outhern Thailand


June-July, 2006

Thai flag

It was nearly a case of "you can't get there from here" that returned us to Thailand, after a five year absense. We wanted to get from Athens or Istanbul to Bali and do it cheaply. We couldn't get from Athens to Bali cheaply, so we went on via islands and ancient cities to Istanbul. And neither could we get from Istanbul to Bali cheaply. But we could get for a reasonable price to either Singapore or Bangkok and as we knew that Bangkok would be a good place for accomplishing a lot of missions, we chose the Thai capital.

We don't fly all that much, preferring land travel where we can. Now we've just jumped five time zones, from Istanbul to Bangkok, via Bahrain. In Istanbul we scheduled our pickup by the airport bus for four hours early as we always like to have plenty of time to get to the airport and then to go through security. Hanging around in the airport, if we do have extra time, is no big deal for us as we are as happy there reading as we would be in a hotel waiting for the bus. After picking us up right on time the bus went to a hotel near the Blue Mosque and found that the people who had made bus reservations weren't ready. We didn't know this at the time; what we observed was our bus going into a narrow street and then backing out with difficulty. "Why?" we wondered; "could the driver have been miss-informed?" From there we visited a good dozen other hotels and came back to the one that had puzzled us and picked up the late comers. They had been told the wrong time for the bus. There was a very good silver lining to this: we got a great free tour of almost all the important sites in central Istanbul, seeing again the Blue Mosque, St Sophia, the imposing gate into the Topkapi palace, the former hippodrome, and much more.

The bus did get to the airport speedily and with plenty of time for us. We'd been at the Istanbul airport before but never officially in it. How, you ask? When our wanderings started seven years ago we flew from London to Beijing with a change of planes at Istanbul. We weren't officially there because we never went through immigration. This time around we were there and consequently got to experience the usual airport doubling of prices in restaurants. We spent our last Turkish money on newspapers, having enough for Le Monde, Die Zeit, and the Herald Tribune. Then after a fair wait in the departure lounge — long enough to wonder where our plane was — we departed late.

On a side note, we didn't have the usual trouble getting our luggage down to a size small enough to fit into the allotted 20 kgs each. That was of course because we didn't have the six to eight kilos represented by our computers and the backpack they were stolen in.

A few hours later we started a three hour stop-over in Bahrain. We would have liked to have gone out and explored the place as the only Arab country we've been in is Egypt. What is a modern, even ultra-modern Gulf state like? We'd hoped back in Istanbul that our flight to Bahrain would be so late that Gulf Air would have to put us up for the night because we'd missed (at their fault) our connection. It wasn't so and all we got to see was the duty-free shop. Modern and glitzy, the only indication where we were was the marking of prices in Bahrain dinars as well as US dollars. Usually duty free goods are no cheaper than what can be found in town. That may even be true at the Bahrain airport but they were cheaper than what was on offer in Istanbul. If there had been laptop computers on sale we were prepared to buy one.

Bahrain to Bangkok was an overnight flight so Gerry's window seat did him little good. If we flew a great circle route we would have travelled about 5400 km, the mid-part of our flight taking us over Karachi and then the broad belly of India. We suppose that was the case but we saw none of this, sleeping through as much of the blackness as possible. Two hours before our morning landing we were overland and it was light. We might then have been over south-west Burma, but the cloud cover was heavy and there were no decipherable landmarks. An hour before landing at Bangkok mountains, edging a plain, were visible; these must have formed the border between Thailand and Burma.

Bangkok Arrival

After landing we naturally had the problem of getting out of the airport and to our hotel. It was only after going through immigration that we found out where we were. This may be a surprising statement but our doubts or uncertainty were due to the possibility that we might have arrived at the new Bangkok airport, Suvarnabhumi, rather than the old one, Don Muang. We didn't know if the switch had yet occured. We'd been at Don Muang several times and as soon as we got to where there were windows and we could see the highway we knew: we're on old, familiar grounds.

From Don Muang one can take a taxi from the many touts that greet arriving passengers, but their price is always over priced compared to the line of dispatch taxis available just outside the airport building. Or one can take a pedestrian bridge across the highway to the commutter train and go into town that way. We'd done that before, but this time elected to take the airport bus, a surprisingly rickety, barely aircon affair. Only after we asked the ticket price did we remember that we didn't have any Thai money to pay the 100 baht fare. Fortunately Thailand is extremely well endowed with ATMs; just inside the terminal there were a triplet of them — choose your bank and get your money.

The bus ride into town brought back lots of memories from our visit(s) of five years ago. As we entered the edge of the center of Bangkok we went by the Victory Monument and then switched over to Thanom (Blvd) Ratchaprarop. From here on lots and lots was familiar: we caught a glimpse of the Baiyoke Hotel tower and knew the Baiyoke Suites must be nearby. We'd made a reservation at the Best Western Elegance but thought we might switch to the Baiyoke, since nearby was Pantip Plaza; we'd soon be over there in search of new computers. Continuing south we recognized a half dozen upmarket shopping malls and then a scattering of big hotels. Shortly we turned on to Silom Rd, one of the most important up-market shopping areas of the city and knew we must be near the end-point of this trip. We expected the bus to go as far as the Shangri-La Hotel and that from there we would find the BW Elegance; we didn't know exactly where it was. To our surprise at the end of Silom the bus turned right, away from the Shangri-La, not toward it. We were told to get off; this was the end of the line. We'd have to walk more than expected.

We retrieved our bags from the bus, but not before the driver almost went off with two of them; we had so many. Then we piled them the usual two-two on our trolleys and were faced with a question: where do we go? From the web, when we'd made the reservations, Gerry had in mind a map, not overly detailed, of the location of the BW Elegance. In mind, unfortunately, and not printed on a paper in our hand.

Trundling our two trolleys, we set off to find our hotel. Just around the corner was a shop that seemed like it was run by Indians by their appearance. As they were much more likely to speak English than were Thais, we popped in and asked directions. After some consultantion between the two men in the shop we were given directions; very happily for us, they had heard of our hotel. Their directions were to go down a small street that they pointed to. We should have asked again because on crossing the road we somehow went right past the soi (or small side street) they had in mind — if it was there.

A few blocks later, convinced that somehow we'd missed the soi we were looking at the airport bus map in hopes of discovering something when a man stopped and asked us in good English if he could help. We explained we were looking for the Best Western Elegance and he offered to call on his cell phone and get directions. That done he offered to guide us. Although we said that wasn't necessary he insisted so we followed him. After following the directions for several blocks it was clear that the hotel was not in sight. He asked a person and that person sent him off (we not knowing this) farther from our hotel. Two blocks later we had to ask again and again got clear directions. This time Gerry suggested that Jan stay behind; there was no point in dragging the bags in the heat and humidity. You can guess that Gerry didn't think we were going in the right direction and your guess is right: Gerry was convinced that we were on the wrong side of a major road, Th. Charon Krung.

When Gerry and his guide arrived in front of the Shangri-La Hotel it was obvious to Gerry that the people giving directions thought that was what we were looking for; not the BW Elegance. As they went along Gerry learned from him that he was a Singaporean living in Bangkok for business. That seemed to explain our troubles: his Thai was not up to the task at hand. We think that when he had asked the questions "is the BW Elegance on the river side or away from Th. Charon Krung" he had got things backwards and that is why we ended up at the Shangri-La.

Gerry thanked the fellow and said that he didn't want to delay him anymore. (We're grateful to people whose sincere efforts actually cause trouble which makes it tough to thank them and get them to go away.) Then Gerry retrieved Jan and took her to a McDonald's he'd passed so she could guard the bags in cool comfort while he set off to walk every block until he found the place. Since the remembered map located the hotel in relation to the Saphan Taksin Skytrain station he went down the block until he could see it. Then he followed the elevated tracks east until voila — there on the top of an eight story building was the name he was looking for. As it turned out, The BW Elegance entrance was on a soi that led exactly back to the McDonald's where Jan was waiting.

We trundled down a very long block to the hotel, passing "old Bangkok": On this soi there weren't aircon malls nor 30-50 story office towers. We passed two story buildings with plenty of mildew on the outside. The street itself was half blocked with street business, mostly food carts. Behind them were small shops, including a laundry which we were sure we would use later. The mildewed outside of the BW Elegance building and the general appearance of the street raised the possibility in our minds that the elegance for which we'd pre-paid would not be delivered.

We went into the lobby. All changed. We were in cool air-conditioned comfort. It was attractive and clean. Our room was a fine, comfortable suite. On the roof was a pool that would be a pleasure to swim in. We began our recovery from our long travel.

July 21, 2006