Where Not (?) to Stop During a Night in Bangkok

“Wait, I’ve got to snap a photo of this plane,” said my travel partner, Randy, as he fumbled through his crammed backpack. Meanwhile, passengers, weary from their 14-hour flight, marched past us like zombie drones.

After Randy photographed the double-decker 747 that had flown us across the Pacific, we shuffled towards our next gate. Final stop: Bangkok.

Jet-lagged yet joyous at Narita, Japan’s International Airport.
The monster machine that flew us from Detroit to Japan.

But we had a few hours to kill, and being the gluttons that we most certainly are,  delighted in the opportunity to try our first Japanese meal. Our last bite of teriyaki style chicken contained a slight taste of defeat, however, as we learned that greasy, unrewarding food must be universal among airports, even in a culinary capital like Japan.

Nine hours later, we were finally in Bangkok. While I sat with our bags scanning the fluorescent lit, skyscraper-sized airport, Randy chatted with a friendly woman at the information desk to confirm that, despite it being almost 11 p.m., the bus station would indeed be open.

A giant god welcomes you to the grandeur of Bangkok’s airport.

Our plan was to ride a bus all nightlong that would have us rock climbing along the turquoise shores of the Krabi peninsula by morning. So we hailed a cab that whisked us away from Bangkok’s four-story airport, gleaming in the sky like a space station.

Dreaming of our final destination: Railay Beach.

Besides the colorful murals of the half-smiling royal family decorating billboards and facades around every corner, our freeway ride offered little indication that we were in a new and foreign land.

Then we arrived to the bus station.

A few unsavory characters were milling around while street vendors, pedaling rectangular boxes of candy, pastel sticks of gum, neon orange soda, and buns plastered in sesame seeds cupped their chins in their hands, bored with the stiffness of the night.

Underneath a street light stood a small statue of Buddha. A soda with a straw poking out of it and a few cookies and pieces of fruit had been set around The Enlightened One as offerings.

Randy and I walked around the perimeter, hunting for a sign of life in the bus station but the building was dark and deserted.

Then a man in a plain T-shirt and black pants approached us.

“Do you need ride?” the man asked in a hopeful voice.

“Yes!” Randy and I replied with sighs of relief.

Since our efforts to speak Thai thus far brought laughter to the mouths of every Thai person we met, we remained silent while the man communicated in the best English he could muster–a mix of words and hand signals.

As a game of charades ensued between Randy and the man, I began to size up the taxi driver.

Hmm. No uniform; that’s normal for a taxi driver. But at least his car should be marked with some sort of licensing? (This, according to numerous Thailand travel books warning against people posing as taxi drivers who proceed to rob you–or worse–after you’ve jumped in their alleged taxi cab.)

“Can you bring your car to us?” I asked, feeling halfway savvy.

Ten minutes later the man appeared in a dusty, nondescript Toyota. Randy and I looked at each other. “Uhh, no, no, that’s alright. Thank you,” I said as we slowly backed away from the man, who now looked totally perturbed with us.

Unsure if we had given up a perfectly good ride from a now deeply confused man, we spotted a marked taxicab down the street a few minutes later, and wasted no time.

But alas, we had committed a travel foul: we hadn’t planned to stay the night in Bangkok and had no hotel names to offer our driver. So now it was our turn to play the charade game. Finally the taxi driver nodded. We hoped he was taking us to a hotel.

I’m pretty sure this drafty, moldy hotel, located in a seedy, smelly, albeit intriguing area of the city, is where the cab driver sends all his favorite (ie: annoying) late-night customers.

After checking in and paying for a safety deposit box for my laptop, primarily to prevent the rats from running off with it, we were stoked to discover the hotel’s restaurant was still open. We walked into a dimly lit room with a small dessert case and tables dressed in paper cloth.

The restaurant staff–a middle-aged woman leaning against the dessert case, and an older man dozing off in a chair with his arms folded– shot us glum looks (perhaps because the same servers and cooks working in the hotel at 2 that morning, I soon would discover, were also there at 2 p.m.). This seemed to be the reality for all the hotel’s employees. I thought back to when we had arrived to the hotel less than an hour ago. A small, black-haired woman, with a starched white shirt and polished high heels must have been standing at the front desk for countless hours before she greeted us. And she would be there when we woke up the next morning.

Perhaps this is because I am a glutton, as I mentioned before, but I think one of the highlights of Thailand is food. I mean you can rarely go wrong; what doesn’t taste good when it’s cooked in curry and coconut milk? Not surprisingly, our first meal in Thailand was no disappointment. After devouring some velvety coconut soup, slippery hot red curry noodles, and a frothy pineapple, orange and rum cocktail, we were ready. Despite it being 3 a.m., our hearts were thudding wildly for this new and exotic land.

We walked outside to hail a cab and I noticed clusters of people sleeping up and down the streets as far as my eyes could see. Illuminated by the streetlights was a long, dark canal that snaked through the city. It was strewn with trash.

“Ding, ding!” chirped an auto rickshaw. Before I could hail one of the zooming buggies, Randy had, unfortunately, gotten the attention of a regular old cab.

“Can you take us to a bar; a place where we can have a drink?” Randy asked the driver as he made a drink-guzzling type of motion. What else were we going to do at 3 a.m.?

The man looked at us blankly for a moment and then nodded. We zipped through winding streets lined with shadowy storefronts and extravagant bronze Buddha statues, some wrapped in plastic for the night, and then arrived to a plain grey building.

“What is this?” I asked

“It’s bar,” the driver said matter-of-factly.

Randy and I exchanged uneasy glances and were about to ask the driver for a return trip to the roach hotel when a group of laughing, inebriated 20-somethings stumbled out of the bar. As the door swung open, heavy bass escaped the concrete building.

I turned to Randy and shrugged. “Guess that’s as good a sign as any.”

But after we entered the seemingly innocuous bar and ordered two overpriced cocktails, we noticed some odd things about the place. First off, we were the only couple in the entire building. And, all of the women were dressed in very similar attire, with just a little variation: skimpy mini skirts, low-cut tops and spike high-heeled boots. I picked my jaw up off the floor as I watched a woman who looked to be about 18,  donned in fishnets, a leather mini skirt and a tube top, grasp a man’s hand and lead him through a door in the back of the “bar.”

As sounds of giggling females filled the air, a glass door in the corner covered in brown paper flung open and more svelte long-haired ladies skidded onto the dance floor. Some coyly snickered, gyrating their tiny frames from side to side, gripping the poles to seduce an audience of men, who were each glued to their every move. But the women weren’t disrobing; they were on display for their audience.

In the corner of the bar stood an old woman with a grey bun pulled taut on the back of her head, she kept her arms tightly folded as she supervised the young women with a scowl, while a beady-eyed middle-aged man in a dark navy suit with slicked-back hair advised a table of young men.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I mean you hear about this stuff all the time, but when you see it in person it’s surreal, and definitely a little sad. Mostly, I was just shocked at how young all the women looked. Randy and I, both aware of the “bar’s” true purpose, shared a few incredulous laughs as we watched the women prey upon men awed by their presence. We decided a nice surprise for some of these sleazy men might be to unwittingly take home a lady-boy.

The women’s bathroom was like being at a high school dance. To get to the sink, I waded through a small sea of giggling ladies painting crimson onto their pouted lips. When I returned, Randy shot me a knowing stare.

“I think it might be time to go,” he said.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Well, since we’re not buying anything… I get the feeling we gotta leave.”

Sure enough, the man in the dark navy suit had propositioned Randy, asking him if he saw anything that he liked? How much money he’d like to spend? Well…?

Welcome to Bangkok.

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