The Pisstown Chaos of Bangkok: A Siamese Dream
December 18-19, 2008
I had a train ticket to Bangkok once that went unused. After traveling by land and sea through Indonesia and Malaysia, I found myself in a youth hostel in Singapore ready to catch a train to Thailand the next day. That night the first gulf war, or so-called Operation Desert Storm, broke out, which I guess makes it January 17, 1991. I was sharing a room with a couple of Iranians who were not happy with me to say the least. Travel warnings were issued, specifically about going to Bangkok, something to do with the Japanese Red Army that supposedly was in allegiance with Saddam Hussein and had threatened to blow up airplanes or some such stupid thing. Who knows how credible the warnings were, but I had been traveling aimlessly for 6 months, the last two in Muslim countries, and I was so tired of being around people that hated America that I found myself starting to defend it. Traveling in such times seemed silly. Instead of getting on that train, I found a $200 ticket and high-tailed it back to the states. After some 18 years, I was ready to pick up where I left off, this time with Jess, who I met within months after getting back from this '91 trip and moving to Tucson.
It was right about the time that the recent protests shut down the airports in Bangkok that we decided to go to Thailand. It's amazing what the threat of an imminent coup will do to ticket prices. It was cheaper than traveling within Africa, and Thailand is dirt cheap once there. And frankly, we needed a break from Africa. Jess travels so much within Africa for work that to go on holiday within Africa wouldn't be much of a holiday, unless it was on safari, which are ridiculously expensive. So Thailand it was, direct flight even.
We experienced the chaos of Nairobi at it's finest getting to the airport. The road to the airport was still under construction, so Mohammed was taking us the scenic route. Mohammed is Ethiopian born and raised in Kibera slum, where he still lives. While he navigated the dysfunctional sprawl of Nairobi, he told us stories about Kibera, the good things you never hear about it, and the matatu racket (he owned one) and the vicious never-ending cycle of it all. When I got to the airport I started reading Pisstown Chaos by David Ohle. Reading Ohle is traveling to some strangely exotic land without all the associated headaches of travel. It's throwing yourself headfirst into the quagmire of a foreign culture without a paddle. The dystopia of Pisstown bears some resemblance to the world of Motorman or The Age of Sinatra, but is by no means a sequel to these two. Though Moldenke rears his head a few times as some sort of stinker sideshow performer risen from the underworld.
I seek out foreign immersion like some people seek out comfort food. I like being displaced, being a fish out of water. Maybe that's why I like Ohle. The residents of Pisstown are subject to forced relocation, or "shifting," as the pastorals here in Kenya also call it. We were flying over the pirate-infested waters of Somalia and over Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) while I was traveling to Pisstown. There's even a Bum Bay in Pisstown Chaos. What's up with places who's "names have been changed"? How can that be? Are they the same place if so? Is Thailand, the same as Siam. Is Myanmar Burma? In the spirit of Motorman, which I took a picture of when I finished on a train to Montreal, here's Pisstown Chaos in the taxi I left it in in Bangkok.
In Pisstown Chaos they travel by Q-ped, which is a sort of pedaled taxi in which passengers are expected to pedal. Besides the rickshaw (3-wheel bicycle taxi, which we unfortunately weren't allowed to help pedal on), some other forms of transportation we used in Thailand were sky train, subway, water taxi, long-tail boat, elephant, bamboo raft and the tuk-tuk.
But before we did anything, our first priority was food. This was a big impetus for us to go to Thailand. We were staying in the Sukhumvit area, which is more like the normal downtown area, or devoid of backpackers anyway. The first place we stumbled across was Suda. And strangely enough, there was some people from Nairobi sitting there that we had just met a few nights before at a Xmas party. Small world. They used to live in Bangkok, and Suda was their favorite place. We had tom yum koong that was insanely spicy and good and I forgot what else, maybe spicy basil squid. It was all religious. I think I also tried frog legs there too, but they were small bony frogs that definitely qualified as slim pickings.
The denizens of Ohle's Pisstown eat a lot of crazy shit like urp milk and starch bars. There are imps that "remeat" or regenerate meat, so you don't have to kill them—you simply carve off some steaks and it grows back. How cool would that be? I just asked Jess whether humans have attempted some such thing, and it seems some scientists have been experimenting with in vitro meat, but nothing yet that is available for public consumption or that is economically viable. There are also lecherous striped adders in Pisstown that climb the legs of imps and suck the milk from their udders. But more than anything, the Pisstown landscape broods with "stinkers."
And the final stages of a stinker's life "has been described by scientists as showing a poverty of sensation and a low body temperature. In their nostrils is the persistent odor of urpmilk. The membrane which lines their mouth is extremely tough and is covered with black scales. They like to touch fur and drink their own urine." Like food and parasites, cities themselves can get into your blood. Whether I like it or not, Nairobi is getting into my blood, infecting my lymph nodes—the rust and ruin, the corruption are all getting into my veins. Not that I feel unhealthy. Sucking matatu exhaust while running will only make me stronger. Bits of Bangkok and anywhere else I have traveled are under my skin. Splashings of Pisstown. And I justify the chaos as necessary. The leader of Pisstown, Reverend Hooker, advocates for periodic chaos. He proposes a 5-year moratorium on all productive activity in order to encourage chaos. "And out of all the resulting chaos and suffering maybe we'll come to some kind of agreement as to what's worth doing and what's not. I give you the example of the legendary old boll weevil. Any cotton farmer could have told you the best way to get rid of weevils was to stop growing cotton for a few years."
After eating, the next order of business was to see the big reclining Buddha housed at Wat Po. To get there we took the sky train to the river than hopped a water taxi. People can tell you it's huge, but not until you see it for real can you comprehend it.
For dinner we ate a placed Cabbages and Condoms. I thought it was a typo when I saw the sign, but it's for real. Their "food is guaranteed to not cause pregnancy." One of the things we got was Mieng Khum (an ancient Thai ancient appetizer of lemon, dried shrimp, peanut, ginger, deep-fried coconut, chili, shallots and special sauce, wrapped in wild betel leaves).
We stayed at some swanky boutique hotel called Dream. Ironically The Beach was on TV, which was funny to see in Thailand, and not exactly inspiring us to go to the beach. The movie is not far from the truth and things have only gotten worse in the twelve years since the book was written by Alex Garland. It leaves you with this depressing feeling that there's nothing left that hasn't been spoiled.
The King and I
The next morning we wanted to hit up the Grand Palace but some guy standing in the entrance told us it was closed. Our first and only experience with the notorious Thai touts. He talked us up and told us we should go check out this and that while we waited for the palace to open then hailed a tuk-tuk for us and we naively got in. We did go to the Happy Buddha, but then our tuk-tuk driver took us to some tourist office even though we wanted to go to this other temple our tout had told us about. The tuk-tuk driver refused and grew an extra asshole. Undoubtedly they were working in cahoots and the tout and the tuk-tuk driver were getting some sort of kickback from this "tourist information" office (which is what everything in Thailand is called, complete with the offical looking big blue i). Not that it cost us more than a 75 cent tuk-tuk ride, but we were dropped off in some random area near the king's palace. Yes, Thailand has a king. That was probably the biggest surprise for me. They still have a fucking king, that is American-born, looks like Stephen Hawkings, has played sax with the likes of Benny Goodman, and is an avid dog lover and photographer. There's pictures of him everywhere in Thailand, and in almost every one he has a camera around his neck and is with his dogs. The Thais love him.
We found our way to some some other temples and wats and stumbled briefly into the hell of Khao San road (the dreadful backpacker area where Leonardo gets his map of The Beach). Then we went back to the Grand Palace, this time it was open. And was it ever open. Here's some of what we saw there. Jess took a lot more photos than I did, she's the king with the camera around her neck.
The Bad-ass Long-tail Boats of Bangkok
After the Grand Palace, we had lunch in some marketplace stall. I had snakehead fish soup. It was delicious. Then we took a canal ride on a long-tail boat. If there is any one thing you must do if you go to Thailand, it's a long-tail boat ride. They are these long wooden boats with huge exposed automobile engines mounted precariously on the back and the propeller sticking some twenty feet out on the end of an extended drive shaft. The GTO of the boating world. They are typically decked in colorful paint, giving it even more of a hot rod feel. The matatu of Thailand. Here's one named for Obama even:
All the long-tail boat drivers necessarily have tattoos, wear wife-beaters and have penis bone necklaces and vials of who know's what powder (I'm guessing some sort of endangered animal like rhino). They balance on a wood box and pull the engine dramatically when they need to turn. We took a joy ride up into some of the smaller canals of Bangkok ending up at Temple of Dawn.
Besides reading Ohle's Pisstown Chaos, I also read Boons, a manuscript he sent me a few days before I left. I'll refrain from commenting on it, suffice to stay if I don't publish it, somebody needs to. It takes place in all sorts of crazy places like Africa and Borneo and Bangkok even, so was especially engaging in that sense. And in typical Ohle fashion, it is insanely biological.
The next morning we took the 3rd class train to Ayuthaya for 15 baht (40 cents).