The plan was to travel until the pain ran him over. But the worst thing Skyler Faralan could have done was come to Bangkok. It was too easy in Thailand, the land of smiles. The lure of cheap massage parlors taunted his hopes of burning out in a blaze of hardcore travel glory. Instead of a long, tortuous decay into death, he found food so cheap he couldn’t possibly starve, people so beautiful he couldn’t possibly be lonely. A police-force strictly to protect him, the foreigner. Hotel rooms for seven dollars. And because he was as brown as the fried cricket snacks that tantalized every street stall, he got to stroll into historic temples through the locals-only line. Yes. Finally it paid off, the ambiguity. At an American chain coffee shop he shot the breeze with cute ladyboys about their hairy foreigner clients. He laughed when they called a large white Australian man a gorilla. Here, the rules of the game had changed. His race card had turned wild.
When there was nothing left to leave, Skyler traveled to Southeast Asia with five hundred dollars from his no-life. It seemed one step better than genuflection: this going someplace he hadn’t yet been, a spot in the mind, dark, stuffed down the horizon’s edge. He knew little of the place, sought to come with fresh eyes, bringing a notebook as his sole witness. Knowing nothing, he searched for nothing. Above Bangkok’s still dark canals, he prowled like a Khajit thief, fueled with the night's gifts, hovering his tail to cat-walk above exposed supine sexpats caressing young brown men in white briefs. He had no idea where he was because the street names on the tourist map were covered up by images of coconut drinks and Buddha statues. He just went: passing a temple's silhouette, using the light from the gold mountain as his only landmark, wishing to find himself lost, unthinking. But the streets everywhere were unusually clean, the whole city unusually boring.
He struggled to keep awake as he cruised past locals playing dice. Don’t proceed, his still-conscious mind told him. Stay close to the street lamps. That’s it, now cross the bridge, over the waters thick like melted rubber. Focus on not falling into the muck. Don’t think—look below. At that river of thick black slime. An industrial moat, where nothing moved but to struggle to breathe. In that moat Skyler found it: a nothing. A big nothing, stuck within the ruinous figures that made up a slum-diver's wet-dreams, picture-perfect in its unknowable poverty. If he were a different traveler he would have taken a dozen pictures, perhaps, hoping to catch some gaseous yellow light.
He flapped forward, passing gated temples with sleeping security guards, passing night markets full of fresh eggplants and pig carcasses. He smelled pungent fruit co-mingling with the scent of petrol from cackling motorbikes. He separated their aromas, approaching their stalls. He heard cooking oil pop, then the smell of squid, fish, and clams. The smell of the sea that would usually push him away pulled him in. He heard his stomach cry out in a newborn’s wail.
Skyler spent the night watching revelers trample in and out of the Khao San clubs. He read Balzac in a steamy cloud of Pad Thai. He heard someone talking to him, sharing small nothings. He caught a whiff of smoke from a pyre of paper money, offerings to lost ghosts.