Travel guide and precious backpacker pet, Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia bible, claims: ‘The best way to overcome jet lag and acclimatise is to stay in natural daylight and get stuck in.’ Lonely Planet may well be right, and bless them for their evangelical enthusiasm, but after a whole day trundling from plane to plane, time zone to time zone and embracing Bangkok’s one-way system at rush hour, the only thing I’m getting ‘stuck in’ to is a solid three-hour nap.
Once my body clock stops throwing a hissy fit, Lumphini Park in the billboard-strewn high-rise side of town seems like a less abrasive place to start than infamous Khao San Road, haggler central. (Anyone who has ventured to these parts will be shaking their wise travel heads at this point and muttering ‘oh you fool. You absolute Bangkok beginner. You poor squat toilet-shy amateur’. For there is no such thing as easing yourself in to this capital. The faster you realise that, the more fun and games come knocking.)
I stride through the park on an ice cream hunt and not ten steps in, I’m surrounded.
Monitor lizards. Big ones. Lumphini is swamped with them. One of the few dinosaur descendents the big wipeout forgot to kill. Thailand was left with these mini devils parading nonchalantly through city and countryside, fully aware they could break you with their tiny t-rex jaws if they wanted… England got chickens. I bend down to take a photo of one fellow who is mauling away at a full-size catfish. He stops and squares up to me, no doubt assessing my skirt and flip-flop combo and calculating the relatively little effort it would take to chase, devour and return to camp for catfish dessert. He glowers. Off I peg it, Barney snapping at the heels. Doing an impeccable impression of Marcia Brady fleeing the orthandontists, I crash land on a group of Thai teenagers chilling on the grass with big bowls of ramen. Startled and soup spattered they look at me politely. They are cool in their vintage clothes, sweeping side fringes and Steve Jobs gadgetry. I am sweating.
‘Are you okay?’
‘The dragon,’ I stutter between wheezes. They looks pointedly behind me. Barney has scarpered. Bangkok 1. Traveller 0.
Choosing to treat the whole episode as a Bangkok initiation, I felt equipped to face the rest of the city. Wat Arun is good, you can climb to the top of the temple and have a nose at the whole landscape from on high. Wat Phra Kaew is a blur of gold – giant Buddha statues – and orange, with monks in traditional dress showing visitors round, asking them questions and predicting their life paths. One friend was told he would grow tall and honest. Another that she would be rich by 37 (they’re very precise). After studying my palm and establishing I was born on a Thursday, monk man told me I am clever, will live to be at least 79, and am destined to be screwed over by men. Which was nice.
Following a sign down a side street that says ‘shortcut’ (I imagine I would be easy prey in a Hansel and Gretel scenario) I stumble upon a mai thai sparring session. It’s brutal. Sweat dripping, teeth flying. But they seems to be enjoying it. There are young men and old women hunkered down on plastic stools, eyes glued. One grandmother type is taking bets, presumably on which trainee’s going to die first.
Khao San itself is like Mile End’s Roman Road on crack. Stalls and stalls of clothes, ‘raybrands’, street food and ‘happy’ pizza vendors, with tuk tuk drivers lining the curb, some calling to passers-by, most napping on the back seat. It’s essentially the area for backpackers (there’s genuinely a white guy with dreads, LP guide in hand, smoking a joint, wearing every colour there is and haggling the price of a Bob Marley T-shirt for a good five minutes because 80p is a bit steep). There are also hundreds of bog-standard travellers, local folk, stray dogs and a well-dressed middle-aged couple looking lost.
While walking, tuk tuk drivers kind of pucker their lips at you and make a popping sound, like a jam jar top or a toilet plunger. I have no clue what it means but it’s annoying I can’t do it, so I practise while mosying along. The more I try, the more tuk tuk guardians seems to be paying attention/waking from their catnaps. One smiles and looks over, making the same ‘ppbha ppbha’ sound. I reply back in kind. We’re getting stuck in to this Chuckle Brother-esque sound effect duel when a chortling Swiss guy tugs me on the arm:
‘Sorry, but are you knowing what that noise means?’
‘Ah, well um, have you heard of a Thai ping-pong show?’
‘If a guy puckers up, it means he wants Mr. Tuk tuk to take him to one…’
‘And if a girl does it?’
‘… she, err, wants to be in one.’
Bangkok 2 – Traveller 0.
So, deep fried grass hoppers are a bit of a non event. They just taste of ready salted crisps. As do worms. I tried both one night somewhere between a cultural cruise down the Chao Phraya river, civilised single measure of ‘Jamie’s Son’ in hand, and emerging from a club at four, still loosely gripping my last bucket of Godknowswhat and coke. Maybe it was the previous insect snacks that had got me all blasé, maybe it was the bucket(s). Either way I now know that scorpions, shiny rock hard critters stuffed upright on lolly sticks as if suffering from a severe bout of rigamortis, stand alone in the buggy crusade to wreck your mouth and clog your soul; crunchy salty from antenae to neck, you crush through the body anticipating a similar Walkers experience. It is unexpectedly soft. A mix of grapefruit and burnt rubber hits the tongue. It lingers for the next month. Bangkok 3 – Traveller 0.
The main thing to realise about Thailand’s brain and body-addling capital is that The Hangover 2 is entirely accurate. Beady-eyed Bradley and co. may have a tiny ADHD druglord to contend with, but take away Mr Chow and you’ve got an entirely plausible plot. Jam-packed markets, fried frogs on sticks, dirt and grime, troublingly convincing ladyboys, tuk tuk drivers with death wishes, killer cocktails by the bucket and live snakes fired out of parts of the anatomy designed for much smaller things. Bangkok is a beast. Just shut your eyes and hope it takes the tyedye-clad hipster next to you instead.