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A Helluva Long Way to Do Nothing

A Thai Trip Journal, 1989
Part II: Orient Orientation

Flying, it turned out, was pretty exhausting, but otherwise not too difficult. I certainly had lots of time to read, and as it happened my flight wasn't terribly crowded. My plane flew from Chicago to Seattle, then to Tokyo. The only really rough spot was shortly after we left Tokyo. At the Tokyo layover, I had taken my first antimalarial (doxycycline), and it hadn't agreed with me at all. For a few minutes, as the plane was winding up through the sky above Japan, I really thought I was going to throw up. Luckily, it didn't happen.

I also got a little lucky with seating: I wound up at the very back of the plane, with an empty seat beside me. I was able to stretch out across both seats and sleep a little in relative comfort. Somewhere over the Pacific I awoke, feeling grimy and disgusting. And at that very instant, one of the flight attendants began to make her way down the aisle with hot towels. Ahhh, now that is service.

Later, as the plane began its descent into Bangkok, I felt a nervous thrill in my stomach. It's hard to describe. Perhaps experienced travelers don't feel it: it's a mixture of tension and elation, anxiety and delight.

The plane landed and taxied to the terminal. As we waited to disembark, I struck up a conversation with a Thai woman named Priah. Priah had been living in the U.S. "Back to feeling like a giant," she said. "No Thai woman is five-foot-nine." Meanwhile, another young Thai woman, apparently feeling roughly the same way I had felt leaving Tokyo, gagged, clamped her hand over her mouth, and bolted back toward the bathroom.

Then the aisle ahead of me cleared, I walked off the plane, and, on the night of August 15, 1989, for the first time in my life set foot in Southeast Asia.

After clearing customs, I had no clue where to go or what to do. This, of course, led to the realization that other people plan ahead for a reason. Hmmmm, I thought, perhaps next time I'll try some of this so-called "advance planning."

At the suggestion of the woman at the hotel reservations counter at the airport, I stayed at the Golden Dragon Hotel. It was a nice, clean place, almost too Westernized. In the elevator on the way up to the room, the bellhop (or whatever the hell you call those guys) had a question for me. "You want massage?"

No thanks... sleep seemed like a better option.

The beds were rock-hard, but I was too tired to care. What was more disturbing was the air conditioner: its sound was uncomfortably similar to the hum of a jet engine. By the time I got to Bangkok I was pretty much sick of being on the plane, and the sound created a disquieting sense of deja vu.

I fell asleep for a while, then awoke at about 5:30 AM. There was a TV in the room, and I turned it on, but the first channels I tried were all off the air. Then I pressed a button labelled "VDO-1," and a picture appeared. The first thing I saw was a blond-haried man with a gun. I caught a glimpse of his face and thought, "That looks like Chuck Norris." He was running through a train, and I thought, "That looks like the CTA. Christ, that is the CTA! This is Code of Silence." The CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) is the public transportation in my own sweet home of Chicago. I had travelled halfway around the world, turned on the TV for a quick glimpse of foreign culture, and the first thing I saw was the same damn train that I had ridden to the airport.

The next morning I took a taxi into Bangkok itself (the Golden Dragon is, I think, in an adjoining suburb) and got out at Lumpini Park, which I knew was within walking distance of the Malaysia Hotel. The Malaysia was highly recommended in the Lonely Planet guide, and it seemed like a good place to begin looking for a hotel.

Why didn't I just ask to be taken to the hotel?? Looking back, I have no idea. Maybe I just wanted to walk around a little... maybe I figured the taxi driver wouldn't necessarily know where the Malaysia was. OK... I'll admit it... this was dumb, dumb, dumb.

I began walking down Rama IV Road in the direction of the Malaysia... or at least what I assumed was the direction. (Later I would discover that I had started out in the right direction, but the street names on the road signs were not spelled the same as on the map in my little Lonely Planet guide, so I actually walked past the street I was looking for.) I walked, and walked, and walked, in stifling tropical heat, carrying all of my luggage, and finally I turned around and went back to exactly where I had started an hour earlier. No sign of the hotel. Screw it... I flagged down a cab and asked to go to the Malaysia. The driver, naturally, knew exactly where it was, and even if he hadn't, it would have been worth getting into the cab just to feel the air conditioning.

The Malaysia, of course, was full. No matter: there were plenty of rooms available right across the street, at the Tungmahamek Privacy Hotel. It was cheap (250 baht, about $10 US at the time), and it looked exactly like one would expect a cheap Bangkok hotel room to look. I was delighted. By now it was early afternoon, and I turned on the air conditioner and laid down on one of the beds. Surrendering to jet lag, I slept for five hours.

When I awoke in the evening, I was still physically exhausted. I spent much of that evening reading, then ate supper at the hotel restaurant and went back to bed.

Waking up on Thursday morning, I took my first really close look at the bathroom. It was a bit on the soggy side. The toilet leaked where the water line (a blue PVC pipe stretched along the floor) came into the tank, and at two places along the base. The base was patched all the way around with a layer of putty about an inch thick. The toilet was supposed to be flushed by pulling up a knob on the top of the tank. The knob, however, was completely jammed, and the only way to flush the toilet was by unscrewing the knob, pulling the lid off the tank, and lifting the metal rod that stretches up to the knob. The sink was also interesting: it leaked from both of its water lines, and from the drain. The sink and toilet combined guarantee that the floor is always wet. Fortunately, the hotel kindly provides two pairs of sandals. Another interesting feature is the plastic bowl on a shelf over the sink. My first reaction was, "Great. A food dish for my dog." Then I realized that you needed the bowl if you wanted to shave. If you filled up the sink with water, it poured all over the floor when you tried to drain it; so instead, you used the bowl, then poured it down the bathtub drain. The bathtub worked relatively well: it drained OK and didn't leak. The water heater was peculiar to my American eyes: it was a small electric point-of-use heater suspended on a wall above the faucet. You turned it on with a pushbutton switch attached to the wall beside the heater. Not really a fun idea when you considered that you were standing on a soaking wet floor.

After walking around the city a little, I'm struck by a few other thoughts about Bangkok in general:

The traffic is unbelievable. It is frantic. I lack the words to describe it. Cars and bumper to bumper, but they move at highway speeds all the time. Taxis and tuk-tuks - little canopied three-wheelers, sort of like golf carts on steroids - are all over. There are swarms of tiny motorcycles, mostly 125cc bikes with cafe racer styling and two-stroke engines. They seem to travel in packs, clouding the air with acrid blue smoke, splitting your ears with a chainsaw scream. They careen past the rest of the traffic, splitting lanes, narrowly dodging each other. Apparently, they fall prey to the other traffic fairly often: on Rama IV Road, I saw a truck with a massive heap of battered motorcycle wheels and tires piled in the back end.

I can't help but suspect that pedestrians fall prey to the traffic pretty often, too. In many places there are no sidewalks, and it isn't just the large throughfares that are busy. Everything is packed with traffic. Tiny little side streets, no bigger than the alleys in American cities, are packed with the same hordes of motorcycles, cars, and tuk-tuks as the main roads. There are practically no stop lights. As far as I can tell, every hour is rush hour. I've been out walking as early as 7 AM and as late as 10:30 PM, and the traffic is the same. For an American, trying to cross the street is doubly disconcerting because everyone drives on the left side of the road. That renders all our instincts wrong. Whenever we want to cross the street, we instinctively look the wrong way first, and start to step into what we think is an empty street. It's bewildering. Imagine crossing a busy highway during rush hour, against the light, wearing your shoes on the wrong feet, while drunk, with a patch over one eye. That's the Bangkok Pedestrian Experience.

I get the impression that there must be a total of no more than ten traffic laws here, and most cars only take about five of them seriously. The motorcyclists, on the other hand, don't take any of them seriously. Apparently, if it's flat, you're free to ride across it. Lots of motorcycles park on the sidewalk, and of course that necessitates a certain amount of riding on the sidewalk.

It took me several days to realize why the motorcycles seemed to travel in packs: Whenever the rest of the traffic stops, the motorcycles split lanes and pull up to the front. Then the light changes and the motorcycles scream away in a tight pack, leaving the cars behind them under a haze of two-stroke smoke.

Oh, and another thing that strikes me as odd: most passengers on the motorcycles ride sidesaddle. It seems insane to me; the only explanation I can think of is that many of the passengers are women, and that they formed the habit of riding in that posture when they were wearing long sarongs.

And the traffic was just the beginning. The heat took its toll on me, too, as did the pollution. And to make matters worse, shortly after I arrived, my throat began to ache. For days, it felt as if it were burning: dry, scratchy, and hot.

Oh, and one more problem... a big problem.

My camera broke.

I hadn't tried to take any pictures on Monday or Tuesday. Then, on Wednesday morning, I unpacked my beloved Ricoh XR-7, threaded a fresh roll of film, pressed the shutter button. The mirror inside the camera flipped up... and stayed there. It didn't come back down. The film wouldn't advance. It was D.O.A. Dead, dead as a doornail, dead as a coffin nail. I begged, pleaded, I smacked the back, trying to coax it back to life. Nothing.

I tracked down a repair shop and dropped it off, not being terribly optimistic about the likelihood of actually getting it fixed. In the meantime, I bought a cheap $30 fixed-focus Kodak. And I did see a shop with a Yashica Electro 35 for sale for 4500 baht... hmm...

Meanwhile, I put in a call to my friend's friend, the one working with the Thai government. Bad news... he was no longer working with along the Thai-Cambodian border. But, he said, don't worry. The thing to do would be to go see the people at the Joint Voluntary Agency in Bangkok. The JVA was the US State Department's program for documenting and screening refugees. Someone at the JVA would be able to arrange a visit.

Somewhere in the back of my head, a little voice was starting to say, "You should have planned this trip a little more carefully." No matter... there are lots of voices in my head, and I never listen to any of them.

Each day I spent some time just walking around, getting a feel for the city. Lumpini Park, not far from my hotel, turned out to be one of the surprise pleasures of the area. Located on Rama IV Road, it's a large, peaceful area of palm trees, a pond, and gazebos. Best of all, it's quiet: you can go into the center of the park, sit down in the shade, and you're far enough from the street that the traffic noise isn't splitting your eardrums. At one point, while I was in the park, I saw a woman taking a picture of her husband and child. With hand gestures I asked if they would like me to take a picture of the three of them together. They nodded, and without speaking, showed me the shutter button on the camera. I took the picture and handed back the camera. "Thank you," the man said, in English. "You're welcome," I replied. I don't know why, but for some reason, that little encounter greatly improved my mood.

On Friday afternoon, August 18, I went out for a walk, ultimately winding up at the corner of Rama IV road and Maha Nakhom. There was a group of buildings set back slightly from the street, all styled somewhat like small Buddhist temples. There were lots of stands set up, selling clothing and trinkets. As I went around the corner, I saw that one of these buildings had hundreds of photos pasted on the windows. There was Thai and Chinese writing above the windows, and an article from the English-language Bangkok Post. I walked closer to see what the photos were.

I couldn't believe my eyes.

Smashed cars. Train wrecks. Corpses. Mutilated bodies. Bleeding children. There were hundreds of them: graphic, grotesque, horrifying images. A police officer walking out of a river, carrying a pair of severed legs. A woman pinned in the wreckage of a crushed automobile. A human body, burning before a pile of wreckage in the street. A man lying in the road, one side of his head gone, smashed on the pavement.

What the hell was this place? I leaned closer to read the article from the Post. It was dated October 1988, and it was basically a "personality" piece about a Thai movie star who, in his spare time, volunteered for relief agencies. I surmised from the article that these agencies were somewhat similar to the Red Cross. The story described how, for about ten years, this man had been working on the scene of disasters, rescuing victims and recovering bodies. His work went unnoticed until someone recognized him at the scene of a building collapse, hammering away at a pillar that had pinned three people.

(Many, many years later, I came to a slightly different conclusion about exactly what this place was. I think now it was the home of "body snatchers." In Tiziano Terzani's book A Fortune-Teller Told Me , Terzani relates that Thai Buddhists believe that the souls of those who die violently cannot rest until the proper ceremony has been performed, and this ceremony must be performed promptly. For this reason, various organizations -- perhaps like the one I saw -- had volunteers waiting throughout the city, ready to recover the bodies and perform the appropriate last rites.)

I turned away from the photos, looking down at the ground in front of me. Directly before me, there was a sleeping kitten. My first reaction was something like relief, or even delight. Here was something pleasant, something alive. I noticed three more kittens nearby; then, looking at them, I realized that they were all much too thin. One kitten looked up at me, and it seemed as if it could barely hold up its head. My heart sank.

I walked into the building. Inside the building, there were four people seated at small tables. At the front of each table there was a sign with chinese lettering on top, and one word in English on the bottom: "Contributions."

I approached a man at one of the tables. "Speak English?" I asked quietly.

He shook his head no. I asked another woman; she also shook her head. I put a ten-baht note down on the man's table and left. I felt like saying, "Feed those kittens, goddammit. And take down those fucking pictures."

After I left I walked a little more, wandering around a few small alleys. (What's an alley, and what's a street here? I have no idea.) An old woman was washing clothes in a metal tub outside a decrepit two-story shanty. As a came back around to Rama IV, I was a rat scurry past a cart from which a young girl was selling food. The rat was about the same size as the kittens, and in much better health.

The next day I also went out walking. My original plan was to walk until I got tired, then take a taxi to Wat Phra Kaew, one of the most ornate temples in Bangkok. I headed up Rama IV, then to Charoen Krung. Charoen Krung took me through Bangkok's Chinatown. The street becomes very narrow, and it's crowded with sidewalk stands. English writing - common in the tourist areas of Bangkok - disappears almost completely. Both sides of the street were packed with small stores, selling fabrics and jewelry. Several places were selling caskets. A couple places were selling live chicks -- tiny, chirping balls of yellow fluff, kept in big woven pens shaped like a child's play pool.

Farther on, I passed a theatre showing "Nightmare on Elm Street 4." (Nice to know that the lowest common denominator of American cinema is popular worldwide, huh?) I also passed a gun shop. A poster in the window showed a picture of a mud-splattered commando, clutching an automatic rifle. The writing on the poster was in English: "AT FREEDOM'S SIDE. Colt M16A2 - The most proven 5.56mm combat rifle in the world."

Nearby, I stopped in a small park, and bought a Sprite from a woman selling soft drinks on the sidewalk. Vendors throughout the city sell all kinds of food from small carts. Drinks are usually in bottles, but when you buy one, they fill up a plastic bag with ice, pour the contents of the bottle inside, stick a straw in, and tie the whole thing up with a rubber band. My Thai friend had warned me beforehand not to trust the ice to be pure... a troubling thought given that it is inevitably melting into your drink.

I walked into the park and sat down, not really having any idea where I was. A Thai man began talking with me in English; I asked him how much farther to Wat Phra Kaew, and it turned out that it was directly on the other side of the park. I had probably walked about four miles.

Wat Phra Kaew and the nearby Wat Pho are impressive, but they suffer a little from a "tourist trap" feel. After wandering around the grounds for a little while and taking in a few oddities (The temple has a basketball court?? If the church I went to as a kid had a basketball court, I might still be religious.), and after ooohing and aaahing the requisite number of times (Oooh... a big reclining Buddha! Aaaah... stuff covered with gold!) I walked toward Wat Arun, on the other side of the river. Not having had the good sense to study a map, I didn't realize that there was no bridge anywhere nearby. At the side of the river, I started talking with two women, Dawn and Fiona, from London. The three of us, and another girl from Italy whose name I can't recall - went for a short trip up the river and through the khlongs (canals) on a "James Bond boat," so-called because such a boat had been featured in a James Bond movie years earlier. The khlongs were interesting. They were lined on both sides with houses, some fairly nice, but most pathetically rundown. Children would wave at us as we went by. At one point, there were three or four kids swimming in the khlong, and one boy - maybe eight or nine years old - was walking down the steps to a pier, carrying a younger, naked boy. He threw the boy into the water, laughing, and the boy swam back to the pier: A picture of life in Bangkok.

The boat left us on the other side of the river. After looking over Wat Arun, I walked back to another street, wandering with no real destination for a while. Eventually, on Israhap Road, I caught a taxi. Eighty baht to take me back to the hotel, he said. Fine... much better than walking another four miles. "Why do you come here?" he asked. His English was fairly good. "Here, this part of Bangkok... no tourists come here." I told him that I had just started walking, and kept going for no particular reason. He was shocked to learn that I had walked all the way from the hotel.

Back at the hotel, I relaxed and read, and stayed put for most of the following day as well, reading Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War. I was feeling a little fatigued, and on Monday, too, I didn't do much aside from a little walking. I went to check on my camera, but there was still no word as to whether or not it could be repaired.

On Tuesday, I went to the Joint Voluntary Agency and, from the looks of things, succeeded in getting a pass to get into Khao-I-Dang on the 29th, and Chonburi on the 31st. (Oh, but looks can be deceiving...) The timing of the visits is rather bad; between waiting to get my camera fixed and waiting to get the passes, I'll be stuck languishing in Bangkok.

Oh, well. If I feel bad about my inability to organize this trip, at least I know I'm not alone. While I was at the JVA, two women came in, both thoroughly flustered. They explained to the receptionist that they were journalists who had been given passes to Site 2 and Site 8, but they had just come back from the bus station and couldn't figure out what bus to take to get there. Seeing someone else bewildered and angry over a relatively minor problem made me feel a little better. At least my own inadequacies are shared by a few other people.

The following morning, I got a change of scenery: the hotel moved me to a new room because they wanted to work on the plumbing in my old Room 310. (What??? You mean there's a problem with the plumbing??) I'm now in room 316, and it's a bit nicer. It's smaller, but the bathroom is a big improvement. There are no water leaks, and the water heater is bigger, too. Who knows... I might even be able to take a genuine hot bath here. But the main thing about moving to a new room: it makes me feel mobile. Hey... a travelin' guy, that's me...

On Thursday, I checked on my Ricoh once again. They still didn't know what was wrong with it, and I gave up any hope of having it repaired in Bangkok. I went to another shop and bought a Yashica Electro 35. The Electro 35 was a 1960s-design, rangefinder camera. I had no idea that it was still being made; its main appeal, for me, was that it was a camera that I was intimately familiar with. At 4000 bhat (about $160 US) it was fairly affordable. And, of course, it was way less embarrassing to carry around than the tiny little toy Kodak I'd been shooting with for the previous week. (OK, 'fess up... that little cheap Kodak actually took halfway decent pictures.)

A few random thoughts, written down as they strike me, Friday, August 25:

Buildings in Bangkok are often bizarre. They have a crazy-quilt look to them, as if the builders would complete the building, then suddenly say, "Hey! Wait! There's some more space over there! Let's add something else on!" And then they would add another porch or another storey or another lean-to, built out of whatever materials happened to be lying around. The result often looks awful, but it makes me admire the Thais' ability to improvise.


This article contains eight parts:
Part One: Get Your Wings
Part Two: Orient Orientation
Part Three: The Colonials
Part Four: The Singapore Guys
Part Five: The Least-Laid Plans
Part Six: Doing Nothing at the Border
Part Seven: Back to Bangkok
Part Eight: Ayutthaya, Bang Pa-in, and Home