Emily didn’t really warm to Bangkok, it was too smoggy, had relentless stickiness and was pretty chaotic. In a way those things made me like it, not exactly the place itself but the fact that this was not home, where the air is relatively clean, it’s fucking cold and things are generally ordered and straightforward. After the past three years of paying off debt, saving up a lot of money, commencing a TEFL course and (sort of) planning a route to get ready for this trip, we were finally doing it and I loved everything about it.
Well, maybe I didn’t love the flight over given it lead to a slightly wasted first day in Bangkok, save meeting a couple of sound guys from Denmark and England. A very early start at 4am to get to Heathrow for a connecting flight to Amsterdam (cheers to Matt for driving us!) and a cramped 11 hour flight from Amsterdam to Bangkok on China Airways with no chance of sleep left us feeling cranky, shattered and me nauseous – like I always get if my little fucker of an alarm dares to wake me before 8am. So we didn’t fuck about with public transport once we got to Bangkok, instead we got a cab from Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport for a decent price on the meter of 380 baht/approx US$12 or £7 (including toll prices of 75 Baht and 50 Baht surcharge for getting a taxi at the official bay) to the backpacking heaven/hell that is the Khao San Road. We called into a couple of hostels which were full and eventually found a guesthouse called Siam Oriental and checked into a double room with AC, a fan and en suite bathroom with a cold shower (you could pay extra for a hot shower) for 550 Baht per night, with the intention of getting into a cheaper dorm room asap. We unloaded our stuff and put our heads down around 10am for a quick nap…
Getting out of Bangkok however was much more difficult than getting in. We had only wanted to spend a few days there, as we were itching to head to Siem Reap in Cambodia to see the Angkor Wat temples (which blew us away and set the bar for the rest of our travels – when we eventually got there!). We had read on t’internet and heard on the street from random friendly Thai guys (who came up to us to ask where we were from and how long we would be staying in Thailand) about the scams and aggressive tuk tuk and taxi drivers on the road from Bangkok to Siem Reap. So we wanted to steer clear of those as much as possible. Easier said than done…
One of the main pieces of advice our streetwise Thai guy friends told us was to avoid the “travel agencies” on the Khao San Road when buying bus tickets to Cambodia. It’s well known, and we had read about it before, that if you buy the cheap tickets from those scoundrels you’re just asking for your bag to go missing or getting dropped off at a fake visa office or having to pay a lot extra at the border for a second, and previously unheard of, mini-bus to Siem Reap…or maybe all of the above if they really don’t like your face! So Khao San Road scammer alley was not an option for us.
On the Sunday after getting there we had been taken on a government tuk-tuk tour of various sights in Bangkok (more of which in a bit, so hold your horses!). We asked the tuk tuk guy to take us to the official tourism agency, which was on a tourist map we had come across, hoping we could find out how to get to Siem Reap without getting shafted. “That agency will be legit” we thought..hhhhmmm. The first day we went in all seemed kosher, the guy helping us out was very clear there was a bus which would pick us up from our guesthouse and take us the whole way to Siem Reap for 750 Baht. That sounded expensive but it didn’t seem like a scam and so we said we’d think about it and come back soon if we wanted it. So far, so good.
That evening we read on-line that there was a Thai government bus, run under the name of the Transport Company Limited, from Bangkok to Siem Reap. It cost 750 Baht – so a bit naively we thought “great, that must be the one the tourist office dude was trying to sell us – we’ll just go along tomorrow morning and buy a couple of tickets. Sorted”. When we went back on the Tuesday to get the tickets (Monday being written off due to a late night on Sunday with our new buddies and jetlag being like the shit on your shoe that won’t go away), the same guy as before had magically bumped up the price to 990 Baht each after punching some mysterious digits into an unnecessarily big calculator and half-heartedly said it was the government backed bus when we asked him. He also didn’t seem so sure about where it would pick us up this time. We told him about our little conversation a couple of days previous but he denied having meet us, and then dropped the price again to 750 Baht. “Right, fuck this ” I said to Emily and a tad disheartened we left and walked back to the hostel to read up more on the Transport Company Limited/government bus.
After some digging, we learnt there are three ways you can get a government bus ticket:
1. Via a website we had come across, although there wasn’t enough English content for us to navigate it properly. We have heard since that Thai Ticket Major is ok to buy from apparently;
2. By calling +66 2872 1777, although when our guesthouse very kindly let us use their phone to call, it came to nothing as our Thai is non-existent and the girl’s English who answered wasn’t much better; and
3. The only option left to us (save attempting the perilous journey ourselves with the scams, potential Travis Bickle’s on the road and a very very early morning start – which would I try to avoid at all costs!) was to head out to Bangkok’s Mo Chit bus station and buy the tickets direct. So as a last resort we paid around 300 Baht for a round trip in taxis to the bus station where we bought the next two available tickets at 750 Baht each to leave Bangkok on the Thursday. If you do go there, it’s booth 22 or 23 on the ground floor. Oh, and a very important tip – you need to have your passport details with you to buy the ticket!
With that sorted we were happier and more relaxed after a day running about like stray dogs in the Bangkok heat and now just had to avoid the one scam we read about that even operated on the government bus, but we were ready for it and you’ll hear all about it soon. Although If you’re thinking of doing the same trip, we would recommend using the government bus and don’t be shy about sending us any questions you might have.
We woke after our “nap” on the first day, Saturday, about 6pm, jetlag having royally screwed us over. A bit fuzzy headed, we went outside to join in the revelry on the very trashy but very lively Khao San Road. It’s what you expect it is having probably heard about it a thousand times before – street food vendors, lots of bars with signs like “We do not check ID card – Very Strong Cocktail”, great stuff if you’re R Kelly. There are cheap clothes sellers and dodgy tattoo artists, lots of guys selling scorpions to eat and even more trying to sell cheap suits. Despite its loathed reputation among many, and I would say somewhat snobby, travellers, it’s a great place for novice travellers, like us, to find their feet and meet people. That very first night on a roof top bar we ran into a Danish guy, Chris, and an English guy, Justin, who were staying in a hostel a few blocks away. We had a few beers, a good laugh about silly shit and it was sweet to start to the trip.
We also learnt from them that getting beds in a dorm room at somewhere standard like their place for the two of us might be a lot more expensive than sharing a double at the Siam Oriental, so we decided to save ourselves a headache of running about different places in the morning and just stay put. It does seem to be quite common for a couple travelling that it’ll be cheaper to get a double/twin room rather than going into the dorm.
The next day we got up way way too early around 7am to a deserted Khao San Road, had some breakfast of watermelon on a stick (a lot better than it sounds) from a street vendor and went out to explore the neighbourhood. We went to Wat Bowan Niwetwihan right beside the Khao San Road but it was apparently closed to visitors as there was a service on. We did, however, get talking a really friendly local who gave us a tourist map, pointed out some places we should visit and told us a government tuk tuk, which would have the Thai flag and the King’s flag on the top, would show us around these places for a couple of hours for only 30 baht. Luckily enough we found a tuk tuk right outside the temple (maybe a bit too convenient but for only 30 Baht can you really get scammed?!) and went whizzing round the nearby sights –
Wat Indrawiharn with a huge 100 foot Buddha and a temple with some interesting art and a really horny statute (yep, I said horny):
A temple with a small reclining Buddha that we still can’t find the name of. It was ok at the time but, on reflection, it was a bit meh (although Emily did get to bang a big dong!):
Our tuk tuk driver seemed to be pretty sound although he did then take us to the “official” tourist agency which we had trouble with later and also to some random suit shop where we awkwardly entered said we didn’t want anything and then beat a speedy retreat (we got lucky, we heard of other guys being taken to about 5 or 6 different shops). The tuk tuk guy’s attitude turned somewhat after we had not bought anything from the shop, no doubt he was on commission. So, when he left us off at the Golden Mountain afterwards he said that was the end of the ride and wanted his money. We knew he was supposed to leave us back to where we started but we weren’t that bothered as we wanted to stroll about at our leisure instead of having to rush back to him. So I put the tip I had set aside for him back in my pocket and just gave him the 30 Baht. Off he went, tipless!
The Golden Mountain is an artificial hill inside the Wat Saket compound that houses a set of spiralling steps up to a chedi (basically like a big Buddhist bell) and viewing (for the Westerners) / praying (for the spiritual) platform at the top which offers some great views of Bangkok. You notice a few things about Bangkok from that height, the mix of squalid shanty towns, magnificent temples and modern high rises all mingled together and an appreciation that Bangkok doesn’t really have an identifiable centre like many European cities, it just seems to be a big mesh of the same in all directions.
That night we had another great night out with Chris and Justin and bumped into a few others at the roof top bar including a funny local girl who told us “it’s only stupid farang (foreigners) that eat the scorpions!” What tools we are.
Having drunk a little too much chatting to various randoms on the Khao San Road that night and not getting to bed until 4am, plans to sort out onward travel and meet Justin and Chris the next day were dashed, as we had another silly day of sleep. Probably still jetlagged we slept again until early evening on the Monday. We just had some food that night and a wander to the river along the neighbouring streets of the Khao San Road. Rambuttri Alley (parallel to the Khao san Road) is a lot more chilled, less hectic and had really good street pad thai at just 30 baht, and so we spent the next evening there as well when we had some farewell drinks with Justin (Chris had already moved on) and a team of other people from his hostel on the Wednesday.
Bangkok is a crazy city (it got even crazier just after we left when the protests kicked off again) and we only touched the surface including on the Wednesday visiting the cramped tacky excess of Chinatown, the beautiful yet quite touristy Wat Pho (which was cheap enough at 100 Baht each) with the huge reclining Buddha and taking the boat up and down the river (120 baht per person for a full day’s travel). I imagine we’ll be back in Bangkok at some point on our travels and it would be good to check out some different sides to it, of which I am sure there are many – maybe couchsurfing with a local or hooking up with some expats. Whatever we do it’s bound to be a memorable experience, good or bad!
[THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY POSTED ON OUR PREVIOUS SITE ON 3 FEBRUARY 2014]