So, I have this bad habit of having accidental adventures. They seek me out and I am suddenly in the middle of one before I even knew adventure was a possibility.
When I was 19 my parents had moved from Singapore to Bangkok and I went home to visit for the summer. It was pretty lonely, I’m not going to lie. I loved seeing my family, but my friends were in Singapore and I didn’t have a whole lot to do to kill time. I went to the gym, I took tennis lessons, I watched a lot of TV. It wasn’t the best way to spend a summer, but I guess it could have been worse.
But given how boring it was, you can understand how, when I found out my friend Nat was going to be in Thailand for a bit, I got excited. Very excited. Slightly unreasonably excited. And when I get that excited, the little voice in my head that says, “Hey, maybe plan things?” goes away. It goes very, very far away.
So Nat and his mom invited me to come hang out with them for a night and I agreed before really figuring things out. My friend was in town and I was bored and I was going to hang out with my friend. Period. I was not going to let teeny, tiny, insignificant problems like the fact that I don’t speak Thai and that my dad would have the car and I was completely unfamiliar with the city stop me. No. I was going to have a night with my friend!
It is at times like this that I wish I was a slightly more practical person. Maybe I could have written down the address of their hotel? Maybe I could have gotten a phone number? I don’t know. Maybe I could have done something is all I’m saying. But I didn’t. The day came and I called a taxi and I got ready. I vaguely knew where I was going in that I knew I would have to take a taxi to the Skytrain and the Skytrain to another taxi to the hotel. Probably.
Well, problem number one was that I did not speak Thai and my taxi driver, for reasons as crazy and complicated as he lived in his own country and spoke his own language did not speak English. Unphased, I said “I need to go to x Skytrain station,” in my barely-rehearsed Thai. He heard “Skytrain” out of my babble, nodded, and away we went! And away and away and away. If Thailand had corn fields, we would have been driving through them. It looked like no road I’d ever been on, but we kept going and, 500 baht later, we ended up at the Skytrain station.
Then and only then did I realise I didn’t know where I was going.
I’m going to let that sit there for as second. I didn’t know where I was going. I. Am. Brilliant.
But I saw two tourists standing on the platform with a map, so I approached. “Hey, sorry to ask, but could I borrow your map for a second?”
“No problem!” they said. “Actually, we have a spare. Here, take it.”
They handed me the map and I unfolded it. It is at this point that I should admit to one of my biggest failings as an adult: I can’t read a map. I mean, I kind of can if you give me two hours and I can spin it around a few times, but otherwise? Nope. No can do. Especially not under a time crunch.
And especially, it turns out, not when the map is in German. Because yeah. It was in German. Because wouldn’t you end up with a map with places names in two languages you don’t read? Doesn’t that happen to everybody? (Tell me yes. Please?)
So I the train comes and I get on the one I assume is going into the city and I sit down and unfold my map and generally look like a completely lost little moron because that’s exactly what I am. The woman next to me takes a look at it and says, “Where are you going?” in a surprisingly American accent given that she is Thai.
I told her the name of the hotel, and she said, “Oh, no wonder you’re having trouble! It’s fairly new so it’s not on that map. I use to work there, though. Do you have a pen? I’ll write down the address in Thai. Get off the train at Sukhumvit and grab a taxi.” She tore a piece of paper out of a notebook, wrote something down, and handed it back to me.
“Thank you so much!”
“No problem! Have fun.”
So I folded the map up put it in my bag, and clutched the piece of paper she gave me for dear life. I got off the train at Sukhumvit station, got in a taxi, and handed the piece of paper to the driver. He read it, passed it back, and away we went!
And away and away and away.
There is a kind of terror I did not know existed until we lost sight of the city. When a city as large and well-lit as Bangkok disappears, that is when your confidence evaporates and you start to think that possibly you are not embarking on an adventures so much as you’re doing something dangerously stupid and you will wind up being a cautionary tale passed from expat mother to expat mother.
And then, out of nowhere, the hotel appeared. We pulled in, I paid the driver, and I walked up to the concierge desk.
“I’m looking for [redacted]. Can I get their room number?”
“Miss Gundle?” he said.
“Yes?” (I know my own name, but when other people know it and pronounce it correctly, I get very confused.)
“They’ve gone to dinner already, but they’ve left you a note.”
I’d missed them by about 10 minutes. They’d gone ahead to the restaurant, the note said, (Cabbages and Condoms, my favourite place in Bangkok), but they hoped I’d join them there.
Well, I mean, duh. I hadn’t come all this way and risked being sold into sex slavery or killed in a ritual sacrifice, or, I don’t know, ROBBED to not have dinner. Ever helpful, the concierge wrote down the address of the restaurant in Thai and handed it to me so I could give it to the taxi driver.
I went outside and got into the first taxi in the queue which happened to be the same taxi I’d taken to the hotel. Of course. I got in, said a quick, “Sawasdee ka,” and gave him the new address. He laughed. He laughed at me and I had no idea why but I laughed a little bit, too, and we started driving.
About ten minutes later, I understood why he laughed, and I started to laugh, too. The restaurant, it turns out, was a mere two blocks from the Skytrain station where he’d picked me up the first time. Because of course it was.
So at this point, I had a German map, two notes in Thai, and one note in English. And if that’s all I’d collected that night, it would have been fine. But the night kept going.
At dinner over prawn crackers and great curry Nat’s mom asked what we had planned.
“I think we said we were going to stop by Pat Pong,” Nat said. His mom’s eyebrows shot up, and no wonder. Infamous for strip clubs and pirated goods, it was not exactly where well-raised teenage boys should be hanging out. (Did I mention Nat was only 15? 16? Something like that? Because he was.)
“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of them. My mom banned me from taking them anyplace seedy.”
“Okay, good. Well, we’re headed to Chatuchak tomorrow, so don’t let them buy anything, okay?”
Now, it was true that my mother had banned me from taking the boys (Nat and his 20-year-old cousin, Seth) to a strip club. But it is also true that banning me from doing something is the fastest way to make me want to do that particular thing more than I’ve ever wanted to do anything in my life. I had absolutely no desire to go to a Thai strip club, especially one famous for a Ping Pong Show, but being told I absolutely could not under any circumstances take my friend to one meant that my whole evening was planned around doing exactly that.
His family left us after dinner and we decided to have the full tourist-in-Bangkok experience. We took a tuk-tuk to Pat Pong and were horribly overcharged. The first guy that said, “Ping Pong Show?” got a firm nod and we followed him like oversized ducklings. We got to the door of the club and they told us the cover charge. 500 baht.
“I’m not paying 500 baht,” Nat said. “No way. I don’t want to see it that much.”
At this point, I thought we were lost for sure. We weren’t going to go and I was going to keep my promise to my mother and I could pretend to be a good daughter for another day.
I should have had more faith in Nat. I should have known that a teenage boy mere inches from a strip club could be trusted to find a way in.
Dude started to bargain like a champ. In the end we agreed to pay 200 baht but pay full price inside if we ordered anything to drink. We passed our money over and walked in the door to the seediest, most disgusting strip club I could have imagined. Bored girls with numbers attached to their bikini bottoms were swaying onstage, lightly holding the poles in front of them and rolling their eyes when they thought they could get away with it.
Honestly, I’m not even going to describe the show except to say that about halfway through it, Nat leaned over to us and stage-whispered, “Um…am I supposed to be turned on right now?”
“NO!” we both said. “No, trust me, this is NOT what sex is.”
“Oh. Okay. Good.”
The instant the show finished, we bailed and went to an Irish bar (because isn’t there always an Irish bar?). Before we left, though, I nabbed a coaster just to add to my collection of random stuff I’d accumulated over the course of my accidental scavenger hunt.
A few drinks later, we grabbed a taxi and went back to the hotel. The next morning at breakfast the boys were at the buffet and Nat’s mom and I were sipping coffee.
“Did you kids have a good time last night?” she asked.
“Yeah, it was a lot of fun!”
“Oh, good! You didn’t let them buy anything, did you?”
I flashed back to the girls dancing and all the different things you could pay them to do and shook my head.
“No, ma’am. I convinced them that anything they could buy last night they could find cheaper someplace else.”