Gulf of Siam; the flavors don't dance gingerly about - they pounce. The peanut sauce is thick and laced boldly with peppers, and fresh coriander, tiny stewed eggplants burst with pepper oils, while curried warm coconut milk soup steams a plume of the orient.  

I sit and relish the changing scenery, and 3 different dishes of food while listing to the tinkling of traditional music under a fuchsia lantern, its shredded streams like tentacles moving gently in the thick night air. I have another gin and tonic and lean back. A woman is selling birds from a little cage across the street. Tourists are posing.

Across the guesthouse is a colonnade of tailor shops and travel agents that lead to the swankier international sameness of the Ambassador Hotel. I push back the glass door and feel a rush of icy air at the Internet café.  

"Computer in the back for you, OK? You want drink?" the woman smiled, as she petted a poodle in pink hot pants on the desk. I accept, while she reaches with one hand for the cooler, she squashes the pup the other as she braces herself. It yelps under her weight. I ask about the dog. "This Cookie, she have baby today -five baby today - she very tired, Cookie." I ask about her puppies. She beams. "Five baby at home, I cut - you know the thing, because Cookie tired so I cut for Cookie the string, you know? Cookie, she have Kotex on now - you see? Ha, ha, Cookie she wear the Kotexes. You look, it's funny OK? Dog wear Kotexes!"

There's a German man next to me writing an email to his wife and wishing her a Happy New Year. Eye-magnets. He could be starring at a blank screen and I would sit totally transfixed. He sees me looking in his direction. He tilts his screen toward the wall and keeps shifting funny. His expression is more concentrated. Once I finish my emails telling everyone how I'd struck up a conversation with Dan Rather at Immigration, and been invited for drinks with him and the crew at the Four Seasons tomorrow I sign off.  

Pulling out my chair I untwist my bag strap from around the desk leg and squint up at the German's screen. Flashing images of naked Thai girls gyrating on a black background. "Thai Pussy for You!" it says. This is horrible, inappropriate, and riveting. I throw up in my mouth, just a little bit. He's scribbling something down on a matchbook -- an address. He clicks off, and goes to pay the poodle lady, slumping forward to hide his excitement. I'm disgusted and at the same time wish to God he'd left his screen on. On my way out I mention to the lady about the married man and where he's heading. She's smiling at me yet says nothing. Chin in hand she grins up at me and I wonder if she has a hint of the Downs Syndrome. And then I wonder how I'd be able to tell if she did.

My throat had grown scratchy from the 20-plus hours of flight time so I asked her where I could find a pharmacy. She pointed out the window down the street. "You see man with elephant? Pharmacy behind elephant, OK? Bye-bye, welcome to Thailand, OK?"  

I walk for hours more in my new neighborhood, invigorated, astonished, and slack-jawed by everything. The jet lag, and oppressive heat make walking feel like wading through marshland, but I trudge onward through the night. I know I'll awake soon and things will be clearer but now this sensory overload is better than what I've dreamed about for over a year. I drag myself past hooker bars under soaring palm trees, motorbikes zip past in streams of light under a giant billboard of the king clad in gold. A tuk-tuk revs up next to me, "Where you go?" I smile and point to my guesthouse. Leaning against the lamppost, drunk with pride and disorientation, and tipsy with gin, I mumble to myself, You did it.

Bangkok is the best and worst of Eastern and Western sensibilities; ancient customs, and modernity, and all the grace, and garishness of a world-class city oozing across the changing skyline like chili paste on asphalt.

It swarms and pulsates, and it limps and sprints to anywhere but home. The sun is rising in Bangkok. I'm here.
[Please visit my new online magazine:, as well]
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