Travelling Light

Meeting Friends And Tying Loose Ends: Bangkok, Thailand, September 2014

On Sunday night, we had dinner with Nick and Luke, friends of Tom’s from (are we allowed to say that here?) the Freemasons in Sydney. As it so happens, both of them are now living in Bangkok, teaching English. Nick teaches at a university, and Luke teaches five to sixteen-year-olds at an international school.

Luke was full of stories about the cuteness of small Thai children, and Nick was encouraging about the ease of finding English teaching work in Thailand. Because Tom and Jenny both have undergraduate degrees as well as English teaching qualifications, we would be able to get well-paid work at a university, which would also arrange for us to have long-term visas – and end to the border runs should we decide to stay in Thailand long term.

Private language schools, on the other hand, often can’t arrange long-term visas for native speakers, because they are supposed to employ four Thai nationals for every foreigner, and many of them just don’t. Those who do basically have a raft of Thai nationals with nothing to do all day. Universities have lots of maintenance, cleaning, and catering staff, as well as Thai nationals teaching in most disciplines, so it is not an issue for them.

Myself, if I had a language school, I would be opening a subsection devoted to, for example, sewing T-shirts with English language text on them, so my Thai nationals were gainfully employed. But horses for courses, as it were.

Of course, having paid employment as English teachers would also mean turning up for work every day. Well, three days per week – that’s Nick’s current teaching load in his job. He does other work one day per week as well, and he makes plenty of money.

Either way, it would mean staying put for nine months every year, somewhere in Thailand. Hmmm. Not this year. Maybe later.

Nick and Luke were full of helpful information about how to extend our visas (we had wasted precious time at the airport on arrival being sent hither and yon before discovering that you have to go to an office elsewhere in the city to do it), which included the unwelcome news that the only way to avoid being there for hours was to be in the queue before the office opens. Set your alarm for 6am, they said.

We didn’t break away, reluctantly, until nearly midnight, despite knowing we had an early start. It is just too enjoyable chatting with old friends. We take them for granted when we live in the same city, but when you are travelling, time with friends is very precious.

Khao San Road is the only place we have ever seen a mobile ATM!

Apparently, the police have been cracking down on stallholders setting up in the middle of Khao San Road. They are only allowed to occupy the footpaths at the moment. While the police are actively enforcing the ban. This month.

We had managed to find a good travel agent near our hostel (which we scored for a bargain 420 baht per night – AUD$14), and secured ourselves sleeper berths in the air-conditioned second class sleeper cabin to Surat Thani on the night of the 29th, so we didn’t need to get to the station particularly early. This was good, because we were trying to cram a lot into the day.

We rose at sparrow fart, as per the plan, packed, put our bags in a locker at the hostel, ate breakfast, and wasted some time trying to find a taxi in the Khao San Road area who was willing to use the meter. In the end, we had to capitulate, and pay an agreed fixed price for the trip, or risk not being in the queue early enough.

The Government Centre In Memory Of The King’s 80th Birthday (yes, really, that’s what it is called) is biiiiiiiiiiig. Seven storeys high above ground, and at least one below.

Thanks to the brilliant inside information from Luke, Jenny was able to bypass the first queue by going to the second, hidden information counter to get the application forms, find out exactly what we needed, and then go downstairs and get the photocopies we needed done while Tom waited in the queue. We arrived at the front of the line with everything in order, and we weren’t sent away and told to line up again when we had everything. Bless you, Luke.

While we were waiting, Tom discovered he had the key to our room in the hostel in his pocket. He called them, and they said that checkout wasn’t until 12, so we could relax and not stress. We were actually out of the givernment office with our 30-day extension by 10.30, leaving enough time for the taxi ride back to the hostel with a comfortable half hour to go before noon.

Yes, it takes that long to go anywhere by car in Bangkok – the traffic is atrocious.

The next order of business was to post 6.5 kilos of winter clothes back to Australia. We won’t be needing those for quite a while!

From there, we went to a big shopping centre, so that Tom could buy a replacement battery pack/USB charger. The one which has served us so long and so well gave up the ghost. Most of it is probably fine, but the connection through which it recharges is stuffed, and nobody repairs those.

We couldn’t quite put our finger on the source of the slightly creepy vibe we got from this Ronald McDonald at the shopping centre …

The day was made perfect when Jenny was approached by a super-friendly kitten about three or four months old.

Finally, victory was ours. We had a charger, and Tom finally bought himself a harmonica. Now he just needs to learn how to play.

We also had food for the train, and plenty of time to get back to the hostel, collect our bags, and go to the station.

Once we were back at the hostel, we again had the frustration of trying to get a taxi to use the meter. In the end, we decided to walk to the end of the street and try our luck on the main road.

We were approached by a tuk tuk driver, who offered to take us to the station for only 10 baht (33c) if we just did him a favour and spent five minutes talking to people in the tourist information office. Apparently it is a government program to pay tuk tuk drivers to bring tourists to tourist information offices. We were dubious, and told him we wouldn’t buy anything. He said we didn’t need to buy, just ask questions and think about buying.

To save 90 baht (AUD$3), when we had plenty of time, we decided to give it a go. We were alert for every way that someone might be scamming us, which made us reluctant to leave our bags on the tuk tuk unsupervised, even if we did have all the valuables in the bag we brought inside.

One of us stayed by the window while the other talked, and after a few minutes we had established that all the travels we wanted to do to Surat Thani and then to Ton Kloi could be done on government buses, and we were ushered out courteously.

Outside, the tuk tuk driver said they wouldn’t give him the signature because we didn’t talk for five minutes. We hadn’t realised that it was timed. He said he would take us to another office and we could do the charade again, for longer this time, and then he would take us to the station for free. Unless Tom wanted to look at suits instead, which Tom categorically didn’t.

After ascertaining that is was still on the way to the station, we went to another office, and this time the staff brought our bags inside for us, so we could relax.

We had a good chat with a gentleman there, completely ignoring his attempts to move us on after three, three and a half, and four minutes. Then he cottoned on to the news that we were going to Koh Phangan with two other people in November, and he pitched us some overpriced accommodation on Koh Phangan, transfers from Surat Thani airport included.

He was visibly dismayed that we knew the price of the ferry to Koh Phangan, and that we had been there just this April and were well aware that in November accommodation on Koh Phangan should be really, really cheap, because it is low season. There was no offer of help from the staff to carry our bags back outside to the tuk tuk.

However, we had made it to five minutes (it was probably seven in all, actually), and our tuk tuk driver got his signature. We even gave him the ten baht when we got to the station, because nothing bad happened and he seemed genuine.

We still had time to have iced chocolates and relax at the station cafe before boarding the train in a leisurely fashion half an hour early.

Leave yourself plenty of time when you are travelling in Thailand, because you just never know what opportunities for adventure might come your way …