|Jul/Aug 2007 Travel|
It's raining-- a miserable drizzle that makes me think it's coming down all over the world. I'm at Buddy's Bar, one of the two places on Khao San Road--the traveller's ghetto--with a bar to sit and drink at. The other, at the end of the road, has only four stools and the taciturn old woman wipes the bar every time you lift your glass. Here, the bartenders are pretty young women with long, jet-black hair. They speak broken English, dance behind the bar to the loud disco music, and resist all foreigners' attempts to flirt with them. I'm partway through a Singha beer and I've got a letter from my girlfriend Cristina in my shoulder bag--still unopened. She must have written it right after our disastrous phone call last week.
Next to me is Marty from San Francisco: my age, bald, with a goatee, formerly in a band called Radon Detector, and currently writing an Elmore Leonard-type crime thriller.
"Are you going to be here for awhile?" I ask him after I'm about half finished my beer.
I explain about the letter. It was waiting for me when I returned to the Rose Garden guesthouse.
I had dinner, a chocolate banana crepe for dessert, and wandered Khao San Road until I could get a seat here at Buddy's. I wanted both a drink and company before confronting the bad news.
"Okay," he smiles, "I was going to stay for one more anyway. When're you going to open it?"
I'm not worried--I know it's over. But still.
At the other end of the bar, John from Wales, swaying drunk, is loudly telling one of the bartenders that he's been here for two hours, spending money, and is tired of listening to this shitty music. The bartender smiles and continues dancing. Behind her are three shelves of Sang Thip, Mekong and Johnnie Walker Black Label whiskey. Wood-carved signs hang on the wall, advertising mixed drinks (Kamikaze, Screwdriver, Singapore Sling), No Refund, and Our Guest House Does Not Allow Thai Female and Male to Go Upstairs.
Marty and I talk about our lives. He tells me that when he's done with Thailand, he's either going to work at a Pepsi factory in Salina, Kansas, or move to Manhattan and become a graphic designer.
I laugh. But he's not joking.
And about love. I give him the background on the relationship and tell him about my expectations. He nods, but I think he thinks I've been unrealistic. Maybe.
We order another round of beer.
"Okay, read it," he says.
I take a swig of beer and read the letter.
It's hard to hear her voice in the words and over the blaring disco music. I never thought I would have a conversation like the one this morning... For all the times I was with you, I thought I was... I could not be my real self with you... You tried to change me... I realize now that you never... I realized all this after you left...
She seems to have it figured out. She also doesn't come out and say if she wants it to be over, but it's all there. I laugh in disbelief, put the letter back into its envelope and place it on the bar.
"I don't know," I shrug. My mind is a jumble of thoughts--I can't put them together. "She thinks... she thinks that... I don't know... the whole thing is... It's all so..."
Marty nods, waiting for me to finish at least one of my sentences.
"...Different expectations, I guess... But I don't know what her hurry is. I thought we had more time."
"Yeah," Marty says. He pauses. "I once left someone for love. It wasn't happening. Maybe you do, but I don't wait around."
"Hm. I thought it was still going to happen."
I take a swig of my beer. I feel like I should get famously drun--like John at the end of the bar. Marty finishes his.
"I'm outta here," he says. "We can meet tomorrow if you want."
I look around the bar, from the wooden signs to the bartenders, to the shelves of whiskey to the letter sitting in front of me, and savour the last few sips of my beer.
Maybe I hold you to blame for all the reasons that you left...
A familiar, fallen angel's voice singing over sad, jangly guitars floating out of the speakers as we enter Woodstock, the only non-sex bar in Soi 4, commonly known as Soi Nana. Low and dreamy, though clear--almost coy--like a woman humming to herself while brushing her hair, looking out the window and waiting for someone she knows will never return. She seduces me into her world of wistful memories and times when words were superfluous. I know this voice. I have the album. Ironically, it's in storage in Cristina's parents' basement. The combination of the voice's familiarity and plaintiveness, which gives eloquence to my recent troubles, along with the relief from the non-stop ultra-sugary Thai pop music, gives me the most pleasant, surreal feeling since the moonlit night on top of the boat in Halong Bay, in Vietnam, three weeks ago.
"Marty, who is this?" I ask, indicating the descending sound as we approach the bar. I can picture the cover of the album: a pale blue-gray interior with an old curled staircase, but the name of the band has slipped my mind.
I'm convinced it's a woman's name. I try women's names. Diana, Jillian. Carmen. Nothing. I try to imagine what my friend Larry said in Baltimore years ago, "Have you ever heard...?" But I can't fill in the blank.
"Marty, you must know." I want to shake it out of him. He shrugs; he's never even heard the song.
I decide to ask the manager, a short Thai woman with cropped black hair. Her face seems to shine out of a cluster of black petals. I've been eyeing her since we walked in, and now I have an excuse to talk to her. She flows confidently in a white dress as she plays pool with some Western guys. In fact, the bar is full of Western guys with a few Thai girls hanging around. No Thai men or Western women.
She tells me the DJ will be back soon and encourages me to wait.
We wait. The voice is still crooning. And you're leavin' before my time.
"Let's go to Cheap Charlies," Marty says after studying his guidebook. "They've got cheap beer and bats in a cage." Earlier tonight he spent ten minutes extolling the merits of the nightlife section of his guidebook over mine.
"After the DJ returns."
"Just stop thinking about it."
I try more women's names like trying the keys to the rooms of Bluebeard's Castle. Sonya, Tracey, Celeste. Nothing. At last, the DJ returns and I tell him about the music: acoustic with female lead, a bit sad... He looks at me blankly. I fear I'm in for a game of musical charades--sounds like... first word... lead singer... and he's not throwing any guesses out.
He pulls a CD off the stack and hands it to me. It's a compilation called "Pop is Dead, Volume 2" and I scan down the list and see names of bands I haven't heard in ages, and I think I'm getting closer, I'm getting closer, and I'm two-thirds of the way down the list, please, let it be here, and... finally there she is: Mazzy Star. Of course. What a relief. I tell Marty. He shrugs. I turn the name over and over in my mind so as not to forget it and coast out of the bar.
Outside, we're back in the rain.
"I say it's this way," I say, pointing east.
"I say it's that way," Marty says, pointing the opposite direction.
"I'm sure it's this way."
"Okay, let's go. I'm usually wrong about directions anyway."
I lead us down the street. After a few minutes I'm no longer sure. "I think I've got east and west mixed up. Soi 11 should be that way."
"I'd be surprised if I was right," Marty says, "but I'm willing to find out."
I insist. We traipse back the opposite direction, past Soi 4 and Woodstock--the song and the band's name continue to float in my head, and past several food stalls, hotels and construction sites. I'm not sure about this. I start thinking I was right in the first place. I tell Marty.
"That would have made me wrong," he says, slowing down, "which is good because I always want to go the opposite direction from my first impression."
Now I'm sure. We stop again. We turn around again. Finally, we find some street numbers and confirm we're in the right direction. A soup stall stands at the end of the street amid great clouds of steam.
"I'm hungry," Marty says.
We stop and order two bowls of noodle soup. The soup man invites us to sit on the tiny plastic stools under his umbrella. Three locals are already huddled knee to knee on other stools. Loaded with pork slices and fish balls, the soup is tongue-burning hot. It's all an unexpected bonus, and I feel buoyant. Marty peppers his with more spicy fish sauce. Though we try not to, we eat quickly.
Half a block away is Cheap Charlie's.
Cheap Charlie's is a roadside bar. Literally. No doors, no roof, just a few wooden stools around a wooden counter-top under a wooden awning, like an amusement park kiosk. Just one wall hangs behind the bar, and it's loaded with enough artifacts and junk to fill a garage: skulls and death masks, wooden snakes and other carvings, old license plates, half a dozen sets of antlers, a clutter of native statues and idols, and signs that warn patrons to stay off the road. A meek Thai bar-woman, who doesn't seem to understand how much character the place has, emerges from the wooden chaos and takes our order. Marty slaps his guidebook on the bar, leans forward, and reminds me to look around for the bats in the cage. Two regulars stand casually at the edge of the bar, next to the road. A car splashes by.
"Look," he says, pointing to a pair of inconspicuous cages hanging off an antler, "there."
The beer arrives. The bats are either invisible or they've escaped. We joke about getting our money back, except the beer turns out to be not just cheap but marvelously cold as well.
Marty looks around and says, "Pretty good, huh?"
We pull up our stools and CCR comes on the speakers: Have you ever seen the rain?...
I edge my stool further under the awning and watch the reflections of the neon signs flicker in the rain puddles. I could watch them all night. We both sing the refrain quietly to ourselves.
For a moment, I imagine being a regular here. We finish our beers and start walking back to the guesthouse in the drizzle. When we pass Soi Nana and Woodstock again, I drift back into dreamland with Mazzy Star: And you're leaving before my time.