Warning: this post contains reminiscing, flashbacks, history and possibly a rant or two. Usually when I start talking about how Bangkok or anywhere else used to be in the good old days with people younger than myself, they make a pitying look that suggests I should sit down and take a rest.
Once upon a time in Bangkok…
—On Khao San Road a big black taxi like the kind seen in London was parked on the street—this by itself is hard to imagine now with it’s space-intensive commerce—and a wire ran from a telephone office up and over and down into the car and that was your phone booth to make international calls.
—I visited the world’s largest restaurant, Tum Nak Thai, which has long since closed. I don’t remember the food or the entertainment on the stage in the middle of a man-made lake, but I will never forget the waiters and waitresses, everyone on roller skates, racing each other back to the kitchen after serving the food and all the subsequent crashes and near misses.
—Before the internet, every morning we all made a pilgrimage on the Chao Phraya River ferry boat to the main post office to see if letters had arrived for us. It was the poste restante feeding time. Those lucky enough to get letters read them immediately on the GPO steps. We commiserated with those who got no mail, who had to do the same routine the next day.
—Before bus drivers and ticket takers had spiffy uniforms and special, government-issue belt buckles, a shoeless kid barely a meter tall would be roaming the bus and selling tickets. While the driver went careening insanely around a corner and the passengers held on for dear life waiting for an axel to snap, the kid could stand in the middle of the bus, take money and issue a ticket without touching anything and without watching the driver, he was so skillful. What does a kid with such talent do later in life?
Everyone has a Bangkok story. It’s this kind of place: once a girl came up to me and asked if I was in Greece two years earlier. And I was.
On a recent trip I couldn’t sleep and at 5am wandered the streets of the Khao San Road area. It was another world. The ladyboys were out in droves, as were quite a few backpackers looking to meet them. I kept walking along Soi Rambuttri and behind the temple came across three western men and a Thai girl, all very bloodied and bruised and in great pain, writhing on the street. It was a sickening scene. Apparently there had been an argument with some Thais and by the time I came, an incensed Thai guy had reappeared with a wooden club. A growing crowd of us gasped and didn’t know what to do. A brave Frenchman approached the Thai and somehow got him to at least put the club down. More people came and the situation was diffused enough that the Frenchman and I left to go to the police station where they seemed uninterested. As we split up, the Frenchman said to me, “I wish you courage.”
It was the right thing to say; the truth hurt.