The Stark, Existential Horror of Khao San Road

I had heard there would be white people in Bangkok. Westerners, you know. Who reliably speak English and can share my excitement or misery about being in the inexplicable orient. Not that I don’t like Thai people, but I’ve learned that having the occasional contact with fellow travelers is emotionally healthy. So I was excited.

Cut to: Victory Monument. This is where the van from Suree’s house in Khorat dropped me off. I know I need to take the bus to Khao San Road, where Annie suggested I look for cheap/safe/nice lodging. But of course, there are many buses, and I have no idea which one will take me there. Tragically, there are no white people around, and unlike in India where any reasonably wealthy looking young person could be expected to speak decent English, I would probably not have too much luck stopping random people on the street asking for directions. So I do what I always do when alone and at a loss in a foreign country: I wander around and look at stuff. It is a tried and true method, and never fails to present a solution eventually.

Usually this solution is in the form of a friendly Westerner or English speaker who, when approached, solves all my problems. But all those white people I was promised in Bangkok? Not here. Not at Victory Monument. Not milling about helpfully. No, I just see masses of Thai people, some trendily dressed, some beautiful, some poor, some wealthy, some of indeterminate gender. They mostly ignore me, which after five months in India I now find chilling.

Still, a few minutes later I run into an information booth. The nice lady there gives me a map and directs me back to the bus stop and writes down on a slip the bus I should take (in English) and my destination (in Thai, to show the driver). It is an awkward wait at the bus stop, but eventually I’m on a frigidly air conditioned piece of public transport. The ticket lady looks at my slip and promises to tell me when to get off. Never fails.

But — oh! — Khao San Road is something else. I knew it was kind of like Bangkok’s Thamel (from Kathmandu), but it has been a while since I’ve been to Thamel and anyways far more tourists come to Bangkok than Kathmandu. Jesus Christ, there are a lot of white people here. More white people than I have seen since January! And a lot of shops and restaurants designed for white people. It’s a wide street, closed off for pedestrians and the occasional motorbike. Tables selling designerish clothes or handmade jewelry, tailors offering custom suits, theme bars, wifi cafes, an Apple Store (!!!), ATMs, currency exchange booths, everything. The dulcet tones of Akon and Eminem informing the footsteps of the hustlers as they approach marks with offers to show us to their tailoring shop where they can make nice suits, great shirts just like this one (he plucks at my cheap H&M button-up). They are savvy, though, and when I make it clear I’m going to my hotel he shakes my hand and lets me go without even bothering to give me one of his business cards. Everything just screams tourist trap to my travelers paranoia. Luckily my skills at not spending money are honed.

And the white people, so many of them. And all in shorts! Hideous! The sweaty heat and their faded t-shirts and crocs give them a sort of “unwashed masses” quality, and I shudder. This isn’t like Gangtok or Kalimpong, where I can lounge in the cafe and offer a chair to any foreigner that wanders in. Much less approachable. Still, got to try. I stop some girls and ask if they can recommend cheap lodging. They say where they are staying isn’t cheap, but that I should get to a computer and book something online. The Internet! Thanks sunburned British girls! I actually hadn’t thought of that. I peer around and spot — yes! — “Free WiFi!” Sit down at the nicely branded cafe/bar/restaurant, the Green something, and get to work on this, my Macbook. A few minutes later I stumble across an entry for a budget hotel “The Green House.” How about that. Cheap (US$12 a night), clean, with AC and free wifi. Sounds good.

So here I am.

I got to admit, it is both comforting and existentially terrifying to around so many other Westerners. Maybe it is all the guys in shorts, which as a student of men’s fashion I find profoundly unsettling. Or maybe it is just that here I’m not the king of the pack, exactly. Not like in Gangtok, where I boast a job and a flat and impress people with the complimentary biscuits I get from the flirty waitress. I’m out of my turf, my element. Sure, I’m Asia Savvy, and I have Connections here in BKK. But these people probably have, like, travelers cheques and sunglasses. How can I fight that? How can I outmaneuver the Borg-like shambling of the Tourists? I can’t. My only hope is to stay clear-eyed and true to my purpose. Because even though I may, for now, stay in a hotel like them and sit at cafes like them and even sweat like them, I am here with a mission. I have a Job To Do. Jobs Plural, actually. Stories to track down and reportage to write. Never forget, Andrew, you are a fucking journalist.

Time to get to work.

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One response to “The Stark, Existential Horror of Khao San Road

  1. At least you have a journalism career and a residence abroad to give you credibility. My inner voice gives the same disgusted commentary when I’m on vacation, often when I’m wearing shorts.

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