Bangkok feels like this.
Bangkok is a neon, crumbling, madhouse.
And Victory Monument is the worst cluster fuck of it all. You tumble out of the mini van and into the middle of a traffic nightmare that makes Manhattan look like a prairie town. You have two hours until the last bus leaves to Suratthani, and you are going to be on that damn bus.
To cross the street you have to climb up to the sky bridge, slammed with a rush of people pouring out of the BTS. School kids in white shirts and black skirts hold out boxes for orphanage donations, a burned man with bubbling pink skin holds out his hand for change. You curse the man taking up space on the bridge trying to sell tee-shirts and kids toys. Everybody moves too slow.
Across the street from MacDonald’s the queue for the taxi is a string of people crowded onto the curb of the sidewalk, running at the first taxi that stops. Twenty taxis pass by with their lights on before a single one stops. You jump up and ask for the Southern bus terminal. He waves dismissively and takes off before the person behind you even has the chance to jump in. This happens four times in half an hour. It’s no good. You’re going to have to take the train.
The sky train is freezing. Why is it always freezing? It’s the only damn time you ever feel cold in Thailand is inside the goddamn sky train. It’s packed so tight with people that there’s not even space to grab onto a pole. When it lurches up you bend your knees to keep from knocking into the people surrounding you.
Three stops, a transfer at Siam, then five more stops—eight total. You look at the clock on your phone, though you know it’s not going to make getting there any faster. It will be 7pm by the time you reach the river. When do the boats stop running? You don’t know, but you hope it’s not before seven.
When the train stops at the last stop you run. You’ve been here only once more than two months ago, but everything looks familiar. You run to dock give a handful of coins to the woman at the plastic folding table with cash box. She gives you a paper ticket and you board the skinny little express boat.
The river is the most beautiful place in Bangkok. It’s the only place where the buildings fall away and you finally get to see the sky. At night the river turns black and the boats all look like floating lanterns. The air here is as fresh as it’s going to get in this city.
It’s just a few days after Christmas. You were only supposed to get a four day weekend for New Year’s Eve, but you finished grading your exams early and got the thursday and friday off too. You graded like crazy all day Wednesday with a phone stuck to your ear, calling every damn hostel on the island, looking for something that wasn’t already booked. It took four hours to find a free bungalow. You spent Christmas alone, grading papers and drinking wine coolers in your empty apartment, crying because you still just miss your kitten. But New Year’s won’t be like that. New Year’s is going to be fucking epic.
You run off of the deck and it’s 7:40pm. The last bus leaves at eight. No time to catch a bus; you need a taxi—now. But the street in front of you is empty. You run to the main road. A motorcycle taxi sees you and stops. He doesn’t know what the Southern bus terminal is, but when you show him the map on your phone he understands. You hop on the back and fly.
Motorcycle taxis in Bangkok are like those fair rides that you were too afraid to go on as a kid, only way more dangerous. You fly in between trucks on the freeway, praying that you don’t clip your knees on a car mirror or fall over the edge of the highway barrier. You hold onto the back of the seat and try to stifle little cries of fear. You try closing your eyes but that only makes it worse, so you keep them open as the wind plasters your face and try to watch the traffic ahead.
Then you get there; you finally get to the bus stop just 7 minutes before the last bus leaves. You want to hug the taxi driver—who’s pretty cute, by the way. But instead you just give him a tip and run into the station. You run up and up and up and around, you find the counter. “Surrat Thani please!” But of course they are all sold out. They are all sold out for the next day too. You should have known this. It’s New Year’s after all.
But then a shady looking guy pulls you aside and a pregnant woman writes you a ticket for Phuket. You’ll be going in a mini-van—a very crowded mini-van. It’s a ten hour drive. Your jammed up around a wall of luggage. Its worse than the worst airplane flight you could think of. Then the woman in front of you leans her seat back—all the way back. And so the night ride begins.
The ride itself is uneventful. The air conditioning is too damn cold, but you expected that. You take out a towel and spread it over yourself. And you try to sleep in the cold darkness.
At three in the morning you stop at a 7-11 and get out to use the squat toilets, and you’re bleeding. Fuck. You forgot about your period and now it’s here—two months late but right on time to come at the worse time. You buy some pads at the 7-11 and accept the fact that you’re going to have wet, dirty underwear the rest of the trip there.
At four am your van stops at the same place as a bunch of other buses, and for the first time two months you see scores of falang kids pouring out of the buses, buying mangoes and fried chicken. You feel a rising excitement. I’m getting there. I’m getting there. Soon I’ll be on beaches surrounded with people—people I can talk with, smoke with, drink with, have sex with. You feel the isolation lifting. You’re so excited that you want to say something to them but you feel shy and awkward like you’ve forgotten how to start a conversation. Then you all get back into the van.
You’re smart enough to not let your phone die in night. You might need it for something. You keep it turned off to save the battery. Every few hours you turn it back on and check where you are on the map. The progress is slow.
When dawn comes you haven’t slept more than a couple hours all night. You open up the map on your phone and see that you’ve finally made it. You’re at the border of the province of Surat. All they need to do now is turn due east and you’ll be in Surat Thani. But there’s a problem—there’s always a problem.
This driver isn’t going to Surat—he’s going to Phuket, and suddenly half the Thai people in the van are pissed because they bought tickets for Krabi, not for Phuket, but you’re the only one headed for Suratthani.
This is when experience kicks in. You could get really pissed off, feel powerless over the situation, ride the extra three hours to Phuket, then turn around and take another minivan back to Surat, or you could find a solution. There’s two bilingual Thai people in the van with you. You’re stopped at a gas station and there’s two double decker buses also filling up, buses full of white people. You walk over and ask where the bus is heading, and English man in brown sandals and white socks says Suratthani—they’re all headed to Koh Samui and Koh Pha Nagn. Jackpot.
The driver doesn’t speak English so you run over and ask one of your fellow passengers to help translate for you. Through him, you ask the driver if there is any room on his bus. There aren’t any passenger seats left, but there is the seat next to the driver. He says you can sit there and ride with them.
And you’re off again.
The sun is coming up and you can see the landscape now—banana trees and straight, straight roads. There’s a rising feeling of triumph. It’s several more hours still until you reach Surat, until you get on that boat bound for the island. But you know now that you are going to make it, that everything is going to work out. At the dock, the bus driver refuses the cash you offer him. That’s the way Thailand is –for ever tout who screws you there’s someone who goes out of their way to help you for no reason.
By the time you make it onto the boat the sun is full up and beating down on you, lighting up that water to the most miraculous shade of blue you’ve ever seen. It’s the color that would have been your favorite as a kid if you had known that it existed. The boat is crowded with tan falang kids in sunglasses and tank tops—everywhere you see legs and flip flops and tanned toes. You sit on the side of the boat, take off your shoes, and swing your legs over the railing. For two hours you watch the water churn up in big waves of white foam and little lumps of land come into view and disappear. And then you see it, the island you set off to find 20 hours ago is growing larger and larger in front of you.
They usher everyone off the boat straight into minivans bound for different beaches. You’re going to the north, to Mae Nam. You’re the only one who get’s dropped off and your guest house and for a moment you panic because all you see when the van drives off are ruins of orange walls. Then you walk through the rubbish and see a line of neat little wooden huts with concrete paths and tiny gardens full of sand and skinny trees and pots of aloe vera plants. And to your right is the ocean—the empty, quiet, ocean.