Bangkok

A Tale of Two Bus Rides

I have two night bus border crossing stories for you: first crossing from Bangkok, Thailand to Vientiane, Laos; and second from Luang Prabang, Laos to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Both started out seemingly straightforward but turned out to have unpredicted waits and unforetold transfers. It’s because of these experiences that I ended up buying a flight from Chiang Mai to Mandalay. I think I’m done with land crossing for the time being.

Bangkok to Vientiane
I got a bus ticket direct from Bangkok to Vientiane, including transfer from my hostel to the bus station, from a hostel-recommended travel agency near Khao San Road. It sounded nice and easy. It was not.

I was picked up at my hostel at 4:30 like they promised, but oddly in a taxi which was too small to fit all of us for the hour drive to the bus station. Once we got to the “station” we were told to wait on a patch of grass where a group of Westerners had already been deposited. People were going to Phuket, Phi Phi, Chiang Mai, but I was the lone Laos traveler. After about 15 minutes our driver came back and called out “Vientiane!” I had to fill in a flimsy ticket and he gathered me and the Chiang Mai group and pointed in the direction of a building. It just had a bunch of minivans outside and we all knew we were getting on big VIP buses so we went right to the main station. We heard someone yelling something but didn’t knew what it was or who it was directed towards – we were all used to ignoring random yelling around us at this point – so we just kept going. The Chiang Mai people found their gate and I found where mine would be if there was a gate 99; it ended at 98 but there was a random bus along the sidewalk near it that could have been 99. Still, I asked someone, and they told me it would leave from 86 instead. I found that one and sat down to wait. I had 2 hours to kill.

About 45 minutes before my bus was supposed to leave 86 was still empty. I got up to ask some people again. Long story short, I found out I was at the wrong bus station. This is the South Station, no buses go north from here. I’m sorry, WHAT?! I found the Chiang Mai group and they were just as pissed as me to learn that we were at the wrong place. We all ran to the ticket booths to try to change our buses since we were clearly not going to make it to the North Station in time. We finally made the decision to split a taxi to the North Station when we ran into our original driver. He was just as surprised to see us as we were to see him. He ran with us to a minibus and promised to take us straight to the North Station and get us new tickets at no extra cost. At this point we’d figured out that we were supposed to get on one of those minibuses we ignored and it would have taken us to the North Station. That would have been helpful to communicate to us.

The Chiang Mai group got on the next overnight bus no problem, but Vientiane was no longer a simple option for me; I had to get a new ticket to Nong Khai, the border town on the Thailand side. The driver gave me 100 baht in cash to cover the border crossing expenses. Then he made sure we all knew exactly where to go so we would get on the right buses this time. It was after 9 by the time I was finally on the bus.

I was woken up at 8 am in Nong Khai. A Frenchman approached me – Westerners stick together – and we shared a tuktuk to the border. Leaving Thailand was simple enough – the tuktuk dropped us at the immigration building, quick line for the exit stamp, then a bus over the bridge to the next border station – but crossing into Laos took forever thanks to the visa upon entry process. I chatted with a Lithuanian girl on a border run from Southern Thailand while we waited and once we were finally through we split a cab with an Israeli duo into Vientiane. Just a few extra steps thanks to the Bangkok miscommunication. I arrived in Vientiane at 11 am.

Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai
Every travel office in Luang Prabang advertised a bus from LP to Chiang Mai. Pick up from guesthouse included, big bus, some even promised it had a bathroom. So imagine the shock of all 22 travelers when we were led to a minibus for the 12 hour overnight ride to the border. What happened to that big bus with reclining seats? We were packed in like sardines to the 1-by-2 straight-backed seats, with one unlucky passenger stuck in a fold down center aisle seat. To make it even cozier our bags were placed in the small aisle. At least they served as pillows for some people. We looked at each other in minor disbelief at the complete unsafety of our transportation and the fact that we would be stuck this way all night.

IMG_5083

I took a melatonin to try to sleep but the extremely bumpy roads and constant inhalation of dust (I was right behind the driver so I got to breathe in all the dust that was being kicked up through the vents) made it tough. Eventually I curled up into a ball with my feet on a backpack and at least time passed faster.

We arrived at the border at 6 am. It didn’t open till 7:30. We were told to sleep in the minibus so that’s what we did until about 8, when we found out we were waiting for another bus to take us through the border. It arrived at 9. You can imagine how unhappy we all were that we just spent 3 hours in a parking lot. Now we finally got on the big VIP bus that took us to the Laos border for exit stamps and over the bridge to the Thai border for entry stamps. That was the extent of our VIP bus ride.

We were loaded back into minibuses for the ride from the border to Chiang Mai. Someone guessed it was about 6 hours and we’d arrive around 3. No one could have predicted our driver would stop every hour for seemingly no reason, and that he’d take us actually into Chiang Rai for a lunch stop that no one really wanted. We didn’t arrive in Chiang Mai until 5 pm. I had been picked up at my guesthouse in Luang Prabang at 4:30 pm the day before. Over 24 hours on minibuses to get to Chiang Mai.

So there you have it. The hell of land crossing between Thailand and Laos. A quick side note: both of these night buses gave us snacks and blankets. An odd perk in two stressful journeys. The only silver lining I can find is that border crossings like this really bring people together. I am still in touch with Eugenija from Lithuania, and ended up running into the Israeli guys in both Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, where we happily greeted each other like old friends. I also ran into two guys from the Chiang Mai bus at a temple the next day and proceeded to hang out with them the rest of my time in Chiang Mai. Nothing like trying travel experiences to bond strangers.

Advertisements

The Two Cultural Activities I Did in Bangkok

I may not have seen all that Bangkok has to offer tourists but the two things I did see I can definitely recommend.

First, the weekend market.

If you’re ever lucky enough to be in town on a weekend, go check out this massive market. We went on a Sunday expecting the usual market packed with touristy trinkets and knock-off electronics. We were stunned to see small stalls selling awesome clothes, shoes, accessories, and jewelry that were not only nice but reasonably priced. These cool items would’ve been a lot more expensive in the states. I wanted to buy so many things, especially a sick wolf ring that I am still kicking myself for not getting. Ben and Alex gave in to temptation by purchasing a few hilariously fantastic animal shirts. We did eventually wander our way into the more expected, less hipster side of the market and the cheap Thai food area. Pad Thai and a Thai iced tea please and thank you.

The only warning I would give about the weekend market (other than the fact that you’ll want to spend all your money) is that it is a serious trek to get out there. We managed to haggle down a tuktuk to 150 baht (50 pp) to go from Khao San Road, but getting back had to settle for 200. I’m not surprised they wanted more. We must have driven half an hour to get there, to the point where it felt like we weren’t even in Bangkok proper anymore and were worried the driver would take us down an alleyway and rob us. It didn’t help we had the shoddiest tuktuk and a burly driver. We made it safe and sound though.

Second, Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace.

This is the number 1 recommended thing to do in Bangkok, and rightfully so. The complex is culturally and architecturally stunning. It is also not cheap at 500 baht, and one of those moments I had to tell myself “in the States US$15 for something like this is a bargain.”

Wat Phra Kaew, aka the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, is an Asian art history student’s dream. The Three Spires are ornate pieces of architecture done in different styles: a seven-tiered Thai roof, a Khmer-style stepped roof, and a gilded stupa. These are accompanied by a huge model of Angkor Wat. Then there’s the boht, or Ordination Hall, that holds the Emerald Buddha, who is actually made out of jade. The hall again is incredibly decorated, including the most impressive interior I’ve ever seen in a temple, from the wall murals to the collection of statues topped by the tiny green Buddha in his seasonal gold dress. Pictures were not allowed inside, but if you look closely at my shot of the entrance you can see him glowing. I sat there for a long time trying to memorize what it looked like. I was impressed. There are many other important pieces around the Wat that grabbed my attention, such as the yakshis (mythical giants standing guard by the entry), the buildings decorated with porcelain, and the mural of the Ramayana on the wall that surrounds the compound. The whole thing is beautiful and deserves a slow wander.

The second part of this attraction is the Grand Palace. The main building here, the Chakri Mahaprasat (Grand Palace Hall), is an interesting mixture of architecture: Western on the bottom, Eastern on the top. That’s about as interesting as it gets though; tourists can’t go inside, with the exception of a small ground floor weapons museum that was missable.

I took my time walking around the complex, completing my exploration in about 2 hours. This was partly because I had time to kill before my bus later that afternoon and partly because it was so damn hot and I was hungover. So the only warning I would give about the Grand Palace is to not go hungover. It’s sweltering in there and filled with tour groups. People constantly stopped in front of the large fans just to feel some moving air. If you have a big night out (or few), do yourself a favor and save it for the next day. But still make sure you go at some point. It’s a gorgeous complex.

I Spent Most of my Time in Bangkok in Ferrider Tattoo Parlor

Bangkok. This metropolis of Thailand has polarized travelers: some love it, most hate it, everyone has to go through it. I’d gone through Bangkok twice already without actually seeing the city, so the three days I spent there at the end of January were finally my chance to experience this supposedly insane place.

I spent 90% of those days on Khao San Road. It’s not that I didn’t think it was worth it to explore more of the city, and I did get out twice to do some sightseeing activities, it’s just that my time in Bangkok was focused more on the people than the place.

Alex, Ben and I were reunited. The three musketeers from Siem Reap couldn’t bear to be apart so the day I left we devised a plan to meet up in Bangkok. I arrived hours before the others and anxiously waited in the hostel common space for their arrival. Alex was first, with a new haircut and a lost voice it took a second to register who this tall guy standing in front of me was, but once it clicked a jumping swinging hug was all that seemed appropriate. Then we had to wait hours and hours for Ben’s midnight flight to arrive and once he finally walked through those doors we triple hugged in pure excitement.

We had picked a hostel near Khao San Road so we would have close access to the bar scene and quickly learned that we didn’t need much beyond this road. Since the whole point was to just hang out together we weren’t too fussed to go far, plus we had one mission that had to be accomplished: tattoos.

Somewhere along the way in our group chat it was mentioned that we should get tattoos in Bangkok. Alex wanted his first, Ben wanted another, and I was into getting one, but then got one in Khao Lak so I ended up not participating in this round. We searched around Khao San for a bit and found an awesome shop, Ferrider Tattoo.

The first stop at Ferrider was just to check it out, see if we liked the vibe, the art, the cleanliness, and it was all great. Alex had to go back later that night to check about the unique image he was going to get, so our second stop in was after dinner and a few beers. Alex and Ben set a time for the next day now that they both were set on this place and what they wanted to get, but since we were already there Ben decided to get a tattoo immediately.

Of our names. On his ass.

The way I understand it, at some point during Alex and Ben’s reunion in Sihanoukville this idea of getting our names tattooed on Ben’s butt came up. We each had a cheek and were allowed to pick an image or phrase to accompany our names. So when we arrived in Bangkok, Ben told me to pick what I wanted with my name. I got left cheek and picked the Facebook emoticon of Scooter Cat, a personal favorite, to ride forever underneath Kristen. On the right cheek he got ALEX TO THE MAX, a favorite saying from Siem Reap. Nothing says true friendship love like an ass tattoo. After it was done the Ferrider guys gave us a drink in celebration, and later that night Ben would show off this new tattoo in the bar to strangers who now have pictures of his ass.

We returned to Ferrider the next day for visit #3. Serious tattoo time. Ben and Alex both got tattooed at the same time while I hung out and went on a lunch run: McDonald’s and it was so damn good. We listened to music, the guys made a video, we had some Jack and coke while waiting for Alex’s 3 hour artwork to be done; it was a great time. At the end of the afternoon Ben had an awesome new piece on his arm – a bottle with a pirate ship and skull that says Sailor’s Grave, an image that he discovered on the wall of the shop that perfectly accompanies his Sailor Jerry style tattoo ambitions – and Alex’s Angkor Wat stone relief was beautifully replicated on his side. The guys told us to come back later that night for a drink and we’d all go out.

So after a celebratory Swensen’s ice cream stop (what an American food day, but we had to after the excitement of Swensen’s in Siem Reap) and some relaxing at home we went back to Ferrider for visit #4. After drinks in the shop we went to The Club (seriously that’s what it’s called) with our new friends for a bit before going to explore a different part of Bangkok nightlife. They’re great guys. If you ever want a tattoo in Bangkok I really recommend Ferrider.

So that’s how I ended up spending most of my time in a tattoo parlor in Bangkok. The relationship I have with Alex and Ben facilitated the lack of movement around Bangkok because really all we wanted to do was hang out. We could’ve been anywhere and it wouldn’t have mattered, these three days were about us reuniting. So we hung out at the hostel and had dinner and drinks on Khao San Road every night. Because when you know that this is it, after Bangkok everyone goes their separate ways that won’t overlap again without some serious effort (Europe motorcycle road trip 2019), all you want to do is spend time together while you can.

And when that time together involves a butt tattoo, even better.

Happy Thanksgiving from the Bangkok Airport

Thanksgiving. A holiday meant to be spent relaxing with family and food, I was spending it alone on a plane and in an airport.

I had booked my flight from Australia to Bangkok on November 27th not realizing what day it was. Maybe this is why flights were cheaper? But really it doesn’t matter if it’s Thanksgiving when you’re not in the US, no one else celebrates it anyway.

Except that I was reminded of this holiday by friends from home, talking about their long weekends and asking what I would be doing. The year I was in Peru for Thanksgiving our porters on the Inca Trail made us a cake and wrote “Happy Thanksgiving” on it. I would not have the same international Thanksgiving celebration this time.

Instead, I spent 9 hours on a plane. With no entertainment. I flew Jetstar, so the perks of international flights – food and movies – were missing. I had swapped my last book, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, for a lighter read in the hostel book exchange: Hunger Games 2, Catching Fire. I figured I deserved something easier after making it through Don Quixote and The Satanic Verses.

I started Hunger Games as we taxied away from the gate in Melbourne. I finished it somewhere over the ocean, with 2.5 hours left in my flight. I can’t remember a time I opened a book and didn’t put it down until I turned the last page. Now what? I watched the last 2 episodes of Season 2 of The Sopranos. We still had an hour left. Music and an attempt at a power nap got me through to landing.

I disembarked without much excitement, knowing that I was planning on sleeping in the Bangkok airport. I had a flight to Vietnam the next morning so getting out to a hostel for a quick restless sleep and then back to the airport didn’t sound worth it. What a way to spend a holiday.

But then I was walking through the airport surrounded by signs written in type that made no sense to me. Thai. And it hit me: I was in Thailand. I have never been to this part of the world and even though I wouldn’t see any of it tonight I still made it here. Finally! My spirits lifted a little.

I ended my Thanksgiving day writing blog posts while sipping on an Americano in the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf in the Bangkok Airport. My American tribute to Thanksgiving.

This is where I am now. I’m trying to get as many posts written as I can before I get to Vietnam tomorrow. Hopefully I’ll get most of Australia cued up to publish once a day while I’m enjoying this next location.

Because in Vietnam I know I won’t be writing much. I will be joined by familiar faces for the first time since Andy came to Colombia in August – this time, it’ll be family! My aunt, uncle and cousin are meeting me in Vietnam and I couldn’t be more excited. It’s a great way to start the third and final part of this journey: Asia.