The bus ride from Kanchanaburi back to Bangkok took much longer because of evening traffic. Also, this bus wasn’t going to the Southern Bus terminal. Instead, it was headed for the Eastern Bus Terminal, also known as Ekamai. Once I got there by around 5pm, I was approached by many bike taxis (mostly mopeds) asking me where I wanted to go. The buses that go to Chiang Mai leave from Mo Chit Bus Terminal, the Northern Bus Terminal. I turned down the bike taxis because the rates they were charging were close to what the taxis were charging. Also, with luggage, it wasn’t the safest option in Bangkok city.
Instead, I took a van taxi. Basically mini-buses that leave once full of passengers. A bit of a time waster if you are among the first ones in but at 35 baht, an economical choice. Once we left, it took an hour to get to Mo Chit. Bangkok traffic is pretty bad — but I’ll write about that in detail later.
Once I got to Mo Chit, I asked around as to where the buses to Chiang Mai were. I was directed to the platform where several private buses were stationed and I got a ticket for a double-decker A/C bus with a toilet. It cost 605 baht (Rs. 846) and the distance to cover was approximately 750kms. The bus was… nice!
Now I’ve travelled by private long-distance buses in (South) India a lot. I often take the bus when going home to Kerala. I don’t know of any bus service that offers this level of service for around Rs. 800, that too for distance of over 700kms. But that was not all.
They have bus attendants too, all dressed up in their uniforms akin to what you see in airliners. Each seat has a pillow and a blanket and when the bus left Mo Chit, the attendant gave the usual talk (using the on-board microphone) about how long the journey would take, about the service one can expect, etc. She spoke only in Thai but I got the gist of it. Either that or she was making fun of the only Indian on board and I didn’t get it. Soon after, she started serving us food.
I wasn’t expecting dinner as part of the ticket fare. She handed us a box consisting of a deep-fried chicken leg, a sausage roll (not sure what meat but who cares, I eat it all) and a cupcake. Plus juice/cola/water. After that, she gave biscuits and other sweets. Since I was famished, I gobbled it all.
Feeling quite full, I thought to myself how good value this seemed compared to what I was used to back in India. In-flight bus entertainment was mostly Thai karaoke music videos followed by a high-octane Thai action movie — with sporadic audio. But who cares, I fell asleep.
I woke up at around 11pm when the bus had stopped… somewhere. We had, apparently stopped for what was actually dinner at some restaurant. The ticket includes a token which you hand over at the counter and it’s essentially a simple buffet of rice gruel, some steamed vegetables and boiled egg. The egg yolk was bright orange in colour and tasted very sour. I didn’t have much of the rice gruel either, I was already full. My only concern was that I had run out of credit on my mobile phone and because of that, I couldn’t inform my father and brothers where I was.
Fortunately, my father called me later and told him I would be able to re-charge only in the morning from Chiang Mai. I tried to sleep but by 5am, we had already arrived at Chiang Mai. (By the way, in the morning they also serve coffee or juice). I collected my luggage and took a Tuk Tuk (cost 100 baht/Rs. 130) to the tourist heavy Loi Kroh road which is where I decided to base myself. Loi Kroh has plenty of hotels and restaurants but I also chose it because it was close to the Night Market and a few temples I planned on seeing.
I first went to a Ramming Lodge which I found to be good on the internet but then the Tuk Tuk driver said it was expensive (it was over a 1000 baht a night, which I knew) and he told me he knew cheaper places. He took me to a hotel called Rux Thai Guesthouse, just a few metres off Loi Kroh road. It was only 490 baht (Rs. 680) per night and I could check out the next morning. Plus there was free WiFi.
I told the receptionist where all I planned to go in Chiang Mai and when I brought up Huay Pu Keng, he told me that to go there would mean an overnight stay. Instead, he offered me a packaged deal for 1300 baht (Rs. 1,800) which would take me around some places and includes a visit to a Kayan village.
The next day, I woke up by 7am. Went down to the reception area for breakfast, which was included in the hotel room fare. I checked out by 8:30am and took a metered taxi to the Southern Bus terminal which is where all the buses to South Thailand set out from.
My plan was to take a day bus to Krabi where I planned to spend most of my time in Thailand.
But it was not to be. When I inquired, from the Southern Bus terminal, apparently only evening buses were available. Or maybe the lady figured I was a tourist and thought I was expecting the luxury buses. (Tip:Found this blog in case you want to more about the Southern Bus terminal)
Instead of wasting time in Bangkok, I thought I’d go to Kanchanaburi instead, which is 130kms from Bangkok city. So I bought my ticket (77 baht/Rs. 107) and boarded my bus which was departing soon.
It was pretty hot outside and the A/C in the bus was minimal. Fortunately, the bus was barely full and the journey wasn’t too long (1 & 1/2 hours).
We reached Kanchanaburi bus stand by around 11am. I was approached by taxi drivers as soon as I got down from the bus offering tours to all that Kanchanaburi has to offer but I first wanted to check my e-mail and get some water. While I was at the internet cafe-slash-computer repair shop, I checked the weather forecast for South Thailand. BBC Weather said it was going to rain in the coming days. “Oh crap” moment #2.
Kanchanaburi maybe a fairly popular tourist destination but the town is fairly small and a far cry from madness of Bangkok. After sending out a few mails, I took a Mazda pick-up truck taxi (something I haven’t done since the early Gulf years) and set out for the famous Tiger Temple which was 35kms away.
The driver said he would first take me to the Bridge over the River Kwai, which I didn’t know was en route to the Tiger Temple. But even before that, we stopped by the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.
After that, the taxi took me to the famous Bridge over the River Kwai and you read about its history here. It’s mostly a tourist attraction now with short train rides available and surrounded by restaurants and street vendors.
It was around 12:30pm and it was scorching hot, so I took a few more photos and then headed back to the taxi.
We then headed for famous Tiger Temple at Kanchanaburi.
We reached the Tiger Temple a.k.a Wat Pa Luangta Buaat around 1pm. I was wearing a sleeveless vest and I had to change to a non-red coloured T-shirt as there is a dress code. Not to do with the fact it’s a place run by Buddhist monks but more to do with your own safety when getting close to the tigers.
The ‘temple’ is only open to the general public from 12pm to 3:30pm. The entry fee is a rather steep 500 baht (Rs.700) & video cameras weren’t allowed (or you probably had to pay extra for it). I walked in and was asked by the volunteers to run and join the group who were being led to the area where you get to see the tigers.
There are a lot of controversies surrounding the Tiger Temple. Despite being run by monks, many accuse it of exploiting the animals for money and some even question if the stories of how the temple acquired the tigers are actually true. You can read their response to all these queries in their FAQs but I did question their money-making means.
For the 500 baht entrance fee, you get to sit next to the tigers and have your photo taken by the volunteers using your camera (& bottles of water). If you want to have a photo taken with a tiger’s head placed on your lap, that will cost you 1000 baht (Rs. 1,300). I was approached by one of their foreign volunteers, a young woman, who asked if I was interested in spending the night at the reserve, feed the tigers the next morning and see them play — all for 1500 baht (Rs. 2,100). I kindly said no, citing I had to head back. I actually had to head back and I would have loved to spend more time with the tigers, but I just didn’t feel like giving them anymore money.
Even their international volunteers looked like a questionable lot. All young guys and girls who looked like they got into some sort of trouble and sought refuge in Tiger Temple with easy jobs as supposed to actually knowing a lot about tigers. I could be wrong, but that’s how I felt.
Anyway, back to why I actually came all the way here. The tigers.
I-LOVE-tigers! I have always loved big cats — especially since I was a child when I came across a photo book my father had on wild cats. Of all the big, furry, cute (yet dangerous) wild cats, tigers have been my favourite. It’s sad to know our national animal is on the decline the world over but a chance to be this close to them was something I would not have ignored.
After spending around half-an-hour there, I went back up — where they had more tigers for you to pose with.
By 2:30pm, I was done. They do have few other animals at the reserve but they were all animals most Indians have seen before (buffaloes, peacocks etc.). I headed back to Kanchanaburi town in the taxi.
The driver stopped at a bus heading back to Bangkok city. The ride to all the tourist spots and back cost me 600 baht (Rs. 836) and I tipped him 50 baht (the initial quote I was given when I arrived was 800 baht).
I boarded the bus and headed back to Bangkok city. I contemplated my next move. If it was going to rain the next few days, why bother going to Krabi now itself. So, I figured I’d go to Chiang Mai instead — and do my trip in reverse order. Something, I hadn’t planned for and something that would eventually cost me a lot more than I had budgeted.
(All currency conversions below are approximations as of the date of posting)
My flight landed at 5am at Suvarnabhumi International Airport. My first impressions of the airport? Big.
But sometimes I wonder if it’s too big for its own good. I took a lot of travelators after disembarking and then took a right… to take some more moving walkways.
I finally reached the counter where Visa on Arrival applicants had to queue up. The 15-day Visa on Arrival scheme is only open to a few countries, India being one of them. I decided to opt for Visa on Arrival because before departing, I got to know that up until March 10, 2010, there are no fees. So, basically free. Since my travel was going to be on a budget (‘cos in Thailand, you can do it on a budget) , I figured it was one of the things I could save money on. And I wasn’t the only one. The entire line was 90% Indians with the remaining 10% from countries I couldn’t probably spell correctly off the top of my head.
The form I had downloaded and filled up in advance was of no use as the form given at the counter looked different. I took the new form, filled it up, attached two passport-sized photographs and waited in line.
Annoyingly, there was only one officer manning the counter that time and it was painfully slow. So slow that by the time I got my passport stamped, it was 2 hours that I had stood in line! Very tiring. I probably won’t do Visa on Arrival next time if this is how it is going to be. After that, I collected my luggage fairly easily (I mean, after 2 hours, it was bound to be on the conveyor belt!) and then finished up all the procedures to get out the airport.
Then began the second phase of ‘annoying’. Suvarnabhumi has a network of escalators and lifts that only connect even and odd floors. For example, if I needed to get to the 3rd floor from 4th, I had to take the escalator to the 2nd and then take a lift to the 3rd floor. It was quite confusing but I had to get to the Dtac counter at the airport. I took a local prepaid SIM from them and it was weird how easy it was to get one. I mean, they looked at my passport but other than that, I don’t even remember filling up a form or even giving them photos, an address proof etc. like how it is out here. I even activated GPRS and got my number. Cost me 199 baht (Rs. 277).
Once my number was activated, I then headed to the ground floor to take a metered taxi to Petchburi Road.
I decided to head straight to Petchburi Road because it was where Pantip Plaza was located. But first, I needed to get a room. I asked the taxi driver to stop at First Hotel Bangkok on Petchburi Road. The ride cost me 320 baht (Rs. 440). I went to First Hotelbecause it was on the main road and it was one of the hotels I had selected based on internet research. The lady at the reception showed me the rate card which showed over 2000 baht for a single room but soon scratched it and said she can give it to me at special rate of 1600 baht (Rs. 2,200) but the check out time was 12pm. I took the brochure and told her that I’ll be back. I stepped out because even though 1600 baht seemed like a good deal, I wasn’t going to be in my room much as my plan was to freshen up and then step out to get my camera. I also intended on leaving for Krabi that night itself.
I walked up a bit and was approached by several taxi drivers who said they could find me good hotels but I decided to go on without their help. Then a Tuk Tuk driver who was posted near Pantip Plaza called me and asked me if I was looking cheap rooms. Now, during my research on Thailand, a common word of advice I came across was to avoid Tuk Tuk drivers. Mostly because they often charge tourists the same amount of money (if not more) the taxis charge. This guy offered to take me around for 30 baht. I thought, what the heck. Couldn’t be any worse than our autos right? But then he told me about his ‘plan’. He would take me the tourism office and there, he asked me to just sit and listen to what the guys had to offer based on my needs. He asked me to sit for at least 10mins so that he would get a “gas coupon”. I went to the tourism office (which turns out was just an authorized travel agent) and the guy there showed me a hotel which would cost 1600 baht. I then told him that was the same rate I could have stayed at First Hotel and I needed a place I could stay without that annoying 12pm check out rule. He then lowered it to 1400 baht (Rs. 1,900) and said it was no problem, I could check-in now itself.
So I paid for it and went to The Best Bangkok House. It was just off Petchburi Road and not very far from the overbridge to Pantip Plaza. The A/C room I got was clean and well equipped with a working TV (& remote), refrigerator, clean bathroom and a twin size bed. They have internet but only at the reception and you had to pay for it.
I took a nice warm bath and just as I stepped out thinking I’ll go shopping, the fact that I was up all night and how painful it was at Suvarnabhumi, the snooze-factor started to kick in. I was sooooo damn tired and just crashed on my bed.
I set the alarm for 12pm but only got up at 1:45pm. Realizing I didn’t have much of the day left, I headed straight for Pantip Plaza.
Pantip is Bangkok’s (if not Thailand’s) most popular IT mall. And by that I mean, the hub for grey market goods and pirated CDs, DVDs, software etc. It’s like National Market in Bangalore, only this is a 5 storey building with escalators and air conditioning. I checked Pantip first because I also had ask around for some stuff my friends wanted. A lot of the shops stocked the Canon 7D and it was available for as low as 52,000 baht (Rs. 72,000). I also asked around for the Tokina 11-16 f2.8 wide angle lens but most didn’t stock the Canon mount.
MBK used to be one of the biggest malls in Asia when opened in 1985 but even though there are swankier malls in Bangkok, it remains hugely popular even to this day. The reason I went there was for a store called Fotofile. When researching for camera shops of repute in Thailand, Fotofile was a name that often came up among photographers. They also happen to manage the official Canon store in MBK.
I got my Canon 7D body from them for 55,800 baht (Rs. 78,000). I also picked up a nice camera bag for 1500 baht (Rs. 2,000).
Fotofile has like 2-3 stores in MBK alone and more in and around Bangkok. I went to the one on the ground floor as they stocked second hand lenses as well. They too didn’t have the Tokina lens so I ended up picking up the Canon 10-22mm f3.5 wide angle from them and since I didn’t feel like going back to Pantip, I picked up a 16GB CF card and a filter for the 10-22mm from the same store.
The good thing about buying from popular stores like Fotofile was that I could bargain (everything I picked up, I bought it at lower prices than what they initially quoted) and they are authorized to offer the 7% VAT Refund for tourists.
NOTE: The 7% VAT refund can only be claimed at the airport upon departure and you need to hand over a yellow form which is filled up at the store and given to the buyer. I saw some Indian tourists trying to show a bunch of receipts at the office in Suvarnabhumi and were denied. The minimum amount is 2000 baht I believe and it can even be a collective amount. For eg: if I bought from 4 different stores in MBK or Siam Center, I can get a7% VAT refund form from a counter at the mall for the 4 bills totalling 2000 baht or more.
Grey market stores may be cheaper but all they are really doing is excluding the taxes they are supposed to impose on the sale and thereby passing on that reduction as a “discount”. Most stores (the many small ones) in Pantip Plaza do not give 7% VAT Refund.
Coming back to Fotofile, I ended up picking up everything on my credit card, for which they said there will be a 2% surcharge. I decided to reserve the cash in case of emergencies.
After picking up my gear, I went to the food court at MBK to grab something to eat. The food court at MBK works on a coupon system. You pay 100 baht (it can be any denomination) and you are given coupons in sums of 5, 10, 20 and so on totalling 100. They had several counters catering to all sorts of variety but I opted for a sea food fried rice.
After lunch and encashing the remaining coupons, I walked around the same floor and came across a lot of clothes shops. Not branded ones but just small ones selling T-shirts and other gear. I’ll write about all this in detail in a later post. I picked up a pair of shorts because I really didn’t feel like wearing pants in the Thailand heat for the rest of my journey.
I remember the travel agent telling me that the bus to Krabi would leave at 5:30pm but by the time I was done with shopping, it was already past 6pm. I was quite tired with all the running around and told myself that this was supposed to be a vacation and decided to take it easy and leave for Krabi the next morning. Plus, I only needed to check out of my room 9am the next day.
I freshened up and checked out my haul.
I kept the batteries for charging and stepped out for dinner which was mostly deep-fried sausages from a street vendor near Pantip Plaza where an open-air karaoke was taking place and some snacks from a 7-Eleven.
I re-packed and called it a night after that as I had to wake up early the next day.