After Koh Phi Phi, I took a 14 hour bus ride from Krabi to Bangkok, the capital of Thailand. The bus touched the east coast of Thailand at Surat Thani where the rainy season was in full flow. The rains came down in hard, fat drops and, what were dry streets ten minutes ago, were now under three inches of water. My bus dropped me off at 5am in a random looking road in the pitch black of night. Immediately, a flurry of taxi drivers and tuk-tuk drivers descended.
“Hello? Khao San Road? You want Khao San Road? Hotel? Guesthouse?” “No thanks, I‟m okay, not right now, thanks! KorpKun Ka!”
I took the next left and went for a quick coffee. I asked the girl behind the counter where the Khao San Road was and she pointed behind me at a non-descript street. I remembered the taxi-drivers offering to take me there from just one street away and I made a quick mental note to keep my wits about me.
The Khao San Road is the famous traveller ghetto in west central Bangkok. Seeing it in the early morning, I was reminded of the West End (the main street) in San Antonio, Ibiza, where we once arrived straight from the airport at dawn and were silenced by the view: broken glass and vomit on the streets; the sobering morning after the night before. Here, on the Khao San Road at 7am, it was much the same but now there were also hordes of aging, fat European-looking men with young Thai women. There was the odd argument and tired looking women going home for the morning. It was a different type of traveller here and there was no way I was staying.
After looking up my guidebook for other areas, I jumped straight into a tuk-tuk (a motorised three-wheel cab) to go to the river and catch an onward boat on a narrow canal called Khlong Saem Saeb. Bangkok has a network of canals feeding off its central river, Mae Nam Chao Phraya, and accordingly was once known as the “Venice of the East”. I love tuk-tuks! These are small vehicles, part car, part motorbike and very quick! My driver zipped around trying to get me to visit some travel agents for onward trips to Cambodia, darting across lanes when he wanted to, ducking and reversing into fast-moving oncoming cars; a wonderfully visceral start to the day! From the tuk-tuk, I jumped with my backpack and rucksack onto a canal boat, almost falling backwards into the water under the weight I was carrying, and chuntered off to the very centre of Bangkok where I stayed just off the major Thanon Sukhamvit road, in a great little hostel with dark panelled walls, low ceilings and bamboo stairs.
From the rural sleepiness of Krabi and the gentle pace of life in Koh Phi Phi, Bangkok is like an invigorating slap in the face. There are no trees or areas of greenery; it‟s all mono-rails, five-lane-wide highways and huge, brand-new commercial complexes. Like in Hong Kong, shopping is one of the major pastimes here; from the high-end luxury brands to every mid-range shop selling everything you can think of to the most shambolic and charming of street stalls. It‟s these street stalls that are the life blood of the Bangkok economy. There are pockets of stalls all over the city, wherever there‟s space, whether that be directly outside a shopping centre entrance, in a tiny alley or under an overpass. You can buy fake DVD players, DVDs to watch on your new fake DVD player, t-shirts, socks, pants, rucksacks, suitcases etc. and, to catch your breath, enjoy some street food of noodle soups and fried rice on the pavement whilst the throng seethes through the marketplace. It sounds like a cliché but you really are expected to haggle; it feels ridiculous when the opening price is still relatively low but if you don’t do it, you really are a mug!
Me – “Nice shorts.”
Any market trader in Bangkok – “Yes! Very good quality!”
“Got them in green?”
“Of course. What size?”
“30 waist. (I‟ll squeeze into them!) How much are they?”
“400 baht” (simply because you look like a mug and I want ten times what I paid for these!)
“Ooh! 400 is a bit too much!” (I pull my best pained face and try to judge what price to come in at without getting laughed out of town) “I saw these for 200 up there” (no I didn‟t but I still should have got these for less; I bottled it!)
“200? 200? No 200! 400 very good price!”
So she hasn‟t come down; what can I do?
“400 too much. The other place selling for 200 baht”
“This very good quality. Better. Better than other one”
Fuck! These guys are much better negotiators than me! I‟m rubbish at this! Walk away!
“Thank you! No Korpkun Ka”
Hope she comes in with a lower price…
“Okay! Okay! 350 baht. Very good quality.”
“No 250. 350.”
“Okay! 280. No…300.”
“Okay. Okay!” Done! 320. Bugger. Later…The shorts are a bit tight!
Bangkok has a seedy reputation that is fully deserved. I was staying in the centre of town in the main Sukhumvit area and at 7pm the streets are already lined up with prostitutes. Along Thanon Sukhumvit, the market-stalls selling fruit and clothes at inflated prices are in business next to prostitutes standing shoulder to shoulder. It’s sad but you quickly get bored of saying “No thank you. No Korpkun Ka!” after the tenth time in as many seconds. You develop a twenty yard stare. There are pimps, prostitutes and sex tourists; of the latter, the vast majority are aging, balding, overweight white men. These men are generally not shy. They sit in bars and openly discuss the prostitutes. It sounds exaggerated but it‟s literally like a cattle market where the prostitutes parade to be sold. There are so many prostitutes on the streets that I think it must be a buyers‟ market; prices driven low by the huge surplus in supply, with no trade unions to prevent competition. The issue is widespread and so embedded that hostels have to explicitly sign their receptions with „No sex tourists‟. The sex trade is so prevalent in Bangkok and Thailand in general; it seems that almost everyone is trying to sell you sex, from your moto-driver to the people selling fake DVDs; it is one of the images that Thailand as a country projects and does nothing at all to curb. I‟ve since read that around 2.7% of Thailand‟s GDP comes from the sex trade. More mindboggling is the statistic that maybe 10% of all tourist dollars spent in Thailand goes on the sex trade; it brings no credit upon the Thai nation at all.