[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.