January 17th – Khao San Road, Bangkok

After my initial struggle to get to sleep, I managed to get enough hours to help slightly alter my negative frame of mind. It was probably only around 5 or 6, but it was in a bed rather than in an upright seat of a plane, so despite conditions it was still somewhat restorative. Breakfast was included with my £14 room, so after quickly washing I went to the outside reception area (around 8am) and sat on a blue plastic stool. A hotel staff member handed me a menu with 3 breakfast options – the 1 of which I could eat being continental (fruit, toast, and coffee). He wanted to charge me 100 baht (around £2.40) but I reminded him that it was included in my room, and showed him my booking receipt. He reluctantly accepted.

Thailand has a unique magic in the mornings. The air feels humid and exotic, even in the cities. Although the smells can be varied from hot oil, to raw sewage, the cocktail of odours fills me with excitement in the awareness that I’m in Thailand. It’s a comfortable familiarity, and experiencing it this morning gave me a wave of optimism. After finishing my breakfast, I confirmed that checkout was 11am, and then browsed the area for an alternative place to stay. I had made a commitment to myself that if I was to cut the trip short then I could afford nicer places to stay. After browsing a few I found many to be fully booked, or too expensive still (again, a lot seems to have changed price wise). I then remembered about a place I had stayed in the past called ‘BB House’, which I had stayed in once in 2012. I headed there.

The lady behind the counter had a maternal vibe that I picked up immediately. I imagined she would really look after her grandchildren, but not let them get away with anything also. She quoted me 550 baht for a room (around £12.50 or so), which seemed reasonable, so I accepted. Check-in wasn’t until 11, so I grabbed my bags from A&A house, and headed out for a coffee. I was reminded that black coffee in Thailand does tend to be pretty disgusting, and very few places have soy or alternative-to-dairy milk. I appreciated the caffeine affect all the same. I was reading the book I mentioned previously by Marianne Cantwell and it continued to resonate with what I was aiming for. The book has exercises that requires you to examine areas in your work life that you like and dislike, highlighting how to sculpt your life around your interests. I felt good reading it, it made sense to be doing so at this time.

After my coffee I checked in at BB House, and dropped my bags in my room. I realised on my entry that my choice to stay there was in part counter-active to the purpose of my travel – to become more accepting of uncertainty. It was early in the trip, and I had enquired elsewhere, so I didn’t regard it fully as a slip up. I connected to the wifi, to see I had a message from my Thai friend, Belle, who had studied an M.A. in Illustration in Sunderland University while I had. I had told her previously that I would be heading to Bangkok, but had forgot to get in touch when I arrived. She asked how long I was in Bangkok for, which was 1 more night (I had a flight to Krabi the following day), and we arranged to meet up for dinner at 8pm once she had finished work in central Bangkok.

Khao San doesn’t offer a load to do other eat or drink during the day, but fortunately there are a load of vegetarian restaurants in what looks like a back alley, about a 5-minute walk from the main part of the street. I went to a place that also offers cooking classes, and ordered a variation on red curry that I hadn’t previously tried and was interested in. At the time of writing this ( 26th of January) it was the best meal I had in Thailand on this trip. Although I cook a lot of Thai at home, it’s almost impossible to accurately recreate some of the flavours that ingredients like fresh pea aubergine or holy basil can give to a dish. You can get these ingredients occasionally at home, but they cost more than the rest of the meal put together and are nowhere near as fresh (or I just can’t cook with them properly). I was excited for the meal, but once I had eaten it I felt a sense of sadness in that I was full and no longer had food to look forward to until 8pm.

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The best curry in Thailand i’ve eaten to date. Who knows what the restaurant was called…

This feeling reminded me that I was searching for something outside of myself for satisfaction, using food at this point as an attempt to fulfil it. Often at home I would spend my daytime looking forward to cooking something for myself and Magda on the night, to feel disappointed once I had eaten it. I would give myself ridiculously large portions (justified by my unhealthy relationship with exercise) and feel unwell after eating them. My eating large quantities is an attempt to feel some sense of satisfaction by filling myself when I feel empty of something – but that something certainly isn’t food.

I walked around the nearby streets but I didn’t feel particularly drawn to any particular place. You sweat so much in Thailand, and constantly feel unclean. Fortunately, my feelings of cleanliness and desire to always be presentable have reduced in time as I have become decreasingly concerned with my image and how I appear to others. After sometime I found myself in a Starbucks, as I wanted to relax somewhere with wifi and air-con. Their coffee may not be as bad as the other places, but it isn’t much better, so I ordered a matcha green tea soy latte. It turned out it was buy one, get one free, so I also got an iced hibiscus tea with tapioca starch balls at the bottom. Both where surprisingly enjoyable, though laced with sugar, and the price of 1 drink was the same as the price of 3 in a regular coffee shop. I sent some e-mails I had needed to take care of, and browsed flights to India (which I still haven’t booked). I noticed the café was mainly filled with locals in suits or who looked as though they where pretty well-off, which was understandable given the prices.

A couple of Thai girls sat next to me, and they where on a video call with another friend. They kept high-fiving each other every 20 – 30 seconds, which at first I found comical but then grew irritating. I was trying to imagine if the gesture possessed any authenticity to them after 25 high-fives or so, or if it had become something of a communal twitch. My irritation with people tends not be sourced on their general character, but on particular behaviours that rightly or wrongly irritate me (with the exception of the guy on the flight mentioned previously – he was awful). My annoyance, accompanied by the aircon being directed towards me for long enough to be uncomfortable, lead me to leave and head back to the hotel room at around 5pm. I’ve noticed that around 4:30 while I’m away I tend to feel sadness. This was the start of that occurrence (again, at the time of writing it hasn’t left). I’m unsure of it’s source, but it was similar when I was home. Maybe that’s why in the USA they make a tradition out of getting high at 4:20?

I wanted to do some exercise, and had loaned some resistance bands from my friend Steve who has a gym in his garage. I didn’t care about building muscle while I was away, as that wasn’t the point in my journey, but I did want to maintain what I have. It’s not much, but I feel like I’ve worked for it! Before exercising I sat on my single bed with floral sheets in BB House, and had my first toilet experience since my arrival. My stomach was still not adjusted, as was evident by the toilet bowl. I’ve had IBS for a long time, so this didn’t really concern me, plus I’d take it for the pay off of Thai food. I also learned at that point that ‘bum guns’ (a small hose by the side of the toilet) where way more effective than toilet roll alone. It seems crazy that we don’t use them in the West. It’s being commented upon plenty already by others, but we really are doing toileting incorrectly.

I connected to wifi and had a message from Belle, saying she would be early as she got out before 6:30 and traffic wasn’t bad. I was determined to do some exercise (another one of my routines that gives me anxiety if I can’t complete it and makes me feel like I’ve committed some form of crime). I loaded up a few bodyweight shoulder and tricep exercises, and attempted to do a few sets while listening to a Russell Brand podcast. I noticed my weakness, but didn’t judge it given the circumstances. Around 25 minutes in I realised I needed to leave very soon, so had a shower and washed my hair. I was pleasantly surprised that BB House had a hairdryer. I was meeting Belle by the Starbucks I had previously been to and she was keen to take me to ‘The best place for Pad Thai in Bangkok’.

I arrived, and around 2 minutes Belle showed up, shouting my name from a short distance in the slightly American sounding Thai accent that I forgot she had. Over 3 years had passed since I last saw her, and I also forgot how short she was. I’m only 5 foot 7 so not used to having lean down to talk to somebody – it felt novel. We walked down Khao san road, which is like a festival at night for 18 – 30’s. The music around the bars makes the concrete vibrate, and distorts as it merges with the music from the competitor bar next door which is at a similar volume. There are people standing outside holding boards advertising happy hour, ‘buckets’, and signs that literally say ‘we don’t ask for i.d’. Everybody there is trying to sell you something; t-shirts (which are all the same), vests, bags, shoes, purses, jewellery, suits (that’s a major one near guesthouses), scorpions on a stick, fruit shakes, pancakes, 50 baht pad thai, and occasionally offers of drugs from Tuk Tuk drivers. I attempted to ignore it all as I followed Belle down this packed street, speaking loudly so we could hear each other over everything.

We passed a bar where she had earlier spotted her school friend, who was performing in one of the bands playing in a bar. She was keen to introduce me, and brought me over to shake his hand. His mannerisms and demeanour where different to all of my other exchanges with Thai people that I’ve had, which I realised was because he was simply being genuine. I was not expecting a service from him or telling him I didn’t want a taxi; I was just talking to him as a human. It felt like the most honest communication I’ve had since getting here to date with a local person. He seemed very likeable.

As we where walking I noticed I felt very aware that I was a white male walking with a Thai girl, and felt ashamed of myself for being concerned that I might appear as the stereotype lonely guy who goes over to Thailand and essentially buys romance. I had contemplated in the past how it was a shame that many genuine couples of different ethnicities would be subject to prejudice, but now I was experiencing that I also had some capacity for it myself. I snapped out of those thoughts soon enough, as I realised that my fear of judgement wasn’t strong enough at all to actually affect my behaviour in any way.

Belle was keen to take me to the Pad Thai place, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I wasn’t really all that bothered about pad thai (my opinion has since changed, but not from this experience). I was still happy to go there however, given that it had such a good reputation and Belle was there to inform them of my particular diet. She had told me at this point that quite often in Thailand they use ‘pork oil’ as opposed to vegetable oil when frying their foods, as it is a lot cheaper. I realised that so much of the time I’m likely inadvertently eating animal products without knowledge that I am. She assured me she would check before we ate, but at this point I’d probably eaten a fair few trace remains of pigs. It was a short taxi drive away. We got in and she was mocking me for putting my seatbelt on, saying I was in Thailand now and have to travel ‘Thai style’. The ride was around 5 minutes, and as we got out the driver apparently told her that ‘it’s not as good as it used to be’. She had feared this given it’s rise in popularity in recent years. She explained how she used to go there often when in high-school, as it was situated right next to it. There was a que out the door and nothing else going on in the street, so I thought it still must be pretty good.

The que went down pretty fast, and we where seated in around 5 minutes. Under Belles recommendation I ordered the coconut water shake to drink, and she took care of my customised, no doubt seemingly pretentious Pad Thai order. She had told me soon after the waitress left that she was Burmese, which was identifiable by her accent. Apparently a lot of Thai places now employ Buremese people as their wages are lower than nationals. Our food arrived, and Belles Pad Thai looked like no other that I had seen before. It was coated in what looked like an omelette, which had to be broken into to get to the noodles. Mine looked more conventional. She talked me through the toppings on the table – fish sauce with chilli and vinegar, white pepper, ground peanuts, and something else that I don’t remember. I opted for peanuts. With the Pad Thai you get given a small plate with raw beansprouts and chives, as well as 2 wedges of limes. Apparently you eat the chives separate to the meal, which felt odd to me. It didn’t taste bad, but it also didn’t feel like it deserved a place as a solo ingredient or flavour. Though enjoyable, my dinner was overly sweetened. Belle agreed.

We caught up on the logistical side of each others lives. She explained how she wishes she could live in the UK, but it’s basically impossible for her to as companies would have to pay significantly more to employ her over others, given visa checks that where needed etc. It put into some perspective on the positive things about British and living in the UK. We have a lot more opportunities than our Asian neighbours. I paid for our dishes and we then went to a nearby local desert place, and got a dish that I don’t remember the name of. It was a combination of pulses and tapioca starch in coconut milk. It was enjoyable and typically Asian, in that it combined ingredients we associate in the west with savoury dishes into deserts. I was pretty full after it all, but Belle was keen to get some more desert. She had made quite a journey for me, so despite being tired I went along to an ice cream chain with her.

As we left the taxi stepping over a rat that was crawling by the curb, we entered into the ice cream place. It was fully American in aesthetic. She ordered some kind of sundae, and I got an iced lemon tea. I already had a bottle of water that was wet and lukewarm in the humidity, but I didn’t want to leave her to consume alone. There’s a strange sense of shame in having something that is indiscreetly bad for you when in the company of somebody who isn’t – or perhaps there isn’t and it’s just my eating disorder mentality? Belle gave me the lowdown on malaria and other diseases I would be at risk of in Asia, and was pretty convinced that I should just go to the hospital for an anti malarial jab (apparently Thai people get this in school, very early on). I had been recommended tablets if going into affected zones, but the risk seems pretty low. I still felt a little cautious about the other list of things I needed to now consider, such as the smoke fumes from the street stall stands that I mentioned I could smell from my room (and liked) that apparently where carbon monoxide and could kill me in my sleep. It was around 11pm and I was exhausted, so we ended the night there and I went back to my room.

I was still carrying a lot of sadness that I couldn’t shake and my mind was making me unable to sleep through worrying about route options and not wanting to waste money by booking things too late etc, but I put that down in part to my jet lag, and in part to simply having the overly anxious traits that I came here to work on in the first place. I secured the windows very tightly to create a carbon monoxide free zone – never the less.

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