Welcome back to the very delayed summary of our Southeast Asia trip! This post talks about our last week in Southeast Asia, which we spent in Thailand. Right before this week we finally hit a wall of exhaustion and the last nine months kind of caught up with us, so you’ll have to forgive the relative lack of photos and a somewhat more … pessimistic post. But this is what we remember most from this time, so bare with us …
First, let’s back up a bit. Back when we were in Hanoi (see this post for more details), we started making logistical plans for the next part of our trip, which was a week in Thailand before heading back to the United States. We had our plane tickets to Bangkok and then planned to hop on an overnight train up to Chiang Mai, where we’d stay for five days before heading south again. In Thailand the train tickets must be booked either in person or via email with a travel agent, which resulted in the following unfortunate series of events:
- Four days before we want to travel, submit detailed ticket request form to travel agent
- Receive email 24 hours later telling us the exact seats we want are gone, but there are others we could have – do we want them?
- Send email saying “Yes, we want those”
- Receive email another 24 hours later instructing us on how to pay for tickets
- Pay for tickets using instructions
- Receive email another 24 hours later (approximately 8 hours before flying to Bangkok) saying “Whoops, by the time you paid those tickets have been sold out too. No seats left, sorry.”
Now, up until this moment we had actually been feeling pretty fantastic. Whenever we’d tell people about how long we’d been traveling and what we’d been doing, their first question was inevitably about exhaustion, but we could honestly answer that we were feeling great! Fantastic! Doing fine! No problem!
Until this moment.
Our plans were to fly to Bangkok and go immediately to the train station and get up to Chiang Mai, but now we had no idea how we’d be getting there. Bus was the most obvious option, but we really weren’t sure we could handle another overnight bus ride. We were paralyzed by the idea of making a whole new series of decisions about what bus to take, whether to stop for the night on the way and where, which bus station to depart from and how to get there from the airport, etc. etc. etc. Traveling is an extended exercise in decision-making, every single day from the moment you wake up until the moment you go to bed, and it suddenly felt like the last nine months of decision-making had caught up with us.
So we had a mini freakout and spent about 20 minutes lying in the bed of our hotel room, throwing around ideas and getting more stressed out by the minute. I’m not entirely sure how we ended up coming up with the plan that we did, but I do know that it was definitely on Brett’s part that the next few days came together logistically. Thank you, amazing husband.
So. We flew from Hanoi to Bangkok and took a shuttle bus to Bangkok’s northern bus station, where we bought a ticket to a town about halfway to Chiangmai. We had a few hours to wait before the bus left, and managed to order ourselves a pretty delicious meal despite not a single letter of English in the food court. (Pointing is an incredibly effective mode of communication.) The supposedly 6-hour bus ride took only 1.5 hours longer than expected (practically early, based on Southeast Asia standards), the last two hours of which we spent on high alert making sure we got off at the correct station (and when the bus stops every 20 minutes, that’s a lot of high alert). This means we were treated to 7.5 hours of Thai music videos (every single one of which except one – one – featured Facebook) and 7.5 hours of Thai chips and cookies, the only thing available to eat on the journey.
After checking into our hotel our first order of business was buying a bus ticket to Chiang Mai for the next day, which turned out to be one of the more challenging communication-related situations we’ve been in all year. The bus station consisted of a few dozen windows at which you could buy tickets to various destinations, the signage for which were entirely in Thai. At one end of the station we found a sign that said Chiang Mai in latin script, so at first tried to identify the Thai characters in those words so that we could find a window that would sell tickets to go there. (“First letter looks like … an H with two swirly things. Second letter looks kind of like a present with a bow on top. Third letter is like an R with a spiral in the middle …”) This did not get us very far, but just before we were ready to stand in the middle of the station and yell “Chiang Mai! Tomorrow! We have money!” and see if anyone knew enough English to respond (oh, and I hate how all of this sounds … but honestly, walk into a bus station that has only a dozen or so words written in Latin script, and see if you can figure out how to buy a ticket …), a woman at one of the windows called us over in halting English. Through pointing and a small selection of English words we managed to buy a ticket for the next morning, and headed back to our hotel.
The next morning, we arrived at the bus station with enough time to get breakfast before our bus. Again there was no English anywhere, but we managed to get two bowls of pork noodle soup from a woman who at least knew the word “soup” and through gestures could communicate that the meat came from a pig. The woman who sold us the tickets the evening before had told us to show up an hour early, which we found a little confusing, but thank god we did and thank god she was working again the next morning, because when we arrived at the station she recognized us and motioned that we should get on a small minibus to go somewhere else. Lots of confusion ensued, but very long story short in turns out that our bus was leaving from the town’s other bus terminal, a 15-minute minibus ride away. Eventually we arrived at the other terminal, and a few minutes later we lined up to get on our bus. But they wouldn’t let us on. And no one spoke English. We’re honestly still not sure why they wouldn’t let us on that bus – a bus with the same number going to the same city – but all we know is that another bus showed up 10 minutes later and we tried again, and they did let us on that one.
Utterly exhausted, we arrived in Chiang Mai toward the end of the day and refueled/recuperated with steaming piles of fried noodles and a series of large bottles of beer.
The next morning, we headed out to the train station to buy our overnight tickets back south. I bet you see where this story is headed, but it doesn’t turn out at badly as you might think. The only tickets available left early in the morning and took all day, but we bought them anyway. Our five days in Chiang Mai were down to three, but we had tried our best.
And our three days in Chiang Mai were relaxed and lovely – Thai massages and temple visits and good food and lots of shopping at the night markets and a day-long cooking class. Our hotel wasn’t particularly notable, aside from the very strange pool, but overall the food was delicious and we had a great time buying gifts for family and friends and ourselves.
Our time on the train back south wasn’t particularly notable either, but our next two days were pretty great. We were in Ayutthaya, a town about an hour north of Bangkok, where we met up with Chris, one of Brett’s good friends from childhood and high school. He teaches at an international school in a small town outside of Ayutthaya, and took a short trip in to hang out with us. We spent a day biking around temples and eating great food and having fantastic conversation, and it was wonderful to see someone we knew. Ayutthaya is a pretty interesting small little town full of beautiful temples and surrounded by a river on which we took a sunset boat trip, and the whole experience was wonderful.
Next was a short van trip back into Bangkok for our last night in Southeast Asia. We had splurged on a nicer hotel room and decided to not worry about heading out into the city much, just to relax and get ready for our return journey. We had trouble finding a good meal in the neighborhood of our hotel for our last night, but nonetheless had a pretty good last day (including the best massage I had on the whole trip).
Oh, but then there was our trip to the airport. Our final task before going to the airport was finding a gift for a particular friend. We headed into one of Bangkok’s crazy massive shopping malls, and found the perfect thing. The only trouble was that we had already budgeted out every last Thai baht we had – exactly enough for the cab to the train station and the train to the airport and the gift – but the gift we found was 10 Baht more than we had budgeted. First, note that 10 Baht equals approximately $0.33. This will be helpful in understanding the tragedy of this story. We tried everything to bargain it down, even offering to give the woman a US dollar instead of the last 10 Baht. (No.) (And to be clear, this would almost double the price she was asking for.) We offered to pay with a credit card. (No.) We offered to give her two US dollars. (No.) We found another Western-looking couple and asked them if we could buy 10 Baht from them for 1 US dollar. (They were French, didn’t want US dollars. No.) Time was running short on our timeline of getting to the airport, so we threw caution to the wind and bought the gift anyway.
As you will see, that 10 Baht wouldn’t have even mattered in the end.
Fast forward, we’re in a cab going to the train station. We had budgeted about 70 Baht for the cab ride, but now we’re down to 60 because of the gift purchase. But really it should only cost about 45, and so as long as traffic’s not too terrible we should be okay.
Traffic is terrible. And about 3 minutes in we’re pretty sure the cab driver is taking the most roundabout way to get to the station. Normally when we had this suspicion we’d make them pull over and let us out, but all our luggage is in the trunk and our timeline of getting to the airport is getting a teensy bit strained. So we persevere.
At some point, we’re pretty sure we’re way out of the way, and the meter keeps going up. We pass 45 Baht, then 50, then 55, then 60, then 70. We’ll need to find a way to get more cash to get on the train, but our number one priority is just getting to the train station. So we wait. And wait. Eventually we can see the station, so even though we’re stuck in traffic we just get out, pay the cab, and walk the rest of the way. That’s when we realize that the driver took us to the wrong station. Still on the same train line, so we’ll still be able to get to the airport, but no wonder it cost so much. Despite our protestations throughout the ride that we needed to go to a certain station, he took us to a farther one.
We made our way up to the train station with all of our luggage and realized that the tickets to the airport are actually cheaper than we thought, which meant that after everything we were only 12 Baht short. (This is $0.41, to be clear.) At least the 10 Baht for the gift wouldn’t have made a difference, which is some small consolation. The only option to get more cash is to use the ATM in the station, which gives out a minimum of 200 Baht with Thailand’s customary 150 Baht ATM fee. We paid a $5 ATM fee to take out about $7 to get an extra $0.41 to get to the airport, all because a cab driver decided to be a jerk on our last hour of our last day in Southeast Asia.
Thankfully, you can drink beer anywhere in the Bangkok airport. We again ran into the problem that we couldn’t check in for our flight until two hours before departure, so we sat in the arrivals area and drank Changs and tried not to hate the cab driver. Our trip back was pretty uneventful, including another layover at the Seoul Airport and a relatively easy arrival into LAX.
Thailand was pretty great, despite all of our travel frustrations. We had frustrations everywhere, really, but these seemed more notable because all the exhaustion had finally caught up with us. But we didn’t try to do or see as much as we had in Vietnam or other places, and that made our last week more relaxed and enjoyable. I don’t know that we immersed ourselves in the cultural aspects as much as we had in other places, but we still had a great time.
We’ve been in the United States for about three weeks now, and hopefully we’ll get a post up about that soon. In a few days we’re headed off to Europe for our final international travel, then back to the US for a month before we move. More to come!