Bangkok: Last Stop
With some reluctance we find ourselves preparing to leave Phuket and start the long trek home. We settled in very well at the Kata Beach Spa Resort and regret having to leave it for the big smoke of Thailand – Bangkok. Unfortunately our time on the road is running out so we have to accept the inevitable and move on. We’ve passed through Bangkok airport so many times already enroute to various parts of Thailand that it’s hard to think of it as a destination rather than just a stopover location. For this reason, and because we’re now departing the sunny beaches, it feels like our mini-holiday has ended as far as we’re concerned. It’s back to the business of returning from whence we came.
We take a taxi up to Phuket airport at the north of the island which gives us a chance to see a bit more. It’s so big and developed that it really doesn’t feel like an island. The airport itself is small and as usual Air Asia are running incredibly late without informing their passengers of what’s going on, so there’s a large crowd of anxious people growing as the boarding time passes by and there’s still no sign of any red uniforms. Eventually they get their act together and the plane is loaded up. It’s an unremarkable flight and we’re soon back in the familiar territory of Bangkok airport. The difference this time is that we actually set foot outside the airport and join the groups waiting for the airport express bus. This is the first airport transport service I’ve used that makes Dublin airport transport look efficient and good value for money. We wait an hour to get on a bus that should leave every 30 minutes and find that there’s so little space for luggage that we have to sit with our rucksacks on our laps. That’s a lot of rucksack to have in your face. I could understand this on a normal public bus, but an airport express should be expected to accommodate a lot more luggage with less discomfort.
As the bus flies along the highways above ground level we get a good clear view of the night time skyline. Bangkok is a mammoth, sprawling metropolis far removed from the holiday resorts and beaches we’ve just come from and the walled city of Chiang Mai in the North. Concrete forests of trees grow up from the streets to support this highway network we’re travelling on. It allows those who are willing to pay a toll to soar above the traffic on the crowded roads below. When the bus finally approaches the surface again we get deposited outside a nondescript building on an unknown road. Thus begins, once more, the inevitable frustration of the search for where we are, and where we’re going to. With hindsight, we start out incredibly well. I’m fairly sure we just passed the big road we want to follow and as we walk further and further along it we’re getting more confident that it’s the right one. We’ve no sense of distance however, and we’re having trouble finding any kind of useful landmark that’s actually on the map we have. Some time later I finally spot the Princess Hotel which is for once clearly marked. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be in the right location in relation to the road we’re on. We’re perplexed. We re-evaluate our plans on the basis of the hotel and consider that the bus driver may have dropped us at the opposite end of the road to where we thought. We now have to retrace our steps all the way back.
Some time later we’re back where we started. Brodie rotates the map several times, tries to turn it inside out and upside down, still can’t find anything recognisable. It’s my turn again. Brodie takes a wander up the road while I reconsider our options. While I’m doing that I can see one of the boys in blue (well, I’m not sure what colour in the dark) circling on a scooter out of the corner of my eye. Closer and closer. I look up and find myself face to face with a cop on a motorbike. “Can I help you?” I have no idea, but I’m sure as hell willing to try. I hand over the map and explain the root of the problem. We don’t know where we are. (At least not for sure). He squints at the map and pronounces my location. Which turns out to be where we originally thought we’d been deposited by the bus. I then point to the destination we’re trying to achieve. He confirms we’re on the right road and were originally going in the right direction. Two more sections he says. That could mean absolutely anything in terms of distance, but we’re very thankful to have some kind of independent verification of our directions before we traipse back up the road again for a third time. It seems that whoever pinpointed the Princess Hotel on the map the airport produces didn’t do a very good job and put it in the wrong place.
Much, much later we’re finally nearing what we think might just be the next junction we need to find. We’re heading towards what seems to be a very bright area. As we draw closer we find that it’s lit up like it’s christmas (which it almost is, but they don’t celebrate that here). There’s an open air concert going on – platforms, lighting, crowds and tv crews are spread out into the middle of the roads. A group of schoolgirls is murdering a song up on the platform while backstage some young Thai men mimic them and laugh. Perfect, we’re almost where we need to be and there’s an insane street party going on. The roads are plastered with signs and hoardings so you can’t even see where the side streets are, let alone what the names might be. I push on a bit further to at least confirm our bearings while Brodie watches the rucksacks. We then make our way along what might be the right road. Some half-crazed (half-drugged?) man jumps out along the road bouncing in excitement as he shouts ‘Bangkok!’ at me and does elaborate windmill arm motions and gesturing in the direction we’re going. I’m at a loss as to whether to engage him in conversation or run. We’re looking for Niras Bankoc hotel… so he might be guessing that’s where the foreigners are headed and is being helpful… or he’s just loony and shouting about Bangkok at anyone on the road. It seems to be the first scenario and we do finally find our hotel a little further up the road.
We check in and go looking for water and food. The streets along here are quiet and there’s really not a whole lot of choice. Food is served outside on the pavement from stalls. Some establishments are almost devoid of customers, others are packed. We choose a busy one and seat ourselves. A server approaches suspiciously and looks completely disgusted when Brodie optimistically requests an English menu. Not a hope. Two Thai men at the other end of the table helpfully perform a little translation. Brodie asks for curry. No can do. Brodie asks for rice. They don’t do rice here, just noodles. Ok, some Pad Thai then. Nope, go up the street for that. Eventually the guys tell us you can get some spicy noodles. That seems to be it. We sign up for two portions and duly receive bowls with noodles and some unidentified lumps of who knows what. It’s all flavoured with a clear red liquid soup. It’s not bad, though not terribly filling if you don’t feel like risking the gobs of whatever the white things contain. As we’re tucking in there’s a sudden flurry of fireworks from the direction of the street party. As the streets ring with the sound of explosions, the dogs in the area start howling and complaining until long after the last boom resonates in the air. We finish and offer the server money, guessing at an amount that should cover the meal. We’re not entirely sure what he says, but he goes off with 100 baht and doesn’t return so we make an exit and raid the little shop nearby for some coke, water and what seems to be gone off icecream and chocolate. Who knew such dietary staples could go bad?
According to the always informative internet, the festive celebrations we’re seeing on the streets are due to the King’s birthday. His birthday isn’t for another 3 days, but I guess the Thai people like to get the party started early and appear to have been festooning the biggest streets for a few days already. We can only imagine what they have planned for the day itself. Back at our hotel it sounds like there’s a cat being simultaneously strangled and mauled somewhere within earshot. The other occupants of the hotel are too busy trying to raise the roof with their noise to notice. We’re definitely back in the city again and we’ve survived our first few hours in Bangkok. Tomorrow we’ll need an early start to get out and see a little of this massive capital and rest up before we head to the airport one final time.