Friday, October 15, 2010

My wandering path through Thailand

Well, I am glad that I did not make any concrete plans, but rather just had goals and ambitions, but left myself open to change.  But I'll start back where I left off after the scavenger hunt through Bangkok...

Thursday (the day after the scavenger hunt and hanging out at a small bar in downtown Bangkok) it was planned to meet some other members of couchsurfing at the northern train station at Hua Lamphong around 7:30 am.  My host got up late to call a taxi for me to get to the subway (he lives about 20km outside the city center, the subway starts about 10km away) and the subway took much longer than I expected to get to the station (about 45 minutes, with 18 stops) and long story short, I ended up being late to the meeting point and missed the 8 am train by 1 minute.  I called a couple people who I thought were going, but none answered, so I bought a ticket for myself on the 8:20 train going to Ayutthaya.

The train station was very was an odd mix of modern construction and technology, with an obviously old structure and very old benches.  I was told today (saturday) that most of the railroads were built by Thai slaves during WW2, so although the rail system is fairly good, it is a sad memory for many Thais.  The station was full of a big variety of people, from the destitute who were probably traveling with some of their last baht to find work or visit family, to backpackers fully loaded with the nicest backpacks and high-tech clothes, guide-book in hand.  The picture to the right was at a station farther up the line, but hopefully it gives you an idea of how people use the train in is much more than just an easy way to go visit friends or whatever, many of them were carrying goods to take and sell.  I almost expected to see some animals (not pets, but those being taken to be butchered, cooked, and sold), but was disappointed on that front.

I bought my ticket in 3rd class for 20 baht with no air-conditioning, but still relatively comfortable, and with the window down and the wind blowing in my face it was a nice ride.  I sat with an old lady who spoke no English, but we had a short conversation still about where she was from and where I was from, and where we were going.  It's amazing how with a few gestures and simple words, much can be understood.

Having not ridden many trains in the US or anywhere else I guess I wasn't used to riding in the lap of luxury or anything, so this train seemed just fine to me.  I sat near the end of the car, but close to the front of the train still.  It seems like with how close to the front I was, 1st and 2nd class must not have been too big, or if there even was a 1st class.  The train stopped several times before it got out of Bangkok, and the picture at left which I took during my scavenger hunt shows a pretty typical stop in downtown BKK.  This was taken under the Phaya Tai BTS station, but apparently there is a train stop there too...people standing in between the tracks is completely normal, and the gates across the road are placed there by hand by guards who I guess stand there all day?  When we weren't moving much, sitting in traffic I guess, it got pretty hot because it rarely drops below 80 F here, with 80-90% humidity being about average.  The rains are actually a nice respite because it cools the air just a bit and legitimately gets you very wet, instead of just making you sweat slightly and feel sticky.  It may not sound like much fun, but at least there's rarely a need for a jacket or pants.  The rains, although typically heavy, are also typically brief.

When I got to Ayutthaya alone I started searching for somewhere to rent a bicycle and ride around the ancient city, seeing the temples (wats) and cruising around among the locals.  Although it took me a bit to find a place and was an interesting adventure along the way - maybe I'll tell that in another post - I made it and for 40 baht I had a set of wheels for the day.  The city is not very big, and in about 10 minutes I was pretty much on the opposite side.  I saw quite a few temples and took quite a few pictures, but without a local there to guide me, I was pretty ignorant of the history and significance of the places.  All the signs are in Thai and I didn't want to spend the 70 baht to buy brochures at each place...

Nearly all of the temples were in ruins, but I guess most are quite old - 200+ years.  The Buddha images though were quite surprising, as they were almost all damaged in some way.  The majority of them were missing their heads and/or arms, with the rest being disfigured in other ways (missing shoulders, torsos, just the top of the head, etc.)  Still, they are revered and respected by Buddhists, as you can see by the yellow string of flowers on the broken Buddha image to the left.  

After touring around quite a few temples and seeing elephants, a small floating market, and a lot of surprised locals (apparently most farang - foreigners - don't ride around on bicycles, but instead take tuk-tuks or motorbikes) I decided to head back to the train station at about 2:15.  The next train back to Bangkok was not scheduled until 3:35 so I found a massage place and got a one hour foot massage for 200 baht.  It felt good, but unfortunately my feet were still a bit sore when I put my shoes back on and went back to the station.  

When I got to the station I found out that the train had somehow been delayed until 4:45, but having already turned in my bicycle and being ready to get back to Bangkok, I just hung around the station.  It didn't take long before I met some fellow travelers.  First was Ed, a slightly overweight older guy from Tennessee who was balding and wearing a sweat-soaked Nike t-shirt.  He was sitting on the hard wooden bench outside on the platform waiting for the train to Bangkok.  He had 3 large (1.5L) beers in a plastic bag, with one in his hand. Upon hearing that I was from the US and had just graduated in June, he immediately grabbed another one out and opened it for me, without asking if I even wanted it.  Apparently being a recent college graduate automatically means I'm open to drinking free beer, good call Ed.  The beer here really isn't any different, most is between 5.5% and 6% abv.  I hung out with Ed the rest of the time before the train came and on the train.  We pretty quickly downed the beers he already had, and at about 4 went back across the street to the little market which had food carts with a variety of meats and noodles being cooked.  The aroma was great, like being at a giant barbecue with a ton of different spices and flavors all being blended together.  Most things are grilled and smoked over open flames, though I'm not sure what they burn, probably propane.  Ed was very generous and bought me beer for the train ride, I think he was quite happy to have a fellow American to ride with and the money he saved in taking 3rd class over 2nd class (the only difference according to him seemed to be assigned seating) meant he still came out ahead.

After getting back to the station from the market, fully prepared with 6 fresh, cold beers for the train ride, and a few skewers of barbecued chicken (40 baht per beer, and 30 baht per skewer of chicken) we sat down and started to eat.  While we were sitting there a pair of couchsurfers who I had met the night before at the bar, after the scavenger hunt, showed up and we all began talking.  

About 10 minutes before the train was scheduled to arrive I noticed a lone backpacker sitting, or rather laying, on a bench across the platform.  She looked tired and bored, and when I got closer I noticed small Canadian flags sewed to her backpack.  I said hello and started talking with her, asking if she wanted to come join our random group of travelers (at this point we had also added a lone Japanese guy with a massive bundle of dreadlocks perched atop his head) as we drank beer and chatted on the platform and on the train back to Bangkok.  Our group's plan when we reached Bangkok was to immediately head to the river and ride a river taxi up to the pier near Khao San Road, where there was a couchsurfing meeting at yet another bar, to meet with yet more travelers.  After talking with her for a few minutes the train was coming near and everyone was hurrying out into the middle of the tracks - unfortunately I didn't get a picture, but there were railroad ties on the ground to raise it to the level of the tracks.  There were 2 railroad-ties laid end to end to make a path from the platform out to the middle of the tracks, where we all had to stand to board.

It turned out that the Canadian's name was Emilie, and she was taking the train back to Bangkok because she was quite sick and had been for almost 3 days and wanted to get to a hospital.  She had bought a ticket in the air-conditioned first class so that she could have her own seat and be as comfortable as possible, so we wished her the best and found seats together in our non-a/c 3rd class. 

For the entire 2 hour train ride I sat with Ed as he showed me several different ways to open beer bottles, some I had seen before some I had not. We were joined by Thancyn - one of the couchsurfers (a big Burmese guy who is from Texas, and travels with his wife around the world as they teach English and do freelance reporting - they are headed to Burma in a couple weeks to report on the upcoming elections.)  Across the aisle was Thancyn's wife Courtney and the Japanese guy whose name I cannot recall.  The train ride was a great deal of fun, and by the end of it we were all super excited to get to the bar and meet up with the others.  I'm sure the 4 or 5 big beers I had drank since meeting Ed contributed to the excitement.  However when we got off the train in Bangkok and started walking out towards the street, my plans were immediately changed.

We again ran across Emilie, who was now searching for a phone so that she could call a contact she had in Bangkok and get to the hospital.  I offered her mine and after a brief conversation in French - she's actually from Quebec, and I'm sure plenty of jokes will ensue - she hung up and looked even more distraught than before.  Our group of travelers offered to take a taxi with her to the hospital - which wasn't too far away - but traffic was so bad that no metered taxis would even think about going in that direction.  Finally we found a driver willing to haggle over the price and said for 150 baht he would take us there (for 150 baht in a metered taxi you can go all the way across the city, we were going about 20 blocks).  When we were actually going to the taxi, my fellow travelers decided maybe they would rather just help pay for the fare and go to the bar to meet up with everyone else.  I could see the fear on her face when it seemed like we were all leaving her, and could only imagine being in her situation.  

Traveling alone is exciting and invigorating most of the time, but when you get in trouble and need help, you are completely reliant on yourself and the goodwill of others.  It can be incredibly scary, and not yet having been in a situation where I was in real trouble and really needed help, I cannot even imagine how scary it would be to think you would have to go through it completely alone, and have no idea what was going to happen or how you would be when it was all over.  Just thinking about how scary it would be if I was in trouble, and what I would want somebody to do for me, I offered to still go with her to the hospital and make sure she got there and got taken care of.  I still fully intended on just going, basically dropping her off, and turning around to go meet the others at the bar and have a fun night in the backpacker mecca of Bangkok, which is one of the biggest backpacker destinations in the world.

The cab driver had apparently thought we said the name of another hospital, even though we had had a bilingual Thai speaker write it out in Thai so there could be no mistakes.  He got us within about 3 blocks, but I think that traffic was so bad he just made up the excuse of a mistake so he could get us out and escape the traffic.  We hurriedly jumped out and I grabbed her backpack, leaving her to carry my small bag with cameras and maps in it.  The driver was useless in giving us directions to where we really wanted to go, so we had to resort to asking locals selling their wares on the sidewalk.  After being pointed down a small side street we had to run across 6 lanes of traffic to cross the street and get going in the right direction, which at that hour was nearly gridlocked and not much of a problem.  Normally traffic in Bangkok does not stop for pedestrians, and little motorcycles weave through traffic as if it was unmoving and they were simply racing through an obstacle course at breakneck speeds trying to win first place.  

When we got to the side street which the hospital was on it seemed like it stretched out for miles with no end in site, the sidewalk was made up of broken blocks and 200 ft down the road we ran across freshly poured concrete, forcing us to walk on the busy street with cars racing by.  We had no idea how far down the road it was or even if this was the correct road, so every time I saw somebody standing on the side of the street or at a security gate I ran over and pointed to the hospital on the map, trying to ask where it was.  They kept pointing us further down, and I could tell that she was having a hard time just walking down the street but wouldn't let me take the two small bags she was carrying.  When we finally reached BNH hospital, apparently the nicest private hospital in Bangkok - probably the nicest in Thailand - we went to the emergency room, which looked more like a reception room at the hospitals I've been to in the US.  The nurses were all dressed in perfectly pressed uniforms and there was no hurry to care for her, but instead the asked her to fill out some forms before she could have a bed.  Hopefully this procedure could be circumvented in the case of a life threatening emergency.

When they got Emilie into a bed and started asking questions I started thinking about how I would feel being there, laying in a bed alone in a foreign country, with people asking questions and trying to treat me for some unknown ailment.  I don't really know what made me stay at that point, but I just felt like I should, and should do whatever I could to help her get through the ordeal.  I called a couple friends who I had met who would be at the bar, to let them know I wasn't going to make it to hang out, and pretty much hung out in the waiting room for a while before going in and sitting with her behind the curtains.  At that point I still figured that once they got her situated and taken up to a room to get cared for, I would leave and go back to stay with my CS host.  

For whatever reason I ended up staying with her through the night and sleeping on the couch-turned-bed in the hospital room, which looks more like a hotel.  I talked with my CS host who was nice enough to bring my backpack full of stuff - mildly important things like my clothes, laptop, passport, etc. - and meet me at the BTS (sky-train) station near the hospital on Friday morning.  Again I had fully intended on going to meet with other couchsurfers to go south towards Phuket on Friday afternoon, but instead chose to ride the canal boats around Bangkok for a while and stay with Emilie again so she was not stuck in her hospital room alone with nothing to do all day but read her travel guide and watch Thai TV.  In the evening I took the MRT (subway) up to go bowling with some couchsurfers and grab dinner, leaving her with my laptop to facebook and email her friends and family. 

In the mall which housed the bowling alley, there apparently was the bowling alley, an ice-skating rink, and a movie theatre with 10 screens, all on the TOP floor.  It seems to me like all of those things would go on the bottom, but I guess not.  The escalators also made no sense.  Typically they are arranged so that going up or down you only have to take a few steps to get to the next escalator going the same way, but in Thailand it seems to alternate so that the end of the up is next to the end of the down, so you have to walk around the mall to get to the next escalator to go up another floor.  I suspect they just want you to have to look at more shops and see their junk so hopefully you will buy something.  There is also a full skating rink on one of the floors, but I never looked to see which one.  The bowling alley played all western music, and even had the little animations on the screens mocking the player based on their efforts in that frame.

When I left I walked past the MRT station, thinking that I had seen it and it was closed because the trains had stopped running for the night.  I turned around and started jogging back to the hospital because it was about 3km, but luckily I saw where I had previously gone by, that the MRT station was actually open, so I went down and took the train back to the station closest the hospital and got back at about 11pm.  Walking by myself from the MRT station to the hospital, I was approached several times with guys offering to sell me porn DVDs, and probably more if I wanted it.  I also saw a few clear instances of the sex trade, in about 3 blocks on the main road I saw 2 different old white men with young Thai women, and one old white guy with a young Thai guy.  Sad, but I guess it's the reality of things.

Today she should be discharged in an hour or so and we will be taking a bus to Pattaya, which is south-east from Bangkok, not towards Phuket but still nice and tropical beach-like.  From there we will head to Koh Samet and Koh Chang.

I don't know exactly when I'll be updating my blog again, but hopefully this has given a good idea of what I've been up to and what it's like here...

Until next time!


  1. Excellent post! Head to Laos young one, but first head north....

  2. well i'd love to head north, but the flooding has kind of messed that trains were running as of monday, and bus prices have skyrocketed as a result. i could fly, but it's almost $60 one way, which seems a little high.

    i'm thinking of going to india for a month or so, so maybe on my way back to nam from there i can go check out the north for a couple weeks.