BootsnAll Travel Network

Bangkok, Volume I – The Khao San Road Experience

Everyone has an opinion about Bangkok, whether good or bad. The capital city of Thailand, Bangkok can be just a quick stopover on your way to the next place, or will keep you marooned as days and weeks seemingly float by unseen. Many backpackers, especially ones from Europe, start their travels in Bangkok, as they can get cheap flights, it is the major transit hub to visit other parts of Asia, and if you are heading south to Oz or NZ, you have to stop somewhere in Asia and it might as well be Bangkok. It seems to be almost set up for tourists, with entire streets and areas of the city catering solely for Westerners, including the most famous backpacker haven in the world, Khao San Road (KSR). After hearing so much about it, I thought I would really hate the place; little did I know that I wouldn’t leave its’ confines for 5 days.

Chris and I arrived on a late afternoon flight from Phuket and spent the next hour getting lost in the airport trying to find the Qantas office. He needed to change his flight home and phoning them wasn’t getting the job done, so we finally found the office, and after a heart stopping conversation about booked flights and high season, he managed to squirm his way onto a later flight out of Hong Kong. We quickly hopped in a taxi and headed straight for KSR, as we knew we would find accomodation there, and Chris had already been there and was familiar with the area. We headed for a guesthouse listed in our guidebook and checked in easily; though always busy, it was the low season and not many places were fully booked it seemed. We went out to wander the side streets, Chris pointing out to me his favorite Pad Thai stall (15Baht, or 20 if you want an egg, which is about $0.50) and a few other places he had already been. As with the rest of our days, we found a bar to watch the World Cup games, and settled in for a few drinks. The following day he was leaving for a new Intrepid tour, that would take him around most of Indochina (Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia) in a month, so we spent the day browsing around the many hawker stalls on and near KSR to buy him last minute supplies and get things settled. We ran into a friend of his from a previous tour he did in Indonesia, and chatted with her for a few minutes. The day quickly passed us by, and we parted company as he went to meet his tour group in Chinatown. After weeks with a travel companion, I was suddenly alone again, in a vast city of limitless, but intimidating possibilities.

Since I was paying a lot of money for single in our first guesthouse, I decided to pack up and leave, and find a cheaper place. A few people had recommended one to me, that was half the price of what I was paying, and I decided I needed to get back in the hosteling/backpacker swing of things, and checked into my cell. It lacked A/C and I had a share bathroom, but it was cheap, about US$6 a night and had free internet. I went to a nearby restaurant that showed a stead stream of movies, and had some dinner and watched The Constant Gardener, a good but depressing movie, and decided to go to bed early and get a good nights’ sleep. What a joke that was! I fell asleep rather quickly, but awoke in the middle of the night covered in sweat, and feeling like I was getting bit to pieces by mosquitos. Since I didn’t have A/C, I had the windows open, and they came in swarms. The fan was blowing but was fairly useless, and I could hear the street noise below, even though I was on the 4th floor. A dog barked, and kept barking, for what seemed like hours, and everytime I thought he stopped, it started back up. I drifted in and out of sleep, and awoke to noise or heat or bugs biting. When I thought I had conquered it all, monsoonal rains began to pour down, and into my unclosable windows, dowsing my bags and clothes and everything underneath, as there was no where else to put them. Finally, looking at my watch which showed 3:23am, I dosed off for the final time, and woke up completely groggy and out of it. Making the easy decision, I quickly packed and checked out, and moved back into my almost posh guesthouse that I had spent the previous two nights. The free internet was just not worth the torture.

I had breakfast and was walking to KSR, when I ran into Chris again at our internet cafe we had been using the previous two days. Surprised to see him, he explained his group was going to Wat Pho, and since he had already been, wanted to try and find me, but not knowing where I was staying, assumed I’d use the internet at some point. So we ate lunch together and I saw him off, again, for the last time and he left to catch his overnight train to the north to Chiang Mai. Feeling unmotivated and battling a cold I had for a week now, I lounged by my rooftop pool and strolled the nearby streets, walking into used bookshops and debating trading my SouthEast Asia book for a complete Thailand, or Vietnam or even Bangkok, as they were super cheap here.  KSR is really just a medium sized side street, lined with guesthouses, Western and Thai restaurants, pharmacies offering cheap malaria drugs and over the counter birth control pills, stalls full of clothing, anything from jeans to fun Tshirts to Thai fisherman pants, seen on many a backpacker in SEA.  It was garish and loud and dirty, but also had everything a traveler could need to feel comfortable; Western breakfasts, restaurants with authentic Thai food alongside pizzas and steaks, cheap clothing and travel supplies and books, and plenty of bars. People from seemingly every country patrolled the street, drinking cheap Chang beer, hair in dreadlocks, packs of young girls wearing entire outfits purchased along the street. I saw the same guy I think 5 times, and we sort of nodded at each other as we recognized our faces just by having passed each other before. Even without needing or wanting to buy anything, you could spend hours, or days as it turns out, wandering up and down the stalls and shops and side streets, picking up an eggroll or freshly squeezed orange juice from a street vendor, or braving the fried insects and BBQ’d fish.   Walking along the hawker stalls, I ran into Kate and Leslie, two girls I met in the Cameron Highlands on my crazy jungle adventure and we chatted for a while. And that is how KSR was, you do the rounds up and down the street, and more often than not, will run into someone you know. They were heading north to Chiang Mai the following day, as many people do, and set off to find a last minute massage.

I was determined to “do something” the following day, but woke up with my cold raging even worse and my sore throat that I had been battling for two weeks was back in full force. Realizing that I was going to Cambodia in a few days and knew that I didn’t want to go if I felt bad or if I needed a doctor there, I decided to see a doctor in Bangkok. Deep down I knew that I just had a bad cold which kept resurfacing as I wasn’t taking the best care, but wanted to rule out strep throat, I hopped in a taxi to a nearby hospital that reported to have English speaking doctors. After checking into the emergency room, as the clinic was closed on Sundays, I waited for about 1/2 hour before I was called into the room. A young nurse took my temperature and blood pressure, and then sat in a chair and waited for the doctor. A few other Westerners were also there, including one German girl who had the largest, reddest insect bites on her legs that I have ever seen. I finally was sat in another chair, and the Thai doctor started asking me what was wrong; at least, I think that is what she said, as I seemed to have gotten the only doctor whose English wasn’t very good. I explained, and motioned, that I had a sore throat and a cough, and my chest hurt, and she nodded and asked me if I was on antibiotics. Um, no? Okay, so she looked in my throat and said, no pus, good okay? and said I had an upper respiratory infection. I was like, Um, don’t you want to listen to my lungs or anything maybe? So she did, and said my lungs were clear and I had a “common cold.” She told me to take acetominophen and a cough syrup, told me to come back in two weeks if I still didn’t feel better, and she sent me out to pay. And after paying 615Baht, or about US$15, I was then sent to the pharmacy. The young girl behind the desk started handing me little baggies of drugs, all with English instructions. I tried to explain that I didn’t want to buy anything, but she sort of shook her head and pointed at the bill. Aha, it was included. And the little plastic baggies just seemed to keep coming. In the end, I was given a 10 day supply of an antihistimine, pseudoephedrine, codeine with paracetamol (acetominophin), extra paracetemol, ibuprofen, throat lozenges, and, best of all, a muscle relaxer. Most of them had insane instructions, like take three times a day (the muscle relaxer) and take at bedtime (the codeine, muscle relaxer and pseudoephedrine). Being somewhat familiar with then drugs, I didn’t think it wise to take all of these all together, and didn’t really need any of them, except maybe the ibuprofen. But imagine going to the ER in the US, waiting half an hour, seeing a doctor and then getting a mass amount of drugs, all for 15 dollars?

Again, the day had passed by quickly and I got nothing accomplished. It was late in the afternoon now, and after eating a quick bite, went back to the rooftop pool for a swim, and headed back to my room and took a nap, falling asleep to CNN and mass coverage of the World Cup and the conflict in Israel, seemingly the only two pieces of news worthy of reporting. I woke up and showered, and then checked my email. Paul, another Englishman I had met through Chris, had emailed me and said he would be arriving either on the 1st or 2nd and we would head to Cambodia together. Feeling rejuvinated with that information, I headed out for dinner, and then I found a bar to watch the World Cup games in. And shortly after sitting down, Chris’s friend whom I met on KSR the previous day sat in front of me, and we chatted about our travels and things. Even though there were thousands of people staying in the 4 block radius of KSR, it was like a small thriving community all it’s own. Still not feeling the best the following morning, I slept in really late, and had a late breakfast at my regular restaurant now where I watched another movie among other seemingly single travelers. Reading and rereading my Lonely Planet, I just couldn’t make a decision on what to do. There was so much, it was almost overwhelming, and though there were things in walking distance of KSR, like the Grand Palace and National Gallery, I just couldn’t get the feet moving to go. My two lethargic weeks in Phuket had drained all my motivation out of my body to do any sightseeing, and I just didn’t feel like it. I was in one of the most exciting and vibrant cities in Asia, probably on Earth, and I hadn’t left the surrounding three streets of my hotel in 5 days! Feeling slightly guilty from doing nothing in Bangkok, but realizing that I would be back at least 2 other times, I satisfied my conscience and promised to explore Bangkok some other time.

Determined to have something to write about, I eased my mind, and body, and headed towards a massage shop, where I had my first Thai massage. Unlike a Swedish massage, a Thai massage isn’t reallly all that relaxing, and depending on who you get, it can range from what some people called forced yoga, to just plain excrutiating pain. A petite Thai girl twists and manipulates your body, all the while pushing on your pressue points, ligaments and muscles with anything she can think of; her hands, elbows, feet and knees. A few moments were painful, such as a sore spot on my leg, and hips, but after that it become almost rhythmic as she forced the tension out of every joint and nook and cranny. The hour passed quickly, and it ended with a very soothing facial and cranial massage, with the tension in my neck finally oozing out. Paying the 180B fee, I tipped her the 20B extra, though tipping is not required nor really expected, and headed back to my room for a nap, feeling energized but loose and dragging all the same.

After a quick dip in the pool, a short nap and seemingly endless hours and CNN watching, I headed to the internet just before going to find a bar to watch the England Quarterfinal game. Paul had emailed me, and said he was on his way to Bangkok, and was expecting to arrive around 8:30. I looked at my watch, it was now quarter past 9. Where the hell was he? I doubled back and checked the log book at my hostel, but he wasn’t there. The only other place I had mentioned was my previous hole, so I went there, and sure as day, there was his name in the check in book, and the breezy teenagers working the front desk waved me up, not caring who the hell I was. And there I found Paul, in a smaller room than I had, with a bright red sunburned chest and peeling face, having gotten scorched on Ko Samui the previous few days.  Excited to finally have someone to hang out with, we headed out just in time for the game, and ate some dinner at a small restaurant showing the game and had a few beers in the process. It was good to be with a friendly face again, and in the morning, Paul checked out of his hole and we moved into a twin room in my guesthouse.  Needing to get a few things accomplished, we headed out the next day for Paul’s travel agency, and while in the taxi, I commented that I hoped it was open since it was Sunday. And sure enough, after half an hour in the cab, we arrived and security guards at the building took one look at us and said, “STA travel. Closed. Tomorrow 9am.” Laughing, we set off to find the Metro stop, and decided to head towards an area called Sukhamvit, which was full of hotels and restaurants and bars. Giving into my cravings, we headed for an American run restaurant serving Mexican food, along with ribs and Reuben and such things, and gorged on burritos and chili. Looking at our map, we realized that the bus station we needed to leave from for Cambodia appeared to be close by, so we set off on foot to buy our tickets for the next day. And we walked, and walked and walked, continuing to look at the map and our guidebook, wondering where this place was. We finally got to the street listed in our guidebook, and there was no bus station to be found. Hot and sweaty and bordering on tired, we flagged down a  cab and got in, he said the bus station was 2 kilometers away! ONce we got to the bus station, we were quickly informed that you could not buy tickets a day ahead of time, we just had to come  that day and take our chances. Defeated, we got back in a cab and headed home towards KSR, and a torrential downpour solidified our decision to end the day of doing nothing. Having accomplished nothign except eating Mexican and riding the new Skytrain a few stops, we went back to our hostel and took a nap. Amazing how doing nothing tires you out.

We woke early this morning, and Paul set off to call his travel agent, and I headed to the post office, which was heaving and crazy, to send home some extra clothes and a CD of pictures. After breakfast we finished packing and bargained for a taxi to the bus station. Traffic was busy that day, and we watched dejectedly as the clock ticked closer and closer to 12:30, when the bus we wanted to take was leaving. We arrived a few minutes after 12:30, but were relieved to find that the buses were on Thai time, and hadn’t left yet. It also still had seats available, and with a few minutes to spare, we boarded the bus and set off on a 6 hour bus ride, for 188B (about $4.50) to the border town of Trat. There was water covering the roads and I commented that there was a lot of water on the roads and such. After what seemed like much longer than 6 hours, and actually was 7, we arrived in the dark at a new bus station, accosted by guesthouse reps all showing us their pictures of their rooms and such. We decided on one that offered a twin room for 150B (US$4) and free internet, and in the pouring rain, we headed out in the tuk tuk taxi, or covered pickup truck. We quickly checked in to our spartan, smelly but cheap room with our own bathroom, and went to find dinner, having only eaten breakfast that day. Our guesthouse owner warned us that the road to the Cambodian border was “broken” with rain, and we’re assuming she meant flooded. We have to be up at 5am tomorrow, to catch the 6am bus to the border, and then the 8am ferry to the southern Cambodian town of Sihanoukville. We have no idea if the road will be open or not, and Paul having lost his Thai visa somewhere in the past few days could also present a fun issue to have at the border. The rain continues to pour and if the road is closed, our options will be limited. We have to make it across, or go all the way back to Bangkok, and that just isn’t an option.

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