Thailand. Four days in.
Some counties are a rite of passage for travellers. Thailand. India. Peru. Morocco. On it goes. Lands where culture shock kicks in.
On my way to this café, I passed a white guy (farang) waiting for a bus. The back of his shirt read, “But different.” Before I even got to the other side, I knew the front would say “Same-same.”
It’s a cliché now, but for good reason. When flummoxed at my arrival in Bangkok’s sprawling airport, for where to go to get my visa then collect my bag, the airport sentry pointed me through a gate for baggage claim carousels 11-16, but I sought carousel 20, which I told him.
“Yes. 16, 20. Same-same,” he replied, with a side-to-side dip of his head and a shrug.
Thailand. Same-same. But different.
So is travelling here. There’s a learning curve and there are challenges, but these are true everywhere.
I’m clacking out this missive at a long table in a hostel. I’m not staying here, but I knew it had work-friendly tables, good overhead fans, and a wide array of beverages.
Kinda weird. Thumping around me is music I don’t know. I’m twice everyone’s age. Forty-four now, have been for two whopping weeks.
It makes me the boring Thailand traveller, seeking good food and culture, but not much else. This sets me apart from the youth, for this is the kind of country people come to for mind-expansion and adventure in their 20s. Copious alcohol and, if you believe the stories, drugs galore.
Storytime: Death Island
An island here is called Death Island, Koh Tao. Mostly written about in rags like The Sun and The Daily Mirror, Koh Tao is sensationalized, except it isn’t. Recently, The Independent did a story about the nefarious grip held on the island by Thai organized crime. For those counting, there is a mounting list of harrowing and suspicious deaths just since 2014, featuring the brutal murders of a British couple, including rape, a bungled investigation, “incompetent DNA handling,” and the very likely scapegoating of two migrant Burmese workers sitting now on death row.
Other stories speak of a Brit who’d fallen to his death from a cliff and a Frenchman who “committed suicide” via hanging but accomplished the neat trick of tying his hands behind his back first. Early this year, a seventh backpacker was found dead in further suspicious circumstances.
But these all stem from 2014 and on. Thailand’s is a dark and complex history dating far further back from this, but smart phones and data plans didn’t exist then.
I’d first heard of Thailand and its beaches, really, back in 1996, when I was 23 and fell in love with Alex Garland’s brilliant book The Beach, which, as usual, was far better than the movie. The film was made on Koh Phi Phi, but coulda been any of Thailand’s islands.
Tripping the Thai Light Fantastic
The psychedelics and cuture-crawl lifestyle of backpackers and their roots going back to the Vietnam War are writ large in The Beach. This isn’t a drug-tolerant country, but the south is another matter and the crime-controlled aspect of daily life down there means playing by a different set of rules. Some 50 different crime organizations are thought to be moving drugs into Thailand from Myanmar. Back in the day, heroine and cocaine fuelled the whirlwind that inspired the fictional The Beach with its tales of mind-bending and violent Thai experiences.
Today, lifestyle drugs like meth and ecstasy are more popular, and pot is plentiful.
Meth, ecstasy, cocaine, heroin… same-same, but different.
What most of these naively-stupid young travellers fail to realize is that Thailand boasts the right to execute you or sentence you to life in prison for excessive possession, but even simple possession comes with heavy penalties and lengthy prices paid. Fortunately, these have softened slightly, but Thai prison is big business, rivalling America’s on a per capita basis.
As a writer raised on Hunter S. Thompson, I assure you, I’m not squeamish on drugs, but my self-preservation is mastered to an art form. Thailand’s psychedelia holds no allure for me, never has.
I’ve never been interested in the beaches and islands of Thailand, and the notorious drugs and criminal syndicate that comes with, but maybe I’ll wind up down there at some point just because it’s a thing people do. I suspect, though, that the north is where it’s at for me. Like in Croatia, where I loved the north but felt fleeced and foolish down in Split, thanks to tourism run rampant, in some ways.
Whatever my end experiences might be, I’ve begun my time here with eyes wide open and far too many preconceptions. Like anywhere I go, I expect some preconceptions to be confirmed, but most to be dispelled.
Wherever I Am, There I Am
I’ve been in Bangkok now since Tuesday, just 10 minutes’ walk from Khao San Road, notorious with white folk and backpackers, but I haven’t even gone there, and don’t think I will.
Truth be told, I’ve been hanging out in my wee hood. I’ve had three massages. I’ve gone to a restaurant filled with Thais, considered one of the best places on Earth for Thai curry (best in my life, Krua Apsorn). And I’ve had very minor surgery – tiny surgery, itty-bitty surgery – in having a chalazion cut inside my lower eyelid to relieve pressure and end an infection. The antibiotics I’m on induce fatigue and cause mild, non-problematic gastrointestinal distress. All good excuses to keep my wandering simple and take it easy.
But this city is compelling and I see myself returning. Maybe repeatedly.
When returning to places, I favour new neighbourhoods. In Guanajuato, Zagreb, Tirana, and Madrid, I stayed in at least two locations for each town, and those different locations gave me different perspectives on each city. Neighbourhood choice changes one’s travel experience tremendously.
So, yes, I can see myself eventually staying in various areas of Bangkok too, and Chiang Mai, where I head tomorrow.
Under Surfaces, Thailand Ain’t What It Seems
Honestly, despite the heat and filth, I could live in Bangkok for a month or so. It’s a fascinating city.
It’s very divisive, talking to people about Thailand. Some lovelovelove it and others are ambivalent or decidedly opposed to ever experiencing it.
I was cautioned on visiting here by a couple I know who’ve had three of their six-degrees-of-separation friends come home in body bags, one way or the other. Another talks of their Thai friend, gay, who refuses to ever return to his country due to threats and fear for his life at the hands of the crime syndicates.
Still others tell of “the friendliest people on Earth,” or as it’s commonly known, the Land of Smiles, and how kind Thais are (which has been my experience thus far). These people speak of great food, good times, amazing places, diverse culture, and much more. They consume my photos with a longing to return.
The thing I know, after all the places I’ve been, is that this country can be all these things.
But Then, Even Home Ain’t What it Seems
I remember when I was around 20, hanging out on Vancouver’s Commercial Drive, having coffee with a friend at the now-defunct Pofi Bar. A sketchy place with dim lighting, pool tables, and an owner with no inclination of appeasing the New Coffee Culture rising in the ‘90s. There was no service, no kindly ways, no kowtowing to the customer. It was the Pofi Bar’s way, or you could hit the sidewalk.
In search of a bathroom, I headed down the hall and opened a door I suspect was meant to be locked. Inside, several men sat in the smoke-filled room, surrounding a card table with guns and poker chips on top. I’ve never closed a door and fucked off faster than I did that night.
The point of the story is, go down the wrong hall, open the wrong door, and no matter where in the world you are, danger may well be lurking. One need not come to Thailand to find danger.
You Find What You Seek, and Sometimes More
The only thing about travelling to a place like Thailand is, it’s easier to find wrong doors or take wrong halls, because getting lost to find themselves is a traveller’s raison d’etre. It ain’t always a happy ending.
We arrive naïve and hopeful, primed for amazing experiences, but what we travellers don’t often remember or realize about the paths we tread is that history precedes us, and history isn’t just stories in a book.
History exists on every street, in every family, in every neighbourhood, in every culture. It comprises centuries of warfare, bad blood, prejudices, crime syndicates, and so much more. In places like Thailand, where there’s the pleasant surface, there are also the dark, dark undercurrents we’re not privy to seeing. From the sex industry and prostitution through to drugs and basic crime, it’s all here, if you wanna find it. Civil society of the 21st century means these things simmer beneath the surface, wherever we go.
Sometimes, it only emerges in the dark of night. Other times, one must go digging… or open the wrong door.
I’ll just have to open the right doors this time.
So, I’ve got about four blog posts for you that I’ve been sitting on because life comes before blogging these days, but I’m sure, sooner or later, I’ll get all caught up and you’ll get all the words you can eat. In the meantime, sawadee ka from Thailand. Thanks for reading and I can’t wait to share the Far East with you in the next few months.