From Hua Hin, Sarah and I took the train into Bangkok. We woke up even earlier than normal to catch our 5:30am train and purchased two 3rd class seats at the ticket counter. Just as we had finished paying, the clerk told us the train was arriving and that we should hurry to the baggage car at the front to get our bikes on. We rushed down towards the engine, but when we arrived at the baggage car the shirtless guy who was dozing inside took one look at our bikes and waved his hands to indicate we couldn’t put them on. Getting a little nervous, I ran back down to the ticket counter where the clerk told us not to worry and to just get on the next train. A few minutes later when that next train arrived, we again tried to get our bikes on but this time the baggage handler examined our tickets and said “wrong train.” After more discussions with the ticket clerk, we were told our train was running a little late and it would arrive at 5:45am and we would be on our way. Finally it did show up and we loaded our bikes on and made our way to our assigned car, but it was full! We nervously approached the Thai woman who was sitting in one of our seats and showed her our tickets. She stared at us like we were crazy and then got up in a huff without saying anything. We were a little confused at this point and then a friendly guy sitting behind her who spoke a little English asked to take a look our tickets and said we had tickets for train number 120, but were on train number 7. We had no seats! What was that ticket clerk thinking?! We searched around for a bit and found an empty seat where Sarah could sit. I stood at the front of the car and wasn’t in too bad of a mood until I realized the wasabi peas that I had bought were actually cuttlefish flavored. Fish food! (Comment from Sarah: For the record, I did offer to alternate spots with him, but he wouldn’t do it).
We finally arrived in Bangkok four hours later and decided to brave Bangkok’s famous traffic and ride our bicycles to the area of the city called Banglamphu where most of the cheap guesthouses are located. In reality, riding in the city really wasn’t that bad. Traffic was very heavy but it was moving so slowly that we felt pretty safe among the motorcycles, tuk-tuks, taxis, and buses. One thing that did live up to its reputation was the pollution. When we stopped to check our map along the way, we both asked each other the same thing; “Are your eyes burning?” Here is Sarah navigating a traffic jam.
When we cycled onto Khao San road, we were both a little shocked. I’m not sure what we were expecting, but what we found was a whole lot of dirty hippies. These two guys are wearing the typical fare around here; extremely baggy, loosely-woven cotton clothes. Sort of like what a raver would wear if he was going on safari.
The other thing that is huge here is getting your hair braided or dreadlocks. There are literally rows of chairs along the street with tourists patiently sitting while Thai women dred their hair. We are not sure why.
This street is filled with tailors, touts, pirated DVDs, tuk-tuks, and bars that stay open all night. This Slate article a friend sent us describes the scene very well. Anyone who knows us would probably laugh thinking about us in a place like this, but we were both tired and didn’t feel like searching the city so we set up camp in a guesthouse on Khao San for 300 baht (~US$8.60). One thing we didn’t think about was how loud it was going to be here at night. The music starts at 5pm and it seems like each bar is trying to entice customers with the prospect of deafening them if they actually step inside. The windows of our 3rd floor room rattle from the bass line of Gwen Stefani’s new song “The Sweet Escape” coming down the street. Good thing we are both heavy sleepers! Here is Khao San after dark. Utter mayhem.
Our second day in Bangkok, we did some sightseeing at the National Museum. The most impressive things there were the giant funeral chariots used by the royal family and the weapons and howdahs the ancient armies used when waging elephant warfare. Unfortunately, photographs were not allowed inside any of the galleries. Here are some pictures of the museum grounds.
After a day at the museum, we decided we should get some of our chores done, and first on our list was getting our China visa. When you walk out of your guesthouse on Khao San, you are greeted by two things. First, the sight of people drinking and smoking in bars at 7am, and second a steady stream of “Hello, where you go?” from tuk-tuk drivers who want to take you around the city. The tuk-tuk drivers make the most money from commissions they get from dropping people off outside tailors and gem shops, so they are constantly trying to add shopping to your list of things to do. After a lot of haggling, we finally got one to agree to take us to the Tourism Authority of Thailand with no stops for shopping for 40 baht (~US$1.15). Here we are speeding a long in the tuk-tuk.
When we arrived at the TAT we learned that they could only get us a thirty day visa and for anything longer we would have to go directly to the embassy. We also learned that the entire city of Bangkok basically shuts down from the 12th through 16th of April for the Songkran festival and there would be no way to get a visa during that time! With this new knowledge, we rushed over to the Chinese embassy on the other side of town via the subway, but when we arrived at noon we found out the visa office was only open from 9 to 11:30. Shoot, one day down the drain! Every time we experience something like this, we tell ourselves we should get used to it because it is going to be even more difficult in China. The next day we woke up bright and early and headed straight to the to Chinese embassy, which was very busy already at 9am. We filled out our forms, indicating that we wanted a 3 month visa in order to bicycle through the provinces of Yunnan, Szechuan, and Guanxi. When our number was called and we finally got to talk to a clerk, she examined our form and told us that to bicycle in China we needed an “invitation” from a tourist organization. What? All of the first-hand accounts we have read online have said that other bicycle tourists have just applied for visas through the normal process. The clerk gave us the names of some tourist companies we could contact, and we rushed over to the nearest internet cafe to try figure out what to do. After a little researching, we learned that most people don’t indicate they are bicycling on the visa application. They just apply for the visa without any mention of their bicycles and then ride into the country. We thought briefly about going back to the embassy and filling out some new forms without mentioning our bicycles, but we realized it was too late and the office was already closed so we emailed the tourist companies asking for any information and we also contacted BikeChina to see if they could give us any advice on what to do. After such a bitter disappointment, Sarah had to comfort herself (and stick to her Minnesota roots) by enjoying a Dairy Queen Blizzard. They are just as good in Bangkok as they are in Minneapolis!
Today we woke up and searched around on foot for a new guesthouse. Songkran starts tomorrow and from the looks of things Khao San is going to be one giant wet t-shirt contest, so we decided we better move to some place more low-key before we went nuts. A few blocks away from Khao San, still in Banglamphu, we found a place called Vimol Guesthouse for only 140 baht (~US$4) per night - the cheapest place in Thailand yet! When we walked up to the little old woman at the desk to enquire if she had any rooms, she looked at us and asked “Where are your bicycles?” Spooky! “How did you know we have bicycles?”, we asked. She just looked at us and tapped her temple with her index finger. We were too scared to ask anything else after that!
We also heard some gossip from other travelers that the road to Pnomh Penh is still very, very bad. There are rumors that the Cambodian airlines bribe the government to keep the road in horrible shape so people will fly instead. That’s the road we need to cycle on…
Stats from Thailand Week 2
4.02.2007 - 04.08.2007
3 days cycling, 4 days resting
107.23 km / cycling day
16 hours, 2 minutes, 53 seconds in the saddle
5:20:58 / cycling day
US$31.80 / day
Finally, a typical Bangkok intersection.