My First Night In Bangkok & Asia, 1978
Some 50 years ago, as an innocent kid of some 10 years ld a photo in a calendar infected me with the incurable virus of yellow- fever. It was a photo of the Taj Mahal. It resonated with me….That's where you have to go! Little did I know how true this would become…
In the middle of 1978 I had my first job. I was an apprentice (= a low income) and after 2 years in the army I made up my mind to check things out. Thailand was the place to go, thanks to small budget and a decent infrastructure.
Preparation was very different from nowadays. Internet: what's that? Lonely Planet, SEA on a shoestring : unknown to most, including me.
The source of the day was hectographed booklets by backpackers who did the trip and wanted to recover some cost. There already the superb APA guides, more a picture book than a real travel guide, but whetting the appetite even more. Germans had the famous Stefan Loose Guide, again hectographed but already a thick paperback, listing buses, hotels etc. This book helped a lot.
A travel agent in Hamburg offered cheap tickets: Bangladesh Biman, Amsterdam to Bangkok for some 450 €. A few weeks later I got a call and it was bad news. Biman had grounded one of their three 707s so the agent didn't dare take the risk on a 2-airplane airline. Already before they nearly never caught the connecting flight in Dhaka, so you had a 1-3 day stay on Biman account, not too bad as Dhaka was far from the overcrowded place it is today.
The agent helped me to get a student ticket on TG ex Copenhagen at a similar price. I was no student but never mind, within 2 days he arranged a perfect and real student ID, not for no reason – their office was in the university quarter.
Finally, the big day came to pack my rucksack, still ages away from modern backpacks. It actually was little more than a lumpy sack on a wire mash and straps. Never mind, I was young and excited!
On the ferry to Copenhagen – I went by train, of course – I bought cigarettes and vodka to make some money in Copenhagen Station but bad luck, very early morning only some tired and less than beautiful hookers were the potential buyers. I just made 1 or 2 € profit but was still happy with that.
The flight must have been ok. On arrival in Bangkok the doors opened to let the sauna in. All must have been easy, I don't remember a thing.
The next memory is the check-in at the hotel of choice, the famous Malaysia hotel, a backpacker's dream before the days of Khao San. At reception were some 8 girls assembling ball point pens. The room was ok, except for a snack vendor outside, below the window, clicking 2 bamboo sticks together the whole night. Unbelievable how annoying this is, click, click, click….close to torture!
After the long trip my belly asked for a refill so down to the hotel's coffee shop, check the menu and order some noodles which turned out to be the worst I ever had, before and since. "My God, in this country I will starve to death!"
Over the next few days I found the myriad of small restaurants in this quarter offering the usual backpacker-fare and the famous juices awa fruit salad with yoghurt. All very cheap and not too bad – so as you already noticed, I survived!
After dinner it was straight to Grace Hotel which was THE place for inter-racial contacts. Probably not many readers know this place in person, the legendary coffee shop – R.I.P. – was a medium sized L shaped place, 3 jukeboxes in 3 corners played mostly the same song, decent loudness, packed with young Farang males and plenty of Thai ladies: a mix of curious secretaries, freelancers and left-over bargirls who tried their luck after curfew at midnight. All the girls were looking for at minimum, a whole night, better even some weeks! Several times I was offered, you can stay at my place, save money! Prices started from 20 baht all-night "for taxi" (I was nice & very slim & young which helped). Professionals asked for 300 Baht (at that time 15 €).
Grace was heaven on earth for young farang as most ladies were not only pretty but also nice. It was basically impossible to tell if this was business or a girlfriend experience. And safe: Grace had their own VD clinic, and no girl was allowed to enter the coffee shop for whatever purpose without Grace's health certificate. In the days before HIV this was 99.99% safe.
My god, 37 years ago and this place is still in memory like yesterday. Since than I love Billy Joel's "You May be Right" for bringing my memories back and I hate "I Love You More Than I Can Sayayayay" of the year after. I went back for nostalgia some years ago, what a dis-Grace: as expected fat old Arabs and fat old Thai. If somebody can revive the old Grace for 100 % sure he will be millionaire in any currency within 6 months…
Back to the trip, I walked out with the first girl who approached me. No memory of her performance but I had a poor sleep as I always expected a boyfriend to show up and rob me of my humble belongings. This was pre-MasterCard & Western Union so you had to carry all your money with you.
In the morning light I got a shock as this lady was no beauty so I went down to the famous blackboard and posted a note, "Who wants to join to Burma?" Same day success: a nice couple from Munich, the guy had travelled the world for some 6 years, in summer earning money for 8 – 9 months on the road, his budget : some 300 € / month for everything.
We did the usual 7 day race from Rangoon to Mandalay to Pagan. Thanks to such a short visa, there was never really time to rest. Each pack of 555 and a bottle Johnny from Bangkok duty free was brought and sold at a good profit, feeding us for some 3 days.
The first night, of course a drink in one of the once best hotels on earth: the Strand. In 1978 it was a run-down but expensive place. It looked like it should be in a ghost movie and you could still feel the splendour of days long gone by in the air. Still some staff from the old days to make the feeling perfect.
Of course the train Rangoon to Mandalay had 3 steam locomotives to be safe in case of break down. In each carriage, an old to very old guy guarded us, armed with a German assault rifle G3. Welcome home! But bad luck, over the long and slow ride all 3 engines died, so we had to wait 2 hours for a replacement to pull us to Mandalay. Thanks to the wooden benches, my lower back looked like a corrugated tin sheet on arrival. But again, hey, I was young!
Luckily, the flight to Pagan was cheap so we could afford 3 tickets. Arrived at airport only to learn the flight had left 2 hours ahead of schedule. Back to the guesthouse we went. We just arrived as a lady of Burma Air arrived too. We spoke to her at the airport so she knew us: guys, there is an unscheduled flight for staff (and stuff) only, you may join if you hurry. So back to airport and here we go, a very, very old airplane but we were assured: don't worry, this year we only lost 3 planes!
The flight was spectacular: very low so we had a superb view of the thousands of stupas in the plain around Pagan. This was before the big earthquake levelled many. It was a flight that would never be forgotten. In Pagan we hired a guide to show us around. The next morning he arrived on time & very proud in a Willy Jeep! It took us some effort to change this to a horse & carriage, for sure he told his family at dinner how crazy foreigners are. I forget how we got back to Rangoon, probably by bus.
In Rangoon, back to the most popular place, the YMCA. You mostly got a bed in a double. After dinner I came back to find a young but ugly American lady in the 2nd bed who clutched her cover with both hands, apparently hardly closed an eye in fear (or hope?) of being raped by me.
In Rangoon I had another of the best memories of my life – sitting on a step in the Shwedagon Pagoda, sunset at the end of a hot day. No sound besides the small bells, no tourists, just a few ladies sweeping the floor like a gracious & silent ballet, like outer space. It was the perfect time to enjoy this holy place in all its magnificence. If there is a "1000 temples to be seen" book this still must be #1.
The week was awful. Burma was still kind of closed to the world. Restaurants were poor to ok, guesthouses too, mostly dirt cheap. A million times: where are you from? Never unpleasant, only curious. It'd easy to spy into workshops of proud artisans: lacquer, gold leaves (poor guys, backbreaking job) and so on. Thanks to my budget and the small rucksack, not many souvenirs were bought.
After this hardship week on a very low budget, Bangkok seemed like paradise and I fell in love with this mad place, a love affair which lasts to today.
In Bangkok I did the usual routine: chatting with a monk at the Golden Mount for ages, enjoying the spectacular view: no pollution, only a few "high"-rises of some 5 – 10 floors here and there so you could see all the way to the horizon in any direction.
Wat Phra Kaeo before the renovation was a perfectly peaceful place for and I was one of just a handful of non-Thais visiting. Today, there is no way I would go there with rush hour and pushing crowds….what a shame to see what has become of such a sacred place.
By coach to Phuket, I stayed at Rawai beach. I didn't know this was the worst of all beaches. Walked to Naiharn, beautiful beach, empty except some hippies who had become black like Africans.
The red-light area was mainly for the locals like in all small towns. There was no way to take out a girl, only short-time for fear they would run away. A few years later a fire razed several of the brothels, quite a few ladies died because they were chained to the wall. That truly was slavery in its worst form.
Back again by coach from Phuket to Chiang Mai, non-stop except for changing coach in Bangkok. In the north by motorbike to Lampang etc. and by bus to several other places. Funny, in Phuket I bought a nice durian to try this queen but when I opened my bag in Chiang Mai the smell was so bad I gave it to the ladies in the guesthouse, making friends immediately. Couldn’t use that bag for some weeks…
On the way to Mae Hong Son I met some ladies from the Bangkok Water Works on the bus, who were visiting friends. Within minutes I was invited to join their sightseeing trip on a pickup. I was the 1 and only farang in this town and therefore a kind of attraction. Later we had a beautiful party even without common language, my host just knew 2 words of German: Beckenbauer and Hitler and I only knew a few Thai phrases (that's why first trip in small places I had to order khao phat every day…)
Then by bus to a small city near the border with Burma and by long-tail boat to the small and sleepy town of Chiang Rai. My arrival apparently doubled the number of farang in town…
Chiang Mai left a nice memory: I took a charming, very conservative and natural northern beauty of some 25 years old named "Gold Sand" from a local brothel for 2 nights. She was nice and enjoyed the encounter as much as I did even though there was no verbal communication. We went to the night market, frustratingly she was always 1 metre behind me. Her message was clear, "I can not be seen with a farang" so mostly we stayed in the room. After coming back from Chiang Rai I met her again for my only night in Chiang Mai. About midnight she started to sing sad love songs in the best voice I ever heard in Thailand, much nicer than Nantida etc. and even the thought still gives me goose bumps after so many years! Such bad luck that video cameras had not been invented yet. Between the tunes she cried for hours. Neither of us closed an eye that night. Next morning she just left without a proper farewell or turning her back. Only after some time I understood this and many other things she taught me. Actually, she taught most things you have to know about staying with a Thai partner. It took me many years to understand all of her lessons. A year later I came back to Chiang Mai and she had long gone back to her parent's farm. I know it sounds (and probably is) crazy but until today I ask myself why I did not marry her. She was one of 2 or 3 really "good" ladies out of the many hundred I met over 3 decades in bars and she still is in my prayers.
The return flight on 29.12.78 was one to remember forever. I heard about lots of snow in Europe but still checked in to Copenhagen instead of leaving on the stopover in Frankfurt as I had a train ticket already. What a mistake…!
EI got on the plane in Bangkok where it was 35°C and left 13 hours later at some -30°C. Copenhagen Train Station was shut down, and there was no way to move thanks to snow up to 2 metres high. One train had been opened up for stranded passengers, but of course there was no heating. A nice, old couple gave me some Danish Kroner to call my family from a coin-operated phone. 2 hours before I arrived the German embassy combed the train to bring any German to private homes, my bad luck that I missed out. I spent New Year's Eve on a cold train, dressed like an onion with all my summer clothes (comment of a young lady on the street earlier. "Look, mom, this poor man has nothing to wear!") sharing my fresh papaya with some Americans instead of my parents. The next day I was lucky to get the one and only available seat on a flight to Hamburg and thanks to my student ID, it was within my budget. Landing in Hamburg again was spectacular: due to the temperature outside and there were no clouds. The night was very bright, snow sparkled like trillions of diamonds. Arriving at home I still had some 5 € left…so life was not too bad.
All in all, the trip was like a drug: I needed dose after dose again and spent some 23 years in South-East Asia in total. Right after returning I started saving for 2 months to India (of course including the Taj), Nepal, Burma and Thailand, at the end of 1979. Another trip to remember forever and an even longer story…
Only bad thing: at that time I didn't keep a diary and as usual used a nice Yashica & colour slides which by now all are faded like many memories. Had I had my Nikon S90…
The whole trip was fun and rewarding. How boring this is today: you check a ticket search engine and get a choice of flights from anyplace to anywhere. Today there is no need to travel to exotic airports in Eastern Europe by bus or train, use rotten airlines like LOT (who today are 1st class), Aeroflot (still rotten..) etc as you can find direct flights from your local airport with 1st class airlines for some 500-700 €. I just flew LH HAM-BKK for 630 € which is less than 1/3 of the cost of back then, based on average income. No need to sit in buses for hours as you can get anywhere cheap on the budget airlines in Asia.
Next step is Hotels.com etc and nice and cheap hotels booked based on TripAdvisor's ranking, and all is done. Where is the excitement or surprise left? How to be proud to have managed such a trip? I really am grateful of having had the chance to travel in the early days as a kind of pioneer, over the years in many places I was one of the very 1st farang ever.
Great trip report!