Rolf Potts travels around
the world with no luggage

The Same River Twice: Bangkok in Three Acts

September 24, 2010 by Rolf Potts

Eating bugs in Bangkok

Ever since the earliest days of my no-baggage round-the-world journey, I’ve wanted to test out the smell and appearance of my SeV travel clothing by trying to get past the “velvet rope” of some exclusive nightclub in some great world city. In Bangkok I finally got the chance to do this — and the results were quite interesting.

I also got the chance, on that same day, to eat assorted insects from a street vendor, not all that far from where I would later sample the nightlife. Such is the charm of Bangkok.

Of all the stop-offs of my No Baggage Challenge itinerary, Thailand is probably the country I know best (save the United States). I wrote my first book while living there nearly ten years ago, and I passed through the country over a dozen times while living and traveling in Asia between 1998 and 2003. And, even though it had been seven years since I’d set foot in the country, it was amazing how familiar and comfortable everything felt when I first arrived in the city after the flight in from South Africa.

Still, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said that, “you cannot not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you” — and I was curious to know how Bangkok (and myself) had changed. Some of these changes were immediately apparent: the city now has a subway, for instance (which makes it much easier to avoid its infamous traffic jams), and I no longer opt for the cheapest backpacker dives available. But while both the city and I look a bit different than we did one decade ago, I was impressed by how much things felt the same: I showed up expecting to stay one night in Bangkok before moving south to Malaysia and Singapore — but the laid-back, traveler-friendly vibe of the city kept me around for three nights.

If one day could summarize my recent experiences in Bangkok, it would be my second day in the city, when I met up with a small group of expat and local friends and revisited some old haunts. Here’s what we did:

Act One: Khao San Road – A Trip Down Memory Lane

Back in late 1998, when I was at the front end of what would eventually be a two-year trip across Asia, I arrived in Bangkok and took the $1 airport express bus to the same neighborhood every backpacker seeks out in the city: Khao San Road. The neighborhood figures in the early scenes of The Beach (both the Alex Garland novel and the Leonardo DiCaprio movie), and it figures in the itineraries of most budget travelers in Southeast Asia. This street, which first got a reputation as a backpackers’ ghetto in the 1980s, is essentially a collection of cheap hotels and souvenir shops that caters to every whim and need of budget travelers. I wrote about the place for Salon in 1999, and the scene I described over 11 years ago still looks pretty much the same:

Out in the street, young travelers from countries such as Switzerland, Israel and New Zealand nurse beers at plastic tables, while others line up at food stalls to sample sliced pineapple, vegetarian noodles and banana pancakes. Tuk-tuk drivers hail passengers at the corner, while Indian tailors pace the sidewalk in front of their stores, chanting their standard mantra (“Sir, try a suit. Very good price, sir.”). Sidewalk vendors hawk jewelry and cigarette lighters, bootleg tapes and fake press passes; storefront vendors sell souvenirs ranging from Nepalese jackets to Balinese masks to novelty T-shirts that read “SEX INSTRUCTOR (First Lesson Free).”

In the alleys, uncertain dogs jog through the shadows, unowned and omnipresent. Placards advertise tattoo parlors and laundry services, traditional massages and hemp-fiber clothing. Colorful stickers on travel agency windows advertise bus and ferry services to Phuket, Ko Samui, Ko Phi Phi and Chiang Mai. Backpackers crowd into dingy Internet cafes to check their Hotmail accounts and surf the Web for travel updates, while suspiciously healthy-looking kids prowl the street with small cards that read “I want to go to school. Please give me 10 baht.” Video movie noises rumble out from open-front restaurants, blasting that time-honored Hollywood litany of screams and explosions, of people calling each other bastards and sons of bitches.

At that time, I wrote that “Khao San Road is not designed to be a static, aesthetic part of Thailand, but a pragmatic duty-free zone — a neutral territory that has learned to continually reinvent itself in the image of what young budget travelers want” — and it’s an observation that still holds true: In continually tweaking and adapting to the needs of travelers, Khao San Road is in many ways staying the same. As I walked up and down the street checking out the vendors and sampling plates of pad thai and banana pancakes, the place felt almost identical to the way it felt a decade ago — even if it now sports fast food restaurants (McDonald’s, Burger King, and Subway — which were not there when I last visited) and different technologies (music downloads instead of cassette tapes, wi-fi instead of dial-up). The most peculiar addition to the street was a “fish massage” parlor, where tourists can walk in and have their weary feet nibbled at by swarms of small fish.

Act Two: Eating Bugs (Among Other Street Food) in Chinatown

Since Khao San Road was familiar territory for me, the next thing I wanted to was strike out and sample something new — Thai street food. I had eaten street food plenty of times before, of course (I had in fact eaten a fair amount that day on Khao San Road), but I wanted to do it in a more deliberate and instructive way, with the help of some people who knew the city better than me. For this mission I recruited three friends as street-food consultants: Max, a barrel-chested Italian expat I got to know while covering his expedition into central Laos for Conde Nast Traveler ten years ago; Ett, a laid-back young guy from southern Thailand, who I got to know through Max; and Taylor, an American expat, anthropology student, and fellow book nerd (she and I initially bonded by deconstructing Malcolm Gladwell’s writing). Taylor is also a veteran fashion model, which means that — since Justin also joined us, camera in hand — she pretty much managed to make Max and Ett and I look like graceless schlubs by comparison in the resulting video (see above).

On my friends’ recommendation, we left Khao San Road to seek out some street food in Chinatown. Street food is actually available all over Bangkok (and even upscale neighborhoods have food-stands where service workers can come down and have a cheap lunch), but Chinatown is unique in its variety and concentration of street cuisine. Over the course of our evening in the neighborhood my friends and I managed to sample a broad variety of street food — from roast chestnuts to some of the best seafood I’ve had in Bangkok — but by far the most notable dish I sampled was fried insects.

As novel as eating fried insects might sound, it’s actually a common form of Thai street food (I’ve heard it’s popular with Thais from Isaan, the poorer northeast region of the country, which has a more bucolic diet) — and it’s a common rite-of-passage for Western travelers to put their food prejudices aside and gum down a few creepy-crawlies during a Southeast Asian sojourn. I had never subjected myself to the insect-diet during my years of travel in the country, so I made up for it on this visit by asking Ett and Max to select a mixed bag of bugs for me from a street vendor. I ended up eating grasshoppers, crickets, butterfly larvae, ant larvae, and dried frogs — and it was interesting to note how different each item tasted.

The grasshopper, for example, had been deep fried in such a way that it tasted almost exactly like the skin from fried chicken (the texture, of course, was crunchy and unsettlingly grasshopper-like). The cricket, on the other hand, was scaly and mushy and unappetizing — it tasted just as grossly bug-like as you might imagine it would. The ant larvae was small and salty and easy to eat (save for the occasional wings, which were brittle and wasp-like), while the butterfly larvae was just juicy enough to be disgusting (especially if you stop to consider what the “juice” is). By far the best were the dried frogs (I’m not sure how they were prepared, but they were boneless and a tad crunchy) which tasted a lot like pork rinds.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of eating bugs is the little insect-parts that get left over in odd corners of your mouth when you’re done. I was begging for a beer after my bug-feast — but (since juice was more readily available in that corner of Chinatown) I ended up washing the random antennae and exoskeleton with pomegranate juice and coconut water.

Act Three: Taking Subjecting My 25-Day Travel Clothes to the Nightlife Test

Whenever someone hears about my no-baggage world-journey, their first assumption is that my clothes must get unbearably stinky from constant use. I’ve explained in previous posts how daily washing has made clothing-odor a non-issue, but to prove this principle (and to prove a little point about the fashion-readiness of my SeV wardrobe) I wanted to put my clothing to the test in some urban nightlife scene. And, while Bangkok nightlife is not as exclusive as you’ll find in places like New York or Paris or Milan — it does have plenty of clubs that have strict rules against admitting people who look (and smell) unpresentable.

Nightclubs are not really my social scene (I’m more of a dive-bar guy), so this evening outing was more of a scientific fashion-test than an earnest quest for fun. And, interestingly enough, it immediately become apparent that my clothing, smell, and clothing-smell was a non-issue (for the record, I was wearing my black ScotteVest performance tee, tan SeV cargo pants, and my Blundstone boots).

After gaining easy access to the first few Bangkok nightclubs, I called my friend Justin Dunne, the general manager at an upscale club called Bed, and asked him to put his bouncers on high alert for someone looking/smelling like they’d been wearing the same clothes for the past 25 days. When I arrived at Bed, I immediately made it past the bouncers. Since I was with Taylor (whose fashion-model looks might have tipped my hand with the bouncers), I left her inside, quietly re-entered the door queue — and made it past the bouncers again, no problem.

Eventually I caught up with Justin Dunne, and we discussed the art of science of gaining entry into exclusive nightclubs. Justin D had expected me to come in looking “a little Khao San Road” — i.e. kind of grungy and travel-worn — and my simple black shirt and clean tan pants defied that stereotype. Still, he said, my wardrobe wasn’t an automatic “in” — and getting past the velvet rope at a place like Bed is often more of an art than a science. It helps to be well-spoken, engaging, well-presented, and in the company of well-spoken, engaging, well-presented people.

The scene inside Bed was certainly as hip as it was reputed to be — but as I said, nightclubs aren’t really my scene. After a round of drinks, Taylor and I (and my cameraman Justin G, who’d been let in to film us) rejoined Max and Ett outside, and we spent the rest of the night in dive bars.

Note: Rolf and Justin’s stay at Bangkok’s Column Hotel came courtesy of No Baggage Challenge reader Roy who oversees the Column and Long Table Restaurant. (Thanks Roy!) Nightly rates are US$138 per room.

 
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  • What was the name of the famous seafood restaurant you ate the shrimp at?

  • Rolf

    Hey Sara -- it's called R&L Seafood, and it's in Chinatown.

  • Robert

    Rolf, I never post but I have to say this: that Blonde friend of yours is the most stunning woman I have seen in a long time!

  • Yikes, I think I need a drink now after watching you eat those bugs!!! Haha what a great video.

  • Justin

    heck yea, way to spend your whole day with that stunning babe

  • Darin

    yeah - even when she has this look of disgust,watching that guy eat insects - she still looks amazing

  • Glad to see the ensemble made it past the velvet.

    Cheers -

  • Hey there's Max! Cool! After reading so much about Max in "Marco Polo" I wondered whatever became of him.

    Just watching you eat bugs made me want a beer. Not really my idea of good eats. But I suppose every region has something strange to challenge the foreigner's appetite.

  • MattBrownerHamlin

    Yeah I just read the first chapter with Max in it yesterday oddly enough. Glad to see Rolf's still in touch with him.

  • Ps can't wait for the next video--these are awesome--I agree with Ralf--much more entertaining than TV for sure.

  • Having read about this awesome adventure so far, I decided to get a copy of Vagabonding--can't wait for it to arrive--with hindsight I should have got the eBook version on kindle. Rolf & Justin when is your next video going to be posted?

  • Look for our next one tomorrow (Tuesday).

  • Ralph

    Rolf,

    Following this blog, reading your posts, and watching these short video segments is seriously much more entertaining than TV! Do you plan on continuing with such ventures?

    Regarding bondaegi, my in-laws had me try some once. I should note: 1) I never back down from a challenge and 2) I eat everything.... rather, I thought I eat everything. Bondaegi had a bit of a sandy, gritty taste that I could not get over.

    Had today's video been a movie or some big-budget production, I would've said to myself, "There's no way someone just stumbles upon a beautiful fellow traveler such as Taylor in real life." Rolf, you've proven me wrong.

  • notvalid

    Does anybody know the song of act two?
    Thx

  • MattBrownerHamlin

    Justin - do you mic Rolf when shooting segments? I've noticed throughout that the audio quality on the videos is really high and it was especially impressive in this video on Khao San Road.

  • Hey Matt, I use the Zoom H4N mounted on-camera.

  • Sam

    Very cool and inspiring! Myself and a few friends were in Bangkok just a couple of months ago and we made a video too. Not sure how much time you have but I think you'll enjoy it.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

    I hope to do a similar no baggage adventure in a few years when I'm a little better traveled.

    Kind regards!
    Sam

  • Shags

    Have you any trouble at airports because you look suspicious with no luggage?

  • Would have to echo Oceanminded's comment re: collared short-sleeve shirt - I don't have the physique (nor the looks) to pull off those performance tees. They were fantastic as a base layer in Morocco, but unless you religiously keep in shape, they are very unflattering.

    Now if a company like Columbia or SeV could make collared short-sleeve travel shirts out of the same material, I'd be ecstatic: My request - no polo shirts, no Hawaiian prints, but something in the style of the old safari shirts (short-sleeve, four patch pockets, clean classic lines, multiple colors)

  • Max

    Quick question (or two) if you're in S.E. Asia, would you recommend taking a lightweight mosquito net? Also how do you keep fit while on the road--do you have travel-friendly exercises / routines.

  • Rolf

    Hey Max -- most SE Asian hotels and guesthouses (even cheap ones) provide mozzie nets, and hence I rarely travel with one. As for exercise, I wrote about my routine for the Travel Channel's World Hum online:

    http://www.worldhum.com/featur...

  • Well done.. How much crew is with you on this journey?

  • Thanks. It's just Rolf and me

  • That's gotta be the grossest snack I've ever heard of...

  • Maxwell Smart

    From the videos I thought there was an uncanny resemblance between Rolf Potts and Matt Damon's character Jason Bourne...then I read this article written by Rolf Potts...so Rolf you're modelling yourself on Jason Bourne then?

    http://www.vagablogging.net/tr...

  • Hi Aaron,
    The article was actually written by another blogger called Marcus Sortijas.

  • Hemp-fiber clothing; no kidding! I have quite a few items from a Santa Monica, CA based company; very durable and versatile; no pockets however. Ralf, this series of videos and blogs are most definitely helping me, to prepare for a couple of months outside the US. (off to Germany in January)

  • Awesome video - next time try the fresh snake blood in Bangkok :-)

  • crystallinesheen

    I heard that the snake blood puts a little "lead in your pencil," is that true? Rolf, that is one fine lady friend you've got there, her facial expressions during your bug eating buffet are priceless!

  • What does 'lead in your pencil' refer to? (Or do I not want to know)

  • crystallinesheen

    Well, I heard from someone who tried the snake blood that it had like a Viagra effect. Allegedly the cobra blood kept this bunch of guys who tried it "standing at attention" so long that it became painful! Made them horny little buggers as well.

  • Oceanminded

    Swap out one t-shirt for a collared short sleeve and the ScotteVest kit is complete. Great post as always. Food, friends and beers! (in no particular order). Thanks!

  • Great post as always. That frog in the picture above looks kinda like it's alive and pleading with you not to eat it.

  • Jacob

    It probably got fried on its hands a knees... poor froggy.

  • Aaron

    Is the girl in the film former model Niki Taylor? She looks just like her.

  • Max_hugh

    Eating buggs like that Man Vs Wild / Born Survivor dude Bear Grylls...and I just happened to watch it before eating my dinner - eughhh.

  • Some of the street scenes from this video really reminded me of Korea and then when you mentioned Bondaegi, well flashbacks ensued. I used to cover my nose to walk by the Bondaegi stands and since the smell lasted a few metres I probably looked like a fool. :)

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