Bangkok on a Budget: Time Travel and Second Thoughts…

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Soi Ngam Duphli today

Every budget traveler in SE Asia has heard of Khaosarn Road, in Bangkok, that warren of creepy-crawlers, that rookery of high-fliers, that underbelly of bottom-feeders that all identify as backpackers, or maybe even ‘flashpackers’, travelers—generally young, at heart if not calendar—who’ve made a date with fate and a pact with no backtrack to see it all…

…or die trying, including beaches, mountains, cities and villages, but especially beaches, as famously immortalized by Leonardo, DiCaprio not Da Vinci, wherever the beer is cold, the bud has flowers, the prices are low, the English language has taken root and at least one enterprising local has mastered the recipe for banana pancakes, sweeten to taste and allow to settle…

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Khao San Road

But did you know that once upon a time, the name for the district was simply ‘Banglamphu’ and that there was an equally viable, if not geographically equal, center of budget accommodations far away in the newer part of town, and usually referred to as ‘Soi Ngam Du Phli’, or even ‘the Malaysia Hotel area’, after its main landmark? That’s where I stayed my first few times to Bangkok in the early 1990’s and found it preferable, even after trying my luck on Khao Sarn Road…

Now I’m not sure what the big attraction was or is with either of those locations, though I’m guessing that Banglumphu’s big attraction was the proximity to attraction itself, the historical district of Bangkok, with the palaces and temples of the Rattanakosin district—and era; while Soi Ngam Duphli’s attraction might have been to the nearby embassies, OR—Bangkok’s Vietnam-War-era seedy side: nearby Patpong red-light district, and no shortage of female pragmatists stabled nearby, either, which Banglamphu had none of…

No matter, because neither district was especially accessible, or anywhere else, either, really, so when the BTS ‘sky-train’ mass transit rail line was constructed, up and running right around Y2K, Sukhumvit Road quickly became my go-to place to stay because of its easier access, lack of which had previously rendered Bangkok a particularly miserable grid-locked place. Sound like any other ‘City of Angels’ that we know and/or love/hate? Yes, the Thai name ‘Krung Thep’ literally means ‘city of angels’…

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Patpong by Day

Fast forward to the present, and it’s obvious that history has no such love of subtlety and nuance. Today Khao Sarn is world-famous and HUGE, while Ngam Duphli has diminished and become decimated almost to the point of extinction, BUT: wait a minute. The newer mass-transit MRT line now passes nearby on its way to Hualamphong central train station, AND: prices are typically lower than equally-fast-booming Sukhumvit, where the same hotel that cost ten bucks twenty years ago, now costs thirty (yes, the Miami)…

Now connections between the BTS and MRT lines are not especially good, and neither goes directly to either airport, but I’m in no huge hurry, nor especially in need of any fancy entertainments, whether physical, liquid or culinary, but I do like a nice peaceful cheap and diverse neighborhood, the more authentic and less affected by mass tourism the better. The Malaysia Hotel is still there, refurbished and inexpensive, at twenty-plus USD the same as previous, and others even less…

Nearby Patpong looks similarly decimated, and has long offered a street-stall night market to mitigate the presence of go-go clubs and sex bars, with mixed results. I mean: what sort of mixed-zoning mentality would make anyone think that casual street shopping is appropriate for a notorious red-light district? Instead of lifting the one sordid activity up, in fact they only debase the family-values activity, so that nothing is sacred or healthy anymore, instead of everything…

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Hostel new kid on Ngam Duphli block

Welcome to Thailand. I persist in my efforts to see the good in this country and ignore the bad, if not avoid it altogether, but it’s not always easy, given the nature of the beast and its longstanding acceptance. But tourism is a positive force, generally, because its ‘good’ money can indeed drive out the ‘bad’, simply because it’s bigger, so something of an inverse Gresham’s law. BTW Soi Ngam Duphli has the Alliance Francaise nearby, as well as the Goethe Institute, besides all the embassies, and bizniz district…

But me, I’ll be out on the edge, on the cusp, of something promising, if not big, where tourism has yet to take root, simply because that’s what I like. That’s what I do, no moral or aesthetic judgments implied or intended. For me all cities are corrupt and sleazy, by definition. And Thailand is certainly best in the villages, with the nicest people in the world. But in the cities? Meh, not so much. So who needs cities, or even tourism, now that we have Internet? Not me, see you in Sadao, or Korat, or Kampuchea…

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