Thailand was the first foreign country I ever visited, when I was just 19 years-old. I don't believe I will feel culture shock as cutting or as cool as that ever again, unless I manage to travel to an alien planet, or at least to sub-Saharan Africa!
It was late 1992, and I was en route to the Middle East with my man Garnet Mae. We had a couple of days to kill in Bangkok, awaiting our Turkish Airlines connection. Arriving in the dead of night at the city's old Don Mueang International Airport (ท่าอากาศยานดอนเมือง), we decided to proceed to the Khao San Road guesthouse area, with a mad Englishman and Irishman to split the taxi fare.
It was my first night in Asia, and everything about the place amazed me.
The heat, the nonchalance with which the taxi driver careered us through the traffic, the lack of functioning seatbelts. The humidity, whole families hanging out of the back of pickup trucks (they may well have been SpaceCabs, or at least some precursor to the SpaceCab invasion.)
Throngs of people on the streets, despite the fact it was nearly midnight. Gridlock and pandemonium, and what made it even more surreal, was that the taxi we rode inside was an exact replica of my Dad's blue Holden Commodore (I later discovered that they were both Golf rip-offs.)
That said, my Dad never gunned his Commodore down the wrong side of the road the way our Thai taxi driver did that night, cursing his fellow motorists. I hung on to the roofstrap for dear life as we shuttled through ever shabbier and more colorful districts, into the Old City. Trees were wrapped with strings of blinking lights, while behind them, vast billboards rose advertising Japanese and American firms. We were all convinced that the taxi driver was going to rip us off. When he finally pulled up on the kerb and announced that we had arrived at Khao San Road, none of us believed him.
Getting out of the car, I was startled to see some Thai police leading a shirtless guy past us, bound by handcuffs and covered with tattoos.
And I thought to myself: What kind of country is this?
I did not know it at the time, but at the head of Khao San Road there stands a massive (and apparently historic) police station. Anyway, after spending nearly 8 years in Asia now, guys in handcuffs no longer alarm me. I have even worn them myself on the odd occasion, and played the role of the scary criminal on the great stage of life.
I have loosened up, and Khao San Road no longer scares me.
But will it fascinate me again? that is the great question, as I await my next trip there, in just a couple of weeks. I am not a virgin anymore, sexually and travelwise, and I know that the first time is always means much more, than the 2nd or 3rd time around (let alone the 8th or 9th)... (For my evolving guide to Bangkok's Golden Mile and what you can find there, click here.)