The Same River Twice: Bangkok in Three Acts
September 24, 2010 by Rolf Potts
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.