Archive for the ‘Thailand’ Category

Bangkok rocks!

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

(Emily) Our second day in Bangkok found us eagerly awaiting our good friend Darren’s arrival. Back in the UK, Darren was at a loose end with six weeks off work after prior plans had fallen through so we’d said something to the effect of, ‘Get your arse out here!’ His flight wasn’t getting in until late afternoon so we spent the morning at the hostel catching up on admin, the lion’s share of our time being taken up writing a letter to the solicitor who’s dealing with my accident in Istanbul (we’re still nowhere close to getting any compensation…) We took the metro to the airport and arrived about five minutes after Darren’s flight had landed – perfect timing – so took up position by the arrivals gate to wait. We amused ourselves by guessing the nationalities of the hoards of arriving tourists, trying to spot the obvious English. None seemed to be forthcoming just yet so we resorted to taking bets on silly things like what colour shirt Darren would be wearing, or whether he’d come through the right or the left door. As fun as our little time-killing games were, we did eventually become more than a little impatient when time and again, the doors opened to reveal a distinctly non-British stream of people. It didn’t help that the electronic board above arrivals wasn’t working so we didn’t have any status updates. Eventually, I went to ask someone if there had been some sort of delay only to be told that there were two arrivals gates and that, in all likelihood given the time, Darren had probably come through some time ago at the other exit, just 100m metres away!!! Doh!! (James: I mean, seriously, who builds a brand new international terminal and then has two separate, but unannounced arrival areas?!!) We felt terrible, especially as we hadn’t actually confirmed that we’d be coming to the airport to meet him – Darren must have thought we were right gits not showing up! Luckily, he’d actually been the one to book the accommodation in Bangkok so at least he knew where he was going…

When we got back to Lub-d, we were relieved to spy Darren, beer in hand, having made it safely on his own and, luckily, he was smiling! He laughed at how we’d gone on about the hostel in an email the day before – he agreed that it was a cool place but I think our level of rhapsodising indicated a sense of wonder akin to just be released from prison! After taking Darren to get some street food where we’d eaten the night before, we went out to a local bar to catch up properly and ended up rather over-doing it on cocktails, oops – our first night with Darren and already we were drinking more than we would normally in a whole month!! At least we didn’t having anything challenging on the agenda for the next day. The main thing was to get our bikes in for a proper dealer service, having not had one since Istanbul (about 14,000km ago!) We’d looked into possible places on the internet (a bit tricky when many of the sites are in Thai only) and asked around on overland traveller websites and in the end went for a Yamaha dealer in the central Bangkok – the guy sounded nice on the phone and, more importantly, spoke English! We got on our bikes and followed Darren in a taxi (though I think James knew the way better after looking at the map just once – the taxi drivers in Bangkok are generally lovely and the meter is cheap but they never have any idea of where anything is!!) Once we neared the place, a local on a moped spotted us on our bikes and, guessing where we must be going, indicated for us to follow him down a side street behind a huge shopping mall where, sure enough, there was a big, shiny new Yamaha service centre. Yet another example of the friendliness of Thai people. It was a relief to leave our bikes somewhere so professional and, although there wasn’t really anything obviously ‘wrong’ with them (aside from my leaking fork seal which, having to wait to Darren to bring the parts from the UK, we’d been studiously ignoring for two months now…), it would give us peace of mind for them to have an overhaul of new oil, brake fluid etc.

The Yamaha guys also advised on bike hire for Darren, or rather told us that we should look in Pattaya, about 120km to the south east, instead of Bangkok as the town was a bit of a bike hub and, for one reason or another, there weren’t really any places in the capital that rented out to tourists. It was a shame not to be able to get Darren on a bike straight away but in many ways it was a better option as it meant he wouldn’t have to ride in the city (he’d got his licence years before but never got round to having a bike so experience on the road at this point was pretty much zero – doing your first day in one of the busiest cities in the world would be a pretty tall order!) We spent some time that afternoon devising a rough plan which comprised of a few days sight-seeing in Bangkok while we waited for our bikes to be ready, a quick nip down to Pattaya (us riding, Darren on the bus) to get Darren a rental bike, then riding up north to Chiang Mai and the surrounding areas which were, by all accounts, biking nirvana. That would give us a couple of weeks on the bikes before coming back south to go sailing in Phuket with my parents, then flying on to Vietnam on Christmas Day where we would spend the remainder of Darren’s holiday. Not a bad itinerary, I’m sure you’ll agree!

After a few easy days with little to do but plan the coming weeks whilst Darren acclimatised and got over his jetlag, we spent a day seeing the sights in Bangkok with Lee-ann, a lovely girl from Yorkshire who Darren had met on his flight and was staying at the same hostel as us. We took the ‘river express’, a hop-on-hop-off boat service that runs up and down the river all day which gave us a chance to view the cityscape from the water. There were many traditional looking long-tail boats that had been fitted with turbo engines and were hurtling up and down the river at great speed – there was something very ‘James Bond’ about them that the boys loved! We had our own entertainment though, in the form of the guide on our boat – an absolute comedy act and as camp as Christmas!! He was so funny it was tempting to stay on the boat all day just to listen to him, but we forced ourselves to get off at pier nine which gave access to most of the main temples. We went to Wat Arun first, meaning ‘Temple of the Dawn’, which was a tall, steep structure decorated, rather interestingly, with crockery incorporated into the stone work. The steps up to the top were somewhat precipitous to the extent that some of the visiting tourists were breaking into a bit of a sweat! On the other side of the river, we visited Wat Pho, home of the famous (James: and bloody huge!) gold reclining Buddha and then made our way to Wat Phra Kaeo, which included a cool mini replica of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. At the Grand Palace we nearly got caught out by a bit of a scam when an official looking guy with a badge told us that it was closed for lunch and to come back in an hour. Meanwhile, he suggested that we get one of the awaiting tuk-tuks for a short tour of the area. We didn’t want to get a tuk-tuk but we were starting to talk about going for somewhere for something to eat when I remembered reading somewhere that con artists will tell you somewhere is closed in order to drum up business for themselves, a practice we also recalled from India. Sure enough, when we carried on walking along the palace walls we discovered the main entrance where, of course, everything was open. Grrr, scamming gits! The palace was impressive but it was quite expensive and it’s fair to say we were getting a bit templed out by this point (cultural cretins that we are) so we wandered back to the river and got some cheap food at the market before boarding the (absolutely rammed) boat back.

That evening the four of us went out to Koh San Road, the infamous backpacker hangout. It was quite funny to see the bars brazenly advertising ‘we don’t check ID!’  and conversely, the street touts offering any fake ID you could think of – ever wanted to pretend you were a journalist, student or even a policeman? On the whole though, it was a pretty uninspiring place, full of ‘far out dudes’ and old guys with their little Thai girlfriends. After a bit of t-shirt shopping (Darren are you really ever going to wear the Mr Jihad Mr Men one you bought?!!!) we did find a cute street hung with lanterns where we got a decent curry and more than a few pina coladas. Walking back to our hostel that night we had a quick wander round Patpong market (inviting the inevitable ‘Ping Pong, mister?’) before indulging in, not a late night kebab but… a late night massage!! Massage parlours of the legitimate kind can be found every hundred yards (and I’m sure there are more than enough dodgy ones in the back streets too) where you can get an hour long treatment for about 250 baht (£5). Lee-ann and I opted for a foot massage while James and Darren went for the head and shoulders option (they had to fight it out over who got the female masseuse, ha ha!) It was bliss and far better than a kebab!

The following evening we had another great night out. Remember the British biker, Andrew, we’d met in Nepal? He’d told us that Simon and Lisa Thomas, a biking couple who are somewhat infamous in overland circles for being seven years (yes, you read that right!) into a round the world trip, had arrived in Thailand a few days before us. He evidently  told them about us too as when we got to Bangkok, we received an email from them saying hello and did we want to meet up for a drink or two. We got a taxi over to their hotel on the outskirts of town where they had their own private little bungalow overlooking a koi carp lake – a bit flash for overlanders but it turns out they were staying there courtesy of Touratech Thailand! To give a bit of background, Simon and Lisa left the UK in 2003 after selling their business and pretty much everything else they owned and have since been travelling  the world on their motorbikes. I assumed that in such a long time frame they must have gone round the globe several times over but no, they are just doing it once but very, very thoroughly! During their epic trip, they’ve obviously built up quite a following and have also generated a fair bit of sponsorship (such as Touratech, a well-known motorcycle equipment company, who alongside BMW are one of their main sponsors) which has allowed them to stay on the road for so long. We were really interested to meet them and swap anecdotes and war stories about our different experiences. That evening, we were also joined by Peera, the owner-director of Touratech Thailand, and some of his friends so it made for a big group round the table and plenty of chatter, helped along nicely by the two bottles of very expensive single malt scotch that Peera produced! (He also provided tons of food at his expense, what a generous guy!) Simon and Lisa were great fun and indeed amazed and inspired us with some of their stories (er, such as Simon breaking his neck in a fall in South America and not reaching medical treatment until three weeks later!!!) and Peera was absolute quality, a real one off and a pleasure to get to know. The three of us agreed, having finally managed to get a taxi at 2am, that it had been a brilliant night.

On the day that we were leaving for Pattaya, we got up early doors in order to apply for our Vietnam visas as soon as the embassy opened – it was so easy, and they didn’t ask to keep the passports! With that done, Darren left to catch his bus; we, on the other hand, were going to be leaving a bit later and meeting him in Pattaya in the evening as we had to go to immigration to get our visa extension (see previous entry for why). From what we’d read on the internet, it was a fairly standard procedure so we had no worries that we’d be able to get that sorted quickly, head over to Yamaha to pick up our bikes and then be on our way to Pattaya before dark. Hmmm. Immigration was about an hour away, based at the site of the old airport, but the taxi only cost a couple of quid (imagine that in England!) The building was, as with so many things we were finding in Bangkok, an incredibly efficient and sensible use of space – all the government departments were located within the one huge mall-type building, with a mass of shops and cafes on the bottom floor to serve all the employees (this may not sound particularly impressive, but our experience of immigration offices and embassies so far tended to be shacks in the middle of nowhere!) We found the relevant office, filled in the application and took a seat to wait for our queue number to come up (again, a sense of order which we’d never seen before!) Handing it in at about half eleven, we were pleased to be ahead of schedule. ‘You need a visa extension? That’s fine,’ said the smiley helpful woman behind the desk. ‘That’s 1900 baht for seven days.’ ‘No, no, we need 30 days – see here (pointing to form), 30 days.’ ‘But you can only have seven days,’ smile, smile. ‘Say what?!’ And it turns out that, as holders of a ‘visa exemption’ rather than an actual ‘tourist’ visa, all we were entitled to was one more week. This was bad, very bad. It was fine for us: we would be leaving for Vietnam before our time was up and then could get a new visa on arrival when we returned. It was the bikes that were the problem. They needed to remain in Thailand while we were in Vietnam as we weren’t permitted to take them into the country. However, even with the extension, their ‘visa’ would run out while we were away and we were all too aware of the document we’d signed acknowledging a hefty fine – around £2000 each – if we were to exceed the export date. Crap. Well, we were currently sitting in the Thai Immigration office, so surely, if we explained our situation, there was something they could do. Her suggestion? ‘You must apply for a proper tourist visa, which you can then extend for 30 days’ (smile, smile). ‘Ok, can we do that here?’ ‘No, you must go to a Thai embassy in another country.’ WHAT?!!!!! Seriously? (James: We tried to reason with them that surely the consul at an embassy was just an agent of their department but apparently not….) I have to say at this point it was all getting a bit much and emotions were running high. Yes, we’ve had visa issues before (the debacle that was Uzbekistan being top of the list) but now there was much more at stake – namely, Darren’s precious holiday time. ‘Oh, sorry Darren, I know the plan was to ride around northern Thailand for two weeks but it turns out we just have to ‘pop over’ to Laos to get a visa…’ James could see that I was about to crumble so he took control and reminded me of our travel mantra – ‘It’s not a problem, it’s an opportunity.’ There didn’t seem to be much for it but to accept what they said and head back into town. Gutted.

It was now gone 4pm due to combination of the immigration department breaking for a lunch hour half way through our negotiations, and us phoning up customs from the office several times to see if they could help resolve this blatant lack of co-ordination between two government departments (James: they couldn’t). By the time the taxi arrived back at the hostel it was clear that we wouldn’t be getting to Pattaya that evening so we booked into Lub-d for another night and emailed Darren to say sorry but we wouldn’t be there until the following day. Hopefully, it would give him enough time to get a rental bike sorted and we could all hit the road together as soon as we arrived. We decided to wait and tell him about the unscheduled trip to Laos in person! All that remained was to pick our bikes up from the Yamaha centre so that we were ready for a quick departure the following morning. After a comedy/hair-raising taxi ride with a completely psychotic driver (James: he would see how hard and late he could break on purpose and then laugh hysterically at how close a shave we’d just had!), we arrived to find the bikes waiting for us out front. They looked great and, an added bonus, they’d managed to find me a new front tyre which we’d asked for but hadn’t really expected. Another unexpected surprise was that there was a film crew there waiting to interview us!!! They wanted to do a piece on us in association with Yamaha Thailand about our trip and why we’d chosen the XTs. Apparently it would be shown on a Thai sports channel as well as the company’s website and on Thailand’s most popular website. Awesome! We probably came across as complete berks as we had no time to prepare and well, we are a bit dorky at the best of times, but it was good fun and made us a feel a little bit famous just for a moment! As soon as we get our hands on the clip, we’ll post it up – so far, no luck but we’ll be revisiting them when we’re back in Bangkok. Our long day meant that for the second time, we were riding in the city in the dark. All good though, and James even managed to take a few action shots when we slowed down in the traffic! I did a mean bit of filtering too – it had to be done as the alternative was to melt in the heat or choke to death from exhaust fumes – but I may have knocked a few people’s wing mirrors along the way, oops! Needless to say, we were shattered when we got back and welcomed an early night. Come the morning we would finally get on our way to Patt-eye-YA, as the locals calls it, and the biking part of Darren’s holiday could begin…

Bangkok culture shock!

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

(Emily) From the moment we stepped off the plane and entered the airport terminal in Bangkok, it was like being on a different planet. Suvarnabhumi International is a huge new construction, with arty geometric windows and endless travelators , the luxury and modernity of such like we hadn’t seen for months! Arriving by plane did nothing but enhance the feeling of being dropped in an alien environ; normally, as we ride through countries from one dusty border to the next, we witness the gradual and subtle changes of the people and our surroundings. Here, the newness of it all was so sudden and abrupt. It was a really strange feeling and we were sad not to have arrived in country number 21 on our bikes, but we were also feeling a childish excitement at bizarreness of it all!

We shuffled along with the rest of the herd through to immigration and were promptly stamped in for 30 days at no charge as expected (we read previously that no visa was necessary under a recent visa exemption rule). This may seem like a boring and unnecessary fact but pay attention, boys and girls, it was to come back to haunt us…  Anyway, having collected our luggage (another impossibly slick process) we followed the clear and informative signs down to the shuttle bus terminal and were helped by friendly members of staff to buy a ticket to the correct part of the city for our hostel. Everything was so efficient, there may as well have been a sign saying ‘welcome to civilisation’ on arrival!! On the ride into Bangkok, we both just stared out of the window open-mouthed at the shiny new cars zooming along on the huge, smooth, multi-laned highways. We’d thought Kathmandu had brought us back into the modern world but by comparison it seemed now like we’d arrived in the future!! On entering the outskirts of the city, our sense of wonder only grew – so many lights everywhere and towering skyscrapers looming on the horizon. There were no dusty side roads, no piles of rubble strewn about, no animals sleeping and foraging in the streets,  none of the sights that we’d come to see as the norm. That such simple things caused us to marvel prompted a realisation of how far we’d come: with the exception of Istanbul, we’d been slowly riding ‘back in time’ since Macedonia. Now it was like instantly coming full circle and the impact of being in such a developed environment after so long left us utterly gobsmacked.

Our hostel was another revelation – it was awesome!! Unprepossessing from the front, we entered to discover a vast super-modern lobby with a real Tokyo vibe going on. The place was done up to resemble a refurbished factory, all steel girders and unfinished wood, but with enough special touches and home comforts to make it welcoming and warm. Our dorm room was the very picture of minimalist functionality and, like everything else in the hostel, utterly clean. (Our standards had clearly dropped in recent months and I think we’d forgotten how clean ‘clean’ can be!) Either way, it was a big thumbs up for Bangkok so far! The next day was going to be a biggie – picking the bikes up from customs – so we didn’t go crazy on our first evening in the city (er, when do we ever go crazy?!) and just wandered down to the Patpong night market round the corner. I was a little taken aback by all the touts approaching with offers of a ‘sexy show’ (think girls performing weird and wonderful feats of biology involving ping-pong balls and other paraphernalia…), not so much for what they were touting as I’d been prepared for that, but that fact that they were shoving flyers in James’ face when we were clearly walking along as a couple. (Amazing how you quickly desensitise though, and the next evening it was already par for the course! They were even approaching me as the potential customer!) We found some fantastic street food – green curry, yum – and had a beer before bed. It was all a bit surreal, almost like being on holiday!….

In the morning, Fabian came to meet us at our hostel and the three of us made our way back to the airport to retrieve our bikes. We travelled by the skytrain (a slightly pricier option that the standard metro but at £1.50 for a thirty minute journey, still bargainous) on Fabs’ recommendation that we experience its sheer immaculate efficiency (he, too, was finding the whole transformation a revelation!) and, still in our wide-eyed state, we were suitably impressed. I particularly loved the sign indicating that you should give up your seat for not only pregnant women and the elderly but monks too! Brilliant! Once at customs (far enough away from the main airport terminal that we’d needed a taxi) we were approached by a couple of guys offering to help us through the process. We knew that Carl and Bene had paid a fixer to help them for the day, and that they had considered the help they’d received as invaluable considering the language barrier, but we decided that between the three of us we should be able to muddle through without assistance. However, the first office we went to gave us a map of the customs depot and, circling various locations on the map as he spoke, the ultra camp clerk effectively said something along the lines of, ‘First go here to get x papers, then go here to get them signed, then return them to us here, then go here for y papers, then take them here and get them stamped, then go here to pay, then go back to this place…’  We began to wonder if we’d made right decision in refusing a fixer, particularly once we’d looked at the first set of papers and discovered that everything was in Thai, but as it turned out, everyone we went to see was so unbelievably helpful that we needn’t have worried; despite turning into a very long day due to the sheer number of different offices to visit and forms to fill in, the whole process was completely bearable, near pleasurable in fact, so friendly and eager to assist were all the staff at customs. Another big thumbs up for Thailand!

The longest we had to wait in one place was an hour but that was only because everything shut down for lunch between 1 and 2 pm, and anyway, it wasn’t a problem as we just went for lunch too – the customs complex had its own cafeteria, café, and even a Seven-Eleven!! (That had certainly not been the case at customs in Kathmandu, or at any of the border crossing posts we’d spent time at.) James was particularly impressed with his huge plate of curry for about 40p, though I don’t think the Fabster’s espresso made the grade! After lunch, we eventually completed all the relevant temporary import paperwork but I spotted that a deadline for export had been recorded (usually the bike papers don’t specify a date) and that failure to get the bikes out of the country within 30 days would result in a fine of several thousand pounds per bike. Crap! This was a bit of a problem – the bikes needed to be in Thailand for longer than 30 days as we would be leaving them in the country while we went to Vietnam (where they don’t permit foreign big engine bikes.) We hadn’t realised that they would match the bike paperwork to the visa stamp in our passport (one month from our date of entry). We explained the situation to one of the senior guys at the customs office who was very understanding – he said that unfortunately he couldn’t give us longer on the bike papers than we had in our passport, but that we could go to immigration in Bangkok and get a visa extension quite easily. Once this had been obtained, customs would be happy to extend the import papers too. A bit of an unanticipated hassle but again, he was so nice about it that it didn’t seem like too much of a stress (oh, how little we knew then…)

It was about four in the afternoon by the time we picked our way carefully between piles of boxes at the warehouse, dodging zooming forklifts along the way, and finally got to see our bikes, or at least the crates that (hopefully still) held our bikes. The warehouse was a hive of activity and we weren’t exactly inconspicuous so we got a lot of a friendly hellos and there were quite a few people gathered to see what cargo we might be here to collect. We were directed to a ‘quiet’ corner (or at least a small space which didn’t have a constant stream of boxes being carried through it) and one by one our crates were brought over by a forklift.  One of the carpenters took it upon himself to come and help get the boxes open with his hammer – good thing he did as we’d have been a bit stuffed otherwise – and, upon prising the lids open, we were happy to find everything present and correct. Phew! It just remained to dismantle the rest of each crate and put everything on the bikes back together again. This was no mean feat, particularly working within the limited space and sweltering in Bangkok’s 30 degree humid heat, and it took several hours (why is it always easier to take things apart than to reassemble them?!) There was consternation on Fabian’s part when it seemed his front wheel didn’t want to go back on (James, having come over to help, eventually spotted that it was the wrong way round!), and then another panic when he thought he’d left the keys to his bike back at his hotel! However, by about 8pm – with any hopes of riding in the city centre while it was still light long since quashed – we were ready to roll. We used the trusty baby wipes to remove what we could of the grease and muck from our hands and changed into our bike gear – thankfully James was wearing his own underpants this time…! (James: Er, can we all just move on from this?!) We then manoeuvred our bikes down one of the loading ramps to the road (luckily it was much clearer by this time as work at the warehouse had finished for the day).

The whole experience of getting the bikes back had been far less difficult, boring or frustrating than we’d anticipated and as I’ve already said, we really were struck by how unbelievably friendly everyone was towards us. Even as we left the compound, the officers who checked our papers  ushered us in to their portacabin to share some of their dinner – so nice! I needn’t have been anxious about riding into Bangkok in the dark either. True, the traffic was incredibly busy and it was a bit alarming to be riding at pace on a four lane motorway for the first time since Istanbul, but the lane discipline and driving in general was so disciplined there was nothing to worry about. We followed Fabian using his gps (James: Uh-oh!…) half way in but once he’d branched off to return to his own hotel in the north of the city, it fell to James’ bloodhound instincts to return us to our district, Silom. He came up trumps as usual, somehow remembering the roads and landmarks from our bus journey from the airport a few days before. He never ceases to amaze me! The guys at the hostel had arranged parking at a nearby hotel so we tucked the bikes in and went off for some late night street food. Job done!