So here I was, the boat out to the island, thinking I was finally free from Bangkok. In the end, I never got away from the city.
Because the whole time I’d been there, Bangkok had been taking things from me.
On the first day, it took my eyes.
I’ve always been so good at directions: pulling hold like an fishing line through my ability to watch the world around me, I’ve never been too far from where I am supposed to be. Bangkok made it pretty evident from the get go that this would not be the case the first hour from stepping out of my hostel, when I realized after twenty minutes of walking that I’d been going in the opposite direction. Ooops.
On the second day, it took my feet.
Blame the sandals. Or, blame me buying my main set of footwear from a stall on Khao San, pushing down to two dollars a set of straw planks with two hemp cords for support. Or, blame me for having the tenacity to break them in by walking through the whole city on them. I didn’t walk as much on the other days combined as I did on that second day. Granted, I was still in the mindset that you could ride a bus going a vaguely correct direction and wind-up where you want (like any other city I’ve been to in Asia), not realizing that getting something ‘soooorta right’ soooorta puts you back a couple kilometers worth of personal re-routing.
I was having so much fun visiting colonial-homes-turned-mansions with eerie backstories (The Jim Thompson House), or riding local boats down the canal at forty miles an hour, I didn’t realize how much the rope was cutting into my feet. It was still a dull pain, just all part of the pounding heat, thirst and particular bite of the equatorial sun.
They had to start bleeding for me to notice; it had to literally draw a line across my big toe before I noticed something was wrong. Suddenly my feet were screaming, and here I was, lost in the cottonball rats maze of the Old Quarter, with lots of old beautiful canals and colorful houses but no way out. I somehow wound up in the endless alleys of Chinatown—entire streets covered in neon sign canopy, backalleys covered in elevator grates that looked in on colored rooms—not knowing how I got there or where I was supposed to go. My feet were curling in on themselves from the pain. I know I managed to walk back to the hostel, but in my mind I’d been dragging my hands across the floor.
My feet never did get better : every footstep gave a little strike of pain after that, and the open soars meant having to wear runners, meaning I had to wear pants, meaning that oven suddenly jumped an extra ten degrees.
On the fifth day, it took my stomach.
It was the food. The beautiful, fascinating, festering food. Steaming on the grill, stinking in the sun. My friend warned me against the street food, saying I was there for too short a time to make gastritis worth it. What he said made perfect sense until I saw all the dishes put out in front of me, everywhere I walked by—patthai plates and rolling skewers and egg noodles ready for your seat and service, ready for your belly. I tried it tentatively at first, and not getting foodsick that second day made me confident: I jumped into world-traveller mode—“local food? Oh I got this. What are you doing, going to a restaraunt?” Yeah, I was definitely in danger of becoming that douche…
Until that idea caved in and my stomach started swelling. See, I didn’t recognize that food acclimatization sickness is more a trend than a moment: it’s never just the one. I learned this on the boat out to Koh Samet, when my stomach took the chance to stage its revolution in the tiny cubby-hole toilet I had to squeeze into while the waves rocked us. Food repulsion gives life a strange quality: the sight of dripping noodles makes your stomach stick to the edge of your skin, and when you don’t eat and the sun’s draining your nutrients things start to get strange, fast.
Strange enough that, on the sixth day, it took my head.
Because I didn’t escape the city; it followed me here. Koh Samet, being only three hours away, becomes the natural place for wealthy-ish Bangkokers to come, let loose, and get a little swashtey on the sand. You can’t see the stars when the lights of the resorts and the flame rods cast into the sky by the dancers dilute the night, and you can barely hear the waves past that wasp’s nest of clinking glasses and raucous chanting and club beats.
I’d left the party, the party hadn’t left me. But now I was strung out like a ball of yarn scattered across the floor; I needed space, air, clarity. Not this noise that threw my stomach in its Adderall-dragged throwback. I’d find my refuge.
That sixth day, I set out looking for that refuge. Even while my stomach jumped and danced to a much faster rhythm, I marched on, pushing throug the burning sand, cutting my feet on the jagged cliff faces. There was always another bend in the beach, and always another party round the corner tequila-bombing-martini-sundaeing to its dependable beat of Calvin Harris and Major Lazer. All while I was getting dizzier—my water’d run out, but I barely noticed because, by this point, it hurt so much to drink it that my stomach was happy to see it go.
By the time I’d made it to the far southeast tip of the island, my guts had been sucked out through a vacuum, and I mistrusted the bones being used to stand. But I could keep going, I’d find the southern point, where I’d be the only one and could drift back into myself… I just needed to lie down, if only for a couple seconds in the shade; I only needed to close my eyes…
I woke up to the blood red sky and my screeching head. Something had changed. My head was strapped to iron weights, the marrow’d been sucked out of my bones. But it was more than that. I was watching the sunset and no longer felt anything past the pain. Something more intangible had disappeared—I wasn’t thinking about that southern point anymore; doubting it ever existed in the first place. I knew I needed to get back to the hostel now, but I hadn’t realized till then that my zombie walk there turned out to’ve taken me almost ten kilometres down the island.
In the long walk back up the highway I used to save time, my energy plummeted and my headache got worse and worse. Patches of that walk have been fuzzed out now, but I know that by the time I reached the main village, lightning bolts were striking through my head, the tiki-bar luou-lit sphere of the main village jumped between a Technicolor dreamworld like an overexposed TV from the 60’s, or was drained of color completely. I was living in Instagram filters, and it was terrifying.
I only got to recognizing how close I’d come to heatstroke the following morning, after the cholkhold of fear relaxed slightly and I was able to accept just how stupid I’d been. Because the night became a dip-dive through trips to the toilet or nightmaresville (open headsores and deformed pelvises), finally broken up when I pulled my mattress from its third-level capsule to the space on the floor directly under the air conditioning (some very snooty French girls made loud comments about my state of decomposure in a language they thought I didn’t understand, and for once it gave me a strange kind-of satisfaction to know I played a part in ruining their night, too).
I ended up not being completely sure what had happened on the island–I’d just spent twenty-four hours on what many would call a “little slice of paradise” crashing and passing. Even the water was too hot; my Canadian instincts just kept telling me that the ocean shouldn’t feel like bathwater. That whole day was spent feeling like there was something inherently wrong with this whole scene: the sunlight, the postcard visuals, the locals, me. Here you had these pristine beaches, surf like fingers trailing across your back, palm-fronds and golden shadows, and then would suddenly get an upsurge of some chemical mixture of garbage and decay, and I’d realize I was still in Bangkok with a different mask. And in trying to finally escape it, I crashed.
It’s become so hard to admit I’m wrong when it comes to travelling. Following my nose.Not making plans, but rather constelations–points across the sky–to connect in a haphazard way that I can make meaning out of. I set out, I go running, find something amazing. That’s not to say that didn’t still happen here, but it became increasingly strained, and all of it ended up costing me. And everyone’d told me this would happen: get out of Bangkok as soon as you can; eat the street food in minimal portions if you’re just there for a week; stay hydrated, for the love of God stay hydrated. But I just treated it like I did any other Asian city: loudly, in the moment, treating tomorrow like the far shore, the island I’d never get to.
The end result being that the second four days were the fallout from the first four. Two of those days were spent mostly crammed into the minibus there or back from the island (it was supposed to take 3 hours, but there you go–Bangkok), and when I got back into Bangkok I had a mini-panic attack when I realized I’d spent my last couple of baht on McDonalds (an attempt at comfort food, except this burger tasted nothing like home, it’s thin overchared patty was just more Bangkok, was the regurgitation of the street food I’d thrown up) and couldn’t even ride the bus back to my hostel when all the currency exchange stalls in the area were closed. And suddenly I was scared. I knew nobody, knew nothing, and my body was held together on paperclips and sticky glue.
How I ended up getting back to my hostel is no story at all: in a regular headspace it’d be barely a problem, more a nuissance to set me back twenty-thirty minutes. What’s important here is the way it broke me; the way I suddenly was groaning through the train station, glaring at everyone pushing past me, or how it reduced me to my lowest common denominator–hating Thailand and everyone in it. Hating myself for not being able to handle this one.
And I wonder what, exactly, I was trying to get out of this trip. Was I looking for more of what I was used to– a different East Asian city to party through in safety and even (dare I say) style? So why didn’t I go to Taiwan? Had I ever really been willing to take Bangkok at its full Bangkokness, in its heat and rudeness its collected chaos; in its utter foreigness to everything I’d ever come across before?
The easy answer is that in 8 days, I wasn’t. When I sat strapped to the plane there as it readied for takeoff, I had this sudden feeling of vertigo–a rising filling helium baloon in my stomach–that I’ve only ever had twice in my life. Once was on the plane to Europe, and therefore Paris. The other was to Japan. I should have taken note that this feeling, which hadn’t come on the way to Seoul or Hong Kong, meant something really crazy and really new was coming my way full throttle, and I needed to be ready. Instead, I lived like I have in Tokyo, Seoul, or Hong Kong, treated it as just another place to push my body to its limits.
It was only on that last day I realized that, as much as I’d been challenging my body, I hadn’t been doing much with my brain at all; I’d let myself think and process the place the same way I would with things I’d done before. On day number 8, I recognized that, this whole sweaty time of it, I’d been going through similar ferris-wheels of culture shock as to what I’d went through those first two weeks in Japan. That last day, I found myself laughing at tuk-tuks whizzing by, crying listening to the Parisian french being used by tourists on the subway with me, smiling and grimacing, yelling and singing–and ultimately breathing, listening, taking it all in finally at its full measure.
And there was a moment at dusk–that point between the worlds, when the poison of the sun trades off for the cocktails of the night–I stood by a nightmarket on one side and a park on the other. People were having an arobics class, dancing to some sped-up hip hop beat dug up from the Jane Fonda-era of sort-out-yo-life spandex, and in the middle, one woman with frizzy hair was dancing her poodle. I couldn’t stop laughing. And for a moment I understood this place. And suddenly, I was back on the plane, the moment passed, and I lost that understanding again.
It makes me go back to a question I was asking myself in one of my most important pieces and trips– up to the Kiso Valley when Japan was at its most magical–why exactly I go on these trips. I’m searching for some kind of freedom, but what exactly does that freedom mean, when I’m just gonna go back to work again soon enough?
It’s a question inevitably framed by my own privelage: the white guy in Asia, demanding to live it up because that’s his, in a messed-up sense, birthright. Of course that’s never a concsious desire, but when I go to these places, demanding fun and life-changing moments with the same hand, isn’t that a part of it? I couldn’t ever have everything on this trip, thinking I could go to one of the world’s most complex cities and cultures, and thinking I would be able to drink myself in a frenzy and still somehow understand it.
This time I was wrong.
And it makes me think of those really rare, and therefore precious, quiet moments in these eight days. The train ride out to Ayutthaya. The village on stilts and its gleaming temple in the center of the island. The farmhouse we found with the Confucian-scroll chickens. The art piece in the Jim Morison museum that looked at globalization through 1960’s San Fran jams. Those glimmers I felt at peace there; that’s when I can recognize I understand so little of this place I spent my week of forty-thousand hangovers.
So of course I’m going back.