Thailand - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 239 (49)

Train to Chumphon

Tuesday 2nd November

We’ve had both good experience and bad on the road so far. For the most part, it’s all been very positive but there are times when wonder whether or not we would have been better off doing something other than what we ended up doing on a given day. Today was one such day and we had a thoroughly disappointing time this morning. Even though we are constantly vigilant about avoiding tourist traps and package tours aimed at short-term tourists, we were sucked into just such a situation today with little control over the outcome.

The day started well enough with our getting up in time to finish the last bit of packing we needed to do before checking out of the hotel and putting our bags into storage for the remainder of the day - so far, so good. We meandered over to the hotel where we had booked today’s excursion to go and see the famed and much hyped floating markets. We’ve been told that it’s not really practical or cost effective to make our own way to the floating markets since it is quite a drive out of town and we only paid 130B (€2,50) each anyway so it seemed harmless enough. Ha! Our minibus arrived shortly after the planned departure time but it spent the next half an hour or so driving around the block a few times looking for the remaining passenger from other hotels that were going to be in our group. This wasn’t a good start to the day and I was already starting to get a little irritated at the delay. We’re not quite sure why it was necessary to make such an early start to the tour but I imagined it might have something to do with the markets only being open for so long and perhaps that they were best experienced early in the morning, much like any other food market. Already I was starting to wonder whether we might be missing the boat, so to speak, with such a late departure.

Whilst waiting for our transportation to arrive, I sat at one of the Internet terminals for no more than a couple of minutes to check my mail but when I was finished, I was told there was a minimum ten-minute charge. The 10B (€0,20) I had to pay was an insignificant irrelevance but I have to say that I’m starting to find all the little tricks to try to extract as much money from us as possible just a little bit annoying. I’m hoping this is a local phenomenon that we will see less of when we move out of the touristy area of Bangkok.

The minibuses are quite comfortable and seat twelve people in total, including the driver. We were told that the minibus takes up to a maximum of ten people on a given tour. It became clear after we picked up the last remaining stragglers, however, that we were going to be a bit cramped for the two-hour ride with no less than thirteen people aboard. It was just our luck to be on the one row of seats into which the additional passengers were squeezed. Everyone else in the minibus was comfortably seated with just one person to a seat. Our guide (we weren’t expecting to have one) was extremely polite and mild mannered and kept telling us that it was for just a couple of minutes. This turned out to be about twenty squashed minutes until we stopped at a petrol station and unloaded a couple of passengers into a different minibus. We drove another half hour after that until we stopped again for what was described as a toilet break. Indeed, there were toilets there but there were also quite a few market stalls selling the same, cheap, rubbish that most of the market stalls in the Khao San Road were also selling. There were quite a few package tourist groups here and I really couldn’t describe the place as anything other than a huge tourist trap. I suppose if you are a package tourist visiting here for just a few days or more, then you might not get the opportunity to explore the country at leisure and places like this may very well be your only opportunity to buy souvenirs. Even so, the rubbish that was being sold here at hugely inflated prices was barely representative of the Thai culture. I saw very few people actually buying anything and yet again I had to wonder what the logic is of pricing things so ridiculously high that barely few sales are actually made – particularly when the asking prices are so out of whack with everywhere else to begin with. We were at the tourist trap for about twenty minutes before making the final one-hour push to the floating markets. I could see now why it was more convenient to just get onto one of these daily departing tourist busses, as getting here on our own steam seemed like it might be quite the challenge.

When we were dropped off, it became immediately clear that the next step was to join a couple of long queues that had already formed by several dozen previously arrived minibuses. Groups of about five or six people at a time were boarding a steady stream of arriving long boats, which sped off as soon as the boarding process was complete. There was just about enough room in these unstable looking vessels for people to sit in single file down its entire length. They were quite narrow but had huge engines on the back end, to which a long rod extended a long way back and down into the water. Propellers mounted on the end of these long rods were spun with such a force that the boats reached breakneck speeds as we moved along the canals, presumably towards the floating markets. All that we could see on either side of the choppy canals at this point were rickety homes and other buildings constructed upon cement foundations just a few centimetres above the level of the water. Clotheslines with washing hanging on them and other household paraphernalia made for an interesting glimpse into the lives of the people that live here. At the other end of our little boat ride, we met the very same guide that we had just said goodbye to when we got on the speedboats a couple of minutes previously. This made me wonder just what the point was of taking the speedboat ride to begin with.

We disembarked the speedboats at what presumably was the entrance to the floating markets and indeed there were boats laden with fruits and other foods that were being paddled by old women along the canals. The market was part on water and part on land and we were told that we could walk around or for just 100B (€1,90) each, we could be paddled around the canals in a narrow boat for half an hour. We were then all ‘guided’ towards the ticket desk to buy our seat in a boat. It was at this point that our day started to go a bit pear-shaped. We saw that there were several boats moving up and down the canal that were packed with tourist jammed in quite densely. We didn’t want to sit in a crammed boat for half an hour, as this would not only be very uncomfortable but it would also mean that we would have to stop each time one of the boat occupants wanted to look at a particular market stall and we wouldn’t really be able to move around as we pleased. I told our guide that we would wait until we could get into a boat by ourselves but he then told us that we would have to pay 600B (€11,50) for the privilege. This seemed like an outrageous sum (about the cost of a night’s accommodation) simply to be paddled around for a few minutes so I told him that this wasn’t acceptable. We saw other people in their own boats and none of the travellers we’ve previously spoken with have mentioned having to pay such an outrageous sum for the privilege of sitting in a boat for just a few minutes. Our guide was quite adamant, however, that it was either 600B (€11,50) or not at all. I tried to haggle with him but we’ve now come to expect very little advantage to be gained in doing so with anyone here in Thailand connected with the tourist trade and we weren’t really getting anywhere other than very frustrated with each other. All of this was a bit much for Sandy who was still very tired and groggy from the lingering effect from her illness. Seeing the opportunity of a relaxing day at the floating markets slipping away right in front of her, she broke down and directly her frustration at me for not using the correct technique to try to achieve our aim. Not only did we end up not getting onto a boat, but we also ended up quite cross with each other and both had to separate for a few minutes to cool down. A brief yell at each other followed by a storming off tends to be our way of letting off steam and is usually a release valve that blows quite unexpectedly after a rapid series of deteriorating events such as today’s. It’s the second time this valve has blown since we started travelling and is evidence of just how stressful this business of travelling can sometimes be.

After the cooling down period, we found each other again and made up. Shortly thereafter, we found another boat operator and asked him about getting our own boat. His very first asking price was just 300B (€5,75). We probably could have bargained him down a bit further still but I was so relieved to not have to fight with the man about getting a boat just for the two of us to begin with, I agreed straight away, handed over the notes and we got in. I didn’t voice it at the time but I felt that the fact that it was this easy to get a boat all to ourselves for this price had justified my earlier insistence to not want to capitulate to the previous boat operator that our guide pointed us towards in the first place. It seemed clear that all the first timers were being herded towards the most expensive boats upon arrival by the guides whom, I have no doubt, would be earning quite a nice little kick-back for each tourist that handed over the readies like the good little member of the herd that they are supposed to be. It is exactly this sort of tourist trapping that I detest so very much that is the reason why we are loath to participate in any sort of guided activity to begin with. It isn’t so much the costs involved, as it is the principal of being unnecessarily ripped off or constantly taken advantage of. At the end of the day, I hate the fact that we are looked upon as moneymaking opportunities at every turn. Our guide was all smiles in the minibus and wanted to be everybody’s friend but at the end of the day, he was just another blood sucking parasite looking to squeeze as much out of this fresh batch of tourists as he possibly could. I have absolutely no tolerance for this whatsoever. I wanted to make this very clear to him but having upset Sandy once already, I decided to let it go. I really shouldn’t let this sort of thing get to me but it does make my blood boil – alas, a failing or mine.

To add insult to injury, the entire floating market itself was nothing but a huge fake. With the exception of a dozen or more boats selling some exotic fruits and things, the vast majority of the boats were aimed fairly and squarely at tourists. Even most of the fruit boats were manned by women slicing up small chunks of fruit to be sold to the tourists at high prices. I would guess that they would make enough money selling a quarter of a melon to buy perhaps ten melons with at local prices. Also, the vast majority of what was being sold at the market wasn’t even on the boats to begin with. Market stalls were set up on either side of the canals past which the boats with tourists were being paddled. They were nearly all selling the exact same, cheap and tacky crap as each other and this was no different to the market stalls up and down the Khao San Road. These stall owners would beckon over the boats as they passed by and repeated the same tired sales pitch to each and every tourist that passed. Some even extended a stick with a hook on the end of it to drag our boat in as we passed. I saw almost no locals whatsoever buying anything from this market and it was clear that its sole purpose was to serve as a charade for the tourists that are paraded through here every day. All in all, the whole experience was a complete and utter waste of time. The only positive was that it didn’t cost us that much to get there and back to begin with.

We were amongst the first to return to where the speedboats had dropped us off and to my astonishment, our minibus was there too. Again, I wondered just what the point of the speedboat ride was when we could have been dropped off right here at the market itself to begin with. Without wanting to waste any more time thinking about it, we got into the minibus and spent the next couple of hours driving back to Bangkok in silent reflection, just like everybody else.

The minibus dropped us off half way down the Khao San Road and we were pleased to see the back of it pull away. We collected our nicely laundered and folded washing and left it in the hotel storage room along with the rest of our stuff. With nothing else left to do before our evening train down to the South of the country, we headed on up to the rooftop pool for some basking in the sun.

We sat and did pretty much nothing for the next few hours and I felt that this was the most productive time we spent all day. The water was warm and relaxing and the sun was beating down with a fury. I’m very much looking forward to a lot more of this laying in the sun and doing nothing business. I think we’ve deserved some of this what with all the constant moving around we’ve done over the past couple of months. Once again, several other travellers came and went during the afternoon and, once again, we collected yet more juicy titbits of invaluable information on the region. One thing in particular that piqued my interest immediately was the fact that we can fly from Bangkok to Siem Reap (where the temples of Angkor Wat are – our prime reason for visiting South East Asia to begin with) for as little as 1,300B (€25) each. We tend to favour faster and more comfortable means of transportation where possible and if this morsel of information turns out to have any truth to it, this is certainly something that we will seriously consider. By all accounts, getting from Thailand to Cambodia is not a problem but from the border to Siem Reap involves traversing a notoriously decrepit section of loosely conjoined potholes that they laughingly call a road. It takes many hours of very slow and very painful navigation to make it through this treacherous stretch of road and it’s thus far been something that we’ve simply considered a necessary evil and the cost of wanting to see Angkor Wat. A direct flight at such a good price suddenly seems like the Holy Grail so I shall investigate this in more detail the first opportunity I get.

We had to dry off a bit before leaving the pool area and this involved the stressful business of laying in the sun for an hour or two, with the added burden of rolling over every now and then. It was tough work but we finally managed to rid ourselves of all the moisture we collected from the warm swimming pool and slowly made our way downstairs. We popped into a nearby supermarket to procure some provisions for our train journey this evening before collecting our bags and finding a taxi that was willing to operate the meter. I wasn’t much in the mood for haggling with a Thai taxi and we were fortunate enough to find that the second taxi we stopped was happy to use the meter and took us quickly to the station for just 67B (€1,30) on the clock. He was quite a nice guy and gave us quite an insight into the mafia run Khao San Road activities. Apparently the underground mafia tightly controls everything that goes on down that road, from the taxis to the rickshaw drivers to the market stalls. No wonder everything there is so expensive with no free market forces in effect. Our driver was s nice, that I dispensed my very first tip here in Thailand. We’re not actually sure about whether tipping is the norm here and haven’t really done so as yet. Our driver was glad to receive 80B (€1,55) for the fare, though.

Our train was already standing on the platform when we arrived and we found our carriage without any problems. In fact, it was the very first carriage in the train and was just a few yards from the entrance gate. As we were walking onto the platform, I suddenly became aware that nobody was moving. They were all just standing still. There was some music playing over the loud speakers and it suddenly dawned on me this was the national anthem and everybody was standing still out of respect. Sandy even saw some people standing by the side of the road saluting. The penny didn’t really drop until it was all over with and I wondered after the fact whether we had offended anyone by continuing to walk as we did.

We didn’t spend too much time in the station since our train was already there waiting for us but the place did somewhat have the feel of an India train station to it, albeit without dirt and muck and people laying sleeping all over the place. We are travelling this evening in a second-class, air-conditioned sleeper carriage. We both have bottom bunks in the open plan carriage and have locked all our bags to the carriage infrastructure as a result. It’s largely empty with the majority of people travelling being foreign tourists, although there are some Thais here also. The beds are very much softer and more comfortable that those in India and even China. The bunks are quite spacious and we each have a curtain to encapsulate ourselves from the rest of the carriage occupants. Other than the fact that we will arrive at the unearthly hour of four in the morning, it should prove to be a very comfortable trip. I will dream of diving and sandy beaches that are just waiting to be laid upon. Ah, what a stressful life we live.