Bangkok, Thailand – the land of smiles.
No-one warned me about the culture shock that I was about to go through. Bangkok airport is a gleaming edifice, organised and beautiful. The roads have street lights and the traffic is orderly and consists only of motorised vehicles. The only place I knew of in Bangkok was the Khao San Road, so that’s where I headed.
Every tacky, seedy tourist area in the world crammed into one street, Khao San is a monument to backpacker-power. Hundreds of restaurants, guesthouses, fortune-tellers, cybercafés, food stands, hair-braiders, tattoo parlours, tailors, bars, clubs and of course Thai massage parlours all jostle for space and business under neon-lights and a million cables.
The streets are spotless, no spit or trash here, just one of the seediest atmospheres I think I have ever encountered. My Indian trained eyes were shocked by the amount of flesh on show; mini-skirts and strappy-tops, bra straps and butt-cracks.
The roaming cows and goats have been replaced by hookers and bar-touts. Western music blares from every outlet. The onslaught on my senses was overwhelming. Revolting, sordid and an enormous amount of fun.
Humid is not the word, by the time I had a guesthouse I was drenched. 300Baht got me a box room only marginally bigger than the bed, a small wall-fan to move the oven-temperature air about and a shared bathroom (for the very first-time on my trip I didn’t have my own loo!). I changed out of my redundant salwar kameez and put on western clothes and emerged, hot and sticky, out into the chaos.
It has been amazing to have a few (!) drinks, listen to some music, dance and let my hair down. And there is definitely no shortage of people to talk to. In India bed-time is 10.30pm, so far in Bangkok I haven’t been to bed before 3.00am.
I had a ‘fish massage’. This is where you put your feet in a tank of fish who then gnaw away at the dead skin and bacteria, leaving them feeling…. well, exactly the same as when you started, but it was an interesting experience. Not brave enough to eat a whole grasshopper, I just tentatively nibbled at a leg – it tasted like fake-prawn flavoured straw (plastic-drinking rather than hay). Then enjoyed the new wonders of my first ever drink out of a plastic bucket and I ate beef for the first-time in six months.
On my second evening we (me and seven 19-21 year olds) bargained hard and got great deal on a ‘ping-pong’ show. The menu (there actually is a menu) of delights on offer included, among many others, “pussy shoot banana, pussy smoking and of course, pussy ping-pong”. What had started out as a jolly jaunt to see a strange, quirky cultural oddity turned into perhaps one of the most depressing evenings of my life. I felt very guilty for haggling SO hard.
The girls would arrive on stage, jiggle their hips perfunctorily for two minutes and then perform their speciality: drawing pictures, blowing whistles and producing 5 meters of flowers on a string. The evening climaxed (literally, no pun intended) with a live sex show. At this point I was wondering if it’s possible to start a sanctuary for ping-pong girls. I am an open-minded kind of girl, I will defend a woman’s right to be a stripper, hooker or a porn star and Bangkok is full of savvy, money-making girls who are exploiting the men just as much as the other way around, but after India where most women would never show their shoulders or knees, or talk to a man that wasn’t a member of her family, it becomes hard to stay objective.
Quite sure I needed to get out of Bangkok and fast; I arranged to meet up with the lovely Lydia, an English girl who I’d spoken to for two hours on Varanasi train station. Her friend Kate, a fabulous powerhouse of a freelance journalist, has recently moved to Bangkok and had promised to show Lydia all of BKK’s best kept secrets and all the other stuff too. I was invited to tag along.
We met up with Kate (who had had to rush off to the airport to cover the story of a grounded Quantas flight) in downtown Bangkok (Siam Square). The jushiest area had been taken siege by the protesting “Red-Shirts” who are demanding democratic elections. We wondered through the sea of red, the atmosphere more carnival than riot. Then hopping on the Sky-Train we returned to Kate’s flat and another huge culture shock. I had forgotten what the inside of a real home looked and felt like, or how to behave in one!
Kate had planned the best night out. Starting with dinner at the night market, about 40 food stands offering a bewildering variety of food (I had crispy pork and duck – yum). Then jumping in a taxi we made our way to the very posh Banyan Tree for cocktails and “the best view in Bangkok”, neither disappointed. The spectacular panoramic view is something that I will never forget. We finished our night in Patpong, the red-light district, where we danced for several hours before making our way to a gay (boys) show – here we were hugely popular, especially as most of the boys are not actually gay, but alas, we had arrived too late to see anything so I cannot comment on the parallels between the male and female variety.
The next day a more militant faction of the red-shirts drove a lorry (or something) into the parliament buildings, so Kate had to dash off again. Lydia and I went sightseeing. Taking in the sights from the river-taxi and then visiting the famous and enormous, gold reclining Buddha (I have since discovered that there was a whole complex of wonderful sights that we managed to miss entirely – oops).
Culture-vultures that we are, we managed to drag ourselves across the river to Wat Arun before declaring boredom and returning into town to meet Kate at the Foreign Correspondents Club, which is where we were when the State of Emergency was declared (all very intrepid and exciting).
Throughout my trip I have met the most wonderful, interesting, intelligent and dynamic women travelling alone (Ok, kudos to Kate who has actually moved – but still…). They have influenced and enhanced me and my trip. These two fantastic girls were no exception, completely changing my stay in Bangkok, a city that I now have no reservations about returning to.