My First Day in Bangkok
I keep a journal when I travel. Well, not so much a journal, more just a notepad where I scribble a few words for every day of my holiday. Sometimes I forget it for a few days and have to scribble maybe 5 days worth of happenings at once, making it a bit tricky to separate the different days, and nights, that different stuff happened. I only write a few sentences and it would be a very boring read for anyone but me. You see, the purpose is just to have something to assist my memory, not to write something entertaining. When I read what would mean nothing to others my memory brings me back to that very day on that very holiday much more vividly than those few written words suggest to anyone else.
I like to include all travels so that it’s clear where I am and where I stay at that point. So travels, check-ins and check-outs are necessary. The meetings with people are really a big part of what makes great memories so every encounter with an interesting person goes in there. For me dining experiences are important so where, and most of the time what, I eat is recorded. And partying and drinking is practised during many, even most, evenings on my holidays and that goes in there too. And girls. But not much else. Just the good stuff.
A typical first day on a holiday to Thailand could (and does, but in Swedish) read like this:
“21/1 – Checked in at the Federal after OK flight. Relaxed w book by pool. Massage. Dinner at Bully’s w Dave, burger. Golden for some beers and short stint at Nana, then Dave went home, I went to Cowboy. Dollhouse, Tilac. Nan”
For all but myself this is completely uninteresting but to me it brings back memories of the 21st January in 2006 when I landed at Don Muang after an OK (meaning I managed to sleep) flight to Thailand and checked into the Federal Hotel on Sukhumvit – soi 11 in Bangkok. I read a book by the pool in the afternoon and I probably had a few vodka tonics with that. Then I went to my room and dialled 409 to the “beauty shop” and ordered a massage, something of a tradition upon arrival for me. I can’t remember if the massage ended happily or not but I’m sure it was great regardless. I then got ready for the evening, walked to Bully’s Pub and met my friend Dave and had dinner with him, apparently I had the burger. (Now, normally I would have gone for Thai food on my first evening but Dave is one of those locally based farangs with a Thai lady who insists on a burger or a steak when he’s out and about with a fellow westerner, so that explains that.) We did some people watching and beer drinking and catching up in the Golden Bar across from the NEP and then we hit a few bars inside the Plaza. Dave had to go home after that because #1 he was working the next day and #2 his girl was expecting him home, so I was on my own and I re-located to Soi Cowboy. There I went to the Dollhouse and Tilac (and probably a few other places but I confuse them and mix them up) and I met and took home a girl named Nan. I only have to write that one word, her name, Nan, to make me remember what a spectacular time I had in her company. I paid her 2000 baht in the morning and we got together a few times more later on, me and Nan.
That short piece I scribbled down in January 2006 makes it so easy for me to go back and remember all of this. It also makes it possible to separate what I did on which trip and this is nice after the first few visits when they start to blend together. And, since I always write down the name of any girl I’m with (unless I can’t remember it), it’s a recording of them as well and sometimes I go back and reminisce about all those lovely ladies of my past. For this reason I call my notebook my “book of shame”. Not because I’m ashamed, just because it sounds catchy and it’s sort of an internal joke amongst like-minded friends:
Friend: “What year did we go to Pattaya together for the first time? Was it in 2005?”
Me: “I’m not sure. But I could check my book of shame.”
I would advise any traveller to keep a journal of some sort. If we’re talking about mongers travelling to South East Asia then you should definitely write a “book of shame” of your own as you go along. Because most likely you will be going back again and again and therefore you will have trouble remembering it all and keeping track of what (and who) you did when (and how). And you WILL enjoy going back to read about adventures of your past when you knew less, was more innocent, and your life was different from what it is now and Thailand was also different, at least to you. It takes one minute per day, a notepad and a ballpoint pen to keep such a journal. It’s a good investment, it really is.
But enough about that for now. I set out to write a story about my first day in Bangkok when I was innocent and knew next to nothing about Thailand; and that’s what I’m going to do. But it was a long time ago. I remember some things clearly because it was such a special day, but I still think it would be wise to check my book of shame to see if there is something else I should include. Translated to English it reads:
“12/1 – Came to Bangkok. Staying in Federal Hotel in Sukhumvit 11. Very hot here. Took a walk. Lunch at Noodles. Went around with a tuktuk to a temple and took a boat on the river. Dinner in Pizza Hut and pool and beer in a bar in the evening. I won.”
OK. That brings me back. Now I’m ready to tell you the story of my first day in Thailand.
This is in 2002 and I’m going on my first ever trip to Asia. I’m 27 years old at the time. I am supposed to stay four days in Bangkok and then meet a friend who scored a job in Phuket and who lives there. My friend is new-ish to Thailand but we have other friends who are more experienced so I’ve been given some info in advance. My more experienced friend has taught me the following:
Sukhumvit is the street where things go down in Bangkok. This is a main street with side streets called sois. In soi number 11 there is a hotel called Federal and that’s perfect for you. In soi 4 and between soi 21 and 23 there are two great areas with bars and also on soi 4 there is a hotel called Nana and the disco on the ground floor is a must-do. You pay girls you screw about 1500 baht in the morning. Have fun!
Armed with this extensive batch of information I arrive in Don Muang airport on the 12th of January. A very friendly fellow intersects me just as I exit the arrival area and asks me where I want to go. I say, reading from a note, “Shukumvit” and I say “eleven”, like my friend said I should. I feel very relieved when this nice fellow immediately seems to understand where I want to go and promises to arrange my transportation there. He quickly gets me a taxi and while the nice fellow isn’t the driver my driver is also all smiles and seems to be certain of where I want to go.
I’m mesmerized in the car when we enter the urban landscape of Bangkok. I sit there looking left and right and see what looks like tall, sparkling, modern, green-tinted glass buildings intermixed with what seems like dilapidated slum blocks. Huge advertising boards line the highway, some with smiling Thai faces seemingly telling you just what consumer products are surely the superior ones.
As we get off the highway and enter narrower streets I start to feel a bit nervous about where we’re going but my driver tells me we’re almost there. We enter a multiple lane street with pillars in the centre and drive under what appears to be an elevated railroad. My driver tells me this is it – Sukhumvit Road. It’s nothing like I expected. There’s more traffic and it’s more modern than I would have thought but also it’s more dirty and worn down. We pass a Pizza Hut and a KFC restaurant and what looks like modern office buildings, then just a few blocks later there are run down buildings and poverty on full display. Flashy and apparently expensive hotels have beggars on the sidewalk in front of them. The sidewalks are lined with vendors of various sorts with trash heaps here and there. It all looks very exotic to me and if nothing else, it looks interesting.
Soon we enter soi 11 and as we drive along we both scan the sides of the street for the Federal Hotel. It’s not until quite some way down the soi that I see a blue sign on the left ahead and tell my driver pointing to it “There it is, the blue sign over there!” and he goes “Aaahhh, yes… Fedelon”.
I congratulate myself for having found my hotel and with so little trouble too. Barely an hour since I landed and my base camp is located already; great! My driver says he’d like a thousand baht and I give him 1200 and consider myself lucky. In my mind I divide 1200 by 5 to get the equivalent in Swedish Crowns. I come up with the figure 240 and marvel at how inexpensive it is with a taxi here in Thailand compared to at home (blissfully ignorant about the fact that they made me pay more than double the regular fare and still I, the sucker, tipped 20%). This trip has started well indeed!
It’s still before noon so I decide to take a shower and head out to get my bearings. I change into shorts, sneakers and a polo shirt, grab my camera and put some money in several of my pockets, just in case, and head out. The heat is getting to me immediately. I find that you get sweaty just from walking and that you need to really take it slow and easy here. I walk up the soi feeling a bit nervous but also excited and adventurous. The sidewalk is sometimes blocked off so you have to walk on the road itself. With two way traffic and cars and motorcycles everywhere I feel I could use a pair of eyes in the back of my neck. I pass a food-stand that takes up the width of the sidewalk and the aroma of frying garlic and chili is so strong it brings tears to my eyes. I still remember that first walk on that stretch of road that I have walked so many times since then and always find exciting, but never again as exiting as that first time.
I’m hungry but that street food stuff is not for me I decide. So as I come up to the main Sukhumvit Road and turn right I check out the very first restaurant I come across. It’s called Noodles so that’s what I decide to have: noodles. I choose Singapore noodles with chicken and a coke. My first meal in Thailand and it’s both great and really cheap. (No it’s not. It’s a mediocre restaurant with prices way too high for the quality of the food, but I have no idea about this at the time)
I move on along Sukhumvit and I get lucky again and come across another nice fellow, a tour guide with his tuktuk. I’ve seen tuktuks in magazines and it must be the perfect way to check out Bangkok it seems to me. He starts his sales pitch and I ask him questions. He’s got a tourist map of Bangkok with lots of attractions marked out and he says we’ll go to a few of them. Perfect! That’s what I want to do. “How much?”, I inquire. “Oh, nothing, but we have to stop at some stores for my commission”, he replies.
Alarm bells!!! As I start to pull back he notices and quickly assures me this is perfectly in order. I just need to come into a few stores along the way for just a few minutes and I don’t even have to buy anything. He’ll get a commission from that and then he’ll take me back here and maybe, if I have had a good day, I’ll give a small tip, maybe a fifty baht or maybe a hundred. Pleading eyes. Wide smile. I relent. I give in.
Off we go together my new friend and me. He drives his tuktuk at full speed and I sit in the back taking in the scenery, eyes like saucers. I can’t really explain the feeling of arriving from orderly, clean, sterile Sweden with all its regulations and rules and arrive in huge, chaotic, dirty Bangkok and find yourself speeding around in the worst traffic you’ve ever seen without even a seatbelt in what is really a steel cage with wheels strapped to a motorcycle. I loved it!
First stop was a temple. I wanted to go to the big one I saw on the map but that was a no-go as I was wearing shorts and couldn’t enter there, said my friend. But I was taken to a small temple instead. My driver waited in the tuktuk and I went into the temple grounds to have a look and snap some pictures. It was all pretty enough but not very impressive, I thought.
Here another nice fellow presented himself. A smartly dressed man, about 45 years old, and orderly looking, it seemed to me. I would have guessed he was a schoolteacher or some other public servant but he was a business man, wouldn’t you know. He told me a nice story about Buddhism in Thailand and about how it works out with monks and some other stuff. He then invited me to light incense and place it before Buddha. For good luck!
Good luck. That’s why my new friend had been coming to the temple this day. He had done some big business this very day and now he had gone here to make sure he was lucky. You see, this was the one day in the entire year when the Thai government allowed the Trade Centre to sell jewellery without taxing it. So my friend had bought precious stones for $20,000 and a friend of his abroad would sell them for $50,000, everything perfectly legal!
Alarm bells!!! No way was I buying this bullshit story. One day of the year tax free? This just happened to be that day? Goods easily counterfeited? Perfect for bringing with you to a foreign country? A now or never opportunity? A friendly stranger who appears in an off the beaten track temple grounds? Give me a break!
I listened and agreed it sounded very interesting and then moved off. This temple was OK but half an hour here was enough. When I got back to my tuktuk my driver said “Ok, now we go Trade Center, yes?” Aha! I now knew my friendly driver was in on the scam.
The slick “business man” would probably have smacked my driver for so obviously proving the attempted fraud. At least he had tried to get a story going that had a beginning in Buddhism and on from there to luck and how he needed luck because of his big business deal and how I could also be in that position and make a lot of money. A weak story but still something of a coherent one. Then my driver who has been resting in his tuktuk and hasn’t heard a word we were talking about suddenly wants to take me to the very place where I will be presented with this business opportunity, a place that is not on his tourist map. Could it be a more obvious setup?
I said no but he pleaded and said it was just close by and I said that, OK, he could at least drive by the place and I’ll have a look. Now, if it had looked the least bit risky I would never have gone inside but it appeared perfectly safe and I entered, looked at some stuff in a display case and exited. No one even approached me. I think they could tell right away that this was a no-sell situation.
Next my driver stopped at a tailor’s store and again he begged me to go inside. I did and here there was a bit more pressure from a very persistent Sikh. I was getting a bit fed up now because first of all I’m not interested in shopping, second I’m no bargain hunter – I know what I want and I like to pay the listed price in a regular store – and also buying suits on the first day of my vacation from a tailor that doesn’t come recommended and from a shop way away from my hotel, that’s not happening. I tried to get this message across but since he wouldn’t listen I just walked out of there and jerked my arm away when he tried to grab hold of me. I’ve had that kind of relationship with tailors in Thailand ever since.
“No more shops!”, I told my driver in a stern voice. “Ok, ok, I take you go boat” he replied. That sounded good to me so off we went in the tuktuk and after some time we arrived at the river by a small pier. My driver said that he’d wait like before and I was to go down towards the pier and get on a boat. So I did and when I approached a nice fellow with a big smile asked me if I wanted to go now in a boat of my own or wait until there was a group and go with that, the latter was cheaper. I wasn’t about to sit around so I asked how much it was to go now and he said 1200 baht. That’s 240 Swedish Crowns, I knew that much from my taxi fare earlier, small money. I asked what I got for that and he said an hour and a half in a boat of my own and a round trip on the river and some canals and I got to see the floating market. At 1200 baht that sounded like a bargain to me so I paid up and went ahead.
The boat ride was great. I don’t think it lasted more than one full hour because I wasn’t lingering at the floating market for very long. But we sped along the river at high speed. We went into some narrow canals (clongs) where people seemed to live in shacks on the riverside and out over the water. We went in a sluice that took us into that canal and in one that took us up (or down?) to the level of the river again. I saw kids playing by the sides of the canal and small boats with people going about their lives. All very interesting for me and I very much enjoyed it and took lots of pictures.
I got back and as I exited the boat there was a western couple, unmistakable backpackers, who were trying to negotiate the price down from 400 baht for the both of them to go on the same tour I had just paid 1200 baht for myself. I understood now that I had paid a very much inflated price. But it didn’t really matter to me since I still felt it had been well worth the price I had paid. My mind was not set on Thai prices yet. And inexperienced as I was I still harboured no ideas that I might retrieve even one baht once I had both paid for the tour and gone on it, so I just let it rest. But I told myself that I needed to stop paying whatever people told me things cost and look up prices in advance from now on. I don’t like to be taken advantage of.
“Snake farm, snake farm! We go?” said my driver. But I had had enough by now. It was my first day and it was now in the afternoon and I wanted to get some rest in my room before the evening. I told him to take me home but he moaned about going to this place or that place on the tourist map. But my mood had changed and I wasn’t having any more of that. I was also a bit hungry and wanted to eat. So I got a bright idea and told him I have to eat and then we’ll see, so take me to that Pizza Hut close to where we came from. My idea was that since I had seen a Pizza Hut on Sukhumvit I could go there and tell him once we were there that we were through and if he objected I could just walk home. Perfect!
I got in the tuktuk and I had no idea where we were at. We drove around for quite some time and then he stopped, smiled and pointed and said “Pizza Hut, you eat, I wait”. But this is not the Pizza Hut I wanted to go to. This is the one in what I later would find out is Silom. This seemed to me like a much more upmarket business area where I suddenly felt like an idiot sitting there in my tuktuk, damp with sweat by now. I had lost patience with this nonsense now and I felt like I knew that my driver had understood that I wanted to go back to where I came from but was now trying to trick me to extend the tour.
I’m getting pissed off now, partly because I’m pretty tired, but also because I have no idea of where I am and feel a bit insecure. So I can’t say that it was with much friendliness that I told my driver to get me back to the Pizza Hut where I came from n-o-w! But at least it worked. I got in the tuktuk that at first was such an experience but had already proven itself not to be a means of transportation I would rely much upon in the future. And once my now sulky driver got it out in traffic we were off. I felt I had been in this shaky, smoke spewing thing for an hour before I finally recognised the neighbourhood again. He stopped outside Pizza Hut, this time the right one.
I jumped out of the tuktuk and handed my driver 500 baht because even though he had said I needn’t pay more than a small tip and that he would be making commissions in stores even if I didn’t buy anything I still couldn’t quite get my mind around that he would drive me for a whole day without getting paid for it. It must have been more than he expected because he seemed very happy indeed and wanted to stay and wait for me and make plans for the next day. But as far as I was concerned our friendship had run its course. So I said my farewell and I went into Pizza Hut and wolfed down a medium sized meat-lovers pizza and sunk like a bucket of Coke then walked back to soi 11 and my hotel for some rest.
My alarm woke me up in the evening and with a twelve hour plane-ride, some jetlag and a tuktuk tour of Bangkok all in the last 20 or so hours I was a bit disoriented. But I got up and got myself together for a night on the town. I showered, shaved, brushed my teeth and got dressed while I finished off a couple of Heinekens from the mini-bar and then I went out. It was dark outside now but still really warm and I walked slowly, taking in the scenes around me. A bit less traffic on soi 11 compared to during the day but the main Sukhumvit Road was as busy as before. Last time I went to the right so now I went to the left instead. I found myself walking as if in a narrow alley of street-side vendors selling everything from T-shirts and CDs to ninja stars and swords. After a while though it became apparent that it was much the same type of stuff repeated over and over and that all in all there weren’t that much I’d ever want to buy.
I came to an overpass and I thought I’d cross to the other side of the street. There were beggars on the overpass who looked pitiful indeed but I had no spare change and I am always a bit suspicious against beggars anyway. That didn’t mean I didn’t feel like a cold hearted bastard when I walked past them with a forced I’m-so-sorry-smile on my face. I only later learned to avoid eye contact instead.
I came down on the other side of Sukhumvit and continued walking. I had now discovered that I was moving towards the higher numbered sois so that place on soi 4 was not where I was going tonight it seemed. Perhaps to that other place my friend had mentioned, the one between soi 21 and 23, I thought. But I never got that far. Suddenly there was a ruckus and loud music and laughter and I came upon a bar area with beer-bars and pool tables and smiling girls beckoning me in for a beer. Those that were in Bangkok prior to 2003 will know that I’m talking about the area of beer bars that were situated where Chuwit Park sits now. Suddenly, I believe sometime in 2003, it just vanished and I had to walk past a couple of times when I arrived in 2004 before the coin dropped and I realised it was gone forever.
So in this area of questionable beer-bars and questionable girls I spent my first night in Bangkok. And a truly great night it was! I became friendly with a lady bar owner and I drank a lot in her bar and played a lot of pool there, mostly with the girls. But never did I “take” any girl from that bar. The night after I discovered Nana and some time after that Cowboy so this beer-bar complex was downgraded to a warm-up place to get a few cold ones and a few games of pool and chat with my friend the manager-lady before I went elsewhere to have my wicked ways in the Bangkok night.
But I still got ensnared on this first night. A girl in an adjacent bar trapped me. She was what I now know is a freelancer but to my inexperienced eyes and my intoxicated brain she seemed like a regular girl on a night out. She approached me for a game of pool when I walked by and then some drinks and then some more. She was not especially pretty but a girl is a girl and to be approached by one is at least flattering. Then she was getting better and better looking as the evening progressed and when she made her play she had worn down my already weak defences. I vaguely remember she even said I was not to pay for it but perhaps I could pay for her taxi in the morning. So I really didn’t think it was a working girl I was going with. A regular girl on a thin budget who liked me for me but still might need some help with taxi money, that’s what I thought.
I woke the next morning and realised I had made a huge mistake. I must have picked one of the uglier girls around and she was getting romantic so to be a gentleman, and because I was hung-over-horny, I gave her a quick round in the morning but avoided kissing her horse-like mouth and then saw her off with some story about all the things I had to do during the day. She asked for that “taxi money” and I asked “how much” and she said “1500 baht”. I paid up. Lesson learned.
So that was my first ever day in Thailand and Bangkok. I’d say it was quite eventful. I rode around much of the city in a tuktuk and I went on the river in a boat and I saw a small temple. I was scammed for some money but only because stuff was so cheap to me I didn’t know the real cost. I got set up for the infamous gem scam but called it as bullshit immediately. I got drunk and I had a great time in a bar. I met an ugly girl and I got laid and then I got to pay for it. All In all I’d say I had a great day. I will always remember it, and I have my notes in my book of shame to consult if I one day my memory starts to betray me.
Sounds like an absolutely marvellous way to be introduced to the charms of the orient!