Bangkok, Thailand

By Dave • March 20th, 2008

_MG_2623Bangkok is one of those places that you need to spend a long time in to give a real judgment on. Unfortunately, we were only there for 48 hours; enough, we thought, for us to buy bus tickets and move on. Everyone we’d spoken to had said that Bangkok was barely worth the effort. We’ve got a lot of world to cover, so we paid attention and gave it a miss.

It still managed, in its own way, to be disturbing. The sex stories of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia are the stuff of legend, prostitutes and trans-gender entertainment being the thin end of a thick, and at times, horrifying wedge. The jokes about Thai brides are also as old as the hills.

So it came as a huge and frank shock to discover that many of the stories were true. The worst are the Thai brides. Every now and then we’d see an old white man with a paunch wandering around with an incongruously young, implausibly beautiful Thai woman on his arm. I’m not suggesting for a second that every single one of them was a business arrangement, but none of them?

The second big realisation came when a pair of enormous, heavily made-up women came and stood behind us while we waited for a boat to take us up the river (so to speak). Giant hands, hairy arms, Adam’s apples. We’d found our first Thai ladyboys.

_MG_2568Perhaps Bangkok really is as sordid as they say. Still, we had only come to collect our Vietnamese visas and get out. Sorting the visas out was as simple as finding the embassy on the map, getting horribly, hopelessly lost for half an hour in the hundred degree (35 degrees or more for those fluent in centigrade) heat, and then paying an astonishing amount of money for a thin piece of paper to be glued into our passports.

The second job was the bus tickets. We had learnt two things in Xian. Firstly, never assume that buying tickets, even from the station you intend to leave from, is going to be easy. Secondly, buy your tickets on the day you arrive, not the day you need it.

I packaged Mendy back to the hotel for some sleep and internet (Big John’s in Bangkok was the third hostel in a row to sport wireless internet access).

I made for the Skytrain.

I imagined Bangkok to be a kind of giant Ulan Batar. Millions of shouting people and a lot of dust. As it is, Bangkok is really a kind of slightly less beautiful Hong Kong. It has a superb transport system, the Skytrain being an excellent, 25-foot high example. It runs until midnight every day, costs between 25 and 40 baht (between about 50p and 70p) to use, and is air-conditioned and clean.

Things were looking up, I decided. This was going to be easy. I would take the Skytrain to Mo Chit, at the end of the line, and from there it was as simple as following the map for a few hundred yards to the bus station. Then I would say “Chiang Mai” as loudly and as clearly as I could to anyone in a uniform until someone sold me a few tickets.

Simple.

_MG_2558I arrived at Mo Chit in under 45 minutes. Pleased, I climbed down the stairs and had a quick glance at the map. The bus station was to the west, a few hundred yards past a large, picturesque park. If I made it as far as the motorway flyover I’d have gone too far, and I’d need to backtrack for a few minutes.

I was crossing the park when a very strange thing happened. The park was full of joggers and T’ai C’hi practitioners; piped music was continuously playing through speakers hidden in the trees. The sun was slowly setting behind a pagoda, and I rationalised that if I had to be buying bus tickets tonight, this was the place to do it.

All of a sudden the music changed, and the entire world stopped. A group of joggers that had been about to overtake me stopped stock still. I assumed this was some kind of far-eastern exercise practice. I looked down the path. There was another group, this time three people, absolutely stationary. I looked at the road running alongside the park. People had stopped their cars and were standing on the pavement. Slowly it dawned. The Thais love their King with the kind of fervour that makes British monarchists look like McDonald’s workers. If coins roll on the ground, the worst thing you can do is stop them with your feet: the feet are the lowest part of the body, and coins have pictures of the King on them. The entire park had stopped jogging, and the cars had stopped driving, for a rendition of the national anthem.

_MG_2609It was a short burst, though, and as soon as it was finished everyone went on their way. I had already crossed the park, and was soon out on the parallel road, on my way to the bus station.

By my reckoning, the map showed it was about a five or ten minute walk to the bus station. I began to suspect a problem when I had been walking for fifteen minutes past street vendors and car parks. After twenty minutes, I started to think that things really were wrong. I found another park; this one with a different name to the one I had just been in. Not for the first time, my map was killing me. The second park wasn’t on it. How can you have a park, which appeared to run to thousands of acres, and not include it on a map of the city? Especially a part of the city adjacent to something as crucial as a bus station?

This was beginning to become worrying. Soon it would get dark. I reached a 7/11 and stopped to consult the Lonely Planet. It shrugged its shoulders. It didn’t know where I was either. I turned around and headed back the way I’d came. I reached, to my surprise, the motorway flyover. I had gone too far. But I had gone too far without seeing the bus station. The bus station must be further west, through the other, unnamed park.

Sighing, I checked my compass (if you’re going anywhere, you really must take one of these), and trudged on. I reached a golf range. This wasn’t on the map either. I began to think I’d be walking forever, and that eventually Mendy would worry and send out a search party after me.

After the golf range was the driving range, and then things really got silly.

I reached the headquarters for the national union of railway workers. The track narrowed to a dirt road and the sun finally vanished behind the horizon. On my right was a series of small, concrete buildings dedicated to Thailand’s railways. On my left was a barbed-wire fence. I reached the end of the road.

I started to think this was a hidden camera show, and that in a minute Jeremy Beadle’s replacement would leap from the bushes and explain how it was all a terrific joke, and my map was good really.

This didn’t happen. Not many people, I suspect, find themselves ducking under barbed-wire fences while they’re on holiday, but I did. Suddenly I was in the park again. As I rounded a corner, I saw the bus station. It was distant, and on the horizon, but the red neon clearly said “Bus Station”.

I was there! I had done it!

Nearly. I walked through a shanty town. Then I walked through what appeared to be a scrap heap for old tires and chunks of metal. The scrap heap was guarded by a pair of large Doberman’s, which growled and eyed me menacingly as I passed.

Finally, I was there! The bus station rose in front of me, four stories of beautiful, ticket-selling beauty.

Except, of course for the eight-lane highway.

That, at least, had a pedestrian walkway.

Buying the tickets themselves was a snap. The lady behind the counter spoke English, and in no time I was clutching a pair of bright red slips of paper that would allow us on the overnight bus to Chiang Mai.

I took a taxi back. The next day, incidentally, we behaved like good tourists and took the lovely river bus up to the Grand Palace. We were delighted to see that Lonely Planet still has its uses – we were stopped twice by touts who told us that the Grand Palace was closed, both of them lying to get us to visit their friends’ shops.

We visited Wat Pho, one of the largest reclining Buddhas in the world (something shiny to the first person who can explain to me the spiritual significance of a reclining Buddha).

Then, simply because we had run out of time, we collapsed back into our hostel.

Dave will never badmouth internet-based ticket retailers again. I will, however, point out that maps without scales on them are to be avoided at all costs. Otherwise it could be you walking through a dark Bangkok shanty town in search of tickets. More photos, of course, in the Flickr set.

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