Bangkok is Thailand's steaming-hot capital, and it's one of the largest and the most sophisticated metropolises in all of Asia. Bangkok boasts a modern urban train system, a world-class airport, a selection of accommodation from grungy to ritzy, and a plethora of services dedicated to the needs of its many Western tourists. And all this, despite it being in many ways the third-world centre of a third-world country. Bangkok was my first stop in Thailand — as well as the first place I've ever visited in Asia (airports aside) — and like thousands of backpackers before me (and no doubt thousands more after me), I was thrown head-first into the "experience" that is the backpacker mecca of Khao San Road.
I bought it because I'm going to be lying on the beach for the next three weeks, and because I need a nice big hat to shade myself while in the sun. But it's a cowboy hat: and so, despite my intentions, it does plenty more than just give me some extra UV protection. A cowboy hat is a fashion statement. People see me wearing it, and they know I'm an Aussie (if only they could witness me wrestling with some croccies :P). They see me wearing it, and they know I'm a seasoned traveller. They see me wearing it, and they know I'm tough and ready for anything. And all that, just from a little piece-of-junk shmontse, that I picked up at a market stall today in Khao San Road. Oy, how people think!
It's 6:30am, and I've just pulled into Bangkok, tired and hungry after a night on the road. I'm wandering around the streets near Khao San Road, looking for a quiet café where I can grab some breakfast and read a book, while I wait for the city (and for myself) to wake up. I'm armed with my hefty backpack, and perusing the menu of an early-bird café, when a scantily-clad Thai girl runs up to me (out of nowhere), drapes her arm around me, and starts caressing me. I pretty much literally had to run away from her, before she gave up on offering herself to me, and left me in peace. For heaven's sake: if a bleary-eyed backpacker at the crack of dawn isn't safe from assaults by whores, when who and when the hell is safe?
My brief stint up in northern Thailand is now complete. Trekking and elephant riding are all well and good for a time — but let's face it: romping through tropical jungle is bollocks, when compared with lying on a gorgeous tropical beach. And if it's beaches you're after, then the direction to go is south, and the place to find (and there are plenty of them to be found) is a nice, idyllic island. My destination is one such island: Ko Tao. And after the overnight bus that I caught last night, from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, I'm now halfway there.
Mark's a chatty bloke whom I ended up sitting next to, during this evening's long bus ride from Chiang Mai down to Bangkok. Mark's an Englishman; and like myself, he's also a seasoned traveller of South America. So the two of us had a good ol' chinwag on the bus, sharing our (all-too-similar) stories and reminiscences of backpacking in the Latin World. Sadly, from Bangkok Mark's headed out of Thailand: his plan is to gradually make his way home over the next few months, by way of India and various other countries.
Jutta is a solo traveler like myself, from the teeny European nation of Slovenia. I met the bloke this evening at Bangkok's northern bus terminal, and we found ourselves travelling on the same overnight bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. When we reached Chiang Mai, we both checked in to the same dump of a guesthouse (until we got sick of it :P). Jutta's backpacking in Thailand for several weeks, and in greater south-east Asia for a few months. Nice guy, and very easy-going.
Back in South America, I lived on the stuff. In "filled with artificial preservatives", "packaged and sealed three months ago and four countries away" Europe, it was nowhere to be seen. But now that I'm in Thailand, ever-present and ever-delicious fresh tropical juice is back! Banana, mango, coconut, orange, papaya and watermelon are just some of the varieties to be found on every street corner around here. Sadly, neither Ecuador's trademark jugo de mora ("blackberry juice") nor Brazil's sumptuous açaí are available — but the selection is nevertheless nothing to complain about. My "fresh juice twice or more daily" diet is once again in full swing, and life couldn't be better.
I've heard the stories, same as everyone else. But I must admit, I never took them that seriously. Well, I should have believed — because every tale that ever passed by my ears is 100% true. Bangkok really is full of 50-year-old American men, walking hand-in-hand (or hand-somewhere-else) with 19-year-old Thai girls. And despite the blatant grotesqueness and desperation, most of them stroll the streets loudly and proudly, with no shame whatsoever. It's cliché, it's oh-so-stereotypical, and it's downright sad — but when you look around you, it's undeniable: this is the true story of "Thai love". This is one strange, sleazy and deplorable place: never before have I seen romance being so widely touted to the highest bidder.
My first purchase from the sprawling markets of Khao San Road, this evening, was a new backpack. Jack Wolfskin — high-quality German brand — and of course, this being Thailand, 100% genuine and original :P. For 400B (about $15), not a bad deal either. The plan is to leave my enormous bulky backpack (along with all my unneeded warm clothes and other accessories) in storage, here in Bangkok; and to travel around Thailand with this much smaller and lighter pack instead. 'Coz let's face it: you really don't need much when you're romping around in Thailand.
From Wat Phra Kaew, this afternoon I jumped on a ferry down the river, and explored the looming skyscrapers and the bloated shopping malls that comprise central Bangkok. The place is nothing like the chaos and squalor of Khao San Road; and yet, it's also vastly different to what you'd expect from the downtown area of a Western city. The river ferry service from Khao San down to the Central Pier is great fun: fast, cheap, breezy and very scenic — great way to see the city.
Today was a momentous day in the history of my life. First proper day in Thailand. First proper day in all of Asia. First proper sightseeing in Thailand or in Asia. And first ever visit to a Buddhist temple. A momentous day: but in my sweltering and jet-lagged state, not an overly strenuous one. To kick off my exploration of the sights and sounds of Bangkok, I went and saw Wat Phra Kaew, one of the largest and most magnificent of the city's many wats (lit: "temples"). Lovely temple — and boy, never before have I seen so much, covered in such quantities of pure gold, in all my life. Buddha like his gold nice 'n' shiny.