The Fear of Going to Bangkok – Thailand

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A road in Bangkok with traffic on it

Pattaya was the worst city we ever visited. The town consisted of two things. A crummy beach that was bordered by the main road, and lots of old white men with young Thai girls. Me and Joanna had a room in a building that often felt more like a brothel than a motel. This was our next stop after Koh Rong, and we stayed for two weeks because I had to work. SnookerWe drank Chang, made fun of the fat white guys in their fifties, watched snooker on TV, and Joanna played her Ukulele at Joe’s, the local coffee shop.

Two weeks was fourteen days too many in Pattaya, and on a typically sunny Thai day we got into the back of a taxi and left to catch a bus. In Asia, minibuses are a way of life and we paid $5 each for our ticket. With half an hour to spare, we sat on the beach and looked at the water. Tourists were zooming around on rented jetskis, and a portly woman was parasailing. The driver of the boat was a tease. He let her come down till her toes were dragging in the water, then he would take off, her round figure jumping back into the sky.

An hour later and we made it onto the highway. In Thailand cars drive on the left hand side of the road. It felt disconcerting to go 100kmh down the left side of the highway, with all opposing traffic driving past on the right side. Though these thoughts were quickly washed away, as I thought about what was to come. Even though we had only been on the highway for five minutes, there were already signs telling us our final destination. Bold white letters half a foot high, framed against an army green backdrop, boldly proclaimed our final stop: Bangkok.

Advice from Pavel Tsatouline

Use kettlebells, they’re amazing. In order to build strength perform fewer reps, don’t go to exhaustion. Getting exhausted at the gym doesn’t mean that you’ve had the best workout. Such is the advice of Pavel Tsatouline, an ex-Belarusian strength coach who has worked with movies stars and the Navy SEALS. His words, through the medium of a podcast with Tim Ferriss, were the backdrop for the drive out of Pattaya. I was packed in next to Joanna on the cramped minibus, and her music was being pumped into her ears at such a volume that I could hear it through my headphones.

Pavel’s two hour interview came to a close and I put on one of my favorite Russian pop music mixes. Taking stock of the situation, the first hints of anxiety began to creep into my consciousness. For the first time in more than a month me and Joanna were splitting up. She was going to an upscale hostel to meet her Danish friend Asger. I was going to a different hostel, bordering Chinatown, to fend for myself.

There were several things that made me anxious. Having to split up with Joanna played a role. As did the thought of going to Bangkok alone. It was the first massive metropolis that I was visiting in a long time. There aren’t that many cities that I’ve been to that can claim an urban population in excess of fifteen million. Moscow is one, and Bangkok is the other. Strictly by contrast, New York City looks small with a mere eight million. I love big cities, but they can also feel like bewildering, you’re on your own type places. I felt this acutely because on that day, there was one thing that kept causing my anxiousness to grow as we got nearer to the city: I had virtually no money.

In cash, I thought that there was a 50% chance that I had enough to pay for a taxi and my hostel. On my debit card I didn’t have enough to even cover the $5 foreign withdrawal fee. I had no credit cards. I had no ideas about how I would buy food. More importantly, in a polluted city where you can’t drink from the taps, I didn’t know how I’d be able to buy bottled water. All of this contributed to my anxiety, which grew noticeably worse every mile we drove.

Welcome to Bangkok

Bangkok starts off gradually. It’s like wading into warm water, you start with your toes, and before you know it you’re up to your belly and you don’t even realize how you got that deep. As we approached the limits of the city, the houses began to get closer together. Then they got taller. The sky assumed it’s perpetual polluted, always overcast appearance. When we got out of the bus for a refueling the air was ripe with the smell of tailpipes.

Back on the highway, off to the right I saw the first skyscrapers since Saigon. Glancing left, I was impressed by a Lamborghini dealership. In Dubai I saw several luxury car sellers. In Moscow there is a well known Ferrari dealership, but this was the first time I’d seen Lamborghini represented. I felt like a boy on his first day of school. 10% excited and 90% too scared to even take a deep breathe.

The traffic grew denser, the pollution more evident, and my anxiety worse. Twenty minutes after the dealership and the bus pulled over. In typically Asian fashion we hadn’t arrived at a bus stop, but instead a bazaar. A meter from the door of the bus a group of Thai men we’re eating noodle soup for lunch. People we’re selling cheap t-shirts and magnets. Controlled chaos reigned all around us.

By now my thoughts were moving so fast that it was impossible to stop them. It would be like trying to dam the Niagara river with a piece of plywood. You’re fucked. This sucks, how did this happen? What if you don’t have enough money for the hostel? You shouldn’t have bought that smoothie this morning, you’re going to need that extra dollar. Joanna wouldn’t even want to be with you if she saw what a wreck you are right now. So this is what people in poverty feel like.

Bubbly and excited, Joana walked six steps ahead of me. I followed her, and we reached the taxis seconds later. Joanna gave me a quick kiss, said goodbye, and her taxi was pulling out into traffic before I even had time to understand it. Standing there alone in that massive city, it was the most lost I’d ever felt in my life. After several minutes I hailed a taxi. Functioning at the level of a boiled lobster, I conveyed the directions to the driver. Forty-five minutes later we arrived at the hostel, and I paid him our agreed upon amount. After that ride, and paying for two nights at the hostel, I was left with less than $1. My expectations were so low at this point that even if I couldn’t afford dinner, I was happy to just have a place to stay. Numbly I stowed my bags, then dragged my laptop downstairs to start writing a paper.

Fasting in the 21st Century

In the next thirty-six hours I had one beer, two coffees, and a bottle of water. I was so anxious that I lost my appetite, which was the only good thing to come of my addled mental state. I knew that Joanna would have lent me money for food, but even though my anxiety was so acute, I wanted this experience. Poor financial decisions had left me in this place, and I wanted to vividly experience the consequences. The more emotional a lesson, the more it’s a catalyst for change. I went into this self-imposed fast with the idea of using it for motivation to never end up in a similar situation again.

I succeeded. Six months later, on the other side of the world, I can clearly recall my time spent being broke in Bangkok. It was stressful and very difficult, but it lasted for less than two days. On the evening of the second day I got $90 into my account and I went out to eat. Thai noodle soup, mystery meat, mystery pastry, a cup of ice cream. I ate until my belly was ready to burst. By the time I met up with Asger and Joanna two days later, all was forgotten. We spent a night at their hostel, and then took a thirteen hour train ride to Pai.

Learning my lesson the hard way stamped it into my memory for life. Take finances seriously and think ahead. Never go to Bangkok without any money in your pocket. That’s one lesson that I’ll never have to learn again.

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