The wild zebras of Bangkok

Wander Woman Marie Javins discovers that in Bangkok, Chinese visas are more elusive than zebras

3 mins

Monday morning in Bangkok. And this time, I was determined to get to the China visa-processing centre before the 11:30 am cut-off time.

I wasn't going to mess around with a bus or taxi today. No attempts at shortcuts. No dallying over yogurt, fruit, and muesli with Facebook. I sped through my hotel breakfast, then headed west toward the water taxi.

I knew I'd get my visa this time, because I was fortified with the luck of the Thai zebra. Or at least, I was wearing one on my t-shirt.

For a week, I’d been seeing hundreds of ceramic knee-high zebras at sidewalk spirit houses. Eventually, I’d gone to the Sakul House hotel receptionist for answers.

"Why are there zebras everywhere?" I’d asked.

She turned to her computer to see where I could buy some, and I now regret not letting her finish. A friend in New York later pointed out that a half-dozen ceramic zebras would look fantastic on a traffic island back home.

"No, I don't want a ceramic zebra. I just want to know WHY."

 She smiled and shrugged.

"They're nice. Like..." She pointed to the little turtle and flower sculptures on her desk.

I loved this vague explanation and the idiosyncratic mini- zebras all over town, so when I’d come across t-shirts of zebras at Chatuchak Market on the weekend, I’d bought three of them. And I was sporting one this morning as I hurried past the Banglamphu discount shop with the old-people karaoke stand in the back, on my way to the Chao Phraya river. I jostled my way onto a boat among school kids in uniforms and office workers in business-wear.

Just about everyone – including me – piled off the boat 15 minutes later at the Saphin Taksin pier.

I walked off the dock and up to the Skytrain, which is an elevated train that travels above the streets of Bangkok. I hurried ahead so I wouldn't have to wait in the ticket line behind everyone else. The Skytrain took me to the metro.

Bangkok's new metro is immaculate and easy to understand. Ten minutes after boarding, I got off the train at Phra Rama 9 station. My instructions, gleaned from this blog, were to go up the metro escalator, make a U-turn, and walk 400 meters to the first corner (Soi 3), where I'd go left, then go in the first building with the shiny silver pillars.

This was exactly right, though I’d add Fortune Town Mall and Tesco Lotus to the list of landmarks en route.

I headed left at the corner, and there were the shiny silver pillars, as promised!

I went into the pillar building, through the metal detector, and up the stairs one flight to the Chinese visa centre, where I learned that I had to pay USD 159 for my visa. Ouch. I didn’t even want to go to China on my current (I’d been there previously), but I had to go into China to find my way to Tibet.

I took a number. #547. Currently serving... let's see. Oh. #350.

I elbowed my way to a counter and transferred my fictional itinerary ("Xi'an! Beijing! Shanghai!") from the one printout I'd made onto the multiple copies required, then glued my photos on as instructed. I sat down in an uncomfortable plastic seat and ran down my iPhone battery, bored and web-surfing while the numbers changed at a glacial pace.

I hadn't brought my Kindle, not having considered the possibility of sitting in a room for three hours, so I pulled out my map of Bangkok and studied it.


Oh. I am an idiot. I grinned and laughed aloud. A few people near me edged away slowly.

The metro I'd just ridden? One stop back it intersected with the khlong boat, the one I take ALL THE TIME from near Khao San Road to the shopping district. I'd taken three tries and three silly roundabout attempts to get to the Chinese visa centre, when I could have zipped here in a flash if I'd just bothered to look at the map one of the 10-20 times I'd taken this boat in the last few weeks.

How to get from Khao San Road to the China visa centre? Forget everything I’ve written so far. Walk from Khao San Road to the khlong boat taxi at Wat Sukhat. Take the boat to Asoke/Petchaburi. Take the metro one stop to Phra Rama 9.

The Chinese visa centre did indeed close its doors at 11:30, right on schedule, but it continued processing applications until noon, when finally, there was a mad rush for the queues. Numbers no longer mattered. I caught on a second after everyone else and ended up at the back of a line, but at least we were finally moving.

When it was my turn, the woman behind the counter said I could apply for a double-entry visa for the same price as single, but that multiple entry visas weren't being given out at the moment. So she checked "double" and carefully examined my papers, took my money, gave me a receipt, and told me to come back on Thursday.

Clutching my receipt, I headed back to the metro, to change to the khlong boat for Pratunam, which has a huge shopping mall full of cheap clothing.

And in keeping with something I do every time I go into a mall in Bangkok, I promptly got lost in the warren of mall aisles and floors. Sometime towards evening I managed to extricate myself from the madness and caught the khlong boat back to Wat Sukhat, then walked the few blocks back to Banglamphu.

Where I promptly rewarded myself for my success. Mango-and-sticky rice followed by a foot massage, to the accompanying sounds of a Thai singer crooning "Coward of the County" and "The Gambler." Surprising, but a nice switch from the usual "American Pie" and "Hotel California."

And a few days later, I retraced my steps to pick up my passport. But instead of returning back to Banglamphu with it, I jumped on the metro and went downtown to the India visa-processing centre. After Tibet, I planned to go overland through Nepal, India, and Bhutan. I’d fly back to Bangkok after that.

When I was done with filing my India forms, I headed outside, where I stopped next to a spirit house surrounded by tiny plastic zebras, and checked my email on my phone.

"Marie, we have a night bicycle tour running tonight. Do you wish to join?"

I'd been trying to get onto a Bangkok night bike tour all month but the only times other people had signed up, the monsoon season had washed us out.

Heck yeah, I wanted to go on the night bike tour.

I hurried back to Banglamphu, to cycle the streets of Bangkok.

Want to travel the world solo? Check out our solo travel guide. Fancy taking a career break? Here are 7 reasons why you CAN take one.

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