Nauseating, expensive, and incredibly inconvenient—it’s the Idiot Tax. I walked out of the flowing AC and pristine offices of the Indonesian embassy and into the chaos of Bangkok streets. Motorbikes whistled by, milk was rotting in a gutter, a street hawker was frying up unidentified meat in week-old grease, and I was already dripping in sweat.
At least it’s better than last night.
Last night, you see, we checked in late—not necessarily a great idea around Bangkok. We lugged our bags from the Sky Train depot into the frenzy of the seediest night I can remember for quite some time: sex shops on the sidewalk, vendors unabashed about hawking their dildos and rubber vaginas in full view of children running and squealing around a burka-ed mom while young men in thin beards, cigarettes, and knock-off Polo and Armani tees flaunted laminated sheets of the women they were pimping. Sizzling pad thai mixed with roasting shawarma and bubbling vats of Hydrabadi Biriyani. Neon signs shouted in four different alphabets, and over it all, thick bass lines of David Guetta struggled in vain to drown out the screaming traffic.
It was a cheap hotel on a last-minute flight bought with funds completely over budget. This was Phloen Chit, Bangkok—it’s just one installment in paying my idiot tax.
What’s perplexing, though, is that if you’d have asked me twenty minutes earlier what I thought of Bangkok, I’d have said, “I wish Jakarta could be more like this.” The low-budget airport was a step up from KL’s barn, a public bus into the city was cheap and clean and fast, and the Bangkok Transit Service (BTS) zipping you over the streets was immaculate, modern, and glossy. That’s exactly the kind of thing I crave for Jakarta.
But step down from that BTS and see the Bangkok night. It’s Miami on steroids and opium. It’s dance music and it’s spicy food, it’s swarthy and it’s sexy. It’s everything I avoided in Patong.
But it’s also—surprisingly enough—full of Middle-Easterners. And their food, and their music, and their everything.
Well, at least our little segment of Bangkok was. We were thinking to get some curry and rice, some Tom Yam soup and a Thai tea and something swimming in lemongrass and chilis, but after checking in to our budget lodgings, a stroll around the block yielded more hummus than papaya salad, and a lot more kebabs than curries, and more mosques than temples. Seesha, the notorious hookah of the mid-orient, was pouring from the throats of diners everywhere: Aussie and Lebanese, Iraqi and Scottish, Dutch and Russian and Afghani—the blue haze from the (supposedly tobacco) water bong was floating through the night like a plague of ancient Egypt.
What was going on here? We were supposed to be at the beach, under the stars, sipping a coconut while the crystalline surf washed warmly over our ankles. We were supposed to recline tonight in a secluded hideaway with a private beach, and stroll through an untouched jungles to the nearest eco café.
But anyone who’s ever read Burns (Robert, not Montgomery) knows that the best laid plans of mice and men sometimes get blasted out of the water by the twin 155mm cannon of immigration paperwork and incredibly foolish oversight on the part of this idiot.
To make a long story short, while my Indonesian work permit and residence documents are good for a few more months, my multiple re-entry permit to enter and leave Indonesia expired twp days into my nine of lounging around the beach.
I didn’t check the expiration date before booking non-refundable round-trip airfare, before locking in no-refunds-available lodging through a third-party discount service, before spending late hours after grading papers combing through the details of our itinerary to maximize our idyllic little jaunt through the paradisaical little isles peppering the azure bliss of the Andaman sea.
I was an idiot.
This fact quickly became apparent at the airport when immigration officials pointed out that I was going to lose my work permit and resident rights and all kinds of other expensive and complicated paperwork if I didn’t turn around and come back within two days.
I started feeling sick. This was not the start to a relaxing getaway.
Frantic phone calls ensued, followed by some quality time shut in a tiny “office” of a no-nonsense official, followed by a hectic rush to make the flight the Phuket. Through the confusion, I managed to glean that an extension of the re-entry permit may be possible —though by no means guaranteed—at the Indonesian embassy in Bangkok.
So I boarded the flight with a churning stomach and a devastated wife. Our relaxation in Phuket was punctuation by bouts of emails and phone calls and hand-wringing over delayed documents from Jakarta. And our Tuesday was spent re-working reservations and flights, finding out exactly how much a no-refund policy was going to return to my pockets, and booking a cheap hotel in the heart of Bangkok to try to minimize the monetary damage of that pestilent Idiot Tax.
The stress damage, the heavy heart that pounded into the quiet moments of the beach evenings, the gray hairs added to my fast-growing collection—well, that’s a bit harder to measure.
In any case, I dropped off the paperwork, stepped back into the howl of the Bangkok morning, and started back to the hotel. Three days to process this permit.
“Let’s try to forget it for a couple days,” Andy and I sighed to each other. “Let’s make the most of Bangkok.”
We were already sweating by the time we caught the world-class BTS again, and we were well-nigh soaked by the time we boarded, rode, and departed a local bus at the Wat Traimit, home to the world’s largest golden Buddha. To be fair, he is pretty huge—15 feet and 5.5 tons, if you believe the guide books. They say he’s solid gold—confirmed by someone in ’55, if the entrance pamphlet can be trusted. He sits atop four stories of stairs and grins his gleaming half-smile at the masses who enter his Wat, intent on snapping pictures and stealing a bit of the peace he says he offers. Peace, peace, he says, but there is no peace. Not for the man with immigration issues back in Indonesia, at least. “It’ll be OK, Sweety,” Andy tried to re-assure me from behind the lens. “Let’s see something else.”
We packed the camera away, and hoofed it to Chinatown. Normally, I’d expect Chinatowns everywhere to be a lot alike: dumplings and stir-fries, dragons and fireworks, the industrious and unflagging grit of immigrants who always, always bear race-based prejudice in whatever town they settle, but who always, always, manage to carve out a respectable, admirable life anyway. Bangkok’s Chinatown seems to fit the bill, though it has a twist—apparently they’re all metal-workers here: sheet metal, angle-iron, flat-iron, rods and squares and sticks and brackets jutted from every street shop’s garage. If they weren’t selling metal, they were selling tools to work it—the chop saws, the drills, the presses, the band saws, the grinders, and each with its mountain of accessories. And if the shop wasn’t dealing in either of those, it was a metal-working fabrication shop: the wiry old men measuring and marking, the wiry young men hauling and handling, slipping drops of cutting oil and gliding away the scraps as the industrial-grade band saws chugged through the million slivers of sharp nothing each cut entailed. Hands were blackened by the oil and the dust, the smell of industry wafted into the streets. I was impressed. I liked this.
Anyway, we were walking through Chinatown not just to revel in the details of metal fabrication, but to get to the river. We had asked a tuk-tuk about a trip to the famous Wat Pho temple. “No,” he said, barely waking from his nap. “Too much traffic now. Just go river and catch boat.”
Bangkok, you see, utilizes its rivers—well, at least one of its rivers—for transportation. Water taxis, water buses, private boats, barges, and city tours large and small all fleck the currents of the ancient Chao Praya, all ferry people here and there and over and around the swerving motorbikes and shouting tuk-tuks, the honking taxis and coughing buses, the reality of pretty much every major Asian city I’ve stepped foot in.
But the river-bus is a bit different—our wait at the bus-stop was accompanied by the gentle caress of the lapping waters at the pier. The swaying rhythm of the waves underfoot as we stepped aboard was a reminder that this was no ordinary transport, and the speedy cruise up the uncongested, unjammed, unencumbered river was quick and efficient. It was actually kind of fun. We made it to Wat Pho in plenty of time before its close.
Wat Pho is famous for a couple things. The first is its reclining Buddha. An enormous reclining Buddha, actually. He’s longer than a basketball court, I’d say, and twice or thrice as tall as its rims. He’s gold in color (if not substance) and lying on his side in his traditional Buddha grin, ready to slip unhindered into the absolute nothingness of Nirvana. Why that makes him so happy, I’ll never be able to understand. Hey Buddha, I want to say to the giant gold sleeper, you know what’s better than nothing?
Anyway, Buddha seems to get a kick out of it. But the architects here have stuffed him into this huge barn of a building that barely fits his ornate, mother-of-pearl feet on the one end and the spikey point of his hair on the other. The walls are lavished in paintings, floor to ceiling, of intricate scenes of Thai life and Buddha’s journeys and all sorts of wonderful details that people would love if they ever looked at them. Buddha just grins and soaks all the attention to himself.
Gold Buddha? check. Reclining Buddha? Check. Indonesian paperwork? Still nothing. I sighed and trudged toward the rest of Wat Pho.
It’s also got a famous massage school here somewhere—the traditional Thai massage which is, for all I can understand, a scarcely-hidden celebration of sadism and torture. People pay to have this inflicted on them. Mostly tourists, I’d wager. Thais know better by now.
Wat Pho massage academy, I’m told, has perfected this art. I took a glance at all the statues guarding the premises—giant men with giant beards and gnashing teeth, men holding spears and staffs and laughing with open mouths, men more akin to Genghis Khan’s reign of chaos and pillaging than any relaxing therapy—were these the mentor masseuses? I didn’t want any part of this.
Besides, there was too much to see—piles and piles of pagodas, each decorated as intricately and colorfully as a princess’s wedding cake, each glimmering the gold light of the fading sun. We strolled and photoed through all these pagodas; we smiled and snapped pictures and put on brave faces—yes, we weren’t at the beach. Yes, it was an inconvenient sojourn, but hey, instead of sunsets of glory on seas as clear as glass and warm as baths, instead of coconut palms waving friendly smiles to the deep blue sky and the azure sea, instead of sand in our toes and fishes more colorful than a million bags of M&M’s swishing in front of our snorkels, we got to see… about eight thousand Buddhas sitting cross-legged and smiling.
“Yeah,” we tried to tell ourselves, “Bangkok is definitely not that bad…”
Buddhists sculptors, by the way, must have been driven crazy back when all these Wats were going up. They must have been bristling with creativity and energy, chomping at the artistic bit to press the mold, to branch out, to present some new and interesting facet of the Buddha’s life in some new and interesting way that no one else had quite seen or thought or captured before. They must have been stoked and wired and sleepless with enthusiasm to get the commission to work on this enormous new Wat that was going up.
“Sorry, kid, we just need you to make us a thousand more lotus Buddhas… Yes, that’s right, just like the others… No. You better not make any of them any different… You keep up that attitude and we’ll send you to the massage school as a practice body.”
At least the pagodas at Wat Pho each have different colors variegating the same basic theme. At least pagoda architects got to have a little fun.
By now the sun was setting, the embassy still hadn’t called, and we were left with a tourist map and growling bellies in the middle of Bangkok’s oncoming crazies. What else could we do but shuffle ourselves off to Khao San road?
I’m not sure how, but somewhere along way, the thoroughfare lined with spacious parks and the Royal Temple, the government headquarters and national monuments, the national theaters and the venerable museums, the crosswalks and the friendly nods of the well-meaning locals, somewhere the street veered and narrowed, congested, darkened, fell into an uncontrollable tailspin and plummeted down, down into the fiery wreckage of a backpackers’ paradise: Khao San road.
The notorious Khao San is full of cheap lodging and reasonably priced beer, dreadlocks and reggae, DJs and night clubs and tattoo parlors, seedy looks and sunburned youths, cheap street food and pounding music that doesn’t loosen its stranglehold until dawn starts knocking on decency’s door. Backpackers of all ages and budgets rove the maddening neon lights and secondhand smoke. Food carts weave steaming woks in and out of the flip-flopped throng. All faces of all races are here, all looking for a late meal and a good deal before they go in and rest up and maybe shower for the late night tokes and late morning clubs and even later curtain calls.
Khao San was, like Ploen Chit, everything I’d avoided in Patong—just substitute a city wheezing in its own vice for a masterfully crafted collection of beaches.
Am I too hard on backpackers and party? Do I stereotype and accuse? Are my thoughts grudging and unfair? Probably so. After all—I’m also after a good price and good time, I’ll also endure unpleasantness for the sake of adventure, I’ll also travel until my budget is crippled and revel in a talk on philosophy and take degrees with “Arts” in the title. What the difference between us?
I guess wake early and stayed shaved. Is that really it?
It’s something to ponder while navigating the mess of Khao San, all the shouts and all the sly stares targeting all the others. At least Andy and I managed to rest our aching feet, buy a couple bargain tees, and fill up on cheap and wonderful pad thai before the long walk back.
Andy, you see, harbors a deep-seated distrust of taxi drivers and their nefarious cousins, the tuk-tuk pilots. I think a one-armed taxi driver must have murdered a childhood friend of hers sometime back in her youth, because now she avoids them like they were crusted in plague and deep-fried in disease and left to fester in all the putrid ointments of Dr. Moreau’s infamous isle. She pushed for a hike to a main street and a flagging down of a bus from there. I complied—after paying my Idiot Tax of unrefunded hotels and extra flights and extra nights’ lodging, we could stand to save a few bucks.
So we became the real backpackers that night, hoisting our camera and tripod, our extra shirts and odds and ends and knick-knack souvenirs, and lugging off on our cross-city trek of double-digit kilometers through the close of business hours.
This was, perhaps, the most authentic glimpse of Bangkok we got—aside from the centuries-old temples, aside from the overgrown excuse for lawlessness than passes for backpacking, aside from the shams and shames of tourist-traps, here we got to see the populace winding down at the end of the day. Couples chatted with friends in corner cafés, families locked up shops and strolled home. Two men with tired eyes bent double their workbenches re-upholstering motorcycle seats. Tuk-tuks were fewer, and an occasional bus full of weary office workers, eyes closed and earbuds plugged in, made the late-night commute back to tiny apartments. Bangkok’s giant malls had shut their gates hours ago, and our stops for directions consisted of locals glancing at one another and shrugging.
Our stop for directions was at a group of two teens and their mother arranging flowers on a Buddha statue. We always go for the youngsters when we want directions—surely they have an English Language class in their school, right?
Andy hashed out a conversation using the map and lots of pointing. I took a gander at the shop—Buddha statues of all sizes in all stages of completion: plaster and paint and wires and chisels. But my favorite two were quite realistic, bore and uncanny resemblance to—wait! They were real. They were the men of the family, father and father, lotus and closed-eyed, unmoving and unthinking, turning themselves to the statues they crafted hour after hour, day after day, through patience and practice and meditation after meditation, becoming themselves the object they were sculpting. The anti-Pygmalion.
By now Andy was thanking them and we were setting out on the same way we had already started. The march resumed. It’s not that much further, we thought.0
It was much farther, though. It was a long hike in a dark night, but one that brought Bangkok into the light for me. It’s not just a seedy city thriving on sex tourism and debauched hostels for perverts and pedophiles, it’s not merely a museum for relics of millennia-old Buddhas, it’s an engine of existence millions upon millions strong, each life fighting its way through the crowd, through the mobs of fellow lives that somehow rob an individual’s identity, each life straining for meaning and voice and hope in a frantic megalopolis of fast cash and confused avenues of expression and identity.
Bangkok’s got it all, and if my idiot tax had indeed thrust me into the middle of its smoke and its din, then at least I’ve had the chance to see the lives struggling to stay afloat in its murky currents. Who knows, had I come here voluntarily, I said to Andy as I peeled off my sticky tee shirt back at the cheap hotel in newly dubbed Little Karachi, maybe I’d enjoy the bustle and accept the confusion and say Bangkok is a crazy place but one you’ve got to see.
Our legs were tired and our minds were reeling. Tomorrow, we said, promised more temples and more walking, more urban penance for our carelessness with re-entry permits, more hours roasting in traffic and waiting on a call from the embassy that would probably never come.
Three days’ processing time, they’d told us.
Good night, Sweety.
Good night, Cutie.
It’ll be OK.
Epilogue: Andy and Levi got their call from the embassy late the next morning. They were back on the beach in time for the sunset. To this day, they have not returned to Bangkok. Maybe one day, when Chiang Mai comes calling and the coup die down, they will. There are still plenty of Wats left to visit.