December 23, 2013; or as I like to call it, “The day Bangkok decided it wasn’t ready for us to leave.” That’s a mouthful, I know. But without exaggeration, nothing we did that day went according to plan.
Traveling with my friend Caitlin and her cousin Nancy, after a few days in the concrete city we were ready to escape to a more tropical and relaxing setting. What we failed to take into account was that we were attempting to visit Thailand’s beautiful beaches during high season, without any reservations.
I take most of the responsibility for this blunder. I had already traveled through parts of Europe, Vietnam, and Cambodia without any need for reservations, and I assumed Thailand would be the same.
Oh goodness, how wrong I was.
We heard wonderful things about Thailand’s trains (in particular, the overnight ones), and so Nancy booked three tickets for us. We just needed to pick them up from a nearby travel office.
The first sign that we were going to have a challenging day: Cait accidentally left her iPhone charging at the hostel and rushed back to grab it (luckily, it was still there. Phew). After a few wrong turns, we finally found the travel agency.
Apparently, the form we completed only requested a ticket, and we learned that all the trains from then until after the New Year were booked.
“All full,” she told us. That’s a word we would grow weary of, as the day progressed.
Determined to leave Bangkok that day, we walked back in the direction of the hostel, stopping at a McDonald’s to use the wifi and figure out our next move. After my friends ordered their food, we sat down to realize… the wifi wasn’t working.
We ate, and then trudged back to our hostel. They graciously let us connect to the internet, even though we were no longer guests.
During our stay at the hostel, we made a friend, Rogier. He was surprised to see us again, as we said our goodbyes earlier that morning. He told us about a trustworthy agency on Khao San Road (backpacker central in Bangkok), assuring us we would find something out of Bangkok.
We gathered our stuff together, did a second round of goodbyes, and set off for the bus stop. By this time, we were well-versed in navigating the local Bangkok bus system. Bus 47 pulled to the side of the road to let off passengers, but didn’t allow anyone to board.
Perplexed by the situation, we waited for a bit, but soon decided to take a cab. After hailing one down, we felt we were finally making progress. That was short-lived, as the traffic suddenly came to a complete halt.
All week, we encountered the Bangkok protests, previously enjoying the patriotism and enthusiasm of the thousands of people in the street.
But now… we just really wanted to leave Bangkok, and saw the resulting re-routes and huge traffic delays. We looked at Google Maps on Nancy’s phone in dismay, as we moved further and further away from our destination.
We were all growing anxious and impatient, but at some point we had to laugh at the absurdity of the day’s events. Our mantra became, “Anywhere will do.”
When the cab finally started to head in the right direction, after a giant detour, we decided to get out and walk. The traffic was still horrendous, and we were taking matters into our own hands. Roughly twenty minutes later, we stumbled into the recommended travel agency, exhausted but relieved to finally be there.
We sat down. When they asked where we wanted to go, I burst out, “anywhere south. Anywhere we can go today.” Not the best of bargaining strategies, I agree, but we were desperate (and it showed).
We were in luck. We could take an overnight bus to Phuket. The bad news was that their transfer bus already left, and we just needed to get to the bus station by 7pm, for a 7:30 bus. (Note: we realized later that this is actually the best approach. Go directly to bus stations to buy tickets; they’re less likely to overcharge.)
I know what you’re thinking. We didn’t make it in time, right? Actually, despite my worries, we arrived at the station just at 7pm.
But that bus station is a labyrinth, designed to confuse foreigners and locals alike. We were supposed to wait outside a 7-11 store. There are no fewer than FIVE 7-11 shops. After a momentary separation, we finally all met at guest services, where a man gave us our actual tickets, assigning us to the 9:30pm bus.
When we realized the mistake, we tried to explain to the man, “We have reservations for the 7:30 bus,” showing him the paper which confirmed it.
He shook his head, “7:30, full.”
We tried to persuade him. We showed him the paper again. We pleaded with him.
Again, he explained to us, “7:30 full. 8:30 full. All full.”
We had no other choice but to wait. But Caitlin was going to make sure that this last attempt succeeded.
“What is your name?”
The guy looked a bit nervous, hesitated for just a moment, and replied “…A.”
Sure… A. Caitlin had crazy eyes as she asked her question, and I couldn’t blame the guy for giving us a fake name.
“And what’s your phone number?”
He pointed to our useless confirmation page, the one that said we would be on a 7:30pm bus.
“No, your phone number. In case we have trouble getting on the bus.”
I actually don’t remember whether we got a phone number from A. But we did manage to board the 9:30pm bus to Phuket.
But all the trouble was worth it, when we saw the view from our hotel in Phuket.
Tips for traveling long distances in Thailand:
- Try to take a train. I’ve heard they’re great. Just remember to book early.
- Go directly to the bus station to buy tickets, if possible.
- If you have 2+ people in your group, have one wait with the luggage outside the bus (to store it), while the other runs inside to save seats.
- Go to the bathroom beforehand. Then go again. Overnight bus toilets aren’t the most pleasant of sights (and only get worse as time passes).
- Bring snacks. We were promised food which never materialized, and luckily we were prepared.