Friday, January 30, 2015

One night (actually three) in Bangkok

From Siem Reap to Bangkok is another bus ride. I had been told that it was only a 3 1/2 hour trip, and on the map it looked like a fairly short distance, but as usual nothing is as it seems. Sure, the trip to the Thai / Cambodian border is fairly fast. But then there's the border to be navigated. The bus just stops and points you in the direction of the border, you need to then figure out where to go and, more importantly, how to get on your new bus on the other side. Once across the border it turned out that we were put in the back of a truck, then taken to a restaurant for lunch. And then groups of people were loaded into large vans for the rest of the trip to Bangkok. If someone had explained this to a single person on the trip in advance it would have gone much better, but as it was we were just a bunch of lost foreigners trying to figure out our way. One person had a flight to catch from Bangkok's airport, and I doubt he made it, because the 3 1/2 hour trip took twice that time.

I've been to Bangkok before and it isn't my favourite place. It seems like an amazing city if you've got lots of money, or if you're a broke backpacker seeking new experiences, but it wasn't somewhere that I really wanted to be spending much time. I needed to get a visa in order to visit Myanmar, and Bangkok is the place to do that.

I knew Myanmar was going to be pricey, so I went for some discount accommodation in Bangkok. I stayed in a place called The Blocks Hostel in a six person dorm room. It was actually a very nice hostel. Clean. Good storage. Comfortable beds. Big TV. Free washer and dryer. My only issue with the place was the staff, who were pretty unhelpful. Plus, the place didn't seem to have a system to track who was in which bed, pretty basic stuff for a hostel, so they weren't sure who was there and they tended to not be able to clean the rooms properly when they didn't know which beds were taken. This became a bit of a problem, but helped me to get to know one of my roommates, whom I hung out with a bit.

That roommate was a guy named Andreas Ferti. He was a weightlifer from the Munich region, who was travelling around SE Asia, with the intention of visiting gyms in each location and writing up a blog about it. He's a great guy, always looking for solutions to the challenge of keeping up bodybuilding nutritional eating in SE Asia. No rice, no noodles, lots of protein. Hard to do. His blog was called Lift and Travel, and you can see them of Facebook here.

Andreas, lifting his way across SE Asia
Good Thai beers. And our neighbors, interested in the gents with all the muscles.

One of the best parts about being in Thailand is the food. Thai food is always delicious, and Thai street food is cheap and fun. There was a great place just down the street from the hostel where I ate most of my meals while there. It's just an awning and a couple of guys over woks. It's hard to breath because of all the spice in the air. And the food is amazing.

Delicious streetside food.
Simple kitchen. Great food.


Getting the visa was a time consuming but simple process. I had arrived on Saturday and the visa section of the embassy was closed on Sunday, so first thing on Monday Andreas and I went down and got in line. You're told to show up with photos and your paperwork, but when you get there there is a van outside that will sell you photos and the paperwork, or when you get inside you discover you can get them there, and not pay for the paperwork. You get in line for an hour or so to get a number, then once you've got the number you figure out how long you've got. It can be a few hours. Andreas and I went and got some lunch, then went back and waited for another hour. When it was our turns we gave them our papers, passports and photos, paid the fee, which was a little more in my case because I wanted 1-day turnaround service, and got a number to come back the next day. It had taken most of the day, but there were no issues. The next afternoon I went at the appointed time and got in line again. After about an hour I got to the front and got my passport back with the visa. I was good to head into Myanmar. Other than having to give up my passport for a day, which I never like doing, it was simple.

No one in line. Because they're all across the street hiding from the sun with me, waiting for the doors to open for visa collection.

The other thing i needed to do was get a bunch of US cash. I had read that that was the only guaranteed form of currency to use in Myanmar, and that they would only take crisp new bills for exchange. So I needed to get enough Baht to change into USD to have for my time in Myanmar. Unfortunately, I made a mistake at the first ATM I visited in Bangkok, and left my card in the machine. Western machines always make you take your card before they give you your money, so you don't run off once you've got your cash. Thai ones don't work the same way, so when I got my money I think I must have concluded that my transaction was done, and I took off, leaving my card in the machine. I called the bank the next day, but they said that they just destroy any left cards, so my primary source of cash was gone. It wasn't a huge problem, because I could take out cash advances on my credit cards, but that's a very pricey way of doing things in a foreign country, and it doesn't always work. My loss of my ABN AMRO card turned out to be a pain right up until late December, when I was finally able to get a new card sent to me.

Evil ATM. Silly me.

The need for American currency in Myanmar is a bit of a funny issue. I was glad to have it, but I didn't really need it. There are lots of ATMs in many places, so as long as you plan ahead you're fine. But I was glad I had it in case I needed emergency back-up. Plus, since I entered the country on a one-way ticket, since I didn't know where I was going after, flashing the cash was what proved to the airline that I had means to get out of the country. If I hadn't had it they may have told me I couldn't enter the country. (I could have bought an exit ticket and thrown it out if my plans changed, but that's a pricey solution.) I left the country with 90% of the US money I entered with, but it's been quite handy ever since, as I've had a few visits to the US in the past months and haven't needed to get cash once.

There's not much more to say about my time in Bangkok. I read a lot and didn't really do much sightseeing. I love their food, but the city is a chaotic place, hard to get around. I was there for a purpose, and I got the job done. Next stop, Myanmar.

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