I stepped off of the plane from Paris and arrived at the Bangkok airport feeling slightly lost. I grabbed my overweight Osprey pack from the luggage carrier and watched as passport control added another visa to my collection. One month in Thailand, it read.
As I exited the arrival gate, a new character in my story stood waiting for me between a group of Thai charter servicemen.
Name: Jake Lewis Sex: Male Age: 24
Jake and I have been buddies for over seven years. He refuses to live in one location longer than six months. He has more natural adrenaline pumping through his veins than a weightlifter high on PCP. He has lived to tell tales that I thought only existed in horror stories told by girl scouts. These qualities are the reason I proposed earlier this year that we travel the world together.
After we hugged and laughed about how we were reunited 8,000 miles away from the place we call home, Los Gatos, California, my trust was instilled in Jake to lead us away from the airport frenzy to our accommodation. He pulled out a wad of what appeared to be monopoly money and we boarded a sky tram filled with young girls decorated in Hello Kitty. I enlightened him on my days in the Middle East and Jake recounted his adventures from the week he waited for my arrival in Bangkok. It sounded a lot like a possible plot for Hangover 3. As we rode among the skyscrapers, I tried to decide if hearing how he’d woken up surrounded by the Thai mafia made me more anxious or excited about my new travel companion. I eventually opted for the latter.
At our stop, we were immediately attacked by tuk-tuk drivers. “Where you go sir? Sir…sir! Where you go? How much?”
“Khao San Road. 100 baht. No stops. None at your friend’s suit shops. Not even one.”
There was an unfamiliar aggression in his voice, but his confidence showed that he was well-aware of his surroundings. I hopped into the new form of transportation eagerly. We sped past jewel-encrusted statues of elephants and life-sized portraits of the king until arriving at the backpackers’ ghetto, Khao San Road.
Now as much as I try to tell you about Khao San Road, no description can accurately do it justice. The single street filled with hostels, second-hand products and 7-11’s has a culture of its own. Do not, however, mistake this for uniqueness, for there is no sense of authentic Thai life as one might hope to find upon first arrival in Asia. From young girls with roses to old women with bracelets, it seems that all of the locals have ulterior motives. If you want a massage, you can find it. If you need a tailored suit, you can find that too. If you forget about either, everyone will be eager to remind you. Most of the backpackers who roam up and down the road, eating $1 pad thai from the street cart noodle vendor and drinking cheap buckets at one of the open air bars, appear at first to be seasoned veterans. In reality, they’re just as new to the experience as the stranger in the dorm bed next to them. It is the type of place I actively try to avoid at all costs. But there I was, in the midst of it all, bashfully unaware of my surroundings.
Over margaritas and Chang (Thailand’s cheapest beer with an unknown alcohol content) we avoided the masses at our rooftop pool, talking about how we would spend the next forty-eight hours. I wasn’t going to let these immediate perceptions deter the excitement of sightseeing at the start of our grand adventure.
The next morning, my jet-lagged body awoke at 5am with a rush of energy. I roamed the streets while market vendors prepared for the long, routine day ahead, helping myself to two full plates of noodles before waking up Jake. The sun rays were heavy as we walked to the Grand Palace. We attempted to sneak past security, failed, and had to use the entirety of our $20/day budget on the entrance fee. Resigned, we turned our attention to the gold-encrusted structure from 1782 like the next tourist would. When we learned that boats also double as taxis along the dark, trash-filled Chao Phraya River*, we decided to head out for a ride to see more giant temples and Buddhas. Afterwards, we remained quiet on an improvised route home. The unfamiliar back alleys were off the beaten path and noticeably missing the pestering tuk-tuk drivers–instead, we moved amongst cardboard beds and run-down markets. The poverty stricken roads were a stark contrast from the ancient ruins and extravagant places of worship we admired just minutes before, and they served as a sobering reminder that we were in an underdeveloped territory. The disparity between the lives of locals versus tourists was the reason I felt an immense sense of relief the moment our tickets to the south island of Koh Samui were confirmed. I bid adieu from Bangkok, and as we departed that evening and slept straight through the nighttime bus ride, I had sweet dreams of beach bungalows and moped rides.
It took twelve hours to a perfectly blue abyss of ocean. Our accommodation of choice was Lucky Mother Bangalows, a place where the required security deposits–our passports–were kept in a tupperware container sitting atop the bar. The receptionist assured us of its safety; we objected otherwise. It’s such instances when instilling trust in a local is wildly unappealing. At Lucky Mother’s, Jake and I welcomed two new additions to our travel crew, a strip club DJ from Holland and an overly paranoid ex-engineer from New York. We made an unlikely foursome for being lost in a daze of lush surroundings and waterfalls. But as picturesque as the resorts of Koh Samui were, they were reminiscent of a Bangkok on the beach.
One hour from Koh Samui was Koh Tao, the real wonder of southern Thailand. It made Koh Samui look like a mere stepping stone. We stepped off to a crowded pier and met eight more backpackers who shared our open-air jeep taxi to Sairee Beach. It is a typical Thai protocol to overpack every form of transport. The taxi dropped us off at the entrance to a small, quiet road. As I stood amidst the backdrop of a postcard, I suddenly didn’t mind the weight of my backpack. The sand of Sairee was bright against the clear, shallow water; long-tailed boats are as much a defining part of the scenery as are the overhanging palm trees. I moved farther and farther away from my initial chaotic memories of Bangkok into a dreamland for divers. But after days at an idyllic oceanfront lobby, I felt it didn’t provide an accurate representation of authentic life in Thailand. The double edged sword is that tourism drives the economy of these once untouched areas, and will likely continue to do so as long as wanderlusts like me set out in search of such beauty. If I could go back in time, I’d transport to Thailand ten years ago before consumerism became the culture.
I was curious to discover if the North of the country mirrored the South, and this was the reason Jake left my story as quickly as he’d entered it. He left to continue island hopping as I prepared for a 36+hour solo journey. I regathered all of my belongings and consulted my passport–two weeks left in Thailand.