Archive for March, 2010

hola amigos,

As some of you know, after a fantastic month in Costa Rica and Panama, and with no more luck finding work, I did the least responsible thing possible: buying another plane ticket, back to Asia. I spent 20 days back in Madison first, riding my bicycle every day, sending out more resumes, eating a surprising amount of cheese, and generally freaking the hell out about my imminent departure, due to a mixture of vague anxiety and wandering intentions. To sum up, I have few plans, little money and debatable logic. You wanna be unemployed in Madison or unemployed in Asia? I picked Asia…

first day out and I already suck…

Bangkok, Oriental setting
And the city don’t know that the city is getting
The creme de la creme of the chess world in a
Show with everything but Yul Brynner

“Travelers Fatigue” is a widely-known but rarely talked about condition among people spending lots of time backpacking. Generally, it sinks in after several months of having to deal with the more repetitive and frustrating parts of travelling: traversing miles, finding places to stay, arguing over prices (sometimes with vendors, sometimes just with yourself), occasionally getting burned, dealing with crowds, cockroaches, Europeans, etc. It can rip away smiles, piss off locals and leave whole villages in it’s wake. In fact, last time I was over here, my travelling companion and I had developed a “safe word” system: if one of us was loosing our cool in a negotiation or mission, the word came out, and you’d step back, regain composure and tag-out. This system is not really so possible whilst going solo.

After sitting on planes and in airports for 32 hours, I was tired and thirsty and I smelled like a warm wet rag. Granted, 32 hours is simply not that much time, especially to traverse 12,000+ miles — Chicago to Bangkok? A century ago that used to take, like, 20 years. Still, I was ready for bed. I grabbed a taxi to the hostel where my friend Clara had booked me a few nights, a “clean” place nowhere near Khao San road and right off the Sky Train, possibly the coolest public transportation system this side of the Gobi. I had said that I was getting in “night of the 18th” but what I really meant was “midnight on the 18th” which is, in fact, the night of the 17th. No staff was on duty except a security guard, who said he couldn’t help me with a room (he kept pointing to the ‘Office Hours 0800 – 2200’ sign) but directed me to a bench I could sleep on. At 2:30am, after a day of being trapped in planes, bare wood not the most appealing surface. Several people who were checking out offered to let me use their rooms, but the security guy wasn’t having it — it was either the bench or outside. Adding insult to injury, crossing the date line meant I missed St Paddy’s Day completely, a holiday I value greatly (“2010 The Year St Paddy’s Day Wasn’t NEVER FORGET”). Miracle of miracles, there was a British pub next door that was still serving Kilkenny and Jamason. I had a few before they closed. I waited it out until 6am (now that DST is in affect, SE Asia is dead 12-hours opposite — opposite land, you might say) when the security guy tapped me on the shoulder and said “boss”, pointing to a woman behind the counter. She told me I couldn’t have a room till 11am but that I was welcome to use the shower. I did. With time to kill, I went down my to-do list for my stay in BKK:

1. stay off of Khao San road
2. get pages added to passport
3. get another Chinese visa
4. stay off of Khao San road
5. go see the Grand Palace if there’s time (there should be)

One town’s very like another
When your head’s down over your pieces, brother

It’s a drag, it’s a bore, it’s really such a pity
To be looking at the board, not looking at the city

Whaddya mean? Ya seen one crowded, polluted, stinking town…
Tea, girls, warm, sweet
Some are set up in the Somerset Maugham suite

I scored a map and went to work. I’m out of pages in my passport, and the Chinese, Vietnamese and Lao visas take up one full page each, but in the 20 days I was back home the only option I found for adding pages in the US was by mail, and took 4-6 weeks… whereas at any US embassy in the world, they’ll do it while you wait (I have recently heard tale of a way to get pages added back in the US in a shorter time frame but have not yet confirmed this). The embassy was a few miles away but I had 5 hours to kill, so I got walking…

To say the least, Bangkok is not a good place for sleep-deprived agoraphobics. As I trekked down Sukhumwit road at rush hour, lots of visceral input flooded my head: diesel fumes. car horns. yelling, haggling, solicitations. the smell of charred, burning fish oil. seven hundred billion people, all seemingly walking the opposite direction I was. I started feeling somewhat ill. At a point, I took a random left turn hoping to find a side road to lead me to Wireless Road, a long stretch of embassies… but in a stroke of comedy, I actually turned left on to Wireless road, which was not any less stimulating than Sukhumwit. Vietnamese embassy. New Zealand. Korean. A shopping center called ‘Mahatun Plaza’. The House of the Consular of the United States. A public park. A huge, barracks like place with almost no windows, all white, with armed guards outside. Hey! That looks like US!

‘Citizen Services’ turned out to be across the street, and after just 20 minutes or so, I had my new, thicker, frankenstein-looking passport (the added pages are of the new design, with eagles and landscapes and colors and shit all over them). Interesting things overheard at the embassy, though, like

“So you want to marry a Thai woman?”
“But you’re still technically married to a woman in the US?”
“Okay. Wait here for your name to be called.”

Get Thai’d! You’re talking to a tourist
Whose every move’s among the purest
I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine…

I walked back to the hostel, braving the barrage of sights and smells and images and jet lag. A room was still not available, in spite of my illness (my face must have been quite something) so I ventured to the Chinese embassy to drop off my new, much more fake-looking passport for a fresh visa. The motorbike ride there (much cheaper than Tuk Tuks or Taxis) was flat-rate at 80 Baht and rather scary, full of lane-splitting and other madness. The Chinese embassy is practically the exact opposite of the American: non-descriptive building, in a neighborhood with no other embassies, no sign whatsoever (not even joking), a metal detector in the lobby but just for show (every patron set it off and was then waved though) and only one room inside that looked like it might have previously been a Macy’s or something. I walked in to a Chinese guard saying what I thought was “line”, but when I asked the guy at what I thought was the back of the line, he pointed to the number printing machine and gave an expression of “?” then said “Visa?” I replied “Yes” and he handed me his number — 284. I watched the next guy pull a visa number — it was 425. Good heavens! What luck! I was there 2 minutes before 284 came up… and out of the place in 10 minutes flat. I grabbed another motorbike to get back and this guy was even crazier, pulling on the sidewalk multiple times to speed past gridlocked blocks (“daaaaamn! where’d you learn to drive like that, boy? LA?”). At one point I coughed and felt something gritty and metallic tasting hit the back of my teeth…

I had to wait around another hour or so to get a room, but as soon as I was in it, I was out like a light — I hadn’t slept in 45 hours or so and felt like a mild flu was coming on. I awoke to a terrible biting feeling… and this bed was covered, absolutely covered with bugs. I’d never seen a bedbug before, but it looks like a tick crossed with a dust mite crossed with… something bigger? I kept crushing them to the sight of black blood. Not a good sign. I was too tired and it was too late — I slathered some DEET on myself and tried to sleep some more, with little luck. I trapped one in a case and took it downstairs the next morning. The boss looked shocked.

“You bring these here with you!”
“umm no I really doubt that… can I get another room?”
“You check out today. No more rooms tonight. Oh… one double. 250 baht more.”
“uhh, I had a two-night reservation here…”
“No you didn’t”


I had a cigarette and contemplated my options. I need to get out of Bangkok. I decided that I’d need at least one more night to get things wrapped up and arrange a train, and that finding another hostel would be a 2-hour mission at the least in this neighborhood, so I put my game face on and asked to speak to the boss. I don’t have any eyelashes to bat, so I explaining my plight: the flight, the lack of sleep, the bench, the bugs, the reservation, maybe teared up a little (at 5 hours of sleep in 50, this wasn’t so hard..) She took pity on me, gave a discount, and said “you have to steam everything, everything you have to keep them from spreading. I’ll send up staff — she help you”.

One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble
Not much between despair and ecstasy
One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble
Can’t be too careful with your company

We steamed the whole joint. I started feeling almost faint. At about 8am we finish and I drop the bag in my new room. I need to get out of Bangkok, I thought, for maybe the billionth time since arriving. I go back to the Chinese embassy to beg for my passport back (it’s supposed to be picked up Tuesday). While waiting, through the glass, I see the stacks… thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of passports, banded together and crated and sitting on shelves labeled with dates. On the far right is “23/3/10” — Tuesday. The bastards! It would just sit there all weekend unless you pay the expediting fee… I guess they’re not so far from the US after all. What a racket…

Another hour and 5,200 baht later and I have the passport in my hand, and even though they messed up the entry durations (30 days each instead of 60) I felt a small victory was upon me. In 26 hours here I have slept maybe 6 hours, eaten virtually nothing, and spent $240 (albeit $160 of that went to China). I need to get out of Bangkok. I hop online to check up on Clara and figure out how to get out of this place. A plan is hatched: train to Chiang Mai, chill for a day, then a slow boat up the Mekong to Luang Prabang in Laos. The words “slow” and “boat” sound pretty awesome right now…

With my sleep schedule still 12hrs off, I try to get a nap in… and wake up an hour later staring straight at a bedbug, a real big fucker. I’m losing morale at an amazing rate here. I go back downstairs.

“The new room has bugs too…”
“Okay, I refund your money. You need to go.”


I coerce her, again, into letting me stay the night, provided I steam the hell out of everything, much more thoroughly this time, and do it all myself with no help from the staff.. I think I steamed that shit till the colors were bleeding out. Afterwards, I was oddly awake, even though my sleep-meter had only ratcheted up a few notches. I needed a drink.

One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster
The bars are temples but the pearls ain’t free
You’ll find a god in every golden cloister
A little flesh, a little history

the night was a blur. One beer turned into two, which turned into six, which turned into god knows how many. I stumbled into a bar with a rugby game on and no prostitutes in sight, which makes it an incredibly rare bar in Bangkok. A New Yorker named… Ross, I think, kept feeding me Tigers after I regaled him with the bedbug tale and other random amusing tidbits. He used to work for Miter, a two-faced communications contractor that did a lot of UAV work back in the mid-80s (cocaine — when I asked “Catching them? Or aiding them?”, he nodded) and mid-90s (Bosnia) and did years of setup in Angola and Chad at the turn of the millennium. Very interesting guy — after a lot of talk and Tigers, an ex-rugby playing Aussie walked up with his girl and some fish and chips and joined the menagerie, regaling us with other tales of NRL games, Samoans, travelling (he was some kind of consultant for the World Bank and claimed to fill a passport every 16 months) and general ballyhoo. He had some great stories too… It’s not like you go drinking with communications defense contractors and World Bank stooges every day, right? We had a blast. They kicked us out 2 hours after closing (Ross was pissed about this) so we started drinking on the street.

Siam’s gonna be the witness
To the ultimate test of cerebral fitness
This grips me more than would a
Muddy old river or reclining Buddha

…Suddenly the sun was coming up, and I was dumbfounded as to why I hadn’t just let the abrasive boss kick me out the damn hostel the night before. I had booked a train for that evening (BKK -> Chiang Mai is 14 hours by fast train) and hopped back to my room to grab another 2 hours or so of sleep…

There’s a reason the song is called One Night in Bangkok and not One Week or One Month or One Year… it’s because one night is enough! Shit, he could have called it “One Dimension in Bangkok”…

aww, that’s just the bedbugs talking. I retort.

Life: a series of minor defeats, punctuated by small victories — and occasionally — beer…