It started with a funny sign NO WAY GO half-securely hang by the open gate we saw while walking around the then-under renovation Wat Ratchanatdaram. The walls were high and grayed white, and the sign piqued our curiosity. We thought there might be a less-known temple inside, a family-owned one, perhaps. So we entered.
We found something different instead. But what we found did not surprise me at all. The air was thick with the distinct smell of a canal and the unmistakable aroma of fresh basil—an odd combination, of something delicious and something horrendous. We saw neat rows of rundown wooden houses. We followed the path between the houses in this quiet neighborhood and ended up in a dirty brown khlong, which carried the city fluids to Chao Praya.
Three Thais idled by their little terrace overlooking the river; a woman even went down to have a photo with us. We must be one of those crazy travelers who got lost in the neighborhood that we were not supposed to see.
The monitor lizards snaking through the smelly khlong fascinated us—I forgot they were reptiles. The ones I encountered in my childhood bore holes in the ground and ate little chicken or frogs. They were hunted down, cooked and eaten in my hometown. But here in Bangkok, they were fat and rather comfortable living in the dirt.
I could not speak for T, my partner; but I felt oddly welcomed. I felt like a neighbor who decided to check on her neighbor, not knowing was waiting for her, yet the neighbor let her in a well-lived house—a house that was not meant to be photographed for magazines but a house meant to be lived in by the most common folks in the community.
In front of one house, a mother and her two kids, sat on the little path, cutting and slicing bamboo shoots for dinner. One girl removed the basil leaves from the stem. In one house, an old woman watched a Thai show from too small box a TV amidst plastics and dirty clothes. A man squatted against the wall and eyed us with indifference.
Friends who had been to the ASEAN said the Philippines was way behind from its sisters, with that unmistakable tone of envy and despair. Bike lanes, tree-lined or roofed pedestrian lanes, convenient transportation systems, photographable, delicious street food: we longed for these to exist in our archipelagic country.
Perhaps it was odd of me to be on the look out for something the Philippines and our neighboring countries shared. Not food. Not traditions. Not language. Something that we rarely talk about when we travel. Because really, why would we look for something that we are trying to escape back home? Like poverty.
The Philippines, aside from its forgiving and sentimental character, is never good at hiding. We are not embarrassed of showing our poverty. The slums are there for everyone—the tourists and the locals—to see. The unforgiving floods and overflowing rivers. The trash.
Thailand’s affordability and beautiful temples drew a crowd. We were part of that crowd, checking temples after temples and getting awed by their architecture and utter extravagance. Why does faith—be it Catholic or otherwise—always look extravagant?
In some cases, I felt that Bangkok’s beauty was packaged for the outsider’s eyes. Khao San Road can be the classic example. I was so kilig at first seeing white sleeveless tops with varied designs such as dreamcatchers, a feather turning into a flock of birds, elephants, anything that is cute, rare, and whimsical. I wanted to buy one or two. But when I saw countless backpackers wearing the same thing, my excitement waned.
I soon noticed that no local wore the shirts and the harem pants they were selling. Vendors wore jeans and shirts.
Some travelers said that a trip to Bangkok would not be complete without falling into a tuktuk “scam.” Were they being sarcastic or truthful, it would not matter, because we did fall into a scam, thinking some stranger was very kind for informing us the ferry to Wat Arun would not be open until 2 p.m.
We arrived by Phra Athit Road where the jetty is, around eleven in the morning. It did not cost us much, and but there were a lot of awkward moments inside a tailoring company, two travel agencies, and a small temple.
Everything in Khao San Road is meant for travel consumption. Guys, mostly Nepalese, hollered at T, asking him if he wanted a new suit. Some taxi drivers proposed a day trip to the widely photographed floating market for a hefty price. A vendor would charge 10 baht for a photo of her fried insects. Parties could last until four in the morning. There is a fish spa, a thirty-minute massage by the road, restaurants filled with Buddha statues—anything that can be considered affordable for most travelers but remained expensive for a Filipino backpacker.
We did not regret choosing a hotel in Rambuttri Road, next door to this hubbub called Khao San. It afforded us to see how a place becomes a mecca of third world excesses meant for Western consumption.
Over coffee and sweets, my girlfriends and I shared notes on our trips abroad. On how they envied the traveler-friendliness of our neighboring countries and how they wished that the Philippines would be like them. Just like my friends, I would love to have systematic public transportation, clean and safe streets, and clean affordable street food (photographable is a bonus).
But more than anything else, I would love to see a Philippines that does not have to reinvent itself to meet the demands of the outsiders. I would love to see a Philippines that does not have to hide the poor so as not to embarrass its visitors. I would love to see a Philippines that does not have to hide the poorest of the poor, simply because they cease to exist.