As I write this, I am sat at an outside table on Soi Rambuttri in Bangkok, sipping Pepsi from a glass bottle they stopped using elsewhere in the world circa 1985, watching hordes of travelers from all walks of life go by.

Beside me, two armchair philosophers are arguing about something meaningful, fueled by their fourth Chang beer. Behind me, The Beach is playing on the TV screen inside the restaurant for perhaps the 10th time today. I never watch it but know the script by heart now.

Tuk-tuk drivers are hustling two Canadian girls with maple leaves sewn onto their rucksacks a few meters away; three Swedish guys are strolling around wearing oversized Paris Hilton sunglasses despite it being ten o’clock at night; and two Italians across the street are arguing madly about something while waiting for some pad thai from a steaming street cart, their hands waving passionately in the air.

Now, a supposed hill-tribe woman in traditional garb is trying to get me to look up from my screen long enough to buy one of the annoying wooden frogs, and a graying German guy just sat down behind me with his 20-something Thai girlfriend, her arms laden with more shopping bags than she could carry. To my right, a guy in Billabong shorts is mistakenly (or maybe not) hitting on a purring lady-boy in the shortest miniskirt ever sewn.

The handful of chilis the Pad Thai man just threw into the hot oil for the Italians is making my eyes water, and floating above the delicious smell of food is just a hint of cheap cigarettes, motorbike exhaust, and pungent sewage.

Somehow in the vortex of all this madness, non-cultural authenticity, and runaway tourism, a smile creeps its way across my face. I can’t stop watching. I am a moth and this is my flame. It’s still hard to believe…but…

I’m home.

Say what you will, but Thailand was my first stop on my vagabonding-for-life tour, and it will always have a special place in my heart. Friends and long-time readers know that I can’t come to Asia and not at least stop by Thailand for a short visit — so here I sit. I am starting to become predictable. 🙂

Yes — Bangkok is filthy, dark, crowded, seedy, corrupt, stinks, and is out of control — but damn it, I love this place!

How can you not?  Love it or hate it, the Banglumpoo area in Bangkok that includes Khao San Road and Soi Rambuttri, is undeniably the budget travel hub of Asia, maybe even the universe. If you are a world traveler, you will end up here one day. Some come and never leave, swallowed up by the madness.

A few days is enough for me usually, and then I make a run for the islands where I’m hoping my heart is still out there somewhere in the white sand. In continuing my three year tradition of being honest and personal on this blog, I have to say that as much as I would like to hate Bangkok with my entire being, I just can’t. Think what you will of me!

Maybe it’s the exhaust fumes. Maybe I’ve finally reached some threshold of traveler madness where dreadlocks, fishermen pants, and “spiritual” people who got tattoos on their faces in India appeal to me. Go back and read my first impressions of Bangkok from 2006, they tell of a much different perspective. This place will grow on you like a fungus, and unfortunately I am now a confirmed victim.

Damn…I think the lady-boy just spotted me.

When I got off the bus from Bangkok’s brand new, pristine international airport, it was like I never left. Sure, some things have changed since my last visit in 2007, but I was instantly familiar and knew which direction to start walking. I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and made a quick pace for Soi Rambuttri, a nicer and quieter alternative just one block from the raging Khao San Road.

This is my first visit to Thailand during the “low” season, and I can tell you that there is nothing low about it. This place is packed. There weren’t this many travelers here during the peak season when I was here last. Are they queued up because of the bad tourism in Indonesia and elsewhere? I’ve never seen this place so bustling; no one seems to care that it’s supposed to be raining (which thankfully it is not).

Sadly, my old secret homestay on Rambuttri is gone, replaced by a big expensive new place. I heard about the place in 2007 from another traveler, and it was the kind of underground, word-of-mouth place that backpackers long for. There was no sign, and the front was simply a metal door that opened to the street. Inside, tucked away from the craziness outside, was a quiet courtyard with a fountain and plants. With only six immaculate rooms and a Buddhist owner that insisted everyone speak in a hushed voice inside the courtyard, it was a gem. He told me then that they were trying to force him out to take over his real estate — I guess they succeeded.

Coincidentally, I hit Bangkok just in time for the Queen’s Birthday celebration, which they call “Mother’s Day.” The last time I was here there was a huge festival with fireworks for the King’s Birthday. Now I can say that I’ve held a candle in the wai for both — very cool!

After I dropped my bags in a giant five-dollar-per-night guesthouse, I set out to grab some much needed street food. For less than $1 you can pretty much have any of the famous Thai noodle or curry dishes. The only complaint is that unless you want to eat with the rats on a filthy curb, you have to luck out and catch one of the sparse metal tables open near the carts.

After eating some fiery pad sae ew noodles, a simple recon stroll down Khao San before bed turned into a four-Redbull-bucket, four-hour conversation with live music and great company. I love it when that happens.

Unfortunately, there won’t be much time for hanging around on this visit; tomorrow I have to find a way to Chiang Mai for a meetup with Anna and friends as well as a friend of mine from as far back as highschool. This is the first visit to Thailand for all of them, so I get to play guide and bucket-drink consultant — I can’t wait!

Yep…the lady-boy has definitely spotted me…I’m out of here!