Posts Tagged ‘passport’

Bangkok stopover

Friday, June 5th, 2009

On Tuesday Hannah and I rented bicycles and headed south on Don Det, to the old railway bridge connecting it with the larger island of Don Khon. We rode past the remains of a small, old French locomotive, and west out to the Tat Somphamit waterfalls. The part of the Mekong that runs west of the islands comes crashing down through rocky canyons, and the mighty river, that has turned brown with the tons of silt washed out by the rains now in the rainy season, roars with a deep bass that resonates with something deep inside the stomach. It was a truly breathtaking experience! From there we cycled south, to a much lauded beach that turned out to be a smelly stretch of dirty, brown sand, where we stopped for a soda in the heat. We turned our bikes east on a small dirt path, until we reached the course of the old railroad again. The French built the little stretch of rails to transport goods from boats downstream of the waterfalls to the boats waiting to take them further upstream to Vientiane and beyond, but now the rails are gone, and we bumped south on the coarse gravel on which the tracks used to lie. My travel guide informs me that the government is talking about restoring the little railroad, but warns me not to hold my breath waiting…

We reached the tiny village of Ban Hang Khon at the south tip of the island, and across the river was Cambodia. It is possible to rent a boat to go out and try to spot the rare Irrawaddy fresh water dolphins, but like in Lake Baikal it was both too expensive and also the wrong season to go fresh water dolphin spotting… Instead we turned back north, and followed the eastern edge of Don Khon up to Don Khon Village. We stopped for a late lunch, and while we were sitting there, a mighty rainshower turned the road to mud, which the scorching hot sun turned dry again before long. Back in our guest house on Don Det, Mama Tan Orn’s Rasta Cafe and Guest House, the rest of the day was spent in exactly the way we came to the four thousand islands for to begin with: In hammocks with our respective books. πŸ™‚

On Wednesday Hannah had to catch the boat and bus back to Vientiane to pick up her new passport from the Australian Embassy. She left at eleven, and shortly after I went to enquire about tickets to go to southern Thailand. I found that the best way would be to just buy a bus ticket to Ubon Ratchatani, and find my own way to the railway station and buy a ticket on the night train to Bangkok from there. For lunch I went to a bakery run jointly by a Laotian family and a man from Australia that has some amazing cinnamon rolls for next to nothing. I sat there for hours, reading, until an incredibly fierce rainshower crashed down over us, while the sun was still shiningΒ  just as strongly as always. After about three minutes it stopped as abruptly as it had started, and it was difficult to comprehend how much it had rained just seconds earlier! The only other customer and I looked unbelievingly at each other, and simultaneously exclaimed “That was unreal!”

We got to talking, and discussed what was worth doing on the islands. Her name was Lisa, she was from Germany, and she’d rented a bicycle that morning, but hadn’t found the waterfalls. I told her where they were, and that they were worth an extra trip out there. We figured that there was just enough time to go out there and back again before it would get dark, so off we went in a hurry. While we were out at the waterfalls it started raining so hard that when we found shelter after a couple of minutes I could wring several deciliters of water out of my T-shirt… The only other traveller out there so late was Kaye from England, who was hoping to get some video shots of the sunset over the waterfalls. She wants to be a TV announcer, and was using her travels as an opportunity to compile a show-reel to send with her applications when she returns home, and I remembered seeing her filming herself buying a donut in the bakery earlier that day. We all waited out the rain, but there was no sunset to film. The three of us headed back to Don Det together as it was getting dark, and then went out for dinner together. Kaye was tired, and went to bed early, and Lisa was leaving for Cambodia early the next morning, but we stayed on the back porch of my guest house until almost midnight anyway, because she wanted to see some photos from Nepal, as she was thinking of going there later.

Yesterday morning I bought the bus ticket I’d forgotten all about the night before, and had breakfast with Kaye in the bakery before I went to the pier to take the boat to the mainland. From there I went to Pakse in a minibus, and from Pakse across the border on a VIP bus. We arrived at the border just too late to change our Laotian Kip into Thai Baht, and the bus driver offered a totally unacceptable rate, so I got in a sawngthaew, a pick-up truck with two benches along the sides in the back, to go to the train station, hoping to be able to exchange there. I got to talking to a Lao man who spoke incredibly good English on the truck, and he told me there were no places that would accept Lao Kip anywhere outside of Laos and it’s borders. I almost considered going back to the bus station to make the change with the greedy bus driver, even though that would mean missing my train, because I had way to much Kip left to let it slide, when the guy offered to buy the Kip from me! We looked up the going rate online on his palmtop, and I insisted on giving him a slightly more favorable rate, seeing as he had just saved me from a much greater loss. I find that the people around south east Asia are extremely friendly and helpful, it’s just too bad that communication is so difficult when I don’t speak their language, and very few of them can speak enough English to communicate properly!

The train ticket was cheap, and I bought the cheapest option with a bed, second class with fan, upper bunk, but I couldn’t buy a ticket all the way to Suratani, where the boat to Koh Pha-Ngan leaves from, I would have to buy the Bangkok-Suratani ticket in Bangkok. I spent some time in the restaurant car, and had several “conversations” with Thai people who spoke no more than five words of English between them, but insisted I sit down and share their food and have a glass of Thai beer with ice. πŸ™‚ When the restaurant car closed at 22hrs, I went to bed, watched an episode of Battlestar Galactica on my laptop, and slept like a baby until the conductor woke me up at 7:25, five minutes before we rolled into Bangkok station.

When I got to the ticket counter there, it turned out that because of the upcoming full moon party, all the trains were fully booked… I went instead to a travel agency, that managed to find an available seat on a night bus, with the boat ticket included. The bus doesn’t leave Bangkok till seven pm, which meant I had over ten hours to kill in Bangkok. I used the facilities in the train station to brush my teeth and have a shave, before I caught the subway out to Lumpini park, where I had breakfast at the food court. A very outgoing lady there wanted to serve me a Herbalife shake for breakfast, but laughed with me when I broke out in laughter at the thought of ME drinking a weight-loss shake when what I really needed was something that would put some meat back on my rather lanky frame… πŸ˜› It’s funny how when I travel, I loose weight even when I feel I do nothing but eat!

The lady showed me where the best food in the food court was, and pointed out her favorites, all the while talking about her friend in Bergen, and her involvment in CISV, Children’s International Summer Villages. I got her card, and she urged me to try volunteering for CISV when I return to Norway. After breakfast, I walked around the park for a while, looking at the wealthy and bored Bangkokians working out, or just enjoying a morning stroll in the painstakingly trimmed green lung in the middle of this smoggy metropolis. It is weird to think that only a few hundred meters away, people are struggling to eke out a living in the squallor of Bangkok’s slums…
When I came out of the park, a Tuk-Tuk driver immediately pulled up, as I was rifling through my Lonely Planet guide to come up with something else to pass the time. He asked me where I wanted to go, and looked a little confused when I said I didn’t know… A little explanation later, he understood my situation, and suggested to give me a tour of the main sights. I lied and said that I’d seen them all, and was just looking for a way to while away eight more hours. For some reason, Bangkok is not a city where I feel the need to see the temples, pagodas and museums, but I didn’t think I would be able to make him understand, seeing as I don’t really understand it myself. It’s just something about the city that tells me to observe the things that I accidentally come across, instead of seeking out the sights. The driver pointed out a couple of things within walking distance, wished me luck and a good journey, and drove off in search of people with a little more specific goals for the day…

I walked aimlessly up wide boulevards with noisy, polluting traffic and down narrow alleys with exotic, but by now familiar smells coming from the food stalls lining them, until I happened upon a Starbucks… I haven’t been to Starbucks since Xian in China around Christmas time, so I decided to treat myself to a Grande of Today’s special coffee, and surf the net. It turned out I have to pay for the web access, but the Columbian blend was completely worth it, although it cost twice as much as my entire breakfast in the park… I have gotten to actually enjoy the ice coffee with sweet condensed milk that’s served in street stalls and small side walk cafes, but a nice, hot cup o’ joe, black as sin and bitter as an old widower, consumed sitting feet-up on a soft leather couch in an airconditioned Starbucks is a luxury I’m thoroughly enjoying, and charging my laptop while I’m at it is an added bonus. πŸ˜‰

Here’s hoping there’re rooms available in Koh Pha-Ngan tomorrow, so I don’t have to sleep on the beach. πŸ˜›

Ulan Baatar, the world’s ugliest capital?

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

BaikalI met my Dutch friends, and we went to Listvyanka village by lake Baikal, about an hour from Irkutsk. It was definately a huge lake, and I took some cool pictures (that I still can’t upload, as the computers in this internet cafe don’t have accessible USB). My first priority was to find a dive centre, and lo and behold, even on our way into the village, we saw people in scuba outfit on the shore just next to the road! After a nice lakeside lunch, we trotted over to the dive centre.

I contacted a dive centre in Irkutsk a while back, www.baikalex.com, through the contact box they have on their page, and via email. They never answered, but I called them when I got to Irkutsk. They said they were fully booked, and that I should have contacted them via their web page… They suggested I just go out and have a looksee at Listvyanka village, so there I was. For a while, I actually thought I was going to get to dive! It then turned out that there HADindeed been a free spot in their previous dive, a couple of hours earlier, but the next free spot was in the middle of next week… (just about when I’m posting this) πŸ™

Pribaikalsk Nature ReserveInstead of diving, we went for a hike in the pribaikalsk national park, which turned out to be an, if not equal then at least decent, substitute. We went up one of the valleys from the lakeside, between quaint old wooden houses, on frozen creeks, through snow that was about ankle deep, and up steep hills. We were originally planning to head over to the next valley, and then go back to the village from there, but we instead decided to get up to the top of the hill, and thus followed the ridge when we got to the highest point of the pass. The two Dutch guys were beside themselves, which is maybe not so surprising, seeing as they both live four meters BELOW sea level… The view from the top was gorgeous, and at least lessened my disappointment at not having gotten in that dive.

When I got back to Irkutsk, I had to take a taxi to my host’s place in the suburbs, pack my stuff, and then back to town to catch the train. Anastasia saw me off, and offered to help me getting supplies and everything before I got on the train.

The train from Irkutsk to Ulan Baatar was the most expensive so far, because they didn’t have third class, which is what I’ve used so far. The only carriage that was crossing the Russian/Mongolian border was second class. In third, the “compartments” aren’t really compartments, because they don’t have doors or walls. Second class was a whole different deal. The third class carriages look like they’re from the early seventies, but the carriage I was in from Irkutsk was brand spankin’ new! Each compartment had a tv and you could get either the onboard radio or the tv sound from minijack outlets above the beds. Each bed had a reading light, the windows were clean so you could see out, you could open them to get fresh air, the provodnitsa spoke English, the toilets smelled of soap instead of piss, all in all it was a whole different world! Still, the biggest change was being able to have proper conversations with the other travellers. I shared my four berth compartment with a couple from New Zealand, two compartments over was a father and daughter from Holland, who both were fluent in English, and a few of the other passengers also spoke English!

The train was a really slow one, however, and apparently I missed some of the most impressive scenery in Russia, going through tunnels and across bridges along the southern bank of Lake Baikal, since we passed it in the night.

We got to the border about 1pm the next day, and then found out that passport control wouldn’t come till 4pm. We went out and looked around a little, but it was a tiny village, so there wasn’t much to do. I spent my last few rubles buying some more credit for my Russian sim card, and used it to send some messages to my friends in Irkutsk. Then we waited. Around three thirty we got some customs forms to fill out in duplicates. At five to four a guy came into our compartment, looked at our passports, took the customs forms, stamped them, gave one back, and left again. A while later, another guy came in, got our passports, and trotted off with them. After more waiting, first one, then two more people searched our compartment. I couldn’t say what they were looking for, because they didn’t even touch our luggage… About seven hours after we first came to the border, we started moving again… Ten minutes later we were at the ACTUAL border, and twenty minutes after that, we got to the first Mongolian station. There, we had to write immigration documents and more customs documents, and of course the Mongolians had to take our passports. I don’t really know how long the whole border crossing ordeal took, but it must have been over ten hours… πŸ˜›

The next morning, we were woken up at 5:30am, about forty minutes outside of Ulan Baatar. The plan was to borrow a phone and write my host in UB an sms with my arrival details as soon as we entered Mongolia, but I fell asleep before I thought of asking anyone, so I obviously wasn’t met at the station. There were several hostels that had pick-up-service however, so I hitched a ride to a hostel, had breakfast, borrowed a phone, and sent an sms. Fifteen minutes later my host picked me up from the hostel, and we went to his place. He went to work, and I spent the day relaxing, catching up on international news on BBC World, and fell asleep in the middle of an airplane disaster show on Discovery. It was unspeakably nice to get a proper shower and a shave, which I hadn’t had since Ekaterinburg. (I had shaved, but my host in Irkutsk didn’t have a shower, only a communal washroom)

Today I’ve been walking around UB. It just might be the ugliest capital in the world… πŸ˜‰ There are, however, some pearls buried in the massive concrete soviet heritage pig sty. My host runs a restaurant a few minutes walk from the city centre, and on my way from the restaurant to the Sukhbaatar Square, I found a small, run-down buddhist monastery, that wasn’t even among the few sights listed in my Lonely Planet guide! It was quite cool, with it’s prayer wheels,Β  huge communal Gers and locals going around offering their prayers! There is a bigger, more beautiful monastery in UB too, which I’ll visit later. I finally feel like I have time to do what I want, with two weeks here!

I also went to a large park that was marked on my map, but it turned out to be more like the ghost of a park… I don’t think it was supposed to be open to the public, because all the entrances were welded closed, except the one I reached first, and even that one was deserted. I was the only person in there, which was both nice and really eerie at the same time… There was a broken fountain with no water, a big, empty, dusty bowl where a pond was marked on my map, lined with broken statues of exotic aquatic animals. Further over were the skeleton of an old rollercoaster and a rusty ferris wheel that looked ready to collapse. The walk paths had almost no paving left on them, and dry, brown undergrowth was sticking up through the snow everywhere. I was really far from the place I’d gotten in, and all the other entrances were welded shut, so I ended up squeezing through a hole in the fence, in order to get out of the park on the right side…

My cs host has friends that are nomads, and live in a yurt out in the countryside. He’s arranged for me to go there tomorrow! I will be staying and working with the family there until Friday. Then I head back to UB, because I’ve been invited to a concert with Mongolia’s first (and only) death metal band! Can you say clash of cultures, anyone?