Everyone starts on Khao San Road. It is where Richard met Daffy in The Beach; “a decompression chamber,” Garland called it, “for those about to leave or enter Thailand, a halfway house between east and West”.
It bustled with travellers coming and going. They arrived, pale and bewildered, in clothes far too hot for Thailand in December. They left, nut brown and relaxed, in singlets and fishermen’s trousers, with friendship bands halfway to the elbow.
Growling tuk-tuks inched through the crowds and parked. The drivers shouted out to every traveller, and so did the tailors, the masseurs, the “masseurs,” and the endless procession of hawkers.
EDM oomphed from bars which boasted that they never asked for ID, and backpackers who looked as if they needed bars which never asked for ID flailed in approximate time to the music.
Monster signs protruded from the buildings, glowing, flashing, pulsating. There were tailors and jewellers and clothes shops; there were tattooists and body-piercers. All of them seemed to stay open all night
There was McDonalds, there was Subway, there was KFC. There was a guy selling deep fried scorpions. You could buy knock-offs of just about anything you wanted, trainers, watches, sunglasses, DVD’s. You could get a degree certificate and driving licence forged to order.
It was too much, then, on that first night three years ago tomorrow. It was just five days since I had handed back my corporate BlackBerry, and the first time in almost a decade that I had not been digitally connected to the office. It was the first time I had truly had a break.
I walked a block to Soi Rambuttri, which was a little less manic, in the way that Palermo is a little less manic than Naples. The bars had live singers instead of DJ’s and they murdered The Beatles, the Stones and Oasis, and one crooned “It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man is snoring” in the style of a Rat Pack tribute.
I was not expecting much from the ramshackle bar where I stopped for dinner, but it was late, I was tired and I needed to eat. It was great, though; all of it: the soft-shelled crab smothered in yellow curry paste, the red snapper barbecued whole, the nam prik dipping sauce piquant with lime juice, garlic and chilli, the steamed jasmine rice, the cold Singha beer.
As I sat and ate and heard Hotel California for the third and far from the last time that night, hawkers trooped through the bar to offer me things I didn’t want. No friendship bands, thanks: I’ve got some already. No lighter: I don’t smoke. No postcards. No playing cards. No sculptures of motorbikes. No wooden frogs which croak when you rub them with sticks; and, no, I don’t want a bigger one either.
I said no, I said no, I said no again. She said, okay fifty Baht for two.
I had been, then, to something like twenty countries, but, apart from a month in Hong Kong on business, it had been a week here and a long weekend there; ten days was about the longest I had been away. I had always, as well, known what I would be doing from day to day. This time I just had a few scribbled ideas of countries and cities I might want to see and no idea, yet, how to get from one to the other. But I had months to work that out.
In the first few days, I tried to see everything at once, as if I were in Thailand on a hurried vacation, as if I would be cross-examined later by over-competitive colleagues trying to catch me out with a ‘must-see’ sight that I had missed. But it registered soon enough that I was free until the summer to see and do what I wanted, and that none of the old shit mattered any more.
That was three years, thirty countries and five continents ago. The impressions I formed at the time seem naïve and unworldly in retrospect. I am not sure I would even notice, now, some of the things which enchanted me then. Some of the excitement has worn off along the way, but there is too much fascinating diversity in the world for travelling ever to become a routine.
© Richard Senior 2015