Friday, February 8, 2013

SE Asia Day 2: Derailed - the last train to Chiang Mai

Boy did we sleep well at the Riverfront Residence! Drew had about 13 hours of sleep. Guess we had some catching up to do. And it was a good thing, because little did we know, we were going to need it today.
After gorging ourselves at the hotel's breakfast buffet (American foods but also Chinese cabbage in oyster sauce, noodles with egg, and congee with chicken, which were all quite tasty I thought), we saw about staying an extra night. Here was our first denial: no rooms left for the night. This weekend is Chinese New Year, and Bangkok is getting ready to party! Oh well, let's just see about our primary purpose of the day and then worry about lodging.
So we made our way via hotel shuttle, then the fabulous train system again, to the Vietnamese Embassy to see abut getting a visa to enter Vietnam. The impending party was everywhere, as shown here at this shopping mall with a giant jumbotron screen playing ads above a stage set with Chinese New Year decorations.


So about this small matter of the visa... Vietnam is one of the last countries in the region to require prearranged visas before arrival. If you are arriving in the country by air, you simply apply for an approval letter to the embassy by email, they send you a letter back in a couple of days, and then when you land in Vietnam, you wait in line, pay some money, and you're in. If you are going overland however, you need to either send your passport away to San Francisco or D.C. weeks in advance, or arrange one once you are in Asia. Because our original plan was to fly standby to get to Bangkok, and then go overland through Cambodia, we needed the arrival-by-land type of visa, not the easy arrival-by-air one. BUT, because we were not 100% sure we were going to get anywhere close to Vietnam with our standby status, I didn't want to get the visa the hard way by mailing it to San Fran. The best plan, according to my research, was to get it in Bangkok or in Phnom Phen, which were supposed to take 2 days, or my favorite option, get it in the small port/beach town of Sihoukville, Cambodia, which is same-day service. The only catch to this plan was the upcoming Vietnamese holiday of Tet. It is like our Christmas, New Years and birthdays all rolled into one. All the Vietnamese party for at least 3-4 days, and some businesses, (such as embassies?) close for "up to a week". Tet was supposed to start tomorrow, so I wanted to get the visas squared away while we saw a few sights around Bangkok.


The best laid plans, however, do not always come together. The cranky gentleman at the Vietnamese embassy informed us that we could put in for a visa today, but the earliest we would have it back was the 18th of February!!! They were closing for Tet for 10 days. That was clearly not going to work. So we found a nearby overpriced coffee shop with wifi and planned our next move. With Chinese New Year starting tomorrow, the chances of finding an affordable place to stay for the night was slim. Whip out the trusty "Southeast Asia on a Shoestring" Lonely Planet guidebook, and take a pick. South to the beautiful beaches on the gulf of Thailand or the Indian Ocean, parts of which Drew has already seen, or how about north to the more mountainous terrain around Chiang Mai. Guide book says "Chiang Mai is a cultural darling and a cool place to kick back and relax for a few days." Also newly introduced is an industry of soft adventure tourism. Hiking, trekking, zip lines, and mountain biking! There was an overnight train with sleeper cars for 1650 baht ($55) for both of us. Lodging problem solved. Visa problem delayed. New adventure planned.


Time to make our way to the train station to purchase tickets.

We walked by the American Embassy,


We walked through a big city park, Lumphini Park. I wonder what is coming out of that pipe.


Where the is a statue of King Rama VI



And offerings at the base of the statue.

Then it was on to the subway, where hand rails are not made for 6'4" Americans,


And special accommodations are made for pregnant women and monks!


I breathed a lot easier after we made it to the train station and purchased our tickets. Then we could relax and look around a bit.



They take care of their monks here. Note the sign and the monk.

But not the cats. There were 3 or 4 stray cats begging for food. They were so tiny and malnourished! I was super lonesome for our babies back home.


We had one more thing to do before the train departed, and that was to get Lucy a phone. International Skpe calls were not working, and Our Verizon phones don't work here. We needed an unlocked GSM phone. A street vendor was happy to sell me a used old phone and international SIM card for $18.


After the nice guy changed the language to English and helped me add prepaid credit, the first call I made was to the Vietnamese Consulate in Sihoukville to see when they would reopen after the Tet holiday. To my utter surprise, they said they were not closing at all and visas could be obtained in one day. Well doggone it! If we had known that, we wouldn't have bought the train tickets to the northern part of Thailand. We would have just mosied over to Ankgor Wat and then on to Sihoukville. But, it is what it is, and we were excited about the overnight train to Chiang Mai.


All aboard!


The seats and bunks were nice enough. The set up is two seats facing each other that fold down into a bed with a drop down bunk above. There are curtains to put up at night and the cabin is air conditioned. The other travelers were fun to talk to and let me drink some of their duty free liquor eith them while Drew snoozed.

The bathrooms were another story entirely. They were not nice or dfun or comfortable. they were scarey, disguisting, and odiferous. This was the bathroom in the first class cabin, where I snuck to as often as I could.


The bathroom our cabin (2nd class) is way grosser, if you can believe it. Well, here are some pics and a 45 second video.




Yup, the hole just goes right to the tracks. It reeked of urine in there. Our friend Rhonda would have held it for the entire 14.5 hour trip.

The food, of course, was hugely overpriced. We brought snacks (nuts, fresh pastries, yogurt, dried seaweed chips, and some type of fruit neither of us recognized and labeled only in Thai) but I did buy a $2 orange juice and a $1.25 coffee the size of an espresso. Beer was 150 B, or $6 USD! I thought Thailand was cheap. Not so far!

The sleeping part of the sleeper car turned out to be not so much. I don't think I have slept one wink all night, which is why this post is so long and detailed. I am sitting here composing as the sun comes up and Drew and the formerly crying baby next to us sleep soundly. It is just toooooo loud here by the door that won't close in the seat over the wheel. Oh well, last night's snooze at the nice hotel will have to hold me because the coming day is revealing bamboo forests, slashed and burned rice patties (I think), tiny towns and wats, and mountains.



Chiang Mai here we come!


No comments:

Post a Comment