Bangkok: The Final Hours

December 3, 2009 0 Comments

All through the last year our departure date felt so far off in the distance that it didn’t seem real. Even booking the airplane tickets a few weeks in advance we were too busy with our daily lives for it to register properly. Time drifted past slowly, and then suddenly we were somehow only days from setting off. The departure date had snuck up on us. It was hard to really feel prepared for travelling such a big distance with only the contents of our rucksacks and no confirmed plan beyond the first couple of nights in Montreal.

A month into our travels it seemed like we’d been away for a very long time already, and the remaining months stretched out before us. So many countries and places left to visit. It felt like an eternity before we would be heading home again. Yet I knew at the back of my mind that all too soon the time would have flown past and we would be sitting here in Bangkok, facing down the last few hours and contemplating the inevitable reality of returning home and back to a normal life. And so it has come to pass. In some ways it feels like we’ve been away for years. The overwhelming number of new places and experiences has made me feel like it must have taken place over a much longer period of time than it did. There’s so much out of the ordinary to process and remember about these last three months.  Back home one month is much like the last, things change slowly.  But for three months we’ve been almost constantly on the move, rarely spending more than a couple of days in the same place.  Surely we couldn’t possibly have done so much in just three months?

Having become accustomed to a nomadic lifestyle it’s hard to believe that the next time we see the sun rise we’ll be back in rainy Ireland.  The thought brings mixed feelings. I’m relieved to be going home. I’m tired of constantly being on the move. While I love exploring new places and trying new things, it’s been tiring. An extreme test of endurance. We haven’t settled long enough anywhere to establish routines for eating, exercising, relaxing. I’m not sure I would enjoy seeing more countries and places without a break. I’m looking forward to some normal healthy food, having our own house back again instead of living out of a backpack, and not having to keep planning ahead to make sure that we have a roof over our heads and are spending our limited time and money wisely. The thought of a country that’s too cold for the kind of insects that have been plaguing us with their bites is quite appealing.  A break from the intense heat and humidity. And of course the ability to see friends and family again.  For all of these reasons and more I’m glad to be going home. But I also know that the relief of being home will only really last for the first weekend. Then it’s back to the daily grindstone at work and soon I’ll be wistfully thinking about being on the road.

For that reason, we try and make the most of the remaining hours and see that little bit more of Bangkok although our thoughts are already firmly on the end goal of reaching home. Bangkok has the dubious distinction of being the last location in our travels, and understandably our enthusiasm for seeing the sights has waned. We also need some time to brace ourselves for our longest flight yet. Bangkok is such a colossal city that there simply isn’t a hope of us exploring much in the space of a few hours anyhow, so we settle for getting a quick impression of the lively streets by day.  We make our way on a long, hot trek up to pass by the Grand Palace and Wat Po before circling back around. We pass through various market areas on this route. First, hordes of electronic music equipment.  Shop after shop displaying amps and instruments of every type. Then it all changes as we cross a road. Next up is the equivalent of a “Guns ‘R’ Us” superstore. Suddenly instead of guitars, all the shop windows in sight proudly display guns, ammo and every conceivable type of jacket or strap with SWAT proudly emblazoned across them.  With such easy access to arms I’m not anxious to see what would happen here in a period of civil unrest. Funnily enough, the section right beside this arms artillery is full of religious paraphernalia. Golden statues of buddha in every possible pose smile benevolently at us.  We don’t encounter any more similarly specialised shopping districts, but we get the idea. This is an area of the city for bargain hunters who love browsing endless stalls full of similar goods and haggling for that elusive item with the right price.

We’re obviously not in one of the more tourist-orientated areas of Bangkok so apart from the ever-present 7Eleven stores, everything else is authentic Thai leaving us at a disadvantage when it comes to getting food. Back at our hotel we spend a little time downstairs relaxing in the cafe. Most Thai Cafes are hideously off the mark. It’s either terrible coffee, the steamed milk they offer you with your tea, or the lack of any recognisable baked goods. Thailand just doesn’t do good bakeries.  Unlike Japan where they’ve taken to French bakeries like ducks to water, it’s very hard to find a nice muffin and cup of tea/coffee here. Admittedly, maybe we’re just in the wrong area of Bangkok for that kind of thing.  Luckily the coffee and cake is fairly presentable in the hotel. It will keep us going until we head to the airport and avail of the fast food options there. We’re pretty confident that using the last of our baht to stock up on dunkin donuts produce will prove to be a smart move at some point during our never-ending flight across Asia and Europe.

As we sit in the cafe with the clock running down on our remaining time we make a new acquaintance. Another of the hotel occupants makes the mistake of asking us for suggestions on where to eat in the area. I try and not laugh at the thought of us giving any advice and explain that we’re just in the area overnight and weren’t very successful in our food-finding mission the night before. In fact, had we known there was a McDonalds in the area, it’s almost certain we’d have ended up there, thankful to get food of any description. We do know where to get guns though! We have learnt something during our stay here. And so we spend our last couple of hours chatting with Eric, who is an American living in LA, but en-route to India for a stint doing some charity work in the hospitals. In the typically random fashion that travelling in foreign countries encourages, we find ourselves talking to a person from a very different background and walk of life from ourselves. It’s a big plus to converse with someone whose first language is English for a change too. All too soon though, we’re in danger of getting behind our schedule for the night.

Our timing as we head out to catch a taxi to the airport couldn’t possibly be worse. We exit the hotel amid a cacophony of explosions in the air above.  Last night’s fireworks were a mere taster of what’s going on this time. Rockets scream through the air and the heavens explode in a blaze of light and sound. Assorted charred components drift down onto the street, scorched charcoal feathers of something that disintegrates as they reach the ground. The deafening booms echo endlessly through the streets. Trying to communicate with taxi drivers proves fruitless as no one can hear anyone else. We stand in the middle of the road with our rucksacks and wait impatiently for a break long enough to signify that this is the end of the mayhem. We quickly pile in to the next available taxi and enjoy a five minute back and forth conversation with the driver about whether we are or aren’t going to use the meter. Satisfied that the meter is on, we settle back and hope that the traffic doesn’t get any worse while we crawl through the streets edging towards the highways in the sky.

Once we’re on the highway the pace picks up and we’re back to dodging other vehicles with narrow margins for error. We’re somewhat indifferent to it by now so long as no vehicle actually touches ours. 30km later and we’re back at Bangkok airport doing the check in rigmarole for the last time.  As we’ve an international departure this time around things are much more complicated and the queues are endless. This eats away into our free time but we manage to load ourselves up on some good old Burger King and I take off on a mad dash around the duty free shops looking for items that were requested at the last minute by my sisters. We follow our plan and purchase a large box of cheap doughnuts that we’re confident will see us through any food shortages until we get home. As the time for boarding approaches I do one last race around the stores in a hurried spending spree for the sole purpose of decimating the remaining baht I’m still carrying around.  Let’s just say we won’t be running out of tiger balm or incense for the next few months. When I’m down to 20 baht it’s time to ditch the remainder in the charity box and join the large number of people sitting around at our gate.

Thailand is the most interesting of the three Asian countries we’ve visited on this tour. There’s a vast difference from one end of the country to the other. Especially between the sunny beach resorts and the bustling cities. We’ve had many more varied experiences here than we were expecting and it’s the only country of the group that I’d have a strong inclination to visit again. There are lots of things I hate about it, but also a lot of things that are worth coming back for more of, not to mention all the things we haven’t yet seen. It’s been an interesting ending to our travels around the world. For now though, it’s definitely home time. We board the plane and settle into our cramped seats, dreading the incredibly long journey ahead, but relieved that the end is almost in sight.