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Susan Orlean

The Place to Disappear

All languages are welcome on Bangkok's Khao San Road, including Drunkard. "Hold my hand," a man fluent in Singapore Slings commanded a Scottish hairdresser one night at Lucky Beer and Guest House -- only in his dialect it came out soggy and rounded, more like Hole mah han. "Not right now," the Scottish hairdresser said. She was a slender girl with the pinkish pallor of a milkmaid, blond hair, gray eyes, and a nose ring. She was on a six-week trip through Asia with two cute friends from Glasgow. They'd just arrived on a super-discount flight from Scotland and had checked into a seven-dollar-a-night room at one of the several hundred or so cheap guesthouses around Khao San Road-Happy Home Guest House or Nirvana Caf and Guest House or Sweety's or Lek Mam's or something; they actually couldn't remember what it was called, but they knew how to find their way back. They also knew how to get from their guesthouse to the new branch of Boots, the English drugstore, which opened recently amid the T-shirt shops and travel agencies that line Khao San. Within their first few hours in Bangkok, the girls went to Boots and blew their travel budget on English soap and shampoo-same soap and shampoo they could get at home but somehow more exotic-seeming when bought in Thailand-and on snack packages of Oreos, which they worship and which are not easy to find in the United Kingdom. They thought Khao San was horrible because it was so crowded and loud and the room in the guesthouse was so dingy, but it was brilliant, too, because it was so inexpensive, and there were free movies playing at all the bars, and because they'd already run into two friends from home. On top of that, finding a branch of Boots right here was almost too good to be true. What's more, Boots was super-air-conditioned, and that distinguished it from many of the other Khao San Road shops, which were open to the hot and heavy Bangkok air.

Now it was close to midnight, and the girls were sitting at a rattletrap table outside Lucky Beer, eating noodles and drinking Foster's Lager and trying to figure out how to get to Laos. "Hole mah han," the drunk repeated, and thrust his arm across the table. The three girls studied his arm, then shifted away from him. "Wow," one of the hairdresser's friends said. "He looks kind of...old." "Shut up," the man snapped. He yanked his arm back, wobbled to his feet, and then fell across the table, sending a saltshaker and a napkin dispenser to heaven. All the while, the girls kept talking about their schedule. It was as if the strangeness of where they were and what they were doing were absolutely ordinary: as if there were no large, smelly drunk sprawled in front of them, as if it were quite unexceptional to be three Scottish girls drinking Australian beer in Thailand on their way to Laos, and as if the world were the size of a peanut-something as compact as that, something that easy to pick up, shell, consume, as long as you were young and sturdy and brave. If you spend any time on Khao San Road, you will come to believe that this is true. Finally, the hairdresser glanced at the man, who had not moved. "Hello, sir?" she said, leaning toward his ear. "Hello? Can you hear me? Can I ask you something important? Do you remember where you're from?"

I went back to Lucky Beer the next night, but the Scottish girls were gone-off to Laos, most likely. At their table was a South African woman who taught English in Taiwan and was on her way back from massage school in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. The next night, she was gone, too, replaced by an American couple in their twenties who'd just finished a Peace Corps assignment in Lithuania and were taking the long way home; the night after that, it was five Israelis who had just finished their military service and were stalling in Southeast Asia before starting college in Tel Aviv. Khao San Road, one long packed block in Bangkok's Banglamphu neighborhood, was the jumping-off point for all of them, a sort of non-place they went to in order to leave from, so they could get to the place they really wanted to go. 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.

Thailand, the most pliant of places, has always accommodated even the rudest of visitors. For hundreds of years, it was the junction between Chinese, Burmese, Indian, Khmer, and Vietnamese traders. Many Americans first came to know Bangkok as the comfort lounge for troops in Vietnam, and, later, as the capital of sex tourism. Starting in the early eighties, when foreigners started trekking to such places as Myanmar and Tibet and Vietnam, Thailand took on another hostessing job, because Bangkok was the safest, easiest, most Westernized place from which to launch a trip through Asia. Until then, Khao San was an unremarkable working-class neighborhood. It had a large temple called Wat Chanasongkhran, a small Muslim enclave, bakeries, motorcycle shops, grocery stores, and a surprising number of residents who were employed as traditional Thai dancers. There were some hotels in the neighborhood, frequented by Thai businesspeople.

In 1985, Bonny and Anek Rakisaraseree noticed how many budget travellers-mostly young French and Australian men-were drifting around Bangkok, so they opened Bonny Guest House, the first on Khao San catering to foreign wanderers. Locals were not even permitted to rent rooms. Dozens of other guesthouses opened soon afterward, most with forbidding signs in the lobby saying "Not allow any Thais to go upstairs." Drugs were fantastically cheap and available and quietly tolerated, despite wishful signs saying "We do not welcome use or possession of heroin in guesthouse." More than a third of Thailand's seven million annual visitors are young, and undoubtedly many of them pass some time on Khao San. Some are Americans, but even more of them are from other countries: Australians having what they call their "o-s experience," their overseas experience, which begins in Sydney and ends six or eight months later with requisite "Rough Guide" and "Lonely Planet"-advised stops in Goa for Christmas and in Nepal for a winter trek and in Angkor Wat for sunrise; hordes of Israelis, fresh out of the Army-so many, in fact, that the best kosher food and the only Hebrew bookstore in Thailand are on Khao San Road. There are such large crowds of Japanese kids that a few guesthouses are de-facto Japanese only, and you can buy a logo T-shirt of any Japanese baseball team from the venders on the road. There are French and German and British and Canadians.

Altogether, they have turned Khao San into a new sort of place-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. Khao San has the best foreign bookstores in Thailand, thanks to the books that backpackers sell before heading home, and it probably has the fewest prostitutes in Bangkok, partly because the guesthouses frown on overnight Thai guests, and partly because, one backpacker explained to me, most of the travellers would rather have sex with each other than with someone for hire. Khao San is now the travel hub for half the world, a place that prospers on the desire to be someplace else. The cheapest tickets on the most hair-raising of airlines can be bought in the scores of bucket shops that have collected in the neighborhood. Airlines you've never heard of, flying routes you never imagined, for prices you only dream of are the staple of Khao San travel agencies. The first time I ever heard of Khao San Road was from an American backpacker whom I met on a Bhutanese airline flight from Calcutta to Bangkok. He'd bought his ticket on Khao San Road. "I told the travel agent I didn't care how or when I got there," he said. "As long as it was cheap, I was ready to go."

I have a persistent fantasy that involves Khao San. In it, a middle-aged middlebrow middle manager from Phoenix is deposited at the western end of the road, near the Chanasongkhran police booth. He is a shocking sight, dressed in a blue business suit and a red tie and a white Oxford shirt, carrying a Hartmann briefcase, and wearing a Timex. He wanders through the snarl of peddlers' carts and trinket booths. First, he discards his suit for batik drawstring trousers and a hemp vest and a Che Guevara T-shirt, or knock-off Timberland cargo shorts and a Japanimation tank top, and he sells his Timex to a guy with a sign that says "We buy something/camera/tent/sleeping bag/walkman/backpack/Swiss knife." He then gets a leather thong bracelet for one wrist and a silver cuff for the other, stops at Golden Lotus Tattoo for a few Chinese characters on his shoulder, gets his eyebrow pierced at Herbal House Healthy Center, has blond extensions braided into his hair, trades his briefcase for a Stssy backpack and a Hmong fabric waistpack, watches twenty minutes of "The Phantom Menace" or "The Blair Witch Project" at Buddy Beer, goes into Hello Internet Caf and registers as "zenmasterbob" on hotmail.com, falls in love with a Norwegian aromatherapist he meets in the communal shower at Joe Guest House, takes off with her on a trek through East Timor, and is never seen again.

The sidewalk venders changed a little every day I was on Khao San. The road has a jumble of small businesses-travel agencies, Internet cafs, souvenir stores, bars-and the sidewalk and the edge of the roadbed are lined with stalls offering bootleg tapes, bogus Teva sandals, Hindu-print camisoles, and flyweight silver jewelry, along with the hair-braiders and the banana-pancake makers. A few spots had more transient occupants, and, except for the daily twitches in the exchange rate at Khao San's foreign-currency shops, they were one of the only things that distinguished one day from the next. The morning I arrived on Khao San, a nerdy Thai teen-ager had got a foothold halfway down one block, between Shaman Bookstore and Nadav Bead Shop, and was peddling electronic pagers. The next day, he was gone, and a chatty young woman was there selling handmade burlap handbags. I began to think of the days that way-as "burlap-bag day" or "pager day"-to help tell them apart. One morning-it was miniature-mirrored-disco-ball day-I stopped to check my E-mail at Khao-San Cyber Home, a computer center set a few paces back from the sidewalk beside a stand of banana trees and a fishpond full of carp. On the street, the open-air Siam Oriental Inn was blasting a Swedish-dubbed version of "The Phantom Menace" on wide-screen TV, while across the way Buddy Beer, also open-air and also maximum volume, was showing "Wild Wild West," and at the big bootleg-cassette booth next door an early Santana album screeched out of tinny speakers. The sounds collided like a car wreck, and even early in the day the wet, warm air smelled like Michelob and pad thai.

Inside the Khao-San Cyber Home, though, it was mercifully cool and quiet. In the front room were eight computer terminals with Pentium II microprocessors, a large and solemn photograph of King Bhumibol Adulyadej on one wall, and a Buddhist altar in the corner across from the front door. I left my shoes by the landing and padded across the floor to an open computer. On my left, a thin kid with a blond braid was instant-messaging someone in Australia. On my right, two girls were squeezed together at one terminal, tapping out a message in romanized Japanese. The more slowly and more uncomfortably and more dangerously you travel around Asia, the more rank you pull in backpacker culture-in other words, it's much cooler to go somewhere by cargo boat or pickup truck or milk train than to fly-but when it comes to computers Khao San is all speed. The first Macintosh computers in all of Thailand appeared here, and one Internet-service owner complained sourly to me that backpackers refused to use anything with Pentium I microprocessors anymore, so he had to upgrade all his machines to Pentium IIIs. There are so many Internet outlets on Khao San Road now that the price to use a computer is probably the best in the world, and certainly the best in Asia-around three cents a minute, compared with, say, five dollars a minute, which is what I paid to check my E-mail in Cambodia. In the past, a six-month odyssey through the Far East might have meant a few letters home and the rare long-distance phone call; now it's possible for a few cents to E-mail friends and family every day, order clothes from the Gap, and even read your local newspaper on-line. Some computer centers on Khao San stay open twenty-four hours a day.

Hello Internet Cafe was the first in the neighborhood. Khao-San Cyber Home is one of the most recent. Until eight months ago, it wasn't a cyber home at all: it was an actual home of an actual Thai family, the Boonpojanasoontorns, who had been living on Khao San for many years. Until Chanin Boonpojanasoontorn learned about the Internet when he was at college and pushed the family to capitalize on their location, Khao-San Cyber Home computer center had been the family's living room. Urasa Boonpojanasoontorn, the second youngest daughter, was behind the desk that day, and from time to time her father toddled by on some household task and then disappeared behind a door again. Urasa is twenty-five and has a round face and a square body and a quick, crumpled-up smile. She was wearing a white polo shirt and pleated khakis-nearly a nun's outfit on Khao San Road, where the skimpiest camisoles and the filmiest skirts are the usual backpacker gear. Urasa and her brother and sisters grew up playing soccer in the middle of the street with the other neighborhood kids, buying candy at the stores that back then stocked everyday groceries and household goods.

"When I was in seventh grade," Urasa said to me, "I went outside and everything was different. The foreigners had arrived. It happened so fast! It was such a quiet place before. There were no foreigners. It changed, like, overnight, and I never went outside again." Her parents were afraid of the backpackers. Once the neighborhood changed, they insisted that the kids come home directly from school and stay away from the street. I asked her what they were afraid of.

"They thought the backpackers had a different life style than us," she said, carefully. "Their language and their behavior were different. There were boys and girls travelling together, and the problem of drugs. And when I first saw the way the backpackers dressed..." She hesitated. The door behind her desk opened, and I could see her father in an easy chair, watching TV. "The way the backpackers dressed was shocking. My father and mom thought it wasn't good. I can't say what happens in other countries, but if I saw a Thai girl dressed like that I would think it wasn't good." She brightened and added, "Sometimes it was fun to hear the music from the bars. It wasn't sad when it changed. There was no more playing in the street, but then I grew up and I had other things to do. I studied hard. It's different from your culture. I had a tutor for two hours every day after school and on Saturday, too."

The front door opened and three Israeli girls in pastel tank tops came in to use Khao-San Cyber Home's international long-distance service. They took their shoes off and left them by the door, a Thai tradition that most shops on Khao San forgo. Urasa decided to uphold it because she wanted her customers to see a little bit of her culture, her life style, even though it meant that some backpackers in twenty-four-eyelet hiking boots chose to check their E-mail somewhere more lenient. A similar impulse accounts for the Buddhist altar and the King's portrait, though not for the enormous framed Michael Jordan poster beside her desk. "He's mine," Urasa said, tapping the glass above Jordan's eye. "I never heard about him until my sister went to college in Illinois, and she said to me, 'Urasa, you have to see this man. He is a god.'"

Something about Khao San Road makes you feel as though it could eat you alive. The junkies and the glue-sniffers lurking in the alleys are part of it, and so are the clean-cut kids with stiff, Ecstasy-fuelled grins dancing at the cafs; the aimlessness that pervades the place is both pleasantly spacey and a little scary when you glimpse an especially blank face. Travellers do vanish in all sorts of ways. The first cyber-caf I stopped in had a ten-thousand-dollar-reward sign on the wall which said, "Have you seen my son? He was backpacking around India and was last heard from in May 1997 from Northern India." Urasa said she sees a lot of lost souls. One day, an American girl came into Khao-San Cyber Home to call her mother and could hardly talk because she was crying so hard. "She had lost her boyfriend," Urasa told me. "He disappeared from her in Nepal." Sometimes, visitors planning another kind of trip are busted and subsequently relocated to Bangkok's Ban Kwan Prison. Guesthouses often post lists of foreigners who are locked up on drug charges, and encourage you to visit Lyle Doniger, of Australia, or Alan Jon Davies, of Britain, or any number of Americans and Danes and Italians at Ban Kwan if you find yourself with nothing to do one afternoon.

The day begins at night on Khan San Road. Usually a soccer game is being broadcast from one bar and five or six movies are being broadcast from the others, and the cassette dealers are demonstrating the quality of their bootleg tapes by playing Global Trance Mission or Techno Trance Mania or Earth, Wind and Fire at top volume. Kids clutching copies of "Bangkok Groovy Map & Guide" and "Teach Yourself Indonesian" and "Teach Yourself Card Games for 1" and the "Swahili Phrasebook" amble up and down the street. They emerge from the guesthouses-and their bottom-dollar rooms, with wafer-thin walls and battered mattresses-to collect in the cafs for ten-cent plates of curry chicken and "Stogarnov Steak" and beer and to shop. The first Thai head of state to travel outside the region was King Rama V, who visited Europe in 1897. He brought back Waterford crystal from Ireland, Svres porcelain and Baccarat goblets from France, Murano glass from Italy, Royal Crown Derby plates from England. When you visit Khao San Road, you can bring back Indian undershirts decorated with Hindu imagery, Australian Billabong sweats, Nike jackets made in Indonesia, rubber-platform faux-fur thongs from another planet, Game Boys from Japan, and a used copy of "Memoirs of a Geisha" that was published in England and sold to a secondhand bookstore in Bangkok by a New Zealander on his way to Vietnam.

Around midnight, I ran into the South African English teacher from Taiwan who had been on her way back from massage school in northern Thailand the other time I'd met her. Seeing her again was both a shock and not a shock, because Khao San is so transitory a place that you imagine each encounter there to be singular, but then you realize that the world is small and this particular world of young adventurers is smaller yet, and that there is nothing extraordinary about seeing the same people, because their great adventures tend to take them to the same few places over and over again. Her name was Elizabeth, and she and I stopped at a street vender and bought corn on the cob and sat on a curb near My House Guest House to eat. This time she'd just come back from a full-moon party on the southern Thai island of Koh Phangan, a party of two thousand travellers, most of them high on Ecstasy or pot or psychedelics, painting a herd of oxen with Day-Glo colors and dancing for hours on the edge of the sea. She now had a terrible headache, but she didn't think it was from the drugs or the late hours. She blamed a Sikh psychic she'd met that morning on Khao San who had tricked her into paying him a hundred dollars so he wouldn't curse her karma.

I felt sorry for her, so I treated her to a bowl of noodle soup from a stand at the western end of the street. We were, at that moment, on the very edge of the rest of the city. Thirty paces away, on Chakrabongse Road, were a dozen bridal shops where Thai girls shopped for their big white gowns; a few paces beyond that was the temple, Wat Chanasongkhran, where monks in yellow were chanting their daily sutras. All of it seemed surreal and sort of irrelevant and much farther away from Khao San Road than almost anywhere else in the universe, including outer space. Elizabeth had a travel tip for me. "The Phantom Menace" was starting at 1 a.m. at Buddy Beer, and if she finished her soup, and we hurried, we could make it back for the opening scene.

 
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