A Voice In My Head
Muhammad Ali famously once said that he was so fast he could turn off the light and be in bed before it got dark. In my days as a backpacker on a budget I pitched up on Khao San Road for the first time. "You want loom?", a young girl asked. Yes I did want a "loom" and stepping between dog turds I followed her down an alley. In the room that I was taken to I felt that I could have achieved the same feat as Ali, even with the jet lag, but that was only because the room was so small. As with most other guesthouses in the area at the time it was a real rabbit warren of a place. Rooms within rooms were created using thin sheets of plywood to cram in as many people as they could. Wrought iron grills over the windows, if you were lucky enough to have one, I never was, ensured that in the event of a fire the chances of getting out alive were slim. But I was younger then and 60 baht a night sounded pretty good to me.
Thailand on a budget. As I approach mid-life crisis the idea of turning the clock back nearly twenty years and doing it all again sometimes plays on my mind. What I spend on a two or three week holiday these days would have lasted me six months at one time. Could I really go back to those days?
The problem is that these days on Sukhumvit blue skies fill my window. I lie back on cool, crisp, clean white sheets as a brown skinned girl steps from the shower wrapped in a towel. "Pit air dai mai"? (can I turn off the air con) she asks as I knew she would.
"Mai me panhar" I say. <Just for your info, that doesn't actually translate so well and you're better off saying 'mai pen rai' – Stick> Sitting right up next to me on the bed she runs fingers through her shiny wet black hair. A shower of tiny jewel like droplets arc into the air and catch the light, just briefly, and I feel them fall, cool on my skin. "You okay mai?" she asks. And I'm thinking I couldn't be more okay if I tried. Thoughts of living in a box in Banglumpoo begin to fade.
Bangkok on a budget by day was fine. It was after dark that the concept of budget travel became a little harder to deal with. As night closed in around Banglumpoo I'd look at the mesmerized faces of those that watched pirated videos in the restaurants on Khao San Road each evening and think I could do that at home. I just had to get out into the city. I remember setting out with all good money saving intentions, jumping on a packed bus and fighting through the after work traffic. Even if it was just to go to the cinema in Siam Square and be mesmerized by a film myself at least I felt as though I'd made an effort to go somewhere. It always made me smile to see cats criss crossing the aisle while the movie played up on the big screen. It was a cheap night out. At least it should have been. Leaving the cinema I should, of course, have gone back to Banglumpoo happy in the knowledge that I'd saved money which would help to keep me away from an English winter for a little while longer. But being back on the street a voice inside my head would say go for a beer. It was then that I really began to understand the line from the infamous song One Night in Bangkok that says -"I can feel the devil walking next to me". And I'd think ok, just one beer then I'll head back. What harm can it do? While half heartedly looking for somewhere nearby the voice would suggest going to Nana Plaza. It seemed to make sense. Stumbling along broken pavements, blinded by the glare of headlights, I'd find myself walking to Nana from Siam Square. Walking because I'm thinking it will save money. At the railway crossing where Ploenchit Road merges into Sukhumvit the barriers are down. Red lights are flashing and an alarm bell is ringing. Inside my head it's pretty much the same thing. I know that once I cross that line there's no going back. By now the voice is saying-ok, two beers, a cola for whichever girl sits alongside and no breakfast in the morning. And I'm thinking well that makes sense, no breakfast so the money I save on that I can spend tonight. The ground shakes as a never ending freight train thunders through and takes an eternity to pass. When the barriers finally go up again I'm away like a greyhound out of the traps through a cloud of exhaust fumes. By now the voice is saying ok, three beers, a couple of colas for the girl, no breakfast in the morning and then just watch a video on Khao San Road tomorrow night. And I'm thinking that that's a good idea really, money spent tonight will be re-couped tomorrow. By the time I reach Nana I'm almost howling at the moon.
Three beers later and a chunky thighed girl is sitting with her leg draped over mine. The beers have gone down all too quick because she won't let me sit there and nurse them. Three more and the chunky thighed girl is sitting astride me as the voice in my head is saying pay the bar fine. In a small corner of my mind I'm trying to remember that I'm supposed to be on a budget. One more beer to decide what I'm going to do. In the end the best that I can come up with is that I'm not going to take her unless she says "pai duay" (go together) when I pay the bill. But I know she's going to say it and she does. She knows I'm going to take her and I do.
Having left the Playboy Hotel a few hours later Pim has gone home in a cab and I'm at the bus stop thinking I'll save money if I go by bus, I am on a budget after all. Never mind the fact that I've just paid out for the cinema, at least seven beers, several colas, a bar fine, a taxi to the hotel, a short time room and a short time girl. A taxi pulled up while I waited for a number two bus. An old English guy who I'd seen around invited me to share the ride back to Banglumpoo with him. He was working in Bangkok for a while he told me. I'd often seen him in the company of a stylish, and very beautiful, middle-aged Thai woman. As I was about to ask after her he said "I might go back to England at Christmas and see the wife, she's not been well." I smiled to myself and wondered if a voice inside his head would persuade him it was better to stay.
These days on Sukhumvit, now that I'm older and not tied to a budget for a two week holiday, blue skies fill my window. A brown skinned girl on my bed lets the towel that she's wrapped in fall away. But strangely, just as it looks as though a little more rolling around on the bed is about to begin a voice inside my head is saying are you sure you can manage it again?
This really took me back to the early days in Bangkok, when one month my budget, after my apartment had been paid for, was a mere 7,000 baht. I still managed to have fun on it although I could not imagine trying to do that now.