James Batcho, PhD | Khaosan 1996-2019
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Khaosan 1996-2019

BANGKOK. Normally when I come to Bangkok I stay in Sukhumvit. I’ve been doing that since my Busan days, starting around 2009 I guess. This time I’m in the Khaosan Road area. I decided to be a nostalgic tourist. And nostalgic I am.

Khaosan was my Asia deflowering, back in 1996. Actually Seoul was my first landing, as I got off the plane and hopped on the tarmac at snowy Incheon Airport to walk over to another plane bound for Bangkok. My friend and music partner at the time E and I landed sometime well after midnight. M, our mutual friend in the Bay Area, met us at the airport and the three of us hopped into a taxi. I distinctly remember the smell. It was asphalt and incense, plus randomly fluctuating hints of other smells I tried and failed to identify. The smell, that’s the part of Bangkok that hit me first; I can always recall it in an instant.

M had secured us a room before he met us at the airport. The taxi dropped us off at Khaosan and we snaked our way through the supercharged currents of hippies, college students and Thai merchants. Twenty-three years ago, it was a very different scene. There were no families, no kids, for freak’s sake no baby strollers. No one took their kids to Bangkok back then. This place had an edge, a real darkness, a continual feeling of danger, as if anything could happen and the law wouldn’t save you. Thai touts were constantly hitting you up with offers, tuktuks covered the road, and there was mystery down every side alley. It felt like the place was endless and you couldn’t escape any of it.

With M in the lead and moving briskly, we followed with our backpacks held close. He suddenly turned down one of those nameless alleys and we hiked up some stairs to our room. It was the most unassuming looking room I’d ever seen. Three simple beds draped with single white sheets, a ceiling fan, four white walls, no window. That was it. There was a communal toilet and spigot down the hall. I can’t remember if there was toilet paper back then. But I do remember the ubiquitous bucket of water with a ladle everywhere you went. The shower and the toilet were the same room. You showered by holding the spigot with one hand and lathering with the other. I’m guessing the room was probably 200 baht total. That’s how we rolled back then. You went to your guest room to sleep, but you didn’t hang out there; you hung out in the communal lobby area. There were no mobile phones; there was no internet. You relaxed in the communal area lounging on couches, chairs, hammocks or pillows and read a book, listened to a cassette on your Walkman, or talked to people. Occasionally you’d meet really freaky people. But mostly you’d get out and see the city.

Which is what we did that night. Even though it was well into the AM hours and we were dog tired from the flight, we were hungry and wired and ready to see what this world is all about. Khaosan runs all night and so we went out to get food. “What do you guys wanna eat?” M asked. “Noodles” I said. “Heaping helpings” E added. I remember this because back then I always had a Walkman with recording capabilities, and I recorded that first venture out. I think I’ve lost the tapes by now, but I’d listen back to them. I used to tape everything back then. It was my photography. I took pictures as well (with film!). But I liked to do“soundwalks” before they called it that. I remember other sounds: all the touts, constantly; “hello tuktuk”; stereos at bars pumping The Scorpions, Guns N Roses or Oasis; an Australian woman bargaining, “ohhh, much too expensive.” We ate, made our way back, and slept, probably for just a few hours.

For the next two or three days we were in Bangkok my head was in a constant state of dizziness. I must have snaked my way through that area countless times, learning all its curves. Walking down the main drag and some of the other streets and alleys today it comes back to me, that first time. That winding arc of yellowish homes near the roundabout is exactly the same. (Looking it up on Google Maps = Thanon Tanao Rd.) Much of the area is the same. What’s changed is the tourists and that everything’s a Big Show. Everyone is clean and well showered, with urban clothes and new haircuts. This regional ablution of normalcy has infected the milieu and rendered it safe and family friendly, with just enough of an appearance of its old danger to maintain the reputation. Back in ’96 things were done differently. You were very, very far from home. You booked flights using tour guide services. You wrote postcards. You had to walk into one of those shops with rows of telephones inside to call home once a week and let your family know you’re okay. Lonely Planet was your Bible. You were concerned about heath. You took all the right pills, didn’t eat any fruit you can’t peel, didn’t eat anything that wasn’t cooked. Salad was not on the menu. Breakfast was white rice with a fried egg on top, upon which you ladled a bit of clear pepper sauce and a few dashes of Maggi. It cost about 20 baht and it was delicious.

At one point, M told us we have to go to India and Nepal. That was part of the plan anyway, since we had six weeks to spend, but I remember him saying that. We bought our tickets to Calcutta on Khaosan using one of those travel agents. In those days you handed the agent your passport and hoped you’d get it back. Shortly after that, maybe the same day, E, M and I were on a boat taxi on the river. There was only one other person on the boat and we got to talking with him. He had just returned from India. He had a crazed look about him. It looked like India had driven him insane. “Don’t trust anyone!” he kept saying. I remember his description of India well, and once I’d returned, I realized how right he’d been. He said something like: “You’re walking down the road and—Look at that! And you turn the other way and—What the fuck is that!? You keep going and—What’s he carrying on his head!? You look over there—Is that a dead body!?” He just kept going on and on like this, terrified, manic. What a character. But he was right. India and Nepal, that’s another story for another time.

I think we were in Bangkok a little under a week. At one point I split with E and met up with D, my girlfriend at the time. She had made a separate trip over, arriving a week or two before me. (In these days, we young people would talk about travel all the time; it was something only the truly adventurous did, and we’d talk and talk about our plans and then talk and talk about our experiences once we got back.) She was in a different part of the city, around the back of Wat Arun I want to say, because her guest house was along the canals. It was a lovely place, couldn’t be more different than mine, with the canal just outside her window. I remember green plants outside, other smells: soaps and perfumes. We got some dinner and went back to her room. There were candles lit, we unclothed, I remember it well. She hmmed and said “I’ve missed this body…” (No, I didn’t tape this; that’s all memory.)

D had been traveling with some other friends, a lesbian couple, one of whom was the ex-wife of Cory Hart. She had been at Railay Beach, a place E and I were headed next. But before that, D and I went to Ayutthaya and spent a night there.

Back in Bangkok I said goodbye to D, and E and I left on a midnight bus for Railay. M had already left for Nepal by that point and told us to meet him at the Boudhanath stupa in Kathmandu on a particular day around noon. That’s how we had to do it then. There was no other way to get in touch. Not by phone, not by post. If you made plans to meet up with someone, you tried to hit that mark and hoped for the best. I’m sure that’s what happened with me and D in Bangkok too. Anyway, we did meet him on that day. There he was, circling the stupa.

You never forget your first time. Bangkok was my introduction to Asia. Walking around the area these past few days and nights, I bring back what I can. It’s still there, the spirits, the echoes, the smells. I remember it like a hint of a childhood home. The energy is different. Everything feels less edgy. Like me. Whatever it is now, obviously this place left an impression on me. Asia has been my home for the past 12 years. I think they call that love.