Pretty much everything I know about Bangkok comes from the mystery novels of three writers whose work I admire very much: Timothy Hallinan, John Burdett, and Christopher G. Moore. Because their books focus upon hard-line criminal activity, I have perhaps cultivated a stronger impression of the city’s seamy underbelly than I might have otherwise, and thus less of an impression of any other facet of The City of the Angel. And, I have to say, I was quite curious as to how reality would square up against my preconceptions.
I wound up here partly by design and partly by chance. Having spent a month in Indonesia around this time last year, I really wanted to get back to Southeast Asia in a big way. By midwinter I find myself craving the tropics, both for the weather and for the longer hours of sunlight that seem to elude me both in Japan and in Prince Edward Island. Bangkok, I am happy to say, is far enough south that it will not disappoint on either count. The chance part factors into the equation by virtue of the fact that a flight to Bangkok was about $100 cheaper than a flight to Singapore, and since I had never been to either place, Bangkok won out.
I arrived late in the evening, after a pair of flights, the first from Tokyo to Seoul, the second from Seoul to Bangkok. The first flight was close to empty, and I had a whole row of seats to myself (literally the whole row, window to window). As I had gotten up fairly early in the morning, I took the opportunity to pretty much snooze my way to Korea, awakening once to have a look for Mt. Fuji’s peak peeking up through the clouds (no luck there), and once to have a bite of lunch. The layover in Seoul was fairly short, a bit more than an hour. I realized upon arriving that I had neglected to bring any Korean money, and it seemed kind of silly to use my American Express card to buy just a bottle of water, so I contented myself with reading at the departure gate, and hoping that the flight attendants would bring the cart around with something to drink early on in the flight. This time the plane was close to full; my seatmate was a young Korean woman named Jeong-Lye (I hope I have spelled that right); she spoke quite good English and we spent most of the six-hour flight in conversation. We chatted endlessly about her job, my comparative lack thereof, our respective homes and families, and anything else we thought of; it made the flight go by very quickly, at least for me, and I hope for her as well.
Entry into Thailand could scarcely have been easier. I had had one tiny glitch when checking in for my first flight in Tokyo, in that my return flight was two months away, and a Thailand visa is good for only thirty days. I explained to the ticket agent that I intended to spend some of that time outside the country, and would not overstay my visa. A hasty call to somebody (presumably someone official) secured the necessary waiver, with the suggestion that if the Thai immigration folks balked at my far-off departure date, I should explain the situation to them in exactly the same manner. In the event, though, I was simply asked to fill out a short form, smile for a photo, and welcomed expansively into their country.
At the taxi stand, a lovely woman named Pen offered to intercede for me with the gathered taxi drivers, and was able to score for me a rate only about 50% higher than I would have paid if I had done it myself. At that, it was only about $4, so no major harm came of it. The taxi driver was driving a personal Volvo, an older model in fine condition (no markings and no meter, though, not a good sign); he took me to a pretty deserted area of town, and promptly got “lost”. I was beginning to get just a wee bit nervous, but Pen had been so sweet, I could not imagine that she would have me sold into slavery on my first night in Bangkok. Still, I was beginning to feel minor twinges in the areas of my vital removable organs (I really have been reading a lot of mysteries!). And then the hotel magically appeared between a couple of houses, not especially different from its neighbors, and not particularly well marked; I was quite pleased to see it nonetheless. It was clean, it was comfortable, and it was reasonably priced; I wasted no time in powering up the a/c, having a cool shower and plopping onto the small but surprisingly comfortable bed. All I had managed to glean about Bangkok was: a) it was steamin’ hot, even at 11pm; b) the people, to a one, were smiling, friendly and helpful; and c) hotels were not always where you would expect to find them. Further discoveries would have to wait until the following day.