Bus to Chiang Mai
My boyfriend and I awoke early on our first official day in Bangkok with the sole purpose of getting out of it. We hailed a tuk-tuk on Khao San Road, Bangkok’s famous haven for backpackers on their way from one exotic location to another.
“To Hualamphong train station, please,” we asked the driver.
“Where you go?”
“Ahhh, my home,” he said proudly while pointing at his chest with a grimy thumb. “I take you to travel agency.” He plucked a piece of paper from a massive stack of brochures secured with rubber bands to the vehicle’s visor. Handwritten letters spelling TAT were scrawled across the paper.
As newcomers to SE Asia, and first time backpackers, we had done our homework. The Lonely Planet guidebook said that travel agencies in Bangkok were not authorized to sell train tickets unless TAT, the Tourism Authority of Bangkok, officially certified them to do so… and there were very few certified agencies. We also knew that tuk-tuk drivers were infamous for making commissions off wide-eyed tourists by taking them to fly-by-night travel agencies or on long silk and gem shopping tours. We considered ourselves to be travelers, not tourists (such a dirty word), and had assumed the roles of seasoned global adventurers the moment we stepped off the plane. Not wanting to act like nervous sightseers expecting to get ripped-off, we agreed to go to the travel agency.
I was anxious as we wound through a maze of sepia-toned, wet alleyways. Benjamin and I exchanged glances. “This place is really far away,” I remarked trying to sound nonchalant.
“Do you have the map?”
“It’s right here,” he said while tapping his bag for reassurance.
“Do you think you could find this microscopic tangle of streets on it?” I inquired with feigned indifference.
“No,” he replied with confidence.
Just as I began to doubt the true intentions of our driver, he came to a halt – ironically, within sight of the train station. We’d arrived at our destination, complete with a TAT sign in the window and a young woman in a neatly pressed uniform waiting to greet us at the curb. Seated in the luxurious, arctic chill of the air-con office, we explained to a fatherly-like gentleman that we wanted tickets to Chiang Mai. We were informed, with a sympathetic smile, that there were, in fact, no train tickets to Chiang Mai that day.
“Tomorrow morning?” I inquired.
“No tickets for tomorrow morning,” he replied.
“Well, then… can you check availability for tomorrow evening? Or the day after?”
“No tickets for the next few days.”
The travel agent quickly added that there were plenty of bus tickets available to Chiang Mai – and we could leave that night. He told us it was a more comfortable ride than the train and came with two free meals. He pulled out a photo album with pictures of smiling tourists snuggled happily under blankets to prove it. I looked at Benjamin. “I think we’re getting screwed,” I thought-beamed him. We were literally a block away from the train station, where we could have looked into the matter ourselves, but instead we purchased 2 first-class overnight bus tickets for 700 baht each, about $16.00 U.S – we later found out it was much more than what we should have paid. Our instructions were to return to the agency at 6:00 p.m. sharp to catch a shuttle that would take us to another location where our bus would pick us up. Our instructions were written in Thai.
By the time we got back to our guesthouse, we felt like the hapless subjects of Lonely Planet’s tourist scam stories. We immediately consulted our guidebook, but I knew what I would find. It was obvious that we’d been taken to an unofficial agency, complete with TAT props, and tricked into purchasing inferior bus tickets. In addition to our debacle, the book also mentioned several other worrisome occurrences that had me paranoid for the rest of the day. Several years ago a bus driver attacked a passenger with a machete when he asked why the air con wasn’t working. Other passengers reported that after purchasing tickets for a private luxury bus, they were crowded into a small, hot mini-van instead. Some travelers purchased tickets to find there was no bus at all.
We were back at the travel agency at 5:45 p.m. I was expecting the place to be deserted, boarded up, out of business. But it was still there and the shuttle was on time, unusual considering the Thai’s tendency to show up for appointments whenever they feel like it. We were dropped off at the curb of large boulevard somewhere in Bangkok. After helping us with our packs, the driver hopped back into his mini-van, assuring us that the bus would come. “Everything is fine,” he said in broken English and sped off. We were left to wait with a small group of passengers from Sweden, Germany, and France, all anxious to find out if the bus would turn up or not. To our relief, it did. As promised, the bus had air-conditioning, pillows, blankets, and reclining seats. I didn’t see a machete anywhere.
The bus had a staff of two well-groomed attendants, complete with big smiles and serving trays. Head doilies garnered our seats and gaudy floral curtains were tied with sashes between the windows. Our seats were near the door, an area of the bus that became a gas chamber of exhaust fumes that seeped in at the frequent, and lengthy, stops that we made on our way out of Bangkok. I mentally scanned through the items I could access in our daypack. I was dismayed that although we had 2 rubber bands, 1 twist-tie, 3 zip lock bags, a piece of string, and other essential items one picks up for unforeseen and creative uses while traveling by backpack, we had no brown paper bags. My intake of the noxious fumes had me mildly concerned about the prospect of hyperventilation.
Air pollution was not my only problem. Noise pollution blasted out of speakers located right above my head. Thai pop music makes the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard sound blissful. High, shrill voices and relentless repetitive melodies played on tinny speakers at decibels equal to those of a nightclub. As I settled into the uncomfortable seat I would occupy for the next 10 hours, I began to wander about the 2 meals that were promised with the purchase of our tickets. I was curious to find out what kind of culinary adventure I would find on a first-class Thai bus… and whether or not it would taste like exhaust fumes.
The first meal arrived on my lap a few hours into the journey. We each received a cup of juice and a styrofoam box with unidentifiable contents individually wrapped in cellophane. We stowed our Styrofoam boxes in the luggage netting above our heads, to be eaten only in case of emergency. The nature of the second meal loomed in my mind as I tried to sleep away the long hours. But it was hard to sleep. My stomach was grumbling and the bus made regular stops to pick up passengers waiting on the side of the highway. I spent most of the night glaring at the sleeping passengers that surrounded me. It seemed unfair to be the most uncomfortable person on the bus. I was certain that had we taken the train, I’d be happily dreaming the night away.
When it was time to wake the other passengers, our driver would turn on the lights and blare the awful music. We were startled to alertness in this manner at 2:00 a.m. for our second meal at an outdoor pit stop in the middle of nowhere. Huge stadium lights flooded the place with harsh illumination. Massive clouds of insects hovered in the intense beams.
Even at this early hour, there was an enormous buffet of exotic dishes that I didn’t recognize. However, the official meal, the one that came with our bus tickets, merely consisted of another juice box. We perused the dubious buffet offerings of various meats and vegetables in red and green curry sauces and settled on one to order. 75ï¿½ will buy you a huge bowl of what I’ve come to call “fish bone stew.” Of course, Benjamin was not aware of this when he made the purchase. He doesn’t like fish, let alone fish bones. After he’d taken his first bite, I looked over in time to see him discreetly eject the skeletal matter from his mouth. Apparently it takes too much time to de-bone fish or perhaps the rural Thais like the crunchy texture. Nonetheless, it was not the meal we were hoping for.
During the final leg of our trip, I had to use the bathroom. I’d been avoiding this since we pulled out of Bangkok. As a newcomer to SE Asia, I didn’t have much experience with the use of squat toilets. Of more importance, I had no practice with straddling the porcelain-rimmed hole while traveling on a bumpy highway at 70 miles an hour, all the while holding a flashlight in my hand (there were no lights in the bathroom). My main concern was to avoid peeing all over myself. The last thing I wanted to deal with was the stench of urine and wet clothing. Fortunately, my balance was steady and my aim was good. I enjoyed the rest of my trip content with the satisfaction of having mastered a new skill.
We pulled into the quiet streets of Chiang Mai at 5:00 a.m. I only wanted to find our guesthouse and get some peaceful sleep. Unfortunately, we were dropped at the doorstep of another travel agency. We had to wait there until a decent hour to check into our guesthouse. We knew what to expect: long hours of sales pitches for guesthouses, treks to visit hill tribes, elephant rides, river rafting, kick-boxing matches, cooking classes, and much, much more. The sales staff seemed to be in the midst of an all night bender on speed, coffee, and too much time spent waiting for tourists. “Mai, mai,” I said repeatedly as they pointed to hundreds of tourism photos and brochures mounted to the walls. I’d studied up on the Thai word for “no” during my restless hours on the bus.
We struck out into the dark streets of Chiang Mai to find our guesthouse at 7:00 a.m. Monks dressed in saffron robes walked barefoot through the streets with alms bowls cradled in their arms. An occasional tuk-tuk driver passed us by, laughing at our desire to walk instead of ride. I was happy to be walking in the moonlight, witness to the quiet slumber of Chiang Mai. That is, until the wild dogs began to approach us.
“I read somewhere that you can scare off the mean ones by reaching down towards the road, like you’re picking up a rock,” Benjamin mentioned casually.
“Where did you read that?” I questioned. I wondered if he was making it up, just to calm my nerves. “How can you tell if the dogs are mean?” They all looked menacing to me.
“I don’t know. Just try it if the dogs get too close.”
I was a little more than irritated that I not only had to worry about deep vein thrombosis, a concern fueled by my swollen ankle and a tingly sensation in my leg, but I also had to worry about savage dogs. As one of the mangy beasts approached us, we both pretended to pick up rocks and the dog ran off immediately. It was like magic. I wished it were as easy to fend off the guys at the travel agencies.
Benjamin’s amazing sense of direction led us to our guesthouse without any problem. When we arrived the gate was locked. We found lawn furniture in the lot next door and sat amidst a biting cloud of mosquitoes in the early morning hours, waiting for Chiang Mai to awake. We began laughing as we recounted scenes from the previous 24 hours. Though we likely could have gotten to Chiang Mai by the train, our bus adventure was probably much more educational. I was still angry with the tuk-tuk driver who took us for the ride, but he taught us a valuable lesson for travelers. Posing airs will get you nowhere when venturing into foreign lands. Travelers are always, at least a little bit, tourists as well.
Benjamin decided to take a closer look at the lock. With a simple flick of his wrist, he freed the chain. It was only propped in place to give the impression that the gate was locked. We entered a quiet courtyard and followed a stone path that led towards the river. Although it was still early, there were several people hanging out under the thatched roof of the open-air restaurant. Lucky for us, one of them was the owner of the joint, Am. She offered us coffee, showed us to our room, and welcomed us to Chiang Mai and the Hollanda-Montri, our home away from home for the next five days.