Today is my 75th day of sobriety. It’s not worth celebrating, I know. But when I heard of Mathew Perry’s sudden curtain call, I was hit harder than I initially thought I would be.
Perry’s struggle with addiction, which I can personally relate to on a few levels, his overdose, and apparent suicide in a hot tub, are very similar circumstances to how my younger brother Tyko’s life suddenly ended.
Like Mathew Perry, my brother was also an addict. But instead of pain pills, he was so addicted to carrying around negative thoughts and dreadfully dark memories, that they forced Tyko to abuse anything that would help him get through painful days and sleepless nights.
One evening, he too decided that his pain and suffering were beyond what he could handle. And just like so many other abysmally sad people, on the night that he decided to end it all, Tyko had concluded that there was no other way to get off the emotionally volatile roller-coaster he had been strapped to for so many years.
Yet another day comes to a close here in Farawayland, following a sweaty continuation of my escape from the autumn of my years.
This sun-drenched Saturday began with a long and occasionally scorching walk along Da Nang’s incredibly beautiful beach.
I was reminded that the Pacific Ocean does indeed start somewhere beyond the Philippines, the closest land to our east. Okay, that might be a bit of a stretch.
The goal of today’s morning stroll was Marble Mountain, where the number of visitors present there as early as 9 a.m. today suggested that it’s clearly one of Da Nang’s genuinely popular attractions. But despite the name, we found no marble, and we didn’t exactly ascend a mountain, either.
Marble Mountain is more like an atoll stranded on land a long time ago. To reach the top and enjoy the wonderful panoramic view of the area, we took one of the two sauna-hot elevators for 110,000 Dong ($4.50).
Now that I think about it, we did actually see a few marble Buddhas on Marble Mountain. But perhaps the most interesting of the excursion was how the price of a plastic bottle of water related to our altitude.
At sea level (by the aforementioned elevator), a 0.5L bottle cost about 50 cents. Midway, it increased to 70, and at the top of the atoll, that price doubled. However, as with most things in Vietnam, there’s usually some room for negotiation. And as always, I feel a bit guilty for haggling, which the vendors take advantage of without mercy.
We took the same beach stroll back along the water’s edge, but now with the sun at our backs, which I still feel the warmth of as I write this.
In total, we passed a maximum of four others during our beachscapade. It’s apparently still low season here right now, and having such a long and beautiful beach almost entirely to ourselves was both marvelous and somewhat eerie.
Where is everybody?
Sometime tonight, our local mobile plan will expire. For a couple of hours this evening, we tried to extend it at a few different mobile shops. But our attempt led to absolutely nothing.
Tired and hungry, we settled heavily onto a padded bench at the back of Isakaya Man, a scruffy Japanese bodega two blocks from our hotel.
In came tempura, in came eight pieces of spicy tuna nigiri, in came a steaming plate of edamame, in came eight pieces of salmon avocado nigiri. A couple of cool Sapporos for Charlotte and two cold Schweppes sodas for me. Burp!
Tonight, it was my turn to foot the bill, and for the umpteenth time, I thought the amount was wrong, that the server had forgotten to add something. But no. I paid 365,000 Dong ($15) and then had a flashback that took me back to Ventimiglia, to Rome, to Brindisi, and when I was a multi-millionaire in Lire and as rich as Scrooge in Drachma while on Kos, Corfu, and Mykonos.
It’s undeniably a great feeling to be able to spoil oneself here, especially now when the Swedish crown is embarrassingly weak. It might take a freshly charged defibrillator to counter the shock once we’re back at the checkout counter of our local market in a few weeks.
Yes, I had yet another creamy Coconut Coffee to cap off this day. After all, it’s Saturday night and a full moon. No, I probably won’t be falling asleep early tonight, either.
Photo: Charlotte Raboff
Shot this on the way back from our long (12k) beach walk to and from Marble Mountain. We started around eight this morning and though it was already toasty and sweaty, the heat wasn’t unbearable. The mountain, which was more like an atoll than a proper mountain, offered stunning views of Da Nang and several beautiful old Buddhist shrines and statues of the Buddha.
Still in awe of how improved My An Beach is compared with 2019. Back then, we alternated between two, maybe three different restaurants with decent food. Today, there are at least a dozen places. One of the best so far is Patakka, a beautifully decorated Indian restaurant a few doors down from our hotel. The owners, a sweet Indian couple from the UK, guided us through their menu’s various options, and, then while we waited for our delicious meal to arrive, they shared their inspiring story about how they ended up in Da Nang which you can read about by visiting their website here.
I captured this scene during a press trip to Israel at Qasr el Yahud, near the city of Jericho, along the Jordan River, where Christians believe John the Baptist baptized Jesus roughly two millennia ago.
During my visit, hundreds of Christian fundamentalists from the southern United States queued up eagerly to be baptized by enthusiastic pastors or priests. They were dressed in white for the occasion and waited with anticipation to be submerged in the river. Some were even jumping up and down in line, ecstatic for their near “salvation.”
The level of fanaticism I witnessed there was only matched by what I would see and experience a day later at HaKotel HaMa’aravi (also known as the Western Wall) and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the holy mosque, both located in Jerusalem’s Old City.
The experience by the river was, to say the least, a peculiar and somewhat frightening one. After a few minutes, the shouting and the speaking in tongues (glossolaliaI became overwhelming, and I felt it was time to leave the frenzied ceremony.
To exit the baptism area, I first had to walk through an enormous souvenir shop filled with all sorts of religious memorabilia, including bottles of holy water, a wide range of crucifixes, and several racks of T-shirts adorned with colorful Jesus illustrations and Bible verses printed in bold.
The perverse level of commercialism made the experience even more absurd, if that’s even possible. To claim that this visit heightened my skepticism about religion and religiosity would be a considerable understatement.
The escalating conflict in Gaza has left me exceptionally distressed today. When I consider the potential powder keg that the situation represents, nothing else seems particularly comforting or even relevant.
I usually find some kind of solace in the thought that misery has always been a part of our world and that stepping away from the news for a while can improve my mental and emotional well-being.
But today, it’s challenging to do even that.
Why is there so much hatred among us humans? How can other animals live in a relatively symbiotic peace with each other, even across species, while we, humans, can’t seem to manage it?
The simple answer is glaringly apparent: religion.
How can belief in ancient fables, stories, and imaginative tales be so potent that it drives people to commit acts of violence, including rape, murder, arson, and the destruction of lives of those who don’t believe in the same ancient fables, stories, and imaginative tales?
The more complex answer involves a combination of power, tribalism, and territory. The hypnotic force of religion compels people to accept and defend violence as a means to assert claims over ancient holy places and territories. It’s utterly mad.
It’s profoundly disheartening that we haven’t evolved beyond this trivial, childish behavior. We are like children in a sandbox, except instead of playing happily with plastic shovels and colorful buckets, we wield guns, grenades, and rockets to annihilate one another.
Sunday evening. Da Nang. Humid.
Despite having forgotten which door it locked and unlocked, I kept an old key on my keyring for a long time. My hope was probably that I would someday remember why I kept it, but like so much else we carry around throughout our lives, it just hung around.
After about five years of key amnesia, I took it off the ring and placed it among the other homeless, abandoned keys in a crumpled plastic bag deep in a kitchen drawer we rarely open.
It was when my friends Annika and Smilla and I were on our merry way to the beach the other day that I remembered which door that old key likely opened.
After nearly a month here on the coast, we’ll soon be leaving Da Nang. It’s not often that we can say this about places we’ve visited before, but most things here in My Khe Beach have improved significantly since the fall of 2019. There are now several really good restaurants and at least a dozen well-stocked convenience stores, all with a decent range of foodstuff.
The most important change is that the neighborhood now has plenty of cafes with tasty food on their menus as well as comfortable seating and a stable internet connection. It’s in those places that we digital nomads work during our travels.
It’s going to be fun getting to know Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s largest city. As usual, it will almost certainly take one or two days before we find our way around. But Charlotte and I know already that we´ll quickly establish a reasonably structured daily routine in the nine-million-strong city of Ho Chi Minh
Speaking of Ho Chi Minh.
It seems that most Vietnamese still call the city Saigon, the name that lingers in common parlance from the time when a large part of the countries in Southeast Asia were lumped together, given the collective name “Indochina,” and ruled until 1954 with an iron fist by the French colonial power
Even though probably somewhat politically incorrect, I prefer the name Saigon. Perhaps because it reminds me of the classic film “The Quiet American” with Michael Caine and Do Thi Hai Yen that plays out in Saigon. But the name also makes me think of a very special period in my life.
During the years 1991-1995, I lived in the Medieval city of Visby on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. In the early days, I attended an art school and worked weekends tending bars and playing music at several restaurants and nightclubs in Visby.
For two years, I rented a charming little stone house (a former brewery) near Nordergravar from an old UN pilot named Lars Gibson, and his lovely wife, the artist Ann-Marie Gibson. During my years in Visby, I lived at several other addresses, mostly within the ancient wall.
I think it was the summer of 1994, the year a Swedish trio with the imaginative acronym GES had a national hit with the World Cup song “When we dig for gold in the USA”.
That summer brought a remarkable heatwave that lasted at least during a part of the soccer tournament in America.
Our sweat poured as chef Lillis and I served guests at Donners Brunn’s packed outdoor terrace with spicy, woked food and cold drinks. Together we cheered on the Swedish national team, which eventually brought well-deserved bronze medals back to Sweden.
If my memory serves me correctly, which it can very well fail to do now at the beginning of my seventh decade, it was a little later that summer that rumors circulated about a speakeasy that had opened on Strandgatan, next to the nightclub “Bur” where I sometimes stood in the DJ booth and played hits and house beats from scratched CDs until the early hours of the summer night.
When Smilla, Annika, and I were sitting on the beach the other afternoon, we talked about their trip and the fact that we would also be spending some time in Ho Chi Minh. Which was about when Annika remembered that the speakeasy on Strandgatan in Visby was actually called “Saigon.”
Stepping through the door at Saigon was like literally leaving the Middle Ages behind and being transported about 40 years back in time, right into a rowdy and smoky scene from Coppola’s epic film “Apocalypse Now.
I seem to recall an old Willys Jeep (covered in camouflage net) just inside Saigon and vinyl singles spinning from a period-appropriate playlist, including “Purple Haze,” “Fortunate Son,” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” playing deafeningly loud.
What I remember best from Saigon was how the launch was so brilliantly minimalist. Word of its existence spread quickly through the grapevine, not least because the only way to get into Saigon was if you were among the chosen few who had been provided with a door key, or if you were part of a group of guest where someone had one.
What I remember least is who gave me the key to Saigon. Regardless, I think it may still be among the pile of old keys in the aforementioned kitchen drawer.
A few weeks ago, we visited the Ho Chi Minh Museum here in Da Nang. It was in this city that the United States officially entered the Vietnam War when 3,500 Marines landed along the beach to defend an American airbase inland.
While a large part of the museum’s space illuminated the significance of Ho Chi Minh (“Uncle Ho”) and periods of his life, there was also a sizable collection of American war machines on display that had been confiscated during the conflict.
There is a similar but even larger war museum in Saigon, but I don’t know if I can be bothered to visit it. It feels like I fill my quota of war and misery these days just by opening and scrolling through online newspapers…
Photo: Matts René.
I even got to spend a couple of hours in the waves early this afternoon. It looks like it might rain again later this afternoon.
Our friends, mother, and daughter Annika and Smilla, are visiting us in Da Nang for a couple of days after their stay in Hanoi and Ha Long Bay.
I’ve known Annika since the spring of 1989 when we both worked in the bar “Grönan” at the exotic ski resort Riksgränsen in Lapland. While I only lasted about five seasons, Annika kept on working and living there for quite some time after I’d moved south.
Sunday. Evening. Da Nang. Drizzle.
On June 6, 1942, barely half a year after the Japanese Air Force left Pearl Harbor in a hellish inferno, my father was drafted into the U.S. Army with serial number 13073307 stamped on his shiny Dog Tag.
After a few months of boot camp in Baltimore, Maryland, the 21-year-old Private Ernest Raboff was shipped to Europe. For the rest of World War II, my father was a war reporter for “Stars and Stripes,” the U.S. Armed Forces’ daily newspaper.
On August 24, several weeks after D-Day, Paris was liberated from the German occupation. Among the 800,000 American, British, and Canadian soldiers, not to forget the French resistance “Free French 2nd Armored Division,” was also a skinny journalist from Philadelphia, Private Ernest Raboff.
My father stayed in Europe after the end of the war, and in the spring of 1946, he sat with some friends in the bar at Café de Flore in Paris. On a barstool a little further away sat a couple of young Swedish women who had recently arrived in town.
Just like many other Swedes after the war, the girls had traveled from Sweden to Paris to be inspired by the various creative expressions of French culture. Perhaps they were also looking to meet a handsome partner in uniform.
Before the evening was over at Café de Flore, one of the girls and my father had taken a liking to each other, and eventually, they became a couple.
After some time in Paris, the newly engaged traveled to the Swedish capital and lived there for a few years. In Stockholm, my father wrote a lot of poetry, perhaps to process all that he had seen and experienced during the war. In 1950, N.O. Mauritzons published his poetry collection, “The Bridge Across Turbulent Times.”
A few days ago, I received an unusual email from an American woman. In the email, I learned that she was in the process of going through her deceased brother’s estate in the house where he had lived in New Hampshire.
Among her brother’s belongings was a collection of books from the time when their mother, Countess Nahida de Comminges (1864-1960), had lived in an apartment just a few blocks from Café de Flore in Paris.
Among all the books was the poetry collection, “The Bridge Across Turbulent Times.” The book was dedicated to the Countess and signed by my father.
The Countess’s granddaughter, the woman who contacted me the other day, and who is also named Nahida, wondered if I wanted her to send my father’s book to me.
Why am I mentioning all this?
Well, because this story nicely highlights why I am so obsessed with making books. A book is a bit like a message in a bottle. Suddenly, it appears on some unknown beach, discovered by some unknown person.
Right now, I am working on a book about what it’s like to turn 60. Yes, about everything that entails both emotionally and physically. It’s as difficult as it gets but no less exciting to sort thoughts and structure them in essay form.
Just the thought that this new book (or any of the others) will continue to live on long after my time on this planet is kinda cool.
Think about it; someone in the future might contact Elle’s children or grandchildren and wonder if they are possibly related to the author of a book they found in a creaky drawer, on a dusty bookshelf, or in a moving box that was never unpacked. That thought warms the soul.
It also makes me want to continue making more books!
I enjoyed an excellent session in the waves yesterday afternoon. However, today, I find myself obsessively compelled to ventilate a long-smoldering frustration, ignited by the many conflicts our troubled planet faces. Not to mention the latest conflict between Israel and Hamas, which unfolded just this past weekend.
To me, it is clear to see that this is predominantly about the pursuit of financial gain, political prestige, the fear of defeat, and a readiness to sacrifice all in the name of religious victory.
But what victory can possibly come from this new chapter? Death with the elevated, albeit by most scholars considered misinterpreted, the promise of martyrdom?
In my worldview, as an atheist, I see the hallmarks of deceit and subterfuge whenever and wherever religion has entangled its tentacles.
Much like with modern wars, religion frequently assumes the appearance of a smart, logical scheme, often orchestrated by individuals with dubious motives, unbridled ambitions, and a sole objective— preserving or augmenting power and influence on their followers.
Religion stands as a finely crafted hoax, a kind of insurance for the afterlife where premiums are paid in faith, the most cryptic of currencies, in a series of installments from birth to grave.
Similarly, religion bears a striking resemblance to the military-industrial complex, another interest group that gravitates towards death and ruthlessly exploits the gullible and the vulnerable. Like religion, the military-industrial complex and its army of lobbyists, estrange non-believers, exacerbate conflicts, and allure nations into engaging in outright warfare as well as “special military operation.”
It’s nothing short of despicable.
Whenever there’s an absurd amount of armed conflicts, I find myself thinking about human evolution. Despite our sophistication, in language, education, technology and medicine and an overall refinement of our tools—once blunt, now gleaming—we appear to be caught in a quicksand of primitiveness.
In matters of basic humanitarian values, we are hostages of the past, still resembling our ancient, tribal selves. Our tendencies still lean heavily towards barbarity, anger, jealousy, envy, and a relentless preoccupation with rivalry.
Worse yet, we still seem beholden to self-aggrandizing, menacing men.
And speaking of men, why is it that famed entrepreneurs like Bezos, Musk, Jobs, Zuckerberg, and other evident megalomaniacs are hailed as geniuses of such cosmic proportions?
If indeed they were all that, I cannot help but wonder why their brilliance is channeled towards endeavors that are so ephemeral and trivial. Why do they not prioritize tackling genuine, life-threatening concerns rather than focus so incessantly on inventing solutions for problems that we don’t really have?
Imagine directing these dudes’ intellect towards the cessation of global conflicts, the quelling of the relentless tide of pollution choking our planet, or against famine and diseases.
Yet instead, we find ourselves beguiled by the tantalizing promise of voyages to distant planets and eventually the colonization of our solar system.
One can’t help but ponder why our fascination remains so unabated, despite the fact that these brilliant individuals are doing little more than dig a deeper landfill into which we’re all destined to fall
In what way, I wonder, will electric cars, faster deliveries, and shiny new smartphones address the pressing challenges that confront us?
I have an old childhood friend who hails from Los Angeles but has lived for many decades in beautiful Haifa. Her concern for her country’s future and, above all, the safety of her family are both valid and understandable.
It’s 2023 and we should long ago have transcended these recurring tragedies that create such worries and so much stress.
The media can only handle singular conflict at any given time. Presently, the age-old conflict between Israel and Palestine occupies center stage.
But by this time next week, the media will have redirected our focus elsewhere. This is the modus operandi of sensational journalism, where the sale of advertising (eyeballs) trumps everything. Meanwhile, my drink begs for a refill, and I’m still at a loss when it comes to selecting tonight’s Netflix entertainment.
The world, with its myriad of challenges, will clearly continue to spin while I deliberate.
I am easily distracted and this seems to be getting worse as I get older. This is not just a little ironic as I’m currently writing a book about how life changes when you’re over sixty and how easily distracted I’ve become.
When I’m sitting and writing in a busy café, like the one above where I was earlier today for several hours, there’s always a plethora of potential distractions (guests, music, food, staff). Yet oddly enough, I found that I was still actually able to focus on writing there – even for stretches that are several minutes long.
Wait, only for several minutes, you ask?
Well, yeah, as what I’m writing constantly takes me places that need to be investigated, researched and cross-referenced before being added to the book’s pages. At some point within the next two months, I’ll be able to spend most of my time editing, which I’m very much looking forward to.
In an effort to make the book more affordable (and boost sales), I’ve re-priced the Re:Surfaced book. It’s still the same 200+ page collection of unique images from surfaces captured in 23 cities on 3 continents.
Here’s the yummylicious Sunday eveniung dinner I had at our favorite restaurant in Da Nang at the plant-based, health-focused Roots:
Japanese Nori Bowl: veggie nori roll, wakame, edamame, shiso, grated dikon, pickled ginger, turmeric tofu, mushroom, pumpkin seeds, cucumber, sesame, garlic black rice with ginger & sesame dressing.
I photographed this old US warplane the other day at the Ho Chi Minh Museum here in Da Nang. The museum is a tribute to the life and achievements of Ho Chi Minh, affectionately known as “Uncle Ho”. The museum serves as a window into his life, pursuits, and contributions he made to the struggle for Vietnamese independence.
Beyond its historical significance, the museum is really gorgeous and blends traditional Vietnamese architectural elements into its design and is surrounded by lush gardens that enhance the overall ambiance. Highly recommend a visit.
We’re once again finding our way into an everyday groove here in Vietnam. Just a few short steps from our hotel we found a laundry service and there’s a plethora of restaurants within a five minute walk that serve delicious and affordable meals from almost any conceivable cuisine.
If I had to bet, I’d wager that our combined expenditure for food and beverages doesn’t exceed SEK 200/USD$18 per day. And I am confident that if we only ate at local Vietnamese restaurants and didn’t splurge on fancy coffee, we’d easily get by on half that much.
Our favorite dinnertime place today, as back in 2019, is the plant-based eatery Roots. So far, we’ve not found a better alternative where the food is so consistently well-made and tasty.
Wherever we travel, I rely on Charlotte’s ability to hone in and suss out which cafés that offer a) stable and fast Internet connection, b) good food/coffee and c) reasonably comfortable seating.
Like most days back when we were here in 2019, between 6:00-7:00 am this morning, I practiced Tai-Chi and Qigong together with Garry and his regulars on the beach. Then I headed to the My An Sports Center for a 1000 meter swim.
After getting in my morning exercise, I’ll spend most of this Sunday writing and editing a chapter in my book. That is, unless we decide to go to Da Nang’s war museum which we missed last time around.
We always visit a few rooftop bars and restaurants when were in Asia. There’s just so many of them and most offer irresistible vantage points in every direction.
I took the above photograph late in the afternoon yesterday from a hotel’s rooftop bar housed in one of many spectacular skyscrapers along My Khe Beach.
Perhaps I shouldn’t even mention it. When compared to someone like my dear sister-in-law, who has managed over 30 years, my 50 days of sobriety seem almost negligibly insignificant.
Yet, this little milestone is important to me. Especially now while we’re in Vietnam and observing “Sober October.”
Every evening that I resist the temptation to order an ice-cold beer or a shot of bourbon (or both) at one of the restaurants where we dine here, my determination grows stronger.
With each passing day, the idea of drinking anything other than a glass of dull sparkling water or lime juice that is brought to our table seems more and more distant. As long as I don’t have to sip water through a straw, I’m fine.
I’m not overly fond of alcohol-free alternatives, but I can certainly appreciate washing down my throat with an ice-cold, zero-percent beer without feeling much repulsion. Yet, despite the taste that alcohol-free beers do have, it was that temporary euphoric feeling – the release – from a tall, strong one that I was truly craving.
In the late 1980s, I discovered the boozy, writing poet Charles Bukowski. Like many other young, lost men with artistic ambitions, I was captivated by how he managed to be so damn creative and productive despite leading such a tough life.
As I read Bukowski’s unfiltered descriptions of the squalid, impoverished life he lived in the Los Angeles slums during the 1960s, he became a sort of Californian version of the other broken artist I had long admired, Vincent van Gogh.
When actor Mickey Rourke landed the role of Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s literary alter ego, in the noir film “Barfly” with Faye Dunaway (and Sylvester Stallone’s younger brother, Frank Stallone), I already knew even before the film premiered that it would be a brilliant success, at least in my cinematic universe.
Today, I’m equally fascinated by how Charles Bukowski survived as long as he did as I am astonished at how I, coming from a family where alcoholism has wreaked so much havoc, could glorify his life in that way. C’est la vie.
One of Bukowski’s most honest and perhaps most accurate quotes goes like this:
“That’s the problem with drinking…If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget. If something good happens you drink in order to celebrate, and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen.”
Just fifty days today, but one day at a time…
Feels great to be back in Vietnam. We left just hours before the tragic shooting at Siam Paragon and Charlotte and I actually had a rendez-vous there the day before it happened.
Much of Da Nang’s Miami-esque My Khe Beach district where we’re staying has been upgraded since we left in late December 2019. More walking-only streets and plenty of new restaurants and boutiqu hotels to choose from. And a ton of foot massage places along the sidewalks.
I can hear that there’s still a few construction sites abound, but much less so than during our last stay. Sadly, our favorite café Bread & Salt has just closed down. On a brighter note, the plant based restaurant Roots has opened up a much larger place right down the road from our hotel.
This area in bustling Da Nang is really a great place to spend time as it’s just two blocks from the beach and within walking distance to the My Am Sports Center where I will be swimming, pumping iron and doing some yoga for a few weeks. Got a bit of cold today, but I am hoping to put in some laps tomorrow morning.zx
Three constants while in Bangkok; delicious food, loads of intense traffic and more delicious food. Time to leave soon and to long for a return in a while.
When my friend stopped welding to receive my book “Heavy Metal” about the Sieng Gong quarters in the Talat Noi area of Bangkok earlier today, it marked the culmination of a documentary project I’ve been working on for over a decade.
It was in 2010 when Charlotte, Elle, and I were cycling in and around Chinatown that we serendipitously stumbled upon Sieng Gong. It was then that my obsession took root, leading me to photograph and film the area on every subsequent visit to Bangkok.
Sieng Gong’s unique vibe, with its towering stacks of vehicle parts along its alleys and blocks lined with small mechanical workshops and forges, was born during World War II. During that era, obtaining spare parts for cars and trucks was notably challenging, leading to the necessity of reusing old engines, carburetors, rear axles, and transmissions from retired vehicles in the neighborhoods south of Chinatown.
Today, Sieng Gong is renowned as the go-to place for finding parts for many vintage cars and trucks. In recent years, the area has become a popular destination, with several trendy cafes, bars, and restaurants emerging since I took my very first picture there in 2010.
Many thanks to Charlotte Raboff and David Pahmp for their support throughout the project!
For those of you who were here in younger years, lugging around a heavy backpack covered in travel dust, wandering up and down the busy road in search of a decent guesthouse, a place to rest for a couple days, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
For those of you who haven’t been here but might remember the beginning of DiCaprio’s film “The Beach”, you’ve got a little insight. A little glimpse as to what it looked like on the famous Khao San Road back when a tiny, dirty room with a tired bed, a plastic bedside table, and a creaky folding chair cost as little as $3 per night. After checking in, you’d receive a key to a rusty padlock so you could “secure” the room’s cardboard-thin door. A bowl of steaming hot banana porridge or banana pancakes for breakfast were included in the rate. Coffee, juice, or a frothy coconut milkshake cost a little extra.
Because of how easily rooms were broken into, passports were always stored in the reception’s “safe” and only taken out when it was time to cash in a traveler’s check at one of Khao San’s two small bank offices.
In the autumn of 1988, when I walked along Khao San Road for the very first time, the street was dominated by guesthouses, a dozen tiny travel agencies, a few tailor shops, and countless rows of rickety stalls filled with trinkets and hippie apparel.
Stopping by “Khao San” for a layover before the next adventure often meant running into folks you’d met before; on one of the southern islands, maybe during a wild, nightlong beach party in Bali, on a street in Singapore, or outside the Thai consulate in Penang during a “visa run”.
Most of us were on our way somewhere, but there was almost always time to share a meal and bid bon voyage with a gleeful toast from a foamy bottle of Singha, Kloster, or Foster.
Every guesthouse on Khao San had a restaurant on the ground floor where Hollywood movies were shown in the evenings, one at 7pm, another at 9pm sharp.
Oftentimes, rather sizable groups gathered in front of the restaurant’s 32-inch fat screen TV to watch an action flick like “Die Hard” with Bruce Willis, “Lethal Weapon” with Danny Glover and Mel Gibson, and “Above the Law” with debutant Steven Seagal.
I had unloaded thousands of banana crates at the port of Gothenburg all summer long and brought a thick stack of traveler’s checks (American Express) with me to Southeast Asia. But it turned out to be quite the challenge to spend my money when a pad thai with tofu cost only 20 baht ($1) and fried rice with chicken, vegetables, and cashews just a bit more.
I remember how a small Singha cost 25 baht and that the infamous Khao San Party Pack, a small bottle of Mekong, three small Coca-Colas, an ice-filled tin bucket, and some straws, going for 100 baht ($4). For an extra 5 baht, you got a tiny bottle of what would later become known as Redbull. All the liquids were then unceremoniously poured into the bucket, stirred, and straws were handed out. Party time.
Letters and packages were sent and received at the main post office a few streets south of Khao San Road, and that’s where I also made collect calls to Sweden or to the US.
When I walked along Khao San Road earlier tonight, roughly 35 years after that very first time, I felt swept up by a little nostalgic melancholy.
It wasn’t the chaotic hustle and bustle, or the cacophony of sounds I missed. It wasn’t the nagging pitches from the road’s persistent tailors, the piles of cheap, pirated cassette tapes, or the scent of charcoal-grilled chicken-on-sticks that I longed for. It was the era I missed. Being 25 and having so much life ahead of me. Knowing that I had more amazing sunsets to look forward to than were already behind me.
Before we headed to the subway for our journey back to the hotel, Charlotte and I ate dinner at the classic Buddy Beer (which is now a large hotel and restaurant corporation). Khao San Road seemed deserted. Perhaps because it was still so early in the evening, But maybe it was because the world has changed so much after the pandemic.
When our kind waiter asked if I I was “finnish” with the meal, I skipped my stock response, no, I’m actually Swedish American. It just didn’t feel right tonight. Then came the monsoon rain. But we made it home dry and just a little bit older.