Monday 5th December, Bangkok, Thailand
It's a long way from Spain to Australia. Someone told Maria recently that if you went any further, you'd already be on your way back. I'm not sure I could stand to spend twenty-four hours on an aeroplane, so we planned our journey with a break in the middle.
After a short and seemingly unnecessary stop in Rome, and then a long, sleepless eleven hour flight, our Thai Airlines 747-400 touched down in Bangkok International airport. Our arrival was dead on time, but Maria and I had a few complications to sort out, and that put us two or three hours behind as far as our own personal schedule went. But I think I should leave it up to Maria to explain that.
So a little later than expected, and a little frazzled by the heat and humidity (remember we had left Madrid in the depths of winter) we emerged into the oily smear of Bangkok. The thirty minute ride to Big John's Guesthouse, just off Sukhumvit Road, was spent in heated argument with our taxi driver, as he experimented with a range of possible options for extracting extra money from us. Helpful advice on Big John's website had warned us to be vigilant when taking a taxi from the airport, and we had negotiated the price of 200 Baht before we got in. But now, the driver was trying to explain that it was 200 each person, or that it was 200 plus the toll on the expressway. I told him not to take the expressway if it was going to cost us any extra. We would pay 200 Baht, total. Not a penny more.
"But Mister, we take more than one hour if no expressway!"
"Great, we'll get to see the city then."
"Bah! 200 Baht to Sukhumvit. No good"
and he gave us the silent treatment for the rest of the (exactly thirty minute) ride. Then when he dropped us off and we paid him, he asked if we would be wanting a ride back to the airport with him when we left!!!
Even though we wouldn't be overnighting in Bangkok, and it was unlikely that we would want to waste any of our precious time sleeping, we had booked a room at Big John's for two reasons. Firstly, my experience in SEA has taught me that a refreshing shower can be the most important part of your day. Secondly, we wanted to check the place out to see if this was where we would like to stay for the two nights of our return trip in a month's time. On his website www.bigjohnsworld.com Aussie John goes to great lengths to make you feel welcome and cared for, from a range of tempting meals available and special hostel events, to advice on how to get around and how to avoid being overcharged by taxi drivers.
Certainly we received a cheerful welcome from the receptionist, and Big John's seemed like a happy, homely, sociable sort of place. But our room was something of a disappointment; little more than just a small cubicle with a bed, a tiny table and a sliding glass door. Air conditioning, yes, but no windows. Sufficient for somewhere to sleep, but pretty devoid of charm. Not what I was hoping to find for our next visit to Bangkok at the end of our trip in January.
So we found a taxi driver who was happy to use his meter, and scooted to the river. We weren't sure if the driver was understanding what I was telling him, becasue he kept repeating what I had said, but with no apparent comprehension and no English whatsoever. But just as I was starting to get concerned, he deposited us outside Wat Rachingkinson, and a short walk took us to the ferry stop on the banks of the river. The Chao Praya River winds its way lazily through the city, and is the most efficient and most pleasant way to get around, leaving the noise and smog of the city streets behind, and catching a couple of breaths of relatively fresh moist air. It seemed like a breeze was constantly sweping up the length of the river, brushing away the cloud of smoke and dust that permeates the rest of the city, and clings to your hair and clothes.
Khao San Road was something of a walk down memory lane for me, although a lot had changed since I was there eleven years ago. I found the laneway next to Wally House restaurant that led to the anonymous grotty guesthouse I had stayed in, and was reminded of the open drain that I had to leap across to get from my dingy bedroom to the grimy bathroom. I'm sure that a number of bars and restaurants had been replaced by souvenir shops. It was a different Khao San to the one of my memories, yet still, I couldn't help feeling like I was in the centre of somewhere, at some sort of global crossroads.
It took some thorough searching, but we finally stumbled across Shambara guesthouse that I had been interested to see. I'd seen it on the internet, and for the budget price, it looked surprisingly charming and stylish. The room we looked at was upstairs, overlooking a peaceful garden, one block back from busy, noisy Thanon Tanao, and a block away from Khao San Road. Of course, if you're used to four or five star luxury, you'll not be happy with a 450 (fifteen dollars) double room. But we thought it was perfect. Sadly, others also have been finding Shambara attractive, and it was fully booked for the nights we wanted in January. We're hoping for a cancellation.
We sipped cold cokes in the shade along Khao San Road, and tried a few different foods from street stalls. But that was about all we could fit into this short stopover, and we wound our way back to the Chao Praya. The river taxi was just pulling into the platform, and we leapt aboard. It's an eleven Baht ride most of the way up or down the river. That's about twenty-five cents.
Rather than catch another taxi back to Big John's, we decided to take a walk on the wild side and chance a TukTuk. Bangkok's ubiquitous TukTuks roam the streets like sharks, beeping their horns in hopeful anticipation of a fare. They're basically a noisy two stroke motorbike with a canopy attached, large enough to fit two passengers. It's a very 'real' way to experience Bangkok at ground level, with nothing between yourself and the smells, sights and noises of this crowded metropolis.
There was still another hour before we had to leave for the airport, and embark on the final nine hour leg of our journey, so Maria and I decided to treat ourselves to a Thai massage as a prelude to spending such a long period of time sitting still. And it paid off. Although neither of us were overly impressed with our massages, I reckon that was what helped us to sleep so well on the flight. That, and the fact that the flight was so empty that Maria had three seats to herself and I had two.
If you want to see some photos from my last visit to Thailand, more than ten years ago, click here. Note the rather unpleasant state of my right arm in one of the pics, the result of a sense of invincibility while riding a motorcross bike down a winding mountain road.
Who would think Spaniards needed a visa to go anywhere? Well, obviously Australians do, so when I got to the Barajas airport to go to Australia, the lady at the Thai airlines counter asked me for my visa. "Visa? I don't need a visa", I panicked. But of course I did. I had been clever enough to call the Thai embassy in case I needed some kind of visa to leave the airport, but it never crossed my mind Australia would require one. Not that I didn't have enough time to call the embassy and ask, just to make sure, but I didn't. A trip overseas wouldn't be the same without all this excitement, would it?
We were told I could have an electronic visa done by the Thai staff at the Bangkok airport and they sounded so confident we boarded our plane without a second thought to it. Eleven hours later, we looked for that Thai staff member who would kindly get me my electronic visa. Phonecalls followed each other but no one seemed to know anything about it so they kept sending us to an internet cafe to get it. Unusual it seemed that you can obtain a visa though the internet to use a few hours later. But sure you can, you just have to have 20 bucks in your account and make sure you introduce your passport number correctly in the form, and there you go.
Even though I have explained the situation in a nutshell, it actually took us a couple of hours to get there. And another hour to sort our luggage out, as we were told it was too early to do the check-in for our next flight to Brisbane. But in the end, it all worked out fairly well and even Steve wasn't too mad at me (as he normally is).