Bonjour: First Impressions of Paris

I stepped off the train in Brussels, counting my blessings that my train hadn’t been caught up with a bunch of strikes that had been happening throughout some of the train companies in Europe. I had plenty of time before boarding my connection train to Paris, so I left the station in search of a place to eat lunch. I hadn’t done too much research about Belgium, with the reality being I would be spending approximately two hours in the country, but I knew that it had quite a reputation for its beer, so I had expected a similar beer-centric culture to that of Germany, or even the Netherlands. I’d told myself I’d have one last hearty meal of brew and sausages before moving on to the finer delicacies that French cuisine would have to offer. So you can imagine my… not disappointment, but confusion when, after browsing a couple of restaurants in the area around the station, found myself eating a pasta dish, drinking red wine and being served by a waiter with a distinct French accent. It hadn’t been what I was anticipating, but in retrospect it made complete sense: Belgium is a tiny country wedged primarily in between the Netherlands and France – the customs and culture was obviously going to get a lot more French in the southern end of the country, the closer I came to Paris. Perhaps it was something I should have already known, but in all honesty, there’s something far more fascinating about making those kind of discoveries first hand.

***

I guess the first thing I really learnt about the culture in France is that nobody is in a great deal of hurry to get anywhere or do anything. Brussels had been the starting point of my trains journey – it hadn’t been late coming in from anywhere else, yet the French train company still managed to be delayed by about 15 minutes, with no real explanation offered to the passengers. Luckily it was a high speed train, and we arrived in Paris a little over an hour after we finally got going. But before I went rushing off into the city, I had some more planning and administration to take care of. While I had been sipping on my wine in Brussels, I had also been speaking to Gemma back in Groningen, filling her in in on my time in Berlin, telling her all the stories, and explaining the circumstances in which I had left and the situation I was in now. She helped me come up with a more realistic rough plan for my route around Europe, and agreed I needed to be a little more proactive when it came to moving on from each destination. So while the plan was still essentially free and flexible, I decided to book my train out of Paris as soon as I got there – being one of the most visited cities in the world, transport to and from the City of Lights was almost always sold out well in advance. So I lined up in the dedicated line for Eurail Pass holders… where I waited for over an hour. There were only two serving windows open, one of which closed while I was still waiting. The entirety of the staff seemed completely nonchalant and blasé about the growing line and mounting frustration that was becoming extremely visible among the crowd. No points for customer service there. The line continued to grow longer and longer behind me, and at the rate it was moving I was starting to fear I wouldn’t even make it to the front of the line before opening hours ended, and would have the shutters to the serving windows slammed shut in my face instead.

But I did make it there in the end, though once I did I made another unfortunate discovery – the train departing Paris on the night I had intended to leave was completely booked out.
“There’s nothing you can do? Nothing at all?” I practically begged the woman sitting behind the perspex window. I had been unsuccessful in finding any Couchsurfing hosts in Paris and, not wanting a repeat of my experience in Hamburg, had booked a hostel for three nights. That was the only affordable accommodation I had been able to find, and there hadn’t even been any room beyond those three nights. I’d been planning to get the overnight train to Barcelona, but if I couldn’t leave on that evening I would be stranded for a night in Paris.
“No, I’m sorry, there are no seats available for Eurail pass holders.” She did sound genuinely sorry, but it was still frustrating.
“Okay, well… How about the next night?” I had to book something, or Paris would end up being the city that I’d truly never escape from.
She tapped away at her computer before answering. “There are places available, but…” I held my breath. “There are no sleeper beds available. The best I can offer you is the reclining seat carriage.” That was, unless I wanted to fork out for a first class ticket, she had added – you’d think these kinds of people would have a better idea of how backpacking works, right?
Once again it wasn’t an ideal option, but it was as good as it was going to get. I still had the three nights in the hostel to figure out a plan for the final night, so I made the reservation for the overnight train before trudging off to navigate the metro system, trying to not let my frustrating first impressions of Paris ruin my mood.

***

With a new city comes the excitement of getting to discover a new local public transport system. For all the negative things I’d heard about how confusing and complicated the Paris metro system was, I actually thought it was brilliant, although maybe after so many cities I just found it much easier to learn and adapt. Or maybe every other city in the world has a system that is still more impressive than Sydney’s. Whatever, we all know I have a thing for public transport. For the Parisian metro, as long as you had a map tell you where your required interchanges were, it was extremely easy to traverse the city. There are over a dozen lines that can take you almost anywhere, which is very important because not only is Paris a huge city, it’s also quite spread out, with many of the famous and popular attractions being on opposite sides of the city, no where near each other. Unlike the U- and S-Bahn in Berlin, tickets were required to even enter the stations, but they were also quite inexpensive compared to anything I had paid in Berlin, and you had the option to buy in bulk to save a couple of euros. While my experience with Parisians had been an abundance of lateness and inefficiency so far, the metro was the one exception. I suppose it’s hard to be late when it doesn’t actually run to specific schedule, as far as I know, but the trains came frequently enough.

Coming from Sydney, a city that was created through urban sprawl and expansion from a central city, it’s always interesting to see maps of many European cities, such as Paris, and notice how well-planned they appear in comparison. Paris is divided into twenty districts, with District 1 starting in the centre, and the numbers of each subsequent district progressing in a clockwise spiral shape. I hadn’t realised this when booking my accommodation, and thus found myself on my way to the 20th District, the eastern-most district that reached the edge of the official city limits of Paris. However, such is the efficiency of the Paris metro that it only took me about 20 minutes to reach my station from Gare du Nord, the major train station in the city’s north. Once I got to the hostel, I settled in and freshened up before heading out to explore Paris. While I may have entertained my romantic ideals about the French capital, I’d heard very few first hand accounts of the city from people I knew, so I was interested to see what kind of nightlife dwelled in the City of Lights.

“Bangkok’s got him now”

Sitting on the Skytrain from Suvarnabhumi Airport to the heart of Bangkok, I peered out the windows at the vaguely familiar landscape. I had spent a couple of days here in my brief South-East Asian stint a little over a year ago, and the expansive field and countryside, littered with small, modest dwellings and the occasional billboard, hadn’t changed too dramatically. I suppose there are a few more modern developments and built-up environments closer to the railway line, and that these elements of the landscape would dwindle the further you went into the countryside – but I won’t pretend I know a great deal about the geography, or even the culture, of Thailand. All I know is that the views frommy seat on the train were as paradoxical as some of the scenic juxtapositions of Singapore, but to an even further, exaggerated extent. It makes for an interesting observation, but from my vantage point it all seemed rather other-worldly in a textbook kind of fashion. But it wouldn’t be that way for long…

***

I was staying with my friend Rathana, another person whom I knew from Sydney but had since moved to live abroad. However, his work frequently takes him to all kinds of places across the globe, and as fate would have it he was to be in San Francisco when I touched down in Bangkok, though he’d generously offered for me to stay in his place without him until his return. I used my basic directional knowledge from last time I’d been in Bangkok to make the short walk from the BTS (another name of for the Skytrain – an above ground railway system just as efficient as Singapore’s MRT) station to his condo, where I met one of his co-workers to collect his keys. After spending the afternoon resting and enjoying having a private space to myself, I began to feel hungry, so I decided to take a wander through the streets of Bangkok and see what I could discover.

Within half an hour I was back in the condo, feeling more than a little shellshocked. I’m not sure what I was expecting – I was well aware that I was in a foreign country, with its own language, rules, customs and culture, but I think it was more of an overestimation of my own ability to adjust and adapt. You can read all the books and reviews in the world, and somehow I don’t think anything can totally prepare you for the real thing. I set out into the streets, taking note of my surrounds yet heading in no particular direction, making turns here or there, wherever there seemed to be something interesting happening. I found myself in what I later discovered was the tiny and localised Muslim district of Bangkok. Street vendors lined the narrow road, young children played in the streets naked, stray cats prowled the gutters and whole families were lounging around in what seemed to be one room houses, surrounded by fans and in various stages of undress, in order to combat the sweltering heat and humidity. Motorbikes weaved between the people, and even cars nudged their way through the street like they were just oversized pedestrians. Determined to not look like the nervous tourist which I so obviously was, I trudged through up the street keeping mainly to myself, occasionally stopping to contemplate some of the street food carts, but moving on when my presence was either ignored, or met with a bored indifference. Of course, I don’t blame them for probably resenting my gawking – I was the one who had wandered off the main concourses into the tiny street which had little to no obvious tourist attractions. Yet in the end the whole thing became so overwhelming that I navigated my way through an alley or two until I reached the main roads, grabbed a handful of snacks the convenience store and dragged my shaken self back home. Maybe it was the fact I had set out into Bangkok by myself for the first time in the cover of night, or maybe it was just because I’d really had no idea what I was doing – I resolved that from now on I would always have a plan of attack.

***

The next day I tried to wind it back and ease myself into the culture shock a little more gently, spending the day revisiting some of the areas I’d been to before. I had lunch in the predominantly English-speaking area of Ari, and then headed to Siam to wander through some of the biggest malls in Asia. I’d noticed my throat becoming quite sore since the morning I left Singapore, so I found a pharmacy with an English-speaking doctor, who gave me a simple three day course of antibiotics. After that, I decided to lay low the rest of the day in an attempt to recover. Another of Rathana’s friends was to be staying at his place for a few days while he was away, so I ventured down to the BTS station to collect her and introduce her to Bangkok as best I could. She was in town for a conference over the weekend, so I would end up seeing very little of her during our shared time in the condo.

The next day I was feeling a bit better, so I set myself some challenges for the day, to help me get used to traveling solo around Bangkok. After doing a bit of research, I picked one restaurant for lunch and a nearby tourist attraction, studied the maps, and head off into the city. I never found the restaurant, and trudged around the streets in the hot sun for close to 40 minutes, getting lost and confused by the mostly non-English street signs, before I eventually stumbled upon a very Western looking burger joint. At that point I was willing to trade a cultural experience for a bit of cool air-conditioning, so I stopped and ate. From there it was on to the Queen Saowaphat Memorial Institute and Snake Farm. A couple of years ago, I developed a pretty intense snake phobia through a bizarre incident that is a whole other story of its own, and have been working ever since to try and overcome my fear. The snake farm is affiliated with the Red Cross Institute in Bangkok, where a lot of research into toxicology and the creation of snake bite anti-venom takes place, but it also offered snake handling shows in the afternoon, so I’d chosen the attraction in the hopes that maybe I could overcome some fears and gain some confidence I had lost after my first shaky night in Bangkok.

The words “snake farm” bring to mind images of pits full of writhing snakes, bred en masse and used like cattle. It would have been a disturbing sight, not to mention a likely case of animal cruelty, so it was a little reliving to see that the farm was actually just a small serpentine zoo. I found a lot of the cobras intriguing, and realised I would never be able to tell I had encountered one in the wild until if was spreading out those iconic hood scales and hissing and/or spitting venom at me – though in reality I doubt I’d ever let a wild snake of any kind get quite so close. However, it wasn’t until the handling show that I came face to face with my scaly demons. I’d turned up slightly late, distracted by the exhibitions, and so missed a seat in the amphitheatre and had to watch from down the sides at the bottom, which happened to be right next to the demonstration area…

Cobra in the exhibition area.

Cobra in the exhibition area.

And the King Cobra that was a little close for comfort!

And the King Cobra that was a little close for comfort!

Looking quite fierce, and most displeased.

Looking quite fierce, and most displeased.

So you can imagine my horror when the first thing they do is dump a King Cobra on the ground, no more than 4 or 5 metres from where I was standing. The snake itself would have been more than half that distance had it been fully extended, but instead it writhed around and coiled itself, its hood scales fully spread and hissing angrily at the handlers around it. After the initial shock, and realising there were quite a few people between the cobra and myself, I managed to calm down and watch the show without being too anxious or nervous at all – quite a feat for someone who had to watch scenes in the last Harry Potter film between slits in my fingers to avoid seeing Voldemort’s giant pet snake. Come the end of the show, they called for a volunteer, and I was standing too close to the demonstration area to not get selected. I’d seen shows like this before, and I knew what was coming – but as per the challenge to myself, I didn’t resist, and allowed for the huge python to be draped across my shoulders. It was such a thrill, and I was surprised to find that I wasn’t really scared at all – phobia smashed! I even held it long enough to ask to get my picture taken, in case nobody back home would believe actually me.

Finally squashing my snake phobia for good!

Finally squashing my snake phobia for good!

Maybe all the attention tired the poor thing out?

Maybe all the attention tired the poor thing out?

***

As I left the snake farm, I was accosted by a tuk tuk driver who asked if I needed a ride. I knew the way back to the station, yet I let myself be dragged into a conversation. “For just 20 baht, my friend, I will take to back to the Sala Daeng BTS station. But please, can we make one other stop along the way?” I told him that I didn’t have anywhere I needed to be, and as he explained I realised that he was trying to get me to visit a shop, presumably that of a friend, or an employer of sorts. Assuring me I only needed to have a look and not necessarily buy anything, I threw caution to the wind and gave in to what might actually be my first authentic Bangkok experience. The store turned out to be a tailor, and I soon realised it wasn’t quite so easy to browse a store that doesn’t actually have a great deal of products already made. I was quite insistent to my salesman that I didn’t need a suit, but in the end I caved, I ended up walking out of the store having been measured up and paid for two tailor made shirts. They were supposed to be delivered to Rathana’s condo the next evening, but are yet to arrive, and now I’m starting to feel I may have been swindled by an elaborate scam. Though I’ll hold my breath just a little longer, in case there was a legitimate delay.

The tuk tuk driver was delighted I’d made a purchase, and I think that was a sign to him that maybe he could pump even more upselling into me. As we continued on our way, he turned and called back to me, over the drone of the traffic, “Lady? You want a lady? Ping pong show, yes?” I politely declined, though I ended up browsing through a jewellery store before I firmly insisted that I needed to go back to the station. He was a very cheery man, though. “I like you, you’re a cool guy,” he repeated several times. He asked me if I was going out partying that night, and when I alluded to it being a possibility, he wanted to get my phone number. Given the tricky nature of my travel SIM card, I managed to squeeze my way out of that one, but in retrospect it seems he had made a pretty big squeeze out of me, in one way or another.

***

After finally returning home and showering, I was off again to catch up with a friend. Brendon was the older brother of one of my best friends from high school, and had spent the better part of the last 3 or 4 years living and studying throughout Asia. He’d gotten in touch when he realised we would both be in Bangkok at the same time, and invited me to dinner with his group friends from his time at university here. Having spent most of the past three days on my own, I jumped at the chance to hang out with some locals and people who actually knew the city. We had dinner at a nice restaurant where I was introduced to the group, but it was what happened after dinner that was the real Bangkok experience. Rich, one of the girls, was going out to help celebrate her brothers birthday, and she urged Brendon and I to join them. Brendon was only in town for two nights and wanted to make the most of it, and I literally had no where else to go, so we jumped in a cab and I let them lead the way.

Our destination was Khao San, the backpacker district of Bangkok. Part of me wishes I’d paid more attention when watching The Beach, the begin of which is famously set in this busy party street. As we made our way through the crowds, I could see that this was definitely the tourist experience of Bangkok that serves as a unanimous reference point among travellers. The wide street was lined with bars, hotels, nightclubs and tattoo parlours, and dozens of pop-up shops filled the street, selling food, drinks and a huge range of souvenirs. It felt like a combination of Kings Cross/Surfers Paradise with Paddy’s Markets in Sydney, with the addition of small children also running through the crowds peddling their wares. After my encounters with over friendly sales people earlier that day, I was quick to shoo away the small children before they had the opportunity to tempt me. We finally found the birthday boy sitting at a table outside this bar:

That's one way to get a target market?

That’s one way to get a target market?

I chuckled to myself at the name, another of the novelty clues highlighting that we were definitely not in any regular Australian party strip. We sat down and ordered drinks – table service in clubs is another thing that I wasn’t used to, although I’m now under the impression it’s pretty common in most places in Thailand, or at least Bangkok. As we sipped on our Singapore Sling cocktail buckets (the only drink worth getting here, Rich assured us), various other street sellers would approach us from the busy road and insistently push their products upon us. Among some of my favourites were the material wrist bands that contained all kinds of messaged woven into them, from sweet to naughty to just plain strange, and what appeared to be char-grilled scorpion skewers. I didn’t buy anything though – the wrist bands because I couldn’t decide on one hilarious slogan without wanting to choose them all, and the scorpions because… Well, nothing about them looked appetising in the slightest. I usually say I’ll try anything once, but after watching a British backpacker dry wretch and nearly vomit everywhere after eating her scorpion, I decided it was an experience I could live without.

Charming.

Charming.

Less charming.

Less charming.

Singapore Slings - where else but Thailand?

Singapore Slings – where else but Thailand?

When we’d decided we’d drank enough, we retreated to the neighbouring nightclub, partly because we wanted to dance and mostly because we knew the place was air conditioned. We danced for a while before we decided to leave and head to another district. After getting some Pad Thai from a street vendor, who cooked the whole meal in under two minutes right before our very eyes, we were in a taxi bound for Silom Soi 4. It was the gay district, Brendon explained to me, which was why Rich found herself there so often. “I just feel so much safer there”, she said with a laugh, while Brendon made a remark about feeling quite the opposite. I was unsurprised that I’d managed to find a fag hag on my first night in Bangkok, and I was pretty excited to check out what kind of gay scene existed here. Unfortunately it was a Thursday night and already well past 1am. We all ordered one more drink each, but by then we were all starting to feel pretty tired. I said my goodbyes to Brendon, and exchanged numbers with Rich in case I should need any more help navigating the party scene of Bangkok, then we all found cabs and made our separate ways home.

The bustling district of Khao San.

The bustling district of Khao San.

Pad Thai as a drunk meal is a bit of a novelty for me, but there were dozens of carts serving them along Khao San.

Pad Thai as a drunk meal is a bit of a novelty for me, but there were dozens of carts serving them along Khao San.

It had taken a few days, but I felt like I was starting to get the hang of Bangkok. There were the obvious language barriers in some places, which I was expecting, but you’re usually never too far from someone who can speak English, or provide a basic translation. The night out with Brendon and his friends had been a nice change from trying to discover and navigate the city on my own, and I began to think that while free accommodation with friends was definitely a bonus, I hadn’t anticipated it to be quite so lonely without Rathana actually being here. I figured it would be easier to make friends when I’m staying in hostels, surrounded by other backpackers, than it was when I was tucked away in my own private apartment. I’d spoken to a few friends back home during my brief periods of feeling a bit lonely, and they all assured me that it would get easier, and I had to remind myself that I’d really only been out of Sydney for a week. That was nothing in the grand scheme of my planned world tour, though sometimes it already felt like I’d been gone for such a long time. I knew all that would change with time though, and so I just took it in my stride as one of the many more personal challenges I’d face this year.

Though the weekend has only just begun, so for now, Bangkok is still calling…