Sunday, June 19, 2011

Arriving in Bangkok

Wow.  A normal hotel room.

I sat awed by the free bottled water, the electric kettle and teabags, the new A/C unit and remote control, the crisp white sheets, the ornately carved bed, and the mini-fridge with the label still on it.

To be fair, it might have just been my jetlag that was awed. I'd been on a plane overnight and been through multiple time zones. I was exhausted and semi-delirious.

Aware that my old standby—the Viengtai Hotel on Rambuttri near Khao San—had worn itself out before my first stay there in the year 2000, I'd dug around online last night while tucked in under many blankets in Johannesburg Airport's Terrylin Backpackers dormitory room. (The southern hemisphere gets chilly this time of year.) I'd ended up booking three nights at Feung Nakorn Balcony, though it was in an in-between area by Wat Po, not really near anything I needed to be near. The TripAdvisor reviews were excellent and the price was right. I was trying to avoid the madness of Khao San Road—I fancied myself past the point where I could stand all the drunken kiddies—but I didn't really want to stay next to a downtown shopping mall either.

The hotel charged by the piece for laundry, so after a long nap, I collected my dirty clothes and traipsed up the street, ten minutes walk, to Khao San. There was Cherry Laundry, right where it had always been in the alley across from Viengtai. They aren't especially good but they charge by the kilo, not by the piece, and all Khao San laundries are of equal adequate quality. They use machines and dry in the sun. They iron if you pay extra.

I found a mango-and-sticky-rice seller, thank god. I'd been worried I'd be here in the wrong season for mangoes. Mango-and-sticky-rice may well be my most favorite food on earth, except maybe for fresh Egyptian mango juice and mango smoothies. Notice a trend here?

I nearly fell asleep while getting a Khao San facial, manicure, and pedicure. Note that these generally suck, but they are dirt-cheap. I was more interested in quickly cleaning up my wrecked hands and feet after all the four months across Africa. And my nostalgia for the continent was in a big of a panic—would I ever go back? Was that it for me and Africa? Was I done, given that I'm ready to get a real job, home, dog when I get back to New York?

And what about Bangkok? I felt a weird mixture of relief at being somewhere familiar mixed with nostalgia for an easier, grimier pre-boutique Khao San, mixed with apprehension. I was going to be here a month. Where would I live? How much had changed?

I looked for the place I'd have coffee with Sareena Rai in the year 2001. She lives in Kathmandu and had called my name from down the street. How had she recognized me from down the street in a city neither one of us expected to see the other in? From my Marvel trading card.

The place I'd had coffee with Sareena was gone, replaced by a Japanese noodle shop.

But my favorite street side pad thai restaurant was still there. I sat down to some outstanding, fresh pad thai and a mango smoothie.

Mmmmmm. Laundry, mani/pedi, facial, nice hotel, pad thai, mango-and-sticky rice, smoothie...soon I'd get an iced coffee. Within a few days, I'd need to buy oil-free soap, find a hair colorist, and sort out where to get my iPhone fixed. The SIM tray had quit going in when I'd changed the SIM in the Antananarivo airport. I'd found a recommendation online for "Tan's Telecom," a place in MBK mall downtown, but today's ambitions didn't extend beyond walking distance of my hotel.

I lay on a lounge chair in a row of lounge chairs later that evening, after my second pad thai of the day. A man was massaging my feet, which is one of the outstandingly cheap, high-quality things you can have done in the Khao San area, and I chatted to the woman sitting next to me and to the man attacking my food with a small stick.

I was done with Africa for now. Maybe forever, but maybe not. I'd built a month's rest in Bangkok into my schedule. Time for move on, forget about Congo and Namibia and Cape Town and Mali.

For the moment, it was all about Bangkok.

All about mango-and-sticky-rice.

And--ouch--all about men poking my feet with a stick.

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