Sunday, November 11, 2012

Khao San Road

Don't go to Khao San Road. I mean, chances are if you're visiting Bangkok you'll probably visit it, just like the way tourists will visit Dundas Square on Yonge Street in Toronto, Rue St Catherine in Montreal, Rideau Street in Ottawa, the red light district in Amsterdam. But don't stay there long, because you are not experiencing Bangkok.

"Lots of foreigners," says my husband's aunt disdainfully, who is Thai and lives in Bangkok. "That's where all the foreigners go, and that's all they see when they come to Bangkok and that's how Bangkok gets its reputation."

Khao San Road is the Disney version of Bangkok, an adult's artificial fantasy view of a ridiculous land where everyone speaks English, virtually nobody is Thai, drinks are overpriced, and foreigner's bad manners are overlooked because they all want your money. A street vendor sells customized fake driver's licenses and university degrees. A woman pushes a cart full of sedated puppies, claiming she is collecting money for an animal shelter. A vendor sells fried grasshoppers and larvae, charging 10 both for each photo you take of it, leading me to suspect the food's not really for eating but for gawking. A bar called "We Don't Check ID" advertises strong cocktails.

A man asks me if I want a tuktuk taxi ride. I say no. In a much lower voice, he asks my husband if he wants to see a ping pong show. My husband says no.

As you can tell from my travel blog, I love traveling, but I have mixed feelings toward backpacker culture. It's not so much the bad manners, colonialist ignorance, or patchouli smell that I occasionally find; I'm more concerned about how the habits of backpackers affects and transforms the local environment. The most obvious example for me is the presence of henna tattoo and dreadlocking stands, no matter what country I go to. Henna and dreadlock traditions come from specific countries. I certainly don't think Asian hair traditionally required dreadlocking. Yet they've both become a part of backpacker culture; every city's backpacking tourist trap offers these services. Local people's livelihoods then depend on offering these services of an artificial culture that does not exist anywhere except in the ubiquitous backpacking culture. It annoys me, maybe particularly because I dislike hippies.

We liked Roof, though. It was a tourist bar on Khao San Road with overpriced drinks like any other joint, but I liked it for the view it offered. Several stories high, you can sit on the balcony by a cool fan and watch the crowd on the street below.

I liked watching one Indian tailor in particular. There are a lot of Indian tailors here, making a living on the fact that custom-made suits are so cheap here in Asia. He's got to get clients first, so I watch him work the crowd, stopping men and sometimes women that he perceives as potential suit-buyers. He hold up a poster of models wearing Armani suits, trying different pickup lines. One after another, the passersby turn him down or ignore him. The tourists want to eat some pad thai or get a foot massage, not buy a suit. Still, the Indian tailor has to keep trying, otherwise he won't get paid. I watch him go from person to person, with a friendly smile that is only dropped when he thinks nobody is looking. I imagine him waiting for people to get drunk enough to say something to their drinking buddies like, "Hey, after this beer, let's go get some cheap suits, dude." He dreams about one day tailoring real Armani suits in New York for real celebrities like Christian Bale, and not these drunk dreadlocked henna tattooed kids finding themselves by traveling on the family trust fund. He takes a break and drinks some water. I wonder who else can see how tired he is.

Roof has an in-house musician singing songs and taking requests, but only if it's within his repertoire, which seems to be mostly Jack Johnson, the Beatles, and Eric Clapton. The bar is filled with a few Asian tourists, and some old white men with young Thai girlfriends.

Meanwhile, back on the streets below, cops are sweeping through the stands and vendors, the ones without permits i assume, are scrambling to make themselves scarce. A bunch of tacky t-shirt stands magically disappear; the Indian tailors are gone; and I certainly can't see the people selling fake college diplomas anymore. A police officer on a motorcycle stops at one of the stands that are remaining. He walks into the store and walks out with a big bag of stuff. He's doing some of his own shopping. Soon enough, Khao San Road returns back to its normal bustling self.

Last night, we went for dinner with some of Rob's relatives who live in Bangkok. They took us to a lovely restaurant called the Greyhound Cafe, located near the trendy upscale avenue of Soi 55 in Sukhumvit, a large property of land that Rob's aunt's family used to own before it was sold to become a dazzling array of fashion boutiques, flashy restaurants, and fancy nightclubs. The restaurant's logo seems to be suspiciously similar to another greyhound company, but the menu read like a good novel. Usually I'm suspicious of fusion places, but if there's one place that should be able to pull off Thai fusion, it's Thailand. The food selection was a creative play on Asian and western classics, like corned beef spaghetti (with chili), or tender braised beef with rice noodle soup (with chili), or turkey pita pizza (with chili), or make your own noodle-lettuce-beef combo (with chili) or sandwich bits on a soup bowl. My husband's uncle noted that Thais take food seriously here. They don't treat meals as just something to fill themselves up, but an art, a social opportunity, one of the special parts of life. This is the part of Bangkok that I like.