My First Night in Bangkok
It was March, 2003. 40 years old, divorced, deep in debt, and living in the spare room in my parents' house, I did what any sane man would do in my position – I got on a plane to Thailand. It was a little dream I'd cooked up a few years before, an idea to keep me warm on those long Winter nights in damp and dreary England. I'd got it into my head that I wanted to dive a coral reef. I'd never been diving before. I didn't know a thing about diving. I hadn't even heard of PADI at that point. I figured if I could get myself to Thailand someone would show me how to dive. It would be the first real holiday I'd had in 15 years. I didn't have any money, but I did have a shiny new credit card, and with a few clicks of the mouse, I'd booked myself on a late Thursday night BA flight from LHR to BKK.
Telling people I was going to Thailand produced a varied range of reactions. Most of the people I spoke to painted a grim picture of pollution, disease, poverty, corruption, scams, endless red light districts and legions of vampirical dusky maidens whose one desire was to sink their teeth into a rich foreigner and bleed them dry. By the time of my departure I was wondering what I was getting myself in to.
What I didn't know at that time was the next two weeks would change my life.
On the night of my departure, I piled into my brother's new Mercedes, along with my Mum and younger brother who decided they wanted to see me off on this (in their eyes) much deserved break. It seemed an unlikely entourage for a 40-something guy, but it was great to have them along. After some heartfelt goodbyes I found myself standing in an interminable check-in queue. My mobile went off – it was my sister wishing me a safe trip. Apparently she knew a guy who'd gone to Thailand for a 10 day package holiday and had never come back. And to my surprise it wasn't because he'd been choked to death by pollution, or whisked away by one of these four-foot tall lethal love machines that Thai women seemed to be labelled as. He stayed because he actually liked it. He was a programmer who had loved it so much in the City of Angels that he rented an apartment and now worked remotely for several employers. This was new information. There was at least one guy who liked Thailand. Almost everyone else seemed to hate it. Although it has to be said that none of the people who'd so readily condemned the place to me had actually been there!
After a last minute gate change, and a mad dash with the other passengers from one side of the terminal to the other, I reached the departure lounge.
On the bus over to the plane I surveyed my fellow passengers – they seemed pretty normal – the sort of people you'd see on any flight. A mixture of old and young, every type, and skin tone. I stood near two backpackers, barely out of their teens,
with platted blond hair and rucksacks that were borderline carry-on. There were a few obvious businessmen in dark suits, looking grey and drawn from the ravages of an English Winter. And the odd middle-aged Thai woman, dressed to the nines,
overloaded with designer handbags and duty free.
I settled into my seat and felt years of stress, work and the mind games of marriage ooze out of my pores. I let out a long, physical sigh. I was sitting next to a mother and daughter who were holidaying in New Zealand. Not sure where the father was – and didn't like to ask. They were going to stay a few days in Bangkok. See the temples. Eat Thai food. Visit MBK. See the floating market. I just wanted to get out to an island and dive. After engaging in pleasant enough conversation, I drifted off to sleep. The plane had been delayed and it was past midnight already.
I slept for much of the flight – waking to grab a late night dinner and a breakfast. I watched a couple of forgettable movies too. I dozed to some music. When I slept, I slept the sleep of the plain worn out. I felt like I hadn't slept in years.
Finally we landed at Don Meuang. As the plane taxied I felt such an intense excitement that I had never felt on any of my previous travels. I couldn't explain it. This was different. I felt I was about to enter another world. In a way I was. I continued to watch the GPS readout on the TV panel in the back of the seat. We appeared to be virtually on Victory Monument – which I later visited. Pretty soon we disembarked and the adventure began.
I will never forget my first night in Bangkok as long as I live. I'd booked in to the modest three star Tower Inn, on Silom Road, which had two things that attracted me – it had a rooftop swimming pool and was only $30 a night, including breakfast. After arriving at the airport in the afternoon, I got a taxi and found myself flying like a bat out of hell over modern flyovers, past skyscrapers of steel and glass. Giant electronic advertising panels adorned the sides of buildings. I didn't see any signs of the starving, disease- ridden, poverty-stricken hordes I'd been expecting from the accounts of Thailand I'd received before my departure. What I saw was a surprisingly modern city. But there are two things that strike you about Bangkok – the heat and the smell. Being March it was about a month away from the hottest time of the year, but it was still pushing 40 degrees C in the late afternoon. The smell I can only describe as, well, unique. This seemed to be as a result of the "klongs" or canals, which appeared to be used for everything from a rubbish tip to a public toilet. I was later to hear a story of a young woman who had fallen into a klong. Although she was pulled out within minutes she was dead 48 hours later. Of what, who knows. I was later to see rats the size of cats scurrying along the edges of one particular klong. I have seen some pretty big rats in my time – but these buggers were enormous. They knew no fear too. I remember approaching one thinking it would scamper away. It held its ground and stared me in the eye. Quite unsettling. I was the one that backed off. All in all you really don't want to fall into a klong. Nasty stuff in there. After being dropped at my hotel by a friendly taxi driver who charged me market rate for the ride, I checked in. Another Thailand myth smashed. My room was a lot larger than I'd expected, and better than most of the four star hotels I'd used in the UK. I quickly unpacked, got changed and headed up to the pool for a swim. After a dip to cool down I took in the view over the city which was unlike anything I'd seen before. The skytrain, far below, looked for all the world like a model train, wending its way through giant concrete canyons. It was astonishing. A metropolis of 12 million people living out their lives, blissfully unaware that they were being spied on from high above. Countless lives, countless stories being played out behind the smoked glass and steel. I took another dip before heading back to my room for a lie down. I got to like the Tower Inn. In those days it was just the right side of seedy. The hotel staff would ask you if you wanted company for the night, and a leaflet with a menu of additional "services" would be left discretely on the bedside table. But once they realized you weren't a punter you were left alone. I found the staff generally very friendly and helpful. The rooms themselves were better than I was used to – especially at 30 dollars a night! The breakfast at the Tower Inn back in those days was amazing. I don't think I have had a better buffet breakfast – anywhere – ever.
When I awoke it was 6:00 PM. My room was getting dark, save for a deep blood-orange tinge splashed against the walls. From the window I could see a red sun, just sinking below the horizon. Apparently it was the pollution that made the setting sun look redder. I took a shower and headed up to the rooftop again. There was a small restaurant-cum-bar area on the roof. It had an almost tropical feel to it. The bar had a coconut thatch roof and Christmas lights dangled here and there. There were several round tables adorned with candles. The pool was lit by underwater lights, but nobody was using it. The noise of the Bangkok traffic was a faint murmur from far below, and a passable breeze blew across the rooftop – a welcome relief from the heat. A couple of waitresses in crisp white uniforms worked the small collection of tables, while the bartender was kept more than busy, mixing cocktails for the few who had ventured to the rooftop, and those ensconced in their rooms – no doubt with one of the racy females I'd also been offered access to on arrival. It felt a million miles away from the typical packed UK High Street pub, with its cock preening, loud aggressive voices, simmering violence and binge-drinking ladettes. The atmosphere here was the polar opposite.
I ordered a beer. It was ice-cold and probably the best beer I'd ever had in my life – your first Singha in Thailand is probably the best beer you will ever drink. I found myself drifting into a relaxed state such as I hadn't experienced in a long time.
There was a cordoned off area of the rooftop used for various functions, and there seemed to be a party in progress. The sounds of laughter and tinkling glasses drifted over to me on the evening breeze. I ordered another beer and soaked up the fairy tale atmosphere. After a while I noticed a group of four women break away from the party and, giggling, head over towards the pool. For a while they messed around poolside, testing the water with brown hands and feet. It struck me how child-like and happy they were in their play. As they headed back to the party they took a route past my table. As they passed they all said hello, and then giggled a lot more. I asked them if they were enjoying their party. It turned out it was a colleague's engagement party. On a whim, and more out of politeness than anything else I offered to buy them a drink. They gabbled amongst themselves in Thai before announcing they would like to, but only one, as they had to get back to their friend's party.
As they sat around my table it appeared that I had just landed a catch of four A+ stunners. They were wearing sleeveless cocktail dresses, and the scent of expensive perfume wafted across the table. They all had very long, very shiny black hair, and friendly smiling faces. They were all slim and quite striking to look at. The whole scenario felt almost dream-like – I realized my polite offering of a drink and conversation would have received short shrift back in my own country – at least that was the bitter experience I carried. Straight away I knew Thailand was different. Thai girls were different. I faced a barrage of questions, including, what I learned over time, were the standard "Thai girl" questions. Where was I from? How old was I? Was I married? Did I have a girlfriend? What was my job?
I'd guessed the girls as in their early to mid-twenties – which delighted them. It turned out they were all in their early thirties. Lesson learned – as a rule of thumb Thai women usually look about ten years younger than they actually are. Sadly, these days this is changing. Western diets, smoking, drinking, tattoos, and other imported habits are taking their toll on Thai femininity. I asked them about life in Thailand, their friend's engagement and their work. They all worked at TPI, in a large office block on the New Sathorn Road, and they were all in the accounts department. They were all absolutely delightful – funny and quick to laugh at my rather corny jokes. They were "shy of their English", but soon warmed up and within a short time we were having a blast. There was one of the four in particular who caught my attention. Pim and I seemed to hit it off, with a lot of banter, giggling on her part and laughter on mine. She was a 32 year old account manager, with a Master's degree in Human Resource Management from Thailand's best university. In many ways she was a typical middle-class Thai, and like many women her age doing rather well for herself career-wise in Thailand's burgeoning economy. One by one the girls drifted back to the party until it was just Pim and I. Finally, Pim got up to leave and we said goodbye.
I ordered a Coke and looked at my watch. I was astonished to see it was eleven, way past my "UK bedtime". Although there'd be no 5:00 AM commutes during this holiday, I figured I'd finish my Coke and then hit the sack.
What I didn't know was Pim and the girls had other plans.
That last Coke turned into another, as I continued to enjoy my roof-top sojourn. At about midnight I noticed people were saying their goodbyes and drifting away from the engagement party. Pim and her three friends headed past my table.
"Mr. Tony you would like to join us?"
"Where are you going?"
"We are going out!"
"But it's past midnight!"
I learned going out after midnight was not particularly unusual in Bangkok.
The first order of business, according to "the girls" was to get something to eat. We ended up at a small outdoor restaurant. It was simple, with red plastic tables and chairs, and a roof consisting of sheets of corrugated iron. There were about four or five other groups of people there, even at this late hour. I was trying to figure out the menu when Pim said "Don't worry, Tony, we will order for you." While we were waiting an elephant trundled past in the gloom, illuminated by a cycle lamp hanging from its tail. I did a double-take. The food started to arrive and I lost count of the dishes that arrived after the first six. There were endless plates of chicken, fish, beef, rice, soups, and vegetables. I'm not quite sure where those four skinny girls put the food, but it went somewhere. It was also a miracle to me where the food came from, as the restaurant barely seemed to have any facilities – the hot food seemed to be conjured from thin air. It was however some of the tastiest food I have ever eaten. The drinks flowed too, and by the time we had finished it was 2.00 AM. Pim and her friends insisted on picking up the tab. Another Thailand myth busted.
Pim then announced we'd be going to a club. We hailed a taxi – there were plenty about. One of the girls took the front seat and I ended up in the back with three giggling Thai girls. It was hilarious. Pim was making a joke about sitting on my lap, but they were so skinny the four of us had plenty of room. After a few minutes we arrived at a lively looking club. There was live music and the place was heaving. I went back on the booze. The band consisted of Filipino musicians playing a mix of pop and jazz. I thought they were pretty good and the crowd seemed to be loving them. At one point Pim and I danced to a slower song and laughed and chatted. By the time we piled out of the club it was around 6:00 AM, and it was just starting to get light. This was back in the days before the infamous 2:00 AM closing times came in to force in many clubs and bars. We called another taxi. I don't think I have ever been anywhere in Bangkok where I couldn't hail a taxi by simply raising my arm – often I didn't even need to do that. I've also used the motorbike taxis – which were new to me. While a hair-raising, and potentially deadly, mode of transport, I have found then very useful from time to time. As I lived nearest to the venue the girls decided to drop me off first. Outside my hotel I jumped out and Pim followed. We hugged awkwardly. She then turned to head towards the taxi, paused, seemed to make up her mind about something, and turned back and gave me a peck on the cheek. She climbed back into the taxi, giving me a glimpse of long, slim, brown legs. She flashed her megawatt smile, waved and was gone in a cloud of dust.
Exhausted but elated I went to bed, putting the Do Not Disturb sign on my hotel door – the first time in my life I had ever used one! It was already dark again by the time I woke up. The next day I flew down to Phuket on the early morning flight. I never saw Pim again. I guess somehow it wasn't to be, and we both knew it. Over the years I have met many wonderful girls like Pim in Thailand. Gorgeous, smart, independent, and generous.
Over the next two weeks I took more or less everything Thailand could throw at me. I visited temples and islands. I snorkelled coral reefs and kayaked along hidden creeks. I did white-water rafting, and rode elephants through jungles. I took boat trips and floated in clear, blue, warm water for hours. I headed over to Koh Lanta on a ferry. I drove a 4×4 around the island, and hardly saw a soul all day, apart from a few brown, rugged looking men, fixing fishing nets in the Sea Gypsy village. I drank cold Cokes from the bottle in a restaurant perched on a mountainside, and ate chicken and rice on remote beaches. I visited a turtle sanctuary and floated through a sea cave into the lost world interior of an island. At night I drank ice cold beer in tiny beachside bars, lit by candles and Christmas tree lights, and walked along soft sands by moonlight. I had never felt so alive, so happy.
And then it was over. After paying my departure fee, and whiling away an hour or two in the coffee shops and departure lounges of the old Don Meuang airport, I found myself on the BA flight to LHR. Back to rain-sodden grey skies and a two-hour commute. As I settled back into the cramped seat I promised myself I would return to Thailand, and moreover start living life again. I realized that before my trip to Thailand I'd merely been existing. Now I would really live.
As the plane tipped up and left the runway I smiled at the thought that, after all that, I never did get to go scuba diving.
Author's note: The above article relates true events that occurred on a Friday night in early March 2003, and the two weeks in Thailand that followed. Over a decade on I still remember that night vividly. However, if my memory has failed me in any of the particular details, I apologize unreservedly to the reader. The Tower Inn seems to have gone through a couple of name changes, becoming the Unico Grande Silom, and more recently the Furama Silom Bangkok. It also seems to have gained a star or two in the process. I subsequently became a PADI certified diver in the UK, and have since dived in Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines, including many wreck dives. I've not been back to Lanta in many years, but I'm told the mountainside restaurant and the Sea Gypsy village are still there. Some years after my first trip, I heard through another TPI employee that Pim had moved to the USA to take a job with a large software company.
Very nicely told!