Shortly after arriving at my guesthouse near Khao San Road, I revisited some of the places that I discovered during my last trip to Bangkok: a barber for a haircut and shave; a massage parlor for a traditional Thai massage; and a favorite street food vendor for chicken pad thai. The Banglamphu neighborhood felt familiar, and since I had already been sightseeing in Bangkok, this visit was about relaxing.
Khao San Road is the epicenter of the Banana Pancake Trail for backpackers. The road is packed with budget guesthouses, food stalls, restaurants, bars, massage parlors, and t-shirt shops. Late in the evening when the street grows crowded, food hawkers sell barbecued insects, tuk tuk drivers sell ping pong shows, and Akha women sell croaking, wooden frogs. Understandably, the scene isn’t for everyone. Expats living in Bangkok stay in modern parts of Sukhumvit and Silom, and upscale tourists avoid Khao San Road as they would any seedy neighborhood. Why do I like Khao San Road? Because it’s a great place to meet fellow backpackers. A character in Alex Garland’s novel “The Beach” said it best: “You know, Richard, one of these days I’m going to find one of those Lonely Planet writers and I’m going to ask him, what’s so fucking lonely about the Khao San Road?”.
Bangkok is a polluted, traffic jammed metropolis, but in the early part of the 20th century it was known as the “Venice of the East”. Canals feeding off the Chao Praya River crisscrossed the city, enabling effective transportation by way of boat. The canals were filled in to make roads, creating the gridlock that Bangkok is plagued with today. On the Chao Praya River, opposite the skyscrapers of the financial district, a network of canals still exist. A group of us hired a longtail boat to see the remaining “Venice of the East”. Before entering the canals, we waited 15 minutes to pass through a lock which safeguards the houses along the canal from flooding. After passing through the lock, we slowly motored through the narrow canals, which are lined with temples, schools, restaurants, dilapidated houses, and grand mansions. Early in the boat ride, we stopped at one of the floating markets and bought Singha beers. Later when our boatman opened up the throttle, I was reminded of the longtail boat chase sequence in the James Bond film “The Man with the Golden Gun”. The longtail boat ride provided a glimpse of how life used to be throughout Bangkok and was a welcome change from the bustle on the other side of the river.
Most of my time in Bangkok was spent doing the stereotypical backpacker activities. I ate banana pancakes for breakfast, indulged in daily massages, and downed Chang beers at the bars around Khao San Road. I even ate a scorpion. I didn’t feel bad about missing out on cultural experiences, because I had done that two years earlier. Instead of rushing between tourist attractions, I simply relaxed and enjoyed the nightlife. Let me conclude with an excerpt from One Night in Bangkok, a 1984 hit song from Murray Head’s Chess album.
I don’t see you guys rating
The kind of mate I’m contemplating
I’d let you watch, I would invite you
But the queens we use would not excite you
So you better go back to your bars, your temples
Your massage parlours
One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster
The bars are temples but the pearls ain’t free
You’ll find a god in every golden cloister
And if you’re lucky then the god’s a she
I can feel an angel sliding up to me
One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble
Not much between despair and ecstasy
One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble
Can’t be too careful with your company
I can feel the devil walking next to me