|Sunset over Wat Arun, Bangkok|
We were both quite glad to leave India. That’s not something I ever expected to say, but the dirt, litter and crowds of northern India had worn us down and we were ready for a change. I think I’ve refined my love of India into a love of southern India.
The departure lounge at Calcutta airport appeared new, but must be one of the most stupidly designed in the world. Imagine a very tall H shape, where the gates are along one of the uprights, there is a duty free shop in the middle, and the only refreshment outlet is a tiny cafe with 2 staff at the far end of the other upright. It took 30 minutes to get my hands on two cups of coffee – we’d left the hotel before breakfast started but had brought some supermarket pastries with us, which was just as well since the kiosk had virtually no food left.. There was a moment of panic when boarding was announced, when I discovered that I couldn’t find my boarding pass – I knew I must have had it at security so I ran back there, and one of the staff waved it at me as soon as she saw me. Almost anywhere else they would have made an announcement – one of the things about India that frustrates me most is the lack of initiative shown by the vast majority of employees; they appear to do absolutely nothing without instruction from a superior. Being a manager in India must be really hard work.
|Around the Hotel Pas Cher|
The taxi arrangements at Bangkok airport were quite confusing, but we just joined the long queue hoping all would beome clear. At the head of the queue were two or three women who checked how many people were in each party then pressed buttons on machines that spat out tickets bearing a taxi registration number and parking bay number. It seemed quite a good system until we found that our allotted taxi already had someone else’s luggage in the boot, and someone else had a ticket for that taxi/bay. Back to the ticket ladies.
The journey into town was reasonably quick along the raised expressways for which we, the passengers, had to pay the toll – presumably we could have opted to go on the ordinary roads, but we were never asked and obviously the driver would not have liked it. Bangkok taxi drivers used to be notorious for overcharging and refusing to use their meters, but the military regime has cracked down on them recently so they are probably feeling the pinch.
|Chao Phraya river, Bangkok|
I’d researched the location of the Pas Cher hotel quite well, which was just as well since the driver didn’t know it at all. I’d picked it because it was convenient for the Burmese embassy but it turned out to be a good location all round – tucked down a side street in a little residential enclave of mostly 2-storey shophouses, close to the river and squeezed between a department store, the skytrain and the expressway just south of Silom Road. Besides a few food stall and local eating places there were two tourist-friendly (ie menus in English) restaurants in the same road, although we stuck to the cheaper one with more Thai customers, the Baan Glan Soi. The basement of the department store held a good supermarket and a few chain restaurants, including a couple of hotpot places, a Japanese place, and a Black Canyon Coffee (which actually serves a good range of fish dishes, despite the name). We of course ignored the McDonalds, KFC and Starbucks.
Given that the embassy would be closing for the new year holiday (how long we weren’t sure, since only 2014 holidays were listed on their website, but 31st Dec certainly) we didn’t waste any time and headed there first thing the next morning. It was about a 15 minute walk from the hotel, and when we arrived there was already a queue of 20-30 people – by the time the door opened, 30 minutes later, the same number again were queuing behind us. While we were waiting we obtained blank forms from a woman with a small van who had set up as a mobile support unit, offering passport photos and photocopying services for a high fee. But the forms were only 5 baht, and it meant that we could fill them in while we were waiting – the price also included gluing on our photos.
At 9:00 the doors opened and the queue transferred itself to window 4, where eventually we had our forms checked briefly and were given a number. When it was called we went to another window for them to be taken from us, along with the fee and our passports. Usually the normal service took 2 days, but with 2 public holidays and a weekend intervening, it was going to take 6. Good thing we had decided to stay a bit longer than we thought we needed. Overall it went quite smoothly and we were out by 10:30 – only 2 hours.
As usual, we had a list of humdrum things to do/buy in Bangkok – some clothes, malaria tablets, a SIM card for the Tab 2 we were still carrying, post another parcel home (primarily the Kindle which we really weren’t using), and get US$ cash for Myanmar. We also wanted to meet up with Oui, Al’s former sister-in-law, who had recently moved back to Thailand. So we zipped around Bangkok on the skytrain (fast, efficient, usually not too crowded, AC set far too cold), had a look at one of the swanky malls (everything way above our budget, not many customers), went to Chatachak market (huge, bit claustrophobic, impossible to re-locate the stall you just passed, sells everything you can think of), wandered along the riverbank and through the flower market with Oui and Roberto, her Italian boyfriend, and found a much more reasonably priced mall where normal people shop. Both New Year and Al’s birthday passed while we were in Bangkok, but instead of trying to get a table in a swanky restaurant we stocked up on much missed goodies from the supermarket and picncked in our room – but our 8th floor window gave us a great view of the spectacular New Year fireworks over the Chao Phraya river
I decided I liked Bangkok. We had visited a couple of times before, but then we had been focussed on the tourist sights rather than the place itself, and anyway it was 10 years since our last visit. And this time we were staying in a different area, not the Khao San Road backpacker ghetto. It now struck me as an efficient, modern city – big and busy, but with a sense of order. People boarding the skytrain waited to one side for people to get off, rather than barging straight for the doors as they did in Delhi and Calcutta. Cars waiting at traffic lights didn’t honk their horns for no discernable reason. There was no litter, at least in our part of town. The few dogs and cats wandering around looked reasonably well cared for. There were no cows blocking the pavements. There were pavements. It all made a refreshing change.
|The flower market|
Monday 5th Jan was the day for picking up our visas, and we arrived at the embassy at 15:30, just as the doors were supposed to open. We naively assumed it would be a similar experience to our previous visit – how wrong we were. Apparently there had been so many applicants that morning that they were still being processed – those of us there to pick up passports would have to wait until they were finished. So we waited. And waited. A few people were there with their luggage, having assumed that they would be done by 16:30 and on a flight out of Bangkok that evening – that began to look unlikely. Eventually at 17:45 the door opened and we all surged inside to besiege window 2, where the tourist visas or non-Thais were to be dispensed. There was a kind of queue which slowly shuffled forwards, the jostling and pushing becoming less and less polite as you neared the front.
|Oui and Roberto near Chatachuk market|
The problem was that the embassy had no system. I had assumed that the number on our ticket would correspond to a number attached to our passports which were filed in numerical order. Ha! What actually happened was that as each customer reached the window the clerk went off to rifle through the randomly stacked baskets of passports looking for a photograph that resembled the person in front of them. They were exceptionally bad at this – often they didn’t even get the right sex. Eventually people figured out that writing their name and nationality on their receipt and telling the clerk what colour passport to look for helped speed things up a little. But not much. Finding some people’s passports took so long that an ironic cheer went up when it was eventually located, and it was 20:00 before I got to the window, firmly planting my hand on the desk and bending my elbow to prevent the Chinese girl pushing at my left shoulder from barging in front, while Al blocked my right flank. Happily the clerk went straight to our passports – perhaps the distinction of having grey hair worked in our favour. Passports in hand, I quickly checked them before fighting my way out of the queue against the combined weight of the 40+ people still trying to reach the desk. Was this a taste of what Myanmar would be like, we wondered.
The one important thing still to do was get US dollars. Not any old US dollars, but clean, undamaged, uncreased, preferably brand new US dollars, as these were all that anybody would change in Mayanmar. Cashpoint machines either didn’t exist or wouldn’t take our cards, credit cards would be next to useless, and travellers cheques might as well be monopoly money. We had booked and paid for hotels online, but we would need to pay for food, transport and entry fees – we had done a budget then added 50%, knowing that we would need dollars for Laos visas anyway, and it was better to have too many than too few.
|Some fakes are easier to spot than others|
Our problem was getting any at all. We tried several banks near the hotel and along Silom Road – all advertised currency exchange, but none had any dollars to sell. Bank of Bangkok advised us to go to their head office. Eventually we found a money changing shop, but they didn’t have new notes. In desperation we bought some anyway, picking through what they had and rejecting any with obvious flaws.
The next day, our last full day in Bangkok, we headed for Bank of Bangkok’s head office, which I had read online was a reliable source of cash suitable for Myanmar. If push came to shove we would convert the dollars we had bought back into baht and re-buy crispy notes. But they had no new notes either – however the cashier looked at our notes and pronounced them up to par, so we decided to just hope for the best.
Our confidence wavered at Don Muang airport, and we decided to have one last attempt with one of the several bank exchange counters there. At the first we visited we only had to say “We’re going to Myanmar…” before the girl smiled and pulled open her drawer to reveal stacks and stacks of brand new, ink barely dry dollars. So we bought three $100 bills so crisp that we could have sliced a banana with them, and headed for departure to a brand new country, only the second of our trip so far.