3: Lost In The Bowels of The City
4: Moving On
In a stark contrast to my arrival in mellow Bali I stood in long and painfully slow customs line watching government sponsored videos on large moving screens, then elbowed my way through the crowd for another long wait for my bag.
Once I’d finally gotten my gear I had to figure out where the ATM was and how I would get out of airport and to my guesthouse. Had been feeling tired all day and looked forward to a little chill out time in my new room. Hoped it would be okay. I’d booked it online based on the Rough Guide’s report that this guesthouse was a favorite among solo women travelers, and I knew it was in the neighborhood popular with backpackers and independent travelers.
My heart sank when the ATM machine informed me it would be charging me 150 Baht (about $5) for the transaction. So much for today’s budget. More frustration when I realized the bills were so large I wouldn’t have small enough money to pay for cab or bus. So blew another $2 on an overly sweetened strawberry yogurt smoothie. What to do – find the bus and figure out where to get off or just take a cab? The guidebook reported I wouldn’t pay more than 300 Baht for a cab (about $10) as opposed to $5 for the bus. Cab seemed easier. Or – it did until they couldn’t quote me any type of ballpark price and just shook their heads when I asked if it would be around 300B. I was about to turn and look for the bus when they grabbed my bag and threw it in the trunk.. Oh well, I thought, guidebook is probably accurate.
Hah. As we pulled on the freeway the driver turned to me shaking his head and looking at the address I had given him. He didn’t know it, nor did he speak any English. I pulled out the guidebook to show him the listing for the guesthouse, but of course that didn’t help since the guidebook is in English. There he was driving down the busy freeway balancing the book in one hand and trying to read. Then he pulled out his phone so he could call the number! I buckled up my seat belt. To my relief he pulled into a center lined section and made the call while vehicles whizzed by in both directions.
But it got worse – he turned to me and said. “Not hotel!”
What? Then he handed the phone to me. In broken English a woman spoke incomprehensibly. Finally I understood she was saying that the cab could not drive down the road the hotel was on and I would need to walk quite a distance with my backpack. Huh? Not again! “How far?” I tried to ask. I thought we finally settled on the solution of the driver dropping me off at a spot where I would be picked up by someone from the guesthouse. Sounded sketchy but what could I do – we were already hurtling down a Bangkok freeway and it was way to late for the bus idea.
Which was really too bad I realized as we sat in traffic and I forked over 70B for tolls and watched the meter creep up . I knew I’d have to pay 50B in addition to the final metered amount, plus those tolls. All told it amounted to close to 500B or nearly $20. Ugh. But he did navigate that taxi up busy Khao San road, which should of course have been banned to motor vehicles since it was crammed with pedestrians and vendor carts. No wonder she’d said he couldn’t drive up there. (I discovered later that the hotel lady thought there’d be no access because the connecting artery street was closed due to a large political demonstration that included a raucous rock band, blaring announcers, huge video screens, food carts practically on top of one another and thousands of participants and viewers all wearing red shirts. Still don’t know what the demonstration/ party was about though….
I hiked down a short alley to Shambara Guest house, and as I pushed open the gate I could see from the courtyard that the reality of the place would be far different than it had been depicted on the Internet and described in guidebook. It felt stuffy and close inside, and the woman at the counter demanded payment in full immediately. Then she took me back outside and up the side stairs to my room.
Wow. What a difference from my luxury pad of last night! I stared in disbelief at a single bed with barely enough floor space around it to set down my backpack. The room was maybe 8 by 6 with nary a shelf or table (couldn’t be with just inches surrounding the bed.) She handed me a padlock and a key and admonished me to keep the door locked at all times. “You sleep, you lock door. You go to bathroom even just two minutes, you lock..” Then she showed me the shared toilet and shower facility. At least everything was clean. And although I hadn’t asked for it, the room was air-conditioned. That cost me more than I’d planned, but the $13.00 per night price tag is a good deal I guess for what I got. Looks like I might be taking a serious step down in my accommodations for this leg of my trip. Such are the joys of solo traveling I guess – can’t share lodging expense.
I stretched out on the bed wondering what to do. I could already hear loud music from the adjoining Khao San Road – the busy street with a festival-like atmosphere where the backpackers party all night. Then I heard a dripping sound and realized why there was a dish pan set in the sliver of space to the left of the bed. The air conditioner leaked. At least the miniscule space was cool…
…And there was wireless (although I had to pay around $2 per day for the password). I pulled out my computer, and there was a Facebook message from an Arcata acquaintance friend, Pete O’Connor. We’d communicated briefly in Bali and it turned out he was in Bangkok right then. I hoped we’d find each other.
I changed and wandered out into the Bangkok streets to find something to eat.
And there was Pete, walking down the alley to my guesthouse! Such a pleasure to see a familiar face – especially since I am directionally challenged and had no idea how I’d find my way around the narrow alley streets – choked with tourists and Thais – that snaked around and joined each other.
At the beginning of a 5-month journey, Pete is in Bangkok for some medical work. We wandered the streets in Khao San neighborhood watching the swarms of travellers of every nationality, inhaling a medley of smells from sizzling meats, frying rice and noodles being served up by hundreds of street vendors, to less pleasant aromas of rotting garbage, raw fish and diesel. The humid air rang with shouts and laughter and a hazy full moon began to rise above all the neon.
Our dinner of fish curry, mixed vegetables and rice set me back about $2, with the accompanying local beer costing about the same. So hard to choose from the array of bowls filled with mysterious curries and soups. It seems that will be one of my biggest challenges while here – figuring out exactly what the food is, and then choosing which of the tantalizing delicacies to eat. Life could be worse!
We found it easy to enjoy each other’s company and arranged to meet the next day for a riverboat ride to the nearby temple Wat Pho.
Wat Pho is an ancient medical school and massage and healing arts are still taught there, and tourists can sign up overpriced (for here) massages to sooth their tired muscles from traveling from site to site in the hot sun. After an hour or more in the temple complex, which although crammed with photo-snapping tourists took one’s breath away, we headed back out to the riverboat for more adventuring around Bangkok.
Our excursion to the train station – where I could buy my ticket to Chiang Mai - got us one of the infamous scamming tuk-tuk rides. Guidebooks and guesthouse bulletin boards warn of unscrupulous drivers who will offer to take you to your destination for an amazingly low price, only to give you an unwanted tour to a gem shop or some other place where you are expected to part with your cash and the driver gets a commission. Fortunately for us, this particular ride just got us to a tourist office instead of the (supposedly closed) train station. The courteous clerk dispatched us to actual train station quickly when she realized I was not interested in purchasing a package deal. So much for the commissions!
From the train station we hopped an air conditioned bus to Siam Square near downtown. A humongous complex of malls, department stores and skywalks crammed with Bangkok teenagers and 20-somethings searching out the best fashion or electronics deal or simply socializing.
Later we dined on another street feast of aromatic Pad Thai, chicken kabobs and spring rolls as we sat at a rickety table alongside the constantly moving crowd of thrill-seekers near Khao San road, and watched a soccer match on a TV mounted into the back of a VW van. Our entire meal including beer set us back a total of about $4.50.
What a pleasure to have discovered a personable companion for my first day in Bangkok. Thanks Pete!
Lost in the Bowels of Bangkok!
On the second morning I ventured out on my own, and it only took me a couple of hours to finally orient myself to the maze of streets and sois (alleys) surrounding Khao San Road. Thus convinced I decided to brave a bus back to the downtown area where I wanted to make a purchase at the shopping complex we’d visited the previous day. (It’s not that I enjoy such shopping centers, it just seemed like a good opportunity to get a good deal.)
I saw from my map and guidebook that Bus #15 would take me directly to Siam Square. Although I did wonder how I would figure out the location of the return bus stop in that freeway-like maze of overpasses and multi-lane roads, I reasoned that I could always jump in a taxi if I got too confused.
This bus was not air-conditioned, but almost a nicer ride as I could enjoy an unobstructed view of the various Bangkok neighborhoods through the large open window.
An hour or two in that crowded mall exhausted me enough to crave a calm taxi ride back to my place. Plus I’d agreed to meet Pete at 6 and felt completely daunted by the traffic-choked roadways. Impossible to tell which direction I would take a bus much less where a bus station would be.
My first hint that I could have a problem was when I flagged down a “metered taxi”, told him I wanted to go to Khao San Road and watched him stare at me in disbelief and shake his head. “No Way,” he told me flatly (or that is what he meant anyway.) I tried to ask why but could only glean that it was too far.
Hmmm. Well, I had Plan B to resort to. I could return by the same route I’d taken with Pete the previous day. It involved a couple of rides on the sky train and then catching another bus near Chit Loem, the sky train stop. I was pretty sure I could remember the number of the bus we took.
As mentioned previously, the fact that I am directionally challenged had me walking back and forth and in circles a few times, but I eventually got myself to the same bus stop we’d waited at the night before. Tonight, a week night, the street was way busier than the previous evening. Vendor stalls lined the sidewalk as before, but this time literally thousands of Thais milled around waiting for the buses. Traffic was virtually backed up on the wide city street, waiting for a red light that seemed to switch to green only about every 10 minutes. Rush hour I guessed.
I finally spotted Bus #14 and joining the dozens of others I jumped aboard while the bus still inched along in the traffic.
“Democracy Monument?” I asked the unsmiling woman collecting fares. She just stared and shrugged. No English. I sat down uncertainly, hoping I was on the right bus. I dug through my bag for the map and the woman behind me tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “you want to go where?”
She looked a little puzzled with my repetitions of ‘Democracy Monument’ but finally her face lit up and she nodded. “Yes, it stops here.” Relief! I nodded and thanked her in Thai (about the only Thai I know at this point.)
Knowing that it might take even longer than the half hour or so it had taken yesterday, I put in my ear phones and settled back, but kept my eyes alert for familiar landmarks. Only about 15 minutes in, I saw a large monument, but thought, no – that’s not it. But, my new friend tapped me again, pointed and nodded. “You are here.”
Okay, she must know, I thought.
Once off the bus I started walking in the direction that would take me home from Democracy Monument. But everything looked different, darker, more crowded. I was heading towards an even darker area of town that looked distinctly unfamiliar. Maybe I should just get a taxi – after all I was close to home now.
I flagged down another car, and again the driver laughed incredulously and shook his head when I mentioned Khao San Road. Why doesn’t the guidebook warn us about this? Taxi drivers won’t take you there from other sections of the city? Or was it just today? “Too far!” the driver had said.
I turned to look back at the Monument. It really didn’t look familiar at all.
I was in a completely strange section in the city and had no idea where I was! I wasn’t even positive I’d been on the right bus. I could have just gotten off too soon – but what if I’d taken the wrong bus completely?
I turned and headed back toward the monument which dominated a gigantic traffic circle choked with buses and other vehicles. Soon I was surrounded by hundreds of people, but not one tourist among them. I was in the thick of Bangkok. How would I get home?
I flagged down another taxi, this time deciding to hand them the card for a hotel near Khao San. Once again I was laughed at with vigorous headshakes and a loud “No!”
At this point just the littlest inkling of panic was beginning to rise and I began to take deep breaths. The bowels of Bangkok after dark, taxis refusing to take me, tuk-tuks supposedly dangerous, no idea which of the dozens of buses would get me where I needed to go. What now?
Of course the answer was to ask directions. I was grateful for the overpriced, previously unhelpful map I’d bought earlier. At least I had the Democracy Monument circled on it. I stepped into a little store, pulled out the map, and showed the woman where I needed to go. She stared in puzzlement for a minute, but then her face lit up and she began conversing rapidly and loudly with other customers. They seemed to be arguing on which was the most direct route for me, but they all seemed kind and concerned. That panicked feeling began to subside.
Finally, she wrote down a bus number for me, and the name of my destination in Thai so I could hand it to the driver. Seeing my confusion when they all pointed the direction of the bus (up and over the overpass – which way??) one of the customers took my arm and guided me out the store. Thanking everyone I hustled out of the store.
That sweet man took me right over to my bus stop and waited with me to be sure I got on the right bus. Then he told the driver where I was going and sat me down.
“Kwawp khun kha!” I repeated over and over, making a prayer motion and nodding and smiling gratefully at my savior.
When the actual Democracy Monument emerged into view I felt slightly embarrassed for my mistake. This was so obviously a totally different monument, surrounded by much different streets and buildings.
At least I’d made it home to the neighborhood!
And now I’m sitting in the shady courtyard of my guesthouse (which has grown on me – I actually came to like my little air conditioned cave) listening to thunder roll overhead and waiting to catch my bus to the train station. I’ll ride on the second-class sleeper train to Chiang Mai, the second largest city in Thailand far to the North.
Web pictures of the train remind me of old-timey European railroad rides. The journey itself will be another adventure.
Another friend who has settled in Chiang Mai will be there to meet me and soften that landing too. How blessed I am to have found so many familiar faces on my Asia travels.