Chapter 6 – GrungThep
Bangkok City, late night. A smell like wet gas, if that’s possible. The smashed mirror of side-streets were tight and tall, voices sung from cut stone doorways, indecipherable at first.
The broken system of the city that never slept showed me one of its sad sallow faces. She couldn’t have been more than sixteen, clutching a child to her chest as she spoke with no rising intonation ‘… massage.’ It was more of a reaction to seeing a tourist than a real question. I tried to look everywhere but in her direction, not knowing what to do. ‘Money for baby,’ she asked in the same dead tone. I turned and told her I was sorry as I tapped my empty pockets, it was true I didn’t have any Thai Baht and if I did maybe this wasn’t the street to point out where I kept it.
Shining faces in the lack of light sat back on most doorsteps and although they hung back in the most part, all eyes were on me, the foreigner with the backpack. I left the girl and kept to the centre of the street, but before I was out of earshot she spoke once more, another empty offer, ‘Sex?’ I didn’t look back. This was not my idea of a good time. I pushed on and the street widened until I found myself no longer the only traveller in sight.
Taking turns to attend to weary travellers the girls near the main street had a different approach, ‘You want sexy time, mai?’ Wide grin. Eyes like quartz. ‘Up the bum, no babies.’ The temptations of Bangkok backstreets seemed to me to be as close to real sex as a black eye is to mascara. A pasty white man was hesitating, weighing his options. I remember thinking that whatever his choice was, he might find those pockets emptied either way. The rumours I had heard in my pre-flight uninformed chat with two British lads could also be true, let your lust take over common sense on this side of town and you may find a surprise taped back between those thighs. How would you even know until there were two cocks in the room?
‘Hey fucker you want massage or not?’ The quartz had turned to daggers and that grin was a thin line. I should really stop staring at strangers crotches. ‘You not want cunt why you hang about? Cunt!’ Okay that was it, my cue to pick up the pace and get the hell out of here. Shaking off the sunken feeling left over from the first encounter and feeling rattled from the last, I told myself that whatever happens to the pasty white man was none of my business and went in search of some brighter streetlights.
I found them, and although I had to stand two feet away from it due to a massive puddle of vomit, I also found a working ATM machine. Toes inches from the run-off I put in a reasonable request for 3000 Thai Baht, which was around sixty pounds and would be enough to last the weekend at least. I pressed the sticky green button for a few seconds until ‘Transaction Denied’ flickered across the screen.
Did I expect that? Of course I did, the debit card poked back like a mocking tongue. A queue of customers were forming with my nerves, there was nothing that made me more uncomfortable than a reality check. Stabbing 2500 Baht into the keypad was a wishful thought, and was quickly denied. I stood aside for the people behind me, thinking that maybe it was just the machine that was faulty. I knew it wasn’t and this was confirmed by a stack of notes spitting out for the next in line. I quietly asked reality to get back in its cage and requested 2000 Baht; it was no more than forty pounds so I thought there was a good chance of success. The two second wait came with an anxious uncertainty, a feeling which I ignored until ‘Transaction Denied’ flashed across the screen again. I wasn’t surprised. I hadn’t checked my balance before I left England with the rationalisation that nobody needs another voice with reasons to turn back and give up.
Still I felt good, almost better, there was something beautiful about this point of no return with a touch of ‘no other options’ and a sprinkle of ‘mandatory adventure’. With that thought and a request for 1500 Baht I was met with a ‘Please remove your card and await your funds.’ An underwhelming thunking sound spat out two notes.
My worldly wealth was a wide silver thousand-baht note and the regal red five-hundred. ‘I’ll make it last,’ I told myself, shoving them deep into my pocket, ‘It’s simple yeah, just don’t spend it.’
The backpacking centre of Bangkok City is known as Khao San Road, a flow of neon funnelling you through a vivid world of what-the-fuck. A kilometre stretch of everything, lined by bars, hotels and hostels with the night-market stalls parked at the forefront pushing and peddling. We are talking real junk here, red Rolex with plastic hands, dollar DVD’s and original copy designer clothes. ‘Buy bulk condoms, my friend?’ ‘Real Aviator look good brother?’ Incessant offers followed me closely.
I stopped by several sizzling open-stove pans that seemed to stain the air a greasy yellow, pausing to take a closer look. ‘Scorpion my friend? Never try, never know.’ The black scorpions looked far from edible, tails coiled back and armour shining with cooking oil. I looked up at the speaker who winked and reached behind the upturned milking stool that had a gas canister sat on the underside of the seat, the wok propped precariously atop the three legs. ‘I know you brother, you want something special mai? What you want, tarantula very good my price for you Mr…?’
‘Just Clem,’ I answered, ‘but I really can’t eat tarantula now, I need …’
‘Scorpion my friend!’ I looked up. The vendor had blanked me completely, the new question aimed to a man to my side.
‘What you looking?’ A new voice came from my other side, it was an elderly woman from the next stall and her face was one big wrinkle. She stood about chest height to me and was definitely the right person to speak to if you wanted to eat crickets and maggots.
‘I’m looking for a bed, a cheap place to sleep.’
She nodded, dumping a few handfuls of insects into a paper bowl and handing it to a much younger version of herself. Some loose morsels bounced off the table top and into the gutter, causing a few live versions of the meal to scatter into the open drainage pipe. ‘Eat now? I know good room.’
‘I don’t need good, just cheap.’
The wrinkles shifted into what must have been a smile. ‘I know cheap room, eat now?’
I pulled my hands back, refusing the offer for now, first things first. The vendor shrugged and gestured to the young helper at her side. ‘She my daughter, she find you room, okay?’
The girl turned and smiled, asking, ‘Where you go in Thailand?’
I didn’t have an answer for this, and was only allowed a seconds hesitation before she asked, ‘You lost or not? I think lost.’
I thought my answer out carefully, ‘I’m not lost, I just don’t know where I am or what I’m doing.’
She bounced on the balls of her feet, her face lit up and she laughed, clapping her hands, saying delightedly, ‘You lost in Thailand, man, this only Bangkok!’
I had only about enough time to laugh and open my mouth before she cut in, ‘Not worry guy, everybody lost guy, where did you want to go?’
‘I’m looking for a place …’ I said vaguely, unsure of what to specify.
‘So you look for place!’ She held up a finger then brought it to touch the side of her nose. ‘I know the place where you want to go, somewhere just for you guy …’ She paused, I didn’t even bother trying to speak this time. What followed was something so in tune with how I felt right then, I couldn’t help but lose myself in a huge grin when she followed up with, ‘Stay lost and enjoy your life Mister.’
We chatted some more and I asked her where it was I was going and what to expect. She ignored my exact questions, giving me answers like, ‘Somewhere that is very good for you,’ and, ‘In the south, all the way south.’
‘Here you can make work no problem, life forever in paradise lost guy …’
She told me she would find me a ticket to go all the way there, but it would set me back 800 baht. She cocked her head, sizing up my situation. It was actually very cheap but I hesitated out of habit and again she gave me mere seconds before unleashing a barrage of questions. ‘Why not? You scared? Only twenty dollar.’
Impulse took me this far and it would have to take me a little farther. In pursuit of sunny shores and barbeque smoke I agreed to take the final step to her mysterious island so I parted my notes in my pocket and handed two thirds of my net worth to the girl. She took it, held it up to the street light and then ran away.
Waiting for her return, I couldn’t help hoping I hadn’t just bought myself a twenty dollar life lesson in giving money to kids I meet in markets. The vendor distracted me by waving a dead thing around in my face. ‘Try him. Frog!’ Once it had stopped waggling I could focus on this single dried-and-fried frog. It didn’t look terrible. ‘Not money, just for try,’ she told me as she delivered the four-legged meal directly to my mouth. I held it between my teeth for a second before biting down, small bones cracking and hard lumps leaking out.
‘Very good, no?’ It really was, my mouth flooded with a crunchy frog seasoned with salt and cold fat. She nodded up the road and her granddaughter was there, weaving towards us with my ticket to the mystery island, a blue strip of paper between her fingers.
On the ticket there were three printed boxes,
and a selection of times.
The first two boxes had a pencil line through them and the time 23:30 was circled. This could be sold as a plane ticket also? Well what the hell, welcome to Thailand I guess!
action & adventure