“Do you know how to get to Khao San?”
Before I was even finished, the shame began to sink in, for the ultimate triumph in any foreign city is blending in. To admit that you are lost is to admit to being an outsider; at best a curiosity, and at worse the target of churlish judgement. To ask a local for direction to the tourist slum, however is opprobrium from which redemption is impossible.
After a mostly uneventful flight, I had landed in Bangkok amidst countless droves of pad-thai hungry travellers; turtles struggling under shells of colourful, oversized baggage. Once I had navigated customs and exited the airport, I was directed brusquely and without ceremony to Khao San, known colloquially as the “old city.” I quickly found out, however, that this was nothing but a glorified appellation for the backpacker district; a scum-ridden maze-work of crumbling multi-story buildings, cheap trinket vendors, copy-artist tattoo studios and all other manners of touts and hustlers.
48 hours of dirty, drunk and unshaven backpacker later I had realized beyond all doubt that I definitely did not belong to this crowd - even though I was, for all intensive purposes, backpacking. Suffice to say, I made a dash for the newer and more modern sector of the city, and spent most of the following day drinking coffee and clumsily navigating a public transit system that relied solely and maddeningly on signage printed in incomprehensible Thai script.
Now, after a day of nothing but aimless wandering and observation of the fast-paced and often bizarre caricature that was big-city Thai life, I was exhausted and ready to return to Khao San. The young, well-dressed Thai man, to whom I had bared my ignorance, furrowed his pencil-thin black eyebrows as he blinked at me and for a moment, and the thought actually occurred to me that I should not have asked his help.
But then the moment was over and he pointed to a low-hung schedule next to us that contained absolutely no English and said in a high-pitched, slightly breathless voice “take number 23 bus until station, then 33.” With instructional duties completed, the man shut his mouth, frowned as if he had just remembered that he had left the stove on at home, and walked away quickly. I stood where he had left me puzzled, but equally relieved that he had not just ignored me.
I lay, hours later, in my narrow and white-washed hostel bed, staring at the ceiling and thinking about the disparities between those broad and oft-overlapping categories of foreigners: the world-hungry and wild-eyed traveller, the tourist watching a strange world from the bubble of a hotel window, and the backpacker, subsisting on cheap meat and bitter local beer wherever it can be found.
Most of all, I looked forward to my departure from this place and my arrival in a land where I could learn the language, read the street names, and once again become an “insider.” As I drifted off into final blackness I imagined myself confidently giving a confused tourist on some back-road in Indoneisa directions to his hotel, and a smile played at the edges of my mouth.