Wander Woman Marie Javins discovers the pitfalls of getting around Bangkok by public transport
"Yogurt, muesli and coffee?" The Thai ladyboy who takes the breakfast orders at my Bangkok hotel’s open-air coffee shop every day was MIA, but the cook was filling in. She was mighty chipper for a Friday morning. The Khao San Road area where I'm staying is slow to wake up in the mornings, though it sure is hopping around midnight.
I'm slow to wake up too. My work world in Kuwait is four hours behind me, so I never tried to adjust my inner clock from Africa to Bangkok. Why bother?
Because I need to get a Chinese visa, I thought. I had to be at the visa-processing centre (which is near, but not in the Chinese embassy) between 9:00 and 11:30am. But given the amount of time it takes to get around in Bangkok, I couldn't just leave my hotel at 10:30am and expect to make it.
Yesterday morning, I'd tried to go, but by the time I finally finished filling out the PDF forms and looking up the Chinese hotels I needed to list on my forms, it was pushing ten. I hurried over to the internet cafe across the street from my hotel. The owner was just rolling up the metal gate. He sleepily took my USB stick and printed out two blank forms.
Horrified, I looked at the PDF on-screen. What had happened to all those blanks I'd filled out? All those hotel stays I'd carefully fabricated? That itinerary I'd made up using an eastbound loop so as to avoid stating my intent to visit Tibet? The words were gone. I must need to re-save the PDF or export it. I hurried back up to my hotel, turned my laptop on, saved the form in several different formats, and even exported the pages as high-res JPEGs.
And then went back to the internet cafe, printed out one page that didn't work and one (the JPEG) that did, and hurried past the dozens of food and junk vendors that line the sidewalks to the bus stop.
I peered down the block. No bus #53 in sight. How was it 10:30 already? No, wait. 10:40. I needed at least a half-hour to get to the metro on the bus. This was pointless. I'd try again tomorrow, I thought.
"I'll just get up earlier."
I did manage to get up at 6:30am on Friday morning. But I was still working on my Kuwaiti comic books at 8:30am, then by 9, I knew I had to get going. I'd take my laptop, go to the consulate and do the paperwork, then head to the nearest coffee shop to finish my paying work, then would have time for the hair salon and the swanky mall where I hoped to replace my worn-out T-shirts, trousers, skirt, and underwear. Actually, I needed to replace everything after four months of washing my laundry in the sink every night.
This time I went to the bus stop that didn't involve navigating around Hello Kitty backpack vendors, and the big, orange bus came right away. I was feeling pretty smug when the conductor took only 7 baht off me and the bus zipped through traffic without stopping. All I had to do was find the huge, obvious railway station. That's where the new metro started, and the metro would zip me eight stops underground to the Embassy of China.
I remembered taking this bus years ago. It had been easy.
We passed the Amulet Market first. Oops, I could have just taken the bus here the other day when I'd gone by to take some photos. And then we passed Wat Po, the ornate temple complex I've been meaning to get back to for the massage school and fortune-telling pavilion. And then the bus wove around into Chinatown and got bogged down in traffic. My mind wandered and I reminded myself to keep an eye on the road. The bus map showed bus #53 doing some dizzying round-the-block manoeuvres around the railway station.
Still, it's a giant railway station. How hard can it be? And if I couldn't see the station, I could see a lot of people suddenly getting off the bus. Couldn't I?
Within ten or 15 minutes, I was worried. I knew I'd missed the stop. Or had I? We'd been sitting in traffic for so long, it was possible we'd barely moved. I pulled out my map and tried to identify landmarks as we passed them. Where were we?
The bus went through a tunnel of cheap clothes, past an outdoor market of tables selling stuff you wouldn't buy on sale at the dollar store. That certainly wasn't on my map. And I could see we were running parallel to a khlong, a canal. But a spider-web of canals criss-cross Bangkok. I couldn't tell one from another.
I'm not sure how long I sat on bus #53 but when it pulled over and stopped, everyone got off, including the conductor. That was my cue to leave. Not only had I passed the metro and the train station, but I was at the end of the line on a bus that had circled around so many blocks and traffic circles that I couldn't even tell where in Bangkok I could possibly be.
I saw a sign for Wat Sammonat. How did I get all the way turned around and to Wat Sammonat? And where and what was Wat Sammonat? It wasn't on my map at all. Or wait... ABOVE where I'd started? How had that happened?
All the other passengers walked about 40 feet up the road and got onto another bus, also called #53.
I was beyond baffled, so I skulked up to a man reading a newspaper in a booth with a big "I" on it. He ignored me.
He looked up.
"How do I get to Hualamphong Station?"
He motioned across the road to the bus stop.
I crossed the road to wait for the return voyage of bus #53. Traffic, I noted, was terrible going back in that direction.
No bus arrived.
I hailed a bright pink air-conditioned metered taxi.
"Hwa-lahm-pong." I said. "Meter."
He flicked the meter on and drove about six feet before settling into a rhythm of waiting and then driving, waiting and driving.
Still, we couldn't be that far away from the train. And I still had plenty of time. More than an hour.
I told myself that for another 15 minutes before I started to worry.
We're probably right by a Skytrain station and I don't even know it, I thought. I showed my map to the driver during one of our many long waits. I pointed at the Skytrain line and motioned around.
He nodded. Indeed we were going to the train. After all, hadn't I asked him to go to Hualamphong Station?
Argh. My inability to communicate was making this hopeless!
The meter clicked. The clock did too. I looked at my phone every three seconds. I thought about how people here still buy watches. I wondered what would happen to the luxury watch market around the world as watches were discarded in favor of the clock we already carry in our pockets.
Then, WHAM. A yellow taxi fender met its maker as a mid-sized sedan, its driver chatting away on a mobile phone-clock, pulled out into traffic.
Not that it mattered. We weren't moving anyway. An accident hardly changed that situation.
Rush hour here ends at 9:00, when people go to work. Why was traffic at a standstill today?
And then we reached a roadblock. The taxi driver turned and explained something to me. I'm pretty sure he said: "I can't get to the train station, do you want me to go around this block where traffic never moves and it will take 40 minutes to just go right over there when you could walk?"
But I don't know that. I looked at him blankly. He sighed and turned onto yet another parking area disguised as a road.
At 11:10, he pulled into the railway station, sailing past the metro in his zeal to get me to the train I'd been asking about.
"Any time now..."
He proudly deposited me at the door to the train station. My 7 baht bus journey had cost me 107 baht.
I rushed over to the metro and underground, knowing it was pointless but unable to turn the rushing off. And then I got to the token vending machine and looked at my phone.
Guess I'll try again on Monday.
Instead, I bought a token to the Silom area, for my visit to the hair salon.
I emerged up out of the swank modern subway into the middle of a massive political demonstration. Elections were on Sunday.
Oh. That explains the roadblock and traffic.
A woman in a yellow sash tried to hand me a flyer. Instinctively, I waved her off, and then laughed at myself. The flyer was probably interesting. You can take the girl out of New York...
My first instinct was to flee the demonstration, head straight back down underground. But then I spotted a coffee shop, and ducked in to finish my work. I typed away on my laptop for an hour.
Outside, rain started pouring down. The yellow-party election campaigners melted away in minutes, dissolved by the rain, and by the time I'd sent in my assignment and finished my coffee, the route to the hair salon was clear.
A few hours and many interesting chemicals later, I left the salon and got on the Skytrain to the mall part of town. But not too long after, the crowds were growing around me – it was about six o'clock – and by the time I walked to the other end of the mall, I was desperate to leave the masses behind.
"If I leave now, I can still get to the river boat before it stops for the night."
I headed to the exit.
Huh. A monsoon. I wasn't going anywhere.
The next time I looked outside, the monsoon has lessened to being mere cats-and-dogs. I went to the Skytrain via the covered walkway, reminding myself not to go to the shopping part of town on a weekend night again.
There were massive queues at all the fare machines.
I scurried around to check. Yep, all of them. I got in line, waited a while, got my ticket, waited briefly to get my chance to go through the turnstiles, followed a crowd up an escalator to a platform, pushed and shoved into a car when the time came, and fought my way off at the interchange with the subway.
The subway line quickly zipped me across town. I came up out of the ground into the railway station.
I went straight to Tourist Information.
"How much do you think a taxi to Khao San would cost tonight, in the rain?"
The agent shook his head.
"The rain makes everyone crazy. At least a hundred baht. There's no telling how long you'll be sitting in traffic."
"Where can I catch the #53 bus?"
"Out in front of KFC."
I crossed the station waiting room, past dozens of sprawled-out waiting passengers. Monks all sat together in a swarm of orange robes. They got the chairs.
I hesitated behind a slow-walking Thai woman. I felt like pushing ahead, but I was tired and anyway, that can be rude.
But I regretted this a moment later when I saw the #53 bus barrelling by, splashing water everywhere moments before I arrived at the bus stop.
I hailed a yellow taxi.
"Khao San, please. Meter."
We crawled slowly through the traffic, ending the day much as I'd begun it. Sitting in a taxi.
And waiting some more.
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