I may be the last Aussie on Earth to have visited; but now, at the grand conclusion of my world trip, I've finally visited Thailand. And let's face it: Thailand is the no. 1 budget travel destination in the world, and no true round-the-world backpacking trip would be complete without it. The Land of Smiles is home to sunny beach paradises, steamy tropical jungles, curry that redefines curry, a Buddhist religious heritage of great richness, cheap shopping to please anyone... and more. The only thing that remains a puzzle: what took me so long to get here?
Anyone who's ever visited Bangkok will recognise this ever-present, oh-so-classic sentence. It's the call of the city's extremely numerous tuk-tuk drivers, who endeavour to solicit a few baht from whoever wanders their way, and who seem to have a deep-rooted belief that it is nobody's God-given right to actually walk anywhere — everyone should be getting a lift, and they should be the ones providing said lifts. Tuk-tuks also seem to genuinely believe that they know better than you "where you go": as far as they're concerned, any and every male farang, at any time of the day, has a desperate desire to be driven to see "pretty ladies" and to get "nice massage"; and as such, it is to such venues that they will endlessly offer you a ride. In Khao San Road, the tuk-tuks are at their thickest, and a swarm of flies does a worse job of buzzing and hovering — after the first few offers, they become little more than an annoying buzz in your ears.
I've been in Bangkok for one (jetlagged and sleepless) night; and if there's one thing I've already noticed to death, it's this: the air pollution here is horrendous. This is one seriously polluted city: you can see it, smell it and even taste it 24/7. Mexico City is peanuts compared to this place. Bangkok's sky is permanently marred by a greyish haze: this becomes particularly foul and unmissable around dusk, when the sky's colour turns a disturbingly nuclear-ish shade of purple against the hot Thai sunset. The constant heat in the city doesn't exactly help, either — what with the smog, the dryness and the sweltering temperatures, water and air-con is the only way to live around here.
Farang is Thai for "foreigner". And here in Thailand, all foreigners — no matter how vile or undeserving their behaviour may be — all of us are very welcome indeed. Having just arrived here this evening, I once again find myself a rich, Western foreigner travelling in the developing world. After Europe, that will take some getting used to. Whereas I was previously the "s$#% of kings", I'm suddenly now the "king of s$#%" again: and with this new situation comes the advantages of constant pampering, of being surrounded by all things cheap, and of a heady wonderland where anything and everything is possible, based on nothing more than a fat wallet and an on-the-spot whim. Gringo... farang... same diff, new lingo. It's unfair, it's exploitative, and it's artificial. But hey, it's nice to be special again — nice to be back "in the club".
Like many a backpacker before me, my introduction to Thailand this evening came in the form of Bangkok's (in)famous tourist strip, Khao San Road. Khao San is quite literally a tourist mecca: in all my far and wide travels on this trip, I've never seen anything that comes even remotely close to matching the sheer density of tourists, tourist-hasslers, and tourist-related services that packs this one little area. The streets are thronged with farangs (lit: "foreigners" — I'll be using that word a lot, so get used to it!) from every corner of the globe. The buildings lining the sidewalks provide everything your average tourist could ever want, from guesthouses to cheap Internet, from tattoos to Pad Thai, from bars to travel agencies, and from laundry joints to Chabad house.
Thailand, the land of smiles. Hot, cheap, and plenty of fun; plus, it's the final leg of this epic 12-month trip of mine. As of this afternoon, I've finally made it — I may well be the last Aussie on Earth to visit Thailand; but better late than never, as they say. My introduction to the nation's capital — the endless metropolis of Bangkok — was appropriately crazy and surreal. I got lost. I sweated like a pig. I held on for dear life in a tuk-tuk. And somehow, I survived. It sure is good to be here.