Oh My, Thai!

Oh My, Thai!

The flight from Delhi to Bangkok was awful. We were flying AirAsia and we were very excited because we figured we would get a Thai meal on the flight to Thailand (like we had Indian food on the flight to India). Strike one: not only was there no food on the flight (yes, it was a red-eye, but come on, not even peanuts?), even the drinks were pay to play. A 100ml bottle of water was 16 rupees – that’s more than a 1000% markup from the 12-15 rupees / liter we paid in India! Strike two: when Ryan and I (the only ones still awake) couldn’t battle our hunger anymore, we turned on the assistance sign to order one of their meals. Thirty-five minutes went by before a steward came and rudely took our order. Each of us could only afford an over-priced entree, so I ordered pad thai (at a 400% markup) and Ryan got chicken skewers. Both dishes were disappointing. When we finally were ready to sleep, the captain blared something about turbulence so loudly that everyone on the plane woke up – including the litter of impolite children sitting behind us. Strike three. From there on, it was turbulence and tantrums for hours until we landed in Bangkok at 5:30am – sleepless and angry.

Priya’s flight was scheduled to land at 10:35am, and although we had originally planned to leave the airport for food and then return to collect her later, we were just too tired. We came off the plane, walked some distance down the terminal towards immigration, but decided to stay on the air-conditioned side and wait for Priya there. Like true backpackers, we set up camp around a set of metal benches, secured our belongings in our own ways (passport pouch as eye mask or backpack as body pillow, and tried to get some sleep. Some of us fell right asleep (Steph), and some of us took longer because we couldn’t drown out the noises. Eventually, we all got some uncomfortable rest.

When we woke up, it was 10:30am, and because Priya sent me a text, I knew she was in the airport. We collected our belongings, worked out the knots and kinks from sleeping on cold, steel benches, and went through immigration. We found Priya quickly, and after some hugs, she asked why we looked so tired and smelled so bad. She even told us she had an awesome flight from NYC to Bangkok via Hong Kong – with good food, too. We stared at her like six bullets in a loaded revolver…

Reunited safely, the seven of us planned the day. Our train towards Phuket (pronounced poo-ket) and Ko Phi Phi (ko pee pee, or pee pee for short) was scheduled for 7:30pm, and we just had to pick up our tickets from the reservation office in the embassy area of Bangkok, near Lumpini Park. Since we had set aside another day in Bangkok before the end of our trip, we wanted to take it easy on the first day. We flagged a couple of metered taxi (thanks to Simon the Brit for this advice: though you pay slightly more with metered taxis, you avoid lots of scams and trouble caused by un-metered taxis and rather expensive tuk-tuks) and made it to the embassy area (of course, after taking the scenic route). Ryan spotted the reservation office of our travel agency, Travex, so we walked that way. Jared and I almost fainted when we passed a food cart with a hung Peking Duck in an oven, several different meats on skewers, and a rice cooker roughy the size of a marching band drum overflowing with white rice. We got to Travex, picked up our tickets, (avoided the 300 baht (pronounced bot) delivery fee) and asked the kind ladies for restaurant advice. Surely enough, the pointed to the alley next to the food cart we passed.

We marched down the alley, passed the outdoor kitchen and sat down inside a small room with six tables and six chairs per table. Before we even dropped our bags, the waitresses were ready with menus and smiles – the type of warm, friendly smiles we hoped Thailand would welcome us with. Most of us ordered pad Thai (fried noodles, the national dish of Thailand) and I ordered the green curry – extra spicy. We drank down water bottle after water bottle as we waited anxiously for our food, and when it arrived, we were overwhelmed with excitement. For most of us, the food in Thailand was something to look forward to. For Jared, this was a pilgrimage.

20110614-105744.jpg Our fatigue melted away with every mouth-watering bite of warm, spicy, savory noodles and curry, and smiles started to crack through our tired faces – the type of smiles only wonderful food can bring to the hungry. We devoured our brunch, and ate our savings for dessert; the whole meal for 7 was around 600 baht, or $20.

After lunch, we wanted to drop off our backpacks at the train station before heading to Khao San Road – the backpacking Mecca of Asia. We walked through Lumpini Park and found a convenient metro station on the other side. The Bangkok metro must have been engineered by the same firm that did Delhi’s metro, because the layout, mechanisms, and trains were identical. Thus, we had no problem navigating it to the train station just a few stops down the line. As the above-ground train whizzed by neighborhoods, we all remarked on the stark contrast between our previous destination and this one. There were lush green trees, surprisingly little pollution, and of course, noticeably fewer people.

When we arrived at the train station, we entered “India Mode” (our term for being on high-alert for pick-pocketers, scams, and general trouble). Because we were in India Mode, we avoided the unsolicited help several people offered us to check our tickets and guide us to the right station, and we made it straight to the official information booth. There, a woman guided us to their luggage locker area, and even smiled and bowed to us – remarkable service from a government employee (and more than we were expecting after just coming from India). The luggage locker area was more of a reception desk in front of a locker room, where the attendants lock your luggage and give you a token to collect it. Ryan and I assessed the situation and agreed that even though these were not self-lock lockers, we could take all our valuables and leave the backpacks there for just a few baht.

We dropped off our bags and had about three hours to spend at Khao San Road. Again, we flagged two metered cabs and took the scenic route to Khao San Road. Somehow our two cabs split and ended up at opposite ends of this roughly 500meter street. So both our groups walked towards each other through the heart of backpacker heaven in southeast Asia – cheap street food, dozens of hostels, at least as many bars, massage parlors, tattoo parlors, and hundreds of vendors selling everything from fake designer labels to novelty items. And even though Starbucks, KFC, and Burger King burrowed into the street, the atmosphere was decidedly bohemian.

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When we reunited near one end of the street, we decided to take a lap and absorb the culture before we settled into a bar for a cold BeerChang. BeerChang, or just Chang, is the local beer of choice. As Simon the Brit told us, Chang is not brewed and bottled under the same regulations as European beers, so each batch is a lottery of flavors and alcohol levels – sometimes you get a 3% and sometimes a 10%. There’s no telling what we got for our first Changs, but they weren’t bad at all.

20110614-105824.jpg We sat and watched the street crowd for a while. We spotted travelers of all kinds – young hippies with no shirts or shoes, old men and women who’ve perhaps never left Thailand since they first arrived years ago, and loads of backpackers. Khao San was home to all, it seemed.

After our beers, we decided again to walk down the street. Just a few meters into our stroll, we saw a sign for a “Fish Spa” – something we had all heard about and wanted to check out. We turned into a store and saw two bathtub-sized fish tanks with benches on either side and a young British lad soaking his feet in one of the tanks. Hundreds of tiny fish (4-5cm) were swarming around his feet, apparently biting off dead skin, and he seemed to enjoy the treatment.

20110614-105832.jpg Not one to pass up something as cool as a fish spa, Priya decided to give it a shot and dragged me in with her. For 150B ($5), we would get 15mins of fish treatment.

The owner of the spa sat us down, removed our shoes, cleaned our legs up to our shins, and made us put our feet in. I cannot explain through words alone the feeling of hundreds of fish nibbling at your feet – it feels like a gentle electric current rolling through your toes. It is at once tickling and terrifying. After 5 or so minutes of child-like screaming and laughing, we both acclimated to the feeling and began enjoying it. We even convinced everyone else to hop in with us, and you can see their reactions below.

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After our fish therapy, we walked back into the street and realized the sun was setting, and it was almost time to go back to the train station. Still, we wanted to take in the scene a little while longer, so we found a third-floor bar overlooking the street. Here we each enjoyed one more Chang before heading back to the station.

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Before we headed back, we stopped by a food cart for a taste of Thailand’s national dish (and our go-to dish from there onwards) pad thai – fried noodles with veg/chicken/pork/seafood, and fried egg. We paid just 25 baht for generous, delicious helpings.

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On our way back, my group apparently found the one honest taxi driver in Bangkok who got us back to the station in half the time it took to get there and for half the price. We met up with the other group and collected our bags from the locker room (where we watched a small middle-aged woman hoist three of our bags from the back of the locker room and bring them out…impressive enough feat for a small tip). We went to the convenience store in the station, purchased water and snacks and headed out to the platform where our train was due to arrive in 20 minutes.

20 minutes later, no train. We dropped our bags and set up camp as we had before, arranging our things in India Mode formation. When we asked the authorities about our train, they shrugged and just said it’s late…with no indication of when it might arrive. As the night wore on, and the humidity and heat became too much, we started dropping like flies. First, Priya fell asleep on a bench. Then, Steph fell asleep leaning on her bag on the ground (though she had wondered in India how people could fall asleep on train stations). Then, Cliff and Ali sat, leaning against each other, and Jared, Ryan, and I stayed up, waiting for and inquiring about the train.

Finally, almost two hours later than expected, our train rolled in. We boarded our sleeper cars, nestled into the beds they made for us, and most of us fell asleep right away hoping to catch sleep between the time the train left until when it arrived at Surat Thani 11 hours later. Jared had a Chang to help him fall asleep, while Cliff and Ali stayed up a little longer.

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Here is their experience:

Before the train left the station we made our way one car up to the bar train car and snagged the last table. The seaweed flavored Pringles we had bought at the station were pretty awful and just not cutting it so we ordered a Thai dinner to split and some Chang beers and prayed the train would start moving so we would get a breeze (the windows were all open expectantly but it was hot out). Our Changs came and they were massive, then our dinner came and it was massive as well-spicy soup, curry, rice, and cashew chicken. We got in to the real backpacker experience by that point, half a Chang in each, making friends with fellow backpackers in the beer car and using their lighter for our mini cubans. The train had started moving by this point and we were leaning back, blowing smoke out the window as we passed inches from modern Bangkok buildings and whole villages made of sheet metal alike. A tree branch would occasionally poke into the window a bit and we wondered if a monkey might be next. The perfect way to spend a Thai evening.

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Comments
11 Responses to “Oh My, Thai!”
  1. Ami Costello says:

    Thanks Hersh. @ the beginning of my read , all I could say was “my poor babies, feed them, feed them”!! You now have passed the “hungry test” also. I do not even mind the “no shaved” faces anymore. Hope you’ll get to have more rest and food and get to shave and take long showers in PI before you embark for your next adventure. Impress Priya by smelling shower fresh! Loved the facial expressions of each one of you while being devoured by those little school of fish. Keep blogging children and thank you. Pi is eagerly waiting for you!!
    Love,
    Ami

  2. Some Criminal says:

    Well it looks like you are having a great time. Continue the blogging I need something to read while i am in my holding cell…

  3. Jonathan says:

    Great writing Hersh, and thanks for guiding your friends through India– and keeping them safe my mom adds. Stephanie can fall asleep anywhere at the drop of a hat, and sleep though anything so I’m more surprised of her comment at the Indian train station than at her heavy-eyed behavior. Continue to enjoy yourselves and keep up the great blogging, your audience is spreading.
    -Jon

  4. Jude Mahler says:

    The looks on your faces is priceless getting your ‘fish pedicure’. I’m sure there was a lot to munch on with all the walking all of you are doing. I am really enjoying reading about these adventures. Keep writing!
    Love,
    Jude

  5. Jude Mahler says:

    Hi Ami,
    I don’t have your email address so this is how I will communicate. The US has just issued a travel warning for the Philippines. Go to http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/tw/tw_5490.html for details. The targeted areas are the Sulu Archipelago and Mindanao. Are the kids any where near here? They said to stay away from airports and public gathering places. What do think they should do?
    Jude

  6. RaRaRu says:

    Hi Hersh,(URGENT)
    Please read the latest WARNING (posted today) at about Philippines, TRAVE.STATE.GOV and at ALL COST avoid
    1. Sulu Archipelago, 2. ASlands of Mindanao.
    Keep low profile, specially avoid (as much possible) public places, Malls, Tourist places, airports, and keep us posted as we are all watching, and paying for your safe exit from this island nation ASAP.
    -Raju

  7. RaRaRu says:

    Hi Hersh,
    (URGENT)
    Please read the latest WARNING (posted today) about Philippines, at the TRAVE.STATE.GOV and at ALL COST avoid
    1. Sulu Archipelago, 2. Aslands of Mindanao.
    Keep low profile, specially avoid (as much possible) public places, Malls, Tourist places, airports, and keep us posted as we are all watching, and paying for your safe exit from this island nation ASAP.
    -Raju

  8. Ami Costello says:

    Hello parents,
    Our children are in a separate island from the mentioned places to avoid. The Phil have 3 major islands, Luzon, Visaya, Mindanao. They are in Visayan Island but still I am going to contact my friends now to get them back to Manila @ the first available flight tomorrow. Manila is in Luzon island.
    Let us continue to pray for their safety.
    Ami

  9. Ami Costello says:

    Hello parents again,
    Just got off the phone with my contact in the hotel that they are staying. They are in bed, exhausted from their escorted, exclusive Island hopping tour that I arranged. Per escort they did a lot of swimming as the water in the Island is pristine and beautiful. It’s peaceful in the Island she added and the emergency alert in Mindanao is the usual warning they usually hear about. It’s the same alert we get in U.S.. Nonetheless, to make you feel better I have put every effort in making sure that their travel is as safe as possible. In fact Cliff has already called me twice complaining about all the safety guards that I have put in starting from the airport to all their sightseeing activities. On their first night they went to a bar after their escorted dinner and their escort and private driver did not leave them alone. They waited for them and safely drove them to their hotel until they are settled. I also have changed their preferred hostels to safe nice hotels @ no cost to them. I should not say “don’t worry” because we are all concerned parents, we do worry ,but I will keep you updated – as my friends are updating me constantly. My contacts and relatives in PI knows me too well.
    Jude: Feel free to e.mail me @ Amykatleya@yahoo.com
    Ami

  10. Diane briggs says:

    Thank you Ami for the update, and for all the work you did behind the scenes so the kids could safely enjoy their time in the Philippines! Please thank everyone who is keeping watch over them, it’s greatly appreciated!

  11. Ami Costello says:

    I’ll do Diane. They are the businessman friends of mine – the Sermonia’s. Their twin sons attends school here in Rochester and one of them lives with me, am guardian to both. Sermonia’s will be having lunch with our TOW travelers tomorrow when they return to Manila from Palawan then one of his personal drivers will take them to my province (few hours drive) where they will stay @ my brothers. Don’t worry, they will be safe there.
    Caba (my small town) awaits you travelers! Have a safe trip.
    Ami

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