I awake to the hum of the air conditioner vibrating a fast, funk beat, green curtains opened a foot in the middle. There are white clouds on a powder blue sky, sunshine on the palms and slanted roofs. I slumber for twenty more minutes. Groping and squinting, I light the first cigarette of the day, lay back to smoke it.
White sheets outline the pleasant hump of Joyce’s hips in the bed across the room. Henry Miller’s Plexus lays open at my feet. I try to recall the last bit I read, but several incidents jumble together, it’s not clear.
The small speaker in the wall begins to crackle. An old rock tune wheezes through. The Malaysia Hotel, Bangkok, Thailand.
We have the steaming chaos of Bangkok to travel through, to the photo shops of the Siam Centre, then the Indonesian Consulate, for visas. We need passports, return tickets, whatever other paper we have to pay for.
Old Siam? The mysterious East? Bangkok is another Tokyo or Hong Kong, another filthy, polluted, high speed, hot city. Bangkok is downright depressing.
I rise, run to the shower. The tepid water on my skin diverts me.
We smoke a joint of Buddha weed, I eat the yogurt Joyce has gone out for earlier, we gather up all the necessary papers.
Our packs sit on the floor beside the dresser.
In this room there are two single beds, a hand shower attached to the bathtub. I got a four inch cockroach in the bathroom with the flick of a towel rolled up. The room is air conditioned by a central unit that services the whole building, at times. It all costs two dollars American per night. Long before there were guide books on the subject, before Rolling Stone magazine ever suspected, restless western souls explored the vast continent of Asia. The first wanderers grew to gigantic hordes of travellers. Political policies and wars set down the route: from Europe to India, from India to Bangkok, from Bangkok to Australia or America. All of the modern roads of discovery converged on Bangkok.
In every city, in every country, there are hostels, hotels, guest houses, with cheap rates, basic accommodations, services for travellers. By word of mouth, later through travel guides, the locations of these places are revealed.
The Malaysia Hotel in Bangkok is a venerable institution on the trail around the world. Perhaps, she’s the grandmother of them all. The Malaysia is a haven of sleazy, relaxed decadence for westerners.
She’s a modern hotel, by sixties standards. She rises six stories with a grimy little swimming pool, a cafeteria and bar. The loud juke box is full of rock. There is one blues song. The lobby contains a travel agent and a second hand book shop where you can trade two of your pocket books for one of theirs. On the notice board, by the front door, we read,
‘The Dutch girls I met in Burma, I am in room 202, would like to see you again, Rob’ and
‘Don’t pick up Thai chick outside of the Pussycat Cabaret – she’s a rip off. My friend and I lost $2,000 and got badly beaten up by the guys she works with. She offers massage and takes you to Oriental Hotel on Rama 5. The police won’t do a thing – beware!’ under which is written, in another hand,
‘Too bad, you ole smoothy’.
There is an abundance of drugs, prostitutes and opportunities to encounter Bangkok’s thriving underworld at the Malaysia.
We were told of the Malaysia in Seoul, getting drunk on Soju and eating bulgogi beef with an American couple. A veterinarian and his wife who were heading home after doing the circuit from Europe to Asia, told us,
“Everybody stays at the Malaysia”
We make our way across the street to the Blue Fox. I begin to sweat. My body is adapting to the tropics. It’s affecting my mind. I think evil, violent thoughts in Bangkok. I wake up from dreams of being attacked in the street by Thais. Lots of travellers go through it. I think of the marine I talked to, who was raised in Connecticut, posted to the Philippines. He went through a painful sickness which acclimatized him to the heat. When he returned to the States, he couldn’t stand the cold.
The physical effort of a Canadian or a northern dweller confronting the heat must be more strenuous than that of a person from the south. Coldness is a way of life in Canada. Heat is a vacation.
All I thought about for the past three winters, working in the cold, was escaping to a hot climate. Now I was suffering because of the heat.
It is cool and dark in the Blue Fox Bar, where we find an empty booth, order breakfast.
The owner is a pleasant looking Thai who works behind the bar in blue jeans. He smiles, says hello. His two pretty daughters are serving beer to a few die hard Australians at the bar.
We smoke cigarettes, drink strong coffee while the loud juke box kicks out an endless stream of Beatles, Stones and Bad Company. The daughters only understand a few words on the menu, but mouth each word of the rock songs.
The regular westerners are there every morning at quiet tables, with cigarettes and coffee. Some are guests of the Malaysia, some from the surrounding hotels. The same westerners spend most of their time in the Blue Fox. As the day progresses they switch from coffee to beer or liquor. Most can be found there around closing time.
One guy looks like a French gangster. He is dressed in a tight, black T – shirt with tattoos on his skinny, big veined arms. He wears dark shades, has slicked back, greasy hair with a small, black moustache. Joyce checks out his jewellery, watches him deal.
A pretty, young Thai girl hangs by his side. She disappears, returns with strangers with whom he converses. Sometimes he slips outside with them, to do his deal. He is sitting with two large Americans who look like they just got out of the service. All three stare at the cartoons on the colour tv at the end of the bar.
When breakfast is finished, we can’t put it off any longer and we plunge into the streets of Bangkok.
It’s hard to deal with the unrelenting discomfort of a place like Bangkok. The streets are jammed with traffic which raises an unbearable decibel level of sound. There are the noises of broken mufflers on buses, motorbikes, trishaws, shouts over them. The sound hits you like a wall. We cringe at the loudness on the sidewalks.
On the main streets the air is blue from exhaust fumes. Tension stalks the faces on busy, steaming corners in the heat. The smell, noise and visual spectacle contrast with Buddhist monks who walk around silently, in saffron robes, with empty begging bowls. The population is expected to fill them with food. Everything and everyone is bathed in wet, glaring light.
We walk a short distance to Rama 4, one of the main arteries in Bangkok. There’s Rama 1 to Rama 5 all aiming, like spokes in a wheel, for the centre of town. Rama 4 is a wide six lane boulevard, lined by hotels, stores, wots and parks. It gets worse as it gets closer to the centre where it becomes another high speed, raucous, dirty street.
We walk the two long blocks of Rama 4, turn left for more long blocks, decide to take a trishaw. The sweat, noise and pollution is overwhelming. The trishaws are the worst polluters but cheap. The buses and trucks are bad, but the trishaws are driven till they drop. Mufflers don’t matter. The smoke from their exhausts ranges from black to sky blue.
We flag down a trishaw driven by a tough looking, unshaven Thai, his picture in his i.d. taped to the ceiling. There is a mandatory bargaining – pleading session required before we get in.
He starts high, we start low. He lets us stand, sweating in the heat, drinking in his fumes. He is surviving on the streets of Bangkok. We are haggling over small amounts of money. His trishaw almost doesn’t reach the Siam Centre. He revs the motor all the way. The machine coughs a lot, but makes it.
The Siam Centre is a big, air conditioned complex of businesses like American Express, banks and expensive grocery stores. We make for the coolness as fast as we can stagger. We drag ourselves up the stairs, breathe the cool air. We don’t need to come here, but it’s well air conditioned, so we walk around the grocery store, buy some soft drinks. We have to go across the street to one of the small photo shops, to get a dozen pictures each, for the visas.
We drip dry in the cool air, cross the boulevard to the warren of little streets filled with restaurants and shops for tourists. There is a good six story book store there. A spiral staircase winds up the middle through all six.
The sidewalks are steps down the hill, between stores and cars. There are turds and gray sludge floating by, in open sewers. The kids swim in the filthy canals. There are thousands of monks in saffron robes, bald men and women who walk around, all day, with begging bowls. It used to be compulsory for young men to become a monk for a year. Now you have a choice between becoming a monk or a soldier. The army is winning. The soldiers look like the best dressed people in Bangkok. The soldiers look clean, healthy, purposeful. The monks live in wots and beg for food. They go out early in the morning, the public fills their bowls.
The crowds consist of thousands of people, oriental with western dress, many very poor people, businessmen, big, rich cars with chauffeurs, ordinary people shopping, groups of guys hanging around, hiding from the glare of the sun.
They aren’t a friendly crowd. The boys in Viet Nam did their r&r in Bangkok, so the Thais know the hustle and con. They aren’t impressed by foreigners. Their national sport is kick boxing. We watched it, like hockey at home, in the Blue Fox, all day Saturdays.
At the Indonesian consulate we buy visas for twenty dollars each. They insist that you buy return tickets from Malaysia to Indonesia. We hit the street again, walk all the way back to the Malaysia, to save money.
I buy cold drinks in the lobby of the hotel before we collapse in the room.
The pool scene at the Malaysia is weird. English and Australian guys make fun of Thai girls who withstand everything. The guys drink, put on spectacular diving displays from the railing of the balconies above. The girls stare into space, in silence.
We are stoned on Buddha weed, the whole thing is in slow motion.
Bangkok is everything that’s wrong with Asia. While we are in Thailand the police have a feud with the army, three district police chiefs are shot. There are three different guerilla groups in the south, more in the north, mixed with communists, drug lords and the Golden Triangle.
Bangkok is the capital of it all, the centre. It tears along at its own breakneck speed. People there are on the edge of hysteria.
We leave on a train which is guarded, near the border of Malaysia, by soldiers with sub machine guns and radios.