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Published: September 26th 2005
Duff-duff, thud-thud, duff-duff, thud-thud, d-duff-d-thud, d-duff-d-thud! Indefinable music comes from both sides of the street clashing terribly as if the DJ has just suffered a major stroke and lay sprawled across the turntables. Just when one tune becomes distinctly recognisable a couple metres further down the road the bpms become once more erratic and disturbing until another tune briefly grasps your attention. It’s about 10pm, yet the street is thronged with tourists, rogue drunks or groups searching for the next bar, couples shopping for souvenirs, individuals wearing backpacks, people selling balloons and others selling themselves. Many are simply aimlessly experiencing the spectacle of a walk down the three hundred-odd metre backpacker-ghetto that is the Khao San rd. The atmosphere is vibrant and even mildly chaotic on first impression. In amongst the tide of farangs (foreigners) Thai tourists marvel at this foreign world in their own land that is Asia’s departure lounge. Reaching the end of the road I wander into the territory of the taxi and tuk-tuk drivers who await, far from patiently:
“You go ping-pong pussy?” a taxi driver asks.
“Patpong!” he smiles.
He repeats his enthusiastic ‘ping-pong-pussy mantra’ every time I ask him a question.
Then the penny
drops” You don’t speak English do you?”
“Where?” he replies confusedly…
I turn, and begin walking back down the street lined with neon signs, restaurants and bars, travel agencies, internet cafes, book shops. Hotels, hostels and guesthouses, ATMs, food stands, cocktail stands and souvenir stalls. Thai guys with wacky-gelled-hair-styles hand out flyers. Nubile girls with long legs and short skirts beckon you into bars. Northern tribal women sell musical wooden frogs. McDonalds, Starbucks, Burger King and countless 7-Elevens. I think it is important to note at this point that Thailand proudly boasts it is the only country in South East Asia never to have been colonised.
I reach the other end of the street and am approached by an enthusiastic taxi driver “ping pong pussy?”
My original travel plan was to take me up through the Baltic states, over to Russia, hopping on the Trans-Siberian to Mongolia and down through China to South East Asia.
Then I learned it was impossible for foreign nationals to obtain a Russian visa in Berlin, meaning a return to England, or an extended stay in the less-than-inspiring Baltic’s awaiting my visa. All this dithering would delay my arrival in Siberia and Mongolia
to late autumn/early winter - limiting my freedom to explore any off-the-beaten-track destinations without freezing my ass off!
I decided to bite the bullet by flying directly to Beijing. However, the Chinese Embassy had recently implemented the same no-foreigner policy as their former red cousins. The path of least resistance pointed to Thailand, where in 1997 I’d had my first taste of Asia. Back then the pollution, heat, smells, culture and anarchy of Bangkok blew me away. Having never heard of Lonely Planet and the Khao San rd, we’d found ourselves in Bangkok’s Chinatown district.
To be honest, I’m slightly disappointed now that I didn’t visit the Khao San rd back then - if only to re-live the ‘nostalgia’ and to note the differences eight years has brought. I can’t help thinking, however, that if it were like this back then, my whole experience and opinion of travel would have been totally different, robbing me the feeling of independence and adventure of that first night’s culture-shock, fear and exhilaration for which, to be honest, I have been searching throughout the globe for ever since.
Despite the ever-growing fame of Khao San rd, the most infamous of all Bangkok’s streets
is Patpong. Eight years on it seems a lot less seedier and seems to have been hijacked by a large fake-goods market running down the centre of the street hemming you into a a narrow walking passage against the streets go-go bars and their touts brandishing photocopied pussy lists: Pussy ping pong, pussy cut banana, pussy razorblade, pussy write letter, pussy live fish swim, pussy candle fire et al…and for the kinkier customer - ‘man and women make sex!’
Go-go girls stand on bars in their high-heels and underwear clutching silver poles, gyrating generically up and down, whilst middle-aged western men sit on stools watching Charlton v Chelsea through their legs. The deadpan expression of the dancers gives the impression they are neither aware nor care if they are being watched. This same scene is played out in all the 30 or so go-go bars along Patpong - the only variation stretching to the colour of the girl’s underwear or an extra pussy option on the menu.
I ask a pussy tout what ‘pussy rainbow’ entails:
“Pussy rainbow?” he laughs, looking slightly confused, pausing for thought, and then trying unconvincingly to demonstrate. He then turns to another tout
and says in Thai, (what I assume to be) “hey mate, how’d you explain pussy rainbow to this bloke?” They confer briefly then both begin gesticulating enthusiastically, but ultimately in vain.
“You go inside and see yourself for free!” Even though I was more curious now then ever I declined. Although if I could find a place that had pussy bagpipes…;-)
Next morning rather than tackle my jetlag head-on, I decided to let it guide me out onto the streets of dawn. The sun rose over the templed skyline as the city awakened to the sound of roosters. I share the serenity of daybreak with masked road sweepers, joggers and orange-robed bare-footed monks. I follow some of them in their daily ritual of collecting food from people who set up stalls to donate to them. The donor bows to the monk upon offering the little packed-lunch bag, the monk fills his large silver alms bowl, then blesses the donor. Some people drive around in their cars looking for monks to give food to. I even saw a larger monk hanging around a fried chicken stall waiting to be offered a piece of southern fried cookin.
Returning to my hotel
I am filled with dread at what I will see on the Khao San rd. The light of dawn had made Bangkok seem so wonderful, even mystical - here daybreak exposed a seedier side; like a curtain flung open exposing the harsh-hung-over light of reality - hitting you like a sobering slap in the face.
I reach the Khao San rd at 8am as a strange military-esque marching music fills the air, coming from no immediately definable point, as if the street itself just burst into song. The music is piped through megaphones throughout Bangkok and even here on the most unlikely of streets. Big Brother has spoken; the national anthem, composed by the king himself, is now in full swing, prompting road sweepers and shopkeepers to cease all activity and stand frozen to the spot out of respect for their much loved monarch. I stand motionless observing this Orwellian custom. The smell of fish sauce that permeates every nook of Bangkok seems more evident now as it mingles with the Khao San rd’s very own aroma of stale beer and vomit. Is it simply through social conformity they pause, a genuine respect, or a more sinister fear? As
The oldest temple in Bangkok
I ponder the scene my thoughts are hijacked by a drunken backpacker staggering unsteadily down the road pursued by a girl with a slightly masculine swagger and an Adams apple. Surely it is common sense to believe that if there was not a market for such romantic unions on the Khao San rd I wouldn’t be witnessing this scene.
Anyway, I’ve just been down to Koh Chang for a week, hanging out on the beach, acclimatising and waiting for my Burmese visa to be processed. Since 2001 a road has been built on Koh Chang along with many new restaurants, hotels and shopping plazas. You can still find a nice undeveloped beach, though fortunately not too undeveloped - we couldn’t miss out on any football now could we;-) In general the island had more in common with Barbados or Lanzarote than Thailand. As this is the rainy season it rained quite a lot, which was perfect - taking away the hardest decision I’ve had to make in the last week; shall I chill on the beach or chill in the shade? So whilst pondering my predicament I came up with:
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF TRAVEL IN ASIA
1. Thou shalt sow badges of conquest on your backpack.
2. Thou shalt wear orange trousers and sandals.
3. Thou shalt consider thyself superior to package tourists.
4. Thou shalt bigotly embrace the tenets of at least one eastern religion.
5. Thou shalt amass bracelets from shell, seed, nut or old-coloured rope.
6. Thou shalt attend a full-moon party (or at the very-least; a quarter-moon).
7. Thou shalt own a Beer Chang/Singha/Lao T-shirt.
8. Thou shalt complain incessantly about the brash behaviour of Israelis.
9. Thou shalt bargain fiercely in an attempt to buy things cheaper than the locals.
10. Don’t forget your Lonely Planet!
Do you have any commandments you think should be added?
…until next time…
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