Day One: Thailand
It was with a mixture of excitement and nervousness that I was sat in the bar at Heathrow, but then those two always do tend to go hand in hand don’t they? Anyway it is with these thoughts spinning around in my mind that I was sat there with a pint in my hand and my head filled with a wonder of what I might discover on my first trip outside of Europe. Dreaming up some fanciful ideas of what to expect from the different places I was to visit, I finished the pint and headed to the gate.
It was 10 o’clock UK time when we took off, I got a few hours’ sleep after some food and I awoke up to the weirdness that is a long haul flight to the east where the daylight is fast upon you. After several more uneventful hours on the plane we touched down in Thailand. I stepped off the plane and felt the wave of heat hit me, that heat you usually feel when arriving to most of the world from the UK and it always seems so much worse after being subjected to the ice cold air conditioning of the plane. I looked out across the airport, tied my hoodie around my waist and descended the stairs to the realisation I was now months away from home.
I collected my bag and thought I should head to the hostel as it was late evening in Thailand when I landed. Not wanting to be ripped off by taxi drivers seeking a quick buck from wet behind the ears travellers (which I most certainly was), I instead decided that the better option would be to take the shuttle train into the centre of Bangkok.
Easy enough right?
Well not so much as it turns out. After getting a map and working out where the hell Khao San Road actually was (smaller than I thought it would be, hence the prolonged time it took to find), I hopped onto the train line which took me nearest to my destination. I disembarked the train with all going swimmingly so far, even if I was swimming in my sweat, clearly still readjusting to the temperature.
I could not see any information at the train station as I was sort of hoping to see; so without a clue of where to go I asked at the information desk and was told to go down the stairs, walk for a while under the tracks and then take some faraway left for the bus stop.
I did as I was told and made it down to the road; I stopped in a shop to purchase some water to quench my thirst and was shocked at how cheap the water was compared to the UK, which was a good thing as I was going to need to buy a lot in my time here. Once leaving the shop and taking a much needed sip of water, a local man started to quiz me about my origin. Clearly looking as much like Casper the friendly ghost as I did and with a backpack in tow I obviously stood out! I explained that I was from the UK, and he pressed on asking if I was from Manchester and repeated it a fair few times. I tried to explain that I was in actual fact from a city in the South West of England called Plymouth (with no big name football team anywhere near Plymouth (sorry Argyle), I discovered how hard it would be to explain). The man asked if this was near Manchester, ‘not quite no; on a really good day you could maybe drive it in 5 hours, give or take’. ‘Is it near London then?’ ‘No, it is about 4 hours away.’ I would be asked these questions a lot I soon realised and after a while gave up with Plymouth and resorted to the South West of England and had done with it.
Satisfied with his questions answered he crossed the road and we both continued on our merry way. I came across a rail crossing and was amazed to see the amount of stalls and people that line the rail track, people bustling over to the edges when the oncoming train passed. It took me a little a back as this is the exact opposite of anything you would see back at home, you wouldn’t be walking around by the railway it just wasn’t the done thing, not without a rail crossing complete with gates and flashing lights. Health and Safety would have had a fit! I rounded the corner and arrived at the bus stop.
It was at this point, with the distinct lack of English or any other foreign language in the bus shelter that I realised tourists clearly don’t tend to take the bus around Bangkok. I asked three old ladies sat awaiting their bus when the 503 bus would arrive. They chuckled amongst themselves, never a good sign and then they responded with 45 minutes to an hour. Not too bad I figured. So I took a seat and waited. The sun set and as it did the bugs started to appear in the falling temperatures, hovering around me and going to town on my skin like starving dogs around fresh meat. I thought it might be wise to apply my insect repellent and applied this liberally but still had them buzzing around my head. I continued to wait and the 45 minutes to an hour became 1 and a half hours when the bright light of the 503 finally cut through the dark and it finally arrived.
I entered the bus and it became even clearer that tourists do not travel by bus as I struggled to convey where I needed to go, but the bus operator eventually got the jist, charged me my 13 Baht and gave me my bus ticket, this is the equivalent of a Freddo in the UK and got me thinking about the disparity in wealth and how different my time here would be, giving me perspective of how lucky I was to be born where I was.
I tried to trace the journey on my map to work out where on earth I was in relation to where I needed to be, this proved to be a real issue in the dark but in the end it didn’t matter as the wonderful lady operating the bus sat down on the seat in front of me and informed me of the stop I needed to get off at. She then pointed me in the direction of the bright lights of Khao San Road.
I stood ready to cross the road and couldn’t believe the amount of scooters parked up waiting to go on the changing of the lights, there must have been at least 50 revving their engines ready to be on their way. The collective hum pouring out from the engines felt like it was coming from deep within my body. I crossed and after the bikes had gone I could start to hear the faint rumbling of the hustle and bustle coming from the road I was in search of.
I arrived at the mouth of Khao San Road ready for it embrace me or chew me, swill me around and spit me out. I realise at this point that I have yet to mention why I was in search of this Road in particular. Well as you might have guessed I was in search of accommodation and had been recommended a great hostel by a friend, that hostel was the ‘Nappark @ Khao San’. In hindsight, (in which you also have 20/20 vision and it is never truer than in this moment), I wish I had searched for the location of this place in advance of the here and now as you’re about to discover.
I started my walk along the road and in this moment of discovery the bright neon signs were quite a startling thing to be presented with, they were all intricately woven together jutting out of the side of the buildings; it reminded me of an industrial rainforest except rather than the trees being in search of the sunlight the neon signs were in search of prime eyesight space.
It wasn’t long before I was approached by a stranger, I must have been a prime candidate for this approach being a fresh face and having a large backpack in tow. He was trying to sell me a suit, I politely declined, there may be a time when I fancy a suit but it was certainly not in this moment whilst in search of a bed. He wasn’t accepting my no and started to follow me trying to persuade me to peruse his wears, but it was at this point where all of the stories of these shops started playing through my mind. He offered a hand shake which took me a back a little and I again refused knowing that he may well not let me be on my way if I accepted his hand. I headed further into the narrowing street full stalls and ping pong show advertisers. I made it through the minefield relatively unscathed but did not manage to see the hostel that I wanted, I then decided to loop back around to the start of the street and have a second attempt at it. Long story short I made it through to the end of the street again still none the wiser as to where it was, maybe it wasn’t on this street despite my naïve thinking that the ‘@Khao San’ element of the name would mean that it would be on this road but this was certainly not the case.
I decided to try the next street along and a couple more off to the side but all to no avail. I turned down many a Tuk Tuk ride in the process absolutely adamant that I would find it myself. However, as time grew longer and the night grew ever darker, I circled further and further away still not happening upon the hostel. It was at this point in some quiet alley that I decided I would need a lift and spoke to the first Tuk Tuk driver I saw. He had no idea where this particular hostel was (as I later found out on my travels this is not the norm and they will try to drop you off wherever).
I rounded the corner where an offensively bright pink taxi pulled up alongside me and offered to take me where I needed to go. I asked how much his opening gambit was, his reply was 500 Baht (equivalent to about £10, not a lot for a taxi in the UK but for Thailand horrendously overpriced), I told him to forget it and turned on my heels heading back on my way. He caught up with me and said how much was I willing to pay? “50 Baht” I said, eventually we both settled on 80 Baht (still too expensive but as you can imagine at this point I was past caring). I chucked my bags in the back and hopped in, pleased to be finally heading to the hostel.
The pleased feeling I had didn’t last too long. At this point we know I was clearly very lost, after all I was picked up on a dark random street corner, but my sense of direction is usually pretty good and the direction of Khao San Road and the elusive hostel should have been somewhere off to the right. The taxi drive clearly thought otherwise as he turned the taxi left at the junction.
To settle this initial unease I frantically looked for a talking point, eventually settling on the giant Manchester United crest stuck to his dashboard. How I didn’t see it immediately I will never know, this thing was slapped across the dashboard with a blatant disregard to any taste or design. It was wonky, creased and spanned the majority of the passenger dashboard (hopefully there was no airbag in behind this as it was quite possibly one of the last things I would want to see hurtling toward me in the event of a car accident). My opening gambit could have been better formulated but in the moment it came out with a distinct Yoda like sentence structure, “Manchester, you like?”
He asked me who my team was, to which I replied Tottenham Hotspur I and in hindsight maybe this is where things might have turned for the worse. I decided it was a clever idea to bring up the fact that Tottenham had beaten Manchester United recently, which I was a little too happy about as the last time this had happened I was the tender age of 3. It was so long ago the first George Bush was president in the US, in the UK the Jive Bunnies & The Mastermixers achieved their third #1 with ’Let’s Party’ before being knocked off the top spot by the song that contained the first time we heard Bono sing that infamous line ’Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.’ Putting this into context between Tottenham wins at Old Trafford there was time for two George Bush’s to hold the US presidency and Band Aid had achieved two Christmas number ones, I was definitely within my right to enjoy the moment.
Anyway I digress, back to the moment at hand; the conversation dropped dead. Just as I searched for my next morsel of small talk without resorting to the classic Peter Kay lines as I’m sure they don’t translate as well in Thailand; I saw the driver reach into the side well of his car. I thought to myself what is he searching for, and before I know it I had my answer as he whipped around in his seat thrusting a laminated sheet of a naked Thai girl in varied positions.
I sat there aghast, unsure of how to respond. I had never received a proposition quite like this, he sensed my hesitation and decided to clarify the situation “I take you, you have sex with!” I quickly responded “No thank you, I’m not interested. I’m not here for that.” He repeated “No, I take you, you have sex with.” I reiterated again that I wasn’t interested and added “that I just wanted to get to my hostel.” The same sentences were traded back and forth with more ferocity each time until I stopped and sat in silence.
The awkward silence hung in the air for what felt like an absolute age.
I’m not sure what I was more concerned about in that maddening silence, the fact that I was being propositioned by a taxi driver to give me a lift to have sex with a Thai girl by thrusting a laminated sheet in my face, or the fact that the taxi driver was looking back over his shoulder at me with complete disregard for the road in front.
Thinking back on it why was the sheet laminated, was it to make the thing look more professional, or was it there to prevent too much wear and tear as it seemed to have regular use? I guess it wasn’t the time to ask in that moment.
The long enduring silence was brought to an abrupt close as the taxi driver huffed, threw himself around in his seat and threw the sheet back where it came from. I was unsure how this journey was going to proceed, thoughts started to wandering into my mind, like was I even heading in the right direction? etc. I wasn’t given long for these thoughts to fester as the driver yanked on the steering wheel and the car nipped into a secluded alleyway.
The alleyway seemed to resemble a scene of Gotham, one lifted directly from the page of a dark gritty Batman comic. It was narrow and very imposing, high sided buildings on either side. Even running perpendicular to a brightly lit main street, with the hustle and bustle of cars, scooters and pedestrians, full of vibrancy and colour, this alleyway was devoid of any of this, the entrance so narrow that the light was refused permission to enter.
At first glance the only route of escape was to exit to the thin strip of light that now made up the entrance. My mind was racing, running scenarios through my head at the rate of a flip book. Mugging, Kidnapping, Rape, Murder, or any combination of the four.
If it came to it I could take the cabbie on solo or even out pace him in a quick dash to the street but there could be any number of people lurking in those shadows of the alley. I sat in the cab outwardly appearing serene and calm but internally in the highest state of alert possible.
As the taxi driver turned toward me I was cocked and ready to bolt, arms looped around my bag ready to throw onto my back in the flow. As it turns out what was to come next out of his mouth wasn’t quite as sinister as I had expected; no guns, no fight, not even a struggle. He said “I don’t know where the hostel is do you have a number?”
I was bemused to say the least, once my composure was regained I was furious, I whipped out my phone and fired up the internet (fully aware this was costing me an arm and a leg) and searched for the contact details. I recited the number to him and heard the beeps from his phone as he keyed the number into his phone.
He exchanged words with the establishment for directions and before I knew it we were heading back out toward the bright lights of the street. As we neared the exit of the alleyway suddenly things started to become awash with colour. I was thankful at that moment to be relatively unscathed save the hefty phone bill for data roaming.
We drove back in the opposite direction to which we were initially heading, so I can only assume that he was taking me to the naked Thai girl from the laminated sheet believing I was a sure thing from the start. I’m not sure what vibe I gave off but I thought maybe I need to take a look at myself in the mirror.
We pulled up to the hostel and I passed the driver 100 Baht and quietly waited for my change. He looked up realising that I was not getting out and was clearly waiting for something. I piped up with a curt response of “Change please”. He looked at me and retorted “What you no give a tip?”
“No!” I exclaimed and out flowed the torrent of frustrations and annoyances of this whole journey so far.
“I am not leaving a tip and let me tell you why, you’re a Manchester United fan and while I would normally overlook that poor life choice and happily tip on this occasion I will not. I have been driven around in the wrong direction, offered sex that I didn’t ask for, then had to use my data to find the number of the hostel for you to ask them for directions, to eventually be dropped where I needed to go. So no I will most certainly not be leaving a tip as I have not really enjoyed this taxi ride. If you could please pass me my change, I will be on my way.”
Now I know 20 Baht isn’t a lot of money but it was the principal of the matter and while usually I would commend the attempt at a tip it was not going to wash this time. I received the change checked I had all of my belongings and left the vehicle to head into the hostel.
I would love this to be ending of my arrival, to tell you how I booked my stay and managed to get some rest but this part of the adventure does not end here.
I was relieved to have arrived at the hostel, feeling like I had found the Holy Grail. I queued in traditional fashion and waited to speak to the receptionist. Whilst queuing I admired the Halloween decorations until I took one step further which triggered a screaming skeleton. The thing took me by so much surprise that I leapt out of my skin and almost clean swiped it off of its perch (much to the amusement of everyone around).
It did help to strike up a conversation with the girl in front of me at the queue. We chatted about our plans, how long we were away for etc. etc. It turned out she was travelling alone too so we had that in common. It was her turn to check in and when she moved on I was up. I spoke to the guy behind the counter and requested 4 nights, he looked down at his computer, looked back up and said “We are fully booked tonight and the third night but I can book you a bed for nights 2 and 4 if you’d like?”
I appreciated him telling me this but would I really want to stay between two hotels over the course of four nights, probably not. I asked for a recommendation and he declined to give me one. Stood there not knowing what to do or where to go, I spun on my heels and spotted their computers. Google will have the answer I thought. By now somebody else was checking in who had booked in advance (thanks Katie for the advice to not worry about booking, it’s never fully booked, apparently) I motioned toward the computer and the man said go ahead.
I sat at the computer and looked for other recommendations and found another reasonable place on the next street over called the Suneta Guesthouse. I google mapped it, grabbed my bag and went in search of it, hoping that it would be easier than the search for the Nappark.
I arrived at the entrance to Suneta feeling a little bit beaten and broken by the events thus far and as I approached the hostel steps eager to put my stuff away I was confronted with a sight that used to chill me to the very core of my being. I found myself stood face to face with my dreaded adversary and decided that I had had enough and this time I would roll the dice and take that dance.
The adversary that I am talking about is my (some would say) irrational fear of elevators. Let me take you back to where this fear began. I was maybe four or five and my mother and I were on a trip to visit a friend. They lived in the Malborough House block of flats in Devonport, Plymouth, near the maisonette we lived in for a few years. For those that don’t know the area, this is a 12 storey high building built in 1974, consisting of one and two bedroom flats. Anyway I can’t remember which floor they lived on but it was high enough that my Mum refused to take the stairs. We entered the lift, it was us and a man that I believed to be homeless, or certainly had the look of a man down on his luck with a scruffy oversized coat and an unpleasant odour emanating from him. He made the late dash to join us in the lift before the doors imminent closure, he made it by the skin of his teeth with the cords of his coat being stuck in the doors.
The pungent smell filled the elevator with such rapidity that it was impossible to escape. The lift started to travel up and reached its first destination. It is here where my Mum and I will disagree about how this story finishes.
She had said the doors wouldn’t open but that they were only jammed for a few seconds a matter of minutes at most.
To me it was much longer before we were freed. I don’t know whether this was due to my youthful exuberance, you know the kind where everything seems much larger, longer and bigger at that age; just like the feeling of heading back to primary school and having to sit in the tiny chairs, getting the perspective of how things must appear from a child at that age where the school playground seemed to go on forever, or when you pop out to the car for two minutes and that time to your dog is the longest time ever, like you have been gone for days as they greet you full of excitement buzzing around your feet.
That moment was where the seed of my fear of the elevator was planted. I mentioned earlier that this might be seen as irrational but it is just a large metal coffin suspended by cable that in my mind could break at any time, I knew it wouldn’t but that didn’t matter.
Back to the elevator in Thailand, the way my day was going that day it could well have been that time for the lift to drop like the Tower of Terror at Disneyland but I was too exhausted to worry about it. I stepped into that lift and rode it the two floors to reception. That was the day that led my progression to conquering the elevator fear.
I booked my 4 nights’ stay, was shown to my bed; which was a lockable cabin bed. Something very different, but quite clever. I threw my bag onto the bed, wrote in my journal/ changed and headed out to see what a night on Khao San Road would be like.
If you want to hear more tales from this trip around then please pre-order the book. Much Love Jamie