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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Staying grounded in Thailand

There's a great scene from the movie Best In Show where two of the characters, Hamilton and Meg Swan talk about how they met at Starbucks.  Not at the same Starbucks, different Starbucks across the street from each other.  Thailand is like that but only with 7-11s.
They are everywhere, at least in the two cities that we have spent the most time in while in Thailand, Bangkok and Krabi.  According to Wikipedia, there are about six thousand 7-11s in Thailand, with HALF of those being in Bangkok.  That's a lot of Slurpees.  By comparison, there are about eight thousand 7-11s in all of the US, and Thailand is roughly the size of France and slightly smaller than Texas.  It's such a part of the culture that in almost all of the shops selling t-shirts, you can purchase one with the 7-11 logo on it, and we saw more than one taxi driver sporting such a shirt.

Our world travels up to this point have also educated us on Pringles.  They've been available pretty much everywhere we've been so far, even in the carts of vendors selling drinks and snacks on the streets of Vietnam.  Ben and Marley have discovered that there is more than one variety of Pringle, and I don't mean variety of flavors.  The "real" Pringles are the ones with a red and white logo on the paper cover that you peel back at the top of the can to get into the delicious salty snack.  The imposter Pringles have just a plain white paper cover under the plastic lid at the top.

There is a definite taste difference between the two.  Ben and Marley have further determined (thinking about all this makes me realize how many cans of Pringles we've eaten along the way!) that even the "real" Pringles can fall short of the ones we get back home.  If the top of the can is taut or feels like it's puffed up with air inside, they've probably been sitting on a container ship somewhere for a while and are going to be stale.  Who needs home-schooling when you've got these kinds of thought processes going on?

One of the most enjoyable aspects of our stay in Bangkok was the size of the apartment we rented.  We managed to find a very affordable two-bedroom serviced apartment in the Pantip area of the city.  Our mouths collectively hit the floor as we walked into the place for the first time.  

It featured a large living area with a dining table, plus a big kitchen. Both of the bedrooms were about as big as the entire rooms of several of the places we stayed in Vietnam and Cambodia.  Since late February when we left Australia, almost every single one of the places we rented saw us all sleeping in one room.  The best bed configuration in those instances was one large double and two singles.  We had that in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and in Hoi An in Vietnam.  Other times, when there are three cozy doubles, we usually have Ben and I in our own beds and Marley and Annie snuggled up in the third double. 


 Despite the close quarters, we all got used to sleeping like that and would frequently do the "Good-night Jim-Bob" routine right after turning out the lights each night.

After a few weeks of that, all three of us were really glad to have some room to spread out in Bangkok.  In what has become something of a pattern for us, we laid low our first day in Bangkok following a long travel day the previous day.  In an effort to save money, we booked a bus ticket from Siem Reap to the Cambodian border town of Poipet.  We had made friends through other friends of a Canadian native who had lived in Siem Reap for about 11 years.  He suggested that we take the local bus to Poipet, walk across the border, and buy another set of tickets for the bus ride to Bangkok.  We was going to be going the same way the same day and thought we would enjoy taking the bus ride together and he would help us cross the border into Thailand since he was spending the night in Poipet and leaving for Bangkok the following day to fly back to Canada.

Well, something got lost in translation with our local fixer/tuk-tuk driver Ratana, and the ticket we wound up getting was not on the same bus as our Canadian friend, Roy.  The day started early with a 6am wake up call and we had bought the bus ticket to Poipet through our hotel, which promised free transfer to the bus station.  The transfer vehicle turned out to be a pick up truck with a padded bench seat on each side of the bed. 
The pick up truck took us to a bus that was parked among a couple of buses on some side street.  We've done our best to go into "jellyfish" mode so far on the trip and we rolled with the flow in this instance, asking the men throwing our luggage on the bus if this was going to Poipet, and after being assured that it was, we got on board and figured we would look for Roy when we got to the border.  Once again, Ben and Marley never complained or whined about our transporation arrangements, despite looking like we were on a family outing in West Virginia.


Four hours later, and still a short ways away from the Thailand/Cambodia border, we got off the bus and I managed to track down a ticket handler and, with Roy nowhere in sight, go ahead and secure four tickets to continue on to Bangkok.  We paid more by splitting up the ticket instead of just paying for direct to Bangkok, but it was still only about $18USD per person.  

Fortunately, when we got to the border, Roy was there waiting for us, with his adopted son Sinin.  We lamented over how the ticket buying process didn't work out the way we hoped, but were happy that we still got to where we wanted to go.

That's us with Roy's brother on the right and his son, Sinin, on the left as we get ready to walk our luggage across the border into Thailand, and hopefully get on a luxurious, air-conditioned bus to Bangkok.

After being properly dismissed from Cambodia and going through the necessary documentation to get into Thailand, we met back up with the ticket seller, and the two dozen or so passengers and our luggage were put on pick up trucks and taken to a restaurant/rest stop for lunch.  We were told cheerfully that the bus would be along in a half hour or so, giving us time to eat and enjoy the local restroom facilities.  I'll just say this: at least the food was okay.
While we waited, different groups of people that were on the bus were put on mini-vans that held about a dozen people, and drove off at different times.  I haven't ridden commercially on buses all that much, so I'm not exactly an expert but I started to think that maybe the mini-vans were going to be our mode of transportation to Bangkok.  The four-hour ride to Bangkok.  

Sure enough, after waiting for close to two hours, on a day where we had gotten up at around 6am and already been on a bus for four hours, we found ourselves in the back four seats of a mini-van that would take us to Bangkok.  The van was WAY over-packed, as our feet rested on our backpacks and luggage, and the aisle that went to the doorway was filled with more suitcases.  
Fortunately, none of us has any degree of claustrophobia and so we managed to endure the trip without imitating a psychotic Jet Blue pilot.  There were a few stops along the way for fuel, and at one of those we enjoyed some very tasty chicken prepared by a road side vendor.  It was also just nice to be able to get some fresh air and stretch our legs a bit.

The van/bus arrived in Bangkok after dark in an area where some taxis were parked.  We managed to communicate where we were going and the driver took off into rush hour traffic that just crept along and made a long day even longer.  But the extra forty-five minute wait was worth it as we got to our roomy accommodations, which put a smile in our faces and a song in Marley's heart.  The 16th floor apartment had a roomy balcony with a nice view of Bangkok, providing a nice backdrop for the videos she likes to make of her singing Taylor Swift songs.  Check out her Facebook page, they're actually pretty good, her dad said humbly.

One of the best ways to get around Bangkok is to take a boat along the Chao Phraya River.  They're cheap, roomy and run frequently along the river, providing a good view of some of new and old buildings along the banks.

We took the boat in hopes of seeing the Grand Palace, a massive complex of temples not far from the Tia Thien stop on the river.  Unfortunately, the temple complex was closed to the public for the day to rehearse for the funeral of a cousin of the king, so we had to adjust our plans. 

After a quick lunch at a sidewalk cafe, we went into a smaller but still impressive temple complex called Wat Pho.  It features a reclining Buddha that measures about 46 metres long and is covered in gold leaf.  With Easter Bunny season approaching, I resisted the temptation to attempt to peel back the gold leaf and see if it was a Chocolate Buddha.  Instead, we went along with the local custom and bought a small cup of coins and deposit them in the fifty or so pots that line one side of the long room holding the Buddha.  We weren't sure of the significance of what we were doing, but it was fun to be part of the sounds of the coins dropping into the pots.

The complex was striking, with several temples and many Buddha statues.  Some of the temples were closed to the public, but we still got to get a good look at many of them.  

We couldn't stay too long at Wat Pho because we had a dinner date to get ready for.  A friend of a friend married a man from Thailand and after spending the first 19 years of their marriage in Cincinnati, they decided to take their 14 year old daughter and their jewelry-making business to Bangkok in June of last year.

The timing of their move was impacted by the devastating floods that hit Bangkok late in 2011.  Liz and her husband were forced out of their home for more than a month.  We talked about that and other things, including Skyline Chili and Graeters over dinner at an Italian Restaurant.  The discussion turned to mutual friends in Madeira and it turns out that Kira, their fourteen-year old daughter is best friends with the 14-year old daughter of the woman we are renting one of our houses in Madeira to.  


Our time in Bangkok came to an end as we reluctantly left our spacious quarters to catch the 8:05am train to Surat Thani in Southern Thailand, which is as close as the train could get us to our next destination of Krabi, on the Southwestern Coast on the Andaman Sea.  

The train was scheduled to arrive in Surat Thani at about 4:45 and the last bus out to Krabi from there leaves at 5, and the train station is about a 15 minute drive from the bus station.  So we weren't planning on trying to rush to catch the last bus of the day. Instead, we had been told that we would be able to take a cab from the train station, for the approximately two-hour drive.  

Knowing there was no timetable pressure for leaving Bangkok to get to Surat Thani, we weren't bothered by the fact that the train showed up late and as a result left late.  The train was our chosen travel option strictly because of cost.  We originally planned to take the overnight train, but those were all booked up.  That gave us an extra night in our roomy rooms, plus the cheapest airfare I could find, (which would have taken us directly to Krabi) would have cost us more than 500 dollars US for the four of us.  The train tickets cost less than $80USD for all four, so that became a pretty easy decision.  Plus it came with a yummy free lunch, of some sort of mystery meat that I hadn't seen since Tates Creek Junior High in Lexington, Kentucky.

A long day on the train got even longer when we arrived in Surat Thani.  The train took off about 45 minutes late and arrived about an hour and a half late.  I had imagined a battalion of taxi drivers waiting for us, where I would boldly and shrewdly negotiate a bargain deal for the drive to Krabi.  Instead, there were no taxis around when we arrived, just some guys with cigarettes dangling from their mouths asking us where we wanted to go.  
Of the ten or so people getting off the train who disembarked without having Surat Thani be their final destination, we were the only ones going to Krabi. Surat Thani is also a stopping off point for people traveling to the popular island destinations of Koh Samui and Koh Phangan.  The Marlboro Men herded us into a pick up truck with seats in the back to take us somewhere else in town where we were told we could book a ride to where ever we wanted to go.  

My bargaining power effectively evaporated, we booked a car to Krabi for about twice what I wanted to pay and more than what it cost to get all the way to Surat Thani from Bangkok.  Plus, the driver showed up with a trunk half-filled with cleaning supplies, so once again we enjoyed a ride hugging some of our suitcases and backpacks.  Ahh, the glamour of worldwide travel!  But, just like our long journey from Siem Reap to Bangkok would be worth it thanks to our spacious apartment, our 15+ hour trip to Krabi would be rewarded by an unexpected encounter with a quartet of furry friends.

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