Monday, February 23, 2009

a knock in the night

(alternate title: F U bangkok)

setting: khao san road, aka backpacker ghetto, bangkok, thailand. 2:50 am.

characters: me and my roommate, an australian girl i met on the ferry from phuket

and... action!

it's a typical night on thailand's famed khao san road. the thickly polluted, humid night is the perfect setting for the seedy late-night khao san scene. older white men walk arm-in-arm with one, two, sometimes three young girls/ladyboys who are getting paid to keep them company. heavily made-up girls in plastic minidresses stand in front of bars with signs that promise "strong cocktails" and the reassurance that "we do not check ID." drunken westerners of all ages flow down the street in herds, sweating through t-shirts that advertise singha beer or lao beer as they sip from thailand's ubiquitous buckets (local vodka + red bull or local whiskey + coke, packaged neatly in a plastic pail that might be more innocently used to build sand castles on a beach). silent, grim-faced thai women stand in front of piping hot woks, making plate after plate of $0.75 pad thai for the carousing crowd. cripples vie for the attention of the drunken masses, contorting themselves into painful positions on the filthy sidewalk, shaking their plastic cups in silent desperation.

in a cheap cold-shower-and-fan-only room off a dark alley on khao san road, the two main characters snooze away peacefully despite the chaos that reigns outside. they're happy to have scored a cheap-but-not-so-cheap-it-feels-sketchy room for the night and even more happy to have company for the evening, since that makes the room even more affordable. each girl is on her own twin bed, dead asleep and dreaming happy dreams.

around 2:50 am, i jolt awake to a loud rapping on the door. disoriented and confused, i wonder if i'm dreaming the sound but the knocking is persistent. "helloooo..." whines a voice outside the door. the knocks continue, loud, sharp, repetitive. my roommate wakes up too and in her sleepy state makes the instinctual move to answer the door, but i am fully awake at this point and stop her before she leaves her bed. we consult each other in low whispers and decide to remain completely silent since we have no idea what waits for us on the other side of the door and aren't particularly interested in finding out.

the knocking continues for about fifteen minutes straight, interrupted only by the occasional "helllooooo" by a voice that is neither definitely female nor definitely male. we notice that despite being on a hallway of other rooms, we are the only one receiving a 3 am wake-up call and start to silently freak the fuck out, wondering what the hell is going on and what could be waiting outside our door. we start imagining the worst -- a thief trying to trick us into opening the door so he can force his way inside and rob us (or worse) at knifepoint. a super-sketchy prostitute looking for a potential customer. the possibilities get worse and worse, and we have no phone in our room to call down to reception, no peephole to look out the door.

eventually the knocking fades and the feet shuffle away, but not after we hear a distinct sound of someone writing something on our door, which freaks us out even more. have they marked us for a later visit? are they passing on a message to an accomplice? we're both wide awake and far too scared to go back to sleep. we say over and over again how glad we are that we decided to share a room so we didn't have to deal with this alone. we start telling each other horrible stories of things that have happened to us or friends of ours in the past; in retrospect, this was probably not a good idea. my roommate remembers that she bought a ninja-style throwing star as a gift for a friend and pulls it out of her backpack, reasoning that it probably won't do anything but it makes her feel better. we program the phone number for the bangkok police into her cell phone and try, in vain, to go back to sleep, which we finally do about an hour later.

* * * *

the end of the story is ridiculously harmless in comparison to the 3 am certainty we felt that OMG WE ARE GOING TO DIE. what had happened was the brainless, idiotic, hapless, retarded, stupid, horrible night manager who checked us in and took our payment realized as she was balancing her books at 3 am that she was short 950 baht. she was convinced it was either us or another room who had neglected to pay up, so she decided to knock on our door at 3 am to resolve the issue. you know, because that's a TOTALLY LOGICAL WAY TO DEAL WITH THE PROBLEM, WTF. we realized this in the morning because the scraping sound on our door that had scared us so badly had been the night manager leaving us a note, telling us that we hadn't paid for our room yet (which was totally not true). we went to the reception desk at 9 am the next morning, tempers blazing but trying to respect the asian mentality by keeping our cool and proceeded to firmly but politely resolve the problem with the new manager on duty. i was really, really, really tempted to go uber-american on them and cuss them the fuck out but decided that wouldn't help matters at all and besides, all's well that ends well aside from the complete and utter freak-out at 3 a.m.

* * * *

just because i wasn't having enough fun already, later that day i encountered an impressively smooth-talking con artist by wat pho temple. i was having trouble finding the entrance to the temple and was sort of wandering around the block. now, i've traveled enough and am savvy enough to know that as a solo female traveler, i should really try and NOT look lost in a heavily touristed area, since this is basically a wide-open invitation for every hustler to jump on me and try to offer their expert help... so i was keeping my face neutral as my eyes scanned the street beneath my huge sunglasses and i discreetly consulted the map in my lonely planet.

but someone started talking to me. i tried to ignore him but he was persistent, first trying to direct me toward wat phra krew (temple of the emerald buddha, which i already seen) and then deciding to help me with wat pho. he asked where i was from and upon finding out that i am american, told me joyfully he was a fan of barack obama (why bring an innocent president into this scheme? i mean really, that's just bad manners). we commiserated about the heat and humidity of the day and he told me that wat pho was actually closed for the next few hours for a private ceremony and that i should come back at 4 pm when it would re-open to tourists. he borrowed my map and showed me a few other temples i should check out and advised me to find a tuk-tuk driver who would take me around for 30 baht, mind you, if he says 60 baht, make sure you bargain hard and get a price of 30 baht because some of these drivers, ha ha, they drive a tough bargain.

at this point i was hot, sweaty, exhausted, irritated and paused momentarily in our conversation to consider the idea. noting my hesitation, he promptly waved over a tuk-tuk driver and "bargained" for me. in retrospect, it was a pretty elaborate and impressive ruse. the tuk-tuk driver asked for 60 baht and my man "fought" him to get him down to 30 baht for me... how nice huh? at this point i realized what was going on and said thank you politely but firmly, took my map back and walked away in the opposite direction. he started yelling at me as i walked away but i kept walking, not looking back, eyes straight ahead and hands on my bag.

needless to say, i found the entrance to wat pho a few minutes later. it was indeed open to tourists, teeming with them, actually, and i was in a foul mood for the rest of the afternoon (it may also have had something to do with my interrupted sleep the night before).

so, then, you understand why i almost titled this post "F U bangkok." what a note to end my amazing trip on huh? i put it past me though with a scoop of ice cold berry sorbet and a few restorative conversations in an air-conditioned internet cafe and then a fantastic and cheap dinner of seafood green curry and papaya salad. i left bangkok late last night on a red-eye flight and am now coming to you live from my aunt's apartment in beijing, where the weather is a frosty 20-something degrees and i am feeling completely disoriented. the backpacker part of my journey is officially over and it is now time to hang out with the extended fam back in the motherland. i doubt i'll be blogging much from here on out (maybe i'll post a few pics), so if i don't write again soon, i'll sign off here with a thank-you for coming along with me on my travels. hope you enjoyed my stories!

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