Thursday, 11 September 2008

Enter Bangkok

Knowing you're leaving for somewhere else, somewhere a lot further than normal, led me to having a half-lazy day of making sure I was ready to leave. That meant spending the remaining bit of Dong I had left, as it's nigh-on impossible to get rid of the Vietnamese currency outside of Vietnam, let alone for a decent rate. Thankfully, I never had too much on me at one time, simply because you don't need that much - plus, it made me feel strange seeing millions come up on the screen, 2,000,000 Dong is about £62 - I just hoped they didn't take out pounds instead. So waking up in the morning led me to start talking to Tracey, a well-travelled Canadian girl with the right attitude about absolutely everything. We wandered on from our dorm (where all the beds were mattresses on the floor) and found a restaurant/cafe with wi-fi for our laptopping needs and some of the best air-con around. From what I remember it was chocolately things and spaghetti bolognese, the food of a pasta-starved English boy. After that it was another cafe before I departed, I had something to be getting to...

My flight was booked, 14th April 2008, 17:55, $101.50 from Ho Chi Minh City to Bangkong, Thailand. Total flight duration is an hour and a half - so to give myself time before boarding, I tried looking for ways to book a taxi early on. Due to my natural urge to bargain and get the best price possible, I didn't accept it was going to cost me £5 by taxi, so asked around and found that bike (of course!) was the cheapest option. That meant approaching pretty much anyone stationary on their motorbikes/scooters/whatever and asking them how much to the airport. Half the price of a car! Thanks very much, I said, then pondered.. how am I going to get my bag there? "You put bag here!", says the ever-helpful guy in charge of the bike. So he turns my back upside-down (no idea why), pops it in-between his legs, we negotiate to 80,000 Dong and I jump on the back - shorts, t-shirt, helmet and sunglasses, I'm ready to go.

Winding between cars at what feels like high speed, swerving and rarely stopping, the traffic flowing with a wind-like quality, twisting in on itself and all with the cacophony of sirens and horns to accompany the madness. The airport is roughly twenty minutes away on bike, I get there quicker than any car would even hope to, and find that I'm now off into the most expensive-looking building in the whole of Vietnam; Ho Chi Minh Airport. A funny goodbye, in a way - I enter into what equates to nothing more than an over-blown shanty town, and leave through what could be a brand new airport in the UK for all anyone knows. Check-in wasn't as smooth as I could have hoped for, my bag was over 20kgs, the limit on hold-luggage being 20kg.. thus I had to remove items from it to get the weight down and take a large bag of bits and pieces that I've managed to accrue along the way as my hang luggage.

I make my way through the short route to the waiting lounge; everyone is either of Thai or Viet blood it seems, all bar two white guys in the corner. We get talking and end up on the plane together, the majority of seats spare, just in case you wanted to sleep perhaps! The ever-friendly air-hostesses come up and down for food, I announce that yes, I would love some food. And no, I don't have any Thai Baht. No Baht? No food. I only have about 50,000 Dong left, £1.5 or thereabouts - no amount of my suave and persuasive demeanour can convince any of these fine ladies to part with even a bottle of water. Darn.

After sharing stories and whatnot, me and my two new compatriots Sam and Lawrence, figure that since I only know the name of one road, and that we're all new to this country, hey, we may as well stick together. So we do! We find a taxi rank just outside of the airport after a brief trip through customs to get another stamp in our passports (this time a free visa for thirty days) and strike up conversation with a family who've been living in Thailand for quite a while now, they give us some sound advice on how to determine prices with taxi drivers and what to look out for. For that we're thankful and we bundle into a car. The taxi driver has an evident love of British rock, many tapes litter his humble vehicle and he trots out some melodies in his finest humming voice - all whilst we gaze at the new surroundings we have upon us. It's gone 8pm and it's night-time, we're going down a real motorway, with real tarmac and big billboards advertising laptop computers and other life-style bits and bobs.. this is not Vietnam, that much is clear. Where are all the bikes? Where's the dirt-track road? It's different, that's for sure.

If you've read or watched The Beach, it tells you of the first back-packer destination that everyone heads to, possibly because that's where everyone else is, that's where all the cheap hostels and dorms are, it's where the journey begins - Khao San Road is that very place. While it is simply the name of a road, everything surrounding it on the connecting and adjacent roads is what makes it, bars, 7-11 stores, hostels, guesthouses, crowded streets, counterfeit t-shirts.. it's a big mish-mash of hilarity and intruige; it's certainly recommended, even to just see what it's like. We near the centre of Bangkok - it's well-lit, tall buildings are everywhere, and.. large portraits of the King and his family are running down the middle of this street, they're housed in huge decorative golden frames and look in pristine condition. We go past a few large elaborate temples and similarly decorative bridges, much in the style of the frames of the pictures of the King.

Then we realise that we're in Bangkok and we're near where we need to be. I realise this because, as someone told me, it's coming up to the Thai New Year (Songkran) - except, I forgot this, until I saw all the crowds, and remembered what that person told me: people line the streets, throw water (any which way) at each other, get this white clay paste and smother it on each other and generally have a great time. A great wet time. That means a great wet time for us with our large non-waterproof backpacks, because we have to go straight into that crowd across the road, straight in there on a search for a guesthouse for the night, without getting wet. Bearing in mind most of the weight of my backpack is my computer and books.. either getting wet would be quite the disaster.

We usher the driver to keep driving a bit: "Keep going..keep going!", "But this is Khao San Road!", "I know! So keep going!"

Unperplexed by the crowds, he doesn't understand why we just asked him to take us to Khao San Road and then tell him to keep going, past Khao San Road. We decide, sod it, we have to get there, we've got to get into somewhere to sleep for the night regardless, the crowd isn't going to disappear anytime soon. The people are one both sides of this road and we're about to get out in the middle.. buggery.

Suffice to say, we jumped out quickly on deciding what to do, get our bags out of the boot, cross over the road, skirt around the crowd a bit until we find a road that looks like one that we should be going down, and see thousands upon thousands of people crammed down it.

We push through lightly, weaving in between people and see a road to our immediate right - guest house.. 300 Baht! From walking across the road, into the crowd slightly and looking to our right, we find a guest house immediately - the name of said guest house? First Guest House. Perfect. Even more so when we find out they have spare room for the night, in the middle of the New Year. 300 Baht by the way, is about £5. That's £5 per room, for a double bed - Sam and Lawrence bunk up together to save on cash, £5 for me is more than okay. The owner speaks not one word of English, this doesn't matter. We understand she needs a small key deposit, that the showers she's pointing at are in fact showers, and that our room is up the hall. Fantastic. We dump our bags in there, I make a quick check for cockroaches, and unlike as seen/read in The Beach, mine contains none. Shortly after, we meet outside of our respective rooms and determine that yes, taking cameras is a ridiculous idea when everyone right outside the guest house is armed with either a bottle of water, a water pistol, a water balloon or a hose pipe. We arm ourselves with a couple of hundred Baht and head out into the wet, humid Bangkok air and get soaked, drunk, into various gangland-esque water fights with Thai teenagers, guys from Israel fresh out of conscription and a couple of Australians. One of the best nights ever.

The view from the end of the hall from the guest house: this is when it was winding down..