I woke up last night to the Khao San I had been promised.
More accurately, it woke me, with the chorus of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. It was some unknown early hour of the morning (3am? 4am? 1am?) and the noise from the street below was so incredibly loud and intimidating it took me nearly an hour – and the realization that I had left my ear plugs on the airplane and going back to sleep was not an option – to convince myself to go down.
Imagine Isla Vista. Transplanted to Venice Beach. In Asia. With significantly more neon signage than the world ever needed. And the occasional elephant.
It – the street itself – was actually a lot tamer than the noise suggested. (As I’ve since become keenly aware, the hostel that I chose is wedged between the loudest two nightclubs on the street. Combined with the fact that sleeping on the tile floor is moderately more comfortable than the beds, which feel exactly like the metal springs covered with a sheet that they are it’s a bit more understandable why it was the cheapest around. Lessons learned: check the mattresses in addition to the lights and fan and go for at least the second cheapest option.) The street was busier than I had seen it all day, unknown-early-hour-of-the-morning clearly being the time at which Khao San reaches its peak. The street isn’t particularly long – the labyrinth of side streets, alleys, and gutters that pop in and out of existence according to the time of day constitute the real neighborhood. The only navigation method I can manage is to wander aimlessly until I find myself where I was trying to go. This method doesn’t actually work any better than you’d expect it to, but the figure-ground issues presented by the excessive signage, dread-locked Australians, balloon-carrying women, beggars missing limbs, and the utterly lost fresh from the airport people dragging suitcases make any sort of breadcrumb-landmark scheme impossible.
You can buy International Press Passes and Driver’s Licenses, plastic buckets full of various alcohol, bootleg DVDs, pad thai and chicken satay, tie-dye clothing and antique replicas without breaking stride as you walk down the street. Fireworks just went off – literally, just went off, a few yards from where I’m sitting.
The problem is that it’s all far less interesting than it sounds.
I hadn’t intended to spend my time on the sidelines, and perhaps the panic I’ve been expecting to hit me has finally hit – as loneliness.
Families with children – many in strollers – stroll beside middle-aged white men hand-in-hand with pubescent Thai girls. Young couples keep a nervous hand on each other. Solo travelers sit at tables on the sidewalk, watching the crowd stream past while nursing drinks. They are watched, in turn, by the passing crowd. Police cars slowly part the sea. Tourists photograph the women in native garb selling jewelry. Thai teenagers, clustering together, excitedly photograph the tourists, pointing out the more exotic. Everyone looks equally confused.
I can’t distinguish the entertained from the entertainers – but entertainment has, indeed, been provided.