Vietnam 2020 travelogue!

Bangkok to Phuket… lazytimes beckon.

Wow, seems like ages since I’ve written one of these (I’ve merely been posting things I’ve previously written the past while.) Part of that is lack of noteworthy things to say, part is that this section of the vacation was always planned to be the lazytown frolics portion…

That said herein lies the first miscalculation of my trip. I’d read a couple places to just fly from Bangkok to Phuket or take the direct bus, but I wanted to make sure I took at least one train in Thailand and the sleeper train+bus combo seemed like a good plan even though it took a bit longer. Oops.

pool at New Siam II

I got a late lie in at my guest house in Bangkok before getting up, packing and checking out. (And as I write this I realize I was never charged for my last, extra night) Storage of my bag was free so I set off for one last spin around old bangkok and a quick curry before heading to the train station a slightly paranoid amount early. Just as well I did as with my first trip away from the Khao San area by taxi I got hit with multiple folks trying to scam me by booking without their meter. (They were asking me for 200Baht, about 8 bucks, when I knew even with crazy traffic it wouldn’t be more than 100, in the end if was 72 I think) Still, I didn’t mind being there early. I love train stations, particularly foreign ones. The grand old central stations built when the train was the hub of transport for everyone are always a blast and Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong was no exception. I’d actually already been here almost every day of the trip already as it was the western end of the subway and the easiest point to get to for a cab back to home base.

Hua Lamphong is a cavernous building, especially by Bangkok standards and has something like 12 lines running into it. Certainly not at the crazy level of some places but pretty hectic in a city like this where many of them are commuter trains. I need to take a moment here to complain about what seems to be an asian thing in general so far. Complete lack of public clocks in transport hubs. I mean, one can sort of tell what time it is based on the departed trains disappearing off the board but I ran into the same thing in Hong Kong international during my layover. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue but right before I left I realized my watch was dead so clock checking means getting out my not particularly hefty batteried travel phone or keeping my bedside clock in my pocket.

In any case, train stations. I enjoy the romance of them. Seeing people whisking off to various places, people watching and trying to determine who’s off to do what. All the romance some people bizarrely associate with airports is actually here (for starters very few people board a train stressed from security or shoving to the front of the line because they have six pieces of carryon for some reason.) People still get to walk with their loved ones right to boarding and wave as the horn sounds and the carriage pulls out of the station. I guess in my ideal world trains and ocean liners would still be the norm.

Hua Lamphong

Unfortunately for me the romance ended when I boarded and I was sitting opposite a young buddhist monk. I know in general one is not supposed to sit next to them on public transport but this was a second class sleeper car and this was my one assigned seat so awkward times ensued as he asked the porter if he could sit elsewhere and I’m guessing was told the train was full. Also frustratingly the train left about 15 minutes late and stopped several times on the way out of the city so that by the time we were even near the suburbs it was completely dark outside. Still while I could see I was kind of shocked by some of the sights rolling through the city. In all the places I’ve ridden a train in my travels (be it commuter or intercity) I’ve never seen so many people consistently living so close to the tracks. For most of the stretch out of Bangkok were so close to shop houses and shacks that I literally could have reached out and grabbed clothing hanging out window sills. I had a horrifying vision of what would happen with even a minor derailment along those sections and was thankful the train seemed to be travelling at a sane pace. In that sense it was almost a relief when darkness arrived.

So much for scenery, but I had no idea as at all of 7:30 the porter started coming through the car slamming the bunks into place. I guess in some ways it wasn’t bad as I was able to stretch out my longer western legs without bothering anyone. Unfortunately I also ended up slotted into the wrong bunk… I’m still not sure if my Monk friend had been swapped seats with one of the American mother daughter combo across the way (monks have stringent no touching women policies apparently) or she’d somehow conned him into giving up his bottom bunk for her but he ended up in my top bunk. This wouldn’t be a huge issue as I was just across the way but had I not set my alarm I easily could have missed my stop as the Porter was just waking people by bed number not actually calling out stations.

The bed itself was surprisingly not terrible and spacious enough for a six foot and a bit person. My father would definitely have needed the lower bunk though. Even a small window for the upper berth would have been nice though, but at least I’d snagged an A/C bunk. Apparently the newer trains are better but as this is a less tourist used one they use the older second class cars. One of the potties was even a squatty, the first one I’d seen so far in Thailand. Understandably as it was only 8 by the time all the beds were down people were far from quiet, but I threw on my new sleep headphones and managed to get to sleep after writing and reading for a while knowing I had to be up to be off the train by 6. The most frustrating thing about sleep in the end turned out to be the cabin lights not being dimmed at all and the upper berth curtain not quite covering the top of the hole. (If you’re on a sleeper car in Thailand being a sleep mask!)

in the cocoon (seriously dim the lights at least a little geez)

I woke at five to be safe and was up and rough washed soon thereafter, knowing that depending of if we’d made up the delays I’d be looking at anything from 5:40-6:30? for arrival at Surat Thani. People started waking more and more not long after (not helped by a food hawker coming through and screaming 3 times before six.) Not so shockingly it turned out to be 6:30 off the train for me, my bus further on was then another half hour late so it was more like 8am as we set out for Phuket arriving about 11:30 at Phuket Town bus terminal. In future I’d probably just fly or at least take the straight bus, though I did find out there was a sleeper departing a couple hours later that might have gotten an hour or two of daylight sightseeing before arriving.

Before this trip I didn’t know much about Phuket other than that it was an island on the Andaman Coast of thailand and it had been pummelled by the boxing day tsunami of 2004. Turns out it’s a really huge island and since it’s just across a tiny bridge it’s not even really treated as such by the locals anymore (none of them call it Ko Phuket for instance.) My reason for going to Phuket was that my father had kindly found an exchange for some of their timeshare points to give me four free nights at a condo in Patong Beach on the west coast of the island. I now knew that Phuket was big enough that it was strewn with multiple towns/beach resorts of which Patong was the biggest and uh… let’s go with showiest for a word here.

Unfortunately from the bus station I immediately ran into the curse of Phuket, cab drivers. Non-negotiable rates, unmetered and more than a little skeevy. Apparently they were even worse before the last military takeover as the authorities have now clamped down on them a bit… I don’t really see it. In the end I gritted my teeth, payed the guy enough for a Bangkok airport transfer and proceeded to watch him stumble his way to the condo/hotel complex. Truth be told, I can’t really blame him for that. The complex was fairly new and up a road that didn’t look as if it had anything but decrepit old gyms and run down houses then zigzagged through what were essentially back lanes and tuk tuk parking lots. My cabbie tried very hard to drop me off at an abandoned hotel (one that looked like it had been abandoned years before at 90% built, or perhaps most reno’d after the tsunami when money ran out.) In the end I spotted a distinctive wall from the picture rising up the hill and prodded him onward.

The resort (not really, but it’s part apartment building, part condo, part hotel so let’s just call it that) was quite gorgeous if really out of place. A beautiful gym and small but pretty infinity pool overlooked another abandoned construction site and a vacant lot where the neighbourhood kids seemed to hang out. It also had somewhat gloriously a cold jacuzzi end just the thing for sore muscles when you wouldn’t want a hot one given temps under 30c were rare as heck. My room was gorgeous as well, small but useful kitchenette, giant king size bed, balcony (overlooking someone’s jungle-ish garden so not much of a view) and bathroom with glorious waterfall shower that got used basically the moment the door was closed (followed by a swim, followed by another shower.)

They also had a shuttlebus into town that was nowhere near big enough for the number of people that often wanted to use it, including me that first night. Despite the glowing recommendation above there were definitely some issues with this place, some of which I think may just be growing pains but I really couldn’t believe (especially after the winding path in) that they didn’t have some form of rough town map with the location of the hotel on it. In the end I took a cartoony tourist map, blotted on where I thought the hotel was (the front desk clerk being no help) and took a photo of the intersection when I reached the bottom of the hill. Eventually I found the mall that the shuttle bus went to, manage to snag a new camera card reader and hit the grocery store for some breakfast fixings/drinks/snacks. Massively overpaid for some old english cheddar and some croissants because as much as I like thai food I had been jonesing for some cheese.

Phuket Traffic, up and to the left is hotel

Getting back was as awkward as expected especially as night had fallen and the party vibe of the place was getting going. Sidewalks were crowded and the traffic was absolutely mental. Even at 8 it was around 33 and massively humid out so I was sweaty and starving. I found a small quiet place on the way back, had a giant bowl of curry soup and dumplings w/ a beer for the grand total of $5, so great. By the time I stumbled back up the dark lane past the muay thai gym and whatnot it was latish and all I had the energy for was another shower followed by some wacky television and a piece of cheese. Properly exploring Patong would have to wait for tomorrow.

Astroboy! (@ the mall)