Posted by: Michelle | November 12, 2011

“I’m happy to tell you that you’re still in the race!” [Part 2]

Back to the airport I go to leave my 2 carry-ons so I could go to the city unencumbered. Not wanting to waste a minute, this time around I was sure to ask for proper directions to the train station (located three levels below) and set off to purchase a return ticket. For a mere 150 Bhat ($5 USD) I could buy an express ticket into the city centre (a 17 minute ride verses a 35 minute, 8 stop ride). I had just missed the first train so I had to wait an eternity – 20 minutes. As the train pulled away from the terminal, I got my first good look at the surrounding countryside. The flooding I had heard so much about the past few months was evident almost immediately. Sad, really. So many poor people with little to nothing were underwater. Those who weren’t underwater had water lapping at the door and were surely doomed to the same fate. Upon arrival into the city, I had to switch trains in order to get closer to my destination – The Grand Palace and Wat Pho (which are virtually next to each other). I stopped to ask a policeman directions to be sure I had correctly deciphered the map but he only confused me more. Probably because I was tired and due to the somewhat challenging logistics, I almost turned around. But I reminded myself I wasn’t in Bangkok every day so I needed to buck up and make the journey. It’s all about overcoming obstacles. The anxiety would not have been so high if it weren’t for the evening flight. As I stood in the middle of the station, I noticed a tourism information booth. Turns out to be the best decision I made the whole trip. Not only did she speak English, she spoke GOOD English (meaning she could actually speak English clearly). After getting directions from her I felt infinitely better (for about 15 minutes, until the next hurdle appeared).

With confidence, I board the next train and find myself at the National Stadium in due time. I was excited for several reasons but mostly because I recognized something very familiar – the green and white Starbucks sign. By now I’m almost giddy – I not only found my way to the right station; I found coffee as well. This was however, very short-lived. First, the Starbucks was closed (it was 8:30ish and opening hours are at 10. Really, people?). Then a young man approached me asking me if I wanted to ride his tuk tuk. I beg your pardon? Oh, right! Picture a motorized rickshaw. So I tell him maybe. My original plan was to board – get ready – a bus. Yes, this bus-hating person was going to take a chance and use a public bus. Number 15. But… maybe this was a better option. (Sorry, Tim! I knew you would have been proud had I actually taken a bus but I just couldn’t do it. What can I say? I’m a bus snob!) I let him know that I wanted to go to The Grand Palace. He feigned ignorance and said he didn’t know where it was but he could take me to some other destination. Not to be deterred, I turned around but he pursued me and tried to reassured me he did indeed know of the Palace and could take me for 100 Bhat. BUT he would make one stop so I could shop. What the heck? Since when does the driver you hire tell you where to go? UM, NO! He must have sensed that I was in no mood to argue so he says it would be 300 with no shopping. We go back and forth but finally agree for 200 he would take me to The Grand Palace with no stops.

Already feeling worn out, I climbed into the back of the tuk tuk whilst the driver straddled the motor. Didn’t look comfortable to be, but then again… the vibrations… never mind, I won’t go there. It was unlike any experience I’ve had to date. Very fast, very bumpy, very smelly, very noisy, but still kinda fun in a strange, twisted way. There were handles hanging from the roof and I grabbed ahold as he whipped around the corners. With no seatbelts, door, or anything else to really keep you inside, one is smart to hold on tight as he and ran lights, narrowly missing pedestrians and other vehicles. I truly felt like I was in the middle of an episode of The Amazing Race. All I was missing was my clue and a teammate. I tried to take it all in – the people on the street, the scooters, other tuk tuks, temples, markets, street signs but it was mostly a blur. Too many streets that looked alike so I knew the only way I was headed back to the train station was via a tuk tuk.

A little windblown and coughing up soot, we arrived at The Grand Palace. I could see it over the wall although I was pretty sure I wasn’t at the entrance. Didn’t have to wait long to figure out why. Turns out, it was the drop off place for visitors so local Thais can try and entice tourists into hiring them as tour guides. I was attempting to gracefully exit the tuk tuk when a man approached me stating he could take me on a tour. “No thanks.” The man was rather tenacious, telling me the Grand Palace was closed until 1 PM but he could take me to the Standing Budda for 100 Bhat. I politely declined and walked away only to be hounded by another man who told me the Palace wasn’t open until 3 PM. Again, I said no. (I have since learned they are called “touts” who basically lie about it being closed and suggest other tours, ending with a tour of the Palace.)

It was at this point I realized I was down to 50 Bhat. This was not good. Looking around, I could see no banks and was entirely convinced that my debit card wouldn’t work any better here than it did in Malaysia. Now what? I obvious was in a pickle (which, by the way, I do not like). Why, why, why did I not exchange my USD when I had a chance?? I rounded the corner trying to locate the entrance to the Palace and noticed a currency exchange across the street. Hallelujah! I received 1500 Bhat for my $65 so I let out a huge sigh of relief and subsequently my anxiety went from a 10 to about a 1. Now I can relax and enjoy Bangkok.

As it turns out, the Palace is open at 8:30 for foreign visitors. I entered the impressive compound and purchase a ticket. At the entrance, there was an armed guard. He took one look at me and said “NO!” and made a crossing motion with his hands pointed downward. I was at a complete loss. There were others entering who weren’t Thai. It dawned on me a few minutes later when he stopped another woman. There was a dress code to enter the sacred site – no shorts, no sleeveless, flip flops, etc. Apparently my dress (went just below my knees was too short even though I was wearing leggings. Frustrated once again, I decide to turn in my ticket for a refund. As I gaze longingly pass the entrance I decided I came too far and endured too much to turn around. With a new determination, I turned around and went back out to find a vendor who sold sarongs. The bad news was it was a bit of trek in the heat and humidity. But I backtrack through the courtyard and surrounding gardens to the street corner where I had crossed earlier. It was a very busy street but they had a policeman who directed traffic. A man motioned me inside his shop where I discovered they rented skirts. Sign me up! For a mere 30 Bhat ($1) I could rent a rather stylish skirt that clashed both in color and pattern with my dress. This was okay; it meant I blended in with the other Asians.

Entering the grounds of The Grand Palace was mind blowing. I have never seen anything like it. It dates back to 1782 and served as the official residence of the Kings of Thailand for 150 years. The detail of the multiple buildings was incredible. A lot of gold and mosaic was widely used throughout. At this moment I decided I would return to Bangkok some day when I had more time and with a companion who could help fend off the men who were always questioning me about why I wanted to go somewhere and wanted to take me shopping instead. It is quite a scam. Great that you know about it, but it is somewhat annoying to continually shoo them away (very reminiscent of my visit to China back in 2005).
After exploring the Palace, my next stop was Wat Pho, which was right next to the Palace on the map but really the equivalent of six blocks. Just far enough to make you feel like you were melting. This was another amazing place. It is famous for the huge Reclining Budda and had the most number of Budda images in Thailand. The Reclining Budda is 46 meters long and 15 meters high (it’s big) with eyes and feet engraved with mother-of-pearl. It was definitely worth the walk. As a side note, it was also the first site for traditional Thai massage. If you are so inclined, you can learn the craft in 15 days.

Getting back to the train station was another exercise in patience that I flunked. Again with the runaround and the whole shopping tour, I managed to finally get the man to agree to take me to the station. This time was a bit different. After a few blocks, he seemed to veer off the general direction I felt we should be going. I felt even more trepidation when he started going down back alleys. All I could think of was “and she was never seen or heard from again.” Maybe A&E would do a future episode of “Disappeared” and viewers would wonder why I would chose to explore a strange city on my own. The answer is because I couldn’t stand the thought of sitting in an airport all day when there was a new place to explore. Enough said.

At last, after what seemed like an eternity, he deposited me close to the station. This time the Starbucks was open and I went in to have an ice, cold coffee and put my feet up for a few. The Hard Rock Café was a few blocks away and I needed to cool down before I passed out. After my coffee and a bottle of water, I felt hydrated enough to head out into the oven one more time. In order to cross the major streets, you have to head upstairs and walk using the elevated pedestrian walkways. This made it even harder in the heat however I would never be deterred from getting my guitar pin.

Even though I still had an hour before I needed to head back, I decided to make my way back to the airport. This time around the train was quite crowded but I managed to find a seat by the window. The airport itself was bursting with activity but I had my boarding pass and already checked my bag through at KL, I proceeded directly to customs and security. The lines were short but the process was long. Or maybe it was just me. It’s like when you are waiting in line in a bathroom. As you stand there with your legs twisted like a pretzel, it feels like everything is moving in slow motion and everyone is taking their sweet time yet when it is you, you feel like you were the fast one. Perception is reality. It was long. Security was about the same. Slow and steady does not win the race. It merely means you will not be first. After all, I only had three hours. Can’t these people move a little faster? I had 900 Bhat burning a hole in my pocket and I was hungry. Not a good combination for me. I managed finish my mini shopping spree in relatively short order then decided to chill in the Royal Orchid Lounge before grabbing dinner, giving me an opportunity to charge my phone and put my feet up once again.

After chilaxing, I had a small dinner and headed to the gate as soon as it opened. You have to go through security one more time before entering the glass enclosure at the departure gate. I must say I didn’t dread the return flight nearly as much since I was so anxious to get stateside. And 16 hours later we were arriving at foggy LAX. It was 9:30 PM and anxious to get off the plane. Lo and behold the gate wasn’t ready for our arrival so we waited 20 minutes before actually deplaning. Upon entering immigration I was once again over the moon that I have Global Entry. Picture a Costco size warehouse filled with people. It was so crowded I had trouble even finding the kiosks in order to check myself back into the country. A security guide pointed them out and I had my printed entry receipt in my hand within 3 minutes. (Global Entry is a US Customs and Border Protection program that allows for expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk international travelers.) Next was figuring out which baggage claim was mine. You could have knocked me over with a feather when my bag emerged first. There was one other GE passenger who looked at me with envy. There is a special exit for GE passengers; you hand off your printed receipt to the customs agent and you’re done.

The bad news was I had to spend the night in LA because of the late arrival and lack of flights to Reno. I boarded the Hilton shuttle with about 20 other people. The place was hopping and it look awhile to get checked in. The next day went about as well as the rest of the trip when my flight had mechanical problems. You can just imagine how I felt on day 3 of getting home. Despite the late arrival back into Reno, I don’t think I ever felt so happy to be back home. My sister and the kids were waiting for me and I was indeed, home again. There really is no place like home. At least for a week; then I’ll be ready for the next adventure. Not to be deterred after an eventful trip, I say “Bring it, Murphy!” You can knock me down, but I’ll get back up again. I made it to the pitstop. I’m still in the Race!

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