Within an hour of my plane landing I was sweltering in a crowded bus headed into downtown Bangkok. Only four hours on a plane and I was in a place that doesn’t know cold. My body had been adapting to winter at a natural, gradual pace as the Pacific Northwest gently moved away from the sun, and was shocked when abruptly confronted by summer in January.
I was sweating heavily into my backpack straps, already halfway through the liter of water I’d bought outside the airport. I was standing and clutching a pole to keep steady as the bus pressed on. A Thai girl approached me, who couldn’t have been more than 12 years old. She shook her sort of rainstick full of coins and put her hand out.
“How much?” I said, feeling foolish for speaking English.
“20 Baht”, she said, straight faced. I noticed she was wearing braces.
I fumbled with the notes I’d received as change for my liter of water and handed her a mint green 20. She opened the rainstick, long ways, and put the money in where it belonged and went off to confront another new passenger. I watched her move with ease through the swaying, rolling, packed old bus. As she collected fares her expression remained austere. She appeared to be very good at her job of shaking people down.
It was an hour-long ride on a highway ever thickening with traffic as we muscled our way into the heart of the city. According to my Lonely Planet book (Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, what else?) I needed to get off at the Victory Monument and from there catch a different bus in order to get within range of my hotel. The trouble was, I was standing on the top platform at the back of the bus so I couldn’t see out far enough to determine my location. All I could see was the insane traffic immediately on either side of the bus. Motorcycles and scooters raced by, lane-splitting, while cars sludged along bumper to bumper. It was chaos, a chaos of wheels, motors, pavement, metal, people, pollution…
But, by ducking and peeking regularly, I was able to spot the Victory Monument and exit the bus at the appropriate moment. I found myself traversing the circumference of a massive roundabout. It was Bangkok’s Champs-Élysées but crazier and with traffic moving clockwise. If Tom Cruise wanted to outdo his stunt from the sixth Mission Impossible film (in which he rides a motorcycle around the Champs-Élysées, against traffic!) this was the place to do it. This seven-lane roundabout made the one in Paris seem tame.
I worked my way around the roundabout to reach what I hoped was the right bus stop. I studied the schedule, squinting to decipher the comically small print, while busses with ever varying numbers arrived and departed within seconds of each other. Maybe that is my bus? Or that one?
I stayed relaxed but recognized this as a moment when it wouldn’t be unreasonable for me to snap with frustration. It was my first day in a new country and I was jet lagged and enduring a stifling, dehydrating humidity while trying to comprehend an unfamiliar bus schedule during the mayhem of rush hour.
Yet before despair could truly set in, a middle-aged Thai man (heroically) approached me, smiling, and asked in English where I wanted to go. I told him the neighborhood I was seeking and pointed to it on the map located on the other side of the bus schedule. He told me the bus number I needed to take. After 15 tense minutes of waiting (and combatting uncertainty) a bus with my desired number pulled up ahead of a line of other busses. As I made for my bus, I watched a local break into a run so I did too, my backpack jouncing uncomfortably. We both made it aboard, and would have easily without running.
After coughing up another 20 Baht (which I determined to be about 70¢), I consulted my location on Google Maps, as indicated by the helpful blue dot. In a rare moment of preparedness, I had, ahead of time, downloaded a map of Bangkok. I hate to think of how I would’ve fared if I hadn’t.
Once off the bus the blue dot told me I was still pretty far from my hotel, too far to walk. I stood on the curb and tried to hail a taxi on the busy road, but they were all full. A skinny young guy waved at me across the street and pointed to his tuk-tuk, a three-wheeled motorcycle for hire with a small carriage attached. I crossed the busy road, making sure to look right, then left, the opposite of what I was used to doing automatically.
His tuk-tuk was especially festive and stood out among the other colorful rickshaws that lined the street outside a train station. The rickshaw was sparkly pink and accented with green stripes. After giving the driver the name of my hotel and haggling over the price, I slipped off my pack and sat down. My back breathed a sigh of relief. The blotch of sweat soaked into my t-shirt where the pack had been was now exposed to the open air. The spot felt wonderfully cool.
The driver mounted the motorcycle in front of me and started it and we were off into the stream of traffic. He steered us through snaky alleys in an industrial part of town, surrounded by buildings so tall that they obstructed most of the sunlight. The tuk-tuk’s motor was loud and the colors were bright and the driver was fearless, diving into backstreets and repeatedly “threading the needle” without hesitation. I felt like I was on a go-kart ride in Disneyland. This was far superior to walking.
He let me off in some labyrinthian alley and pointed a direction for me to continue on foot. I trusted him and walked, passing mechanics smoking amongst motor parts and metal scraps. After a block or two I came upon a life-affirming sign: “River View Guest House”. I bloody made it. I continued into the open-air lobby, confirmed my reservation, and got a key from the concierge. I rode the elevator to the eighth floor.
Right outside my room was a kid, maybe 10 years old, scraping up the linoleum, a grating noise that I did my best to accept and ignore but, after sitting in the room for a few minutes (guzzling the complimentary water bottles), I knew I had to try to switch rooms.
This was easy enough, and, after settling into my new room and taking a cold, sweat purging shower, I decided to check out the restaurant on the top floor. I approached the railing and looked out. This hotel (which had been recommended to me by Reddit) was right against the Chao Phraya River and had a wide view of Southwest Bangkok. I couldn’t believe I had penetrated this far into the city. Skyscrapers of all shapes and sizes stood as far as the eye could see. Among them I spotted the conspicuous roofs of Buddhist temples. Thailand’s zoning laws were curious, if they even existed. Though I was only 20 miles from the airport, it had taken me five hours to get to my hotel.
For most people it was too early for dinner and so the restaurant was mostly vacant. I chose a table and ordered a beer and studied a menu. I figured this rooftop restaurant would be pricier than street food but I was too spent to care. The waiter brought me a big sweating bottle of Leo beer. I rolled it against my forehead and then took a swig. I had made it to my hotel. I felt my shoulders relax.
I worked on the beer and watched other tourists trickle in, mostly large groups or middle-aged couples. I ate a bowl of red curry and rice with just the beer and the view to keep me company. At that point my fatigue was insurmountable. I went back to my room, clicked on the ceiling fan, and passed out to strange dreams. It was 5:00 p.m.
When I found myself awake, I checked my watch: 11:00 p.m. I was still exhausted; brain, body, everything. Now I had a dilemma. Do I get up or keep sleeping? This was my one night in Bangkok. Maybe going to sleep at 5:00 p.m. without setting an alarm was ill-advised.
I reached for my phone and, using the hotel’s WIFI, searched “street food” into Google Maps. There appeared to be several late-night food options within a short distance of my hotel. It looked like hunger was going to drive me out of bed. I took several screenshots of the directions before setting off into the night.
By regularly consulting my location on Google Maps I was able to navigate out of the dark alleyways and onto wider, busier streets. I passed a 7-11, then a temple. I peered through the gate. I saw a woman, alone, facing a golden Buddha. She was kneeling and lighting candles. I kept walking.
The street got brighter and busier as I continued. Multicolored Chinese lanterns hung attractively over the street. Food stalls lined the sidewalks. I was glad to discover that this area seemed pretty light on tourists. Most of the people I saw were young adult Thais doing a night out. They promenaded past me in groups of three or four, the girls all made up and the guys with gel in their hair. Suddenly I realized that it was Saturday night.
I ordered some ceviche from a sidewalk stall and, while I waited for the food, drank another large bottle of beer.
When I got back to my room I couldn’t sleep. I took another cold shower. I lay on the bed and stared up at the ceiling fan, which ticked incessantly. My final watch glance before falling asleep showed 3:00 A.M.
I rose early and watched the sunrise from the rooftop restaurant. Bangkok at this hour was hazy, rosy, almost calm. Birds sang their morning songs. I heard the muffled metal clanging and faucet whooshing of restaurant preparations. I messaged my family to assure them that I was alive. The dull morning light gradually brightened and brought the city into focus.
AS I walked with my backpack to the metro I munched steam buns filled with taro and pork. I couldn’t resist a street stall selling boba tea, so soon I was washing down the buns with a sugary latte filled with tapioca balls.
I had an afternoon flight to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. I had left with plenty of time to make it to the airport and I was feeling good. The metro had signs that pointed directly to the airport, and my confidence swelled. I knew I’d make my flight no problem. I was now a pro at navigating new cities.
The metro station was pandemonium with everyone rushing around and squeezing themselves into trains, but once the doors were closed, silence fell. Not an awkward or eerie silence but a sacred silence. It felt like I was participating in a group meditation. So serene was this collective pause that I had a strong feeling that it must be great to live in a culture dominated by Buddhism.
Carefully following the directions to the airport displayed in the train above people’s heads, I changed lines. This next train hurtling us to the outskirts of the city was much less busy and I was able to sit down. I pulled out my phone and reviewed my flight plan. My stomach sank. I was flying out of Don Meung (DMK). The airport directions I had been following were leading me to Suvarnabhumi (BKK), as indicated by the picture of the airplane next to the flight code BKK. DMK, BKK… God damn it.
It was a long few minutes before I was able to get off and reverse directions. When it came time to change lines, the swarm of commuters had grown, and I had to aggressively shoulder my way into the overflowing bodies spilling out of the train doors, which I prayed wouldn’t close on my backpack. I couldn’t afford to wait for another train. And who’s to say the next train wouldn’t be equally full?
I made it to my terminal with 20 minutes to spare before undergoing the efficient routine of an Air Asia flight. I should’ve realized that such a short layover in Bangkok wouldn’t leave me enough time to even somewhat experience the city. Getting to my hotel and then back to the airport had taken most of my time and energy. I was ready to stay in one place for more than a day or two, something I had resolved to do in Northern Thailand.