I’m running so far behind on this blog, but we’ve spent the last 24hours on a bus from Hanoi to Vientiane – so I finally found some time to pen the following. You can expect more soon! (Publishing without pics for the time being – *updated with pics 9th Dec 2015* That took a while!)
There is an almost indescribably vast chasm of contrast between what we left in Delhi, and what we found in Bangkok…and we were certainly ready for a change!
Bangkok is a modern, thriving metropolis and the beating heart of South East Asia for many travellers. It’s the access point, the jumping off point, the melting pot. From here, you can go anywhere and yet it is, of course a hugely popular destination in its own right.
Our arrival in Bangkok demonstrated the difference in cultures and behaviour immediately. Having made it through immigration, we got ourselves a map and headed towards central Bangkok on the sky-train. It’s essentially the same as the tube but loads quicker, loads quieter, and on a monorail in the air (so you get great views of the city). The stark contrast was played out on the platform before we boarded the train however. As the airport is the end of the line, the station staff and security sweep the train after everyone has disembarked before letting the waiting passengers get onto the train. This is not unusual in itself I suppose, but the manner in which it happened was so organised and so well behaved that it kind of blew our minds just a little bit – especially when we thought back to our third day in Delhi and the rugby scrum style approach we developed (and honed pretty rapidly and successfully I might add) to getting on and off of the metro trains. They were rammed to the eyeballs.
A few minutes before the train arrived in Bangkok, everyone was lined up in a series of queues on the platform. These all corresponded exactly to lines painted on the platform itself directing you where to stand to facilitate ease of movement of groups of passengers. Then, a rather elderly and frail-looking man with a high vis jacket walked along the platform edge, making an announcement in Thai and gesturing to wait. There was only he and one other guy to control the entire station. You’d need a flippin’ army to keep Indians off a train once it’s arrived in a station – they think nothing of climbing in through the windows! And the same goes for Londoners on the tube, wouldn’t you say? Actually, the last train we caught in India, our carriage was locked so one guy did indeed climb into the emergency exit hatch and open it from the inside. This appeared to be entirely normal behaviour…
Anyway…back in Bangkok (and with fresh Indian memories in my mind) I was chuckling to myself as I thought, ‘Good luck holding this lot back mate. Good luck indeed, oh ho ho ha ha! Watch them run! He he!’ And as the train pulled in, and the passengers calmly disembarked through the gaps left by the painted lines, I was waiting, just waiting, for the inevitable to happen…for somebody to break the line and start a mad dash and scramble for seats that would see elbows flailing and heavy bags being dragged and children pushed, pulled and heaved this way and that in the melee of screams, shouts, and muffled grunts of desperate effort just to make it there before the last space has gone and the doors slam shut on the late ones’ hopes of ever getting a place on the magical train.
But it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen like that at all.
The doors opened, the passengers got off, and then … nothing. The old man in the high vis stood at the end of the platform and surveyed the scene as hundreds of travellers (who only 40 minutes earlier had no doubt been involved in some sort of baggage carousel ruck and maul) stood perfectly still. Nobody flinched, nobody twitched, nobody moved muscle. I thought maybe this old guy was Yoda and this was a work of the Force.
The train staff swept through the train, it took two, maybe three minutes, and then it was clear. The doors were open, the train was ready, the passengers were inches away, literally, from the train and still – not a single person moved. All eyes shifted to the old man. He stood for a moment, nothing more, almost just waiting to see … and then, with no sound, just a simple motion, a small wave of his hand, he admitted the passengers to the train. And everyone just stepped forwards and took their place.
Oh wow. A whole new world (sang Aladdin to Jasmine – totally irrelevant) we thought as we raced through the air on the sky-train towards the centre of Bangkok and the one place that every Thailand traveller will know – the Khao San Road.
We had to get a taxi at the end of the sky train, but that was quite exciting because all of the taxis in Bangkok look like something out of The Fast and the Furious. We hailed a pink Toyota that had lowered suspension, a body kit, leather interior and a large exhaust hanging out of the back of it. ‘This is going to be fun,’ I thought. And then off we went, into the Bangkok traffic. Which was heavy! Unlike Indian traffic, they all follow the rules, hardly ever beep and there is seemingly a large amount of time spent sat in jams from one set of lights to the next. So much for my anticipated adrenaline thrill taxi ride!
On recommendation from Gav and Eleanor Lahney, friends who had been in Bangkok (and then pretty much followed the same route through Cambodia and Vietnam) a couple of weeks earlier, we opted to stay in The Greenhouse – a hostel style guest house which is actually on Rambuttri, the road that runs parallel to Khao San. The guy at the desk was from the Phillipines, slightly camp, spoke with a slight American accent and seemed incredibly excited to see us. ‘Oh, you’re British!’ he said, ‘I love the British, the British are so friendly, you’re like my favourite customers, you know, I used to work on a helpline for a firm that’s like Netflix but not Netflix and the British people who called were always so friendly, they were never rude to me, I love the British, so, here’s what I’m going to do, I’ve got a nice room for you, A/C, private bathroom, new beds, like ‘brand new’ beds, we literally just put them in there today buuuuuuut, well, I gotta tell you, it’s on the fourth floor …and there’s no lift but I really want you to have this room so I’m gonna sort you a discount, just give me a minuuuuuuute, there we go, cos it’s on the fourth floor but I soooo want you to have it cos I just loooove the British. That ok?’
‘Err, ok,’ we replied, with a smile. It was a good recommendation as the room did indeed have brand new beds, and a hot shower, although the door only came up to my shoulder – I wondered how Gav had got on here (he’s a good 2-3 inches taller than I am!). I had a quick shower, then as Helena was having hers, I shouted that I’d meet her in the bar.
I went downstairs and the bar spread out to encompass the entire pavement outside the hostel – as did all of the bars along the street. I saw a waitress and asked if I could just grab a table. She simultaneously indicated a free table and asked simply, ‘One large Chang?’ ‘How did you guess?’ came my reply, but I think she’d already gone off to get my beer. 20 mins or so (and two more large Changs) later, Hels joined me. We ate Pad Thai and got chatting to two girls who were sat beside us. They’d just arrived in Bangkok from England and were excited and a little scared by it all already.
Hels and I decided to head out for a walk to take in the atmosphere of Rambuttri and Khao San, two streets that are heaving with travellers and lined with bars, restaurants, shops, street traders and people trying to sell you tickets to a ping pong show; I wondered at Thailand’s apparent obsession with table tennis. We also fended off various people who approached with scorpions on a stick – which seems to be an entirely Bangkok thing so far!!
Then, I hear, ‘Hello mate!’ in my right ear. Wondering who on earth I knew in Bangkok, I turned right to see a guy I recognised but couldn’t place. Helena got there before me, ‘Oh hi! It’s Ric isn’t it? You were in Kerala?’ Ric had indeed been in Kerala on the same kayak trip through the backwaters and he’d mentioned his plans to head to Thailand. Still, it was a bit of a coincidence.
He wasn’t doing much so we walked around together for a bit before stopping in a bar with a live band. The beer started flowing at this point, along with the tales of India. Then the two girls from earlier wandered past and joined us. It turned into a bit of a late night…
The next morning, our first decision was that we needed to stay another night. And do some laundry!