Monday, May 11, 2015

Down and Out in Bangkok

 ... but where better to be that than Bangkok?

I mean, where better to do anything at all, than Bangkok?

One of my favorite cities in the world, definitely.

I've been in Thailand a couple of weeks now -- on my own, a very personal and private celebration of my 20 years of English teaching, that started here. Maybe celebration is too festive of a word, as I haven't been partying much. A remembrance ceremony. A meditation, even.

Considering my life path, yes, but also considering Bangkok, where it all began.

I went through Songkran, which has developed from handfuls of people throwing water around to a massive crushing parade of celebrants dousing each other relentlessly. Pumping up your weapon to shoot water on somebody, and perhaps put white paste on their face? Not very subtle sexual sybolism, I suppose, though the original idea was about washing away sin. Now's it's  got a Halloween feel to it, with masks and the LGBT community out in force.

If you read my first memoir, you'll know the story. I went backpacking in 1994, and by 1995, decided I wanted to teach English ... in Taiwan. But they wouldn't give me more than a 2 week visa, so I ended up taking the first job I saw in the Bangkok Post, the largest and shittiest chain language school in the city.

Khao San road was a lively place in 1995, sure, but it was a lot mellower. We weren't tourists, then, or even backpackers, we were "travelers." (With all the snooty pretension you can imagine that goes with that.) It was fairly rare to meet somebody who was just travelling for a couple weeks or a month. People were out for 6 months or a year, in those days. Khao San road was still just mainly one street then --  -- there were a couple bars, a lot of cafes and cheap guest houses -- I think practically none of them had air-con or hot water, in those days.

The big draw in those days were movies; the cafes would play bootleg videos and it was always a treat for those of us who'd been on the road a while. Pirated CDs and cassettes were big in those days, also, as well as the t-shirts and fisherman pants and so forth.

While a certain amount of beer got drunk and pot got smoked, I would say in general it was pretty quiet back then. Bangkok was a place to relax and enjoy first-world comforts after the rough roads of India, usually. There were a couple bars, but people were so tight with their pennies in those days that attempts to open nicer bars and nightclubs always failed quickly, because people didn't want to spend the extra money.


Jesus Christ, it's like a cross between Bourbon Street and Bartertown in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The main thing I notice is that "Khao San Road" has pretty much expanded to fill streets on both sides of it and both ends of it.

When I first lived here in 1995, I lived on Rambuttri road, in the Green House Guest House.


At that time I liked it because it was quiet, cheap, and you actually got a real room. (A lot of cheap guest houses those days had plasterboard walls.)

Rambuttri was the street you walked (or lived) on if you didn't want to get bugged by t-shirt vendors on Khao San, a quite street with a couple of guest houses and a bunch of food vendors. Now it's like the motherfucking Champs Elysee. Open air cafes with neon and paper lanterns and giant buddhas and live music and such. There are fire-eaters and break dancers and buskers, too.

The Green House has changed a lot -- they knocked out the side wall and built a sidewalk cafe. (The entrance used to be in that alley.) They have some rooms with air-con and hot-water now, but they still have the little cubicles such as the one I lived in, just a bed and a fan and that's it. (I lived in Room 54 for a year between April 1995 and April 1996 -- the ETX Suite. It costs 350 baht now ($12 now) and cost 100 baht ($4) back then.) Weirdly the walls aren't green anymore. Why would they change that?

But about the area in general, I gotta say, basically, it seems a LOT more fun than 20 years ago. (See, I'm NOT one of those bitter old men bitching about how the old days were always better.)

The backpackers are far and away a more appetizing lot. The Russian and Eastern European chicks certainly up the beauty-quotient a lot, and short-time tourists are just generally healthier and more "kempt" than we used to be. Back in the day, the nationalities represented were pretty much ONLY American, British, Australian and a smattering of other Europeans. There were also a lot of Israelis, usually fresh off military service.

The Brits in the 90s were a bad lot, particularly, football holligans and ravers with IQs decimated by ecstasy abuse and untoward obsessions with the number of beats per minute in the dance music. The female to male ratio seemed way off in those days, also -- a lot more males were backpacking than females. Now it seems fairly even.

Back in the mid-90s, also, Bangkok seemed very uncomfortable with backpackers in general and Khao San Road in particular. I remember there were a couple of scathing articles in the Bangkok Post about what a shithole Khao San Road was, with the firetrap guest houses, a lot of theft and drug abust and rape reports. (There was one guy who sold jewlery, a middle-aged Chinese guy who wore jean shorts and tie-die shirts, who had been accused of rape so many times the police finally put up flyers warning people about him.) The police were constantly busting rooftop parties and such. There was talk of shutting the whole area down to build a mall, if I remember correctly.

Now they seem to have come to respect it as a cash cow if nothing else. The cops are omnipresent but polite, and keep patient watch over the debauchery.

They even have helpful suggestions on how to amuse yourself. Rock the night away, bro!


Jug Jugette said...

(See, I'm NOT one of those bitter old men bitching about how the old days were always better.)

You will be. You will be. It's the brain, it ossifies. It's the brian, it ossifies.

Jeffrey said...


I was just reading To Travel Hopelessly and I was wondering whose decision it was to keep your paragraph length down to one and two sentences. Was it yours or your editor's?

My feeling is that it was part of your rhetorical ploy to make it look like you were just telling, a story and not writing one. Well, also to create more white space and inflate the page count, of course.

By the way, both of the above paragraphs were exactly two sentences long. Hm. Maybe those short paragraphs are blog-related.

Anyway, your books will transfer easily to large-print editions. I'll be able to read Vodkaberg in the local library between naps next to the heater.

I lived in Bangkok last year. I loved renting a bike for the day out at Rot Fai Park. I think it cost something like $1, maybe less. I would bring my Kindle and read and ride in a beautiful park without the fear of being run down by a moto-taxi driver. Nice.

englishteacherx said...

Vodkaberg is considerably weightier, although I it also has short paragraphs. I can't really remember how much the editor used the short paragraphs versus how many I did, but I know the editor was very fond of them.

I just always liked people who wrote that way with short punchy paragraphs -- Bukowski, Vonnegut, Bret Easton Ellis, etc. Page count isn't much of an issue with e-books, and I was actually trying to keep page counts down for the paperbacks so I could sell them cheaper.

Jeffrey said...


Agree. Short paragraphs keep the eyes skipping through the story and the reading feels effortless. The opposite would be writing of someone like the Austrian Thomas Bernhard, who refuses to extend any courtesy to the reader. He doesn't use paragraphs. You just have to wade in and then fight the currents the rest of the way.

One-sentence paragraphs in expository writing, however, can make one sound like a simpleton -- a string of statements without elaboration or support.

See sentence supra.

Did I just use the word "expository"? Yeah, I am a member of That Windblown, Perhaps Justly Unheralded Tribe about which you write.

Have you spent any time over in the Victory Monument area? I lived on Rangnam Road in a serviced apartment at Starry Place, which I would recommend to anyone looking for digs in Bangkok.

Here's a photo of some of the local lads:

Schoolboys on Rangnam Road.

I've heard from friends still there that since the military takeover they're now making foreigners do visa-runs every month, instead of every three months. Any news on that?

Anyway, I just wanted to tip my cap to you, say hello, chat a bit, and wish you the best in your transitional period, of which I have, sadly, much experience.

englishteacherx said...

Well, I just went on a 30-day tourist visa, and have now exited Thailand for the cooler climes of E. Europe. I found the extreme heat and humidity in Thailand a bit much. Shocking proof that I am old, because I lived in Thailand and New Orleans for years and always loved the heat. Or maybe it's just my general mood.

Jeffrey said...


Well, when I lived in Bangkok, I looked to the other members of the Animal Kingdom on the issue of coping with the climate there.

Normal Animal Response to Bangkok.

Hey, I recall seeing a blog entry of yours where you included a snapshot of a plastic bin of journals kept during your travels. I did the same for over ten years, used them for a couple books, but then stopped (burned out). But then I returned to keeping a journal (more like half-journal and half-notebook), but I type it on the laptop now.

Last year I logged 600 pages of single-spaced text. When I was keeping the handwritten journal in the past, it was about the same. But now I don't have to lug the notebooks around anymore.

The other thing is that it's much easier to copy and paste and add links to something you might want to check out later. For example, when I was living in Buenos Aires, I was trying to figure out why a country with oil could be so dysfunctional that entire neighborhoods will go weeks without electricity -- what they call cortes de luz there -- while a country like Korea, which has not a drop of oil, is lit up like Times Square all the time and no one can ever remember a power outage.

Anyway, to figure that out I had to copy and paste and link to a lot of websites to get down to the cultural, systemic reasons -- all of it hard if not impossible to do in the days of the old handwritten journals.

So are you still keeping a handwritten journal or is everything on your laptop? Any thoughts?

Jeffrey said...


I was thinking about my time in Thailand and decided I did have one story that probably categorizes me as a non-savvy traveler (that might be the polite way of saying it).

Lucky Buddha Day.

Jeez, I took a photo of the guy thinking he just happened to be passing through the temple like me. You have to laugh, right?

englishteacherx said...

I've gone digital completely. The hassel of lugging around all that paper -- books as well as journals -- I don't miss at all. At one point i had to spend like $40 sending a bunch of journals back to America.

Jeffrey said...


Yeah, I've done the same. But I always back up everything on a flashdrive. You can't be too careful with the electricity issues in other countries -- power surges and so on.

One big difference I've noticed is that when I wrote in the paper journals I would never cross out or change a single word. I would always pause and think before writing each sentence. I have several thousand pages of handwritten journals without a single word changed. It looks weird to me now.

On the laptop, however, my fingers fly on the keyboard and then I'm always going back and re-writing and moving stuff around, a constant back-and-forth, until the sentence or paragraph or section looks and sounds good.

So the ease of writing and re-writing on a computer is fantastic, especially for someone like me -- I wrote all of my undergraduate papers on an enormous Royal manual typewriter with a few sheets of correction tape next to me, the white dust left behind covering everything.

Oh, yeah, and the Kindle. Before I left New York, I got a New York Public Library card and they've got a fantastic e-book collection. I've been traveling in Asia and South America the last two years, and the whole time I've been downloading books to read from the NYPL website. Doesn't matter where I am in the world.

I borrow the book, it shows up on my Amazon e-book page, and then I download the book onto my Kindle via the USB drive. By keeping my Kindle permanently on Airplane Mode, I thus have the book in my mitts forever -- a little loophole I'm hoping the Amazon Braintrust never repairs. No sync, no book return.

Yep, laptop, flashdrive, Kindle. You're good to go.

englishteacherx said...

And music and films, shit, I remember hauling around an old Chinese Walkman casette player, and buying casettes for it in Thailand and Russia around the turn of the Millenia. RIP to that shit.

Jeffrey said...

Cassette tape? Of what do you speak, sir?

Ken said...

Pfft... you should come home and see how underfunded ESOL is in the UK. The funding cuts are so brutal that we still have cassette tapes for listening exercises.

englishteacherx said...

Isn't ESOL mostly private enterprise in the UK? Or are you at a state school?

Emily Christina said...
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