Wednesday, April 06, 2005

8am to 8am; Ko Phi Phi to Chiang Mai

Here at the reception desk of the Your Guest guest house in Chiang Mai, Thailand it’s 8am and my watch alarm has just gone off. It reminds me that it was exactly 24 hours ago that I awoke in Ko Phi Phi and began the northern trek I’m just now finishing.

By foot, ferry, taxi, plane, and bus I attempted to make it all the way north in one day while stopping off in Bangkok to arrange my plane ticket and visa for India. The elaborate, perhaps impossible, plan to get the India trip settled during a 90-minute stopover in Bangkok was the product of a calcifying distaste for the Thai capital. The stinking, sweating, over-packed carcinogen of a metropolis currently ranks as my least favorite city in the world.

Stuff six million people into a place and the traffic will be intense, that’s a given. In New York they’ve combated the problem with a massive subway system, in L.A. they have several radio stations, and in Bangkok they just drive wherever someone else isn’t already driving. Six lane highways cut through the middle of the city and cars generally drive on the left side of the road. If the left is busy and the right is clear they pull into oncoming traffic to gain some ground, then dart back into their lane to avoid a head on collision.

Some small roads seem overrun by foot traffic, crowded as they are by street venders selling fruit, grilled meat, t-shirts, CDs, DVDs, Pad Thai and a good deal many other things. But these pedestrian allies aren’t safe from traffic either and soon a horn honks behind you and a tuk-tuk (motorbike taxi) or sometimes even a full sized cab is nipping at your flip-flops.

One difference between Australia and Thailand is the way cars treat crosswalks. In both countries wide, white lines indicate where to cross the street (you’ve probably seen something similar in your country). In Australia a pedestrian in a crossway is treated as if he’s carrying the Pope’s casket to St. Peter’s, in Thailand the drivers apparently think you’re a ghost or want you to become one. It is a country perpetually playing a game of Human Frogger. One hot afternoon, tired of walking, I took a “shortcut” through 12 lanes of merging highway traffic to get back to my neighborhood. If you can imagine those stretches of I-95 north as it reaches New York you get the idea. Unlike New Zealand, they don’t charge $200 for a daily dose of adrenaline and the danger here is probably more real than all the bungee jumps and skydives in Queenstown.

Having spared you the general state of accommodation, the maddening choices for transportation, the constant touts and the endless filth, I ask you to take my word that Bangkok is a cup of someone else’s tea.

The ferry left Ko Phi Phi at 9am yesterday. The front deck of the boats between Phi Phi and the mainland is the best place to sit, and two Dutch women and I shared the small space; the sun hot and the wind cool.

In Phuket I found three others on their way to the airport and we split the $15 cab. The cute girl apologized for the still-drunk guys, one of whom fell asleep on me for a good chunk of the hour-long ride.

The plane landed in Bangkok around 3pm and the $2.50 shuttle bus to the city dropped me at Koh Sahn Road just after 4pm.

Tucked into a sidestreet I found the seemingly trustworthy travel agent who had arranged my trip south. The plan was simple: Buy my ticket to India and drop off my passport with the travel agent who would arrange my Indian visa while I was up in Chiang Mai. It was the kind of efficient arrangement only a savvy, seasoned world traveler like myself could conceive of and execute. And of course, it blew up in my face quite spectacularly.

Turns out the Indian embassy is closed six of the next eight days due to a dizzying succession of Thai holidays. Since it takes five business days to process the visa, that means it would be ready April 18 instead of April 12. I planned to leave April 14…because that’s the day my Thai visa expires. The only solution the woman offered was for me to go to the Indian embassy myself and explain why I needed the visa expedited. Since the embassy was closed the next day, that would mean spending two nights in Bangkok.

Clearly shaken by the thought of this arrangement, I sat silently considering my scant options: Overstay my Thai visa and leave later, stay in Bangkok to oversee the visa process, or curl into a ball and rock myself to sleep. It was at about this time that I realized by $3500 video camera was broken. Just then the woman’s husband stuck his head into the conversation and came up with something: They could bring the visa application to the Indian embassy first thing Thursday morning and ask them to process it in four business days, in which case it would be ready on April 12, just before the five day weekend.

“It is the Indian Embassy so nothing is for sure, but it might work.”

So that’s what I did. I still wanted to go up the Chiang Mai and there was a bus leaving in an hour. When heading from Bangkok to the islands in the south or Chiang Mai in the north you have a choice: a $40/90-minute plane or $10/13-hour bus. Since I claim to be a backpacker (and had just spent 13,000 baht ($325) on Indian arrangements), it was onto the bus.

The bus was crowded with likeminded backpackers, who knew they were not only saving the expense of a flight but the cost of a night’s accommodation since they’d be sleeping in the dank, narrow, somewhat reclining seats of the two-deck bus. This meant another $3 was being saved!

I grabbed a seat in the front row of the upper deck. The front of the bus was all Plexiglas and gave a wonderful panorama of the belching rush-hour traffic. We never seemed to get on a highway once we left the city. The bus wound up through small towns and villages, stopping often for unclear reasons. The overnight traffic was mainly 18-wheelers hauling something dark and long. On the TV at the front of the bus a dodgy bootleg version of a dodgy movie (The Rundown, starring The Rock!) filled the first two hours of the trip. Twelve hours is a long time on a bus.

I slept a little and listened to my Ipod a lot and then we were in Chiang Mai and they were shuttling us into the city to a guesthouse that had paid the bus operators to take us to their place. It was at about this time that my camera started working again. I strapped on my bag, opened up my Lonely Planet to the Chiang Mai map and found a place to stay down the road and around the corner. It was just before 8am and a room would be ready in a couple hours, they told me. I could sleep on the couch across from the reception desk if I wanted, it even had a pillow and a blanket. Just then it was 8am and my alarm went off as I set down my bag. I opened up my computer on a table in the restaurant a few feet away from reception. The front desk guy came over and looked at my pictures of New Zealand. I wrote this, and then my room was ready.


At 9:21 AM, Blogger shariful Liton said...

Very informative and helpful article!
The Shine Chiang Mai


Post a Comment

<< Home