Dispatch: Introduction to Bangkok
Touching down in Bangkok is a bit like starting from a paused position, frame frozen, then skipping real time to go directly into a fast forward mode. Not the old analog FF that simply speeds things up, splitting images with lines of static, but a digital fast forward where entire images, details and scenes must be skipped if you are to be able to move forward fast enough to avoid being skipped yourself.
Our guesthouse was out of the way in a quiet neighborhood; we had seen no other travelers during our few days there, so I was a little bit startled to be greeted by a pale, gaunt looking Brit with a sharp Bristol accent. I remember my first impression being that this poor man was clearly strung out on something lethal; he reminded me of a scene out of Trainspotting. As he introduced himself by correcting my shoddy attempt at a Thai Sawatdee, I labored to silence my hounds of judgment, reminding myself that it was seven in the morning in a Bangkok guesthouse that charged $2.50 for the room, and besides, I was still in my boxer shorts as well.
A few minutes later I recognized that I had mistaken judgment for intuition when my new friend elaborated on his travels in Thailand, which began as a sojourn to seek treatment for a heroin addiction he had been unable to kick back in the UK.
His sordid experiences in and around Bangkok included stints in both a Buddhist monastery and a penitentiary. He drew on the latter to illustrate his overall observations concerning the character of the city that had been playing games with us all.
“I ‘uz in dere for a month after they caught me wif a bit o heroin,” as he began to speak I silently apologized for my exhausted mind, which I knew would later distort his speech into a strange hybrid of Oliver Twist and Long John Silver.
“But in dere I met this one bloke, who uz in dere when I arrived an’ still dere when I left,” he yawned frequently as he spoke, his hand covering his mouth, but then hovering there after he’d finished the yawn for a while before rubbing the rest of his face and head in a kind of fit. It seemed as though he was attempting to mold his head into some more awake-looking shape, a rhombus, perhaps. The thought occurred to me that perhaps if I employed this strategy I might be able to actually retain more of what the poor guy was trying to tell me, which was unfolding into quite a dramatic story.
Unfortunately, during this entire yawning / cranial molding session, he had continued to tell his story, and all these odd early-morning contortions along with my ensuing internal monologue, not to mention his thick accent had all conspired to prevent me from really hearing a single goddamn word of the most interesting story I’d heard so far in Asia.
About the same time I reached this conclusion and tuned back in, he seemed to come to the meat of the story, “ ..and so they nicked this guy for possession of Marijuana he didn’t even know he ‘ad.” I was thankful that we both had been schooled in the usefulness of the summary sentence. “Slipped it right in ‘is pocket on Khao San,” he seemed to be completely alert now, or maybe we both did. “So few minutes later, ‘e gets stopped, lets ‘em search ‘im thinkin’ ‘e’s clean and wantin’ to be cooperative in a foreign country ‘n’ all. Then when they pull it out of ‘is pocket, ‘e’s all shocked an’ ‘e can’t pay the bribe they’s tryin’ to extort out uf ‘im, an’ since ‘e ain’t got no one else ‘ere to pay ‘is way out, ‘e’s probably still in dere.”
I dug deep into my American vocabulary for an adequate reaction and came up with: “Dude, that sucks.”
“’at’s right. So you gotta watch yourself round ‘ere. This whole city’s money-hungry. ‘s all that matters, just money.”
Harsh as it was, the pronouncement of a recovering heroin addict was the only thing that had put the experience of Bangkok into a comprehendible perspective.
Although I was certain that many other sides of this city existed and were accessible, at that moment I couldn’t have agreed more. Perhaps the time to find the real Bangkok would come. Some other time.