One Baht Bet

by Jon on July 23, 2011

[Story starts here] I was aware that a motley band of like-minded scoundrels, including my brother, were already raising hell in Bangkok, and when we finally caught up with them it was three in the afternoon and they were deathly hungover. Such a term is relative, however. Whereas when you’re at home ‘deathly hungover’ means camping out on your couch, ordering a pizza and watching True Blood reruns for the next twelve hours or until you stop hating yourself, in Khaosan it means about ninety minutes of low-grade self-pity followed by a further twelve hours of heavy drinking – and that through a straw, because it’s Buddha Day and we must keep up appearances.

I believe this is one of those times where one can quite confidently say something is worse than it looks. And it looks pretty bad. These guys are in rough shape.

Tana orders two buckets of Chang. There is some random but half-hearted groaning from behind sunglasses, and then the straws are passed around and resignation sets in. So it begins.

Things continue at a fairly good clip for a few hours. We trade one bar for another, somehow manage to identify the most expensive riverfront restaurant in the entire city and eat at it, and then reconvene at Khaosan Road to see where the evening takes us. It takes us nowhere good. There’s an awful lot of Chang involved, some of it delivered in towers, all of it in defiance of the Buddha. At one point we’re involved in a card game. There may or may not have been a snake. A guy with a monkey tries to sell me what he claims is fruit, but I’m convinced is some kind of giant insect egg. We revisit the quality of pad thai that can be acquired from street vendors for 20 baht – about 66 Canadian cents. Turns out it’s surprisingly good when you lack any kind of culinary objectivity. We change bars five or six times, from patios to backrooms to rooftops to the street.

And while all this is going on, these guys are playing a game: they bet each other to do stupid shit for one baht and some glory – a practice that soon came to be known as one-baht betting. They goad each other into eating deep-fried insects, bribing street vendors, making strange proclamations loudly and at inappropriate moments, and performing general shenanigans to the amusement of tourists and locals like – all for the hell of it and one baht (about a third of a Canadian cent), and some video footage that is probably best forgotten. I suck at this game, a fact they won’t soon let me forget, but these guys are disturbingly good at it. They’ll do anything. All it takes is about fifty Changs and twelve cents in Thai change for hours of entertainment. It’s like being back in college.

Meanwhile, all around us Khaosan Road exists: a mind-numbing riot of sound and texture and aroma and colour that is so utterly chaotic it finds its own strange kind of order. Society is represented in cross-section: from destitute backpackers and the poverty stricken, to ladyboys, prostitutes and the working class, to rich Euro travelers, American college students and Eastern Bloc refugees. It’s a filthy hot mess of every type of human imaginable, most of them unwashed, sipping dirt-cheap alcohol through a straw and suffering from mild sensory overload. This bizarre and vibrant chaos continues well into the early hours, and even after the street vendors have gone home there are still pockets of revelers and stray dogs who just aren’t willing to let go. When the bars finally close people sell beer out of coolers. No one seems to mind. Police presence is minimal at best. If there are no rules, what is there to enforce? And somehow it all works: while I’m sure crime and violence exist, I saw no evidence of either. Khaosan and its inhabitants maintain a base level of decency and hospitality that continue until first light, when street vendors begin to reappear and the show starts all over again.

What a life.


Good Morning, Bangkok

by Jon on July 20, 2011

[Story starts here] At some point a few hours later, a phone rings from the end of a very long tunnel. My iPhone alarm was set for nine, but somehow instead of hitting snooze I managed to swipe in and turn it off without waking up – a clever trick, but not very useful. Now it’s 9:45am, forty-five minutes after we agreed to meet in my hotel lobby, and it’s the room phone making all the noise. I fumble the receiver to my ear.

“Didn’t arrange a wake-up call, did you,” says Tana, presumably from the lobby phone. She should be feeling smug, but I’m not sure she’s capable of it. I’m not capable of processing verbal communication, so I say something incomprehensible (it may have made sense in Thai) and then hang up and attempt to get started. The mirror is not my friend: I look like I haven’t been to sleep in three days, which is only a few hours shy of the truth. I don’t have a hangover, but figure one will arrive in due course. In this, at least, I am correct.

The breakfast buffet presents, among other things, green curry with chicken, which I inhale along with a black coffee, half a yoghurt and little to no consideration for the way in which these items may interact, and then we’re out on the street. It’s my first exposure to Bangkok in daylight, and the first thing I notice is the temperature. Stay in air-conditioning overnight and it’s easy to forget you’re in a controlled climate. As soon as we step outside, though, the heat slaps me in the face like a wet dishcloth. The air feels so humid, it’s almost like breathing liquid, a liquid infused with the second thing I notice: the smell. It’s dog shit, sewage, fresh fruit, rotting seafood, deep-fried meat, gasoline, engine exhaust, wet animal, body odour, cut flowers, lime zest, river grime and a thousand other smells in an immensely heavy, complex, layered blanket of odours that run together into the olfactory equivalent of greeny-brown sludge. As a sensory experience it’s pretty spectacular.


I inhale mightily of the greeny-brown sludge as we trudge a few blocks south, resenting yoghurt. We make it to the rally point at seven minutes after ten. None of the gang is present. I don’t really care about missing a snake show, but I do find it odd that our window of abandonment is less than seven minutes. Later I find out that apart from one they’re all still asleep, and will be until three that afternoon. When they do eventually emerge, around the same time as my hangover, it’s more or less the hour for a Chang. This timing sets a precedent for the days ahead. And to be fair, Khaosan Road is a place best experienced at night, so a case can be made for abandoning oneself to nocturnal habits. It seems to work for everyone else.


At lunch, in a busy courtyard cafe filled with statues, another problem presents itself: the Buddhist community in Thailand celebrates many holy days throughout the year, and today is one of them. Inexplicably, beer is not allowed. Wine and spirits, yes; beer, not so much. Once again the issue evaporates before it coalesces: a brief and conspiratorial exchange occurs between my guide and the server, and wheels are mysteriously set in motion. The server puts hand to mouth and titters like a schoolgirl. Then she vanishes, reappearing shortly thereafter with a giant bottle of Tiger beer and two chipped teacups. The cups go on the table, the beer in the cups; the half empty bottle she hides under the table, concealed by the tablecloth, before darting away with a furtive smile. And thus we defy Thai custom, restaurant management and the Buddha himself, all in one easy 5% hit.

“I don’t get it,” I say. “I thought Buddha was a jovial fellow who sought the path to true happiness through enlightenment. If he was here, would he not offer us beer and say ‘Drink, my friends! Drink and be happy!’”

Tana gives me a look to suggest if you’re lucky enough to wangle a beer on Buddha Day, maybe you should just drink it and keep your mouth shut. I do so. Later she repeats the secret beer trick at another bar, only instead of teacups there’s a bucket and a series of very long straws, which sounds a lot worse than it actually is, but makes everyone very happy. The trend continues well into the evening.


After finally meeting up with everyone else, there’s more Tiger at an outdoor cafe where we recline on beanbags in a gently illuminated courtyard by the river. Here they have no Buddha statue behind the bar and much less compunction about serving beer, which they proceed to do in a large tower. That was the first mistake. The second through ninth mistakes all involve Khaosan Road at night, which is what happens to us next.


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