Thursday, July 29, 2010

Bangkok V

Back in Bangkok we arrive at Soi 1 Guesthouse to find it practically empty. The recent violence had not been good to the hostel or any other tourism based businesses. There were only two guests other than us - one was Eddie, who had been there just about as long as we'd been in Thailand, and the other was a New Zealander who visited every year to get his dental and medical check-ups. Not a bad idea. He said a full physical (including blood work, stool samples, etc) was something like $400 or $500 US. Didn't seem like such a bad deal to me. After claiming our bunk-beds our first order of business was food, and we were craving our favorite little street cart around the corner. We made the short walk and were greeted happily by the owner. We even got a hug to go along with her big smile. When we asked how she was doing she said "Not fine" because of the lack of business due to the protests. I thought to myself that she might be lucky in the grand scheme of things because her customers are half tourists and half locals. At least it wasn't as though her business had dropped down to zero thanks to the local Bangkokians who seemed to be continuing to drop in. And thank goodness for that, too. I'd hate to see her stall have to shut down permanently. So we ate a delicious meal and at her request, promised we'd return the next night. Thanks to the continuing curfew we were stuck indoors for the rest of the evening, although we were too worn out from traveling all day to have done anything else.

On the 25th we had to get down to the business of getting our Vietnam visa sorted. We walked to the embassy because it was only a few blocks away and even at that short distance we were covered in sweat by the time we arrived. Ick. And just our luck, they were shutting down for lunch and asked us to come back two hours later with the filled out application. This gave us the chance to check out CenterWorld, though. We wanted to see how much damage had been done to the building since all the crazy fires from the week before. Signs of the violence filled the area before we could even see the burned mall. One fancy building had a shattered two-story window that was being held together with the shatter-proof coating that, lucky for the hotel or whatever they were, had been applied at installation. A man on a high platform was slowly ripping out sheets of the glass with gloved hands, as the only way to replace it would be to remove it first. On the corner one block away a small billboard was blackened with soot from a fire. Various small guard huts along the sidewalk had their walls busted open, glass shattered, and some had also seen fire. There were bullet holes in the thick glass that encased giant advertisements from companies like Gucci or Versace. And then we came within sight of CenterWorld. It was even more impressive than I had been imagining. It was like someone had ripped the building open and it's gaping wound, guts and all, were hanging out for everyone to see. Festering in the sunshine. I never knew that so many wires and cables ran through the innards of buildings. Soot covered most everything, turning even the unburned sections a dull gray. The building was all fenced off and there were a lot of military men milling about on the corner or guarding the entry, looking very bored. One guy was so bored that he was literally staring into the barrel of his rifle. Bored to death, perhaps? I had to get a photo of him. As fascinating as the building was, I found the spectators who were taking pictures with their cameras or phones to be just as interesting. I had never seen so many Thai "tourists" before, all just as interested in the "attraction" as we were. It's usually only foreigners snapping away with their cameras, but for once we were the minority. After getting our fill of the carnage we moved on and headed toward the up-scale Siam Paragon mall. It was untouched as far as I could tell, and business looked to be booming as it was more packed than I had ever seen it. I assume that because CenterWorld was out of service, everyone had up and moved their shopping to Paragon. I'm sure the Paragon shops were happy. We hung out there in the AC for the remainder of our two hours, eventually making the sweaty trek back to the Vietnamese embassy. After handing over our applications and passports we were shocked to be told to come back in seven days to pick them up. Seven days was an awfully long time for a visa approval. I mean, at the Laos border they approve (or deny) you in 30 minutes. I couldn't fathom the reason for the long wait, but beyond paying double for a shorter processing time, there wasn't anything we could do. Besides, any excuse to stay in Bangkok was fine by us. We went back to the hostel to shower and clean up and after a bit of relaxing we went back out. This time hopped on the Skytrain and made our way to the MBK shopping center, the goal of our trip being to help the stalling tourism economy by buying some much-needed clothing. I ended up buying myself far too many tank tops and Chuck got far too few shirts. When tank tops are $1 each it's hard to say no. And Chuck prefers plain-colored, round collar t-shirts, which are almost literally impossible to find in SE Asia. They love designs on their shirts, and any we found that were plain, had v-necks. So Chuck didn't have much luck. We also got some underpants, a pair of shorts for Chuck, and a faux American Apparel shirt for myself. So yeah, now I would have to figure out how to fit all these new clothes in my backpack when it was time to leave. We went to the street cart restaurant for dinner again. She was happy to see us.

On the 26th Chuck had an "interview" with the company that Tom was working for. Yes, that same Tom that moved away from Chiang Mai a month before. He was working in Bangkok and suggested Chuck stop by his work place to check it out. While Chuck was off doing that, I sat around the hostel being lazy. Chuck filled me in about the visit a few hours later. He said it was an incredibly laid back visit (so much so that he couldn't even pretend to call it an interview), just sitting around with Tom and the boss-man chatting about non-work-related stuff. They went up to the roof of the office building, where I was told there was a heli-pad and a pretty expansive view of the city. That evening we met up with Tom for dinner at the street cart we had eaten at the previous two nights. The owner was so glad we brought someone new.

The 27th and 28th were interspersed with feasts at Sukishi, walking around MBK, hanging at the hostel, playing DJMax Technika, etc. On the evening of the 28th I was sitting around in the corner, poking at the internet, idly drifting off in my own world when I heard a new arrival schluffing up the stairs. People had been trickling in over the past few days, bringing the grand total of hostel guests to 5 or 6. Chuck and I were happy that business seemed to picking up, albeit very slowly. So this new arrival shows up and I don't pay her any mind until she opens her mouth and says hello to everyone. I turned around to have a look because I completely recognized the voice. Sure enough, Femke was back in Bangkok! I know, it's probably not so exciting for you guys, but for me it was great. I had not expected to see her again. Last I had heard she was in Malaysia or China, experiencing the world away from Thailand. But she was back in town, and only for a week or so until she headed back to Europe, just like us (minus the Europe part). I thought it was an amazing coincidence that we happened to all show in back in Bangkok at about the same time. So I was quite happy to see her. We stayed up late catching up with each other.

Femke convinced me to go with her to the Chatuchak Weekend Market with her on the 29th. We took the Skytrain to the end of the line and melted into the mass of people all flowing through the huge markets. This was only my second time at the weekend market and it was just as crowded as I remembered it being. It was also still hot, just like I remembered. The back of my shirt was wet - not just damp, but wet - by the end of the day. Femke was looking to get a few things for her place back in Belgium and I was there to help her along. She got some patio lights, each light covered in a colored ball made of thin, dyed twine. Since she was going for a Moroccan sort of feel I convinced her that adding an orange/brown strand of lights to her collection of blues and purples would be a good idea. I have no idea what authentic Moroccan would look like, but it sounded good in my head. Then we moved on to the 8 triangle shaped pillows (popular throughout Thailand at hostels and guesthouses) she wanted for her patio. Between choosing colors and paying for the purchase she was running next door to organize having them shipped back to Europe, because there's no way she could have taken them with her on the plane, each pillow being roughly the size of a small refrigerator (although not quite as heavy at least). That whole process was quite confusing, especially given the language barrier. Once that was sorted we did some leisure shopping which included a pair of pants, earrings, various souvenir gifts, and some drinks at a cafe. That night was a big night out with Femke, Tom, and some people we picked up at the hostel. We all went out to a club and par-tayed until we could party no longer. It was a long night, but fun.

Needless to say, the 30th was definitely a day of rest. The highlight of the day was going out to a new place called Mango for burgers. We did a lot of research online and asked the oh-so-knowledgable hostel owner, Dave (I'm not joking, he seems to know everything you could possibly want to know about Bangkok) where the best burgers were before choosing Mango. Perhaps they weren't the super-besty-bestest I've ever had, but they definitely hit the spot.

On the 31st our passports were ready for pick-up from the Vietnam embassy. We opened them up to find a fresh - although not so glamorous - Vietnamese visa. We were slightly annoyed at the fact that the entry and exit dates were fixed. Our Chinese visa (which we got while in Chiang Mai - I think I forgot to mention that) allowed us a 6 month window for entry. Once we enter, our 30 days start ticking down. But Vietnam would start counting down our 30 day visa regardless of whether we actually entered on our start date or not. And our start date was only one week away. And we were hoping to spend a bit more time in Bangkok to hang out with Femke until she left for Belgium. It was about this time we decided we'd better check our Thai visas to see how much longer we had in Thailand. We took a look and took a second look and as we began to worry we looked yet again. It seemed to be saying that our visas were already expired. We looked at our entry date and counted out the 60 days. Yes, we were indeed over our visa limit by 2 days. “Oh crap,” we thought. In a state of quiet panic we wondered what on earth we were supposed to do. Do we go to the Thai embassy to try to get it sorted out? Do we ignore it and try to sneak out of the country? Do we just pretend we don't know we had overstayed? We ended up hailing a cab and trying to get him to take us to the Thai embassy, wherever that was. It didn't help that he seemed pretty clueless himself. We used our handy cheap-o cellphone to call Dave at the hostel to get directions to the embassy. After talking with him we had the taxi drop us off at a subway stop because the embassy was on the complete other side of town and we didn't want to be stuck with a huge taxi fare. Then we called Tom to see if he knew what happens when you over stay your visa. He suggested that perhaps we shouldn't go to the embassy because it might cause us more trouble than help. By that point we had taken the subway to its intersection with the Skytrain and had tickets in hand for the end of the line. We faltered though as we considered this new information. I suddenly remembered that Femke had overstayed her visa once. Grabbing the phone from Chuck I rang her cell, which just kept ringing and ringing. I later found out she was in the middle of a massage when I called, her phone ringing away on the floor, out of reach. Whoops! That must have disturbed the atmosphere. We decided to just head back to the hostel and do some further research of our own. So instead of going to the end of the line, we went a few stops in the opposite direction, back to where we had picked up the taxi in the first place. What a waste of time and money. Back at the hostel we didn't find too much concrete info online about what happens when one overstays their visa. It sounded as though you could be in big trouble if you're caught while overstayed, but if you're exiting you just pay a fine and it's no big deal. Since we had never, ever been questioned or stopped by police we were pretty confident that wouldn't be a problem, although it still made us a bit nervous. We arranged a bus ride to Cambodia for the next morning though, because overstaying your visa on purpose isn't really a good idea. That left us unexpectedly with one last night in Bangkok and Thailand. We went with Femke to MBK for a goodbye diner at Sukishi. Oh how we would miss the place! We walked around MBK a bit, looking at clothing and whatnot. Chuck miraculously found a plain black t-shirt with a round collar. First one we had ever seen. That night I tossed and turned in my bed all night, unable to get to sleep. It didn't help that one of the other fellows in the dorm occasionally started in on the snoring. I dozed a few times through the night, but mostly I stared at the ceiling.

Chuck, Femke and I were all up quite early in the morning. It turned out that they also got no sleep. I'm not sure if it was the snoring or my stress and sadness at leaving in the morning that made sleep difficult. We took our time packing our backpacks. I had the fun task of trying to fit in all my new shirts, which in the end I managed better than I had expected. We sat around waiting for our bus to arrive, feeling melancholy as we made small talk. Once it arrived I said goodbye to Femke, once again telling her how bummed I was that we didn't get to spend any more time with her. We climbed in and watched as Bangkok slowly shrank to sparse stretches of small buildings and finally drifted off into the distance as we made our way east into the countryside. Goodbye Thailand.

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