It would appear I am turning into Marcel Proust and this blog is going to be á la recherche du temps perdu… but lots of thoughts… we’ll see if I can catch up in 2014. Goal is to stay home more so there is always hope… have at least hit all of the countries visited in 2013 but there is much more to say about most of them… but of course I am just returning from two totally new countries so let’s mix it up! Writing this from the airport of my 5th continent for 2013… really wish I’d had the cash to squeeze in a trip to South Africa and made it 6 in one year! A future goal? 🙂
Bangkok is an old nemesis. Thailand was my first “adventure” destination. At that stage, I had travelled all over western Europe and Australia in addition to a decent number of states and provinces on my home continent but I hadn’t been anywhere particularly challenging yet.
I knew I was ready to leave the nest and see the world from a new perspective, allowing myself to be shaken and stirred a bit by cultural practices and economic circumstances light years away from my normal everyday life.
I knew I would be braver and bolder if I didn’t do it all myself so I scanned the brochures at the travel agent in Sydney and decided Intrepid Travel sounded the perfect combination of mollycoddling and being thrown in the deep end of the pool. (It was 🙂 At some point we will reminisce about Thailand and my life-changing month in country).
Intrepid were largely inventing the concept of “cultural adventure travel” back in 1991. I had little idea what I was getting into but I liked the concept – travelling like a local through Thailand. The extra bonus of going native – the trip cost about $10/day.
That was why when I saw the airport transfer would cost $30, I got sticker shock – and I decided I could handle getting from the airport to the guest house… it couldn’t be THAT hard.
Famous last words as the saying goes….
On paper, it made perfect sense 🙂 The flight arrived early afternoon with lots of daylight to navigate the streets of Bangkok. I had the name of the guesthouse written on a card – in English AND Thai script. I had it marked on the map. I was prepared! 🙂
Once we arrived, we debated if we should sign up for a taxi or a tuk-tuk (basically a motorbike with a passenger seat in the form of a rickshaw added behind). A taxi seemed the right choice – the driver would be more knowledgeable!
We learned the hard way that wasn’t really true – at least not in 1991 Bangkok. If you want to find a famous hotel, a taxi might be the way to go. But if you are going to an obscure guesthouse in Chinatown, hiring a taxi will just give you a long, exhausting tour of the city 🙂
The good news is that you pay a flat fee so you can search for your guesthouse more or less indefinitely. The taxi driver will keep driving you to random guesthouses and try to drop you off. If you keep your wits about you, you will NOT leave the taxi…
Of course, after two hours, the endless random guesthouse tour and the repeated pointing to all of your materials you thought would be so helpful becomes pretty tedious and a certain level of panic starts to arise as you begin to accept you may NEVER be able to get THIS taxi driver to actually get you to your destination. It might even be possible that he is illiterate and unable to read any of your travel aids or follow a map. Hadn’t factored that in when you were being cheap and trying to save the $30!
I was then grateful for my experiences trying to negotiate some hot water in the hotel room in Madrid, not getting killed riding a single speed bike on a French highway in the Loire Valley and figuring out train timetables and configurations all over Europe.
I knew you just stay calm and figure out a logical plan. The chance of our taxi driver actually getting us to the guesthouse seemed remote at best but every taxi driver in a major city surely knows where the train station is!
I – at least – had been reading the map for two hours by then so knew our guesthouse wasn’t far from the train station. And, if nothing else, at least we would know where we were!
Success – of a sort 🙂 Luckily, I used to do extensive research before I travelled so had read about a map of Bangkok written in English by a local expat. I found it in the train station gift shop. It had our guesthouse marked on it so I bought it.
Easy-peasy… until we left the train station and discovered all the street names were in Thai script. That will happen when you are staying in a $2/night guesthouse in Chinatown. OK, let’s see… if you can’t read the street signs, count the streets and match to the map. Also check for the river. Apparently our guest house was right on the Chao Phraya. That had to help 🙂
The sleuthing approach to our dilemma paid off and we actually found the right street! But then we couldn’t find the number of the guesthouse. It was missing in the sequence of the numbers on the street. Oops…
When your logic seems strong and you believe in your plan, you feel confident. So we retraced our steps. I paid more attention. The numbers were still defeating us. But it was supposed to be right on the river… and we were on the street… but if we walked through a parking lot full of trucks blocking our view, we might find the river… and the number on our map… it was worth a try…
And there it was! I have never been so happy – then or since – to actually locate my accommodation for the night! We would start the tour. All our money would not go up in smoke because I was too cheap to pay for the transfer from the airport to start the tour.
Needless to say, I was more excited than most people to find someone waiting for me at the airport this time and then be whisked into an air-conditioned sedan to be driven to the hotel without any assistance from me.
I don’t remember the name of the guesthouse. It may have been razed for condos by now. But my incoming hotel for my reunion with Bangkok was Aloft, a new concept from W Hotels. This time I arrived not only weary from a gigantic flight but still sick from the flu so we will talk more about my second weekend in Bangkok but – if you are sick, looking for the creature comforts of home or just want to feel spoiled on vacation – I think Aloft is your ticket.
It’s rare that I stay in a hotel where I wouldn’t change something. But the lighting is excellent. There are lots of mirrors. The shower is hot, efficient and easy to figure out. The room is full of light. The internet is free – and seamless. There are free bottles of drinking water. There are all sorts of things to do if you actually leave the room – gym, pool, restaurant, bar, concierge with ideas…
I’m sure it helps to pay more than $2/night but you can stay at Aloft for just over $100. And – if this is too boring for you, you can take the train from the airport almost to the hotel I am told… I think it costs less than $2… but for me, the luxury airport transfer worth the $50!!!
Transportation proved to still be my least favourite part of Bangkok. It’s definitely a city I still struggle to love – but it’s worth at least a few days of your life… we’ll get into that in future posts.
I think I have some good advice on how to enjoy Bangkok… but I still haven’t figured out how to get around with only pleasant feelings… it’s an impossible city to walk. There is a metro now but it didn’t seem to go to the places tourists want to see… so you are left with taxis or tuk-tuks. Theoretically you are supposed to be able to get a metered taxi and not want to strangle the driver.
That DID happen! And the expensive airport transfers were lovely. But I had hardly any taxi rides and generally the meter didn’t get turned on and the price quoted was exorbitant but it was too much trouble to get out and try again with someone else. What was bizarre was the drivers then tried to be friendly. I was willing to just pay the money as long as I got to my destination but they didn’t seem to realize I wasn’t naïve enough to not realize I was being totally ripped off so no chit-chat…
I was still scarred from my initial Bangkok taxi experience… but the good news is that they seem to know where they are going these days. Most seem to even speak a bit of English – so feel free to drive a harder bargain. And save your cash to buy local artisan crafts… my suitcase looks like I am planning to open a silk boutique 😉
Don’t let the taxi drivers ruin Thailand for you. Most people are delightfully gracious and Asia is always a source of the wondrous – and the bizarre… more on that to come… 😉