Thailand - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 235 (45)

Bangkok

Friday 29th October

Sandy’s alarm went off at around seven in the morning and we were out the door shortly before eight. We went straight to the bus stop and stepped almost immediately onto the airport express double-decker. We had to pay the HK$33 ($4,50) each using exact change and I only had a HK$100 ($13,50) note with me but the next passenger was good enough to pay his fare directly to me and the driver put my note into the money box for the three of us. The ride to the airport lasted all of an hour and was quite comfortable considering it was a double-decker.

On the way, sandy revealed that she had lied to me about the time she set the alarm for and we actually arrived at the airport at around eight o’clock instead of the planned nine o’clock. I was good and ready to berate her for denying us both the opportunity of another hour in bed until we checked in and realised that the flight was going to be departing two hours earlier than we had thought it would. Had we got up any later, we would certainly have missed the flight and as it was, we would only just make it if we rushed through the terminal to the far reached of the building where our departure gate was located. Missing this flight would actually have been quite a major disaster not only for this leg of the trip but also for each and every successive leg. By failing to make a given flight on the round-the-world string of air tickets, the airlines would have automatically cancelled all the confirmed flights left on the ticket. Even though we rushed through the security checks and sped our way through the terminal building to our gate, however, we managed to get there with a little time to spare. The boarding call had not even been sounded yet and we had to stand in line for a good ten minutes before it came. The flight was uneventful and I used most of the two and a half hours in the air to finish writing up yesterday’s log.

Bangkok’s International airport is much like any other. Not quite as new and modern as Chek Lap but orderly and efficient nevertheless. On the way to collect our luggage, I saw a ‘Visas on arrival’ notice with a huge sign depicting the 1000B ($24,50) cost of the visa. I was sure that I had read somewhere previously that we wouldn’t need visas with our European passports and had to double check this was the case. We only had the few hundred baht with us that we bought from the Kiwis in Chengdu and I didn’t much fancy the poor exchange rate at the one and only change window we passed. Fortunately, I was right all along and we passed through immigration without a hitch. We collected our luggage similarly with no fuss and made our way through to the main arrivals lobby, where upon we were immediately besieged by numerous uniformed ‘tourist assistants’ all too willing and eager to sell us a very expensive taxi ride to all the most expensive hotels in Bangkok. We’re now clued into the fact that every major airport has a cheap shuttle bus into town and it didn’t take us long to find the one here. They were charging 700B ($17) for the taxis but the bus was no less comfortable at just 100B ($2,45) each.

Nearly all of the twenty or so passengers in the bus were backpackers just like us and we listened as best we could to some of them that were telling of their trials and tribulations in the region. Other backpackers are usually the very best source of local information. Travel agents and other locals can often have an ulterior motive when passing on information but backpackers tend to be both candid and frank about their experiences, both good and bad.

The bus delivered us through the rush-hour traffic to the famous Khao San Road that I’ve heard so much of. Pretty much every backpacker that passes through South East Asia and Thailand ends up here sooner or later and indeed it is teething with backpackers and travellers from all walks of life. There’s probably a higher concentration of Western backpackers along this two hundred metre stretch of road than anywhere else on the planet. It’s only about fifteen or twenty meters wide but is densely packed with people and just about every single building on both sides of the road, houses something that caters to the backpacking community. There is a very high density of hotels, bars and massage parlours and there are hundreds of densely packed market stalls up and down the road where the weary backpacker can by CDs, T-shirts, backpacks, and a whole range of tacky trinkets of various descriptions. The Khao San Road is also the place to go to get fake ID cards such as student cards, education certificates, driving licenses and a whole range of others besides. There must be a dozen or more of these little outlets up and down the street and absolutely no attempt is made to hide the fact that they are selling fake cards. Every few meters or so on either side of the road there are curbside food stalls where you can pick and choose from the various ingredients and it will be cooked for you right there on the spot. Many of them look extremely tempting and they certainly do a very brisk trade. Hawkers call out at you as you pass by but they aren’t really that persistent and it isn’t anything like the degree of pestering you get in, say, India. All in all, the atmosphere is very laid back and relaxed. People either love or hate the Khao San Road and all that it stands for. On the one hand, it is just as fake as the student ID cards that they sell here and there can be little doubt that the place is practically devoid of any true culture. It certainly isn’t reflective of Thailand of the region at large by any stretch of the imagination. On the other hand, however, the high concentration of backpackers and the resulting supporting infrastructure makes this the best place to come to find out from others what it’s like in and around South East Asia. Tours are organised here and pretty much any information you need on Thailand and its neighbouring countries can be readily found here too. Experienced travellers in South East Asia might consider the Khao San Road a necessary evil but for first time visitors such as ourselves, it is a great starting point where we can relax and find our footings in a friendly and welcoming atmosphere.

We got off the bus and wandered into the Khao San Road. We went straight for the one hotel that the kiwis in Chengdu had suggested and asked about their rates. Most of the hotels here have the rates clearly posted on a sign on the reception desk and we were specifically looking for a room with air-conditioning. We travelled a long way South to find the good weather and it is well over thirty degrees Celsius here and quite humid to boot, so a room with air-conditioning is something that we won’t mind paying extra for. They did have a room with an A/C unit but the bed was very hard and it was a little pricey at 600B ($15), comparatively speaking. We decided to look around a bit further to get a better feel for the place before committing ourselves to the first place we saw and left our luggage in the luggage room whilst we set off to explore some of the other hotels some more. We spent the better part of the next hour wandering into the various other hotels up and down the road and we did see a few other possibilities. Even though there were endless hotels to choose from, the problem was finding one that had air-conditioning, an ensuite bathroom and, in cases where there was no lift, had an available room close to the ground floor but not too close to the thumping noise of one of the many bars pumping out loud music.

We ultimately decided to try to see if we could shave a bit off the rate offered by the first place we tried but the haggling was hard going. I kept up the pressure as best I could but I think we probably over did it, as the hotel supervisor suddenly lost patience with us and refused to take us on as guests at all. What started out as a simple round of haggling deteriorated into the supervisor and us getting quite irate with each other and we ended up grabbing our luggage and just leaving altogether. Plenty more fish in the sea here, however, and so we went back to one of our other choices just a few yards farther. We were soon set up in a very nice room with A/C, an ensuite bathroom and no problems with noise. It was a little more pricey at 650B ($15,85) but acceptable for our first night. The staff here are all women, full of smiles and very friendly and there may yet be a cheaper room for us from tomorrow but whether we will bother to change or not remains to be seen.

We showered and went back out into the Khao San Road to soak up the atmosphere now that our first night’s accommodation was all sorted and we were more relaxed. We wandered aimlessly through all the market stalls and did our best to survey the area. I tried my luck at haggling for some fresh melon slices but it’s starting to look like haggling is not really the done thing here, although this might be more a specifically Khao San Road oddity rather that a reflection of Thailand as a whole. We’ll just have to figure this out as we go.

We stopped in at one of the many travel booths and asked about the various day trip tours that are arranged from here in Bangkok. The friendly guy behind his desk was nice enough and presented us with several options for half day and full day tours and we will ponder these over the next couple of days. I was really after some information on diving but the only prices he could give me were from some extremely expensive diver operators that were seemingly charging through the nose. We left with at least a bit of information to compare against at the next travel booth.

We were well into the afternoon by now and we decided to get a quick bite to eat. We were looking for something instantly gratifying and neither of us were ready to dive head on into Thai food just yet. We will save that for tomorrow. We found a place just outside of the Khao San Road and enjoyed a small meal. Sandy spotted a dive operator in a nearby shop and we decided to take a closer look. This time there was plenty of information about the diving possibilities in Thailand and we spoke at length with a chap from Kent in England about what we could do and where we could go. He seemed like a trustworthy character and we went over all our options in quite some detail. Before we left the shop, we had arranged our trip by overnight train and then boat out to one of the better islands for diving on the South East coast, a refresher course for the two of us whilst there, two days' worth of diving also on that island and a three day live-aboard over on the South West coast too. All the travelling around is quite cheap but we spent probably a bit more than I had originally planned for diving in Thailand at around $980 for the entire package. The live-aboard was responsible for the lion’s share of that but it’s something we’ve always wanted to do and I’m sure we will have a fantastic time on the boat. I’m not that concerned about going slightly over budget on the diving as it’s already starting to look like Thailand and South East Asia in general will be quite a bit cheaper than were both India and China. Another quick trip to the ATM was necessary to pay for the deposit and some of the travel arrangements and we will pay the remainder for the live-aboard when we get there. Apparently there is a 5% discount for paying the remainder in cash but we may have to wait until next week before the ATM will be that kind to us again. If necessary, I still have a load of traveller’s checks and some other hard currency with which we can make the final payment. At least we now have much of the next couple of weeks mapped out so we can relax a bit already.

After dropping off some of the paperwork that we had accumulated at the dive shop back at the hotel, we went back out onto the Khao San Road to find a nice massage parlour and a relaxing back run for the two of us. It took us all of a minute or two to find one we liked the look of and we signed up for a Swedish oil massage for myself and a herbal massage for Sandy. It was an hour of absolute bliss and probably the very best massage that I’ve had ever. I can see a couple of additional trips back there in my not too distant future.

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