Losing My Religion

Day Two of Selma’s itinerary started off with another sight that was deemed one of Rome’s “must see” attractions: The Vatican City. The further along I got on this itinerary, the more I realised that there are just so many things to see in Rome, and that I would have probably wasted a whole heap of time had I not had the good fortune of Selma’s advice. Still, the Vatican was something I was almost in two minds about. “The Vatican? Won’t you, like, burst into flames or something when you step inside?”, my best friend Jesse had said during a Skype conversation while I was getting ready to head out. I just laughed and shrugged. I hadn’t let my homosexuality or my distaste for organised religion stop me from entering any of the other churches throughout Europe so far, so why should I treat the Vatican any differently. By that reasoning St Peter’s Basilica was – to me, at least – just another church.

The Vatican is located slightly north-west of central Rome, and Valerio’s place was in the south-east, so it took even longer to get there than it had taken to get into the centre yesterday. Selma’s instructions had advised I wake up early to visit the Vatican, presumably to avoid the queues, but unless it is absolutely essential, I have discovered I am just not a morning person. Especially not for the Pope. So the sun was high and bright as I stepped out of the metro system and into the streets, where I immediately could find my way to the Vatican by simply following the flocks of people. There were lots of people holding signs advertising guided tours, hollering at passers-by with things like “You going to the museum? Vatican Museum is not this way, you want want guided tour, aye?” Every now and then I would see people stop and talk to them, and I wondered if any of them realised how ripped off they were probably going to get. “Long lines for the museum, but not with guided tour!” Maybe I was wrong though – I never bothered to investigate them further. I dodged the assumed tourists traps as I blended into the throng of the crowd.

The centre of the Vatican City.

The centre of the Vatican City.

There were lines to get into the main church – there was absolutely no way around that. Entry to St Peter’s Basilica is free, so there wasn’t really any reason not to go in, once you realised the lines moved at quite a constant and steady pace. I couldn’t have been in line for more than 20 minutes before I was through the security check and on my way in. Some of the other tourists around me, however, were not so lucky. Like many holy sights that I had visited in places like Bangkok and Angkor Wat, respectful attire was compulsory for entry into the largest Catholic church in the world, and I had done my research. As I approached the front of the line, I pulled out the pair of jeans that I had stuffed into my backpack and pulled them on over my short, immodest shorts. I’d been sure to wear a t-shirt with decent length sleeves, so once I had covered up I was given the green light by security. The women behind me in their sandals, summer dresses and light gauze shawls weren’t so lucky.

The first thing I noticed when I was finally within the compound was, lo and behold, another line. It was a line to climb the steps to the basilica’s atrium, a dome that supposedly offered views of the Vatican and the surrounding area. I stood in line for a short while before I realised a sign that read “Exact fare only” (it cost €5 to walk the stairs or €7 to take the lift). I checked my wallet – all I had was a €50 note. I deliberated in the line for a little while, but in the end I decided that it wouldn’t be worth the wait to be turned down for not having the correct change, and even if that didn’t matter, I wasn’t sure the view itself would be worth even more waiting. So instead I slipped out of the line and entered into the main chamber of the church.

The Michelangelo Dome inside St Peter's Basilica.

The Michelangelo Dome inside St Peter’s Basilica.

One of the many statues inside St Peter's Basilica. Unfortunately, I am unable to recall it's name.

One of the many statues inside St Peter’s Basilica. Unfortunately, I am unable to recall it’s name.

I have to admit that my musings in the morning before my arrival at the Vatican had been a little bit off – I had seen a lot of churches so far, but this place was impressive. I wandered around the hollow space aimlessly for some time, just staring at the walls and the ceilings and the masterpiece artworks that adorned them. It was almost similar to the interior of the Hermitage in St Petersburg, with gold plating and lavish trimmings, but as I admired all the beauty, I couldn’t help but think that it was all so over the top, and question whether or not it was necessary for a church to be so intricately decorated. Although these places were built in a completely different time period, almost a completely different world, and I suppose institutions such as the Catholic church would have had enough power that they could have commissioned anything to happen, not just a masterpiece by Michelangelo. Which isn’t really any more of a comforting thought. I had been able to admire almost all the other churches I’d visited during my travels simply as holy places of worship, where people found solace in their faith, even if I did not. But there was something else, something more than the interior design within St Peter’s Basilica that made me a little uncomfortable, somehow reminding me of all the things that I really did have against religious institutions such as this one. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but all my previous attempts at finding some kind of enlightenment came to naught as of that day, and I fell back into a phase of religious disillusion.

The statue of St Peter with his worn worn down foot.

The statue of St Peter with his worn worn down foot.

The main alter in the church, featuring the Apse Cathedra (the chair of St Peter) and the Apse Gloria (the stained glass window).

The main alter in the church, featuring the Apse Cathedra (the chair of St Peter) and the Apse Gloria (the stained glass window).

Personal reflection aside, the basilica is still rather wondrous to behold. A highlight is the statue of St Peter, whose toes on this right foot have been worn down to a smooth nub after centuries of pilgrims touching and kissing his foot while they pray to the saint. As I was taking a photo of the main alter in the church, I was tapped on the shoulder. I turned around to see a couple, a man a woman, extending their camera out to me and pointing at the alter. Figuring that they wanted me to take a picture for them, but also guessing that they didn’t speak English or Italian, I just smiled and nodded. I took the camera and snapped a few shots before handing it back to them, and then motioning for them to take a few for me in return. “спасибо,” (or phonetically ‘spasiba’) the man mumbled to me in a deep voice as we parted ways. I got momentarily excited, and went to say “You’re welcome”, until I realised that ‘thank you’ was pretty much the extent of all the Russian that I knew. After I had finished looking around and taking a few pictures, I exited St Peter’s Basilica through the underground crypts, where former Popes are laid to rest. It was a solemn route in which photography was not allowed, so after I left I snapped a few last pictures out the front in St Peter’s Square.

Having my photo taken with the main alter by the surly Russian couple. Also annoyingly photo-bombed.

Having my photo taken with the main alter by the surly Russian couple. Also annoyingly photo-bombed.

This rebel worshipper decided to touch the other foot instead of the traditional one. St Peter's left foot still have distinguishable toes.

This rebel worshipper decided to touch the other foot instead of the traditional one. St Peter’s left foot still have distinguishable toes.

Outside St Peter's Basilica.

Outside St Peter’s Basilica.

Outside the church in St Peter's Square.

Outside the church in St Peter’s Square.

***

The next stop of the day was the other major feature of the Vatican – the Vatican Museums. Now I’m not a huge art buff, but I’m no snub either, so I wanted to take my time and at least see some of the highlights – according to Lonely Planet you would need a couple of hours for that alone. I followed the crowds exiting the basilica and found my way to the museums. I instantly knew that I had made the right decision in forgoing the expensive tourist trap guided tours of the Vatican Museums – what appeared to be a long waiting line to get in was actually just a steady stream of people moving into the building. I never actually stood still once while I was ‘waiting’, and I was in and away in no time.

The collection of artworks in the Vatican is quite remarkable though. Every room is crammed with as many works of art as possible, from the most minuscule and seemingly insignificant to the most amazing of masterpieces. There were sculptures, statues, paintings, portraits, walls and ceilings decorated with the most extravagance: it just went on and on. I won’t even attempt to describe or explain everything I saw, but I did take a few photos of some of my favourite pieces.

The Vatican statue of Neptune.

The Vatican statue of Neptune.

The famous statue titled "Laocoön and His Sons", which depicts them being strangled by a snake.

The famous statue titled “Laocoön and His Sons”, which depicts them being strangled by a snake.

A collection of various sculptures on display.

A collection of various sculptures on display.

The Belvedere Torso.

The Belvedere Torso.

One of the roof paintings in the halls of the Vatican. Unfortunately they're not so easily marked, thus not easily identifiable.

One of the roof paintings in the halls of the Vatican. Unfortunately they’re not so easily marked, thus not easily identifiable.

The statue of Hermanubis, a god who was a combination of Hermes in Greek mythology and Anubis in Egyptian mythology.

The statue of Hermanubis, a god who was a combination of Hermes in Greek mythology and Anubis in Egyptian mythology.

A mummy in the Egyptian wing on the museum.

A mummy in the Egyptian wing on the museum.

The sarcophagus of St Helen.

The sarcophagus of St Helen.

Another ceiling painting in the Vatican.

Another ceiling painting in the Vatican.

I followed the signs and directions for the most brief tour of the museums, which as expected still took a couple of hours. But no matter how you go about it, the final stop on any tour of the Vatican Museums inevitably has to be the Sistine Chapel. Photographs are forbidden in the main chamber, and rightly so. I’ve previously expressed similar sentiments that being unable to take a photo of a place, such as inside the temples of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, make the place a little more special and sacred, and you really have to be there to see it. Of course, you can see the highlights of the chapel with a quick Google search, but there is so much more to the room than Genesis. The chapel itself would have been quite a chilling and moving sight to behold, if it weren’t for the fact that the rule of silence was so heavily policed. Don’t get me wrong, I think that requiring to be silent in places like the Sistine Chapel is totally acceptable – it’s still a holy place and I’m sure there’d be dozens of Catholics around the place casting prayers up to Heaven as they gaze around in awe. But the effect of that silence, and indeed the point of requiring it, seems a little defeated by the “ATTENTION! SILENCE PLEASE! NO PHOTOGRAPHY!” boomed out over a very loud speaker system in 6 different languages every thirty seconds. It’s a little hard to be impressed while standing in the midst of a famous work of art when you feel like you’re being ordered around like a herd of cattle.

One of the halls leading up to the Sistine Chapel.

One of the halls leading up to the Sistine Chapel.

The famous Spiral Staircase that leads to the exit of the Vatican Museum.

The famous Spiral Staircase that leads to the exit of the Vatican Museum.

Although, it’s disappointing to admit that more than half the tourists in the room were behaving like cattle. I left the museum after that, and the Vatican as a whole, feeling not exactly underwhelmed by what I had experienced, and not necessarily disappointed. I just felt a little confused. Like, was there something I wasn’t getting? I appreciated these places as world renowned and works of art, but I just felt like I was missing something that made it all really seem that worth it. Maybe it was the disillusionment I felt in St Peter’s Basilica, or maybe I was just suffering from museum fatigue, or was just tired of an itinerary that was starting to feel like a season of  “Europe’s Next Top Cathedral”. I was glad that I had seen what I had seen, but I decided after my visit to the Vatican that I was going to terminate the rigid itinerary that Selma had provided me with. There were still a couple of major sights I legitimately wanted to see, but I think my trip to the Vatican marked the day that I had officially grown tired of museums, churches, and every other typical tourist attraction.

Rollin’ On A River

During my stay in Ho Chi Minh City, I thought it was only appropriate that I explore a little more of Vietnam before heading off to the Cambodian border. After sussing out the logistics of my various options, I decided that heading south to the Mekong River delta would be the most interesting and diverse experience. The day trip involved a two hour bus ride out of the city, so I rose uncharacteristically early that morning and trudged onto the bus still half asleep, yet curious to see what the wider country of Vietnam would have in store for me.

***

The Mekong River is the largest river in Asia, starting in Tibet, and flowing through China, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, where it divides into 9 tributaries that all flow out separately into the South China Sea. The south of Vietnam is known as the ‘Rice Bowl’ due to the established crops and farms throughout the region. The real tour started at a riverside town called My Tho, and from there we walked through the jungle on a small undergrowth trail until we reached the river.

From there we got into small wooden row boats that took us down a narrow river system that was surround by thick vegetation on each side. We weren’t too far from the main roads, but we were well and truly out of the city now, and floating down the river in the long rowboat really gave me an idea of Vietnamese culture that was probably a little more traditional then either of the living situations I had experienced so far. The short trip took us to a modest little business that turned out to be a factory for making coconut candy. We were able to taste some of the sweet substance right as it came out from melting and thickening over the fire – it tasted a bit like fudge – and were given the opportunity to buy some. That was the first inkling that I was on a tour that I’d heard been referred to as a “tourist trap”, where the initial cost of the tour is cheap, but all the extras come at an additional cost, and almost every stop along the way tries to sell you something.

The smaller, secluded sections of the Mekong River.

The smaller, secluded sections of the Mekong River.

After we had concluded business at the candy factory, our tour guide fetched a hessian bag, reached inside and produced a snake from within the depths of the sack, immediately offering it to individuals in the group to pose with it and take photos. Luckily I had faced and conquered my fear of snakes back in Bangkok, otherwise my reaction to the surprise might have been extremely embarrassing. On the contrary, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the reptile – or to be more accurate, to get the reptile around my shoulders. I thought back to the fearless little ten-year-old boy I had been when I visited the Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo in Queensland, itching to get my photo taken with the huge python, and realised that I’d come full circle again. I didn’t even flinch as the tour guide draped the snake over my shoulders and looped it around my neck.

Getting friendly with the locals.

Getting friendly with the locals.

After the reptilian meet-and-greet, we jumped on another larger boat and headed down and across the river to another town named Ben Tre. We had lunch at an elephant fish ear farm – large flat fish that resemble their namesake. However, that particular delicacy was another tourist trap that wasn’t included in the price of the tour, though I’m not a huge fan of fish and was able to settle with tour included beef and rice dish. I sat at a table with two couples – a pair of British 27-year-olds taking their annual holiday, and another retired British couple who now lived on the Sunshine Coast in Australia. They were all very nice and interesting to talk to, although I’d been hoping I might meet some more people like myself, solo travellers or backpackers. Groups and couples tend to already have their itineraries firmly set out, so I just had to enjoy their company for the day before writing them off as what Tyler Durden would call “single serving friends”.

Photo on the larger boat, taken by my new temporary friends.

Photo on the larger boat, taken by my new temporary friends.

View of the wider part of the river from our larger boat.

View of the wider part of the river from our larger boat.

Pool of elephant ear fish at the farm.

Pool of elephant ear fish at the farm.

The last stop of the tour was the centre of the town, where there was a temple complex with several pagodas and statues of Buddha. I hadn’t gotten around to visiting a similar site in Saigon, so I was glad to be able to make up for it here instead, though the more I saw of South East Asia, the more similarities I began to see in all these temples and monuments. Which doesn’t make them any less holy or worthy of reverence – it just means you can’t spend quite as long marvelling in awe at them when you saw that temples bigger cousin in a different city. Overall, my day tour on the Mekong River was pretty average. I guess being a day tour it was obviously going to feel a little rushed, but there was nothing particularly amazing or breathtaking about it. Although it was nice to get out of the city and see some more the of the country of Vietnam, no matter how briefly.

Happy Buddha!

Happy Buddha!

One of the more solemn shrines at the temple.

One of the more solemn shrines at the temple.

***

That trip happened during the middle of my week in Vietnam. To stick to my river theme and spare you from any more river references in my blog titles, I’m going to throw chronology to the wind even further and tell the short story of my departure from Ho Chi Minh City…

After a slow day of recovery from my last night in Saigon, I hopped on an overnight bus towards the riverside town of Chau Doc. Not wanting to travel all the way to Cambodia via bus, I had decided to split the trip up by traveling to a border town on the Mekong River, staying there for a night or two, and then catching a boat up the river to Phnom Penh. It wasn’t as cheap as a bus, but I figured it would be a great way to see some more of the countryside, as well as being one of those rare opportunities to listen to Lonely Island’s I’m On A Boat and giggle smugly to yourself at the accuracy of the content.

Though for all the research I had put into transportation, I hadn’t bothered to investigate too much into the town of Chau Doc itself. Crawling off the bus at 5:30am, I was unimpressed (mainly with myself) to find myself alone in a tiny riverside town, where hardly anyone spoke English, at a time where hardly anything was open. “Cheap hostel,” I managed to convey to a motorbike taxi, and we roamed the streets for about 20 minutes, moving from closed hotel to closed hotel. Eventually I gave up and repeated “boat” while pointing at an address in the Lonely Planet guide, and my taxi driver seemed to figure out what I wanted. I found myself sitting at a dock on the river, half asleep while I waited for the world itself to wake.

The town of Chau Doc in the grey light of dawn.

The town of Chau Doc in the grey light of dawn.

Despite the dull light of the dawn, my short ride around the city had proved to be very illuminating. There didn’t appear to be any major tourist attractions here, and the level of English speaking locals seemed to be at a concerning low. I could see things going very wrong very quickly in a place like this, and after the bus ride I had just had, it was something I did not want to deal with. In a split second decision I changed my mind, and my stopover in Chau Doc went from a couple of days to a couple of hours, in a couple of seconds.

Setting out as the sun rises.

Setting out as the sun rises.

Luckily there was room on that mornings boat, so after only a couple of hours of being in Chau Doc, I was speeding up the Mekong River to the Cambodian border. My companions for this voyage turned about to be a bunch of Americans from Philadelphia who were doing a tour through South East Asia as part of a masters program. They were all extremely friendly, and they took me under their wing when we went through the border crossing process, which I was thankful for, since this was the first overland border crossing I’d ever done. It’s a feeling of sheer terror handing your passport over and one check point and then not getting it back until the next one. Once we got back on the boat from the Vietnamese exit point, the rest of the Americans had their passports returned, but mine didn’t come back. I knew it must have been because I still had to get my visa, while the others had obtained theirs in advance, but all the same, it’s still an uneasy feeling.

The boat provided some scenic views of rural Cambodia I might not have otherwise seen.

The boat provided some scenic views of rural Cambodia I might not have otherwise seen.

But it all went up without a hitch, and I spent rest of the 6 hour boat ride to Phnom Penh chatting to my new American friends, admiring the rural scenery and nodding in and out of consciousness – to say the least, it had been a very long morning.

“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…