Bangkok Too

Jennifer and I spent 2 phases in Bangkok, sandwiched around our visit to Chiang Mai. In phase 1, we were primarily sorting out our return visas to Indonesia, our entry visas for Myanmar, and visiting with varied doctors. We used the water taxis and skytrain (elevated public transit), tuk-tuks and our feet to get everywhere. As in Singapore, the public transit system worked very well. It was very busy, efficient, and air-conditioned. Many of its stations are situated above huge and complex street intersections. Long steel stairways connect the two levels. Up there, cross connecting pathways lead to enormous shopping malls, and entire worlds that are not obvious from down below. Crossing those streets was very tricky. The light system didn’t seem to factor in pedestrians at all. It was often very hard to know where and when to cross. Groups of peds would gather at logical crossing places, and slowly swell in numbers and inch out into traffic until some sort of tipping point was reached that allowed for crossing -and even then sometimes just to the middle divider.

The Embassies were interesting, and different. The Myanmar Embassy was surprisingly crowded -make that jam packed. We followed some Lonely Planet advice and got the preliminary paper work and photo part done at a tiny place down a small alley a couple of blocks away. But still, the process that followed was a scene. 5-6 long lines of people that lead to small windows up front. The where’s and whys were not spelled out, but eventually we dropped off our paperwork, passports and fees, and were told to return in a few days. It was pretty straight forward. The Indonesian embassy was a different experience. The walls of the embassy take up a big lot, but the visa office was small. We expected this visa transaction to be easy. We smiled and spoke in Indonesian, and had our stuff together, but the man behind the window threw a monkey wrench at us and insisted that we show our exit flight out of Indonesia -something we didn’t have -nor plan to. A man nearby mumbled under his breath that this request was bogus. Afterwards, outside, he instructed us to find a travel agent who would work with us to get around this problem, which we eventually did during our return visit to Bangkok. We paid her to book -and later cancel- a flight out of Indonesia. We brought the paperwork back to this man behind the counter, who processed our visa.

We were really impressed with the medical attention we received. The Bumrungrad medical center attracts expats from across Asia. As luck would have it, it was located just 2 blocks from our Smart Suite Hotel. We both wanted thorough dermatology exams for pre-cancerous cells, just as a precaution. I’d done so back in SF just before we left, but that 2 minute exam was underwhelming. This doctor, by comparison, gave us each his undivided attention  -and a clean bill of health. In addition, he addressed a couple of related issues, on his own volition. We decided to follow up with some blood tests and other simple exams. We were also impressed with the uncomplicated process -and relative low coast- of paying for our visits and prescriptions, and the warm and professional attitudes of everyone involved.

When we returned to Bangkok from Chiang Mai for phase 2, we’d booked a room on the notorious backpacker magnet Khao San Road. Its a busy, long block, connected to a similar parallel street via narrow passageways that are lined with massage and trinket hawkers. The tuk-tuk drive there from the train station was fun and intense: lots of fast traffic and street life. It was Saturday night, and we were not prepared for what greeted us on Khoa San Road. I’ve been in packed scenes before: night clubs / music / street scenes, but nothing compared to this in terms of pure sensory bombardment and assault. In fact, I’d stayed on KSR when I was in my 20’s, and it was not like this (I don’t think. did it change, or have I? I remember it as being mellow). The street was jam packed, with largely drunk people. And the sidewalk cafes and restaurants were jam packed as well, with largely drunk people. Mostly younger back-packer types, but a surprising number of older couples -drinks in hand and smile on their faces- who had their children in tow. More than anything, We were overwhelmed by the staggering decibel level of the music that blasted from every single cafe and restaurant. But it was late, and we’d been on buses and trains all day. We found our room and endured the noise for several more hours. None of the following nights were quite as bad as that Saturday night. Still, I wouldn’t have believed that we’d stay in that (very basic) room and hotel for another night -much less 5 more. Ah, the lure of a cheap room and free breakfast!

While we waited for our visas to process, we packed a lot into our time in Bangkok. One day, while needing shade and food, we walked a looong way to a city park, that offered little of either. There we stumbled upon a very large tent city that has grown out of a protest against the Thai government. We tried to learn about the situation from some key residents, who seemed intelligent and determined, but they were also suspicious about who we were and of our intentions. We didn’t glean much. I’ve been thinking about them in light of the recent, large, public demonstrations. On another occasion, internet needs lead us into a particular shopping mall. It was simply gargantuan, 12 stories tall, and each floor was tremendously vast in all directions. Many floors were jam packed with a zillion small shops that were themselves jam packed with stuff. One floor housed a dozen banks in the same area, which is why we were there. Myanmar requires perfectly pristine, flawless, newish US dollars. The woman behind the window finally became quite fed up with our (polite) demands for such $100 bills. But we eventually got what we came for -with the exception of one bill, with a tiny mark on it, and which was rejected by the bank in Myanmar when we tried to cash it.

We had some fun too, in between our tasks. The mighty, wide, dirty, Chaophraya river winds through Bangkok. We enjoyed jumping on the ferries that ride up and down it, or across it, and watching the bustling river life. Each landing dock opened up new worlds. Once we crossed over and needed a taxi to continue on. We lucked out with a fun driver, who turned out to have a CD player and access to hundreds of songs. The 3 of us sang along to (our requested) Credence Clearwater Revival, before winding up at 2 of our favorite sights in Asia: the Wat Arun, and the (enormous) Reclining Buddha. Both are spectacular compounds of varied, stunning Thai design. The reclining Buddha’s feet alone are 10 feet high. On another day, we were walking on the raised path along the river, heading to the closest dock station and water taxi. Apparently we were in a Muslim neighborhood, because the call to prayer came over the speaker system that lined the river. Its a beautiful sound, and we loved everything about where we were and what was happening.

Eventually, our Indonesian visas were processed and ready, and our time in Bangkok had come to an end. Though challenging, It had served us well, and delivered so many interesting sights, sounds, and smells. Our early morning 10-seater shuttle bus to the airport jam-packed 14 of us in for an hour’s drive. As I watched out my window, I thought back to a moment 3 days earlier. We were stressed and hurried, and having trouble getting across a particular street. Finally a break in the traffic came. We joined hands and ran across this bustling thoroughfare. As we hopped up onto the middle divider, we looked left to see that the next half of the street was also free of oncoming traffic, and so without slowing down we kept going. A step or 2 into the new lane, we were jolted by sounds of danger, and looked to our right as a taxi screeched to a halt -just feet from us. We realized only then that this divided boulevard was unusual, in that all traffic went the same direction. I almost always look both ways of any street I cross, but not this time -and it nearly cost us dearly. Now, as we headed out of town, I offered up my heartfelt thanks and deep gratitude for the forces at play that gave us a break at that moment, and allowed us to now be on our way to Myanmar.


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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Arthur Koch
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 05:39:01

    Thanks for the update Matt. Very Interesting!



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