Tuesday, October 23, 2012

It’s Monsoon Season – Bangkok

If there’s one place that is our home away from home, it’s Bangkok. Our first overseas adventure saw us end up in Bangkok four seperate times. Three of those involved arriving from an international flight. Landing in BKK felt like putting on an old pair of worn-in sneakers.

I had lost track of how many hours we had been in the air, suffice to say we took off from Istanbul, Turkey around noon, had a couple hour layover in the United Arab Emerites and landed in Bangkok about 7am and grabbed the public buses to return to Khoa San Road.
Khoa San road is in the Banglampu district of Bangkok, which is widely known for being backpacker central. Some experienced backpackers will shun the place as inauthentic because backpacker culture has taken over Khoa San. I won’t disagree with that, but for us, Khoa San Road was the first place we really settled in and felt comfortable overseas.
For me, Khoa San road is the world capital of backpackers.
Guest houses and budget hotels line the street, with more high-end places and dorm-room hostels moving in every day. Common Thai street food such as pad thai and satay (meat-sticks) is served out of wheeled carts, but international cuisine has been on the rise, as German currywurst, and donor kebaps fight for their place on the street. Suit salesmen, often from nearby Burma or Nepal try to entice travellers into discount custom-suit places as cheap t-shirts, dresses and fake Adidas jackets are sold out of stalls. If you want to find someone to load up your iPod with illegal music, purchase pirated DVDs or print you up a Doctorate from Harvard, you can find it on Khoa San Road.
As you can imagine, Khoa San itself gets quite crazy, so we made a bee-line to our traditional haunt, Soi Rambutri. “Thanon” is the Thai word for street and “Soi” means “little-side street”. Thanon Rambutri runs parralel to Khoa San, and Soi Rambutri is across the street, where you’re close to the fun, but far enough away that prices are less and there is actual quiet to be had.
It’s funny how quickly we adjusted to our new budget reality. We are living on $55 a day for the two of us. One dollar is about 31 baht, so we have 1705 Thai Baht per day. Sure, it’s only $5 for a full fresh sea bass, but suddenly, that $5 was 150 baht. Two bass is 300 baht and 20% of our daily budget. Before long, we were back to negotiating for every last baht.
We ended up spending a week and a half in Bangkok. We had a bunch of logistical things to take care of, and this seemed like the right place to do them. Included in this was getting Leslie’s 6 month post-LASIK eye surgery examination, shipping a package back to the USA and applying for a visa to Myanmar/Burma, where our friends Chalain and Chris are living.
It didn’t seem like it should take too long to accomplish these things, but Mother Nature disagreed.
I guess I should mention… it’s monsoon season.
Our first day saw us sleep. Our second day saw the rains land. Upon leaving our hotel (Splurging… 750 baht with A/C and TV) we found about eight inches of water waiting for us on Soi Rambutri.
Nevertheless, we had food to get. Thai rain doesn’t drizzle. It dumps, then it stops, then it dumps again. We waited until the rain stopped, then decided we were going to try and make it to Mr. Yims, which we remembered as a simple stall with a pretty good cook standing behind it. So in our shorts and flip-flops, we headed into the flood.
The rain had stopped though, so the salesmen were back out so I bantered good-naturedly with a salesman about the water that was sitting around mid-calf. I was a bit surprised when he started following us around the corner. “Watch out,” he said calmly, pointing at the water. “Snake.”
Some snake about a foot and a half long was swimming around in the water and I jumped up to a nearby restaurant that had a platform holding it up out of the water. The salesman moved over to the snake, waited for an opportune moment, and snatched the snake right behind it’s head. He walked with it out of the water. I wasn’t exactly sure what he was going to do with it, but I’m guessing it was something that animal-rights activists wouldn’t approve of.
Leslie laughed at me as I walked along the restaurant’s porch, trying to stay out of the water. About ten feet later I returned to the floodwaters.
Mr. Yim was a simple stall three years ago, but he has expanded. He now has about five stalls representing his kitchen, a permanent location on the street and tables in the open air. You used to walk up to Mr. Yim, but now he’s actually got table service. We ate here a couple times, but a few days into our stay Leslie was squirting honey onto her banana pancakes and a bunch of dead bees came out of the squeeze bottle. That was the end of Mr. Yims.
We checked into a cheaper room, where we got A/C and TV in a double bed for 550 baht ($18). We figured we needed to rest, and we might be here awhile.
The next day was beautiful and we made our way to the Burmese embassy. We woke up early, found where we could get visa photos and were shocked by the price. Hoping we could find somewhere close to the embassy we took the public river taxi, then walked. Unfortunately, the day didn’t stay nice and we soon found ourselves dripping wet. We made it to the embassy thirty minutes after they stopped accepting tourist visa applications.
The day wasn’t a complete loss, as back on Soi Rambuttri we made a friend. We saw a line, so for $1, we tried JoJo’s Pad Thai, which was a small cart. It was great. JoJo didn’t have tables, but next to him was one of the neatest businesses I’ve ever seen.
It was a white hippy van that would pull into Soi Rambutri at night. The guy would drive up to a telephone pole, and hook up to the power grid. He’d bring plastic tables and chairs out of the van along with umbrellas and big sheets of plastic that he’d create shelter with. He’d then open the back gate, where he had a huge flat screen he would play soccer matches on while he sold beer. He parked next to JoJo’s Pad Thai, so you could order at JoJo’s, then eat while watching a match… if you ordered a beer. He was a mobile sports bar!
We soon became regulars. On ones of the days we went to Jo’s and got a beer, but soon, the rain started coming. We met an Israeli couple and some British girls who all ran to the white van to get out of the rain. Soon, Jo himself was shutting down his Pad Thai stand. Turns out they have a deal where Jo only goes until 7 or so, then this other guy brings out his pad thai cart. Before long, Jo joined us at the white van while the floodwaters rose around our ankles. I learned Jo was an Arsenal fan. We became buddies.
The next day, Leslie had her eye-doctor appointment. It was a bit far away, but we made it without much issue. The doctor’s office itself was gorgeous. New equipment, sixth floor of a modern building and a doctor who spoke perfect English. To top it off, they put both of us in massage chairs right before they gave Leslie the eye-drops that would dialate her eyes.
The next day we went back to the Burmese Embassy, forarmed with our knowledge of their opening hours. Turning in our Visa applications felt like an accomplishment, although our passports were now in possession of the Burmese government and we knew we were in for a wait.
It was a good thing we got our visas turned in that day because an Islamic anti-video protest was scheduled for the next day. Sure, the protests are small, but they’re located in the same district as all the embassies.
The next day we went to Soi 11, which is a district with a night market and other things that had been identified in the used Rough Guide guidebook we picked up on Khoa San. Sorry, Lonely Planet, but you had too many $100 a plate restaurants in your “budget” guide. We’re giving Rough Guides a shot.
Our goal was to take public transportation, but instead, we took the Tuk Tuk. The Tuk-Tuk is always an adventure. They’re small, three-wheeled vehicles where you negotiate a price before you go. The drivers make a little money from getting you around, but get gas tokens by bringing you to tailor shops, jewelry stores or other places you don’t want to go to. They also get massive commission if you buy something. The Tuk-Tuks are fun, but you never know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. This time, we negotiated the stops into the price, agreeing to go to Soi 11 for 50 baht and a stop. Plus, we wanted to ride the Tuk Tuk at least once before leaving Bangkok.
We got brought to a tailor shop and the driver said we needed to stay for ten minutes for us to get his token. Soon, we found ourselves inside, humoring a salesman.
“How long have you been in Bangkok?” he asked.
“This time, only a few days.”
“Have you done your shopping yet?”
“No, but we don’t want to carry suits all through Southeast Asia.” We went back and forth a bit, him trying to convince us that the suits were a good deal and having deciphered that we bought suits in Vietnam last time.
“Well, if you’re going to compare prices with Vietnam, you’re not going to buy here,” he said.
“Yup,” I agreed. It made the last two minutes of us sitting there a bit awkward, but I don’t care. They take advantage of enough tourists that I don’t feel bad using their system to get me across town cheaply.
Soon, we were back in the Tuk-Tuk heading towards Sukhumvit Soi 11.
“One more stop?” asked the driver.
“We agreed to one stop,” I said.
“The traffic is bad now. How about no charge and I drop you at MBK. You take sky train. Same cost.”
We agreed as the smog and dust of the Bangkok streets blew into my mouth. It tasted like victory. We ended up giving him 20 baht.
MBK is a huge Thai mall in Siam Square with modern shopping, interesting stores and air-con. We ended up picking up some USB drives we needed to put pictures on to mail home. We also found a company that was making eyeglasses out of fossilized mammoth bone for about $5000 each. No, that is not a typo. I did not mean 5000 baht. They were selling glasses for $5000.
We ducked into a restaurant called Cabbages and Condoms recommended in the guidebook over by Soi 11, which wasn’t as good as we expected. Then we checked out the streets around Soi 11, including finding the prostitute district.
The next day was a Friday and saw us pick up our Burmese visas. We are officially okayed for 30 days in Burma sometime in the next three months. Yeah!
Unfortunately, we still needed to get our India visas, which didn’t look like it was going to happen quickly. We couldn’t even turn in our visas until Monday and then would have to wait 5-7 business days.
That meant we had a decision to make. We needed to either stay in BKK for another 9 days, or head to another capital. We love Bangkok, but frankly, we were ready to go.
We did have a few more days though. Shipping from Asia is not cheap, so it’s best to do it from a transportation hub. It had been almost 2 months since we’d shipped pictures back to the US. We ship small drives in case the big USB drives fails, gets stolen, gets flooded, etc.
We took the weekend to do some non-logistical travelling, including Wat Traimit, which is the world’s largest solid gold Buddha statue, Wat Arun, which is an ancient temple covered in mosaic, Chatcuchat Weekend Market, and another stop to Ethos which is a great vegetarian Thai restaurant that Leslie loves. It felt good to go see some stuff after so much of our time had been sucked up with logistics.
Of course, it being the weekend, I got to watch Arsenal vs. Chelsea at the white van with Jo.
Monday came and we shipped our package off to the states, containing our picture backups and a couple other small things. We had purchased overnight bus tickets to the southern island of Koh Tao the day before and wanted to drop off our packs so we didn’t have to carry them all day. We dropped off our package and went to breakfast. In true BKK fashion, it then flooded. Leslie stayed in the nice little restaurant we’d found called Sakul while I carried our package in a big plastic bag to the post office.
It soon stopped, and we walked our way to Wat In-something, better known as big standing Buddha. Tuk-Tuks always want to head to this site, because it’s very close to Khoa San, and very close to a tailor that gives out good gas tickets. Yes, we’ve been in Bangkok long enough at this point to know which tailors the Tuk Tuks are likely to take us to. In fact, Leslie actually negotiated which tailor shop to avoid with a Tuk Tuk at one point.
Wat In wasn’t actually that far, so we decided to do it on foot. As we got closer, a tout came up and started talking to us.
“Where you going?” he asked, the most common lead in of people praying on sucker-tourists world-wide.
“Wat In,” I responded.
“Oh, it’s right there!” he responds. “Where next?”
“We’ve been here for awhile,” I say, actually meaning, “go away, we’ve been here too long to get on your tuk-tuk.”
“Well you should go to Wat In, then to this one, then this one,” as he pointed to the map. “Actually, do you know about the Lucky Buddha?”
Now you never know for sure that someone is trying to con you, because sometimes you actually find a friendly local who speaks English and wants to tell you about their home. “Lucky Buddha” is a sure-fire indication that you’re dealing with a con-man. There is no Lucky Buddha in Bangkok. They’ll get you on a tuk-tuk and drive you around all day, telling you the Lucky Buddha is next, just one more stop. “It’s free for tourists,” he said, “but today only.”
“Actually, we saw the Lucky Buddha yesterday,” I deadpanned. A look of shock came over his face. Then he turned on a dime and marched away.
Later, we thought we had just about made it to Wat In, when we realized the tall structure we were going to was actually a school. Woops!
An older woman was walking the other way, so I decided to ask directions.
“Kor Apai, Kop?” (excuse me) The woman turned to look at me, a bit shocked.
“Wat In yoo tee nai?” (where’s Wat In?)
“Chawp dee!” (I like!) she exclaimed. She then spoke really quickly in Thai.
“Nit noi! Nit noi pansaa angrit Thai,” I said (A little! I only speak a little Thai!)
She gestured for us to follow. She was quite excited to help. I didn’t think she spoke any English, but soon she was leading us through little back alleys that I never would have walked down because I thought they were someone’s private property. I still think they were private property, but she obviously felt comfortable leading us through them. Soon she had us to the temple.
Leslie and I thanked the woman in Thai and performed the wai. The “wai” is when you put your hands in a prayer-like position in front of your nose and bow towards someone a little. It’s like a Thai handshake.
Wat In, or “Big Standing Buddha” is.. well.. a big standing Buddha. This Buddha is about three stories tall and quite impressive.
It was time to go though, so we headed back to the travel agency and waited.
The Thai travel agencies always seem to get you where you’re going, but I’m never exactly sure how, or what vehicles we’re going to take. We sat out front waiting, but when our time to leave came and passed we got a little worried. We asked the guy at the desk who made a phone call.
Five minutes later, two motorbikes showed up. Southeast Asians are masters with these little motorbikes, seeming to have a sixth sense helping them stay on them. Leslie and I have no such sense. To top it off, our stuff was not packed well, as we were prepared to throw our big packs underneath a bus and carry on our other stuff. We both had our big packs on, but Leslie was also carrying her little pack on her front and a shopping bag with snacks. Me, I usually stuff my little pack into the big pack, but had it slung over my shoulder in an awkward fashion.
Nevertheless, we shoved the helmets on our head hopped onto the back of the motorbikes as they sped off to catch up with the night bus.
My bike was in front as we weaved through the cars and tuk-tuks to get to the front at a red light. Leslie was right behind, pulling up with a huge smile on her face.
“What are you holding on to?” she asked, loud enough to be heard over the din of the engines.
“Hold on?” I asked. The light turned green and we were off.
Next stop, Koh Tao and the islands of southern Thailand.

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