On my first night in Thailand, I drank a Chang beer inside of a loud, top 40s dance club along Khao San Road surrounded by westerners. I had discarded my plastic 7-Eleven poncho on a chair as I took shelter from the rain. Despite the torrential downpour, I couldn’t help but smile as I gazed out at a sea of shirtless backpackers dancing in the middle of the street. This was a crowd equipped with enough fanny packs and Chacos to fill an REI flagship store. A horde of revelry to behold as people joyfully splashed in puddles, soaking up their cheap liquor and a newfound sense of freedom. At long last, I had arrived. Thailand, and Khao San Road specifically, is the promised land of gringo trails, a backpackers district so steeped in legendary folklore that I imagine even the writers of Lonely Planet sometimes roll their eyes. On KSR, you’ll find street vendors not just peddling Pad Thai and pork fried rice, but also scorpions on sticks and piles of large, roasted crickets. Storefronts flaunt baggy elephant pants of all shapes and sizes and attractive Thai girls coax the curious passerby inside for a massage. And, of course, Thailand’s infamous sex tourism weaves itself into any frenetic KSR Party scene as “ladyboys” lounge on the periphery of the street’s many watering holes, strategically waiting for the debauchery to escalate until the right moment.
In this party-fueled euphoria, it’s easy to neglect some important facts. One might forget that Thailand is under military rule. After its 2014 military coup, the ruling government has increased the repression of dissidents, forced media outlets to censor content, and restricted freedom of expression and assembly. A 2016 article in The Diplomat called the current junta the strictest military regime Thailand has seen since the 1970s. It’s also easy to avoid asking why the rule of law is applied so unevenly. Why are certain bars granted concessions and others not? Why are police raids selective? In my travels, I soon recognized that Thai businesses regularly navigate a complicated gray space of de jure and de facto regulations. And one can conveniently confuse the warm, gentle spirit of the Thai people as an exclusive feature of the culture rather than a product of the quiet submission demanded from an increasingly sensitive monarchy. These facts can leave any visitor confounded, and I wanted to find out more.
But let me first set the record straight. During my two weeks in Thailand, out of both genuine curiosity and personal interest, I definitely followed the predictable backpackers’ trail like so many before me. There is no doubt that I participated in much of what any fanny pack toting, tank-top rocking, party-hungry traveler would do in Thailand. I stayed up until sunrise, I danced on white sand beaches, I splashed mud over rescued elephants. Hell, I even took selfies looking downright joyful. And guess what? I did genuinely have a blast. But I also tried to inch closer to understanding the political realities that Thai people grapple with every day. These were conversations that happened in smoky bars, rainy food stands, rattling motorbikes. Sure, I wasn’t off diligently taking notes on the military junta while surrounded by drunk Australians swaying to trance music. But I also never quite turned my brain off. While imperfect, this series of blog posts about Thailand hopes to capture these realities. Given the sheer length of each section, I’ve decided to divide them into three separate installments. The first will cover Bangkok, the second Koh Pha Ngan, and the third Chiang Mai. My goal is to post both the Koh Pha Ngan and Chiang Mai posts by the end of September. But I’m also taking a sleeper bus to the northern Vietnamese hinterlands tonight so plans can be malleable.
Part I: Arriving in the City of Hustle and Bustle
Bangkok is the natural starting point for any major trip to Southeast Asia. It serves as a hub for the region’s air traffic and recently surpassed Paris and London as the top international tourist destination in the world. It boasts an urban landscape that can at once feel intensely modern and nostalgically traditional. It’s always a rare experience to wander through a sea of ancient Buddhist pagodas only to take the Metro several stops to nearby Silom where you stumble onto the set of Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner. After grabbing my metro pass at the airport, I boarded the airport train for Khao San Road, where I would be staying for two nights. As I approached Bangkok’s urban core, I began to sense the endless sprawl of the city. The train glided along for an hour, passing massive shopping malls, enormous metro stations, and high rise cranes.
After failing to navigate the bus system, I opted for a Grab taxi, the Uber of Southeast Asia. I was soon dropped at Back Home Backpackers, a Hostelworld favorite located on the edge of Khao San Road and ground zero for the famed party scene. I had rationalized my stay in this section of the city through a “participatory ethnography” standpoint. Sure, I planned to boogie hard and imbibe all the things, but I also would be quietly keeping tabs while doing so. Despite my jetlagged exhaustion, I downed some extraordinarily cheap iced Americanos and roamed the streets consuming fish balls and mystery protein sticks. As the skies darkened, I began to feel the insufferable humidity that Southeast Asia is notorious for. I continued meandering through Bangkok’s lush canals and quiet alleyways but was soon drenched in sweat. The arrival of the rain offered a welcome reprieve. I was grateful to rest, read, and eat a mountain of yellow curry as gusty torrents battered the rooftops outside. It was a quiet and blissful travel moment where mother nature rescued me from the frenzied chaos of the city streets.
Regardless, I soon realized that the rain was not going to stop and this budding cultural anthropologist only had two nights in the KSR. Since I had arranged to see my friend Norvell on my second evening, I had to seize the opportunity and hit the main drag of the world’s most infamous backpacking street that night. I overcame my jetlagged exhaustion and headed out with a fellow dorm-mate from Holland. I won’t dive into the juicy details, but we wandered down wet alleys in search of reggae bars, drank sweet cocktails with a Korean birthday girl, and ravenously wolfed down pad thai at 1:30 in the morning. Over this steaming plate of noodles, my Dutch companion waxed poetic about his time in Thailand and was impressed by the country’s affordability. I’ll admit that the details of that conversation are now hazy, but I got his point. Thailand offers any Westerner an easy plug-and-play experience, and at a painfully cheap price. Despite newly imposed regulations designed to clean up the KSR, it continues to serve as an indispensable destination for the backpacker bucket list. I rested easy knowing that I had crossed it off mine.
I’ll admit that I struggled to find my rhythm in Bangkok. This was partially due to my accommodations which were divided between a Couchsurfer homestay and the bumping Back Home Backpackers. And it was also due to the scale of the city and the few days I had to explore. I figured I would go full tourist on my first day. After a somewhat disappointing tuk-tuk ride to underwhelming tourist sites, the driver dropped me at Bangkok’s primary tourist attraction: The Grand Palace. Surrounded by gleaming tour buses and a maze of security cordons, I snaked my way through the dense sea of selfie sticks and gawking travelers. Virtually every photograph I have features someone else in it. But it was still impressive. As can be the case across Thailand, the peaceful destinations of our imaginations soon clash with the reality of dense crowds. After moving through the madness, I shifted off the main drag and ended up in a quaint cafe to decompress.
I had two Couchsurfing experiences in Bangkok. The first was with Mossy, a cheerful, budding photographer with a knack for shooting film and meeting foreigners to practice his English. We had resolved to meet somewhere outside of KSR, so I ventured through my second rainy evening and clambered onto a dingy bus headed to Monument Square. Mossy took me to a small noodle shop beneath the metro where over pork and spicy broth, we chatted about the Thailand of tourists. I milked him for recommendations on next travel steps and laid out my interest in exploring Thailand’s famed beaches. Unlike Istanbul, I was now freestyling with my travel itinerary and had no set plans outside of a flight to Hanoi in mid-September. Mossy suggested some of the islands on the West Coast for rock climbing, but also pointed out that the rains were unpredictable.
Mossy and I boarded a bus for Silom where we rendezvoused with my old HI Boston colleague Norvell. After successfully dodging offers to attend Thailand’s infamous ping pong shows (research at your own discretion), we settled for a quieter bar a street over. For nearly a year, Norvell had been teaching English at a government school about 45 minutes outside of Bangkok, and needless to say, the experience had proved challenging. Despite his initial excitement to be in Thailand, his enthusiasm dampened after witnessing an education system steeped in rote memorization and unpredictable school cancellations. These “Sign In Days” interrupted his instruction and left him demoralized. Norvell faulted these problems on broader patterns in a Thai culture that emphasized submissiveness over critical thinking, with the former deeply integrated into the Thai education system.
There never seems to be a good time to broach the political in Thailand, and with Mossy already gone, I figured this was it. And while Norvell was an expat endowed with an outsider’s privilege, I knew his experiences working in government schools would be illuminating. So I dove in. The first key political takeaway was that the monarchy was off limits. They were to be praised and never criticized. To this day, it continues to be forbidden to critically discuss Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun and any alleged criticism is punishable with nearly 15 years in prison. Moreover, Amnesty International has reported that the government has pressured Facebook, Google, and Youtube to remove content from its sites deemed critical of the monarchy. In one extreme case, a man was sentenced for 35 years for insulting his highness.
My second question circled around the ambiguous relationship between the military and the monarchy. While Thailand has been in the throes of military rule, I would soon learn that Thai people felt more comfortable speaking about the military than the monarchy. After conversations with locals (which I will discuss in later blog posts), I suspect that many Thai didn’t seem particularly upset by the coup. Pitched as a cleanup crew, Thailand’s ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has embraced laws that are intended to root out corruption but also punish dissenters. The latter is pursued through Article 112 of the penal code, the “lèse-majesté provision”, which has been used to jail those that criticize the monarchy. Although Norvell was unsure, I suspected that the NCPO used heavy-handed laws like Article 112 to not only protect the monarchy but also quash dissent towards the military’s own policies. Our conversation, which soon turned to more cheerful topics, left me intrigued.
On Wednesday, I began my second Couchsurfing experience with Jay, a quiet, thirty-something IT worker living near the Phahon Yothin stop of the MRT Blue Line. Jay was gracious enough to host me for my last two nights in Bangkok. He also had the brilliant idea of cooking our dinner rather than braving the rains in search of food. After we whipped up a concoction of tofu, vegetable, and peanut butter noodles (I swear it tasted better than it sounds), we chatted about a range of topics. Perhaps it was Jay’s reserved demeanor or my status as his guest, but I felt uneasy about bringing up political issues with him. So instead I opted to chat about our shared travel and Couchsurfing experiences. We also dove into our favorite music and he provided some suggestions on island adventures. Much to my surprise, he recommended visiting Koh Pha Ngan.
My final day in Bangkok was spent wandering and eating. After a visit to the Jim Thompson house, I lost track of time on a long, refreshing WhatsApp call with a dear friend in Lumphini Park while monitor lizards swam by. Then, I met with another American transplant who had recently begun teaching at an International School. We feasted on some insanely good chicken and explored Bangkok’s fancier neighborhood of Ekkamai. Hip nitro cold brew coffee shops abutted expat-themed restaurants with names like Bourbon Street. I also stopped in Thailand’s version of Wal Mart, the Big C, for a rejuvenating breath of corporate capitalism. I concluded my final evening with drinks with Norvell and Jay. In the taxi ride home, I felt more than ready to venture out of Bangkok’s hectic atmosphere. The sweaty metro rides, the daunting sprawl, and the choking car exhaust had sapped my energy. It was time to move south to one of Thailand’s more remote and infamous locations: Koh Pha Ngan.