Missionaries, mercenaries, and misfits

Stylish street food cart - Bangkok, Thailand
Stylish street food cart | Photo by Lauren Girardin

For most people, Bangkok is their first encounter with Southeast Asia. The months-ago closing of Thailand‘s southern Pattaya airport due to political protests made Todd and I wary of banking on Bangkok as our way out of India. When Bangkok’s airport was barricaded, and all transportation in Thailand was bogged down soon after we landed in our alternative port, Saigon, Vietnam, we felt like the smartest travelers this side of the Tropic of Capricorn.

So, instead of flying into Thailand, we’re on a thirteen-hour tin can mini-van ride from Cambodia. We don’t feel so much smart as dehydrated.

Crossing the Cambodia-Thailand border is a scene change as extreme as rounding a corner between San Francisco’s Tenderloin district and Union Square, a move that takes you from hop scotching around the Tenderloin’s bruise-dotted meth heads, and piles and puddles of unmentionables, into Union Square’s waves of tourists freezing in ill-advised shorts, and mammoth chain stores and restaurants.

It turns out that we have a bit of the Tenderloin with us on our border crossing. And unfortunately, that bit is driving our mini-van.

White statue and buildings disappear against the hazy sky - Bangkok, Thailand
White statue and buildings disappear against the hazy sky | Photo by Lauren Girardin

The mini-van’s first stop after crossing into Thailand is for lunch. Immediately, Todd and I realize we’ve done more than cross a conceptual line dividing one country from another when our driver grumbles, “Twenty minutes. You can grab some lunch at the 7-11.”

Excuse me? A seven whatnow?

Of course, it wouldn’t be Thailand without pad thai – and even the version served in the little shanty behind the rest stop’s 7-11 is better than anything we’ve had at home, and about $7 cheaper.

As Todd and I finish eating, one of our mini-van companions comes over. It’s the poor guy that’s had the unenviable spot in the van’s front seat, squeezed next to the driver with an unobstructed view of the hazardous road ahead. The guy is clearly frazzled and barrels straight to his point, “So, I’m sure you noticed, but our mini-van driver is clearly on something. I think it’s yaba, you know, meth. He’s twitching and text messaging, and drifting out of the lane a lot. He nearly hit a couple of other cars back there.”

“Oh . . . wow.”

“Well, the rest of us were thinking we need to hire another driver to take us the rest of the way to Bangkok. We found a guy here, he’s got a van. Should be about $20 each. It’s worth it so we don’t, you know, so we don’t die. We’re moving our bags from the van now. You in?”

We shrug and say, “Um, sure. Ok then.”

Immense brass Buddha-ish head - Bangkok, Thailand
Immense brass Buddha-ish head | Photo by Lauren Girardin

What’s the fuss? We’re sure our fellow passengers are overreacting. Every driver we’ve had in Southeast Asia has been as bad as our current driver, or worse. At least this driver has the advantage of working in bright daylight, rather than in the complete dark of Laos’ back country mountain roads.

That we aren’t bothered by, and haven’t even noticed our driver’s tweaks, twitches, and texts tells us that we’ve been on the road too long. And apparently a road that’s been much too hair-raising at that.

Actually, now that I think about it, the driver wasn’t honking his horn every second. That’s gotta be unsafe.

As we grab our bags, the other driver from our two-van caravan comes over. This guy is clearly in charge of our convoy. He persuades our van’s passengers to put our bags back – my guess is that the drivers don’t get paid unless they deliver us to Bangkok. He suggests that he swap out with our driver, and take the lead, ensuring that the meth driver can’t drive too fast. The second van’s passengers are not psyched at the switch, but since they haven’t yet roamed the lanes with our meth-maddened chauffeur, they’re more easily resigned. Hours later, we arrive safely in Bangkok.

Since there’s nothing appealing about our hostel room except the air conditioning, we head out into Bangkok’s Khoh San Road neighborhood, a seedy, neon-lit melting pot of international tourists. According to the majority of people we talked to before arriving, Bangkok is where Western tourists earn their bad reputation – from the potbellied, wrinkled kneed sexpats and their underage Asian arm candy; to the farang kii nok, or “birdshit Westerner,” in town for cheap dread extensions, braid jobs, and Bob Marley t-shirts; to the “flag shaggers” who tally a flag for each different nationality of someone they’ve slept with.

I trusted him until I saw the question mark - on the way to Bangkok, Thailand
I trusted him until I saw the question mark | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Bangkok also suffers from stereotyping as a dangerous place. It’s easy to believe a high frequency of victimhood seeing that, instead of counting the glasses of drinks you’ve had, you count the number of buckets. It’s harder to believe when we’re told to watch our backs by a mother and teenage daughter visiting from Oakland, California. Seriously? Oakland is often counted amongst the U.S.’s most dangerous cities, and they were worried about Bangkok?

Bangkok is most notorious for its ladyboys and strip clubs. While we haven’t caught any ping pong shows, I actually clap my hands in giddy happiness when I see my first ladyboy on Koh San Road. Todd and I live in a place where – on San Francisco’s best days, at least – intolerance is not tolerated, freaky people make the beauty of the world, and misfits reign as queens. Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia are pretty straitlaced – heck, even India and Turkey have their counterculture corset laced tight. It’s been four long months of normal. I’ve missed misfits. Mondo false eyelashes. Leather daddies. Big mouths and bigger hair. Platform shoes. Ladies who pack. Glam for glam’s sake.

Your average traveler might be shocked by the sight of a smokin’ hot feminine man in Daisy Dukes, but I’m from San Francisco. These ladyboys make me feel like I’ve come home. I’m in love with Bangkok.

Photos from Bangkok, Thailand

If you can’t see the photo slide show above, view the photo set on Flickr.