Apr 24 2008
Back to Bangkok! Three magical words. As much of a relief as it was to LEAVE Bangkok after our first visit, the idea of returning to the City of Chaos now lightened both our spirits. After spending these last five weeks traversing Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, we’d both gained a new appreciation for the land of mango sticky rice and modern health care. We would only have a day in Bangkok before heading south for the Thai beaches, but finding these two necessities topped our packed capital city agenda.
Because nothing ever is ever as simple as it sounds in SE Asia, just getting to Bangkok was an unwanted adventure in itself. We booked a bus ride that would take us from Siem Reap, Cambodia straight across the Thai border, and onward to Bangkok. The travel agency sent a minivan to pick us up at our hotel around 6:00am, and we thought we were on our way. Instead, the minivan driver spent the next hour driving around the city, trying to find more passengers to bring to the bus. When we finally arrived at the bus stop, we learned that the travel agency had over-sold the bus. Because the travel agencies do not consider empty seats to be a prerequisite for selling tickets, they had sold tickets to a dozen or so more passengers than the bus could accommodate. We sat on the sidewalk with the other confused passengers as they bus company worked out a solution.
After two hours of doing absolutely nothing, taxis began to pull up at the bus stop. The bus station had hired them to take the excess passengers all the way to Bangkok, which is about a ten-hour ride. When we saw the company representatives begin forcing five passengers, plus luggage, into each taxi, we put on our battle faces. Having paid for seats on one of the plush-looking A/C buses shown on the travel agency posters, we were NOT about to cram into the backseat of a taxi with two other people, plus their luggage, for a ten-hour ride.
But just as a company rep approached us to try and load our luggage into a taxi, his cell phone rang. The bus to Bangkok had two empty seats after all. A quick look around revealed that Brittany and I were the only group of two left among the passengers waiting for taxi seats, so we found ourselves loaded into a new mini-van, and whisked away to meet the bus.
Another hour later, the mini-van came to a stop, and as we climbed out, I noted with dismay that there was only one bus in sight. Looking something like an extended VW Minibus, with backpacks and elbows jutting out of every window, this was a far cry from the bus we’d been shown at the time of booking. Sadly, five weeks in this region had caused me to expect the bait-and-switch by this point, and I simply climbed aboard with head hung low. After all, nothing we’ve ever paid for up front since leaving Thailand has been delivered as promised. But for Brittany, this was a breaking point. She took one look at the bus, and began yelling at the company driver who’d just dropped us off.
“THIS is not the bus we paid for! Does this bus even have air-conditioning? We PAID for air-conditioning!”
“Sure, sure, air-con,” the driver replied. “FRESH air.”
This sent up a roar of laughter from the employees on the VW Minibus. And why not? They know that we farang have no recourse in these situations but to bend over and grab our ankles. This bus is going to Bangkok with our without us, and the idea of getting something as ridiculous as a REFUND is a pipedream in this culture. And so it was, that four hours after first being picked up from our hotel, we finally left Siem Reap, in an extra-long VW Minibus with no A/C, backpackers in every seat, luggage piled high in the aisle, and five company employees in plastic chairs beside the driver. Why must there always be at least four employees sitting in plastic chairs beside the bus driver? This remains one of SE Asia’s greatest mysteries, and the only conclusion I can draw based on the evidence is that they’re simply on hand to harmonize with the driver during on-board karaoke.
I’ve tried to block out the details of that cramped, sweaty, full-day ride, but I do remember that we finally arrived in Bangkok several hours later than we’d been promised. The bus dropped us off at the infamous Khao San Road, one of the prime contenders for “Backpacker Mecca of the World.” Cheap accommodation, food geared to the Western palate, an abundance of souvenirs… no matter what you’re looking for, if you arrive in Bangkok with a backpack on your back, odds are you’ll be on Khao San Road within the hour. But despite the fact that we were in Bangkok for six days the first time around, we never actually saw Khao San Road.
That’s a record, you know. The backpackers that we bumped into second place lasted only twelve hours in Bangkok before finally succumbing to the magnetic power of Khao San Road. Their record stood for years before we came along. We were eager to finally see what all the fuss was about this time around, and had decided before arriving that we would find a hotel on Khao San Road for our one night in the city. We slid off the bus, marched into the first seedy hotel we saw, and immediately booked a room. Time elapsed from bus to bed: forty-two seconds. Another record! We decided to celebrate by immediately setting out to explore this Khao San Road we’d heard so much about.
How to describe Khao San Road? It’s like someone crammed the Atlantic City boardwalk in between some dirty Bangkok alleys, gave it one look, and determined that it would be THE PERFECT PLACE to sell Che T-shirts, pirated DVDs, unsanitary western food, counterfeit designer jeans, plastic buckets of Thai whiskey, questionable currency exchange services, and porn. And based on the number of eager customers elbowing for room in the middle of the street, I guess that someone was right. But for us, no. Not even “no thank you,” just no. As in, get us out of here this instant. I’d say we gave Khao San Road about ten minutes before extricating ourselves, never to look back. It would have been even sooner, but we passed a woman selling mango sticky rice on our way out. OK, so Khao San Road does have one redeeming quality.
We woke up early the next morning with a list of things to accomplish in Bangkok before leaving on an overnight bus south to Krabi…
- Visit a travel clinic for consultation on several lingering medical issues, ranging from Brittany’s second degree burn (blame a Phnom Penh motorcycle exhaust pipe) to my own on-going war with the indefatigable Bangkok belly.
- Find a storage facility to lock up our oversized duffel bag of tailored clothes for the next three weeks
- Buy a waterproof camera case from Bangkok’s always-useful Pantips Plaza
- Eat delicious fried chicken and sticky rice from a restaurant we love here
- Buy sunscreen and bug repellant from a pharmacy (you’d be amazed how hard these can be to find outside of Thailand)
- Buy our plane tickets home from a Khao San Road travel agency
- Buy tickets at the bus station for tonight’s overnight bus to Krabi
An ambitious list, but nothing that shouldn’t be feasibly accomplished in one full day. Except that this is Bangkok. And while the places we needed to visit are spread out over the city, it’s not the distance that makes hitting them all difficult: it’s the traffic. No matter how close your destination may be, the relentless Bangkok traffic ensures that it’s going to take you at least an hour to get there by taxi or tuk-tuk. Which is why you take the overhead SkyTrain whenever possible. But for reasons unknown, the SkyTrain was only set up to service half of the city. If your destination happens to be in the other half… well, I hope you’re not in any hurry. And if you are, may God have mercy on your soul.
As fate would have it, most of our destinations for the day were, quite inconveniently, established in that SkyTrain-forsaken other half of Bangkok. We try not to let getting up early become a habit, but when it came to today, we knew what we were up against. We tried to tackle the items on our itinerary as efficiently as possible. First stop: a travel clinic I’d found online.
After an hour-long taxi ride, and an hour-long wait in the clinic’s reception area, we finally saw a doctor. We got attention for all our many needs, but as for my Bangkok belly, the doctor needed to run some tests. We were told to come back in a few hours for the results.
Having to return to the clinic in the afternoon was an unexpected wrinkle, so we decided to split up for increased efficiency. I caught a taxi to the bus station to buy tickets to Krabi, while Brittany headed back to the travel agencies on Khao San Road to shop for plane tickets. But it only took that long for things to unravel.
By the time I made it back to Khao San Road, bus tickets in hand, I was expecting that Brittany would have already bought our plane tickets home. Instead, the tickets turned out to be much more expensive than the prices we’d been quoted by these same agencies over the phone, and I found Brittany scrambling from agency to agency in search of better prices. I joined in the hunt, but after an hour of fruitless searching, we realized it was already early afternoon, and we needed to get back to the travel clinic.
Another hour-long taxi ride to the clinic, this time with duffel bag of tailored clothes in tow. Once more, we waited and waited for the doctor, only to learn that the tests showed nothing wrong with me. I could tell the doctor all the reasons that is definitely not the case, but there’s no time for that. We have to get a waterproof camera case, find something to eat, and get this duffel bag to the storage facility before it closes at 6:00. And more bad news: it’s already 5:00.
Change of plan: straight to the storage facility! We can get the camera case and food after we store this bag. It’s not like it’s going to take an hour to reach the storage facility… we can actually take the SkyTrain there!
Which might have worked, had we not gotten lost after disembarking the SkyTrain. By the time we FIND the storage facility, it’s 5 minutes to 6:00. We burst through the doors, duffel bag in hand, just as the manager is closing up. We start filling out the paperwork to get our bag stored for the next three weeks, and answering all the manager’s questions about where we’re headed. But now we’ve got some really bad news: the overnight bus leaves at 7:00, which gives us exactly one hour to get back to our hotel, gather up our luggage, and then make it to the bus station. The minimum amount of time that I can imagine for this trip is an hour and a half.
“I’m sorry!” I blurt. “I know this is rude, but we have a bus to catch. Can we just leave this bag with you, and you fill out the rest of this paperwork?” I’m already backing out the door as I ask. The manager seems confused, but agrees to my proposal. Or I hope he did… we didn’t stick around to really hear his answer. Our bus tickets were quite expensive, and there’s no refund if you miss the bus. You just have to buy expensive tickets again tomorrow night. The countdown to 7:00 has officially begun.
6:00pm: We sprint to the nearest SkyTrain station. It doesn’t go all the way to our hotel, but if we get off at the nearest stop to our hotel, we can cover half the distance of the trip more quickly than a taxi could.
6:15pm: We disembark the SkyTrain, and run down the steps from the elevated platform into the street. I flag down the first tuk-tuk I see.
6:16pm: “Khao San Road!” I shout to the tuk-tuk driver. He quotes me an inflated price, but we have no time to argue right now. We climb aboard, and although the tuk-tuk drivers rarely speak any English, I can’t help myself from yelling, “and FAST!” Guess what? This tuk-tuk driver speaks English.
6:17pm: I re-attach my head to my neck. The driver has put the pedal to the floor, and we’re weaving through Bangkok traffic like I’ve never seen. Mr. Hoa, eat your heart out! I encourage the most reckless of our driver’s dare-devil maneuvers with cheers.
6:40pm: We arrive at our hotel, and leap from the tuk-tuk before it comes to a full stop. We grab our luggage, and I try to convince this driver to take us all the way to the bus station. He doesn’t want to make that long trip, meaning we’ve got to find another driver.
6:45pm: After several minutes of being turned down by prospective drivers, a taxi agrees to take us to the bus station. He speaks a little English, and I explain our situation to him. “7:00??” he asks. “Uh-oh.”
7:00pm: “Uh-oh” is right. Our bus is officially leaving the station now, and we’re stuck kilometers away, in standstill traffic.
7:20pm: We arrive at the bus station. As Brittany unloads our luggage and pays the driver, I make a dash for the boarding platform. If the bus is still somehow here, I have to hold the driver. Pushing my way through the crowd, I ride up the two escalators, run across the booking floor, and fight my way to the front of the line at the security checkpoint. Flashing my tickets, I dash past the two posted guards.
7:25pm: I race up to a desk in the middle of the boarding platform. “Tickets?” asks the seated woman. I pull our sweaty tickets from my pocket and hand them over. “Oi!” she shouts. She jumps out of her seat, and runs toward one of the platforms, shouting in Thai at the top of her lungs.
7:26pm: I follow her, and can’t believe what I see. Our bus has just pulled away from the platform, but this woman has been able to get the attention of the driver. He backs the bus up, back into the boarding area. The driver, a little confused, hops off to help me with my luggage. Of course, Brittany has all of that. I can only yell “Thank you! One second! My friend!” before darting back through the crowds to the security checkpoint. There I find Brittany, detained by security for not having a ticket, and I show our boarding confirmation tickets to the guard to get us both through.
7:30pm: Our luggage now stowed safely underneath, our bus for Krabi departs. And somehow, we’re on it. We failed to get plane tickets, a camera case, sunscreen, bug spray, or any food all day. We’re sweaty, smelly, exhausted, and hungry. But we’re on it. At this moment, despite the catastrophe today amounted to, we feel like the two luckiest people in Bangkok. And that’s when we look up to see the steward handing out individual boxes from Mr. Donut.
I couldn’t write a better “happily ever after” if I wanted to. THE END!
But just for fun, here are a couple of shaky videos taken on the ever-popular Khao San Road…