March 27, 2023

A journey across the road

The Erawan Shrine, dedicated to Brahma, in Bangkok

The Erawan Shrine, dedicated to Brahma, in Bangkok

In his novel Travels with My Aunt, Graham Greene tells the story of a bookmaker who has spent his entire working life at a racetrack, watching horses run endlessly along a circuit, like hamsters spinning a wheel. When he retires, the bookie plans to travel perpetually, by train and boat. He believes constant movement will slow time down, stretching out the last part of his life.

When he leaves England, the bookie is a wealthy man. He boards the Orient Express in Paris, but at Venice he has a debilitating stroke. Stuck, he strikes on a workable alternative: the bookie asks the novel’s Aunt to find him a house with 365 rooms, which will allow him to sleep somewhere new every night. The Aunt scours Italy, but can only track down a crumbling mansion with 52 rooms, including bathrooms. The bookie buys it and every week he carefully packs his suitcase and embarks for the room next door. Near the end of the 51st week, he has a single bathroom left, where a comfortable armchair will substitute for a bed, but a day before his final move the bookie has another stroke and is confined to bed.

Doctors instruct him to stay there, where he can expect to live for another few years. The bookie ignores their advice. Left unsupervised, he packs and drags himself along the floor to the bathroom, where the Aunt finds him dying at the door. “It felt like a lifetime,” are his last words.

Greene’s story is interesting apropos of nothing, but for the past few days my girlfriend Claire and I have been repeating the bookie’s experiment. We’re in Bangkok, staying in an area loosely called Khao San. It is the hub of Southeast Asia’s Banana Pancake Trail, with as much English and Japanese on its signboards as Thai. Khao San is “a new sort of place,” writes Susan Orleans, “not really Thai anymore, barely Asian, overwhelmingly young, palpably transient, and anchored in the world by the Internet, where there is no actual time and no actual location.”

People appear on Khao San just long enough to disappear. It is, to quote the Khao San Road Business Association’s motto, “Gateway to Southeast Asia,” provided that you are travelling on the cheap and have a backpack fused to your shoulders. From here you can embark on Welcome Travel’s escorted tour of Chiang Mai, which guarantees contact with four different hill tribes, or the Cheap and Smile Tour to Koh Samui, or a minibus trip to Phuket or Penang or Kota Baharu, or an overland journey by open-bed pickup truck to Phnom Penh or Saigon, or a trip via some rough conveyance to India or Indonesia or Nepal or Tibet or Myanmar or anywhere you can think of—or couldn’t think of, probably, until you saw it named on a travel-agency kiosk on Khao San Road and decided that was the place you needed to see. Everything you need to stay afloat for months of travelling—tickets, visas, laundry, guidebooks, American movies, Internet access, phone service, luggage storage—is available on Khao San Road.

My father and stepmother were in Bangkok with us, for a few nights. We stayed together at the New Siam Riverside, on the Chao Phraya. It is a new, three star hotel with a small swimming pool, flat screens in every room, malfunctioning WiFi and buffet breakfasts where guests can pile up reconstituted bacon but no cheese. Our room, which faced the street instead of the river, cost 1,600 Thai baht per night – roughly $50. When my father left, we moved just across the road to a sister hotel called New Siam II. It has a smaller pool, which is in the shade of the hotel building for most of the day. Breakfast is à la carte, beers are cheap and the TVs are badly tuned boxes. That room, at 790 baht a night, cost half as much as New Siam Riverside, just across the road, run by the same company. Two nights later, we moved next door, to Peachy Guesthouse, which has the marked neglect, tropical decay and shrill signs – No shoes! No prostitutes! No noise! – of a Khao San original.

In 1982, Bangkok celebrated its bicentennial, which coincided with the auspicious Buddhist year of 2525. To draw in tourists, the city filled its calendar with processions and festivals, centred on the Royal Palace just south of Khao San. It worked: Bangkok was overrun with farang, and people who couldn’t find accommodation talked the residents of the neighbourhood into renting out their spare rooms. Peachy’s name marks it as a part of the Khao San old guard: other, equally ramshackle guest houses in the neighbourhood have names like Rainbow, Sweety, Live Good and Merry. Peachy takes up the whole of a three storey building. The wooden floors creak, eliciting loud shushes from long term guests. Its courtyard is shaded by trees bent over like battered drunks, where the Moonshine Bar sells Thai rotgut. The rooms are bigger that any of New Siam’s and have scarified couches and desks, but no TVs. They cost 230 baht a night with air-conditioning and 400 baht with an en suite bathroom.

Travelling between these three neighbours – New Siam Riverside, New Siam II and Peachy – was like travelling back in time, through the progressive ambitions of Khao San’s landowners. It has also drawn out our time in Bangkok, giving it three distinct seasons: sundowners beside the river; disjointed days spent hunting down WiFi, strong coffee and the will to work; late nights under a towelling blanket, with music from the Moonshine Bar seeping through Peachy’s walls.

We couldn’t bring ourselves to go straight to Peachy when my father left. New Siam II had most of its more luxurious sister’s comforts and was a useful halfway house, but once we had checked out and moved next door, it was hard to imagine why we had prevaricated. What had justified the price of our other two rooms? Most obviously, it didn’t seem like other people had slept in New Siam’s spotless hotels, with their towels carefully folded to resemble flowers or Southeast Asian animals, whereas Peachy wore its past guests like a badge of honour. Were we paying for the comforting lie that the room was ours alone? How much more fun – how much more like travel – to have a guest book in every room, so that you would know Reinhard from Germany had spent a night in your room alone before you arrived, or that Abass and Nsedu from Nigeria had shared this room with you, separated only by time, on their way to “anywhere you can think of – or couldn’t think of, probably, until you saw it named on a travel-agency kiosk on Khao San Road.”

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