“Just remember not to smile,” the Canadian told me, grinning. “You’ll get bugs in your teeth.”
I watched the motorcycle driver balance my pack on the front handles and, with a pleading look at the man from the travel agency, made a complicated gesture that I hoped resembled a helmet (the only response was a laugh and a pat on the back), I threw one leg over the back and climbed on. I must have thrown a last dubious glance at the Canadian, because he continued with reassurances: “You’ll be fine. It’s a great way to see the city. And he’ll get you to your bus, no worries. This one time in Perth…” The driver throttled the engine and we took off before I could hear the rest.
The Canadian, friendly or not, had found rather more humor in my predicament than I had. Of course, he’d made it to the office a good two hours before his bus; I’d jumped out of a taxi desperately waving my ticket in the air and hour and a half after my bus had left.
It had been the typical Khao San foolishness, which is to say that it was entirely my fault and I should have known better. I’d spent the day exploring the temples along the river (Wat Arun and Wat Pho) and getting deliberately lost as I wandered the streets. I’d made the mistake of going out midday and climbing Wat Arun in the worst of the heat. Wat Pho, the home of the giant laying Buddha, amazing. It was a large rectangular building, pillars around the Buddha in the center and murals on all the inside walls. A series of small bronze pots flanked one of the longer walls and the clinking of coins, offering dropped by the visitors walking past, was an arrhythmic but beautiful clanking.
I hadn’t meant to go out that night – but, once more woken by the sound of the partying around midnight, I found myself downstairs and making introductions to a table full of English-speaking Dutchmen. We were quickly joined by two freshly tattooed Irishmen, a jet-lagged French couple, a Swedish girl, and an older German man and talked – mostly politics, a great deal of travel stories – until well after sunrise.
The older Dutchman, an expat who’d spent the last seven years in Bangkok teaching English, had just left his “missus”. He had a penchant for toasts and a habit of punctuating everyone else’s remarks with high fives that, halfway through, switched from claps to hand grasps. We willing indulged his painful repertoire of dated jokes for the sake of his (seemingly endless and incredibly useful) supply of tips and recommendations. (A cooking school in Chiang Mai, dive-instructor cousin in the Simian islands.) I fed him scraps of paper and got them back with scrawled maps and addresses. The younger Dutchman had just spent five months living in Bangalore with local friends and was already frustrated with Bangkok. The Swedish girl had just arrived an hour two before, having decided on the spur of the moment to take off to Asia. “I’ve never been here before. I always travel Latin America but my friends say Thailand, always say go to Thailand. I had to leave Sweden. And so I am here.” She excused herself to go sleep shortly after, to the regret of the younger Dutchman who had been trying to convince her she wanted to go southeast to the islands and beaches with him.
As the Dutchmen attempted to explain football (soccer) to me, the Irishmen joined our table. Shaven heads, pierced ears (one a piece), and intricate tribal tattoos on their arms they were fascinated by Buddhism. The German, a freelance photo editor, pulled up a chair to join the conversation. While the French couple spread out maps across the table, the German, one of the Irish boys, and I spent a good few hours discussing politics. Occasional interject ions from the others: “Thank god you guys [Americans] aren’t as naïve as you used to be!” (Cheers!) the older Dutchman exclaimed. “Give me love up here,” he said, raising his hand for a five. One of the waiters pulled up a chair as we talked about Bhutto – “May she rest in peace!” – and the fact that Pakistan managed to have a female leader long before America will. (I was nicknamed “Hilary” by the German. I think it was intended as a compliment. The rest of the world, or at least the portions of it represented at the table, were apparently rooting for her.) After a rousing rant against American foreign policy, everyone took a turn complaining about his own home nation. We talked imperialism until we were all shame-faced – only the Irish could keep their heads up.
More beer was poured. The Dutchmen began to sing. We argued about history and waved our hands. The brawnier of the two Irish boys made his way to the bar and came back with steaming mugs, one for the Frenchman who’d completely lost his voice. We couldn’t help but tease him, the young Dutchman giving him the worst time. “It’s got whiskey in it!” he protested, glaring at us and biting his lip. The German and other Irishman pulled out their cameras. We stopped and did a nationality roll call (the rest of the room joined in) and laughed at ourselves.
“But this is why – this is why we travel – this is what it’s all about!” the Irishman exclaimed. Self-consciously or not, we couldn’t help but agree.
Shutters went up closing off the restaurant from the street – and then came back down again. Khao San doesn’t close for long. The sun rose and it began to get warm. I’d meant to go to the floating market but it was long after the recommended time (6am) to get there. The younger Dutchman and the German and I decided we’d try one of the closer markets. (We didn’t quite make it all the way there, either, but had a fun time getting lost on the side streets.)
I crawled back to my room some time after noon, hoping to get some sleep before catching my bus. The bus was supposed to leave at 5pm but they’d suggested arriving early. I set an alarm – and slept right through it. Haylee, the cleaning girl for my floor who’d been so sweet, woke me up with a plea to go downstairs and pay/check out. It was 8 minutes till 5. Still in yesterday’s clothes with no chance to shower I grabbed my things and ran downstairs – the few minutes it took to throw the last few items in my bag felt like eternity. (I’d luckily done most of my packing the day.) I paid for my room for the night before and, having missed check out, that night as well. I grabbed a bottle of water and knocked over a few chairs as I ran down the street, catching the first taxi that presented itself. He wanted five times what I’d paid before to go anywhere in the city, but I really didn’t care.
Ten minutes later, twenty minutes later, half an hour later, I began to suspect that he had no idea where we were going. I’d shown him my ticket and the business card and he’d nodded. I pulled out my phone and tried to call the office. I asked the driver to try and call the office. I tried to sort out a back-up plan: I could do battle for a refund and go to the main bus station, where I’d wanted to go in the first place. They’d be sure to have more buses leaving. I could try and get on tomorrow’s bus but, as much fun as I’d had the night before, I really was ready to leave Bangkok. (“I’ve got to get out of Bangkok,” turning itself into a refrain in my journal.)
We finally made it to the travel office – past the office, as I waved and shouted at the driver, and back around the block a time or two. I ran inside and waved my arms. An older Canadian man sitting outside watched the situation with a chuckle, but couldn’t help jumping in with advice. He’d just been in Korea visiting his son and daughter-in-law who were teaching English and was now on his way to the islands to relax. There was a great deal of chatter. I was stared at. Cell phones were pulled out and calls were made.
“We get you to the bus,” they said. “We know you come, we already call. We get you to the bus.”
Which is how I ended up on the back of a motorcycle, helmet-less, weaving through Bangkok traffic, chasing the bus. It wasn’t half as bad as I’d been afraid… which isn’t to say that it wasn’t bad. My boots, tied onto the bottom of my backpack below my sleeping bag, thumped against the sides of the motorcycle as we drove. My messenger bag was slung around my back and I held onto the driver’s shoulder with one hand and the rail behind me with the other. I pulled my legs up onto the seat so that my feet wouldn’t brush against the traffic on either side. We drove between the lanes, between the between-lanes, on the sidewalks, and down industrial alleys that I assumed were shortcuts. I inhaled more car exhaust than my lungs could handle.
When we finally caught the bus – literally, flagging it down – as we rode beside it, I was too worked up to be able to sleep much. And I smelled so disgusting I couldn’t help but wince for the man sitting next to me. Overpriced air-conditioned “tourist” bus or not, I was the only foreigner on board. The air-conditioning was excessive and the fluorescent lights gave off a high-pitched shriek. (I could make out the unique squeals of each of the four lights.) About halfway there I began to feel sick – perhaps it was the seafood I’d eaten at the underground market or the fruit I’d bought on the street, perhaps it was only exhaustion and hunger. Either way, it was a miserable trip.
We were supposed to get in around 1am. It must have been closer to 4am. I took the first tuk tuk I saw to the hotel he recommended, freezing in the wind. 350 baht got me my own room with a bath and a television and (even more importantly) a power outlet. I slept in until it was too hot to stay in the room, got up and – breaking my goal to never eat a meal at the same place I’m staying (snacks are fine, meals are not; too boring) – had the first food I’d eaten in over 36 hours.
I spent some time wandering around the town and found a cheaper – prettier, better located, and more interesting – place to stay. I’ve got a bed in a dorm for 80 baht in the Old City. The original Chiang Mai is a square surrounded by a moat. Most of the streets are cobblestone, many too small for cars (which doesn’t seem to stop the cars from trying). It’s a great deal more picturesque than Bangkok and considerably less polluted. (Although, the overwhelming variety of smells in Chiang Mai is somehow more nauseating than the dependable incense-and-petrol I had gotten used to in Bangkok. I say this still slightly nauseous, though.)