Friday, 29 March 2013

Bangkok - Flights and Visas

A random statue in a restaurant
We had booked a sleeper bus from Sihanoukville to Bangkok.  What we had actually booked was a nightmare from hell but that was not to become immediately apparent.

In fact, the beginning of the trip was very promising.  We had never travelled by sleeper bus before but, as Cambodian buses (or buses in general) were, in our opinion, one of the most uncomfortable modes of transport for Paul in particular because of his size, we figured that a sleeper bus couldn’t be any worse.  At least, if he couldn’t stretch out fully (which we knew was unlikely, he would at least have more leg room than you get on an average bus.

The sleeper bus we boarded in Sihanoukville was half empty and we initially took our allotted seats on the upper berth, which even at that stage weren’t too bad.  Once we were on our way we realised that almost all the bottom berths were empty so Paul occupied to the berth below us and we both had lots of room to stretch out in relative luxury (relative to any other bus journey in Cambodia) and we both had a pretty decent few hours’ sleep until we got to Phnom Penh when we were woken up in the early hours.  That was fine, until we then we reached Siem Reap and we were all offloaded onto a standard bus which had just enough leg room for a midget.

The journey to Bangkok was interminable.  We reached the Cambodian border town where our Cambodian bus abandoned us.  Everyone seemed to have the impression that a Thai bus would pick us up over the border to take us on the rest of the journey to Bangkok.

Tuk tuk mayhem in Khao San Road
We passed through passport control on the Cambodian side and in fairness this was relatively straightforward but as it was mid-morning by this time, the heat was beating down and standing around in queues was not exactly what you wanted to be doing with sweat pouring down your back.  The temperature was about 38 degrees and it was humid.

Then we walked through to the Thai border crossing and it all started to get a bit much.  It is visa on arrival (valid for 15 days) so we had to complete forms and line up in a very long queue which seemed to take forever.  It must have taken at least an hour by which time tempers were beginning to fray.  Lots of other buses seemed to have arrived at the same time and there were also lots of local people going through the border.  It was organised chaos.

The situation didn’t improve once we had successfully passed through passport control but didn’t know where our bus was, when it would arrive, who to ask.  We knew this was the norm but it didn’t help at the time. 

Everyone that had been on our bus to the border stuck together but no-one seemed to know what to do and we hung around for about another hour.  Some poor guy wasn’t able to produce a ticket for the Thai bus company because the bus driver in Cambodia had taken his whole ticket (rather than tearing part of it off).  We think he ended up hiring  taxi to Bangkok.  We considered this option as it would definitely had been the easy one but we had a ticket so we thought we would wait because we were sure that it would turn out OK eventually.

A random building
During all this confusion, a random Thai bloke was trying to take our tickets in exchange for a plain gold coloured sticker.  Neither we, nor our fellow passengers from Sihanoukville, were willing to relinquish our tickets as they were the only proof that we had paid for the whole journey.  Nothing was explained, everyone was confused, and tempers were becoming more frayed by the minute.  And it was getting hotter.
Eventually we were told by the Thai bloke that a minibus was coming to collect us to take us to the big bus because the big bus couldn’t fit down the road on which we were waiting.  This was clearly a lie because we saw numerous “big buses” passing down to the passport control area.  

Anyway, we did eventually board a minibus and we found ourselves deposited a short distance away (we could have walked) at the end of the road at a cafĂ© where we were dumped for a further indefinite amount of time to wait for the bus to Bangkok which was “coming soon”.  No definition of “soon” was provided and it was hardly surprising because, when we did finally board a bus bound for Bangkok, the whole process from leaving Cambodian soil to boarding the bus for the remainder of our journey to Bangkok had taken over 4 hours, in the midday heat, and I do believe that everyone at that point simply wanted to weep with frustration.

We eventually arrived near the famous Khao San Road in Bangkok central 26 hours after we had left Sihanoukville, frazzled, ragged around the edges but very, very relieved to have finally arrived.

Another random building
Then a tuk tuk took us to the wrong hotel (this ruse was becoming boring) but the hotel staff at the wrong hotel kindly gave us a map and directions to the hotel we had booked and eventually we arrived at the Banglampoo Hotel (yes, really), a 10 minute walk from the mayhem that is Khao San Road.  The room was big, had a large window (no view but we were past caring), a decent shower and air conditioning.  We were happy enough with that.

Obviously, the first thing we needed after such a horrendous journey, before a shower or anything remotely sensible like that, was a very large and very cold beer, so off we went in search of one.  There was no shortage of bars and restaurants in the Khao San area but as we were soon to find out Thailand is not cheap.  Of course, it is cheap by western standards but it was the most expensive destination we had visited in Asia so far.

We were only here to get our visas and hoped that we wouldn’t need to spend more than 4 days here but as it turned out it was Easter so the Indonesian Embassy was shut for two days so we had to book flights to Jakarta for 13th April.  Flight bookings needed to accompany our applicable but obviously we needed to know we would have our visas by then so we ended up staying in Bangkok for 8 days which was 7 days too many,

It was hot (it got as high as 40 degrees), humid, and there were plenty of drunks (mainly English) at any hour of the day.  Khao San Road is tourist central although nowhere near as seedy as I had expected it to be (we’ve all read The Beach, surely?).  Nevertheless, it was expensive and as Paul put it, he was bleeding money from the moment we arrived.

And another random building
A lovely agent arranged for our visa, we booked flights to Jakarta (sadly beginning our airborne travel which is unavoidable in Indonesia with limited funds and a strict timetable given the appalling transport infrastructure and unreliable and sporadic ferry services), and spent time planning the final leg of our trip, deciding exactly where we wanted to visit.  Whilst this obviously took any spontaneity out of this last section of our long and amazing trip, we had a flight to Bali that I could not miss because otherwise I would not validate my visa in time and they accept no excuses.

We were also keen to visit places in Indonesia that to reach would take some detailed planning, some luck, a lot of patience, and on occasion, endurance.  This is quite a test at this stage of our trip.  While we still have the enthusiasm we are finding it increasingly tiring taking longer trips, partly due to the heat and partly due to being constantly on the road for almost 8 months.  We don’t want to arrive in Australia completely exhausted (and ready to divorce each other – anyone who denies travelling tests any relationship is a big fat liar!). 

However, part of the charm of the places we wanted to visit was precisely the fact that they were not particularly easy to reach and therefore we hoped would remain relatively unspoilt.  We simply agreed to limit our destinations in Indonesia, restricting our exploration of this massive country to Borneo (including the Tanjung Putin National Park to see orangutans) and Pulau Derawan for turtles), the Togean Islands in Sulawesi, and finally a quiet spot in Bali where we would spent the last week sobbing before returning to reality.

Khao San road stallholders
Our time in Bangkok was spent well.  We bought some clothes (I needed some more modest clothes to wear in public areas in Indonesia and Paul was regularly wearing his out). We spent an eternity walking around the outside of the indoor market looking for some shorts I had seen earlier.  We must have walked around it three times, seeing the same stalls, the same people, the same shops and eventually I found the shorts but for a while it seemed like we stuck in some kind of virtual reality loop, not helped by the fact that we were ready to collapse in the heat.

One of our purchases was discarded fairly quickly.  We bought a little cup warmer and a couple of metal camping mugs for making coffee but I these items lasted less than a fortnight.  The small warming plate needed to be lugged in the night before in order to enjoy a lukewarm cup of coffee the following morning (I kid you not) and therefore we abandoned those items somewhere along the way in a hotel in Borneo. 
I caught up with the blog and emails which I find increasingly difficult to do since we have reached warmer climes.  Usually we are too busy exploring our surroundings, lazing on the beach, or visiting iconic temples to waste time sat in a hotel room with a laptop. 

The view from the restaurant where we had
breakfast most mornings
From my point of view, and something that only the female of the species will fully appreciate, by far the most important accomplishment in Bangkok was my visit to the hairdressers.  Paul frogmarched me into a hairdressers’ salon near the hotel in order to have my hair coloured.  I don’t recall complaining too much that after 7 months of travelling my roots were now 4 inches long but I am sure Paul will beg to differ;  I like to think that he was just showing his sensitive side and it wasn’t just to shut me up!

I have never had my hair professionally coloured and the stylist did a wonderful job, took 3 hours to complete the job (there was a lot of work to do), couldn’t speak English (so none of this “where are you going on holiday this year?” crap although a bit moot as I was an Englishwoman in Thailand) and I was very happy with the result.  She didn’t cut very much off and that part of the service took less than 5 minutes, but I usually cut the ends off myself.  It was about half the price as it would be UK and in my view worth every Thai baht.

Spending 8 days in Bangkok did at least give us the opportunity to take a breather although Paul hated the place, and in particular hated Khao San Road but we both found the Thai people to be lovely, incredibly helpful, polite and smiley, and not at all as cynical as you would expect in a place like that. 

We were however rather disappointed when we ordered 2 cocktails one evening from a guy with a stall near the restaurant we tended to go to.  We just fancied a change from beer and they were very cheap.  As we were to find out they were cheap for a reason because there was not a whiff of alcohol in either of them and certainly there was no Kahlua in my White Russian which was just milk and lemonade, which, I can assure you, is not a pleasant drink.  A light hearted argument ensued between Paul and the stallholder and we ended up not paying for the drinks, something we never do.  
The view down Khao San Road

The following evening the same cocktail stallholder presented us with a free cocktail (in which I did detect a smidgen of alcohol although Paul wasn’t convinced).  The cocktail seller clearly realised he had been found out, and was good enough to try to make amends.  We even tried to pay for the real(ish) cocktail but he wouldn’t hear of it. This experience was not particularly unpleasant one but it’s just irritating.

Although we saw almost nothing of Thailand, and of course we spent most of our time in the capital, we formed the distinct impression that it is a country much richer than its neighbours.  The city is very modern and was always very clean (surprisingly so, bearing in mind the sheer number of tourists) and as we travelled to the airport we saw a number of famous shopping malls making it a paradise for shopaholics.  The night market is supposed to be amazing but there was no point us going as we aren’t able to buy anything – most travellers stock up and send stuff home but at the moment we are pretty much homeless! 

We did come across beggars and we always gave something but Paul did note that many Thais also gave to these people, and they were often quite generous, giving more than the equivalent of a few pence.

Another notable fact we discovered was that Bangkok Airport has the most expensive Burger King in the world.  We both had a craving for crap fast food which everyone seems to have from time to time and were gobsmacked when the bill came to well over $20 for 2 standard meals.  It seems that Thailand is not one of the cheapest destinations it once was but of course we had come from China, Vietnam and Cambodia which are.

After 8 days and with 60 day Indonesian visas safely planted in our passports, we were more than ready to leave Bangkok and head to Indonesia.  We weren’t particularly looking forward to the prospect of having to take flights because we had enjoyed so much travelling overland.  This was partly because of the comfort element, partly the time it takes out of a day to take a 3 hour hop, and also as the reputation of Indonesian airlines is not one of the best, however it was a necessary evil and all flights would be short.

So we headed off in a taxi through downtown Bangkok to the impressive airport, where we ate our expensive Burger King, went through security about 4 times, and boarded a flight to Jakarta where we would start our journey through Indonesia.

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