We needed to visit Bangkok to get our visa for Vietnam even though we would have preferred to spend our time on a nice Thai beach with palm trees and waves gently washing up onto the sand. Instead Suzanne found us an apartment close to the Vietnamese embassy in the center of Bangkok for a couple of days. Surprisingly we still found some interesting adventures. First we decided to try something different and booked an overnight train from Changmai to Bangkok. Unfortunately first class was sold out, so we booked second class sleeper berths for all four of us. All I can say is that the actual berths didn’t resemble the pictures on the internet; not at all.
The seats folded into narrow couches and a curtain separated each couch from the hallway. Our berths had the “advantage” of being at the end of the car and near the toilets – the door that separated the car from the toilets swung open every time the train leaned to port (left); then banged shut again when it leaned to starboard (right). Although we were provided clean sheets, pillows, and a blanket for each berth – everything else in the car appeared to have been cleaned at least once in the past decade – but maybe not. To the point – we didn’t have a very restful sleep on the train, but unlike the UK trains, the food was good and we have another story to tell.
Once in Bangkok we set off to explore our neighborhood a little, and much to our surprise we found the place was full of bars facing the street with young Thai women in short skirts and heels – and aging ex-pat men chatting with them. As we walked down the street Alex commented that the girls here all dress really “fancy”. I replied “Yep” – and kept walking. The next time Suzanne was on the internet she did a little more research on the neighborhood and discovered that we had in fact rented an apartment in a neighborhood known for “accommodating” aging ex-pat men who were in town for a few days on business…. It was really not much of a bother for us, we just walked through the scene and didn’t pay it much mind.
The first full day in Bangkok we started off for the Vietnamese embassy to apply for a visa. As I was walking along the street, navigating using a map and the GPS on my phone, trying not to get creamed by tuk tuks and taxis; a Thai man walked up to us and asked if we needed directions. He said he was an off-duty tourist police officer and could help us. Suzanne and my “BS Radar” went off and we went into defense mode. But we told him that we were heading to the Vietnamese embassy to get a visa. He insisted that the embassy would take a week for us to get a visa approved, and that there was a tourist information shop down the street that could expedite the process to two days. Hmmm…. what could his angle be? Then he called a tuk tuk from across the street and told him to take us to the tourist shop for 20 Baht (~$0.66 USD). Next thing we knew we were all crowded into a tuk tuk headed across town. So far we couldn’t figure out if we were involved in a complicated scam – or we had actually been assisted by an off-duty police officer. The tuk tuk driver dropped us off at the right place and we walked into a business that had all the appearances of a real travel agency – if it was a scam it was pretty sophisticated.
The agent spoke great English and helped us think through the different options for the visa and said he could get our visa’s processed in two days. The money was what we expected from our research… so we went for it and left our passports and the fees with the travel agent. I didn’t sleep so well for a couple of nights as the possibility of loosing our passports along with the $300+ USD in visa fees kept flashing through my mind. I’m glad to say that it all worked our fine, we got our visas on time with no problems. What a relief – I think we were luckier than we were smart – but I’ll take luck where I can get it.
While our visas were being processed we did get an opportunity to explore a few things. One afternoon we bought VIP movie tickets to see the Hobbit which had just been released. It was a real splurge at $15USD per person – but these seats were something special. We each had our own overstuffed recliner, a pillow, a comforter, and our soda and popcorn were delivered to our seats. Included in the tickets was a half hour shoulder message after the show. We didn’t have time for the massage – but we really enjoyed watching a long movie like the Hobbit in that kind of luxury!
We also took a day trip out to the floating market and to a temple with a huge golden buddha. The market was interesting, but clearly aimed at serving tourists from Bangkok. We enjoyed a few snacks from the vendors and purchased a bag of coconut sugar. The other trinkets are over priced and not really unique to the market area.
The Golden Buddha has a fascinating history. It was created in the North of Thailand, and to protect it from Burmese invaders it was concealed in a shell of lacquer and plaster, then forgotten. Hundreds of years later when it was being moved South to Bangkok the ropes kept snapping when they tried to move it. One time when it dropped some of the plaster broke off and they spotted the lacquer layer – then they found out why the thing was so darn hard to cart through the mud of the Thai jungle – it had a couple of tons of gold in it!