Bangkok

Bangkok, Thailand – April 21 to May 2, 2006

The sights, sounds and smells of Chakapong Road spill into the ground-level breakfast buffet lounge of Sawasdee Khaosan Inn. Humid air, laden with vehicle exhaust. The noise of tuk-tuks, tour buses, honking taxis and the muffled, multilingual exchanges of Thais and tourists crowding the sidewalk. An overwhelming mélange of smells—delicious aromas of good food muddied by the stink of diesel fumes, garbage and sewage.

I stab a wedge of fresh pineapple with my fork and savor the sweet, juicy fruit as I scan the bustling street for my fishing guides. An emotional nine days of traveling alone in this foreign megacity are behind me. My disposition has drastically improved, for today I’m going fishing and tomorrow I get to leave this place and return to Perth…to my friends, to a familiar culture, to a place where I won’t feel lost, lonely and insecure. I pour warm, ultra-pasteurized milk over a bowl of corn flakes and shovel scrambled eggs with shredded ham into my mouth while the cereal gets soggy.

FishThailand founder Eddie Mounce greets me in the hotel lobby after breakfast. I hand him a pre-counted wad of Thai Baht and hop in the van. Mr. King expertly navigates the chaotic Bangkok traffic while Eddie answers my inquiries about the fishing and his story of moving from England to start a fishing guide business in Thailand. Mr. King drops us off at Bungsamran Fishing Park and, loaded up with fishing gear, Eddie and I walk the docks with Mr. Alley to one of the fishing bungalows.

Mr. Alley sets to work mixing water, corn flakes and other “secret ingredients” together in the five-gallon pail. My fishing bait today will consist of baseball-sized balls of this doughy mixture, formed around a big hook and suspended under a float. My first cast plops the bait into the twenty-acre manmade pond. Eddie hands me a fishing belt—a device that provides a rest for the butt of the rod, making reeling in lots of large fish more comfortable—and I secure it around my waist.

I scarcely have time to take in my surroundings before a fish takes the bait. I set the hook and nestle the rod butt into the belt. The fish is heavy and it rips line off the reel at will. The fish stays deep, but after twenty grueling minutes of reeling and rod-pumping my first Thai fish comes into view. The enormous catfish splashes its broad tail in the water beneath me while Eddie assists with expert skill, securing my first Mekong Giant Catfish within a long-handled net. He hoists the fish onto the dock and we weigh it. At just over 30 pounds it beats my previous largest fish by more than 20 pounds. Eddy snaps a picture with my disposable camera, then gently releases the fish.

Alley buries my hook in a new dough ball and I cast the line back out. Again the wait is short and I find myself hooked into another brutish fish. It fights similarly to the previous fish, but this Giant Mekong Catfish weighs in at 40 pounds. Eddie takes pictures of me holding this fish in a few different poses and then we let it go.

By the third cast I understand why Bungsamran is touted as one of the most prolific fishing venues in the world. I also realize that I’m not going to get much of a rest as long as there is a bait in the water. I reel in my third fish of the hour, which is smaller but fights with more spunk. After Eddie nets it he warns me that the pectoral spines are sharp on this fish, which he calls a Striped Catfish. It looks a lot like the Giant Mekong Catfish, but I do notice some subtle differences. We snap photographs and weigh the fish—23 pounds. Eddie turns on a fan, but it has minimal cooling effect. The tropical sun is well above the horizon now and the temperature is pushing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I am sweating profusely.

I spend the morning reeling in gigantic catfish, one-after-another, ranging from 16 to 45 pounds. By noon my back aches and my hands have blisters. Eddie calls in for lunch and the three of us take a break to eat in the shade, lines out of the water. The chicken, rice and vegetable dish is delicious. I watch small fish, probably tilapia, swimming near the surface of the water around the boardwalk pilings. I think about asking if I can try fishing for one, to add another new species. But in this pond, where Mekong Giant Catfish and Siamese Carp can exceed 100 or even 200 pounds, I decide to invest my remaining time in full pursuit of more monster fish.

The high afternoon sun is oppressively hot but the fish continue to bite. I hook into the largest fish yet, another Giant Mekong Catfish, but when I battle it in close it runs under the boardwalk. The line gets snagged up in the pilings and I have to be careful not to break it. Mr. Alley takes the rod and with a blend of luck and skill, is able to free the line. Once the fish is back in open water he hands me the rod and I resume the battle. Finally, Eddie nets it. This fish weighs in at an even 50 pounds. It would be my largest fish of the day.

At 3:00 pm it is time to pack up and I, thoroughly exhausted, am just fine with that. My tally on the day is 11 Giant Mekong Catfish and 5 Striped Catfish. With the average size of my fish exceeding 30 pounds, I calculate I landed approximately 500 pounds on the day. As I reel in the line for the last time I sense that Eddie and Mr. Alley are mildly disappointed on my behalf, for I did not catch a true giant from Bungsamran, of the kind that are too large to bring onto the dock so you have to wade into the water with the fish. But having never before fished outside of Minnesota or Wisconsin, I am more than pleased with what has been my greatest day of fishing yet.

Mekong Giant Catfish
Mekong Giant Catfish

My Thailand trip has grown on me.

I have been fortunate to travel extensively. I would characterize essentially all of my other major trips as fun adventures, usually involving good friends, excellent dining, beautiful scenery, and lots of fishing and other outdoorsy recreation. For various reasons, my Thailand trip was markedly different…

It would be misleading to say I didn’t enjoy parts of the trip, but I did spend a good chunk of my Thai time holed up in my hotel room, waiting desperately for the days to tick away so I could escape back to Australia (where I was midway through a study abroad term at Curtin University in Perth). In contrast to my other travel experiences I felt a lot of vulnerability, loneliness, boredom, anxiety, fear, and even panic in Bangkok. I had gone into the trip unprepared for navigating a city of 8 million people, which I found disorienting. I was also effectively broke, able to afford a hotel room and meals and not much else. This limited my ability to travel outside of Bangkok or participate in tours. Also influential in how I experienced the trip was that I happened to be suffering a severe sore-throat and persistent head-cold. It’s not much fun to be miserably ill when you’re alone abroad.

Despite not feeling well, I made a good effort to get out and do stuff on my first day. My hotel was near Khao San Road—one of the most touristy areas in Bangkok. Khao San Road is a pedestrian-only street packed with vendors and serving as a hub for tour sales and transportation. It was impossible to walk without constantly being approached by vendors aggressively peddling tours, food, transportation, sex, messages, souvenirs, jewelry, clothing, electronics, art, fortune-telling, dancing lessons…you-name-it. It was intimidating and exhausting saying “no thanks” over and over and over. I picked a direction and went for a walk, which led me past the Democracy Monument, then the Giant Swing and Wat Suthat, through a small park with little ponds, and to the Royal Palace. Dress pants are required to enter the Royal Palace, and I was wearing shorts, so I couldn’t enter.

From there, I decided to ride along with persuasive tuk-tuk driver for a reasonable price. The heat and heavy traffic exhaust made me feel sicker, but I went along on the city tour and we made several stops at a few of Bangkok’s 440-some temples (including the Marble Temple) and a couple of Buddha statues. At each stop I was given some time to explore and take pictures. At one stop he led me down an ally to the Lucky Buddha shrine, where I was directed to light an incense stick for good luck. It was novel and interesting enough, but then my driver began taking me to various tailor and jewelry shops. I did not intend to buy anything, but apparently he would receive a gas coupon from the proprietors if I bought stuff. All I wanted was to go back to my hotel room and rest, but having no idea where I was in relation to my hotel I was at the mercy of my driver’s whims. After several more shop stops (where I had to go through the rigmarole of getting fitted for suits before disappointing each proprietor (“Do you not like it? What is wrong with it? It’s a very good price! Highest quality material. Free shipping to your home!”). In truth, most of the stuff actually did seem like a really good deal, but I just wasn’t in the market for such apparel.

The driver made one more stop. A travel company. While I hadn’t necessarily had a bad day, I felt that I’d gotten my fill of the big city and already wanted to get out of the hustle-and-bustle. I didn’t want to spend the next eight full days just walking around and taking tuk-tuks to more temples. So I caved to the sales pressure (as well as the pretty pictures and reasonable price) and purchased a five-day trip to Ko Samui—an absolute dreamscape of a tropical island located in the southern part of the country (I already had my first three nights booked at Sawasdee Khaosan Inn, so the Ko Samui trip would’ve been for days 5-9 of the trip).

When finally I was returned to Khao San Road I bought bottled water, throat lozenges, a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter from a 7/11 and retreated to my hotel room to scarf down my super-basic dinner. It was only 4:00 p.m. I turned on the TV and selected a European soccer game for the comfort of hearing spoken English and then came the flood of thoughts.

The Ko Samui trip sounded very nice, but I had no wiggle room for error. I did not have much credit, and the funds in my checking account were limited. Ko Samui was an eleven-hour bus ride from Bangkok, and I did not have clear instructions for transportation back to Bangkok. I knew it probably would be fine, but suddenly probably didn’t seem good enough. If I somehow missed my already-paid-for return bus ride or otherwise became stranded on the other end of the country, I might not have enough money to return to Bangkok. And if I got delayed and missed my flight back to Perth, I’d really have been in trouble. Without knowing a word of Thai and various connections of buses and ferries, miscommunication or making some other mistake and failing to catch my ride back seemed more than plausible. Also, I was starting to experience bathroom issues and the idea of an 11-hour bus ride across Thailand with a bad case of the shits horrified me.

So, I had essentially talked myself out of going to Ko Samui. Problem was, I didn’t have a room booked in Bangkok for nights four through ten and no longer had sufficient funds to stay. I felt pretty stupid, and I felt trapped. Alone in the concrete box of my simple hotel room I turned the TV off, sat cross-legged  in the middle of the tiled floor and cried in the dark. What the hell was I going to do?

I regretted even coming to Thailand. I had impulsively bought airfare to Bangkok just ten days previously, after my Aussie mates decided to just hang around campus for Easter Break. I wanted to do more! I had an excellent time solo-traveling in New Zealand, and thought I could handle myself. I probably would’ve been fine, but this trip just hadn’t been planned out and I really didn’t have adequate money. But it was far cheaper to access Thailand from Perth than from the United States, so I forced the adventure. Regardless of whether I regretted or not, I was in Thailand though. I was alone in a small room in a huge Asian city, thousands of miles from anyone that I knew, left to deal with the consequences of my (series of) misguided decisions. I didn’t know it then, but as I write this in 2018, twelve years later, that evening of high anxiety is one of my more frequently revisited memories. I appreciate it now as an opportunity for personal growth, a lesson learned, and a story to tell.

I took some deep, shaky breaths and began to formulate a plan. I dislike relying on others to bail me out of a jam, especially one I’m fully responsible for getting myself into, but I decided my first option was to ask my dad to lend me some money. If I could get in touch with him soon enough and he could deposit money in my account, I would stay in Bangkok. If I didn’t hear back from him by the evening before my trip, I would go to Ko Samui. Despite the lingering stress of uncertainty, I felt a lot better having laid out a plan.

I took a shower, which was interesting because there wasn’t a separate shower basin in my small bathroom. Just a showerhead in the wall between the sink and toilet, with a drain in the middle of floor. I brushed my teeth, using bottled water to rinse, and read for a while bit before sleeping. I remember having vivid dreams that night.

On my second full day in Bangkok I ate at the hotel breakfast buffet and then paid a small fee to use a computer. I sent my dad an email requesting help. I also wrote and mailed some admittedly whiny postcards to family and friends in the States and Australia. I was too anxious to hang around the hotel so I hit the streets on another walk. This time I was determined to wander the city on foot and avoid the tuk-tuks and their shop gimmicks. By walking I could also better orient myself and take in the sights, sounds, and smells.

A tuk-tuk driver approached me on the sidewalk and I declined. He persisted. What haven’t you seen? I can take you there! I can give you the cheapest price! You don’t want to walk. Come on, let’s go. He grabbed my shirt as I walked away and a local man approached, said something to him, and the driver gave up. The guy introduced himself (I’ll refer to him as “Sam”) and offered to walk with me around town. I asked how much and he said no cost; he was offering to do this for free. I anticipated that he’d expect a tip, but I was fine with that and agreed to join him. If nothing else, his company was a ward against the persistent hawkers and we were able to traverse the city with little interruption. He spoke good English, was well-educated, and turned out to be a friendly and informative tour guide. Consequently, I was able to see a lot of things in the city that I would have missed had I been alone. Plus, his company kept my mind of the pending Ko Samui decision.

First we went to a Hindu temple, where I admired statues of Vishnu, Shiva, and Ganesa. Sam directed me to remove my shoes and we tied cloths on our heads. We then went upstairs to the prayer chamber. I would have been uncomfortable trying to access that area on my own, but we were welcomed.

Next we walked to the markets in Chinatown. Sam complained about rich Indian and Chinese businessmen coming in and overwhelming local Thai businesses, and explained that the reason many of the buildings in the city were half-finished was because construction was abandoned after the Asian financial crisis of 1997.

Perusing the Chinatown markets was among my favorite experiences of the entire trip. That’s mostly because I got a look at many whole fishes laid out for sale, including many species that I had never seen or even heard of before. There were also lots of vegetables and fruits that I found mysterious. The smells were very interesting.

We walked along the Chao Phraya River, where I took some pictures, and Sam insisted that there were three things I needed to try before I left. Thai beer, Thai food, Thai lady, he said, counting on his fingers. I took him up on the first two, and explained I had a girlfriend back in Australia. He just laughed and shook his head.

Sam led me to a hole-in-the-wall diner, which he claimed had cheaper prices and more authentic food. It was where the locals ate, and not many tourists. We were the only patrons. He was right in that the food was both delicious and inexpensive. The staff didn’t speak English so Sam did the ordering, and it seemed to me that he ordered some of everything on the menu. We had an appetizer of steamed vegetables with noodles, a spicy sea-food soup with (at least) shrimp and chunks of fish, and a tofu and noodle dish that I was too full to eat. We drank Singha Beer, which came by the liter. I only wanted one but Sam ordered me a second when I finished the first, so I drank it slowly to avoid him ordering me a third. Sam, however, polished off at least four bottles over a couple hours of sitting there over dinner. By then it was dark out and I was ready to head back to the hotel, but Sam said Americans eat too fast and need to slow down and enjoy life. I believe in that advice, and it’s something I still work on, but he was getting emotional as he recounted his life history. I was also feeling buzzed and struggled to understand his slurred speech through the Khmer music playing from a jukebox. Finally, he called for the check.

I was happy to pay the tab. Sam had been a good guide and friend throughout the day, and it was well worth the expense. Except the restaurant didn’t accept cards and I didn’t have enough cash with me. Sam offered to wait at the restaurant while I went to an ATM, which was not conveniently close. A staff member put on his helmet and directed me to jump on his motorbike with him. I awkwardly hopped on the bike, inadequate for two people, and clung to him like a monkey as we sped between lanes of the braiding, chaotic city traffic. I saw a blur of headlights, taillights, and streetlamps. Heard the buzz of engines and honking. I expected to hit the pavement at any moment. It was a terrifying ride. When we reached an ATM I withdrew enough cash to pay the tab, plus some extra. I survived the return ride and settled the bill. Sam escorted me back to Khao San Road, where we bid each other farewell and good luck.

I had an email from my dad. He would deposit money in my account the following day. I took a shower and flipped between BBC news and a soccer game before falling asleep.

I slept in on my third morning before wandering downstairs for the breakfast buffet and booked my stay there through the duration of my trip. I spent most of the day reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, partly to kill time without spending money and partly because it’s such an enthralling book. Between reading sessions I channel surfed with disinterest. I was finally starting to buck my cold, but I still felt isolated, bored and somewhat ashamed of myself for being irresponsible and wasting money. I started second-guessing my decision to stay in the city. I had come to Thailand for adventure, after all, aspiring to experience a whole new country. But there I laid in bed, experiencing four concrete walls of a small hotel room, frittering time away with books and TV. I could have done the same without leaving Australia, without wasting so much money.

That evening I finally ventured outside and walked to the Chao Phraya River. I found a nice little park at Phrasumaine Fortress where people were doing group aerobic exercises, and I even joined in with them for a few minutes. I watched the river traffic for a while and took in the breeze off the water until sunset. Noisy insects buzzed in the trees overhead. Once it got dark I strolled through Khao San Road, decided on some falafel from a street vendor for dinner, and returned to my room to watch the movie Anchorman.

My fourth morning was a repeat – breakfast, reading and watching movies to pass the morning away. In the late afternoon I went for a long walk. I crossed one of the bridges and wandered through a far less-touristy part of the city, which was refreshing because the people I saw were going about their own business without targeting me with sales pitches. I made my way upriver to the Rama 8 Bridge and sat underneath it, near the water’s edge, for a long, pensive while. Sitting there in the breeze was calming, and gradually I began to feel alive, adventurous, and appreciative of my surroundings. I felt happy, pigeons strutting around by my feet, watching the swirling brown waters of the Chao Phraya. There I sat, chilling alone in a tiny corner of the world so far away from home, and that was okay. For the first time on the trip I felt totally peaceful.

It dawned on me that seeing the world is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to travel. I’d come hoping to explore Thailand, but I realized then that so much about travel is exploring yourself. It didn’t matter if I was in Bangkok, Perth, Minnesota, or outer space. No matter where I went or what happened to me I would still be me and I understood then that attitude is more influential to the flavor of any experience than any external factor. There’s not much between despair and ecstasy…regardless of your circumstances, it’s essentially a matter of choice.

As I walked across the Rama 8 Bridge a storm approached. I stopped at the apex and looked downriver, with the invigorating wind in my face, and enjoyed the sunset. Lightning flashed in the distance and I could smell the rain in the air as I made my way back to Khao San Road. By then the sky had darkened considerably. Instead of retiring to my hotel room I stood outside and let the cool deluge pour down and soak me. I found the sound of those heavy tropical raindrops drilling the corrugated metal roofs delightful and I just smiled. Feeling refreshed, I eventually went inside and toweled off. I watched the movie Anaconda as the storm raged through the night.

Having settled down, determined to make the best of my trip, I went to a travel shop the next morning and bought a ticket for a day trip to the old Thai capital city of Ayutthaya for the following day. I also perused a book store and picked up the book Bangkok 8, a fictional novel set in Bangkok which I finished before the end of my trip. That afternoon I wandered through a new part of the city and spent a few hours exploring an art museum. I also booked my day of fishing with FishThailand for the final day of the trip, and I finished reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince that evening.

The Ayutthaya day trip was great. I met fellow travelers, mostly Europeans and Japanese, in the tour van. Our first stop was a square-based Burmese-style temple somewhere along the highway. We took fifteen minutes for photos and then visited Ayutthaya, starting with the royal palace. Our tour guides explained the history of Ayutthaya in English. The Ayutthaya Kingdom lasted from the mid 1300’s through 1767, when it was sacked and burned by the Burmese and abandoned shortly thereafter (the Wikipedia page has great information if you’re interested in learning more). The ruins of the royal palace, with its three characteristic stupas, were an architectural highlight. I enjoyed wandering the site, so green and spacious in contrast with Bangkok. It was nice to be out in the countryside, among blossoming trees and flitting butterflies. I also got to see domestic Asian elephants. I’ve always been a fan of the Final Fantasy series of video games, and it felt like exploring a temple from one of those games. After dining together, our group made a few other stops, including Wat Mahathat, where I photographed the famous Buddha head enshrined in the roots of a giant fig tree.

In my second to last full day in Bangkok I explored some other temples in Bangkok and toured the National Museum. I ate dinner at the Burger King on Khao San Road, because I was craving it. I set an alarm for the next morning, which was my fishing day. Then on my last day in Bangkok I checked out and caught a taxi to the airport well before my departure time. I had finished my books, so I picked up Ursula K Leguin’s The Lathe of Heaven at the airport book store. I finished it by the time my flight landed in Perth that night. I greatly appreciated setting foot into the relatively chilly Aussie air again.

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