A teary goodbye to Discovery Lodge and Bangkok

This story is a few weeks old. It’s been a long road, getting back to Australia, and I’ve had to pass through Malaysia and then travel hundreds of kilometres through various Australian cities before reaching my temporary “home” here. I was tired and sick and I didn’t write immediately so this story will lack some of the detail my stories usually have, but it’s a special story, so here it is.

I’ve told you before, my landlord John at Discovery Lodge in Bangkok was a very special person. He was, at a guess, in his late 40’s or early 50’s, single, and had never been married or had kids. He had spent 6 years running a backpacker lodge out of the lower floor of an apartment building in rooms that used to be a brothel. The majority of his tenants were repeat customers; people who lived in Thailand long term, and when things fucked up or they needed to just get away from wherever they lived, they would wind up back at Discovery Lodge. People would just turn up out of the blue unannounced and John would say “Oh my god. How are you ? I haven’t seen you in ages. Why didn’t you tell me you were coming ?” and the person would say “Oh I’m just blowing through John. I’m probably leaving tomorrow, but maybe I’ll stay a few days”. And then for many of them, days would turn into weeks and weeks would turn into months.

Discovery Lodge is not your average “backpacker” place. Most of the rooms are not intended as “dorm rooms” and are often in habited by people staying for many months. It’s not inhabited by young, enthusiastic backpackers. It’s full of washed up alcoholics and people down on their luck who end up there when everything else in their life has fucked up, or as a cheap refuge on their way through the country. We used to all call it “Hotel California” because we pretty much spent all day and night drinking together and talking about cultural differences and politics and music, normally until the sun rose the following morning and sometimes way after.

Some of the tenants were legally insane and some were just lost causes. But that was the beauty of it. None of us were normal and everyone was a fascinating person in their own right. But many were broke and down on their luck. One of the guys I lived with had serious self-control problems and hadn’t worked in many years and just lived off money his mum sent from back home every few days. He would be six weeks behind in his rent, promising to “pay it tomorrow when mum sends me more money”. But when he got that money, he would go and buy beer, get drunk, and the next thing you knew (and noone could stop him no matter how much we tried) he would be straight out to Sukhumvit to spend all day getting even more drunk, picking up sometimes several prostitutes, and bring them home in the early hours, having spent every baht he had and then knock on my door begging to borrow more.

As a result, it was common for certain long-term tenants to be behind in their rent and spend all their money on beer and not even be able to feed themselves. They didn’t even have the common sense to realise how broke they were and switch from beer onto the much cheaper local rice-based whiskeys and rums. They would run out of money and beg the landlord, “John, can I borrow a few hundred baht for food and beer ?” and then of course spend it on nothing but beer. Once, one of them dared to say “John can I borrow a thousand baht ($30) ?” and he laughed and said “I’m sorry. I only have 300 baht left myself. I can’t lend you any more money”.

Since he knew that people starving would lead to grumpy, irritable tenants who might fight amongst themselves and cause them to leave, John, in his infinite kindness would feed us all for free. As he was the only person managing and cleaning the place, he had little time to get to the markets and often didn’t have much food, but he was an expert chef who had run his own restaurant in Tokyo for two years, and he would look at what he had in the fridge and manage to put it all together into some some delicious spicy meat and vegetable salad and just bring it out with a whole set of bowls and forks and say “Everyone, help yourself”.

One time he even came home with a massive carton of very tasty instant noodle and curry boxes and said “This is for you guys. No charge. Help yourself whenever you’re hungry”. I mean, this guy was barely making a dollar or two per day on each tenant and often lost money from online bookings that never arrived and paid, yet he would open up his own apartment and say “Use my bathroom. Use my TV, my stereo, my (very ancient) computer. You can even play my guitar”. And people did. He kept many of the tenants alive, not to mention lending them money for booze.

One day someone must have put his guitar back without enough due care and it presumably fell to the ground hard, because the entire head split off from the neck and the guitar became useless. Unperturbed, he pulled the head off an older broken guitar and glued it onto the new one, and it survived for a few days, but after a second repair, the top E string became permanently glued in place and that string could not be tuned, and when we tried, the tuning rod started to crack and break apart. While this was ok if you just wanted a solo guitar, John had an awesome old Roland electronic keyboard, and I would have loved to accompany one of the guitarists with it, but we were never able to because the guitar could no longer be tuned to a perfect pitch.

Even when I was leaving and stopped paying by the week and went back to nightly payments for the last 4 days, John not only under-charged me for my electricity and water, but instead of charging me 500 baht per night for four nights, he charged me only 300 baht per night for three nights. He wanted to be even MORE generous and charge me less than cost price, just so that I remembered and became one of those people who came back again in the future. Ultimately, John loved his job. Sure he made no money and was barely subsisting, but it was an easy life that he had chosen for himself and he loved sitting around all day and all night and talking to the guests and drinking on the balcony. That was his life and he had chosen it and he clearly loved it despite all the hassles it caused him. The man fed us when we had no food, lent us money, and put up with us playing loud music until 6am in the morning and spending all our (not my, I might add) money on hookers and drugs and booze instead of paying our rent. The guy was a fucking saint.

So having lived on nothing but cheap packet noodles and pork luncheon meat for 5 weeks and the odd $1.20 meal of Japanese ramen from John while I fixed all the expensive electronic and photographic equipment I had broken on my trip, during my last week I had nothing to fix. I had a little bit of money spare. Yes I could have gone nuts and partied hard and gone out on the town or shouted everyone lots of free booze. But I could clearly see what a generous, kind soul John was and I wanted to show him that his kindness was truly appreciated.

I decided to buy him a new guitar. It was not easy. I went out twice into an area where he told me that cheap guitars could be found at a certain market with the intent of buying one. When I failed to find it the first time, John gave me the location written in Thai for my second attempt, but while I found the area, I was too early since the markets were at night time, and by the time night had fallen I had become hopelessly lost, and noone seemed to be interested in helping me after dark.

I was so incredibly frustrated when I got home that second night. I was on the verge of tears. I refused to talk to anyone and stormed into my room after cursing loudly about how much I fucking despised Bangkok. I later lied about why I was so upset and pretended it was due to to having a bad day rather than my disappointment at not being able to accomplish my goal.

On my final night in Bangkok, John and Stefan and I were sitting on the balcony drinking until the early hours and John said “Hey. I want to go to a show. Will you come with me ?” I asked “What sort of show ?” and he made a thrusting motion with his groin and I said “Ohhh, a sex show. I’m sorry John. I’m very tired. I really don’t have the energy to go out. I need to sleep before morning or I will be exhausted tomorrow”. To tell the truth, while I was dog tired, I just wasn’t really interested in that type of show. Even Stefan told me that they can be quite disgusting and degrading, and while it would have been a unique Bangkok-style experience, it just wasn’t one I was looking for.

John looked terribly disappointed and said ok and that he wouldn’t bother going either, and he retired to bed. Afterwards Stefan said “John really wanted us to go there with him. I think he wanted to show you a good time before you left. I wish I felt like going” and I said “Yeah me too. I feel pretty awful about turning him down”. When we both eventually retired to bed at around 4 in the morning I just lay there in bed, unable to sleep. I couldn’t stop thinking about how mad I was about not getting John a new guitar.

So come 7am in the morning I went and woke up Stefan who lived next door and said “Stefan. You speak Thai. Would you please come with me back to the music store area near Khao San road ? I know the guitars there aren’t that cheap, but I just don’t care anymore. I really have to do this or I will be so disappointed, and I need your help if I am going to accomplish it in time”. Stefan got up and we went and sat outside John’s apartment for a while pondering the idea. He was tired and not very keen on taking three trains into that part of town so early, but he realised how important it was to me and grudgingly agreed.

But then Sam came out as he was getting ready for work (he was one of the few people who weren’t washed out bums) and said “You know, I saw a guitar down at Fortune Town for only 2600 baht”. I very much had my doubts about this as I’d been through the only two guitar shops in Fortune Town and I was quite sure they didn’t, but Fortune Town was only two stops away on the subway and I had a much, much greater chance of getting there and back with a guitar in time to catch my plane than I would if I went all the way across the city. I decided to give it a shot.

I headed down to Fortune Town for the last time, wandering along Soi 7 past the fascinating Mansion 7 complex that I had not had a chance to visit or photograph, to get the train. I arrived at Fortune Town and found that only the food court was open. the rest of the 6 floors of shops were in darkness. I wondered when they opened. I wandered around for hours, waiting for something to open. Gradually the electronics and phone stores started to open their doors around 10am, and one or two of the other music stores such as the ukulele store opened up at 10:30am and then one of the two guitar stores opened at 11am.

The woman running it was very short and she was unable to open the shutters on her own, so I went up and offered to help, and with my extra height was able to push them open all the way for her. She thanked me and I walked inside, but she only had a small range of very expensive guitars that I just couldn’t afford. I sighed and asked when the store across the hall opened, and she told me that it opened at noon. Considering my plane was due to leave just after 3pm and the international airport was miles away, this really wasn’t leaving me much time, but I parked myself on the floor outside and waited.

Eventually they did open, at only a little past 11:30am and I went inside. I browsed quickly, asking the price of a couple of very worn, used Yamaha guitars which were in excess of 19,000 baht due to them being quality, Japanese made guitars. I said “I need a cheap guitar. It’s very important. What is the cheapest you have ?” The guy showed me to this very attractive Chinese-made steel string accoustic. I picked it up and played it and it had a lovely high action with not a hint of fret rattle and a somewhat hollow but very warm and resonant sound. I wanted it. But it was 3700 baht.

I said “Would you throw in a set of strings and a guitar pick ?” and the guy shook his head firmly and said “Absolutely not. No discounts. But it does come with a soft case”. I sighed and thanked him and walked out. But I didn’t leave. I just walked around outside the shop in circles, biting my lip. I knew he was watching me. I stood there and counted the money I had left, estimating what it was going to cost me to get back to my home town in Australia and how much I would need for hotels and food. I could go a bit hungry if I needed to, I decided. I’d already had a fun holiday, and even if I had to sleep in the park, this was important to me.

So I went back into the store and said to the guy “3600 baht and I will take it right now, as is” and he said “No case or anything ?” and I said “Yup. Just as is. No case. No spare strings. 3600 baht right now”. He nodded and said “Ok. I saw you sitting outside waiting for a long time so I think I can do that this time” and I quickly handed him 3600 baht, bowed slightly and grabbed the guitar and took off without even getting a receipt.

I practically ran back to Discovery Lodge after getting off the subway because I knew time was getting away from me, and considering I had a connecting flight in Kuala Lumpur where I intended to sleep in the airport, missing my flight would be disastrous for me. I returned to the balcony where Stefan and John (the Welshman, not the Thai landlord) were sitting there talking and I proudly held the guitar above my head like it was some championship cup I’d just won. Stefan smiled widely and said “You finally got one hey ?” I nodded and ran to grab a marker pen to write a message on the back of the guitar.

“Kun John, Thanks for taking care of everyone at Discovery Lodge. Best wishes, David + Friends. 2012”

I went and rang John’s doorbell and yelled out urgently “John, John. We need you. There’s a customer here” and he stumbled out of his room bleary-eyed and looked around and I said “I’m sorry. There’s not really a customer. I just wanted you to check out this new guitar I bought and tell me what you think”. He took it from my hands and held it and strummed it a bit, looked down the neck and said “Very nice. Good guitar I think”. I told him to look at the back of it. He looked at it and read it and furrowed his brows while I just stood there grinning. I’m not sure he wanted to think it was really for him, then John the Welshman yelled it “It’s for YOU John. David bought the guitar for you”.

John was speechless. He couldn’t even manage “thank you”. He just said “Wow” and turned it over a few times and inspected it and then put it down gently and said he’d be back in a moment. He disappeared back inside to freshen up or something and then came out and sat down and opened a beer and picked it up and began playing. I just explained that I wanted to buy the guitar for him because his was broken and we had all enjoyed playing it so much that I thought he deserved a new one to show how much we all appreciated him. He sorta mumbled and just said “Oh” and “Wow” and “It’s very nice” a few times. But the smile on his face when he started playing it in front of everyone told how happy he was I think.

It’s not like it was a massively expensive guitar. It was only $120. But it was pretty damn fine for a $120 guitar. It was durable and brand new and would no doubt last for many years and finally, John had a proper guitar again. I think the only person who was happier than John was me. I was grinning from ear to ear seeing him him play it. He asked what time I had to leave and I told him my plane left at 3:20pm and he said “Ok, good. Go get something to drink. We will toast to your leaving”. I grabbed a bottle of white rum I had in the fridge and some soft drink and poured rum for everyone and left the bottle on the table for everyone to help themselves and we knocked back quite a few glasses while the time ticked past.

John eventually called a taxi for me and when it arrived I said “Ok, I suppose I’d better go” and John said “No. The taxi won’t take very long on the freeway. I have told him to wait here for a while. It’s ok. Sit down and have another drink”. And another drink turned into another four drinks, and it was at least half an hour later before I reluctantly said goodbye to everyone and took a final self-timer photo of all of us. And what a photo it is too. It’s at the end of this article. Have you ever seen a happier bunch of loser friends ? I mean, I can’t even think of high school photos I have in which everyone looks that happy and close. And what was the common bond we all shared ? We just lived in the same damn apartment building, that’s all. But I think that photo says more about how close we all were than any words I would write. The smile on John’s face is worth a million guitars.

I rely on people’s kindness sometimes, and many of the other tenants at the lodge sure relied on John’s. It’s not like I feel that he was getting taken for granted, it’s just that I had this horrible fear that maybe he would just get tired of lending people money all the time and having a bunch of alcoholic nutters hanging around on his balcony every single night and pack the job in. But he didn’t. He really did love it. It was a pretty good lifestyle, and while I’m not sure if I could do it, it was pretty clear he enjoyed it and he loved the company of all the tenants; the crazy ones, the desperate ones, the old ones and the young ones. I reckon if I was 50 and single, that’s pretty much what I would want to do too. Just sit around on a balcony in Bangkok drinking and chatting with tenants.

Sometimes when you meet someone special like that in your wandering through life, and you are capable of doing so, you have to show them that you recognise what a nice person they are. Too many people in life will just accept someone’s kindness and offer nothing back. Even Sam, despite being a nice guy and having at least a little bit of money in the bank, didn’t want to donate a single dollar towards the guitar. But that’s ok. I only wanted them to do that so that it would be a group gift, but I signed it as though it was anyway. It was a group gift in spirit at least, since we all shared in John’s happiness in receiving it, even if I was the only one who went to the effort to acquire it and pay for it.

John was just such a nice guy, and I wanted him to know that I was a nice guy too and that I really appreciated what he did for everyone else there. I will never forget the time he brought home that big carton of noodles home and told everyone to help themselves. He didn’t have to do that. He just did it because he knew we were all on very tight budgets and some of us were flat broke. He wanted us to be happy, even if it cost him money out of his own pocket. And I guess I wanted him to be happy too, which is why I spent so much time racing around Bangkok trying desperately to procure a new guitar for him.

Sure, I feel like I did my good deed for the year, but I didn’t do it to make myself feel good. I did it because I just HAD to do it. The gift of music is very special and John was a lovely guitarist and beautiful singer and I bet he was silently disappointed about the fact that someone had inadvertently broken his old one, even if he never said anything. But it sure did make me feel good to accomplish my mission, right on the deadline, on my final day in Bangkok.

When I left and waved to them all out the window, I was ok for a few minutes, but as we got onto the highway, my breathing got incredibly ragged as I kept my gaze firmly locked out of the window and tears did run down my cheeks. I hate goodbyes, but I’m thankful that I didn’t cry until I was well out of sight. The taxi driver kept trying to explain to me that I had to pay the freeway toll and I kept nodding and saying “Yes I know. I understand. No problem” as I tried to fight back the tears. Goodbyes are always hard, but leaving a bunch of people like that that I had lived with for more than a month and spent every waking moment pouring my heart out to ? That was just heatwrenching.

I may not be the biggest fan of Bangkok, but I swear, I will remember those people I met there until the day I fucking die. I know I’ll probably never see any of them again with the exception of John, when I finally decide to return to Discovery Lodge for a visit, and believe me, it won’t be for the sake of seeing Bangkok again, it will just be so that I can see John and be one of those mysterious people who just blow in unannounced and say “Hey John, long time no see. Do you have a room for me ?”, but when I do, I think it’ll be to a very warm welcome. I wonder what sort of crazy guests he will have living with him when I turn up next time ?

Considering how broke I was, how short a time I spent there, and how little I saw of Bangkok city, I have to say that my time at Discovery Lodge in Thailand was one of the happiest time of my life. The people I met there and the experiences we shared were just priceless and I cannot express enough the importance of not just travelling, but just winding up somewhere random and living there for a while and meeting interesting people. Travel isn’t about photographing famous landmarks, or eating foreign food, or doing stupid tours. It’s about the people that you meet. The visitors (I dare not call them tourists, because noone at Discovery Lodge could ever be called a mere “tourist”) and the locals. Those people are the heart of a country. They are the heart of a city. They were the heart of Discovery Lodge, and they will be in my heart, forever.

If that’s not the happiest bunch of tenants you’ve ever seen in your life, then I want to know where you live, because it must be pretty cool !

While this is technically my final post for my current overseas trip, there are a lot of stories I have not told due to time constraints and the many laptop problems I had along the way, so if I can, I will tell them over the coming months as I prepare for next journey. Where’s that to, you might ask ? Well, the plan is Manila in the Philippines, but I mean.. you know me. I am totally random, and I just sometimes walk into travel agents and just go “Yeah.. I know nothing about that place, but I want to go there. Send me there”.

So look forward to my future stories, as I continue to get myself …

Stuck in South East Asia

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