Number 2–First Stop; Kao San Road
Variously described as a zoo, circus or madhouse, Bangkok's Kao San Road is almost invariably the budget traveler's first stop in Thailand, and often their first stop in SE Asia. From morning to late evening it's a street fair and nonstop sensory assault. It’s a garish multilayered riot of color – in the form of baubles, beads, fabric, trinkets, statues and splashy hippie clothes for sale; sound – with loud competing stereos blasting from all directions from a dense scattering of pirate copy music stalls. There are a multitude of visa and travel service shops with their windows tackily plastered with airline stickers and thousands of people of many hues – local and traveler. All those parts, all cacophonously jammed together, crowd the street, sidewalk and dozens of tiny alleys and narrow walkways that branch off of it.
Bangkok is the cheapest and easiest place in this region to fly in and out of and gateway to all of the surrounding countries. No matter when you arrive you can find a place to stay on Kao San and anything you might want or need to continue your journey. The budget tourist strip has begun an upscale climb in recent years but you can still get a spartan room for $5 or less. And they’ve even, much to my wonder and appreciation, did an interesting stone pavement for parts of it and restricted traffic at night to turn it into a pedestrian mall.
However, I quickly tired of the brazenness of it all after the first couple of times I happened to land in BKK. I searched out places to stay that were close enough to access and enjoy the scene when I wanted but far enough to be quiet and local; reflecting how Bangkokians really live.
This time two nights in BKK was plenty for me so I was anxious to leave even though I had barely recovered from jet lag. Struck up a conversation with Jacques at the bus stop on the way to the train station for the short – 50 mile – trip to the ancient city of Ayuttaya. Half the city's area is taken up with ancient ruins dating back to the 15th century.
He's my age, gets $350/ month from the French government as welfare – he says, like the homeless. He's supposed to be living in France but every three months when the official form comes a friend forges his signature and sends it back. He's been on the road for most of 30 years and says he often stays at monasteries and can save money even on $350 an month! I was impressed. It was especially nice to meet another itinerant wandering geezer.
The day before I had read in a guide book that some savvy travelers skip the big city altogether and just go north from the airport to Ayuttaya – the airport is halfway in between Bangkok (10 million) and Ayuttaya (100,000). He said the same thing although he'd never been to Ayuttaya himself. He's got a hearing problem so he can just turn down his hearing aid to shut off the constant big city din. It’s definitely too much for me. Next time for sure Ayuttaya will be my first choice – it's totally mellow relative to BKK – and has days of ancient temple ruins to wander through, not to mention lots of greenspace which can pretty rare in the typical Thai city.
The flight left on 11-11-01. My mom just moved to a new apartment – after 36 years in Manhattan – in suburban Minneapolis numbered 11111. My flight into BKK was numbered 211, get it 2-11. My room in the Bangkok guesthouse was 211. The train north was, you guessed it, 211. What does it all mean? Nothing and everything–everything has meaning, all is connected, but none (or few) of us mortals is privy to the puzzle. The sequence was broken here in Ayuttaya, we'll see what comes next.
Found an ideal cheap place to chill here in Ayuttaya – easy living for a few months if the occasion should ever arise and good potential for teaching. Here it’s mostly classroom type as opposed to Bangkok where you can often teach small groups. The guest house has light airy rooms on a quiet street with a large yard and garden. It even has 2 hammocks already in place. A single with shared toilet and cold water shower is all of $2.20 a night; double $3.40. 'Cold water' does not mean the same in Thailand where it never gets cold, but it's still not easy for me unless it's the midst of the hottest season, which means both I'm steaming and the water is lukewarm. But small price to pay, so to speak, for the privilege of being out and about flitting around the world for extended periods.
My second night in Ayuttaya I headed over to a little neighborhood traveler bar hoping to scare up some companionship or conversation. There wasn’t much happening; it looked like it might be an early night. Then Favielo and Nello walked in, but they were speaking Italian. Faviello was staying at my guesthouse so I invited myself over and asked if they wouldn't mind speaking English. Turns out Nello has spent his life in England and only speaks a little Italian; he's out for a couple of months travel. Favielo is so warm and high-spirited he puts the words ebullience and effervescence to shame. He's married to a Vietnamese woman. They've recently spent a couple of years in India and around but she's home visiting family while he's off for a month in Thailand and Laos.
At the end of our (double size) beers and much ebullience it seems too quiet where we are so we head next door to the outdoor dining area of a large guest house to continue carrying on. A short time later two French Canadian gals named Isabelle – who has an armband tattoo which includes the Chinese character for difference, but says she's really not very different – and Pascalle who has brilliant deep dark eyes, sit down across the aisle and in no time we're off for another large beer's worth of partying. Midnight the gals leave and I discover Nello is holding, so he picks up his stash and we're off to my room to take a few puffs and laugh it up until two. Killed that night okay.
Next afternoon, as luck and serendipity and my guardian angels would have it I come across the gals waiting out a late night train at the sidewalk café; took off where we left off the previous night. One of the greatest things about traveling is the ease of meeting and talking to people. In America you’d almost never sit yourself down at a stranger’s table and nonchalantly begin conversing, whereas here it’s the simplest, most natural thing. And, of course, they come from all over the world.
Next stop the gateway town to Khao Yai National Park. I wanted to stay in the park but word was the Leonid meteor showers caused all of the park's lodging to be booked up way in advance. The showers were happening about 4 am and it's a small town. Even if it wasn’t as perfect a spot to view them as it would’ve been in the park it's still bound to be spectacular.
The 2 1/2 hour, 80 mile, whistle stop, third class, hard seat train ride from Ayuttaya to the gateway town costs 50 cents. Hard seat refers to straight-backed bench type seats that, in fact, usually have cushioned seats. Thai trains are a great bargain. For at least as long as I’ve been riding them, since 1992, the government hasn’t allowed the prices to rise. They’ve done a lot of track work in the last few years so the ride is smooth and reasonably fast and they’re very dependable; they start right on time. In contrast to the great new trackage the newest cars in the system look to be at least 40 years old, but small price to pay, so to speak, for a leisurely ride through the Thai countryside.
It's breezy with the windows open and occasional wafts of diesel smoke blowing through. One of the great things about the third world is their casual attitude toward things which would be unthinkable in America, like being able to ride in an open doorway as the train is speeding along. The temperature is in the 80's – borderline sweat territory for me, and I don't sweat easily – but half the people on the train are wearing light jackets!
Every stop 5 to 10 mobile vendors – selling whole meals in a styrofoam tray, bbq chicken on a bamboo stick, snacks, drinks and more – get on. They range in age from 10 to grandparents and walk back and forth continuously until the next stop where they wait for the next train in the other direction. They are beyond optimists; they always seem to carry far more than they can ever reasonably expect to sell.