By dumb luck, Ive arrived in
Bangkok, Thailand on the eve of King Bhumibol Adulyadejs 80th birthday. The Thai people are nuts about the king -- even more so now that there was a military coup here last year and he represents a sense of stability. There are billboard-sized posters of his face all over town and arches over the main roads that are foiled in gold with his picture. The king is not exactly Mr. Charisma -- hes a bookish-looking old man in gold-framed glasses -- but to the Thai people, hes got more pizazz than a rock superstar.
Throughout the day, tens of thousands of people are lined up along the streets, hoping to get a glimpse of His Majesty as he glides serenely from one gold-plated temple or palace to
another in his gold stretch Mercedes limo, accompanied by a motorcade of around 50 red Lexuss and Mercedes.
But the real show was tonight, when an ocean of the Thai people filled a 150-foot-wide avenue for miles -- all dressed in yellow to honor the king (yellow is the color of Monday, which is the day His Royal Highness was born on). Tens of thousands of soldiers marched down the street -- all as thin as whips and looking snazzy in their high-peaked hats. Then came dozens of marching bands and an endless mob.
I learned the next day that there were one-and-a-half million people in the crowd. The cops ordered thousands of us in my section to sit shoulder-to-shoulder in the filthy street next to one of Bangkoks skunkiest sewers. Yessir -- I wouldnt argue with these guys unless I was really craving a whipping. Then the king floated by in his limo (same ho-hum show as during the day) and everyone lit candles -- thousands of gentle faces were bathed in the golden glow -- and sang the national anthem. Fireworks? You bet. Whatta party...
Bangkok is bursting with backpackers from all over the world. Thousands of us are hanging out on Khaosan Road, which is a half-mile of neon lights, bars, restaurants, peddlers and guest houses. Its a backpackers version of the Vegas Strip crossed with Willie Wonkas Chocolate Factory, all under the serene, smiling gaze of a golden Buddha.
Here are the latest scribbles from a traveler heading east around the world:
-- India was good to me, but Im glad to be out of there. I never got lost (much), never felt threatened, and there were scads of Helpful Harry types at every turn, knocking themselves silly to help me out. But the poverty and filth of places like Bombay and Delhi is so horrifying, its just too much. There are about 700,000,000 too many people in this land of one billion, with the future in the hands of screamingly poor, illiterate folks who havent a clue about birth control. But if you want vivid scenes and memories for a lifetime, India can
-- One thing I missed seeing in India was a pig loo. This marvelous invention involves hooking a drain pipe to a squat toilet and running it outside the home to a pig pen. You take aim at the hole, make a deposit, and the pig gets a nice snack at the other end, along with a drink of flush water. Im glad I didnt eat any meat in India... especially pork.
-- Down on your luck? In Bangkok, you can buy a wooden cage of sparrows, a bag of live fish, or even a turtle to release at a Buddhist temple to bring you good fortune. Guaranteed to work, every time.
-- Dinner on the street here tonight was some pad thai noodles with a spring roll and a skewer of chicken -- all cooked in a wok for under $1. Delicious.
If that doesnt suit you, why not try the stir-fried grasshoppers, locusts, or (gulp) grubs?
-- One of the perks of being a Western traveler in Asia or Africa is
getting charged triple what the locals pay. I was steamed at getting soaked $25 to watch a kickboxing tournament in Bangkok while all the homeys got in for 50 cents or less. But I have to admit, it was exciting watching these little guys beat the snot out of each other. Physically, theyre absolutely ripped, delivering slashing kicks to the head, along with knees to the gut and other unfortunate places. Im sure they must be wearing cups, or theyd have mashed potatoes going on down there, if you know what I mean.
-- I see some of the infamous sex tourists. These are middle-aged Western men, hooked up with Thai women who are often one-third their size and one-third their age. Apparently, many impoverished families in the north sell their daughters into slavery to the bars and brothels of Bangkok. Some of the women look happy to be tagging along with these losers -- others, pretty glum. Some of the men are shopping for wives here, having struck out back home.
-- Living in hotels is getting old. I miss my soggy old pup tent from Europe. And I cant even brag that Im staying in cheap dives in Asia, since for $25 you get a fairly swanky place. Bonus: last night, a heavy metal Thai band playing downstairs at my hotel kept me awake for hours. Like American metal, the singing was a bunch of yelling, screaming and grunting in a bombastic way, but in the Thai language. It sounded so hilarious that I laughed myself to sleep.
-- I was sitting in a restaurant the other night when they started playing a Christmas song. What the heck are they playing that for? I wondered. Then it dawned on me -- oh, right, its December. Over this-a-way, it feels like the Fourth of July.
Thats a wrap. Take it from me, kids -- forget that next college backpacking trip to Europe. Thailand is ten times cooler and ten times cheaper. And the t-shirts are the best Ive seen the whole world over...