a unique perspective on this crazy world

Posts tagged ‘thailand’

the bandits of bangkok…

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.

intrepid thailand!

intrepid thailand!

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!

the king and the skyscrapers...

the king and the skyscrapers…

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…

the random beauty of bangkok

the random beauty of bangkok

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… 😉

believing your own press…

Posts have been floating around in my head but it has been intense trying to catch up with my real life… goal is to post something daily… we shall see…

Last week there was an article in the Georgia Straight about Bruce Poon Tip.  Richard Branson was also here talking about himself 🙂

Bruce is not as famous as Richard but does seem to also have a large personality.  I met him once, way back in 1992, when he was at a travel show to promote his fledgling venture – the Great Adventure People.

I knew who he was because I had been to Thailand the year before on my very first foray into the developing world – an Intrepid Travel tour of Thailand.  I had been raised in the school of safe travel – stay at Best Westerns, only travel where they speak English, don’t walk the streets at night…  And then I started dating some guy who had grown up urban in Toronto, taking the subway to school on his own at a young age.  And we went to Montreal for the weekend.  And Mike made me stay in some simple bed and breakfast that he just picked at random.  Why weren’t we at a Best Western where we would be safe!?!  Because we had arrived by train, not car, and were students with almost no cash and no credit cards…

And it was great!  The lady didn’t speak English so it wasn’t a warm and fuzzy experience but it was totally fine and cost $10!  Mike changed my life is so many ways and that lodging choice was only one of them.

I became the kind of girl whose first trip to Europe went something like this… my needy Australian boyfriend who had gone off alone on his eight month tour of Europe because we had just met and I couldn’t afford to travel for eight months called and enticed me into coming to London for a week.  I did the math and the Wardair flight would cost next to nothing, we could stay with his friends in Earl’s Court sleeping on the sofa and we could eat in pubs for a few pounds… so I got my very first passport and arrived at Gatwick with a daypack… practicing packing light for the three month backpacking journey I would join him on a few months later.

Scott got me to backpack through Europe… when it came time to travel back to Canada from Oz, I turned the tables on him and said I wanted to do this “adventure tour” through Thailand.  Having scrambled through Europe on $50 a day carrying my own pack for several kilometres on a regular basis had turned me into the kind of girl who doesn’t do “group tours” 😉  But I knew Thailand was not Europe and a little caution might be in order… so the Intrepid tour sounded like the perfect compromise.  We would travel like a local and it would cost almost nothing but we would have someone who knew his way around in charge of the official details…


Scott was a weenie so he was totally freaked at my choice but I told him he had two choices – come with me or meet me in Vancouver once I got there two or three months later…  I’d begun to realize that I had dealt with all the hard stuff when we were travelling in Europe and he was an appendage rather than this boy protecting me from the world so I could conquer Asia without him 🙂

He came along – but by then I realized I was the protector and he was just tagging along…  I also learned that maybe you SHOULD pay for the airport transfer… although you will never get a story that way… The tour cost about $10-15 per day so an airport transfer at $30+ dollars seemed outrageous to me.  Having never been to the developing world, I surmised that we were arriving mid-day so I had tons of time with daylight to find the obscure guesthouse in Chinatown in Bangkok where the tour began.

I am obsessive about details so I had a map for the guesthouse, the name in both English and Thai script… what could go wrong?  Maybe the fact that the taxi driver was likely illiterate… and most tourists crazy enough to just rock up to the airport in Bangkok and organize their own taxi just wanted somewhere to sleep…

So we spent the next two hours driving around Bangkok with the taxi driver trying to drop us off at random guesthouses… me asking for someone who spoke English, trying to figure out how to get out of this infinite loop… and telling Scott to stay in the taxi!  Cause we had paid a flat fee at the airport so I could have the taxi drive us around for hours…

I kept showing the driver the map and the name of the guest house but it became obviously that this strategy was going nowhere and we somehow needed to find OUR guesthouse or we wouldn’t make it onto the tour.  All my preparation started to pay off.  I decided our guest house seemed pretty close to a railway station.  And I might be able to get the taxi driver to understand THAT destination.  And at least then we would know where we were!

It worked.  And luckily I had read copious amounts about Thailand before we arrived so spied in one of the shops a map of Bangkok that had been written in English by Americans and came recommended by my guidebook.  I checked it out… our guest house was on the map!  So I bought it.  And told Scott we were going to walk toward the Chao Phraya River with our backpacks cause it appeared our guest house was on the river so it should be easy to find.

Well… that was when I learned that if you wander the poorer parts of a developing city, the signs are not going to be in English!  And some languages are easier to translate if you are an English speaker… Thai, Arabic… not so much… I just went for counting the number of streets between the railway station and the river!  I was pretty sure we were on the right street but the numbers didn’t add up… we walked past the spot where the guest house should be using the street address.

What to do?  Channel my instincts growing up in the bush… There were a bunch of vehicles in a parking space at the location where the street address would suggest our guest house should be.  It looked like there might be a river if you squinted through the morass of vehicles blocking the view.  So I boldly told Scott, “I think we need to walk through the maze of trucks toward what I think is the river and I bet we will find the guest house where our tour starts.”  And Sherlock would have been proud 😉

If I hadn’t managed to find the starting point for the tour, I would have never known about Bruce.  His name came up when we got to the Golden Triangle and we were so close to Burma (Myanmar by then) you could walk across the bridge on foot and add another country to your list.  Diane (our tour leader) appreciated how enticing it looked so she told us the cautionary tale of Bruce…

Apparently on a past trip she had a traveller named Bruce who because of his mixed ethnicity looked Thai.  Thais could cross into Burma without a problem but not the same for the rest of us.  Bruce was a bit of a brat so he snuck off when Diane wasn’t looking.  What Bruce hadn’t appreciated is that anyone will be welcomed into Burma with open arms.  He thought he was really clever.

But then he tried to leave!  That was another matter entirely, involving cash, camera equipment, bribes, etc.  Diane rescued him.  But she told us that was the extent of her largess.  We knew the score.  So if WE decided to sneak into Burma, we would have to orchestrate our own escape.  The cautionary tale of Bruce worked.  We just took pictures of the border sign.

But that is why when I read the re-branded G Adventures marketing stuff about Bruce I roll my eyes a little bit.  It does seem like Bruce is a pretty cool guy and I will likely take one of his tours at some point – but the idea that HE invented this form of travel… seriously, dude, Diane rescued your ass from rotting in prison in Burma and the concept of low key, hang out with the locals travel was pioneered by Intrepid, not by you, honey.  But you seem to be the more alpha male, beating your chest about how cool you are while the Intrepid guys are just doing their thing.  Me, I am a fan of the beta male… there is a lot to be said for self-deprecation 🙂  Richard – I really think you should turn in your passport.  You must be an American with all that self-promotion 😉

38 countries and counting…

I recently met someone barely into his twenties who I thought seemed really well traveled but he proclaimed, “I have only been to 10 countries!” I have never done a count but this inspired me so I decided to count… 38 I think… with at least another 2 new ones already in the 2012 plan… Have decided I need to see 60 before I turn 60 as apparently I am a bit behind!

As the posts progress, there will be lots about travel and other cultures. I realize for some that will not be part of their life agenda but if you have any interest, DO IT as Nike would say. My mother always wanted to go places and inspired my love of travel and other cultures at a young age.

There wasn’t a lot of opportunity for travel in my youth… but my mom and I would write to the local chambers of commerce for information and plot out the driving strategy on a map laid out on the living room floor. Maybe it was just South Dakota and the badlands… but it could involve unplanned encounters with biker festivals and sarsaparilla. Or one of my fondest childhood memories, when my Monty-Python-esque mother told a scared six year old, “yeah, those shadows on the hills are attacking Apaches ready to take our scalps”… they were just trees – but it meant my childhood was never boring 🙂

And I developed a slightly wacked sense of humour that has helped me survive all the bad moments in life. The sun may no longer set on the British Empire but having someone with a British sense of humour by your side during a tragedy can be very helpful. I always say, “if things get really bad, I just start cracking bad jokes and laughing.”

Not all of the travels to the 38 countries reached that level of excitement – but there have been a lot of incredible memories that will be described in more detail as this discourse continues… the story about riding a runaway elephant near the Cambodian border when the Khmer Rouge were still roaming around is over 20 years old but still entertains…

Tag Cloud