Vern: We had intended to do some more island hopping off of Thailand's east coast but with heavy rains and 3m high waves battering that part of the country, we decided to change course. Confucius says, "Man who goes through airport gate sideways is going to Bangkok" and so were we. A ferry took us to Krabi, where we boarded a bus headed north. Our tickets were traded in for coloured stickers to be worn on our chests indicating our intended destination - an elegant solution to the problem that the staff and the passengers can't speak the same language. After four hours we were unloaded out onto the sidewalk in a town where not a single sign had any roman letters on it: "Wait twenty minutes."
After ten minutes, a man and his 10 year old son pulled up in a brand new twin-cab pickup-truck customised with disco lights and blasting Katy Perry out of the stereo. The closest six people to the curb were ordered on to it. Andrea climbed inside, while I was on the back. The driver hit the accelerator, his son dialled up the volume and we sped off into the night for a short tour of this nameless town in a vibraring disco truck. I felt eighteen again!
Andrea was still belting out, "Last Friday Night!" when the truck pulled over and shut off, leaving her singing a cappella and making the ten-year old chuckle. A bus was waiting there which we diligently boarded. As it started up the conductor came round to collect everyone's stickers - presumably as this was the last leg of the journey. I realised that mine had blown off while I was sitting on the back of the bakkie and when the conductor came round I tried to explain this with some hand gestures which appeared as if I was miming tearing off my nipple and throwing it over my shoulder, while blowing a mouthful of air at him. He shrugged and I was permitted to stay aboard.
It traveled through the night before coming to an abrupt halt at around 5am. A bus load of bewildered foreigners spilled out into the night, and as soon as the last backpack was unloaded the bus sped off and left us - prey to the circling tuk-tuk drivers. We pushed through the fuss and headed for an intersection to get our bearings. All the lights were on on the party strip, Khao San road, and intoxicated souls sat on little plastic stools on the side of the road, amongst litter and half eaten food, while others drunkenly zig-zagged past tired street vendors and toward the bank of tuk-tuks, all queued up to rip them off one last time that night.
We ventured down the quiet tiled end of Rambutri Road as the curtain lifted for a new day. Monks in tangerine togas carrying baskets whispered down the alleys collecting 'alms' - their food for the day, cooked and donated by the devoted. The first two guesthouses we found with a twenty-four hour reception were full but the third had a room for us. It was a paradoxical place - our bed was dressed with Louis Vuitton sheets, but the urinal was in the hallway and unobscured.
After a quick nap we were ready for the sunlight. Well no we weren't - at 11 in the morning it was 30-something degrees Celsius and humid - so after an ice coffee we were ready for the sunlight. Khao San road was a now a chaotic mess of vehicles and pedestrians fighting for the same space. Market stalls line both sides of the street, and tailors wander around with books of photos of men in suits shouting how good looking I could be if I followed them over to their stores. Discarded massage and Thai cooking lesson flyers littered the floor like fallen confetti. We were still hunting for a little backpack; cheap and no-name brand but sturdy. Unfortunately, for the shopping mecca which Bangkok is made out to be, finding anything well-made is nigh on impossible. In a backpack stall, we checked the seams and straps of a shoddy fake North Face backpack. I attempted to open the bag's pouch and with the tiniest tug I inadvertently pulled the zipper right off and it went flying across. My heart sank. "She's surely going to want me to pay for this," I thought. Nope, she didn't bat an eyelid. We carefully stress-tested another bag which after some bartering we bought. Our crappy fake backpack would require super-glue along the hem-lines to reinforce it but it just might hold up for the final six weeks of our trip.
Andrea's friend, John, who teaches English in Bangkok joined us in the afternoon and impressed us by asking the clerk at 7Eleven, in Thai, to pop the caps off of the bottles of Chiang Beer. We drank on a street corner (and later at a café which popped up on our street corner) and talked novels, religions (bad idea), kings and cultures. John had us chuckling with a story about how a heated conversation with a tuk-tuk driver, in Thai, got him punched in the face.
The next day we set out on what turned out to be an epic journey to get train tickets. A helpful youngster suggested that we stop by the official Tourist Information office to check ticket prices and while we were in the area check out two nearby temples. He even talked a tuk-tuk driver into driving us to all three for a ridiculously low 30 baht. I was determined not to set foot into a Bangkok tuk-tuk, but Andrea was enticed by getting to mix up our admin with some sightseeing and all for a bargain local's price so we climbed into the tuk-tuk.
The driver puttered over to a Tourist Information building and asked for a third of the agreed amount. I paid him and we went inside. A free agent ushered us over with a smile. I explained that we were going to take the train north that evening, could she tell me the official prices (without agent's commission). She produced a laminated table with some prices which still seemed a bit high. "Okay thanks.. we're going to go to the train station now to the buy the tickets, can you tell me-"
"Have a nice day!" she cut me off. She whipped the price list off the table and wouldn't say another word to us. This was not the official Tourist Information. The tuk-tuk driver was gone. He'd taken us to a bogus agent and then stranded us. Which actually was a relief since I'd expected to be dragged to gem shops and tailors all day, from one high pressured sales pitch to another, which is the usual con and the reason that Bangkok taxi drivers are infamous.
Through a smelly market, selling live catfish and snakes among other things squirming and spluttering, we walked to the river's edge and waited for the Water Taxi. The waiting area and walkways were underwater because of the recent flooding and we moved about on stacks of sandbags. Large fish with square-mouths splashed around on the surface appearing to breathe air.
The water taxi took us south to Chinatown, where a tuk-tuk tout purposely gave us wrong directions. Despite this we found the train station, where a sneaky agent posing as an information counter clerk, made a last ditch attempt to extort a commission from us. It took us three hours to find the train station where the tickets can be bought at the standard rate and this sneaky little agent tries to nab us at the last minute and tack an extra fee onto the fare. If we were happy to pay a commission we would've bought the tickets at the hotel. It would have taken 5-minutes. So after a few minutes of cloak and dagger we snuck up to the ticket counter and bought the tickets. (Reading this back, I have probably recounted the least exciting day in Bangkok ever committed to ink, but it was a frustrating day with a happy ending so thanks for reading this far!)
Later we dumped our big backpacks, filled with winter stuff we hope not to need in Asia, at John's place. John assures us that except for anything of value (which will be fleeced on the nearest street corner) he's okay with holding the bags for two months. Thanks dude!
We met John's girlfriend, Paeng, and we joined them for dinner at an authentic hole in the wall restaurant. John took delight in ordering, in Thai, chicken feet in Tom Yam Soup and a dish called 10 000 year-old horse-piss eggs. The dish was delicious, the pickled eggs had turned a jelly texture and were served in a savoury sauce. We ate and drank and talked and almost missed our train. After running through the metro stations scaring the locals we made our train with ten minutes to spare, which then left 45 minutes late.