Grubby, dirty and in need of a shower after a long hot day being covered in grime in a third class carriage to Bangkok, I arrived on the Khao San Road in need of a place to stay.
I’d already told myself that it didn’t matter where I ended up. Time was of the essence – it was already 8pm and I wanted one more night of taking in the sights and sounds of Thailand’s most famous street.
Normally I’d have a wander around, searching for the best value and usually cleanest place to stay. Tonight, my rulebook went out of the window. I simply didn’t care – I was so sweaty and dirty from the train, I just needed somewhere with a decent shower, even if it was the first place I found.
In the end, it was, as I turned off the main street into one of the alleyways which snake around and inbetween this hedonistic area. The Marco Polo guesthouse was pretty much the first place I set eyes on that had rooms available, and parting with 450 Baht (£9) I secured a hot shower, a bed, even the luxury of air conditioning. What it didn’t stretch to was a window, carpets, power sockets or any form of cleaning.
After a quick shower and change, I was back on the street within an hour of pulling into Bangkok on the train. There’s little I can do to accurately describe the Khao San Road – everywhere you look there are people selling things, eating things, drinking things. The noise fills your ears, the smells stay stuck in your nose, and the sight of people of dubious genders cavorting around in doorways is one that leaves lasting imprints on the mind. But its all part of the charm of the street, and it has to be said, the whole area feels incredibly safe despite the drink-fuelled activities of most of the people wandering around.
I decided I would spend my final night in Thailand at the place where my love of the country first began last May, at an Irish pub roughly halfway down the main strip. Its where my friend Cat and I first had a beer and a meal after I’d arrived from London, and I remembered having a green curry and talking about my journey over. Tonight, Liverpool were playing and the place was full of football fans. I pulled up a chair, ordered a beer and a green curry and watched as the Reds beat Man United in the FA Cup.
The curry wasn’t brilliant – clearly mass produced and fairly bland compared to some of the great food I’d had in recent weeks, but then most people around me were already destined for heavy Changovers the next day, so food standards were probably a low priority. Besides, with such a great result, it was going to take more than a poor curry to take the smile off my face!
I took myself for a walk around the street, admiring the incredible range of goods available. Armani clothes, Calvin Klein pants, Tiffany jewellery and any DVD you could think of – all fakes of course – but a fine accompaniment to the knock-off driving licenses, student ID and university course qualifications that were proudly displayed by one resourceful vendor.
It really does seem you can find almost anything you can imagine on this street, but there is also a brilliant atmosphere. It’s the bustling, noisy, slightly dirty tourist mecca that you see depicted in films like the Hangover, but it has a charm all of its own.
There would be no all-night partying for me down the Khao San though – after completing a relaxing walk around the whole area, including bringing some fond memories back with a visit to the place where my tour group first met back in November, I went to bed relatively early as I had an important job to do the next day.
I needed the Thai whizzkids to fix my iPhone yet again, after it shut down on its own accord in Koh Lanta and went into a permanent sleep. I could understand why, as Koh Lanta was by far one of my most relaxing stops, but if I could drag myself from a semi-permanent hammock-induced slumber, I was sure as hell my phone could do the same. Up early, I wanted to be at the shops for the time they opened at 9am, but decided to head to an official Apple store first. I asked the reception guy where it was in the following exchange.
Me: “I don’t suppose you know where there is an Apple store do you,”
Reception man: “Erm, yes, actually there’s one nearby, but you need to go to the end of Khao San Road first and turn right and you’ll see it.”
Me: “Ok, and how far,”
Reception man: “Oh, not far, about five minutes walk.”
Me (wondering how I’d not seen it before now): Ok, is it a big place and will I see it ok?
Reception man: “Yeah, its huge, its got a big sign above it,”
Me (feeling happy) “Oh, great – and its an official Apple store?”
Reception man: “Oh yes, they have lots of apple, pineapple, watermelon, things like that.”
Part of me wishes I had made that up, but no. Even a guy sat on a chair nearby struggled to hide his laughter, before telling me an official Apple store was about as common as cockerel eggs in Bangkok.
By 9am, I’d pulled up in a taxi ready for the doors to open at the MBK shopping centre. Except, for reasons I’ve not looked into, the shops don’t open until 10am on weekdays. It meant a sticky hour’s wait in what was already shaping up to be a scorcher of a day.
My search for a whizkid was in vain – it turns out something major has gone wrong with the phone, so I’ll be without it for a while yet. Having sent the backup that my dad got me the first time it conked out home in a box from Vietnam, I bought yet another Samsung cheapie. Smartphone it isn’t, but it’ll let me ring the ambulance if the weight of my rucksack pulls me over in front of a bus.
With just enough time to buy the obligatory Chang vest top and a Bangkok City t-shirt from one of the street sellers on the Khao San, it was time to get myself out of Thailand and on my way to Australia.
It had been a brilliant few months in southeast Asia. Somehow almost three months had flown past, but it was three months full of brilliant highlights. Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat in Cambodia, watching it set again in a countless array of colours over the horizon, taking in the scenery and culture of Vietnam, the mountains and jungles of Laos and the beautiful islands of Thailand.
Of course, the brilliant fun at two Full Moon parties, getting injured while tubing in Vang Vieng, running over dogs on a Cambodian bus and umpteen nights out fuelled by various local beverages were some of the lighter moments shared with so many new friends, who for just a few hours, a few days or, in some cases, a couple of weeks, became close mates, people you could share a beer, crack a joke, have a prank with and generally share some amazing memories with.
Southeast Asia has quickly become one of my favourite parts of the world, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to spend so long in these parts to take in the culture, to experience the food and to immerse myself in life here. It never ceases to surprise, and infact, that is all part of the fun. You never know what you are going to find around the next corner, what you will see at the next set of traffic lights, who you might witness breaking all manner of health and safety, or should I say, common sense rules. Be it a live pig on the back of a motorbike, a bloke clinging to the side of a bus, a family of six crammed onto a moped or a set of fireworks being set off amid a crowd of people. It raises eyebrows, it might leave you feeling a little unsafe at times, but somehow everyone survives, nobody gets hurt and you can’t help but smile and laugh.
Perhaps that’s the secret to the famous Thai smile? The Thai people are by far the friendliest, most welcoming, funny, hospitable and smiley people I’ve ever met. Maybe it’s to do with their easy going, ‘anything goes’ way of life? You won’t find anyone here monitoring your parking, eagerly sticking a fine on you for being a centimetre over a white line or overstaying your parking by a couple of minutes. Speed cameras are unheard of, as are speed limits on the whole. They’d laugh at the prospect of people being charged for the weight of their rubbish bin, and there seems to be a general lack of those people with the ‘jobsworth’ mentality we have become so accustomed to back home.
Or maybe its just because they have been blessed with one of the most stunning, sun-drenched and beautiful places to live in the world, dining on some of the tastiest natural foods the planet has to offer?
I’ll miss Thailand, its people and the whole region in general. I’ll definitely miss the £1 beers and £2.50 meals. I’ll also miss the ‘Tinglish’ translations and the occasional comedy sign. As a final tribute to them, here’s a couple of my favourite I found along the way.
My flight to Sydney is with British Airways, on a flight which has just arrived from London. Its effectively a refuel stop for the aircraft, but onboard I could almost smell home.
It was full of Brits all heading off for holidays or to see family, the staff were cheery and it felt reassuringly familiar onboard. After months of foreign trains, boats and planes, it was nice to kick back and relax, with a whole load of English films and entertainment.
As I settle into my seat, the engines spool up and we taxi away from the terminal. Its got pretty overcast all of a sudden, which matched my mood. Having spent six weeks in Thailand, somehow it still didn’t feel like enough time – I felt like I had still just scratched the surface. But it won’t be going anywhere fast, and I watch out of the window as the jumbo jet lifts off the ground and Thailand begins to fall beneath me.
Finally my feet have left mainland Asia for good on this trip, but as one part of the adventure draws to a close, another is only beginning. I fall asleep watching a lightning storm raging over Indonesia below me, and a few hours later I wake up in Sydney with a whole new set of experiences waiting for me Down Under.