Leaving Bangkok

  • Author: Jim Toner
  • Date: Jan 20, 2014
  • Location: Thailand

Monday morning in Bangkok, our last day here before heading south to the beach. While writing I have another screen open, an ESPN Gamecast of the 49ers against Seattle. The easy life, the modern life of technology and screens. That’s been our week here: a little bit of culture, a lot of ease and luxury and the year 2014. Gone are the days of Ghorapani in Nepal, of sleeping in a frigid room on a hard bed with a day of hiking on ancient stone steps ahead of us. Gone are the days of India, where it’s easier to calculate the weight of Saturn than it is to figure out how to buy a train ticket. Gone are the days of Sri Lanka, where lines are for fools. In its place is Thailand, is the Ramada Hotel and Suites, is a sky train and 88-story building and 0.7% unemployment and no car exhaust. In its place are transvestites openly strutting the street, and women wearing the shortest of shorts, and an orderly method of waiting for subway cars to empty before your line steps in. In its place is an Internet that’s cheap and fast, is a mattress a foot thick, are two Starbucks on every corner, are HD screens everywhere—on billboards, on public transportation—and a smart phone (Samsung, not iPhone) in nearly every hand.


I’d say that Bangkok is America but that wouldn’t be fair. Bangkok has lapped America, or at least an America that’s represented by my hometown of Cleveland. There the bridges are crumbling, the public transportation is a generation old, the businesses are more likely to be boarded up than thriving, and sitting on couches in those homes are a lot of unemployed people. Just to repeat: The unemployment in Thailand is less that 1%. The place is thriving. If only San Francisco could have so few homeless, so few beggars. And one more thing: When I went to a movie here the other night, no one was going to pull out a gun and shoot me for texting—like what happened last week in Florida.




All this modernity, though, is jarring on a trip like ours. It’s a more successful version of America when really, for one year, we want nothing to do with America. Oh sure, at first we’re giddy with CNN, with a latte and a burrito and a pink Prius for a cab. But where’s the Thai culture in all of this. Where’s the elephants and monkeys, the straw homes on bamboo stilts, the Buddhist monks walking the streets with their begging bowls? Where’s our suffering and our bewilderment?




Random observations:


  1. Total number of rats spotted during my hour-long walks at night: 10-15. 8 individual rats, plus the family that I saw last night scurrying around some trash bags split open on the sidewalk. I was too terrorized to stick around and count. The only other rat I saw on this trip? Go ahead: guess. The answer, surprisingly, is Stockholm, Sweden.


  1. Sri Lanka still leads the cockroach race, 2-1, with Thailand still determined to take the lead as we head to the tropical south.


  1. Well, they’re everywhere in Bangkok, and it’s time I mentioned them. It’s the phenomenon of the old white guy hand-in-hand with his young Thai escort. I’m not sure how this works but I’d like to know: How much? For how long? How old is too old? Is it a good arrangement for all?


Liam finally asked about it when we sat down at our favorite sidewalk restaurant. Next to us sat a Mark Twain lookalike, with white hair that shot out like an electrocuted dandelion and with a drooping white curtain of a moustache. In short, he was old and withered and yet there by his side was a young lithe Thai, her attention fully on the screen of her phone. Maybe that was the arrangement: “Ok, I’ll be your escort for a week for a boatload of baht but don’t expect me to look at you. Deal?”


“Escort.” Don’t you love the euphemism of that?


So we explained the arrangement to Liam in general terms. Now, whenever we pass a similar old-white-guy/young-Thai-“escort” on the street, our code phrase is “Mark Twain” and we know what’s going on.


Mind you, this could be me in twelve years. In year ten Dolora will leave me for an Italian who grows olives in Tuscany, and Liam will roll his eyes when I phone to ask for tickets for tonight’s game of Giants baseball that he’ll be catching. So there I’ll be, all alone, walking the streets of San Francisco when I catch a reflection of myself in the window of Niemen Marcus. Mark Twain, I’ll think, I’m starting to look just like Mark Twain. Next thing you know I’m on a redeye to Bangkok and within a day my near-dead hand will be holding the soft butterfly wings of Laman.


“Laman,” I’ll say to her over dinner, “do you have a favorite book?”


She glances up from her iPhone just long enough to say, “I no hungry, Joe, you eat” and then types a text with her long nails.




The protests have turned violent. Three grenades have been tossed, one man killed, dozens hospitalized. Each side is blaming the other in rhetoric that has been ratcheting up, degree by degree, as the country lurches toward the fateful date of elections on February 2.


It’s a good thing that we’re getting out of this city in three hours. The US Embassy is now telling its citizens—hey, that’s us!—to avoid coming to Bangkok. And yet the mood on the street is one of delight and camaraderie, of tents in the middle of busy intersections and grandmothers with t-shirts, “Shut Down Bangkok to Rescue Thailand.” Yesterday we stopped at a stage where a woman in a leopard-skin dress was singing. The protestors dancing in front of her were projected onto the enormous screen behind her. “I have to get on that screen,” Dolora said, and off she went to mix with the dancers. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later there she was, big as a dinosaur on that screen.




It didn’t take long for us to slide into the 4-star life in room 903 of the Ramada Hotel and Suites. Laundry? Hey, let them do our laundry, and so we squished nearly all of our clothes into a plastic bag—our meager tattered clothes that we’ll burn in a ritual ceremony when we return in June.


Today I checked out and paid our bill. The cost of the laundry? Guess. Guess higher.




Or in other words, about $82 higher than the value of the clothes themselves.




Okay, time to close up. We’re leaving the sanctuary of the Ramada for an overnight train in two hours, bound for the unpleasant sounding town of Krabi. We’ll arrive at 11am with our freshly laundered clothes all wrinkled and sullied. The adventure goes on.








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  2. Bennett


    What does it feel like being away from home for this long?


    P.S. I hope you are having a good time. We all miss you.

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