We’re looking forward to Bangkok. Thailand is noted for its silk, and B.J. wants to buy his girlfriend lots of it. We’d originally planned to venture north to Chiang Mai, see the elephants, and trek through the hill tribes, but we’ve run out of time.
We take an overnight bus from Vientiane, Laos, to Bangkok. Even though the bus is an enormous double-decker, we’re crammed inside.
B.J. and I share a bus compartment with eight others. The space features eight comfortable seats in the front, two tables in the center, and bench seats in the rear. Six young German males sit together in one corner, all sporting bushy Viking beards. A quiet Austrian couple dozes in the back. A Finnish woman who looks just like tennis pro Maria Sharapova sits next to B.J. I stretch out on the bench next to an elderly Brit who within seconds becomes the Most Hated Man in the Room.
Drunk, arrogant, and disshelved in a ratty T-shirt, bathing suit, flip-flops, and Einstein finger-in-the-socket hair, he proclaims in a booming voice what the world is coming to and how we’re all responsible and demands that we debate him. Some do, and he haughtily belittles each one who deigns to disagree with him. Gratefully, we stop an hour later at the border crossing, and everyone gets out to get our visas processed. When he finally staggers out of the room, everyone in the compartment lets out a collective sigh of relief and a flood of “OMGs!”
After our visas are stamped, we return to the compartment. This time we ignore the Englishman. Thankfully, he gets the message and remains silent for the rest of the 12-hour trip. A couple of times I feel sorry for him and consider bringing him into a conversation, but I fear the other passengers would toss me out of the moving vehicle.
We arrive in the capital early the next morning and take a taxi to Wendy House, located down a long, narrow alley. The staff is very friendly and lets us check into our room hours before the normal check-in time. We chose the guesthouse because it’s in the heart of downtown near all the shops, skyscrapers, Skytrain, and Metro.
After washing up, we hit the big malls. The kingdom of Thailand isn’t close to being a third-world country anymore, and Bangkok has become one of the world’s international hubs. Big, modern, clean, and sophisticated, it boasts nonpareil cuisine, hip fashions, renowned massage, temples on steroids, exotic boroughs, neon, noise, and lots of skin. Bangkok ain’t shy.
We find no silk in the first two mega malls we hit, which is like saying we found no water in the first two oceans we sailed across. But I don’t care. The women are stunningly beautiful, and the current fashion trend is microskirts.
When we return to our guesthouse at the end of the day, I’m wiped out and decide to treat myself to a Thai massage at the small spa across the street. Unlike the common Swedish massage, which uses oil and is more soothing and gentle, Thai massage incorporates stretching, bending, and cracking, with elbows and knees pressing against places you didn’t think you had. It isn’t painful; on the contrary, it’s remarkably relaxing. Afterward, I feel like a hundred bucks.
It doesn’t hurt that my masseuse is cute, playful, and flirtatious. It’s near closing time at the spa, and there are no more customers in the place, so I hang around a while and banter with her and the rest of the girls, who are a ton of fun. It seems they all want to go out. They ask if I like to dance. Do I like to dance? Does Ethel Kennedy own a black dress?
They all squeal and change into their street clothes, and we hop into a cab and head downtown. To my amazement, they take me to the Nana Hotel, which used to be one of the most notorious establishments in all of Bangkok, and lead me into an intimate nightclub at the end of the lobby.
We’re practically the only ones there and take over a banquette facing the stage where a live band is singing “Money, Money, Money.” Poon, my masseuse, can’t speak English, doesn’t drink, and is too shy to dance, and all of the other girls suddenly decide they don’t want to dance either, so not much happens. Our main entertainment is gawking at two exhibitionists who for the next hour proceed to do on the dance floor what most people would reserve for the bedroom. I’m not in Laos anymore.
The girls are hungry, but they don’t want me to spend any more money, so we grab some food from a street vendor outside. They drop me off at Wendy House, and I crawl into bed at 2 a.m.
The next day B.J. and I head for the Chao Phraya River, the city’s most glorious and breathtaking landmark. Once called the “Venice of the East,” the river and its endless network of canals was a superhighway of goods and people, and its residents were known as water lords. We begin our day at the National Museum of Royal Barges.
Thailand’s fabled Royal Barges, which transport royalty during significant cultural and religious events, have been a hallmark of Thai culture and history for nearly 700 years. At the National Museum, eight important barges, including all four Royal Barges, are displayed. I’ve seen pictures of these mammoth floating dragon boats and want to see them close up.
The problem is getting to the museum. It proves to be one of the most confounding tourist wild goose chases I’ve ever come across. We’re told to walk to a particular intersection, turn right, and “look for the sign,” then cross the bridge. We see no sign and no bridge and begin asking shopowners.
“That way,” they point.
We keep walking and at each intersection are told to keep going. But the only thing in front of us is a highway ramp rising far above us. The sun is beating down cruelly. We grumble and slog up the hill. At the top we look down and see water but no structure large enough to hold the Royal Barges. We walk all the way down the other side of the ramp to the bottom and cross the road there. We ask again. They point down a dark alley.
We peer down the narrow pathway. It’s a garbage-strewn crevice in the back of someone’s house. Scrawled on a tiny sign at the far end is “Royal Barge Museum” and an arrow. This has to be a joke. We follow the arrow, which leads us down another endless dirt walkway. We pass people eating lunch, watching TV, washing clothes, burning trash. We’re invading their homes. Scrawny dogs and chickens dart about. Kids with no pants stare up at us.
Another sign directs us down through more rubbish heaps and more backyards. For 30 minutes we follow a half dozen other rabbit holes. All the time the neighbors just smile as if tourists invading their space happens all the time. It’s unfathomable that this is the only way to get to the famous National Museum of Royal Barges. It’s like making tourists traipse through the back alleys of the worst area of Washington, D.C., to reach the Washington Monument.
All of a sudden, we turn a corner and there it is. We pay an admission fee (more if we want to take pictures). That’s when I lose it. We have to pay more if we want to take pictures? This has now ascended into Monty Pythonesque territory.
The barges themselves are spectacular, intricately carved, gilded in gold leaf, massive in size, and each as long as a football field. After I’ve seen my fill, I purposely linger because I dread having to make our way out of this maze again.
We somehow retrace our steps back to the river and buy an all-day pass, which allows us to hop on and off any watercraft along the Chao Phraya River. Free river travel guides highlight what can be found at each pier stop (Chinatown, Little India, garment district, wat temples, etc.).
The river is broad, brown, and surging with activity. Tugboats pull barges laden with timber. Gilded wats and stupas soar above the trees, their orange and green roof tiles, mosaic pillars, and marble piments gleaming in the sunlight. Orange-robed monks clamor aboard next to us, and we head down the river.
We get off at Chinatown and explore its inner denizens for silk bargains (no luck). The chaos is loud and frantic. We have to watch where we’re going because things come at us from every direction. Merchants stream back and forth lugging carts, unloading boxes, stacking shoeboxes, delivering snakes, hauling clothing racks, shouting, haggling, laughing. Motorbikes scoot through the crowds with inches to spare. I inhale the history. I have no doubt this tiny spot is virtually unchanged from what it was like a thousand years ago, sans motorbikes.
After Chinatown, we mosey a few blocks and enter Little India, where a palette of vivid colors assaults our senses. This is Fabric Land, with shop after shop selling every imaginable cloth and color and price of fabrics. I ask one man if he sells silk shirts off the rack, and the turbaned proprietor glares at me as if I called his wife ugly.
After dinner at an Indian restaurant, we jump back on the next boat plying the river and step off at the next pier. A short walk and we’re greeted by tuxedoed bellmen at the Oriental Hotel, whose guestbook boasts Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maughn, and too many world leaders to count. We head outside to one of my favorite spots in all of Asia, the Riverside Terrace. I order a Hemingway daiquiri, B.J. gets a mai tai, and we watch the river go by as an apricot sun settles over a wat temple in the distance.
We return to our guesthouse, take a nap, and pack for our trip home. It’s hard to believe our whirlwind trip is over. It seems like we’ve been here for months yet it also feels like it flew by. We take the Skytrain to the airport, avoiding the hellacious Bangkok traffic, and board our 1 a.m plane. Just as we’re about to take off, the pilot informs us that the preflight inspection discovered that the front wheel was cut during the previous landing and must be replaced before we can take off.
Thirty minutes later he comes on again and tells us there has been difficulty finding a tire at this early hour, so we have to deplane and return to the gate area. I curse. That means I’m probably going to miss my connecting flight from Manila to Dumaguete.
Two hours later we board the aircraft again and finally take off. We arrive 30 minutes before my connecting flight is due to depart. I race to the baggage area, wait for my bag, say a hurried goodbye to B.J., and sprint across the airport to the check-in counters. I’m told there’s no chance of getting on board. I must rebook my flight.
Tired and exhausted, I tromp over to the rebooking area and am told the next available flight to Dumaguete is 3 p.m. It’s now 7:20 in the morning. I groan. Rebooking will also cost me 4,500 pesos, the clerk informs me.
“I don’t think so,” I say as politely as I can under the circumstances. “I missed my flight due to a wheel that had to be replaced. It was the airline’s fault, not mine.”
She disappears and comes back 30 minutes later. “We apologize for the misunderstanding, sir. You’re now booked on the 10:45 flight. No charge. Would you like window or aisle?”
I order waffles at the airport Pancake House, and as I bite into my first spoonful, my temporary tooth falls out again. Well, at least it didn’t happen on the first day of our trip.
When I reach the gate for my morning flight, the entire wing of the airport is crammed with passengers. On the intercom, continual messages announce such-and-such a flight has been delayed. My flight is one of them. I don’t finally board my 10:45 flight until 3.
When I finally arrive home, the Philippines humidity, which wasn’t present in any of the countries we visited, hits me like a Pacquiao right cross. I go to bed at the ungodly hour of 8 and sleep 12 hours. When I wake up, I’m very ill, with every Peace Corps malady hitting me at once. It passes momentarily, and I try to play tennis. I get through one set before I have to go home. On the way, I crumple and vomit in the street.
I don’t feel right the next day, the day after, or the following week, but no one thing is severe enough to warrant calling PCMO or going to the hospital. I keep thinking it’s just temporary, my body’s acclimating back to Philippines weather and food, and it will go away, but it doesn’t.
What happens in the next couple of weeks will evolve into the most serious crisis I will face to date as a Peace Corps volunteer.