Author’s note: The story below describes Bangkok’s Khao San Road as it was fifteen years ago, with some editorial updates, and was originally a chapter of a book commissioned by Lonely Planet that never saw the light of day. The book was called Groove in the Map. Pictures © Darby Sawchuk
A LATE AFTERNOON SHOWER plunged Bangkok into pre-evening darkness, lashing the litter-strung, thronging streets and exhaust-fume laden air so that even Khao San Road—the nexus of the depredations modern travel brings upon its victims—glistened. Neon advertising for tickets to everywhere and for rooms with discounts shimmered on the bitumen.
For most travelers, Khao San comes at the end of one journey—the red-eye via Kuwait or Karachi, the shoulder-to-shoulder overnight bus from the north or the south of Thailand—and the beginning of another. I’d arrived by taxi from an apartment I lived in on the other side of town. My backpack tapped at my shoulders, as if to say, “Who do you think you’re kidding?”
I’d come to Khao San to stay for a week because I had an idea about the travel ethos being in transition. But it was something I was still kicking around in an aimless kind of way. I needed to test it out and I stayed in an alley off the main strip in the Bonny Guesthouse, allegedly the first guesthouse to set up shop on Khao San circa 1982, when Khao San was still a Thai-Chinese rice-trading depot.
At Bonny, I took a three-dollar room—a decrepit double bed with standing room only for an audience of two—dumped my pack, and sauntered out into the dusk.
My plan was to spend some evenings on the Road in the company of travelers. But on my first night I fell in with a group of Thai students. After too many drinks, we squeezed into Suzie’s Pub, surrounded by several-hundred drunk and sweaty other students. At two in the morning, when Suzie’s closed, en-masse, sweatier, drunker, we poured around the corner to the Again Pub. I saw out what was left of the night pinned to the bar, finger-fed deep-fried crickets by a ladyboy.
There might, perhaps, be two takeaways from this. One: I’d clearly spent too long in Asia and had gone native. Two: I’d spent an entire evening on Khao San—crucible of travelers’ angst, the ultimate discovered place on the Asian trail—without actually meeting any of the thousands of travelers staying there.
But this was fifteen years ago, and the utter uncertainty of what was around the next corner was then one of the reasons I loved Bangkok. I no longer live in Thailand, but in those days I’d go to Khao San at least once every couple of weeks. Not for the ladyboys and deep-fried crickets, but for the same reason that Thais living in Bangkok once flocked there. Khao San, then, was a glorious mix of cultures—it had had a vibrant nightlife, and was laced with possibilities. You could bump into anyone: old friends, old travel acquaintances, fascinating new people. I once met a woman on Khao San I fell so madly in love with I changed all my travel plans—changed my life in fact—and followed her to Taiwan. I’ve bumped into people I’ve traveled with in China, Indonesia, India and Tibet. I even bumped into Tony Wheeler (founder of Lonely Planet) there once. You can get in uniform and set off on the trip of your life. You could meet the man or woman of your dreams and wind up in Taiwan—I don’t recommend it. You could end up pinned to a bar at four in the morning being finger-fed deep-fried crickets by a ladyboy—I don’t recommend that either.
BUT BACK TO that first night as a pretend traveler, after checking into the Bonny Guesthouse and venturing out back onto the Road, the clouds piled on the horizon were streaked with seams of gold. I stopped. “Fuckin’ beautiful, mate, innit?” said an Australian voice at my side. It was, and it had been a long time since I’d seen a sky like that in Bangkok—a reminder that the city was the gateway to sunsets like this one, and so many more, Asia-wide.
Khao San was, and still is, all about the beyond. Asia’s most bitched about banana-pancake barrio is the departure lounge of the East. Everybody passes through: all the top tips, traveler’s tales, nostalgia and complaints about the overland trail rubbing shoulders, clinking glasses, comparing scars, piercings and tattoos. In the last three decades of the twentieth century the young of the rich world took off in search of spiritual alternatives, adventure and fun: they created Khao San in their own image—a place of outlandish fashions, cheap hybrid cuisines, a combination of the exotic and the familiar. Sooner or later it was bound to become too much of a good thing.
Or was it? As I ambled along the Road that evening, it seemed, despite all the bad press, Khao San was on a roll. Buddy Beer, a budget watering hole of long-standing, was boarded up as it metamorphosed into a four-star hotel and a shopping mall. Branches of Family Mart, 7-Eleven and Boots had flung open their portals to the traveling tribe. At the temple end of Khao San, a full-fledged, air-conditioned sports bar called Gulliver’s Travelers’ Tavern was serving chilled Singha and—the travelers’ beer of choice (it’s the cheapest)—Beer Chang, while screening five channels of Wimbledon, pro-wrestling, snowboarding and Premiere League simultaneously on multiple TVs. It was only a matter of time before Starbucks muscled in on the action (they did, around 2012). And nobody, as far as I could see, cared less. They were all still weaving the street in various degrees of intoxication and shabbiness, checking out the video screenings, stopping for a grilled chicken leg or a ten-baht banana pancake, browsing the rip-off DVDs … and, well, you get the picture.
I tracked a likely group of travelers to the temple end of Khao San, across Samsen Road and down Rambuttri, which—part of the Khao San spillover—was infested with bars. I stopped at a VW Combi (they were later to infest Bangkok) surrounded by a huddle of stools. It offered perhaps Bangkok’s cheapest mixed drinks and cocktails. A particularly Asian example of entrepreneurship, it was the Bus or it was the Caravan, depending on whom you spoke to. If you spoke to me, it was the Caravan because that’s what the first travelers I met on Khao San, after ordering a G&T and sitting down at a makeshift table on the street, called it.
“1982? Shit, man. That’s the year I was born,” said Richard on hearing when I’d first come to Bangkok.
He had dreadlocked, tufted, dirty blond hair and a mad smile that tugged his mouth all over his face. He was barefoot, his eyebrows, lower lip and ears pierced. And he was sitting with Zelda and Claire, fellow gap-year wanderers from London who beamed serenely like arbiters of travelers’ cool. Zelda’s tongue occasionally darted down to explore the inside of her lower lip, scene of a piercing done five minutes before ordering her “no name” cocktail, which we all had sips of and all agreed tasted like mouthwash.
“It must have changed a lot since then,” she said.
“Nobody stayed on Khao San when I first came to Bangkok,” I said, feeling like a wizened oracle. “The travelers all used to stay on the other side of town.”
“It’s funny,” she said. “You get the feeling it was always here.”
But it wasn’t. When I first came to Bangkok, everybody stayed round the Malaysia Hotel, on Soi Ngam Duphli, opposite Lumphini Park (named after Buddhas’s birthplace) and not so far from the Patpong red-light area. I stayed at Freddy’s Guesthouse—still running after all these years—and I’d been bewitched by Thailand in an open-fronted restaurant nearby on my first afternoon, my head still free-falling from a Calcutta joint. It was a day much like this one, I suppose, except now I was drinking with a generation that had grown up in the interim. There were a lot more of us, and Khao San had evolved from an enclave of rice-trading Chinese into the biggest travelers’ center in Asia.
I’d asked Joe Cummings, veteran author of Lonely Planet’s Thailand guide, whether he had a chronology on the evolution of the place. But all he remembered was “a couple of guesthouses,” including Bonny, in 1983, when he was researching the second edition of the book. After that, he told me, it got “pretty fuzzy.” “Fuzzy” was the word for me too. All I know is that in the gap between 1982 and 1988, when I finally returned to Bangkok for a second visit, Khao San had got huge by that mysterious word-of-mouth process whereby a popular guesthouse inspires more and spawns a bazaar.
Zelda was talking about tattoos. Both she and Richard had recently got one in Bangkok; Zelda in a Khao San tattoo parlor, Richard under an anonymous overpass. “Yeah, mad,” he grinned.
“It’s alright for people like us,” said Zelda. “We’re into tattoos and piercings at home. The people I worry about are the ones who get caught up in the atmosphere here. When they get home, they’re going to be, like, ‘Oh, shit.’ When I was getting mine done, there was this guy getting the lizard on the cover of South-East Asia on a Shoestring tattooed on his shoulder—I thought, ‘You’re going to regret that.’”
“Especially when the new edition comes out,” I said.
The conversation drifted onto drugs. It was going to at nearly every turn over the next few days. This despite the fact a vigilant police presence was toiling to banish them from Khao San with on-the-spot fines—and worse, if you couldn’t pay them off. It began with Zelda, who found listening a chore, taking everybody else by surprise and announcing with a theatrical sigh, “My parents told me on the phone today they’d tried ecstasy for the first time this week.”
This set off a discussion of dysfunctional, drug-experimenting parents, of which Zelda, Claire and Richard all either had or knew people who had. If I was a family type, I’d be one of them I suppose.
“Ecstasy’s not the drug of our generation,” said Richard, with the insinuation that the time to be discovering ecstasy was long past. “It’s ketamine.”
I felt out of touch. “What’s it like? What does it do?”
“Well, it’s like you forget everything and you just sit there,” said Richard.
“You can barely walk to the toilet,” said Zelda.
“You can dance,” said Richard.
“Not really dance,” said Claire. “More like shuffle.”
“It’s like, if you’ve got problems,” Richard said, “you completely forget them for around forty minutes.”
“But they’re still there when you come down?”
“Yeah, and then you’ve got another problem,” said Richard. “Drugs.”
I heard a lot more about ketamine in the days to come. Contrary to travelers’ myth, it’s not horse tranquilizer, but an anesthetic favored by vets for small mammals like dogs and cats. In small doses, whether snorted or injected intramuscularly it induces out-of-body experiences that are known medically as “emergence reactions.” Devotees reportedly return from forty-minute trips having experienced former lives as medieval alchemists, guided tours of the universe by aliens, and heavenly encounters with harp-strumming angels. It’s sold over the counter in Cambodia, which evidently was shaping up as a favored ketamine destination—but then everything was (confession: it mostly still is) sold over the counter in Cambodia. You could buy it on the streets of Bangkok too if you knew the right people, and, well—I may as well be honest—not long after the conversation with Zelda, Claire and Richard, we did did just that. I completely forgot my problems for around forty minutes.
We were joined by Jamie, a bouncy, waif-like 18-year-old, who was recording audio of every local he met, including one particularly haunting story we all listened to—a tale about the moon told by a six-year-old boy in Mumbai. Jamie had an idea for a novel based on his days as a conker champion. It seemed like a good enough idea for a book as any, and inspired by the G&Ts and “no names”—I’d lost count—we came up with a title: “Conkering Hero.”
It was an inspirational, celebratory moment, and Richard suggested we all go off and have bhang lassis—yoghurt shakes spiked with dope.
“Are you coming?” asked Claire. “You may as well. You don’t have anything better to do.”
WHEN MIDDAY ROLLED around to sweaty sheets, the emphysemic cough of a dust- and dirt-encrusted electric fan, Claire’s words came back to me like a taunt from the land of the clean living. My head felt like it had played a starring role in “Conkering Hero.” I’d only shared a bhang lassi with Claire, but it had been enough to send the night spinning on a surreal tangent. I vaguely recalled bottles of Beer Chang, a Mancunian called Mike and a Londoner called Tim, and at some point three Irish, one of whom had just shot the photographs for a Lonely Planet San Francisco restaurant guide—and who accused me of being “bitter” about the company that published that same book. I think this may have had something to do with me dismissing Lonely Planet as “a bunch of wankers,” for which I’m truly sorry and blame the G&Ts, no-names, ketamine, bhang lassi and Beer Changs.
I showered in the Bonny Guesthouse communal bathroom—a dank room inhabited by spiders, a squat toilet, a heavy clay jar of water (in lieu of a flush for the toilet) and a rusted faucet that spat rusty, cold water over me—and set off for an aimless wander up and down Khao San. Later, as I sat in a café and sipped a tepid cup of Nescafe, I thanked my lucky stars that I’d never had to write about the Road for Lonely Planet—especially with a hangover like the one I had now. Who knew how many guesthouses the area harbored, but conservative estimates reckoned more than a million. How would I have done it? I wondered. I suspected by getting drunk with a bunch of travelers, waking up with a hangover and guiltily sipping a tepid Nescafe, before madly running around randomly checking out as many “places to stay” as possible.
Code: “Very popular”—it was full and I couldn’t see any of the rooms; “Friendly staff”—somebody agreed to show me a room; “Well lit and clean”—the room had a window and there were no dead cockroaches in the bathroom; “Difficult to find”—I forgot to mark it on the map; “Best avoided”—I heard about it but never found it.
But pretending to undertake a comprehensive survey of Khao San’s places to stay and places to eat was not on my agenda, so rather I surveyed the dwindling afternoon ahead of me with a view to getting through it as unproductively as possible. There were many things I could have done—the Grand Palace, or Wat Po, the Floating Market. But enough other people were wandering aimlessly up and down Khao San Road to justify joining them. So I went for another walk, and bumped into Richard, Zelda, Claire and Jamie. They were waiting for a bus to Laos. Richard reckoned he had time for a last-minute piercing. He returned five minutes later, thoughtfully wriggling his right eyebrow—“Didn’t hurt a bit. A real pro.” Jamie had been assaulted by one of Bangkok’s infamous “ladyboys” the previous evening. Taking it into her head he’d been alerting potential customers to the possibly ambiguous nature of her plumbing, she’d chased him down Khao San, fists flying, before finally snatching his glasses, hurling them to the ground and stamping them into shards.
He had us all sign a get-well card for his brother, who was in hospital (I’m not sure why; perhaps assaults by ladyboys ran in the family), before deciding to decorate the card with get-well wishes in all the languages of Khao San. We did our best to explain this to a giggling member of the café staff, who eventually wrote in Thai, she told us with a vacant smile, “My brother is sick.” We got a German, a Japanese, a Dane, a Scot, and then Jamie set his heart on an Israeli. He scanned the street myopically. “Where’s an Israeli when you need one?”
Jamie failed to find his Israeli, and then it was time for everybody besides me to go to Laos. I regretted this. My next journey would be back to my apartment to attempt to write up what—if anything—I’d discovered on Khao San Road. What if I dropped everything and hopped on a bus to Laos? Sadly, I’ll never know the answer to that one.
RICHARD, ZELDA, CLAIRE and Jamie were precisely the kind of travelers that gave Khao San a bad image: pierced, tattooed, bare-footed substance abusers. But I liked them. If I was looking for a new breed of traveler, they were it. They didn’t fret about the fact everywhere was crowded. That simply provided opportunities for partying. And when they stumbled off the Lonely Planet trail, they treated it as a lucky find—a bonus. I’d told them that I was an ex-Lonely Planet writer the previous night. “Good one,” they said nonchalantly, and the conversation moved on elsewhere. They had a sense of happen-chance joy that made everything—even the bits it was de rigueur to bitch about—a discovery. They had credit cards and digital cameras, and for them the trip was a lark that occasionally provided insights into places far from the ones they’d grown up in. They were neither travelers nor tourists: they were trippers.
They were also a world apart from Patrick. I’d noted him sitting forlornly in the courtyard of Bonny Guesthouse when I’d crawled out of my room that first morning. Later I fell into conversation with him on my return, after seeing Richard and company off. He had chestnut curls and sad, numinous eyes. He was from the south of France, where he worked for the forestry department. If anyone was lonely on Khao San Road, it was him.
“I thought when I went traveling,” he said, “I’d meet lots of people like me. But it’s hard. I’ve been traveling seven months, and most of it I’ve been alone.”
I could see why. I’d only been in his company myself for about five minutes, and already I was trying to come up with excuses to leave.
“I thought it was going to be like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Hitching and meeting up with people. Staying in their homes. But it’s not. It’s take this bus here, take that bus there. And everyone with their guidebooks. Guidebooks! That’s not traveling. You should follow your feelings, not what the guidebook tells you to do. You can hitchhike in Thailand, but nobody does.”
I said nothing about my Lonely Planet years.
“Travel should be a journey you don’t know when is going to end. Round-the-world tickets! That’s not traveling.”
In Cebu, he said, people were taking ten-day jungle treks for one-hundred-and-fifty dollars. “They think they’re like Indiana Jones. That’s only because they’ve never been in the jungle before. One-hundred-and-fifty dollars! You can live on that for a month.”
“Five dollars a day? It’s not much.”
“Oh, it’s possible, “ he said smugly.
He was going to India next, and as I stood up to leave, feigning an appointment with some other travelers, he asked: “Do you know where I can get a photocopy of the India Lonely Planet on Khao San?”
PATRICK REMINDED ME of the character, Jed, in The Beach who wants to ask a Lonely Planet writer, “What’s so lonely about Khao San Road?” But I, the Lonely Planet writer, had a question for Jed as well, and it was to do with where he stayed in Bangkok. I’d bet anything that it was Khao San, and I’d also bet anything that, like Patrick, he spent his time there bitching about the place. Why do people who hate Khao San stay there? Chinatown has guesthouses that offer a far more local environment; and there are more over by the Chao Praya River, where travelers are thin on the ground; and yet more over in the original Khao San, Soi Ngam Duphli, where I first stayed in Freddy’s Guesthouse. The problem was, Jed would have to get off his ass and look for them. He was right about guidebooks. Travelers depend on them too much. But it was only a problem if those very same travelers spent their trips complaining about the fact that their guidebooks had taken them to places full of other people with guidebooks.
Patrick had no sense of irony, whereas Richard, Zelda, Claire and Jamie did. Travelers like Patrick were dwindling in number, because more and more of them were aware of the absurdity of pretending to be anything more than budget tourists.
Coincidentally—or then again perhaps not—a document was doing the rounds on the internet at the time that seemed to me the last word on that absurdity. It was probably a collaborative effort, one of those peculiarly internet phenomena, and I’m going to quote it in full (slightly edited):
SEA Backpacker’s Credo and Motto
- I shall eschew the ways of the tourist and have an authentic Asian experience rather than the shallow, contrived vacation of the package tourist.
- I shall wear as big a backpack as possible to bear proud witness of my creed.
- I will spend my travels on the quest for the Backpacker’s holy grail—for the “Unspoiled Place”—a place undiscovered by tourists, where happy, welcoming, generous natives tend vast fields of ganja along a deserted, previously unknown tropical beach, and that has internet access.
- I shall begin my quest on Khao San Road.
- I shall not leave Khao San Road without a Lonely Planet guide.
- I shall never admit to using a Lonely Planet guide.
- I shall follow “Wheeler’s Way”, a mystical school of thought that both eschews and embraces Khao San Road—a way of finding the Unspoiled Place without ever leaving the path.
(Editors note: “Wheeler’s Way” is a school of thought that answers a decades-old conundrum: If it is in the Lonely Planet then I can find it, but it won’t be the Unspoiled Place. If it is not in Lonely Planet, it might be the Unspoiled Place, but I won’t be able to find it.)
- I shall wear the traditional international backpacker’s uniform and don at least one piece of local clothing (eg a conical hat in Vietnam, a krama in Cambodia, etc) to show my oneness with the Asian people.
- I shall not clean the local soils and aromas from my uniform for I wish to always carry a piece of where I have been.
- I shall never wear a souvenir T-shirt while in the T-shirt’s country of origin.
- I shall eat banana pancakes on a regular basis, for it is the quintessential Asian food.
- I shall eat in the cheapest restaurants. Hygiene is for package tourists.
- I shall travel by the least comfortable means. Cushioned seats are also for package tourists.
- I shall stay in the cheapest guesthouse. More money for beer.
- I shall drink the local beer, for I shall always endeavor to be in tune with the local culture. And because it’s the cheapest.
- I shall not allocate more that seventy-five percent of my daily budget to alcohol. Moderation in all things.
- I shall make a pilgrimage to a Full Moon Party on Haad Rin at least once in my life. For it is Mecca.
- I shall revel in food and mosquito-borne diseases for these are the badges of the true Asian traveler.
- I shall not leave Thailand without having my hair colored, dreaded, corn-rolled or shaved off.
- I shall model my travels on On the Road by Jack Kerouac
- I shall read The Beach before entering Thailand so that I understand the goal of quest.
- I shall read Off the Rails in Phnom Penh before entering Cambodia so that I understand the dangers of the quest.
- I shall read The Quiet American while traveling through Vietnam because everybody else is.
- I shall bargain without mercy and hone my skills to a sharp edge, so that I can proudly proclaim our sacred motto: “I get it for less than the locals”
In times of trial, tribulation and doubt—as I lose all feeling in my legs on the fourteenth hour of an eight-hour local bus rid, when I can’t sleep for the noise of a thousand rats scurrying through the ceiling and floor of my two-dollar-a-night room, as vomit and diarrhea spew simultaneously from my salmonella saturated body—I will repeat this mantra unto myself:
I am not a tourist
I am not a tourist
I am not a tourist
I am not a tourist
I am not a tourist
I am not a tourist …
Until the doubt passes and I am ready for more authentic Asian experiences.
THE “SEA BACKPACKER’S CREDO and Motto” was obviously rich in irony but it spoke to an era that had passed. The kind of travelers it described were little in evidence. More and more of them were like Richard, Zelda, Caire and Jaimie.
They were also like Tim and Mike—more random “travelers” I’d met the previous night. I met them again, shortly after escaping from Patrick. Tim and Mike were, I suppose, what Thackeray would have described as “lovers of billiards and brandy, and cigars and greasy ordinaries,” and like many other travelers I met on the Road, theirs was a less a Grand Trip than a guidebook-led holiday to some of the highlights and lowlights of the Southeast Asian trail.
“Lost everything,” Tim was saying to Mike. “Passport, tickets, travelers checks.”
He delivered this with such equanimity that for a moment I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. Apparently the drinking had continued long after I stumbled off to bed, and at whatever time Tim struck out for home he’d been waylaid en-route. He woke in a strange hotel relieved of all his travel essentials. Mike and I raised our eyebrows.
“Are you sure it was a woman?” asked Mike.
“I remember breasts.”
Breasts are one thing, but in Bangkok—the trans-gendering capital of the world—a woman they do not necessarily make. I’d noted the ladyboys gathered at the head of the alley in which we’d been drinking. They were unconvincing, and I’d wondered how they managed to drum up custom. Now I knew.
It was a curious thing that backpackers, with their insistence on getting the best deal for their pleasures often made themselves more susceptible to scams and cons than ordinary tourists. In other parts of Bangkok the ladyboys and hookers plied their trade with customers who were unabashed about their agendas and who were prepared to pay the going rates to indulge them. Here on Khao San, the ladyboys robbed drunken men in the early hours of the morning, and the hookers who infested bars like Gulliver’s Travelers Tavern pretended to be local girls in search of a brief night of romance. Mike told me, after Tim, at our urging, went to cancel his credit card, about a girl he’d been seeing for the few days he’d been on Khao San. She told him she was born in India. But when I met her later that evening with Mike and suggested to her (in Thai) that for an Indian she looked very Thai, she smiled blithely and said: “I lied.” Two days later I bumped into Mike and he told me that his money had mysteriously vanished from his wallet the last night he spent with her.
And it wasn’t just the sex workers who were scamming Khao San Roaders, it was the tuk-tuk drivers and the gem-store touts, and this despite warnings pasted by the tourist police on the notice boards of Khao San. It made me wonder if the one-upmanship on the travelers’ circuit about getting the best deal—what the “SEA Backpacker’s Credo and Motto” referred to as the “sacred motto” of getting it for less than the locals—wasn’t the biggest irony of a zero-sum ethos.
Nevertheless, despite all the bad press about murders and suicides in Thailand, Khao San is so organized and so easy, you have to be either very drunk—as Tim was—or very stupid to get ripped off there. Sure, everybody was—is—getting ripped off when shopping for souvenirs, tickets and clothes: the locals have all banded together and set prices, making it difficult for foreigners to pay anything less than the business-owners had decided they should be paying.
Why not? Long ago travelers came bearing gifts; today they pay as they go. This is as it should be, because there’s a dark, and deeply contradictory, side to the “sacred motto,” and that’s that some of the fiercest hagglers also happen to be the kind of politically correct hustlers who are the first to denounce, say, H&M sweatshops in Cambodia while bargaining over a pair of sandals.
For the record, fierce haggling—and some travelers I’ve met seem to think this is the case—doesn’t win you the respect of the locals, although some friendly negotiating generally will. The Thais have an expression for aggressively budget travelers: farang kee-nok—“bird-shit foreigners.”
I RETURNED, in what was becoming a predictable routine, to the Caravan. A Londoner flourished a one-hundred baht note at me, and pointing at the picture of the king, said, “Does this guy look like a wanker, or what?” It was stupid and dangerous talk in Thailand, and I told him as much. “Oh, come on,” he said. “You think we’re being watched by spies?” I wished we were.
An Australian said to me, “The average person eats ten spiders in their sleep in a lifetime.” I wish he hadn’t. An American bragged he’d been boozing until eight that morning, and looked set for a repeat performance—it was okay because he was shaving his head and heading off for two weeks in a Buddhist monastery the day after next. Imogen and Jenny were on a six-month trip that started with three months on a remote island in Fiji doing a coral-reef conservation assessment for the World Heritage Organization. And Chai, a birdlike Thai with Bob Marley dreadlocks claimed a personal friendship with Alex Garland, and maintained that the author of The Beach had stayed at my very own Bonny Guesthouse.
And so the next few days passed. I suppose there are people who go to Khao San and spend their days soberly ticking off the Bangkok sights. I didn’t meet them. I found a party, everybody loosening up with drinks and drugs, mingling, exchanging travel gossip and tips. Did you hear about the twenty-four-year-old English guy who did so many diet pills (the budget, over-the-counter party stimulant) that he died of a heart attack on the Road a few days ago? On Koh Pha’ngan, go to Haad Yuan—it’s not in the Lonely Planet yet (a week later the new edition came out and it was). Vang Vieng (a small town between Luang Prabang and Vientiane in Laos) is the opium capital of Southeast Asia—it wasn’t to be for long; the authorities carried out a clampdown on the opium there six months later. Goa is out; Gokarna is in. The Israelis have taken over the party scene in Manali (the northern Indian hill station famed for its “gold” or “cream” hashish).
Then the Thais: not so long ago, Khao San was a bubble, insulated from the rest of Bangkok, a ghetto inhabited by the cheap, foreign “bird-shit” tribe. But Bangkok was claiming it back as its own. The city descended on the Road in ever greater numbers after it scored a bit part in Hollywood’s adaptation of The Beach. It was an escape from Bangkok—an area of liberal opening hours and do-as-you-please licentiousness, a place of exotic colour, and mix-and-match ethnicity. I wondered whether it wasn’t the apotheosis of the observation Pico Iyer made when he called travelers “the foot soldiers of the new invasion.” As one guesthouse proprietor told me, it had even bred its own kind of rebellious young Thai, the kind who in turn attracted local talent scouts looking for rebel, ad-worthy looks—tattooed and pieced like their foreign counterparts, proof that Thailand had joined a global community of self-defined individualism. Iyer thought “anyone with a credit card could be a lay colonialist.” But Khao San was evidence you didn’t even need the credit card—even if most backpackers traveled with them then, and many more do so today. It was neither Thailand with Western characteristics, nor the West with Thai characteristics. Khao San had become an in-between place, emblematic not of modern, travel-inspired colonialism, but of a globalized disorder.
I TIRED OF IT. Like every traveler I met, after four or five days I found myself yearning to get off the Road and onto the road. Unfortunately for me, that meant going home. I nearly made it. I’d packed my clothes, checked out of Bonny, and was looking for a taxi, when I had one of those chance encounters that Khao San always seems to be on the point of offering but hadn’t, for me, so far.
The shout, “Chris!” took me completely by surprise, even though all week I’d been suspecting it would happen.
I stopped and said back, “Michel.”
The two of us stood, grinning stupidly at each other, and then I realised I wasn’t going anywhere. Michel and I had some drinking to do.
Michel and I traveled across Tibet together in 1994, and spent a week in Shigatse, drinking beer and eating “fish-tasting eggplant,” a dish that never ceased to amuse us. We’d drunk the last village before Everest dry of beer on what we’d called our “no-shave-to-base-camp” trip. He was a Dutch corporate accountant, and he was at the tail-end of a two-year journey through Egypt, Pakistan, India, Cambodia and Thailand with Tara, a beautiful, blond Canadian he’d met at the start of his travels. The three of us spent the afternoon drinking beers, Michel and I reminiscing about Tibet, catching up on each other’s lives, and talking about how the travel scene had changed over what had been nearly a decade since we’d last met.
“It’s hardcore, a hardcore scene,” said Michel.
He and Tara told me about the parties in Gokarna, southern India, where people wandered amongst the revelers dropping hits of liquid acid on their tongues. The parties sometimes lasted for days, they said.
We gazed out on the Road, where a small group of twenty-something Europeans were twirling sticks and another was letting fly with two weights on the end of strings.
“What is that?” I asked, “I’ve been seeing it all week.”
“It’s called spinning,” said Tara. “You’ll see a lot more of it if you hit the road. It’s like the travel scene is a big circus and everyone’s a performer, has their act.”
“I can play a bit of guitar.”
“You’d be better off juggling fire.”
“Everything’s changed,” said Michel. “It’s gone from being about the places to being about the scene.”
We hugged when we parted ways. I did so wondering whether my days of “hitting the road” were over, but I knew I’d long ago been bitten by a bug that had left me with a lifelong infection.
There were to be more journeys, more roads, but not one of them would start on the Road.