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Teachers, trains and tuk-tuks

Getting re-acquainted with the big smoke

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View Get Out The Map on The Rymans's travel map.

As an ironic postscript to the previous entry about our suspenseful pursuit of visas for India, I thought I'd better admit something ridiculous: One of our key errands here in Bangkok was supposed to be a trip to the General Post Office to see if any of us have mail. Ciaran in particular was expecting some postcards from friends. Only now that we've left his passport with the Indian visa application service, he has no identification to present to collect his mail! And the passports will be with the service right up until 5 pm on October 14, and then we have to be on a northbound train two hours later.

Of course in our mad panic to get the visas arranged, none of this crossed our minds. The upshot of it is that 1) We'll have to return to Bangkok eventually; and 2) Those of you who had good intentions about the postcards but ran out of time now have another shot at it (but no pressure!). It could be worse, I guess; we were probably going to have to come back through Bangkok anyway to restock on kids' books and arrange transportation to Cambodia. But still.

Bangkok so far has been a somewhat bipolar experience. We'd been warned off of Thailand many times in the past two months by travellers who've been here much more recently than us. Most of them said there have been so many tourists here in recent years that people who work in tourism-related jobs have become irritated and unfriendly with foreigners, seeing them mainly as opportunities rather than individuals (one person said that particularly in the south, if you're not going to buy something then they have no use for you, which is a bit off-putting and certainly not how I remember it).

Since Bali had changed so dramatically since our last visit, we were prepared to be disappointed by Thailand, and expected to have to fend off aggressive touts at every corner. But our first morning in Bangkok (after the visa day) seemed to prove everyone wrong. Although the reception clerk at our hotel was a bit surly, everyone else we met was full of smiles and incredibly friendly, saying hello, giving us directions, striking up conversations. Some of the credit for this can be laid squarely at Ciaran's feet, because he seems to be a magnet for affectionate attention. Just as in Bali, he's again getting quite manhandled by friendly Thais who want to shake his hand, put an arm around his shoulder, chat with him and so on. Then we come along right behind him and get the same broad smiles. Really, he gets so much of this attention that it's almost too much. He puts up with it very well and seems proud to be so well-liked.

Stepping out of the soi (lane) that our hotel is on, we pulled out a street map, intending to find our way to the Chao Phraya river ferry as a first step towards heading to the train station to book some tickets. We were immediately accosted by a tuk-tuk driver who spent a good 10 minutes with us giving us tips and ideas and making notes on our map about where we should go. Of course, we weren't so obtuse as to think there were no strings attached -- he was hoping we'd pay him 30 baht to take us to all these places. But it wasn't a hard sell; he took our "no" pretty graciously. We moved on down the block and had only gone maybe 20 paces more when we were stopped again, this time by a Thai woman who spoke excellent English. She was a teacher, on holiday at the moment since Thai schools have closed for the next few weeks. When she heard of our plan to take the ferry to the train station, she quickly talked us out of it, insisting that this was really doing things the hard way and we should just head down to an accredited Thailand tourism bureau, where English-speaking staff could book the tickets for us in air-con comfort and without all the hassle of train-station touts. She flagged down a tuk-tuk for us and in rapid-fire Thai negotiated the trip down to 40B (about a dollar; not bad for a ride all the way across town).

At the tourism office, everything went pretty much as planned -- staff raced around getting chairs for the kids to sit on and someone served each of us some cold water. When it was time to pay for the tickets and we had to get more money out of an ATM, another staff member actually walked me all the way up and across the street to show me where it was, waited while I got the money, and accompanied me back. No hitch, no catch, not even a commission that we could discern.

We were starting to wonder what everyone else had been moaning about -- and we found out as soon as we flagged down our first tuk-tuk for the return trip and said, "Khao San Road?" The driver said, "200 baht." We looked shocked and said we'd got here for 40. He said 150. We again said 40. He said 100 but only if we would consent to stopping at a shop on the way back (a scam so textbook that it's amazing they even still try it). We turned around and left.

This little scenario repeated itself about four more times with various tuk-tuk drivers, the last of whom actually became quite aggressive with us and didn't back off until Mark raised his voice in return. Without the help of a friendly local, nobody was going to take us back to our hotel for anything approaching a fair price. It was obvious that unless we were willing to get ripped off knowingly, we were not going to be taking a tuk-tuk back.

We could have just flagged down a metered taxi at any point (and that's surely what we'll be doing from now on), but I was still quite sure we could find the river ferry if we were determined enough, so that became the new plan. As it turns out, the ferry stop we were looking for is one we used a decade ago when we took the ferry from Khao San Road to the GPO, and Mark eventually recognized enough landmarks to steer us there accurately. Both Mark and I love the river ferry, but the kids were less than impressed. It was standing room only for most of the trip, and incredibly loud, with the engine roaring and diesel fumes dominating. At one point, standing along the outside edge of the boat so I could see out, I was told by the conductor to move on and change places. I looked up and noticed a sign in both Thai and English: "SPACE FOR MONKS." There didn't seem to be any monks looking for the space, but I cleared out quickly nonetheless.

Today was nowhere near as interesting. We planned on getting some homeschooling in during the morning so we could take the kids to the Chatuchak weekend market and museum, but a slow start and other uninteresting setbacks meant we weren't even ready for lunch until after 2 p.m. By the time that was finished, we just couldn't muster the motivation to tackle Bangkok traffic and see much of anything interesting. Instead we walked around our immediate area some more and went for a swim.

We have one day left in Bangkok and then we're off by early morning train to Kanchanaburi, about 2-3 hours north of here, where we'll stay for just two nights. Kanchanaburi is the site of the famous "Bridge over the River Kwai" and Death Railway, and has a few kid-friendly attractions as well, including monkeys harvesting coconuts from tall trees and a tiger sanctuary run by monks. After that it's off to Chiang Mai.

Posted by The Rymans 07:57 Archived in Thailand Tagged family_travel

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Patti, what are you on? Will you send me some?!!!!!!!

by tricia

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