Monthly Archives: February 2007
Feb 23, 2006
I knew it would be a long trip. Thankfully, we were still all on speaking terms, even friendly to each other, when it was all over!
Our Journey Home, Part 1: Koh Tao to Chumphon
Checkout time at Big Blue Diving Center, Koh Tao (http://bigbluediving.com/en/kohtao/), is 9 AM, but the friendly folks there let us keep one of our two rooms until 1 PM on Monday. This was so we could go diving one last time and shower before we left to catch our 2:30 ferry to Chumphon. It was my first dive after getting certified. I had a lot of fun, but I was already tired for the day when we returned back to the dive center! Back in the outdoor restaurant, we filled in our log books and I got everything signed and stamped by my diving instructor Matthias (from Sweden), then we showered, ate lunch, and finished checking out. We then hauled our one roller suitcase, 3 backpacks, and now two small suitcases (stuffed with wet clothing) to the street to catch a taxi to the pier. The sun was already hot — as beautiful as it was in February, I’d dread to be there in May!
Once at the pier, we didn’t know which ferry to get on! There were several leaving for different destinations, along with several hundred people waiting. (This is a bigger obstacle than it might seem, when no one speaks English or seems to know where the different ferry terminals are located.) We finally did locate ours, a hard seat, open air rig that appeared old enough to fully justify the discounted fare we had received. After walking up the gangplank onto the boat and depositing (with some trepidation) our luggage in the general pile of several hundred backpacks (it seemed) which was then covered with a tarp, we opted to check out the "VIP cabin" — it had air cond and soft seats — which cost an extra 40 baht per person. Big spenders, we are, this amounted to roughly $12. David had purchased a joint ticket for ferry, transfer to train, and train all the way to Bangkok. Once at the ferry pier, we transferred to the coach type bus. The girls and I sat somewhere in the middle, while David with his heavy bag was placed in a front seat. I knew the bus was driving fast, but David said his eyes "were opened" by the bus ride to the train station. He said the driver would careen down the road and blow the horn, heaven forbid that some poor soul failed to get out of his way.
I had already been warned by the young people on Koh Tao not to take the bus in Thailand. The kind of folks who make it to Koh Tao tend to be rather adventuresome twenty-something year olds, and even they found the buses in Thailand a bit risky for their taste. Last year, a Thai-based Expat told me that Thai culture is so Confucian that people do nothing to avert risk. They believe if you’re gonna go, you’re gonna go. They think that if your appointed time has come, a pinprick will kill you, and if it’s not your time, then nothing will hurt you. Therefore . . . why bother with things like worrying whether you are driving safely. As a result, the highways are not very safe, to put it mildly. I was glad we were taking the train.
Our Journey Home, Part 2: Chumphon and the Night Train to Bangkok
When we got to the train station, we had plenty of time to check our bags and go grab a bite to eat. A quick consult at the Lonely Planet said the best and funnest place to eat was at the outdoor night market, and this turned out to be an excellent choice. I thoroughly enjoyed perusing the many food options and sampling many items. The previous night I had purchased a Thai seafood salad from an outdoor sidewalk vendor. I had been terrified that I was making a terrible food poisoning mistake (remember, if you can’t see where they wash the dishes, you never know what they might be washed in), but the food was delicious and I had no bad effects. Same for the night market. First, we ordered some Thai pancakes. Then some skewers of some chicken. I was really tempted by the smoked fish, but I’m sure it would have been too spicy for me. Instead, I got a piece of fish that had been steamed inside a banana leaf. But when I opened it, it too was spicy. Delicious, but more than my palate could handle, and I needed something to drink!
Against my better judgment, I first ordered a juice made from a small orange colored citrus fruit that I had never seen before. Using pantomime, I asked for it to be mixed with ice and blended, just as the local person in line ahead of me had done. I took comfort from the fact that the woman serving it was wearing latex gloves, somehow reasoning that this meant she had some awareness of germs and cleanliness. After filling the cup half full of juice and then the rest with ice, she added two spoons of something I thought was sugar and then a shot of syrup. It turns out, she was adding salt and syrup. The result was delicious, as David noted something like a virgin margarita. So, after drinking that all up I got another one made with lime. Heaven! After we had surveyed all the food stall offerings, we decided to go back to one particular pad Thai booth where she gave a choice of chicken or shrimp. I wanted shrimp, David wanted chicken, and Clarissa wanted vegetarian. We gave up trying to convey the meaning of "vegetarian" so Clarissa ended up with chicken in hers. It was all fabulous. We ended our meal just at the right time to walk back the two blocks to the train station and collect our luggage for the arrival of the night train.
After we collected our bags back and went out to wait for our train, the station manager came over and told us our car was already there and that we could go ahead and board it. The train was adding two cars at Chumphon, and ours was one of them. So we went ahead and boarded. I thought it would be wise to go ahead and get a jump on the brushing teeth and toilet before they got dirty. Wrong! I collected J and her toothbrush, and opened the door to the toilet area. The strong ammonia type fumes just about asphyxiated me. I decided that, although it would be impossible to wait nine hours, at least I should wait until there was wind from the window airing out the little room. As our berths were already made up for the night, we could climb in them and get settled in, which we did. Since we had barely slept on the train ride south, David and I opted to take "Simply Sleep" to help us get some shuteye. We only took one apiece, though, since we didn’t want to be groggy if we needed to wake up for any reason. The train was mostly full of foreigners — Europeans, it seemed mostly French on this train. I was mortified when I overheard one Thai woman chattily ask a very nice French man if it was true that French people never bathed! I didn’t quite hear all the answer but he seemed unfazed, and I did hear the words "soap," and "expensive," and so I presume he was aware of this myth and the reasons for it. I watched in amazement as another guy quickly stripped to his shorts and walked, barefoot, into the toilet compartment, very quickly attending to all his teeth brushing and other things and then coming out. I couldn’t help but wonder . . . what insanity led him to walk into that room with bare feet?
Once again, J was very excited to be sleeping on the train. Even though we had purchased a berth for her, she opted to sleep with her sister. So, we used the extra berth to store a backpack. This time, we all had upper berths, which were very comfy. When the train docked with our car, we could see the light of the engine approaching, but the actual docking was so gentle that the cars didn’t even bump. In time, after we were underway, I revisited the toilet compartment and to my amazement found that the toilet on the right side was a western toilet, and it was even pretty clean. Not that I would have walked in there with bare feet! As the train glided along the tracks, I fell asleep quickly and easily. When the train stopped, I woke up feeling like I had slept a long time. Even though we had set our alarm, I got worried that we might be at Bangkok. I was a bit sheepish when, having roused myself from a deep slumber to dig my cell phone out of its case and check the time, I saw that it was just 12:30 A.M., five hours away from our destination. After that, I went back to sleep but I slept only lightly. Still, it seemed like no time until the Steward was walking around announcing it was "time to wake up!" 5:30 A.M. I got J and jumped down to beat the rush to the bathroom, then we packed up and had easily 45 minutes of waiting left before the train arrived at the Hualamphong station in downtown Bangkok.
Our train arrived just after 6 A.M., which allowed us four hours to eat breakfast, then get to the airport and check in for our 10 A.M. flight back to Macau. I went to the "Information Desk" at the train station and asked the man, who spoke pretty good English, what was the best way to get to the airport. Very helpfully, he told me to get on train x, which was parked at Dock 6, and it would go to y station which was right at the airport. The train wouldn’t depart until 6:50, and it was due to arrive at the airport at 8:15. A bit slow, but plenty of time to spare, and we could eat breakfast at the airport. I was guessing that the new Bangkok airport, which is a huge, brand new, world class airport, would not be located close to the center of the city. Bangkok is known for bad traffic, plus a taxi would have to go a long way. So, taking a train to the airport sounded pretty good.
As David and the girls waited, I went inside, purchased 3 adult and one child fares for a grand total of 25 baht (about $2.25). Then we carried all our luggage to our appointed car, sat down and waited. We quietly watched as the train station turned from night, to dawn, to morning daylight, as the train attendants washed the outside of the train. The train didn’t leave at 6:50. It didn’t leave at 7:15. At 7:30 we began to get antsy. It finally pulled out about 7:35. It was a pretty fun train to ride. It was a non-air cond train on which the windows came all the way down and you could stick your head out, if you were foolish! There was a lot of vegetation and other stuff beside the tracks, so we told J to be sure to keep all body parts well inside the train! Still, we got an interesting bird’s eye view of the backside of Bangkok. Mostly, poor, filthy and littered with garbage. Although we were enjoying the view of the ride, much to our consternation the train did not seem to be making much progress. It kept stopping on the tracks, moving very slowly. The time it was supposed to arrive at the airport was well past, and we had traveled less than half a mile from the train station, still moving at a snail’s pace. We began to worry whether we would get there in time to check in to our flight before the gate closed. At the third stop, the train stopped for a long time. The army soldiers in the car with us got off and all went to purchase drinks and snacks inside the station. David and I were looking at each other, wondering what to do . . . if we got off the train, would we be stuck in deadlocked Bangkok rush hour traffic? Would the train start up in a few minutes and make good time?
After a few minutes of hesitation, David announced, "Get up! We’re getting off!" The Thai people around us assured us that the train would be moving soon, but nodded their heads with understanding when we explained we had a plane to catch! Outside this small station, we flagged a taxi. We told him "airport," and he said "400 baht." We agreed with no hesitation, he told us it would take half an hour to get there. One look at our airline confirmation email, a small sigh of concern, and he lost no time getting us to the airport! He went on an interstate type toll road, for which we paid the fare, and drove in more or less a straight line at highway speed for about half an hour. I don’t see any way that slow train could have gotten to the airport in less than two hours, at the rate it was going. Moreover, I saw no trace of a train station or railroad tracks in the vicinity of the new airport. I am still wondering what the real story was on that train ride, but I am sure glad that David made that quick decision to get off the train when he did!
We checked in just one hour prior to our departure and just barely had time to purchase some muffins and eat them before boarding our flight. The flight to Macau was quiet and uneventful.
Our Journey Home, Part 3: On To Macau and Guangzhou
I like Air Asia. The airline seems well run, the staff is friendly. It impresses me that they make announcements in four languages — Thai, Chinese, English, and another language I didn’t recognize. Our round trip tickets from Macau to Bangkok cost just $160 apiece, and that was actually a high price due to Chinese New Year.
Once we were through immigration in Macau, we saw an American girl in the airport who looked very lost. Being familiar with that particular feeling, we stopped to ask if we could assist. She was an exchange student studying in Singapore for a semester, and for Chinese New Year she and some friends had booked discount flights to Macau (on Tiger airways, another discount carrier) and then to Clark at Manila. From there, they planned to take a bus 1.5 hours to Manila and then another bus 7 hours to Bora Cay. But she had made a side trip to see a friend in Hong Kong, got delayed, and missed her flight. There wasn’t another flight on Tiger for 24 hours, she had no way to get in touch with her party, and they had no set itinerary. She had no idea whether they would try to wait for her in Manila, whether they would proceed without her to Bora Cay, or where they would be staying in any place. She wasn’t even sure if she wanted to proceed on to Bora Cay if she wasn’t assured of being able to meet up with her friends again. Taking her to our house was not an option, because she didn’t have a China visa. I saw the "quick decision" aspect of David’s personality when (I guess his parental mode taking over), he instructed her to first notify her friend in Hong Kong, make arrangements to stay with them for the night, then get online and check her email to see if her friends contacted her that way after they arrived. She said she had already called her friend in Hong Kong, and she seemed grateful for confirmation of the course of action she had already though would be the best thing. As for me, it’s not quite what I would have done. Her air ticket was already forfeited and she was thinking of purchasing a new one. I would have checked the other discount airlines to see if any others had flights to Clark the same day. But waiting until she heard from her friends was the safest option. I suggested that she not tell her parents about this misadventure until well in the future, and she laughed with complete understanding of what I meant.
As for ourselves, we put our Chinese back to use and purchased direct bus fare back to the China-Macau border crossing at Zhuhai, riding with a load full of returning Chinese. After we exited Macau and were walking through the corridor to enter into China, we passed a travel agency booth selling direct bus coach tickets to the station near our house in Guangzhou. I stopped to purchase tickets, as Clarissa walked ahead of us to start filling out the immigration forms. As Clarissa was filling out her form which requested her visa number, she began searching for her visa and realized . . . she had no more entries left on her visa!!! We had overlooked a major "minor detail"! Clarissa had gotten out of sync with the rest of us when I had taken J to the orthopedic doctor in Hong Kong a month earlier! Surprise! We need a place to sleep in Macau or in Hong Kong! The Chinese visa offices were closed for Chinese New Year, all the travel agencies we knew of were closed, we couldn’t find a travel agency open at the China gateway into Macau, and our cell phone batteries were almost dead. Hordes of gamblers on their CNY holiday were pouring across the Macau border from China. David felt pretty sure we wouldn’t be able to find a room in Macau on such late notice, with no local resources to help us locate one. So, as we headed for the ferry to Hong Kong, David called our friend Drew, who lives in Hong Kong, and asked if he would get on the internet and locate us a hotel room in Hong Kong.
Our Journey Home, Part 4: Oops, Onward to Hong Kong, Visa, and Guangzhou
By this time, after traveling for more than 24 hours, we were tired and worn. J began to cry. In spite of having a 24 lb backpack on her back, Clarissa picked J up and carried her sister until she collected herself to walk again. I purchased ferry tickets for the next boat to Macau, leaving at 5:00. The woman told me that the next ferry was sold out, we could either wait until 5:30 or we could get on the 5:00 ferry if we purchased Deluxe tickets (these are in the upper berth and include beverage and light meal). Given how tired the family was, I purchased the tickets to get us there the fastest, the deluxe tickets for a lot more money. If I had thought more about it, that it was just a half hour difference, I probably would have opted to wait, but we were all so tired, and here J was already crying. She told me the ferry was boarding at gate #1. We passed by the "standby" line, flashing our "Deluxe" tickets at the ticket taker. Then, we had to go through a long immigration line to exit Macau, then down to the ferry pier, where the boarding gates are located.
You arrive at gate 5 which is in the middle. Gate #1 at the far end to the right. We ran down the terminal, about 75 meters, to Gate #1, only to learn it was the wrong gate. As I frantically scanned our tickets, I saw that no gate number was printed on them. We ran from terminal to terminal, until someone told us that our boat was boarding at Gate 11, which was at the exact opposite end from where we had been sent.
The terminal was full of people seeming to walk very slowly, all walking directly in my path and meandering in front of me. I began yelling as I ran, "Wo quai yidian, Rang yi Rang!" which in Mandarin (not spoken widely in Macau) means "I have a hurry, make way!" But I figured Cantonese is close enough to Mandarin, they know what I mean, even though they didn’t act like it. (I have figured out that a lot of time, when Chinese people act like they don’t understand me, they really do understand what I am saying but bluff about it and pretend they don’t, if I am asking them to do something they don’t want to do or don’t care about.)
We arrived at Gate # 11, at the very far end of the terminal from where we had been sent, breathless and just after they had closed the gate for boarding. The man informed me there was no problem, they would just put us on the 5:30 ferry. But I was so mad and upset, that I yelled at him, telling him that that we were only late because the woman who sold me the ticket had told me Gate #11. He replied, "They can’t hold the boat just for you." I told him I didn’t expect them to hold the boat for me, but that we wouldn’t have been late if she hadn’t sent me to the wrong gate. He failed to understand that I was upset because I bought the Deluxe seats just to get on that ferry and the woman had told me the wrong gate and had me run, dragging two children and five pieces of luggage, through a human obstacle course, for more than the length of a football field. Well, I didn’t just "tell" him, I yelled at him animatedly. He totally failed to get it. In response to his complete apathy, I wanted to explain more so that he would "get it," but David told me to drop it, which I did. It’s pointless and not worth my time or energy, even though it took a while for me to get over it. Although the family "conventional wisdom" is that I’m a laid back person, I have come to realize over the years that I’m not laid back at all, in some respects.
At least our deluxe seats came with our choice of drinks. I had developed too much of a headache to take advantage of the beer, so I ordered cappuccino instead, and settled into my seat to watch the hour’s worth of annoying infomercials on the TV during the ferry ride. While we were riding, Drew called. He came through for us, a room was waiting for us at the Marco Polo Prince. Not only that, when we arrived, there were no more regular rooms available. (Hong Kong is not a fun city in which to locate a last minute hotel room.) They bumped us up to the 17th floor executive level, to a suite. No children were allowed on that floor, so we didn’t tell them we had Julianna, and they didn’t ask. We instructed her to walk in between two adults and to keep absolutely quiet — no talking at all — while we were on the hall, and the staff graciously failed to notice her presence. What a lovely room with nice, soft beds and down comforters.
There are worse things than having to spend a day in Hong Kong. It is a beautiful city, very photogenic. (I have some good photos in my album in this blog!) The next day, David worked from the hotel while the girls and I rode the bus out to Stanley. An unexpected benefit of our detour to HK was that there were still some CNY festivities going on, including a Lion Dance at our hotel! The Lion is fed lettuce, which he then spits out in a symbolic act which blesses the business establishment. The Lion Dance ceremony was not purely for the benefit of patrons. The lion went to each floor of the hotel (we think) and did the lettuce eating / spitting ceremony on each level. As this is the year of the pig, Canton Road was also decorated with cute piggies, which we photographed.
We weren’t sure if we would have to lay over in Hong Kong for one or two days, waiting for the visa. We heard a rumor that recent revisions to visa requirements made it mandatory for visas issued to Americans to take two days to process. (I’m told this is a tit for tat retaliation to the slow and expensive treatment of Chinese applicants by the American visa agencies; truly I am embarassed when I see the rude and rough way Chinese citizens are treated by our government officers as they pass through USA Immigration counters.) We made a contingency plan that, if necessary, David would return to work in Guangzhou while I waited out the visa issuance in Hong Kong. But the next day the travel agency did come through for us — a new visa for a price of 1600 HKD (about $200 U.S.) — and we were able to get home with Clarissa’s new, expedited visa. We caught the 7:15 train from Hung Hom Station to Guangzhou. Having done this many times, we are experts in how to be the first foreigners off the train and how to run to be first in the immigration line. This exercise was a bit needless, it turned out, because there were barely any foreigners catching the late train back into China on a Wednesday night during Chinese New Year. So, we were the first foreign family to get through immigration, at 9:30 P.M., and then we were home by 10:00 P.M., about thirty two hours after beginning our journey home.
After we had collected ourselves in the ferry station, J had told me she wasn’t crying in Macau because she was tired (as I had thought). She said she had been crying when she learned we had to go to Hong Kong, because she was so disappointed not to be seeing her puppy that day. Upon our arrival, our puppy Bella reciprocated Julianna’s joy. All’s well that ends well. And all that long story is why, I was so amazed to think, that not only were we still speaking to each other and the end of our journey, but we were all in good spirits and getting along well together. It was a long trip, but I’d do it again in a minute if I had a chance to go back! Our trip to Koh Tao was a truly wonderful and memorable vacation!
This week in Thailand, I had a minor medical issue for which I wanted to consult a professional. I walked to see the local nurse, who practices out of a storefront. I don’t know her qualifications. She speaks some English. I told her my symptoms. She asked me a few questions, and then she told me I needed an antibiotic. She explained why my particular symptoms merited an antibiotic. She asked me if I had any drug allergies, and I told her no. She did not create a file; she did not even ask me my name. She gave me the appropriate antibiotic and charged me 200 baht. This is the equivalent of roughly $5 U.S. That’s $5 total, for both consultation and medicine. The next day as I was walking past her store, she hailed me and asked me if I were better. Yes, I was. Thank you!
Last summer in the USA, I developed a very minor medical issue for which I wanted to consult a professional. There are no nurses practicing out of storefronts for minor medical issues! Instead, I made an appointment with a physician who was board certified in Family Practice. Since it was my first appointment with that particular doctor, I had to wait a few days, until there was room in the schedule for a new patient. At the appointed hour, I showed up; but I had forgotten my wallet, which contained both my cash and my insurance information. Although I told them I could bring payment before their office closed for the day, they refused to send me back to see the doctor until I could produce some form of monetary deposit. Because I had no money on my person, I had to reschedule, get the money, then come back and wait again. The doctor I originally had planned to see was no longer available for that day, so I agreed to see a different doctor. Once I was called back, a nurse recorded my weight, height, temperature, blood pressure, medications taking, allergies, and symptoms. She put all this information in a chart. The nurse then took me back to a private room in a very expensive building, where the doctor spoke with me about my symptoms. She looked in my throat and ears, etc. She told me I needed an antibiotic. She explained to me why my particular symptoms merited an antibiotic. She asked me again if I had any drug allergies, and I told her no. Everything is now written in my file, including my insurance information which is in its special place on the front page. For this office visit, I paid a $25 U.S. “copay.” My insurance company was billed for an additional $140 or so (though through some agreement they only paid about $90). This cost did not include the antibiotic prescription, which I had filled at a pharmacy. I don’t remember the cost of the antibiotic.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, in describing the differences in medical practices – and costs – in different countries.
One of my girlfriends warned me that air tickets out of China were getting sold out. So, without any particular destination in mind, I purchased air tickets to Bangkok. I figured, from there we could decide where to go. At first I thought to go to Phillippines, but why go to a beach in the Phillippines when there are great beaches in Thailand? After much research, I decided that the island of Koh Tao in Thailand would be our vacation destination. So, how to get to Ko Tao from Bangkok? One option is the night train. It will be an adventure. Some adventures are a bit too much adventure while they’re happening. Those mis-adventures are usually the ones that make funny stories. If you live to tell about them, that is. (Travel tip #4: always carry a first aid kit that includes bandages, thermometer, tweezers, any medicines you might really need ranging from Imodium to antibiotics, you get the idea.) Nothing terrible happened on the night train, but I thought I would describe my experience, since I did live to write about it.
The web site http://www.seat61.com has train information and train schedules from all over the world. It includes photos of both first and second class sleepers in Thailand. Second class sleepers do not have private compartments (as first class sleepers do), but they are air conditioned, and the editor says most westerners find them perfectly adequate.
The train station was rather quaint. Trains run every few minutes, and the first challenge was to figure out which train we were supposed to be on. The train conductor on the night train to Chiang Mia (north of Bangkok) looked at my ticket and told me not to get on his train. Many other trains, I wouldn’t have wanted to get on. They had open windows with people staring listlessly out of them, sometimes hanging head and torso out of the windows to see better, some freight cars that seemed to be full of people.
The second challenge, beyond figuring out the right train, was to stand in the right place, so that you are standing at your car when it stops rather than at a car 16 cars removed from yours. We figured out that signs posted on the track indicated roughly the location where each car would stop. The sign for our car, Car #17, was about 50 meters further than the last seats for people waiting, so we waited at the seats. As we were waiting, I began to notice that there were actually two tracks, separated from each other by a chain link fence. The northbound train to Chiang Mai had stopped on our side of the tracks. What if the southbound train to Chumphon actually were coming on the other side, and we wouldn’t have time to get there? My cheerful “other half” consented to inquire at the station. Not once, but twice, they reassured him that we were standing on the correct side. But there is always the possibility of language difficulty.
A woman with a baby had come up to J and encouraged her baby to talk to J in English. Since the mommy spoke English, we decided to ask her if we were on the right side of the tracks. This led to conversation with the entire family, who were very friendly and helpful. The dad said yes, indeed, we were waiting in the right place for the right train. He was putting his father on the same train, headed for the southern provinces down near Malaysia. He said we were also standing in the right spot, except that the train wouldn’t stop as far down on the tracks as what the placards indicated. He advised us not to go too far down. As he spoke, another train headed for northeast Thailand pulled into the station. It stopped a good 50 meters further down the track than where the placards indicated it was supposed to stop, sending the waiting passengers scrambling in a mad dash to run for the train and board it in the minute or two it would sit idle in the station.
The man we had befriended had lived in the USA for nine years. He told us that besides getting on the right train, which he would help us do, our next big challenge would be to know when we were in Chumphon and to wake up for our stop. He asked his father, who didn’t speak any English, to arrange for the steward to wake us up in time and help us know when to get off the train at the right place. Our train was to arrive in Chumphon at 3:00 A.M., and from there we would somehow get to the long distance ferry terminal and catch the 7 A.M. ferry to the island of Ko Tao, where we had arranged to holiday. It turned out that the father was ethnically Chinese, and he spoke a dialect that was readily intelligible to us, so we were able to converse in Chinese as much as our language skill would allow.
When our train arrived, the train overshot even the space where we had been standing by about 25 meters, and so we had a bit of a frantic dash to collect ourselves and our luggage, but soon we settled into our seats. To our amazement and relief, the steward spoke good English. He brought us a menu to take our dinner order (200 baht extra per person) and asked us what time we would like our meal.
The seats were set up in a more accommodating fashion than hard sleeper seats on Chinese trains. Two seats faced each other. At night time, the cushions on those seats pulled together to make one bed, while a second bed was pulled down from its resting place near the ceiling. Our four seats were all in the same spot, together. As a family, we quickly concluded that the younger generation would get the two top bunks. J climbed up and down the ladder numerous times, impatient for her bunk to get pulled down from its resting place in the ceiling. The dad of our train station friend came to check on us. He pulled a different steward over to us and asked that man to make sure we were awake and off the train at the proper stop. Then, he invited us to come visit with him in his car (also a second class sleeper), but we were tied up with the arrival of our meal.
Our food was tasty, and each one of our set meals would have been enough for two people. The main dishes were all too spicy for J, but she refused the rice and fried egg which came on the side. She and I both also enjoyed the soup, which was vegetables and tofu in a clear broth with rice noodles. Since I enjoyed other things on the table besides the soup (unlike her) I gave her my soup as well. In Thailand we live in fear of spiciness. In Chinese food, if it’s spicy you know it in every bite. Some bites will be more spicy than others, but there’s no mistaking which dishes are spicy. Thai food is not like that. Individual flavors of vegetables and meats are more individual, less integrated into the taste of the dish as a whole. Thus, any given food may seem that it’s not spicy, but then you take that “one bite” that you remember forever. It’s as if the cook is saying, “Ha, ha. Gotcha!” I had this experience last night. I was eating a very mild version of coconut and lemongrass soup, when I got one bite of pepper which left a trail of chemical burn exactly as wide as the pepper, going all the way down my throat. Well, J complained that her soup was spicy. I couldn’t taste any hot pepper in the parts of it that I tried, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there!
We were the last people to finish eating. The head steward collected the plates and, to my amazement and horror, proceeded to stow the dirty dishes behind and underneath the seat I was sitting in. Then, to my additional horror, J pointed out a visitor under my seat, a small Asian cockroach. He pounced upon the plates with relish. C pointed out to the steward that the dishes were under my seat. Instead of taking them away, he put them on top of the table in front of David, cockroach and all. Having grown up in Florida and having one too many cockroach tales to tell, I have a phobia about them. I had nightmarish fantasies about the little guy running off the table and jumping onto one of my family members sitting across the way. David reassured me, saying, “He’s not going to leave the food.” Sure enough, a few minutes later the steward came and cleared away all the dishes, carrying away bug and all.
Anyway, while we were eating, a second steward had come around and started making up everyone’s bed. This included putting freshly washed sheets and pillow cases on the beds, in addition to setting up the bunks. By the time we finished eating, all the beds in the sleeper car had been made up except ours. As peoples bunks were made, they would pull the curtains shut and disappear inside. Our supper finished, we decided to try to locate the Chinese speaking father of our train station friend. We were unsuccessful in finding him; we supposed he may have already gone to bed inside his bunk. When we returned, our sleeper bunks had been made up, as well.
I quickly realized that the people in the top bunks had the better end of the deal. Their beds were made of mattresses, while the ones on the bottom consisted of cushions on top of wooden frames. Not only that, the family reached a consensus that my bed was particularly bad, since the seats supporting it were rather “shot.” My bunk had a distinct, raised spot at the middle section. C got J to switch over to her bunk, the two sisters sharing, so that one of the parents could have a top bunk. D insisted that I take it. C also offered to move down to the bottom bunk so both parents could have a top bunk. It became apparent, however, that D wasn’t moving anywhere. He is more stubborn than me, so after a few hours of trying to get him to take the vacant top bunk, I gave in. Though a lot more trouble to climb into, it was also much more comfortable. No Asian bed is soft, but at least this one wasn’t lumpy. It was okay.
We weren’t on an express train – those tickets had been sold out – and so we stopped about 11 times between Bangkok and Chumphon. At some point, the steward came around and asked if we would like a beer. We said “sure,” we each wanted one. I was thinking that he would be bringing around two cans of beer. What he brought was a double size bottle of Singha beer. I tried to stop him from opening both bottles, but he was quick, and, “pop, pop!” — It was too late. Besides, I rationalized, after the cockroach experience I needed a big, cold one, and it would help me sleep as well.
I can’t say that I slept, so much as I can say that I rested. Train travel has a distinct advantage, however, in that you have liberty to move around the car. I always take advantage of this freedom.
About half an hour later, the steward came around again, this time with a third, opened bottle. I was about to say “no more!” when he asked a question of David. Waving the open bottle in the air, he asks, “Tip, tip?!” Smiling with the look of somebody who realizes he’s been had, David asks, “how much?” The steward replies, “150 baht.” “Okay,” I hear David say. From then on until his entire bottle was dry, the steward would come around about every five minutes to drink a toast. I threw my bottle away when it was half empty, already tasting bitter and flat. After that, I was relieved of the toasting requirement.
Well, I’d say my mind was stretched by all this, and I was musing about the adventure of independent travel. That very day, I had sent email to some family members to tell them our itinerary. In that email I had said something like, “you, too, could do this!” If the cockroach and drunken steward episodes didn’t already make me wonder how many people, actually, among my friends could do this, I had even more to ponder after my first visit to the bathroom.
Let’s just say, a picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ll (eventually) upload a picture to accompany this Blog entry. This toilet wasn’t nearly as bad as some. Some toilets inspire a real “double take,” and you say, “I’ll just wait a little while longer.” But on a train for a nine hour journey you don’t really have the option of “just waiting.” And neither does your seven year old. Even though the stewards were making frequent trips to make sure to keep it clean and stocked with toilet paper, I think cleaning could only do so much. This also happens to be my least favorite kind of toilet – the hybrid that’s not exactly a squatter and not exactly a sitter. Like, what happens if your feet don’t go exactly the right spot? (Don’t answer that question, please!)
The adventure was all a bit too much for me. When we fly to China, we always book tickets in the “steerage” section of the plane for about 1/5 the price of business class. But about 15 hours into the flight those business class seats begin to sound pretty appealing. Same with this trip. We saved a bundle of money by being independent travelers and using transportation that is still better than what many ordinary Thais rely on for their own travel. But at 1 A.M., taking a child to use that toilet, the thought of an airplane ticket directly to one of those multi-thousand baht per night, western resorts in Ko Samui began to sound pretty good.
During the middle of the night, I got up and decided to go see if I could see anything. We were in the last car on the train, so I could even go look out the back window. The car was laid out so that you exited the sleeper compartment to get to the bathroom compartment, where there were two enclosed toilets and two open lavatories. Beyond that was another closed door which led to the small corridor that is normally between the cars, where the doors are located to enter and exit the car from outside. As I walked through the back door to the entrance / exit part of the car, I noticed that a small mat had been laid on the floor, between the bathroom door and the exit door. I wondered why they would put a mat there. Not thinking too much about it, though, I went on back and looked out the window. Sometime during the night, I figured out this was where one of the stewards was sleeping. The first clue was that I noticed he was leaving his shoes outside the door. Later, I saw that he was actually sleeping on the mat on the floor. After I learned this, I felt very badly that I had walked on his bed with my dirty shoes on.
This was the steward who woke us up at 3 AM. David tipped him 100 baht. Well worth it to get off at the right stop. Unlike in Chinese trains, where the stewards come around and wake up those who are supposed to be getting off, there was no warning of when the stop was coming and no announcement of what the stop was.
When we arrived in Chumphon, at least we had been resting horizontal for several hours. So even though I’m sure we looked as haggard as all the other travelers in that middle-of-the-night train station, we weren’t dead tired as we could have been.
When we got off the train, we were stopped by a man selling ferry tickets to the islands. There were three choices, all including taxi fare from the train station to the ferry terminal. A high speed catamaran for 550 baht that took two hours to arrive, another high speed boat that was not a catamaran for 550 baht that also took 2 hours, and a slow boat for only 400 baht, which took four hours. The ticket agent explained that the slower boat departed from further upstream in the river, only 10 kilometers away, while the faster boats departed from a different pier that was 20 km away.
I had already read Blogs with stories about seasickness on the catamaran. But something must have even made the German newspapers. There are a lot of German tourists down in these islands. One of them said, in English, that he didn’t want the catamaran because it was “very dangerous.” Another made pantomimes graphically illustrating retching, as he pointed to the high speed catamaran picture. David said he overheard another one say that 20 people had been killed aboard a high speed catamaran ferry. I wonder if they were referring to a wreck in Hong Kong – as a ferry collided with a shipping vessel in dense fog about two years ago. Regardless, I had already made up my mind which boat I preferred, even before the Germans came along. In addition to stories of the seasickness, I prefer a boat that allows you to sit outside to see the view. The red ferry had an outdoor sitting area, and so we decided we would buy tickets for this boat.
The guidebooks say to just get yourself to the ferry pier and buy a ticket there. It’s easy to get there; the guy was plainly lying when he said the ferry pier was 20 km. It wasn’t more than five. But we figured, if the options at the train station were adequate, just take care of it here and now, especially since this means everything will be taken care of from this point. So what if the travel agent makes a few baht on us. We tried to haggle a bit, but the best we could do was procure fee fare for J. This was a price reduction of 225 baht (originally he told us she would ride for half price) but who knows.
After we bought our tickets from the train station guy at 5 A.M., we stll had an hour to kill. As I wandered around, I noticed the owner of the convenience store where we were sitting, in the train station, was cooking a big pot of something over a fire. It turns out she was making Asian breakfast — a rice porridge to which cooked meat, fresh veggie, and some spice is added. I ordered a bowl, and it was pretty good. I like the Chinese style better, but in general I like rice porridge — zhou as I call it. I knew the food was fresh and boiling hot, and I had seen locals coming in to get some. My only qualms had to do with the cleanliness of the dishes I used for eating. I could imagine dysentary as an easy way to ruin a family vacation. Nevertheless, there is value in doing as the locals do. I ate it, and it was the best thing on the menu in that shop, and I had no bad side effects.
If I was feeling intrepid, I was even more astounded when the 5:00 train arrived from Bangkok. Several young families got off, some of them with toddlers and babies. One blonde haired, blue eyed mom and dad got off the train with two little children who looked to be maybe three years old and six months old. I couldn’t imagine traveling in these conditons with a toddler and an infant. Another mind bending experience, or maybe I just felt sorry for them. I hoped they were on their way to a five star resort somewhere. Someone did call for them with a placard, so maybe their resort had arranged for them to be picked up. I hope.
At about 6 A.M. the bus driver came to collect us for our ride to the ferry terminal. The other passenger on our boat was a Swiss girl who was traveling alone in S.E. Asia for four months. She said it was a bit lonely at times, but she was enjoying it. The driver then made the rounds of several more guest houses to pick up more passengers, calling on her cell phone to see which guest houses needed her to pick up from them. Some other passengers were divers, and a fourth passenger was a man who had sold everything and moved to Ko Tau because it was such a special place.
We arrived at the ferry terminal just about sunrise. The river was already bustling with small boat traffic, long tail boats ferrying passengers from place to place. The sunrise was beautiful, the water smooth. I had expected open water between the mainland and Ko Tao, but to my surprise there seemed to be Karst topography almost the entire way: small, steep mountains rising up out of the sea, dotting the entire area. In the two hour ride, we were only out of sight of land for a fairly brief period of time. When we arrived at the island of Ko Tao, my main impression was that it was very beautiful. Hills green with palms seem to rise almost straight up, and much of the island’s coast consists of boulders and rocks, but there are white, powdery sand beaches as well.
We are staying in a small bay, at one of the white, powdery beaches. The weather is perfect, and the coral reef begins just about 50 meters off the shoreline. If you walked too far, you would walk into the coral. This is enough for now. I will write more later.
One thing that D and I really enjoy about our third daughter is that she is always cheerful. She wakes up happy, she is happy to get dressed, she is happy to go to school, she is happy to come home, she is happy with the clothes I choose for her to wear, she is happy with a story at bedtime. You get the drift. She’s happy. And this makes her a very pleasant person to spend time with.
Today, our first morning in Bangkok, she woke up happy at 7:40 A.M., about the same time we woke up as well. This is after the night before having driven two hours to Macau, gotten into Bangkok last night about midnight, standing in the taxi line of about 200 people in Bangkok for about half an hour, then driving halfway into Bangkok to our guest house and arriving at about 12:30 AM. I imagine it was about 1 A.M. before we got J into her own bed where she was begging to just go to sleep. I had expected she would sleep until much later in the morning, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had been grumpy. So her cheerful, early start to her morning was a bit of a surprise.
After waking up in such a cheerful mood, she remained cheerful when there was nothing on the breakfast menu that suited her taste. After a bite of toast, she asked to go swimming in the pool that is immediately adjacent to the covered porch that serves as a dining area. Then we packed, checked out, stored our bags, and went out for an afternoon of walking in 90 degree F weather. We went by mistake to a market that was selling small religious trinkets. I guess they were valuable, because there were many Thai people there using hand held microscopes to examine them, but it was nothing I was interested in shopping for. Any time J asked me to look at something, I would say “No,” explaining to her that no matter how beautiful such a trinket might seem, it would invariably get lost before she was an adult. In short, this excursion was completely boring for a seven year old. Not to mention that in Bangkok we always clutch our youngest child by the arm tightly. Traffic is horrendous, with motorcycles just as likely to run you over while you are on the sidewalk as when you are crossing the street. But also we don’t want to take any chance on losing her in such a big, unruly and unregulated city that has such a bad reputation where protection of women is concerned.
By the time we stopped for a late lunch, everyone was starving, but all the food we ordered from the restaurant was too spicy. (Travel lesson #56: if an Indian or a Thai tells you food is “not spicy,” all that statement really means is that the food probably won’t cause long term chemical burns.) When her food was too spicy, she caught a waiter by herself and had them bring an alternate dish, then while she waited for her second dish to come she found a fresh water manta ray in the garden pond of the restaurant. She crouched and watched the ray swim for about 20 min while she waited for her food.
In all of this, J never complained or whined. I confess, I got felt pretty whiney myself when it turned out that the delays in the restaurant (slow service, having to reorder, etc) caused so many delays (Travel lesson #43: If time is a factor, see the sight you came to see before you eat, not after, no matter how hungry you are!) that we didn’t have time to stay for the tour that we had come to see. (Travel lesson #72: Never act like you are in a hurry in S.E. Asia; it is so far removed from the culture that people will respond negatively and may make you wait even longer.) Then, very hot and tired, we all returned to Asha Guest House, where they allowed us to shower before catching a 6:30 train to Chumphon.
Asha is friendly and clean, but Spartan. The showers are hall baths, and you change clothes inside the shower stall. (Travel lesson #17: always carry shower shoes.) Only one of them has hot water. I chose to take a shower in a “cold only” shower. The water was quite crisp, though not unpleasant, especially since we had been so hot when we came in from our day’s expedition. It was refreshing. Although I had been on the fence about whether to make J bathe, because she wasn’t really “dirty,” I decided it would do her good to have a shower and freshen up before the overnight trip on the sleeper train.
After I got dressed, I fetched J to give her a shower. Pleasant as always, she cheerfully gave up the board game she had been playing, then cheerfully talked with me while we prepared the shower and hosed her down with the spray nozzle. If anything, I was the fussy one, acting pretty grumpy when I realized the nozzle had sprayed backwards and gotten water on my fresh, dry clothes. After I washed her hair, I washed the rest of her.
As I sprayed water over her, she cheerfully commented how wonderful the water felt. She said, “It makes me shiver all over with happiness!” I replied, “Are you happy?” Her answer: “No, but I’m pretending to be.”
Wow! Now that is an attitude that will carry her far in life. I even think there’s a school of psychotherapy that generally teaches people how to cultivate this kind of attitude in their own life.
This attitude seems in sharp contrast to tendencies I see in my own self. At the moment, it’s late at night, I can’t sleep, and so I’m writing from the top bunk of a sleeper car in Thailand. We’re on our way to one of the most famous coral reef diving spots in the world. Thailand, in fact, is so full of beautiful beaches and diving spots, the difficulty is in choosing just one of them. So, what is going through my mind? Is it visions of trigger fish, “Nemo,” finding a Thai massage, coconut palms, and a week of having no schedule? No. I’ve been thinking about things like sunburn, skin cancer, being allergic to sunscreen, salty water drying in my hair and turning it to cobwebs, heat rash, encounters with sharks and barracudas, rip tides, and the danger of stepping on pieces of coral. Geesh!
I remember a certain friend of mine telling me one time that now that she was forty, she had made a decision to be a grumpy old woman. I’m fighting that urge in my personality! I’d prefer, when I find myself tempted to be grumpy, to instead take a lesson from my seven year old.
What a wonderful personality trait, and really food for thought. "I’m pretending to be happy!" This attitude of seeking and finding things to be happy about makes me feel like I’m the one being childish! Could I at least make the same effort at cheerfulness as my seven year old?!! Am I going to decide to be grumpy, or am I going to decide to be cheerful? Well, to me it’s fairly much a no brainer: Since I have just one life to live, I may as well make a decision to enjoy it. So, tropical beach and coconut palms, here I come!
I’m writing from Ko Tao in Thailand. It’s really nice here. Very laid back, not too expensive, beautiful soft sand beach, pretty clear water, coral and reef fish about 50 or 75 meters away from our lodging in water about six feet deep. I’ll upload some pictures later, but at the moment J is using the computer that holds the photos.
Very casual, very few Americans. There are a good many Thai tourists, while the western tourists seem to be a mixture of Europeans, speaking many different languages. In addition to some Brits, Ozzies, and Kiwis speaking English, we also hear languages that sound “German” or “French” or “Hebrew,” and we also hear some languages that don’t sound like anything we’ve every heard! We are so fortunate that almost everyone speaks some English.
D and C are taking scuba diving classes for four days, to get their PADI open water certification, while I take care of J. After that, we will swap off and I’ll take the class too. J is too young for scuba, but she’s a good swimmer and well on her way to learning how to snorkel.
I bought her a nice set of snorkeling equipment this morning. I hope we get lots of use out of it, and not just this week! We swam out over the reef for a bit just to whet her appetite, which was very successful, but for the time being we are practicing in water that I can stand up in to teach her how to clear her snorkel and get water out of her mask. I want those issues cleared up before I take her out in water that is too deep for me to stand up in. She can clear air out of her snorkel when she’s all comfy, but she needs to be able to deal with situations where the water in her mask or snorkel may come as a surprise.
The sun is very hot here, and so we are also swimming in sun screen! At the moment, she and I are out of the sun. Having grown up in Florida, it’s my habit to stay out of the sunshine between 11:30 and 3:30 every day. It’s a nice time of rest, anyway. The cicadas are so loud here in the shade, as I type from our upstairs balcony chair, that we can hardly hear each other talk. Really nice, the perfect spot to vacation!