Lost in Backpacker Land: Researching Lonely Planet Thailand

 Khao Sahn Road, Bangkok Thailand

Wed. Aug 11, 2004

The nights are the hardest. The nights make my stomach lurch and turn. How I can feel so alone on one of the most crowded, frenetic, chaotic, tourist heavy stretches of pavement in the world I do not know. All I know is that somehow, despite the flashing neon signs and sidewalk bars and streets packed with farang, I still feel lost. Like I’m in some kind of parallel universe, where I can see everyone but no one can see me. I’m invisible amid the sweating masses in this backpacker holy land. I sit outside in the sticky glowing night, sipping a whiskey. I’ve only been in Thailand an hour, but already it feels like centuries.

It was nearing midnight when my plane landed, but the road leading out of the airport was still clogged. The taxi swerved around a tuk-tuk, sped up then slammed on the breaks before hitting a truck. When he regained control he swivelled around in his seat.

“Welcome to Bangkok.”

I smiled. My eyes dry; head foggy. Twenty-four hours of canned air, bad food, cramped seats and three different planes had landed me halfway across the globe in a strange city. I opened the window and stuck my head out. Hot air stung my eyes, my nose filled with strange smells – petrol fumes mixed with something else, cooking oil and burning meat? I clicked on my iPod; hit random play. We passed a giant, golden opulence against the dark sky. The view seemed fuzzy. I was tired, yet so awake. We flew around a corner, passed a McDonald’s. Strikingly beautiful women in short skirts and spiky heals strutted their good out front. Welcome to Anywhere in the World.

A song was playing on my electronic device. I pumped the volume to hear above the traffic’s hum:

“Time flies – doesn’t seem a minute”

Isn’t that true? Wasn’t I just kissing my boyfriend goodbye in Denver an hour ago? No that was actually 48 hours ago. Or maybe it was 36 because at some point I crossed the international dateline and lost a chunk of time. That alone was disorienting. Now I’m still disoriented, and ABBA isn’t making it any better. There are thousands of songs on the iPod, how strange for One Night in Bangkok to come on now. It’s so appropriate, yet so random. I think the song is supposed to be about chess, but the lyrics have such melancholy overtones it takes little effort for them to evoke feelings of being disoriented and lost and alone in the middle of thousands.

The cabbie let me off on the Khao San Road. Blinding neon lights and pumping music, stalls selling cheap T-shirts and pirated CDs and fake IDs. There’s an Internet café on every corner.  The air is electric. Drunken girls hold tight to even drunker boys as they stumble down the street clutching Styrofoam plates of steaming noodles. Tiny sarongs, sunburned backs. Everyone’s with someone, everyone except me. Clipped English melted into lyrical Thai. I stumble through the melange, lyrics running through my head. I see the hotel up the road, but the 13-hour time difference has thrown off my internal clock. I am exhausted yet buzzing. The thought of tossing and turning, alone, in a strange bed is too depressing to comprehend. So I headed to this bar, looking out on all the action. Ordered the whiskey to calm my soul.

I can’t sit still. I stir the melting ice cubes around the sweaty glass with a shaky finger. My eyes dart left, then right. My feet tap. I’m edgy, full of nervous energy. The last time I was on this road I fell in love. Not with a human being, but with the road itself. It’s electricity. It’s vibrancy. I fell in love with the snippets conversations sliding off tongues the next table over. “Heading south… Going to party on the islands…. Yeah that’s where it’s going on… Five dollar massages mate, bungalows right on the beach for pennies… We’re in Thailand man. Asia. This is IT.”

Back then Thailand was the second stop on a round-the-world trip, my initiation to backpacking. I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, naïve innocence. I was going to be a citizen of the world and I was going to love it. I had a shiny new blue rucksack, my best friend and a stack of Lonely Planet guides. I was just starting to learn the traveller lingo. I’d only been gone a few weeks, but already I was sure travel was the ultimate drug, and I was hooked. Back then, I used to bullshit with other wandering types about dream jobs. Writing for Lonely Planet always came up. We would all stare at the mug shots in the front of the books and imagine what it would be like to travel for it living. There was no way it could ever be lonely. It seemed so glamorous, so exciting.

Now I’ve returned to Thailand. And this time it’s to “live the dream,” or at least write it for Lonely Planet. But it doesn’t seem quite so glamorous now. It seems daunting and scary and terrifyingly lonely. I pay for my drink and wander. A heavy-set balding man bumps into me. He’s screaming into his cell phone.

“Sorry, mate,” he says to me. Then into the phone: “I’m with my girlfriend … Well, we just met, but she’s my girlfriend now.”

He leers at the Thai girl next to him. Or is it a boy? She’s dressed like a girl, but the facial features are harsher, elongated and masculine.”You love me?’ she asks.

“Of course,” he replies.

I check into the hotel. Throw my bag on the bed. Lie down. I can’t sleep. The night is drawing me back to the street’s warm embrace. I feel lost in this fragrant foreign city. My eyes tear. I don’t want to be here. I step out of the room. Blinding florescent lights in the hallway, un-refrigerated air and stale tobacco smoke. The lyrics to that stupid song are still running through my head.

“You’ll find a god in every golden cloister
And if you’re lucky then the god’s a she
I can feel an angel sliding up to me”

The girl turns the corner. She smiles.

“Hi, I’m Caroline. Did you just get in?”

Relief. A friendly face and Australian accent, another girl that’s all alone.

“Yes,” I say.

“Fancy, a curry? I’m starving.

Dripping cold Singha beer and spicy green curry, easy traveller talk at an outdoor cafe. I start to feel better.

“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”

The line between despair and ecstasy is not easily drawn. The same way lyrics can deceive and blur, their meaning in constant flux depending on your state of mind. Sometimes all it takes is the company of a stranger and a bowl of curry, to figure out the devil isn’t walking next to you, to realize the middle of nowhere might only be in your head, and is easy to escape once you discover the key.

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