Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Bangkok is a stimulating city, intermingling the antique and the modern, the historical and the hysterical. The former includes the King’s palace, an enormous reclining Buddha, and shrines, all opened to the public, and massive shopping centers such as the Siam Paragon, which has everything for sale: Lotus cars, Hermes, local crafts, a food court to die for, a specialty grocery store and gold jewelry that could replace ‘diamonds as a girl’s best friend.’ The more exotic are Khao San Road, and the Red light district (with shows in which women shoot ping pong balls out of their private parts into a bowl),  unusual distractions for a price.

Other than the Sunday outdoor market in Madrid, Bangkok has one of the largest flea markets I have ever visited. It also has inexpensive great restaurants (the Hemlock and  the Saffron Bakery), and nice and not so nice reasonably priced hotels.    
 During an earlier trip to Bangkok, the first night I stayed in a horrible little cubby with no window.  I must of given off an air of sophistication (not) of someone who spent most of their travel nights at the Ritz in London or George V in France because the desk clerk kindly sent me around the corner off the main tourist street to the Siam House II, which turned out to be a perfect fit.  During this trip, I  was pleased the Siam House II had installed in room WFI, as it took two days just to arrange hotels for my daughter’s and my venture into northern Thailand and Myanmar.

Upon arriving at the entrance to the city, there are enormous pictures of King Rama IX and the queen. Visitors are at once overwhelmed and charmed by a series of more large pictures of the royal couple as they ride along to the city center.  Though out Bangkok, one often sees pictures of King Bhumibol Adulyadel (nicknamed 'Lek' by his family).  If it is outside a military base, he is in an army uniform, outside a naval port, his dress is that of a naval officer, at a school in the picture, he is surrounded by children.  

King Rama IX has been on the throne for 65 years, becoming king at age nineteen.  He is revered by his people; almost considered a god-king.  Yet, I have been told that if one is heard insulting or criticising him, it can result in up to fifteen years in jail.  Currently this beloved 83 year old monarch has heart problems and is comfortably ensconced in a hospital on the shores of the Chao Phraya River.  

One of the most charming aspects of Bangkok are the river ferries which ply up and down the Chao Phraya River carrying massive numbers of locals, school children, monks and tourists. There is a ferry connection to Bangkok’s wonderful Sky Train, which I used to go to Siam Paragon and MBK shopping mall (where CANON CARE repaired my camera), the Myanmar Embassy and flea market at the end of the line.

It also has one of the nosiest, most vibrant backpacking areas of any city I have visited. Full of inexpensive guesthouses, open-air food stalls, street hawkers, tailors, used bookstores and cheap massage/beauty parlors mashed together to create one big human circus. But the flagship street is Khao San Road.

Khao San Road

Khao San road is the Disney world of Bangkok, but it is the participants rather than the shops that are the main attractions. Crowded and scrubby, the shops along the road are somewhat blocked by clothes selling street stalls, food stalls offering everything from fruit drinks, Pai Thai, fried bugs and insects, set up both on the sidelines and in the middle of the road. Street barkers hawking phony press cards and driver’s licenses, to native tribal finery, cheap jewelry and little wooden frogs with rippled backs that when rubbed with a stick make an annoying frog burp, just like the real thing. Added to all of this is an occasional tuk-tuk or car circuitously trying to maneuver through the crowds, and a Sikh fortuneteller who will even tell you the exact year you were born for thirty baht.

Although opened all-day, it is long into the night when Khao San Road is most exciting. When the beer floes and the music swells. When perfectly normal people become crazed by the atmosphere; men with their beards braided in front and long hair braids down their backs, ‘suits’ wearing circus colored clothes they would never be seen in at home, both men and women having braid extensions put in their hair that snake down to their waists, hair colors changed to rainbow hues, and more body piercing on all ages then I have ever seen on a weekend nighttime ride on the London underground. As for tattoos, they are the modus operandi of this whole population of ‘three week vacation’ fantasy street people.

My friend Yassine, an exotically handsome guy with a Dutch mother and Moroccan father from Holland, tells the Khao San Road story of Kevin, who said to Yassine, late one evening: “If you buy me a bucket of whiskey for 200 baht and pay for the tattoo, I’ll have your name tattooed to my ‘arse’.”

Kevin a young bleached-blond British traveler from Robin Hood’s neighborhood asks everyone he meets this same question. Unfortunately, he asked Yassime during the early morning hours when the tattoo shop had just closed. So they agreed to meet the next evening, and by One A.M. the deed was done. By the end of evening, Kevin had about 25 names on his derriere; continuing a project he had started 3 weeks earlier. It seems while Kevin drank his buckets of whisky, he also kept a diary about his travels and the friends (those whose names were on his ‘arse’), whom he had met along the way from Laos to Puket to Bangkok. But Bangkok was the mother load, where for Kevin, the most tattoos were inked and the most whisky flowed. Is this true, absolutely? I have seen a ‘charming’ photo of a smiling Yassime pointing at the tattoo of his name on Kevin’s ‘arse.’

You too can go to Khao San Road, drink ‘Colonel Saunders sized’ buckets of whiskey or beer, be safely jostled about by the crowds, buy lots of cool stuff you probably don’t need, and make some memories of your own, or be a voyeur like me and just enjoy the ‘Disneyesquse’ passing scene, eat the street foods and find out your ‘real birth year.’ It only costs thirty Baht.

1 comment:

  1. What all that and no Tatoo or piercing!! What an opportunity to miss!