A land of contrasts my ass. I’m going to Thailand to get drunk.
That’s the way it begins. For me and my friends, at any rate. We hadn’t been in Korea three months before we started talking about the Brazen Lands, a plan nearly 18 months in the making. Not that we actually planned anything past airport, bus ride, beach and booze. The actual itinerary would be left to me. At the time, it was far off. Days, weeks, months left to plan. Don’t worry about it! Relax. It’ll sort itself out.
Then on Christmas Day, 2009, it was here; a month in South East Asia staring me in the face, a gaping tiger’s maw, fetid breath of travelers’ bone and blood. But I was ready. Packed into my bag were more camera lenses than clean underwear. You better believe I was ready.
Day 1: Merry Kimchi Christmas
December 25, 2009
Breakfast is utilitarian at best; eggs over cooked, burnt toast and ham packaged in plastic, cheaper than the canned stuff by a dollar. We’d eat the kimchi if it were fresh. When you’re in Korea and on a tight schedule, you make due with what you’ve got available to you.
I picked Zach up from the Castle Hotel sometime after ten, kicked him up and out of his soju-induced slumber and now he’s getting showered while Megan and I put the finishing touches on breakfast. I eat some of it, taste less and continue packing frantically. Heading out for a month on the road is stressful. Off to the airport.
The ride from Osan Express Bus Terminal is the smoothest in Korea. No joke. I sleep the entire way, which will account for most of the sleep I’ll get over the next 10 days. At the airport we meet with everybody else; Marty, Phil, Kevan, Sara, Sue, Ciara, Adam and Brian. We race through customs, sack off one last bite of Korean food ($7 rolled rice – it’s not any good) and a few beers. Initiate relaxation phase.
The flight crew is split on their feelings for us. We’re loud and obnoxious and in a big group, so it’s easy to see why we come off as Spring Break Resurrected, but we’re on our way to Thailand and are thus cut a lot of slack. A couple of the girls, the ones working the left isle, they dig us. They bring us three Heinekens apiece for each single order and double up our dinners. The right side, though, they don’t like what we’re selling. It’s a beer at a time with significant lapses between service and a couple of us have to fight for a roll during dinner. I blame this one on Kevan, who is manning the isle seat. He must have said something in that crazy English accent to set the girls off.
We solve the beer issue in Taiwan. Heineken is $1 a can, and they aren’t going to check our bags upon re-entry. It’s like we’ve won the lotto here; four more hours on this stinking plane (stinking because we stink) and we’re loaded to the gills with fresh brew. If it weren’t already Christmas I’d say that Christmas had come early. Back on the plane, the left side contingent serves us, but the right shuts us down. That adds a few more beverages to our stronghold without raising suspicion, though we do get the “where did you get that beer?” from a right side stewardess who thinks we stole from the cart. No worries, though. We’ll tell her Kevan did it. Two hours to go.
Bangkok’s not that scary. Not the airport, at any rate. I decided long ago to ignore advice from anyone in the west regarding places I’m going to they’ve never been.
“Oh, you don’t want to go to Beijing… it’s so dirty!”
“Seoul? Really? But crime there is pandemic!”
“Bangkok? You’re serious? You do have your last will and testament sorted, don’t you?”
The garbage that we feed to each other back home, the irrational stuff we believe, it’s remarkable. I can honestly say the only places I’ve ever felt unsafe for a moment in my life are in the USA and a single shady street in northern Toronto. That’s it. Bangkok? Just another misunderstood Asian capital. Even The Beach got it wrong.
Phil has some pals from home that live in Bangkok now, teachers, MCs, DJs, men of the world. They’ve gone out of their way to sort a guest house for us. The only problem is in getting there.
“You know where it is?”
“Not sure, mate.”
“Ask the cab driver.”
We pile into a van, all of us, backpacks strewn about, bursting out the back window and numbing legs, to race along Bangkok’s midnight thoroughfares. It’s dark and it might be smoggy and the metropolitan landscape blots out the stars and the night sky, but it feels like paradise. It sure doesn’t feel like cold. I’m in a shirt with sleeves and cargo pants and I’m starting to sweat. It’s a good feeling. The van is buzzing, we’re drunk off the flight and we’re ready to mix it up. Transit time is finally coming to an end.
You settle in for a bit to eat somewhere, a long journey behind you, the tribulations of real life becoming puffs of memory somewhere in the back of your mind, you’re bound to romance about the space and time you occupy.
“I love this restaurant,” I say, slumping down into the low, worn wood of the bench in the corner. I haven’t tried the food yet. Haven’t had a beer. My friends circle the comically low table and occupy their perches.
“It’s a good place,” Phil says.
“Agreed,” Kevan chimes in.
A round of beers for the crew, we toast to Thailand, to whatever mischief we’ll invariably find ourselves in later tonight. The waitress, a young lady thrilled that she’s about to clear a month’s rent and cash to pay for hydro off our tab, drops laminated menus in our labs and scratches orders on her notepad in physician-script.
Spring rolls. Dozens.
We drink well on into the night, but time isn’t holding much sway over our comings and goings. We’ll get up tomorrow at some point. Most of us. Between now and then it’s talk of the journey and the others that are to come. We’re hundreds of kilometers away from the beach, but we’re in Bangkok for a day. Might as well take advantage of it.
Phil is twisting to find a proper bar, a club, something, but it’s late we’re toasted and the tuk-tuk drivers are unusually unscrupulous. In fact, there’s a notice scrawled on the guest house wall opposite the restaurant; Beware! Tuk-tuk drivers here very bad. Cheat you from your money! We talk Phil out of depravity, tell him it’s on hold for a few hours, and he relents. He goes missing for a half an hour while the girls retire to their enclaves, sighting the bizarreness of drinking on the street at 4am in Bangkok, and he doesn’t reappear until 5, when I catch him eating noodles from the 7-Eleven in front of the noodle cart on the street… the noodle vendor staring daggers into his frame and wishing all manner of hell upon him.
“Right, I’m going to bed,” Phil says.
“See you in the morning.”
I take a photo to remember him by.
You search for something authentic when you travel. I think it’s why you travel. A little escape, something new, a little spice or a kick in the ass to tell you that you are alive. A shot of adrenaline, something foolish. Food is a good place to start. Not much danger in that. Zach, Kevan, Marty and myself head to the night market. Meat is cleaved, tossed into piles on old oily boards; we sidestep the butchers who wink at us with crooked smiles. There are dogs and cats everywhere. We pass vats of assorted food stuffs – we have no idea what they are – and decide to try all of them. The proprietor loads up our plates, rice then a half ladle each from the steaming cauldrons, and we sit on the plastic chairs at the round picnic table under the tarpaulin. Zach digs in first and his ears catch on fire. I try something that might have been chicken in another life, a little bit of beef mixed in, some sauce, a lot of chili. It’s hot. A nuclear reaction somewhere behind my eyeballs. I’d suspect the North Koreans if I didn’t know where this stuff came from.
“What the fuck?” Marty squeals, his fingernails digging into his palm. “What is this?”
I’m trying to dig a peppercorn out of my brainstem. None of us can answer. Myself and Zach because we’re near death, Kevan because he’s gorging himself. Finally, between mouthfuls and while dumping the contents of our bowls into his own, Kevan speaks.
“I don’t know what you’re all crying about,” he says. “this stuff is delicious.”
I have a feeling my mouth is going to hurt in the morning.
We’re always fighting light. If it’s not the right colour, not the right tone, if human flesh isn’t rendered exactly as is, we go ballistic. Why? Unless you’re shooting high fashion day in and day out, why not have a little fun? Sure, we can correct it, adjust it, shift it, bring it back, up, down or sideways. And sometimes we can roll with what the ambient is giving us. Make the ambient the star of the scene. Jack your ISO, have some fun and add a little noise, a little grunge. At the midnight market in Bangkok, I could have brought out a flash or two, bounced some light off the white canvass and soaked the scene in smooth light at f/8 at ISO 200. But why?
I like the grit and the mood set by the ambient. I let it take over the scene and run counter to the tone set by the food; hot vs. cool. Sometimes, you can roll with the punches and leave the lights in the bag.