I arrived in Bangkok on 11 July 2010 in a very delicate state. I’d resigned from my job in Bangladesh due to last-minute visa difficulties and I didn’t know where I was going next. I hadn’t wanted to leave Bangladesh and I was riding an emotional rollercoaster that was made more intense by the fact that I’d slept five hours out of the last 48. Nevertheless, I was curious to see what Thailand had to offer, even if on a temporary basis.
I started off as one of those sad types who goes around wearing a t-shirt from their point of origin (purchased at Dhaka airport, no less), hoping that someone would say, “Ooh Bangladesh – what was that like?” No one did.
As the ferry crossed the middle of the bay, the engine failed and black smoke began spewing out. I didn’t mind the idea of swimming but was upset by the thought of getting my stuff wet. In any event, the captain stripped off, dived into the water, made unseen but impressive underwater repairs, and we set off again. But 10 minutes later the ferry broke down irredeemably and we were towed by a friendly vessel for the last nautical mile.
Because I didn’t have a guidebook for the area, I asked the first tourists I saw on land whether they could recommend a guesthouse. Yes they could. We walked along the road together and one of the men (both were Irish) told me that he’d spent the previous month living as a monk in a cave in northern Thailand. He pointed to his shaved-off eyebrows as proof. “Very good,” I murmured, not knowing what else to say.
I checked into a hot, matchbox-sized room for around US$7 a night. I was again shocked by the lack of security at the guesthouse – my room was on ground level, perfectly accessible from the street and the door had a pin lock without additional bolts. Moreover, the window facing the corridor had a flimsy curtain that blew to and fro with the fan. In Dhaka, it’s standard for apartment windows and balconies to be encased by iron bars and there is often checkpoint-like security on the ground level. I kind of enjoyed convincing myself that it was not necessary to live like Rapunzel for the time being.
The following day was a highlight. I walked to a private cove and snorkelled all afternoon. I couldn’t believe that I had this reef of paradise almost all to myself. I oohed and aahed over the sword fish, pancake-shaped spotted fish, scarlet sea cucumbers, schools of minnows and an incalculable array of other tropical varieties. In certain spots, the water was as warm as a bath.
In the evening I found a little bar that had been built around an enormous palm tree. Small platforms had been built out of the trunk, which was adorned with bottles of liquor and fairy lights. I played “Connect Four” with a Thai bartender with fantastic tattoos, whilst another took music requests for his funky little laptop. They complained that business is slow during the wet season, and promised to take me to a party after midnight. A beautiful Anglo-Indian woman in a white dress swayed in her seat opposite me as I danced to “Waka Waka.”
The bartender then led me along a well-lit path and we soon arrived at a nightclub on the shore. Happy, suntanned people danced away on a balcony perched over the sand. Inside was a club. As I registered the scene, I immediately shed 10 years of maturity and thereafter turned into a disgraceful Western tourist. Before I could even turn around to see where the bartender was, the Irish ‘monk’ had found me.
He greeted me with, “You look so different without your sunglasses and luggage!” This annoyed me a bit, because I had been wearing my Bangladesh t-shirt when I met him.
His friend, who looked like Iggy Pop, handed me a straw for the cocktail bucket he was holding. “You look like [a vastly inferior version of] Kylie Minogue,” he shouted over the doof-doof, his veins almost popping out of a pink skull. “When she was young, I mean,” he added hastily. We began dancing and slurping.
The monk then attached his lips to my face. Call it pashing, if you like. To be honest, I didn’t care – I was happy and free in the warm night, dancing away in a dress so short it deserved trousers. We went into the club and the monk wanted to dance on the podium, which necessarily involved further PDAs (public displays of affection).
When I said it was time for me to go home, he didn’t try to stop me. But he suggested, with surprising force, that we get married. I thought that was a nice idea, but expressed some scepticism as we didn’t know one another. He accused me of being unfair. As a compromise, I gave him my business card and told him to email me. He shrieked that I was being formal. It’s been a week and he hasn’t emailed. I saw him yesterday in Bangkok – I kept my head down and kept reading as he walked past. I think his name was Michael.
I scooted back to Bangkok the following day for a meeting at the United Nations. It went well, and when I return to Bangladesh I will start freelancing for IRIN, the UN’s news service. As well as being a terrific opportunity, it was an enormous relief, because it means I can return to Dhaka, a place for which I have great affection and great friends.
Over Facebook I contacted an old school friend called Dan Cole, who has lived in Bangkok for the last nine years. When he met me at Asok Station he said, “We haven’t seen each other since Scot Crawford’s 21st birthday party.” That was nearly a decade ago, but no matter – Dan’s big brother went out with my big sister, and that will hopefully always count for something… He took me to Long Table, a properly cool bar with a pool on the 28th floor of a skyscraper. We polished off a bottle of wine and a duck salad before heading to a house that’s been converted into a bar. The spirits menu contained a list of 13 levels – each cocktail gained in strength and had the name “tiger” and a verb attached to it. We were the only farangs, and the crowd seemed very chilled out – unlike the rest of Bangkok I’d previously seen or heard about. Dan told me a lot about the lesser-known Thailand, and I was incredibly impressed by his fluency in Thai. One minute he’d be talking about a “mate” in a still-thick Aussie accent, and the next he was speaking to the waiter in drawn-out Thai monosyllables. He took a test that confirmed that his speaking, reading and writing skills are at Year 9 level. After climbing a few cocktail levels, Dan took me to his beautiful restaurant, which has a lake in its centre. Unfortunately a tree came crashing through the middle of it, so it’s closed until November. The restaurant, called The Lake House, also has a resident python.
Whilst waiting for the weekend to pass and the Bangladeshi embassy to open, and then for my visa application to be processed, I’ve kept myself amused with lots of meals, massages and ill-judged attempts to find interviews for a British website I work for. One trip involved crossing town to visit The Bangkok Post to ask whether a journalist would be interested in being profiled along with some of their book recommendations. Sadly, I couldn’t get past reception on the ground floor. Over the phone, a secretary told me to leave a card and said she would call the following day if someone was interested. I’d given up hope by the time she’d finished her terse sentence.
Yesterday I went to the National Library of Thailand because I thought I would find some book lovers amongst the staff. From the inquiry desk on the ground floor I went to the manager’s office, who asked me to write my request down on paper, as her English wasn’t strong. I was then taken to the literature section on the third floor. That’s when the fun and games began… The friendly staff thought that I wanted to borrow five books about Thai literature. They brought out several books (in Thai), complete with printed descriptions on cardboard sheets (in Thai). It was very difficult to explain to them that I wanted someone’s personal opinion on their favourite books. I called Dan for language assistance, and afterwards a librarian who spoke quite good English was summoned. I showed her the website when a man on the counter plugged in his Chinese modem, and the librarian looked morally affronted when she registered that I would also require a profile photo along with her personal opinions. When I said that I was leaving four days later, she became agitated and said, “How can I read five books in that time?” Finally, she asked me to write down my request on a Thai template form, as it would require the director’s approval because she is a government employee. I just received a very polite emailing stating that it would be too time-consuming and difficult to express their ideas in English. I realise that my introductions may have sounded a bit shifty, and if anything, I was grateful that they humoured someone who said, “I’m a journalist from London living in Bangladesh [with an Australian accent] and I’d like to interview you about Thai literature…”
I made one last-ditch attempt to find friendly journalists by going to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Bangkok. The address on the internet said it was in the Penthouse of the Mayeen Centre. A Thai girl at an internet caf้ told me it wasn’t too far away, but I couldn’t find a taxi driver that knew it. Even after I found a willing driver, he soon lost enthusiasm and asked if he could leave me on a street corner. No!! I have to say that during the last 10 days I’ve been disappointed by taxi drivers – yet again. Some people say they are a wise bunch, but I disagree – whether I’m in Iran, London or Thailand, they (mostly) try to rip me off and do funny stuff.
I asked for directions at a hotel called “Mike’s Place.” Something there was up – the seediness was palpable. I saw a group of South Asian men sitting on an L-shaped couch, whose eyes boggled as a group of Eastern European women walked over to them. I could be wrong, but it looked as though the women had minders. The Anglo-Indian barman told me that the Penthouse was a hundred yards down the side-street. I saw a neon sign that said “PH” but somehow missed the entrance. Everything was dark except for a massage parlour on the corner, so I stopped there to ask for directions. The transvestites opposite tittered. I walked through an eerie carpark and an overweight pock-marked bouncer told me I had the wrong Penthouse. So I kept walking, found a non-comprehending motorcyle taxi and then a five star hotel gave me a print-out of a Google Map. We reached a beautiful hotel that had a Mayeen Centre, but it wasn’t the right place and they pointed to a building in the near distance. Nearly two hours later from the time I set off, I walked into the foyer and saw that the BBC, ABC, ITV and others had their offices in the same building. Coupled with the fact that Bangkok is a city that never sleeps, it seemed promising. The smiling men on reception pointed to the elevator. Up I went, came out and saw that the FCC’s bar was closed. I heard footsteps around the corner so I didn’t even get to savour my disappointment before escaping back into the elevator.
So that’s what happened, more or less. I’m going to wrap this up because the Wild Orchid Villa Caf้ has been playing the same mixed cd for the last three days (or longer), and it includes a ballad remix of “YMCA.” It also smells a bit like sewerage and there is a toad behind me with a powerful ribbit.
I have decided that if there is a heaven, it would involve having a Thai massage every day. For now though, I’m keen to get back to my reality.