(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!