After twenty-seven hours of traveling, including a four hour layover in Toyko’s Narita Airport, I finally have arrived at the Hotel Atlanta in Bangkok. This is not my first time to Thailand or the Atlanta. Built in 1952, the Atlanta is the oldest unaltered hotel in Thailand. It is situated in the heart of Sukhumvit, one of Bangkok’s most notorious sex tourism districts and is a self-proclaimed “bastion of wholesome and culturally responsible tourism.” It is a beautiful, charming, and civilized oasis in wild Bangkok. Check out their hysterical website: www.theatlantahotelbangkok.com
Foyer--Hotel Atlanta, Bangkok
My taxi ride from the airport to the hotel was near flawless except, of course, for the speeding and lack of seatbelts. The driver, who spoke very little English, carelessly (yet skillfully) raced his green and yellow Toyota down the expressway at over 140 kilometers per hour (or about 85 to 90 mph). He neglected to wear a seatbelt. And, sitting in the backseat, I didn’t have one. The experience, while unnerving, is not uncommon. Bangkok taxi drivers are some of the most aggressive drivers in the world. They are also some of the most superstitious. Garlands and amulets in honor the journey goddess hang from most rearview mirrors. Images of the Buddha are often taped to the dash.
In Thailand there are only two ways of avoiding death on the road: pop pong and pop gun. Pop gun signifies the more traditional safety measures like wearing a seatbelt and not driving too fast. This approach is obviously ignored by most Bangkok cabbies. Pop Pong, on the other hand, is spiritual protection. Done properly, pop pong not only protects your life but will also punish those who threaten it. A well-known Thai urban legend tells the tale of a road-rager who cut in front of taxi driver, only to be flattened by a truck five minutes later. Thais call this gam or karma.
A taxi-filled road in Bangkok
Despite all of my traveling, I was not immediately tired and decided to take a late-night walk to calm my nerves and use my muscles. Like most major cities, Bangkok does not sleep. The Atlanta is near one of the busiest areas of the city. It is walking distance from the skytrain, shopping malls and markets, and several wats (or temples). I decided to take a short cut, passing the Marriot Hotel and a Thai Baptist Church. I immediately found myself outside several go-go bars and a massage parlor. Dozens of Thai girls lined the streets, all wearing tight pastel-colored t-shirts with jeans or mini-skirts. Trying to hide their darker skin complexion and thin Asian lips, many covered their faces with whiting powder and thick, red or pink lipstick. They looked like clowns.
The girls were aggressive and particularly excited to see me. (Most of their customers are old men). They started to stampede towards me, shrieking Sawatdee Kha! Sawatdee Kha! or Hello! Hello! I kindly waved back, careful not to make eye contact, and quickly moved on towards the wat in the distance.
Red light district
Before I entered the wat, I found a street vendor in a side soi (or lane) with a rickshaw piled high with lotus garlands, kreung sangha tan (monk baskets full of goodies like soap, fruit, instant coffee; you buy one and donate it to your favorite wat as way of making merit), wind chimes, bamboo, cut flowers, and candles. I bought two lotus garlands, entered the wat, and lit some incense that I held between my hands and mindfully (and nervously) wai’ed the golden Buddha. A monk I met in Chiang Mai two years ago showed me how to wai properly. I was proud to have remembered the process and relieved that I did not embarrasses myself.
Buddha at local wat
After wondering the temple grounds for some time (it was particularly beautiful at night), I walked back to the Atlanta, thinking about my time here in the Land of Smiles. About how different Mae Sot will be than dynamic Bangkok. About the people I will meet and places I will see. About the migrant students I will be working with in just a few short days. About their parents and sisters and mothers who work in those awful, hot factories. To be honest, I was and still am a little overwhelmed. I have a lot to do in this next day and half before my long bus ride to Mae Sot. I’ll be ready though. I have to be.