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
I can feel the devil walking next to me
OK, Mr. Peabody, let’s set the Wayback Machine to around 1987. And my first ever trip outside of the US of A. To where, you ask? Bangkok Thailand!
Let’s set the stage. I’m in my mid-twenties. Married for just over a year. Working for the State Department at the Agency for International Development. AID. And my boss is a lady named Marge who is Foreign Service through and through.
Actually, I need to explain that last part first.
Foreign Service folks are unique government workers. They devote their careers to the betterment of the American way of life, and yet they despise living within the boundaries of the same country. They are constantly in search of their next station or trip. To be assigned to a desk in Washington DC is hell. And Marge, dear Marge, was no different. I think her only responsibility in our department was to get the heck out. She tried several places, using us as excuses. India, Liberia, Pakistan. None seemed to gather traction, until she hit upon Thailand.
We were scheduled to stay for four weeks. It turned out to be five, because Marge found a way to extend. Our mission was to investigate reporting requirements for a computer system by interacting directly with the folks who would be using said reports. Flimsy, I know. But enough to get Marge, a guy named Joe, and myself on a jet plane.
OK, back to me. 🙂
Like I said, I had never traveled outside the US before. Had only been on a plane a couple of times. I was unseasoned to say the least. And a stick in the mud to say the most. I was not adventuress in any way, shape, or form. I ate what I ate, saw what I always saw, and was perfectly happy. I suppose because I was ignorant and knew no better. But that was what I had in my internal toolbox as the trip was being planned. And honestly, I wasn’t completely excited to even be going.
Funny story number one, and it involves machine guns. It’s also technically a story about the return, but let’s put the calendar aside for a moment, shall we? We had to change planes in Hong Kong. No big deal, one would think. But, sometimes one gets pulled aside for a tad more inspection. And it was my turn. They led me to a room with a raised box in the middle, maybe a foot higher than the floor which was this puke shade of green linoleum. My bags went to a table along the side and folks in uniform were riffling through the contents. I was standing on the box. Others, with the aforementioned machine guns, were along the walls looking vaguely bored. And a very pretty Chinese girl was before me, asking questions.
One of those questions had to do with my camera, an old Instamatic 110. Remember those things? Looked like a sideways deck of cards, only not as wide? Well, she hands it to me and tells me to prove it’s a camera. So naturally I think (a) she’s really very pretty, and (b) why not take a picture to show her how it works? Bad choice. As I raised the camera up and pointed it at her, she barked something in Chinese that un-bored the machine gun guys. They naturally raised their guns along with their eyes, and the pretty girl stopped being so pretty. It took a lifetime for my brain to understand, but then I realized that the question was because they thought I was carrying a concealed weapon, and I was now pointing it at a uniformed officer. (Why she handed it to me, I’ll never know). So thinking quickly, I dropped the lens towards the ground and clicked the shutter. Flash! And now I have a wonderful picture of green linoleum tiles, replete with beads of my own fear sweat. 🙂
Back to the chronology. Landing in Bangkok, 36 hours after walking out my own front door. It was just Joe and I, Marge having taken an earlier flight. We hailed a cab and showed them a card with the name of our hotel. They had other ideas. Out came this three ring binder, filled with pages and pages of … naked women. Our driver was intent on taking us to Patpong Road, home of Go-Go bars and people of ill repute. Now, even if I wasn’t recently married, I had not slept in two days, was on emotional overload from even undertaking the trip, and I wanted no part of it. It took forever for us to convince the driver that we didn’t care about the cleanliness or affordability of his offerings. We wanted our beds. By ourselves.
That actually became a theme. Every single time we walked out of our hotel, those taxi dudes were waiting with their binders. It got to the point where we would walk out the side doors, just to avoid them.
Bangkok is 12 hours in the future from Washington DC, and we had landed at night. Like I mentioned, I was bone-tired, completely turned around, and had to be awake for work the next day. Which meant I didn’t sleep for shit that night. LOL! Took a private car to the consulate, met some people, and we decided to go get something to eat for lunch. So far, my first impressions were that it was uncomfortable to be sitting in the front left seat of a car with the steering wheel on the wrong side, that all buildings smelled of mildew from the extreme humidity, and that I was not in Kansas anymore.
My first meal in Thailand! What to order? Which delicacy should I try? Hmmmm, I know. I’ll have that chicken patty that looks like it came from Purdue. No, no sauce please. Just a plain, fried chicken patty. Sides? No thank you, maybe some white rice. At which point Marge dug into me like I was an alien from another planet. Why was I eating “American Food” when I could have blah-blah-blah? I had no answer. I was on no-sleep, was an ignorant 20-something male, and I was lost. The rest of that first day was a blur.
As far as work went, it was the farce I expected. Every day we went to the consulate or the embassy, had a vague meeting or two, and was done within hours. We tried to actually procure a computer to code on, but none were to be had. So we just wrote up our daily findings and spent the majority of our time exploring.
Now, I am happy to report that I did lighten the fuck up as time went on. Learned a lot too. Like water, and how it is to be consumed. I knew that H2O in Thailand was a no-no as far as internal usage. I brushed my teeth with bottled, shunned ice, and drank only beer and soda. Thought I was the bomb-diggity as far as travel expertise went. But forgot something … salads are washed with water and never cooked. Yea, so that happened. I’ll spare you the details.
Joe, being Joe, liked his American fast food. And right outside our hotel was a burger joint, an ice cream shop, and a Pizza Hut. Woot! Pizza. Good ole American pizza! We were sav … er … you make pizza here, how? Seems that unless you ask, pizza does not come with sauce. Just bread and cheese. Maybe a topping. Sounds boring, yes? Well that is why there is a bottle of ketchup on every table. Schplort! That is how we watched Thai folks eat pizza. Ketchup laden cheese bread.
We also learned that even McDonalds isn’t McDonalds when said McDonalds uses local ingredients. Even the condiment packets tasted like Thailand. I was not happy. But, it did force me out of my shell. With nothing to turn to that was like what I wanted, I started trying other options. And determined that I actually liked food. Food that wasn’t what came out of an American can. Real food. I had my first dim sum one Sunday morning. No idea what the fuck was in those steaming baskets, but except for the chicken feet (which I recognized), I loved it all. Got to pick crispy skin off of a pig’s head while eating my first Thai chilies. Had *real* Kobe Beef. It was how I learned what food was, and I have not stopped at anything since.
One day as Joe and I were walking to the embassy, we took a different street. Saw this building, which was either under construction or in the process of falling down. Could have gone either way. It was not safe-looking. But it had a sign out front, in English no less. Thailand Department of Nuclear Energy. Wow, thought I. What a dichotomy. The oversight of man’s highest physics achievements in this piece of shit building. I raised my camera to take a photo. Joe freaked. “What if someone is watching? We are going to get in trouble! They’re going to think we’re spies!”. And on and on. I didn’t take the snap, but wanted to include this story to show how I was a tad hindered in becoming the traveler I am today. It’s actually amazing that with such a travel partner on my maiden voyage that I ever went anywhere else after.
We did all the usual tourist stuff. Markets, river trips, and whatnot. Ventured into the countryside to see how non-urban folks lived. Visited ruins and temples. And every moment had a tinge of uniqueness to it. I remember walking around during the evening rush hour in Bangkok. The streets were absolutely packed, people shoulder to shoulder trying to get somewhere. Then it hit me how it was different. Ever been in an airplane and looked down on the clouds below you? How they seemed different because you normally don’t see them from that angle? Well, I’m over six feet tall. Thais are not. I was watching this uniform, endless mass of people from above. This almost smooth sheet of black hair, five feet off the ground, and I’m floating high over it. I’m sure those around me couldn’t understand my smile and laughter. Just another damn weird American, I suppose.
When I returned, I wasn’t the same person. Nor was I what I am today. As we landed and I walked towards my family at the arrival gate, I felt my first twinge of wanting to be still out there. I didn’t understand it. Because most of me really wanted to be back home. But the seed was planted and it was starting to grow. It would take many a year and many other trips to really set that healthy growth, but that was when it started. It changed the way I looked at things … from food to cultures to those I wanted to be around. Looking back, I have to laugh at who I was. My assumptions. What I “knew to be true”. And it makes me realize that in many years distant, I will probably be doing the same thing as regards to the man I am today. But, such is this story. It never ends, always evolves, and must never stop.