Bangkok: Back to the Future

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An eye-blink of a redeye flight from Delhi (less than four hours) returns us to the 21st century, which greets us in Thailand (“The Land of Smiles”) with such novelties as an air-conditioned, metered taxi ride on a modern highway — with painted lanes that drivers actually use! Our tucked-away guesthouse is on a quiet narrow lane, whose washed surface is, amazingly, free of excrement, trash piles, and dung-splattered livestock. We are flabbergasted by the spotlessness – of our room, the street outside, the lobby floor – everything.

Never mind that we are seeing only the inside of one of the city’s sheltered budget tourist neighborhoods, whose services are carefully tailored to discriminating travelers like ourselves. Not yet ready to seek out a more authentically Thai experience in this cosmopolitan capital, we are content to revel in the simple pleasure of so many choices – a thousand options of cuisine, media, and shopping which were just not present in India, not even in Delhi or Calcutta, let alone medieval Varanasi or small-town life in Birpara. Nearly anything we could possibly want is here in Bangkok.

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We celebrate this fact with hour-long foot massages and pedicures, followed by delectable bruschetta, pizza, and a large bottle of Beer Chang, which is infinitely tastier than any of India’s sour-tasting brews (which, even if I did fancy them, were often semi-legal or prohibitively difficult to obtain; I recall furtive bottles of Kingfisher “Super Strong,” wrapped in Hindi newspaper and brought to my door with a conspiratorial wink and a smile by some hotel staff who expected baksheesh in addition to the 100 percent profit he’d charged me). Here on Soi Rambutri, however, there are dozens of backpacker bars, and then there are improvised street bars between those bars – the latter being loose collections of plastic tables with chalkboard signs advertising Beer Chang, Singha, and Heinekens. And if that doesn’t suit me, I can pick up a frosty tall-boy at the 7-11 next to our alley entrance!

For this is Banglamphu, home of Kao San Road, arguably the most famous international backpacker ghetto in the world, with its cluttered neon, 24-hour services and hordes of just-back-from-the-beach blondes, showing more skin (backs, shoulders, thighs – both male and female) than we’ve seen in a half a year, since our Parisian springtime on the banks of the Seine.

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This meat market of salacious and sexy travelers is complemented by piles of pink flesh-for-sale along the roads: “beef, pork, chicken, sausage!” say the signs; roasted and grilled, or deep-fried and salted, as is the meat at one stand selling grasshoppers and beetle grubs. Again, this is new to us, after India, the land of illegal cattle slaughter and shit-ingesting street swine, where not a bite of beef or pork passed our lips during five months on the subcontinent; nor are we tempted by this sudden availability of dead tissue, except of course, for the seafood, which is fresh and succulent and drowned in delicious “Chinese gravy.”

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We spend the next few days in this immaculate, comfortable splendor, enjoying so much modernity: Internet and ATMs on every corner, street vendors who “buy and sell everything,” especially, it seems, counterfeit Birkenstocks, pirated Lonely Planet books, and cheap Armani suits.

As I’ve hinted, it all creates quite a strong lens through which to look back at India, an experience whose intensity was already difficult to process, and is all the more so as we are immersed in an entirely new land and culture, poised to enter yet another entirely new country. Because Bangkok, this time around anyway, is merely a respite, a way-station, resting up and making reservations; we’ll save the site-seeing for later in the month when our mothers arrive. We lighten our loads here by locking up some extra baggage and, before we realize what is happening, we’re off again, this time for Cambodia.

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