Bangkok – Good, Bad, and Ugly

April 14, 2007
I’ll start with the ugly.

You’d think that, after all the traveling Amit and I have done, jointly and severally, we’d know better than to get conned by some shady travel agent.

Usually, after all, we steer clear of all travel agents.

This time, for some reason, when we saw a signboard proclaiming TAT, the Thai government tourism agency, close to our youth hostel, we decided to stop and enquire. Doubtless it was our mistake that, in no time, and after asking very few questions indeed, we had shelled out ~7000 Baht for a package that included transport to the island of our choice (Ko Chang), three nights stay in a “Bungalow,” and transport back on Tuesday morning, reaching Bangkok at 2 p.m. well in time to catch our flight back at 7.30 p.m.

From the word go, it was a disaster.

The luxury double decker bus turned out to be a minivan.

We had to change minivans twice over the next three hours, before we finally got on to a double decker bus.

The should-have-been four-hour drive took over six hours.

The bus dropped us at a pier, but the ferry waiting at the pier flatly refused to honour our tickets. After some turmoil, they managed to explain to us that we were at the wrong pier: our tickets were valid only for a boat that left from another pier 9 km away.

Moreover, that boat left at 3 p.m. and it was now already 3.15.

The bus driver disclaimed all responsibility for getting us there; he was on his way to Cambodia, he claimed. The other passengers had already bought their tickets for the ferry and boarded the vessel, while Amit fumbled with coins and tried to communicate with a disembodied voice in a foreign language 300 km away.

Ultimately, we had two choices: we could buy tickets and take the ferry (120 B); or we could take a taxi to the other pier (150 B), and then wait for the next boat, whenever that might be.

With me fuming in silence (an extremely unhealthy condition and potentially life threatening for Amit or whoever else happens to stray across my path) we bought tickets and boarded the ferry.

At the island, the promised “10 B” tuk tuk ride cost 100 B per head in a shared taxi. It was past 5 p.m. when we reached our bungalow – three hours later than expected.

Still, all would have been well, if the bungalow had been what we call a bungalow, or even if it had been, as advertised, on the beach.

It was a temporary wooden shack, no bigger than the size of the bed, with straw walls and roof. The bed had a mosquito net around it, rendering the tiny room even more cramped, because you could not sit on or dump stuff on the bed. Once Amit and I both got into the room we could not move around or pass each other. At least the attached bathroom was clean and the plumbing worked.

I’m not much of a snob when it comes to places to stay, so, though I would have liked something a little more luxurious, I would still have been ok, if only the beach had been nearby.

The question, as Amit succinctly put it, was: what beach?

The island, mind you, was quite lovely. There were rolling green hills bordering a roller-coaster road which offered occasional but stunning views of the sea, studded with islands, glowing in the evening sun. Along the road ran a string of resorts, restaurants, and shops of all kinds. It looked like a fun place.

After passing the most “fun” bits the road continued on and the coast turned from beach into rocky shore, not 20 m wide, still, dank, with rocks and growing things sticking out of the water. Three of the four prominent islands visible from the other beaches were hidden from this angle. It was about as dismal as it is possible for anything related to the sea to be.

Ko Chang was by no means a small island. It had taken us a little less than an hour by the auto-type shared taxi from the pier to our bungalow. The nearest decent beach was maybe 5-6 km away on a tarred hill road with several steep zig-zag bends. At 5.30 that evening, we hadn’t the energy to go looking for a nicer beach and a nicer room. Besides, we had paid for this one. We walked morosely up and down the deserted stretch of road, until it started pouring. Then we sat in the restaurant of a neighboring resort and ate ourselves silly. The only good part of the day was that the restaurant we picked not only served excellent food, but had a really sweet, hospitable girl running the show, which almost made us forget the wretchedness of our experiences that day.

Bangkok had been hot and humid. By the sea, it was not so bad, and with the tiny table fan running full tilt that night, it was quite cool. Sometime around midnight, Amit, realizing I was feeling cold, very sweetly unfurled the thin blanket lying at the foot of the bed and spread it over us. With that began The Assault of the Bloodthirsty Bedbugs. Within minutes, I was covered by tiny crawling things that bit me as eagerly as though I were the only thing between them and starvation-induced extinction. I stumbled out of bed, cursing, and turned on the only light in the hut, whereupon the bulb immediately fused with a dramatic crack. I crawled back into bed, threw the blanket into the farthest corner, and lay awake in the dark for ages scratching my bites and brushing away the lousy mites.

The next day, we found a room at a “happening” beach. Having forked out an advance of 2000 B for a nice air-con, sea-facing, right-on-the-beach room, we went back to our hovel to pick up our luggage and give the chap a piece of our mind. When we got back to our new room, around 12.30, it wasn’t ready. We killed time having lunch. Around 1.30, it still wasn’t ready. I was really fed up by this time – not that the beach was much to rave about compared to Cavelossim or any of the other beaches in Goa, but for whatever it was worth, I wanted to be spending time in the water, not sitting in the restaurant waiting for our room to be ready. A rather unpleasant altercation followed, ending with us opting for a non air-con room in the third row from the beach – 900 B.

At last we made it into the water that afternoon, and just to extract every last bit of seaside fun from the miserable holiday, we spent the rest of the day in the water, wading and swimming out to the nearest island and generally lounging around in the shallow, still, rock-strewn, warm water. The beach was not very wide, not very long, and not very white, but it was clean.

The next day, we began the ordeal to get back to Bangkok. Separate and detailed enquiries had convinced us that sticking to our original plan of leaving on Tuesday morning would be the surest way to miss our flight back. Apparently, no boat+bus combination could get us back to Bangkok in time. We would have to leave on Monday, even though it meant that we would have spent two whole days traveling for the pleasure of one measly afternoon in the sea – a mighty poor bargain, if you ask me.

We bought boat+bus tickets from one of the several travel agents near our hotel. As usual, when we reached the pier, they refused to honour our tickets and wanted us to buy tickets afresh. This time I exploded and spewed volcanic lava in all directions, even going so far as to march up to a bewildered cop standing nearby and berate him on the state of affairs in the country. At first, none of this helped, but eventually a taxi driver condescended to help us by mentioning that the pier for our ticket could be found 300 m down the road, and that the boat would leave in 5 minutes. We sprinted off down the road, the backpack jostling around on my back – of course, the taxi driver was not so polite as to drive us the short distance to the next pier.

At last we caught the right boat, but we spent the entire ride worrying about whether we were headed for the right destination (there being three piers on the mainland, separated by a goodly distance); whether there would be a bus waiting for us at the other end; and whether the bus would honour our tickets or not.

What was awaiting us at the other end turned out to be yet another taxi ride, from the pier to the “bus stop”. It looked like a short distance, not worth the 10 B price, so we marched off. After some asking around, we found the right shop for our tickets, and after a little waiting around, they eventually carted us to the main road, a couple of km away, and there our bus came trundling along soon enough.

After that, there were no more glitches until we reached Bangkok. Then, as we were almost at our youth hostel, we approached the driver’s cabin and asked to be let down. Nothing doing, said the driver’s assistant. You get down when the bus reaches the last point, and not before. Stymied and frustrated once again, we endured the 10 minute drive and 40 minute walk back in the steamy weather of early evening in Bangkok, still seething at the overall unhelpfulness. It was after 6 p.m. – had we returned on the day of our flight out, and given that the bus adamantly refused to stop at any point other than its final destination, we would surely have missed our return flight.

The first thing we did was to walk to the TAT office and vent our frustrations on the few remaining staff. The chap who had sold us the package had left and the unfortunate chap who had to bear the brunt of our ire was not only amused and embarrassed, he was also unapologetic and unhelpful.

The following morning, we returned and confronted the manager. He was aggressive and rude, although he returned some (1700 B – a pitiful sum) of the money. On the whole, it had been a thoroughly unpleasant experience.

The one thing that I could not understand during this entire experience, was that this was a government agency that had cheated us. I would never have expected a government agency to deliberately lie, mislead, or cheat customers. Do they work on commission, that they have anything at all to gain by conning customers? If not, why on earth would they tell us that we could arrive back in time for our flight, when they could just as easily recommend to us that either we go to a nearer island, or we return a day earlier (as we eventually did), to ensure that we get back in time for our flight? Even if the rest of the horrendous experience were to be put down to miscommunication (wrong pier), or mistake (taxi fare to the bungalow on the island), or simply overcharging and lack of quality control (hideous bungalow and non-existent beach), even if everything else were accidental or at least not malicious, telling us positively that we would be back in Bangkok by 2 p.m. was clearly a calculated lie. Why would a government agency do that?

For the first time, I realized what it is that Western tourists go through when they travel in India. No wonder some of them get entirely frustrated and disenchanted.

Anyway, so that was the ugly part.
Entering Thailand, the process for getting Visa on Arrival was horrible, tiring, and time consuming. We spent more than two hours in the airport, getting through the process and then locating our luggage which had been taken off the conveyor belt long ago. Then, we took the airport express to town, about a one-hour ride. Then, we walked for about half an hour to reach the youth hostel. There were no hitches, but the entire process was exhausting.
One thing I will say is that a lot of people in Thailand are very nice, sweet, smiling, warm, soft-spoken, and as helpful as the language barrier permits them to be. There are touts, but they are relatively few and much less aggressive than we in India are used to. The city, in general, is clean, and I even saw young children carefully putting litter in a garbage tin, not just throwing it anywhere as is common in India. Apparently people generally do not use the sidewalks, corner, and alleys as public toilets, which makes the air of Bangkok much less unsavoury than in many Indian cities. Another thing that helps is that there is almost no spitting.

Certain facets of life make Thailand very easy for Indians to adjust to. Street vendors and pavement or roadside life; outdoor markets, specially vegetable and fruit stalls; stray dogs and cats (who live together in harmony); tuk tuks (who drive recklessly and bargain shamelessly like autos in India, but in Bangkok have not even the pretence of a meter); even the natural vegetation and the climate are not very different from parts of India, specially the south.

Differences, though, are equally obvious. First and foremost is probably the traffic. It is disciplined and fast and quiet – that is, nobody honks unless it is absolutely necessary. On rare occasions, I saw people break a traffic light, but for the most part everybody sticks to their lane and obeys the traffic rules. The roads are broad and smooth and the flyovers and expressways are plentiful and impressive. One particularly impressive elevated road system stretches so far from the outskirts of the city towards city centre, that we actually zipped along it for well over an hour before it finally fused with the mess of roads and flyovers near city centre. We did encounter extremely slow-moving traffic and traffic snarls, but the disciplined and patient driving manners made these almost bearable.

The city is also much cleaner than Indian cities are. Very occasionally you do see a plastic bag, or some spilled food, on the pavement, but in general garbage is in garbage cans and every pavement or cart vendor has some hidden system of waste disposal. The other most noticeable difference compared to Indian cities is that nobody in Thailand treats the streetside as a public toilet. Even the stray dogs seem to find private places to treat as toilets. Also, nobody seems to spit, so you don’t ever have to watch out for flying missiles from passing vehicles. This really makes walking around the city a much easier and less hazardous occupation.

The greatest difficulties in Bangkok are undeniably the weather – hot, humid, and rainy – and the language. The latter cannot be overstated – a lot of people know very little English, so even simple questions such as “where is” or “how much” or “how long/far” might be met by a blank stare, or sometimes by a visible struggle for self-expression. The other problem is that it is sometimes difficult understanding the answer, even when it is in English.

The greatest joy in Bangkok is undoubtedly the food. All the pavement food we ate was delicious! I think all of it is non-vegetarian, which suits us fine, but it did have some strange kinds of non-veg as well. Apart from chicken, I think there’s a lot of pork and some beef (though most of the red meat remains largely unidentifiable), and the sea food, in addition to lots of prawn and some mussels, has some weird wormy things and some even more weird slimy things in it.

The flavors are delicious, though. Lots of basil and some lemon grass along with lots of hot red chillies and, sometimes, coconut, make for delicious, tangy, spicy curries. We most often had plain steamed rice, but sometimes noodles as well. The glass noodles were the most memorable. Then, of course, there were the tandoori (I mean, satay) meats, grilled over coal on long wooden toothpick-type skewers.

I cannot say anything very favourable about the beverages available in Thailand, though. The most common drinks are tall glasses full of crushed ice, into which is poured some coloured fluid the consistency of water. The concoctions taste mild, unsweet, and not very pleasing. I guess that the different colours represent different flavours of drink, but they all seemed pretty insipid to me. Thankfully, the one delicious drink available everywhere is fresh squeezed orange juice, made from tiny oranges. The flavour is different from any fresh orange juice I’ve ever had. (Of course, iced tea, fizzy drinks, canned juices, beer and other packaged drinks are easily available in all manner of grocery stores.)

During the day time in Bangkok, we went to a few of the most popular tourist spots – the Grand Palace, Wat Po, and the Vimanmek Teak Museum. The Palace was grand all right, and not in the least bit like anything we have in India (as far as I know). The Wat (temple) was nice, too, especially the reclining Buddha, which was so much more impressive than the Emerald Buddha. There were lots of tourists at these places, but not so many that the area seemed crowded. It really was nice wandering around the monuments, and if I ever visit Bangkok again, I would probably want to go and look at these again, perhaps spending a little more time than half a day. On Tuesday, the last day in Bangkok, we went to the Vimanmek Teak Museum, the largest building in the world made entirely of golden teak wood. I liked the building a lot, but didn’t enjoy the guided tour through the building all that much, because inside it is just another palace with porcelain from China, crystal from Bulgaria, portraits of the royal family through the ages, gifts from distant kings and ancient times – all the usual stuff.

What we didn’t do, or didn’t do nearly enough of, was shopping. We went to the malls twice: the first time we spent a couple of hours wandering around the shops, but couldn’t bring ourselves to enter any of them, let alone buy anything; the second time, we went straight to the Food Loft at the top of Central Department Store, lingered for more than an hour over a prolonged lunch that set us back ~550 B, then exited without looking left or right. Having spent not a single Baht on shopping, and with the entitlement of two bottles of duty-free alcohol each weighing on us, we spent a miserable 90 minutes walking from end to end at the airport looking for something to spend money on and finally forced ourselves to buy a bottle of wine merely to assuage our consciences. The shopping gene, it appears, is not only recessive in me, but also gets sent into comatose shock by the sight of more things in heaven, earth, and shopping malls, Horatio, than are dreamt of in its most torturous nightmares (to badly misquote the Bard).

During our two evenings in Bangkok, we didn’t venture into any of the bars, pubs, or other “happening” places in town and we even ignored the touts who approached us offering “ping-pong” shows – whatever those might be. The first evening, we wandered around the outdoor areas around Khao San road, which was alive and kicking till late at night. Apart from sampling the varied fares from different carts, we bought a couple of local beers from a 7 Eleven and swigged them while walking around. I had to resist a mild temptation to get my hair plaited into dreadlocks, one of the less unsalubrious services very much on offer at various points along the road. At this hour, Khao San is a pedestrians-only area, and lots of cafes, restaurants, and the more enterprising of street cart vendors, put out chairs and tables on the pavements or even on the road itself.

The second evening, we walked to the garden area in front of the Grand Palace, where Songkran (Sankranti) festivities were in full swing. It was a typical “mela” – there were large enclosures with various exotic kinds of food and drink on offer, and some open air theatres staging song and dance events. Laser beams flashed across the clouds overhead, people milled around, music blasted from loudspeakers. It was a nice way to spend our last evening in the country.

Good and bad are to be found on every trip, I believe, and without the ugly parts, the trip to Thailand would have been more good than bad. The ugly part, though, was so extremely trying that I don’t think I’d ever want to go back to Thailand again. Would I recommend Thailand to anyone proposing to visit? Maybe, but with a warning in big, bold, red letters – hang on to your money, and don’t let go of your temper! Oh, and avoid the Bailan Family Bungalow like the plague.

Going to Bangkok

April 4, 2007

We leave for Bangkok tonight. Apparently, this realization dawned on us only yesterday. I had done some preliminary work by going shopping for some loose cotton pants, which turned out to be two pairs of cargo pants (the sort you wouldn’t be caught dead in, but I’m hoping not to be seen by anyone I know) and a swimsuit.

That was the extent of our trip preparation. I don’t think I have ever approached a holiday, specially a foreign holiday, in quite such a cavalier fashion. As of yesterday morning, all we had was the return air tickets. No visa, no forex, no room reservations, no cargo pants, no swimsuit, no sun screen – in short, no clue!

Now, we are much better organized. Clothes, backpack, cameras, printed material giving information regarding accommodation and sundry other odds and ends are lying scattered around the study. The washing machine is busy trying to get us some clean clothes to carry – I hope it behaves, just for once. My hair is heavily coconut-oiled, in anticipation of a second dose of the sunsilk treatment. I have even selected reading material for the trip. Youth hostel cards have been unearthed. Some ancient USD Traveler’s Cheques have somehow resurfaced. Travel Insurance, even, might be in the pipeline – Amit wrote to our insurance chap last night asking whether it could be home delivered today!!!

Are we organized, or what?

I’ll go with the “what”. 😀

Currently the plan is to spend Friday in Bangkok, travel to a large but remote island on Saturday, stay there on Sunday, leave on Monday, hopefully returning to Bangkok the same day, and spend half of Tuesday in Bangkok before catching our flight back.

Sounds hectic, doesn’t it? Let’s see how it pans out. See you next week!

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