One could consider this not just a first taste of Thailand for me, but a first taste of solo travel! I’ve been back several times since 1999 when I first stepped off the plane on my first stop of my first solo backpacker adventure, but in no way did any of the subsequent times capture or quite encapsulate the feeling of arriving there as a backpacking virgin so to speak.
In fact, the first 24 hours or so of my first adventure is one that I still view with a bit of embarrassment yet I still remember the tingling excitement of that first stop and first taste of what the rest of the world had to offer. Would I like to be 23 and stepping off that plane again? Yes I would!
I had taken the overnight plane (Thai Airways) from Melbourne. I hadn’t slept much – how could I? Too much excitement to be had at the thought of what I was about to undertake! Off the plane I met some Aussie travellers who knew the place well. I had read up on Khao San Road a little via mostly my Lonely Planet Guide book – remember it was 1999. So I knew it was the backpacker centre. I had touched down at 6am or so, and with the travellers I met we were soon on our way in a taxi to Khao San.
I remember the roads, the raised highways of concrete, the small cars and tuk tuks zipping in and out of gaps left, right and centre. I was awestruck there in that moment. The heat and humidity is also something that strikes most travellers as you arrive in Thailand, it was hard to believe it wasn’t even 8am!
I hadn’t booked any accommodation. I know, right? Doesn’t sound like me. In fact, I hadn’t booked any for my entire trip! I had my Lonely Planet and I needed to work it out on the ground. I can’t remember the name of the place, but I ended up at the same guesthouse as my new friends. Who I’d only see/know for a day. But it was shared bathrooms, and the most basic of basic rooms. A bed. A fan. That’s about it. It was time to sleep. But who could? I did try, and I probably managed an hour or two, then I decided sleep wasn’t worth it and headed out to see just what place I was in.
Well, my first stroll down Khao San Road (the hotel was just off it) was interesting. I never knew such a place all set out for tourists existed. With bars and bars, souvenirs, massage shops, travel agents and jewellery stores. Today, Khao San Road is very different. There are more tourists, more backpackers, than one could have imagined in 1999. The experience is even more uniform than it was back then with every place pretty much offering exactly what the others are.
I booked a bus to Chang Mai on that first day, an overnight bus (my first ever!) to depart late afternoon on my second day. The restaurants generally served the same fare and were quite grotty and dirty, yes there were rats. Today it’s much cleaner. Back then there were no McDonald’s or Burger Kings. Now there are two of each.
I don’t know what filled my first afternoon. It was daunting yet exciting. At night, my first night of the trip, I got seriously drunk. I was in a bar with a group and there were jokes and laughs and opinions and at one point I was making out with a stranger. The Aussie friends from the plane helped me back to my room. I never saw them again.
The next day, with a guy I met the previous night we headed out around Bangkok on a tour I was told was the “Princess Diana Tour”. Actually, we ended up in a suit shop where they were trying to sell us suits instead of seeing all these sites promised before we got in a tuk tuk. In the end we were left on the side of the road by our driver because neither of us bought a suit! So yes – a baptism of fire.
But despite the bad, strange and confusing, Bangkok was the perfect place to start out. Into the fire – I would say it’s not quite the shock to the system today as it was back then because it really is so developed now. And I’m principally talking about the Khao San District.
What do you think? Is Bangkok a good starting point for Thailand, or South-East Asia, or as it was for me, the rest of the world? Please do comment! May the Journey Never End!