I arrive in Bangkok on July 14 at about 9:30pm after an uneventful transit, and with very little idea about the immediate future. Customs and immigration are a non-event: Thailand is indifferent to my arrival. Upwards of ten million people visit the Land of Smiles every year, so I try not to take this personally.
At the taxi stand I have an awkward conversation with a custodian about my intended destination. While I have no illusions about how much English may or may not be spoken here, I don’t expect to be bunting the language barrier so soon. However, the issue promptly evaporates when I feel a tap on my shoulder and turn to find the solution to all the problems I don’t yet realize I have.
“Excuse me,” says the girl behind me in near-perfect English, “did you just say you were going to Khaosan?”
“Yup!” I say, sizing her up. She’s about 5’9″ and has a single suitcase which is almost as big as she is. The suitcase sits upright on the pavement next to her like a giant black refrigerator. She has a big, disarming smile, like a stewardess. Despite her language mastery, she’s clearly Thai.
“Great, so am I! Want to share a taxi?”
I have a momentary flashback to the film Taken in which two girls are approached at a Charles de Gaulle taxi rank with an offer to share a cab into Paris; bad things shortly follow, some of them involving heroin and automatic weapons. But, I reason, I’m bigger than her (although perhaps not bigger than whatever is in that suitcase) and I have no idea where Khaosan is, so let’s live dangerously and give the Thai stewardess what she wants.
The cab driver employs brute force to get the immense suitcase onto the roof of his taxi (it won’t fit anywhere else) and we’re shortly on the freeway. We introduce ourselves – her name is Tana – and put our heads together to figure out what’s supposed to happen next. Then she slips into Thai to converse with the driver – a fortunate thing, since based on my brief exchanges with him he appears to speak slightly less English than one of my cats. It’s my first real exposure to the Thai language, and my initial reaction is that it’s rather attractive – none of the harshness of Mandarin or Japanese, and less guttural than Korean. I will later discover that Thai can sound quite diversely different depending on who’s speaking it: in Tana’s mezzo, somewhat lilting voice it ebbs and flows with considerable elegance. On other less-refined tongues it can be abrasive and twangy, not at all a soothing experience.
The dialogue between the two Thais resurfaces from time to time as we pass through two tollgates and down a long highway punctuated by massive illuminated billboards. As soon as we leave the highway I’m immediately lost – apparently the Cartesian grid had yet to be invented at the time of Bangkok’s inception, and it’s as if every street intersects its neighbours at an arbitrary angle. Very little effort seems to go into urban planning. It’s all a haphazard, random placement of stuff landing in places by accident and never moving thereafter. I’ll soon discover that this seeming indifference is characteristic of Thailand: things fall where they may, and that’s good enough. It can be endearing or maddening, depending on context and blood-alcohol content.
As it turns out, Tana’s English is so good because she’s just getting home for the first time after six years in the US. When I tell her it’s my first time in Bangkok, she admits she sees things in much the same way. Great, I figure. Now we’re both lost. Of course, we’re anything but. We arrive some time later at Khaosan for a fixed rate, with none of the extra stops at fake jewellery stores, ping-pong shows or other such scam magnets that the internet would have you believe you’re destined for. It all feels a little bit too easy.
Tana’s family has no idea she’s back in Thailand – they live in the north and it’s supposed to be a surprise – so she decides to stick around for a while. My brother and his friends, who’ve been loose in Khaosan for two days already, are MIA. I get text messages from them, but the messages arrive out of order, making coordination impossible. Our reunion will have to wait one more day. Instead we find somewhere to stay, and then it’s time for food (my first real Thai food, in real Thailand!) in a courtyard restaurant known to my new local guide, followed by some drinks at a club.
Things are a bit of a blur after that: I have vague recollections of befriending other random travellers, cocktails that appear suspiciously on fire, seeing ladyboys catfight at Gulliver’s, getting a free shot of something acrid at Khaosan Center while the bartender made snide comments about how Tana should find a nice Thai boy (she denies he said that, but using my extensive knowledge of Thai it was clearly discernible – heh). At one stage we were drinking cold Changs from a cooler while sitting on the sidewalk of Khaosan Road in the early hours in a circle of American backpackers, one of whom had a guitar, a passable voice and a soft spot for Coldplay and U2, while Tana struck up an oddly purposeless conversation with a homeless little-person who claimed she was pregnant and wanted to sell us something deep-fried and with far too many legs. If all of this seems impossibly surreal to you I understand, but who knows. Maybe there are people who really do like Coldplay when drunk on Chang.
I spend the entire evening in that kind of new-city-confusion-of-place haze you get whenever you’ve landed somewhere alien while sleep-deprived. When it’s finally time for rest I’ve been awake about thirty-six hours. We wander back to our respective abodes around 5am, with plans to meet the gang in about five hours time for – I don’t know, some kind of snake show? The text messages are a little hazy on the details, and my brain is a little hazy on the Roman alphabet. I somehow locate my room and fall into bed, still dressed, and neglecting to arrange a wakeup call.