Thailand, one of the most notorious destinations on the East-Asian backpacker's trail, is now in the books for me. And as a romantic, one who lives for the experience, adventure, and promise that new locations and their preceding reputations offer, I must say the place didn't quite live up to the hype. Bangkok did not, anyway, though not that there is any real way that it could have. Tales of its endearing seediness are over-hyped, and though its reputation for loose morals and openness to sexual tourism will catch the attention of any young male, those things too are seemingly not what they once were, not that they were ever good reason to visit somewhere in the first place. No, I at least, got the sense that the place is not the sinful paradise that it once was. It has been largely cleaned up, as families casually shop in markets outside Go-Go bars and stale sex shows, and backpackers can find a cheap place to stay and party, and if they like, take home a prostitute (though one can do that just about anywhere). Bangkok is, these days anyway, to be praised as a quintessential Asian capital, heavily trafficked by travelers of all sorts (though many from Germany, it would seem), with cheap prices for food, shopping, and lodgings, some scenic destinations, good weather, great food, and some tame seediness that won't spook any level-headed enough traveler. Perhaps it was off the beaten path at one point decades ago, though I can safely say now a path has definitely been etched in the sand.
So, having read some Wiki-Travel (a damn good site for free travel info, I highly recommend it), I decided to stay in the backpack mecca of the East: Khao San Road, home to hundreds of hostels, some night life, cheap souvenir stands, and massage parlors. My cheap flight was late, and I only arrived at my destination at about 1am, having let my hostel know in advance I'd be arriving in the after hours. OK, so I just got done saying that Bangkok won't really spook anyway with some decent travel sense, but having never been to Khao San Road before, being alone, having a bewildered look on my face, and having tons of people hassle me about staying in their shitty hostels, for about ten minutes I was a bit overwhelmed. But, I quickly found the location I had booked (Charoendee Hostel, I also recommend if you're going to choose Khao San) and found it to be pretty nice and quiet, despite the loud music thumping I could still hear faintly from my room. I also found the pad-lock doors on the rooms a bit dubious, but hey, I was only paying about 10 dollars a night for the place. You get what you pay for.
For the next 48 hours I stumbled around Bangkok. Again, I read that people will often try to scam you on the streets in Bangkok, telling you various museums are closed when they are obviously not, and trying to take you to other destinations, so I was prepped and ready to do battle with the Tuk-Tuk drivers and gregarious random Thai people who despite their smiling faces no doubt approach you with an ulterior motive. But there were so many, especially at Khao San Road, that it quickly became exhausting. I thought to myself if I stay here, I'll never trust a Thai person ever again in my life. I fought through it for the most part, aided by befriending a European couple, half Italian (the dude, Marcello) and half Spanish, the chick (Latistia from Barcelona). They were friendly enough as travel companions, and we did a tour on the dirty river together in a boat. I hadn' t really planned to do that on that day, but I figured what the Hell. We then hit some of the major temples together like Wat Arun and Wat Pho, then called it a day. Such friends were nice enough, though later I think they ended up falling for some of the Bangkok highjinks, and I wasn't about to stand around and baby-sit them as I watched them over pay for Tuk-Tuk rides and some cheap goods.
My second day I made it to the Grand Palace in the morning, by myself, though arriving at the Palace I did bump into the European couple again. I sort of tagged along with them at times, but eventually drifted off, not wanting to go at their speed. They invited me to have lunch with them, but I declined in favor of exploring a Thai market and its eats by myself. Before that, while gazing upon the ornate beauty of the Grand Palace I got a bit pensive, and began philosophizing on the meaning of such a place and why I was there. It's as good a question a travelaire could ask himself as any, I suppose. I thought to myself why does man build such great structures to honor ethereal, god-like beings in so many cultures? What really drives us to exert ourselves in such a way? Do we really want to honor these beings we can only imagine and not see, or are we really honoring the greater aspects of our own nature, projecting our greatest traits onto gods? Anyway, just a quiet reflection while gazing on the Emerald Buddha, the most revered Buddha in Thailand.
By the end of this second day of sweaty temple-hopping and market-trotting, I longed to be far away from Bangkok and in the islands, the real focus of my journey. So I went back to the hostel, took a short nap in the common area (having already checked out) and then boarded the backpackers' night bus for the islands. I couldn't wait to see Koh Tao and just hang out on the beach. And try scuba diving. It was all in the cards, and I wasn't to be disappointed. I sat down next to an American, the only other one on the bus, named Greg from Kentucky, and we began to hit it off. By morning, I'd be on the tropical island of Koh Tao. Not bad at all.
To be continued in Part 2 of this post...