Friday, December 31, 2010

I couldn't put it off any longer...

My passport was due to expire on January 10th of next year, so I had to renew it.  Living here in Asia, the rules are different.  Why?  I have no idea.  If I was still in the U.S., all I would have had to do would be to send my passport to some government agency located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  But, since I live abroad, I have to show up at the U.S. Embassy here so they can see me in person.  Doesn't quite make sense, but then it's a government thing, and most government things don't make sense.

Not only does it not make sense, it's expensive.  I had to travel to Bangkok, where the U.S. Embassy is located, check into a hotel, take multiple taxi's, and of course eat.  An expensive endeavor I was not prepared for due to my present financial situation.  I have been behind in my finances for some time now due to quitting the job at Sathit Rajabhat Songkhla School and consequently spending months only working piece jobs.  I'm catching up now, but there for a while I my British friend Rich calls it....SKINT.

I booked a van in Hat Yai, traveling to Bangkok, since I figured if I took a bus I'd end up at Morchit Bus Station and then have to take a taxi to my expense I wanted to avoid, as the money was going to be very tight.  But as it turned out, the van selection was a stupid idea.  I knew from past experiences (taking a van to Krabi for my holiday on Koh Phi Phi island and my many trips to Georgetown, Penang) that the van drivers are psychotically insane and drive like they are on a vehicular manslaughter / suicide mission, not to mention the uncomfortable seats.  But, I did it anyway...just to save the money for a taxi.  I was assured by the lady at the agency I'd be taken right to the front door of my hotel.

I should have known...

Christ, I've lived here for six years now.  You'd think I'd have learned that nobody who is Thai and runs a business tells the truth.  They say what a foreigner wants to, "Of course the van will be on time."  and "Yes, the van will take you directly to your hotel."

I paid my fee of 700 baht and was told to arrive promptly at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday the 14th of December.  First off, you have to understand that the word promptly does not exist in Thai language or dialects.  I arrived at 8:20 a.m. because that's what I do.  I've been early my whole damn life.  I'm almost never late.  But, that's a Western concept that only Westerner's understand.  So, I arrived and waited...and waited and waited.  Finally at 9:05 a.m. the van driver arrived and I loaded up.  I was the only passenger at that agency and I knew we'd be traveling around to other agencies and locales to pick up other passengers before finally leaving.

What the hell is wrong with women?

Women...especially Asian women, can waste more damn time.  Practically every woman the van driver picked up had to fiddle-fart around, complaining about this and that, giving the van driver her bags then telling him, "No wait!  I need something-or-another..." then getting the bag, dumping the contents out on the sidewalk for all to see, and picking up some small compact so they can smear some powder on their damn faces..."Wait!  I've got to go to the bathroom!"  "Wait!  I just need to pick up something at the store first."

Jesus freaking christ.

But, the first real insult came at our fourth stop.  The van driver stopped at a tour agency-cum-hotel booking agency-cum-newsstand-cum-restaurant.  Four people boarded and the driver got out and went into the restaurant.  He ate his breakfast (slowly) and ended up staying there for an ungodly forty-eight minutes, picking his teeth and flirting with the waitress.  Finally we left.  It was pushing 10:52 a.m.

The van turned onto route 4 south, heading for the route 4/41 intersection but stopped short and pulled over on the side of the road.  I scanned the inside of the van and noticed one empty seat.  Vans always pack the people inside...a van will hold approximately 15 people with their fold-down seats...we were already at fourteen.  So, I figured we were waiting for another passenger and I was right.  Only problem...he was Thai and he was very, very late.

We finally got onto route 4/41 heading north to Bangkok at 11:23 a.m.

Then what I feared the most happened.  The driver began trying to make up for lost time and began driving like a maniac.  I've been living in in Asia now for almost eight years and I've survived a bus accident in Guangzhou, China, two horrendous motorcycle accidents in Xintang, China (where in both cases I walked away with a Chinese burn tattoo from the muffler), and many other hair-raising instances....but I was still afraid for my life as this asshole took sharp turns at lightning speed and I could feel the van wanting to go airborne.

We stopped a grand total of four times along the way for bathroom and snack breaks.  Every single time we had to wait for the women.  Even the van driver, who was Thai, was pissed off.

Finally we arrived in Bangkok...and drove, and drove, and drove.  Typically traffic was terrible in Bangkok even at that hour, which was now pushing 10:50 p.m.  Suddenly I began recognizing my surroundings a bit and as I feared, we were approaching Morchit Bus Station.  I held my breath, hoping the driver was just going to drop someone off, but no luck...everybody out.  I asked why in my terrible Thai and what I could understand was he was so late, he wanted to drop everybody at Morchit since everybody was going in too many different locations.  I plead with him to drop me near Lumpini park where my hotel was near, but no go.  He dropped everybody's bags on the tarmac and sped off.

I was on the side of the road in front of Morchit station for some fifteen or twenty minutes trying to get a metered taxi to my hotel.  Nobody wanted to drive to Lumpini area...for whatever reason.  Probably they only wanted shorter fares in order to make more money.  You see, Bangkok taxi's begin their meter at 35 baht at a dead-standstill.

Finally, an aging Thai man approached me.  "Bainai?  Where you go?"

"I'm going here (handing him the hotel's business card that was printed in both English and Thai)...near Lumpini Park and the Boxing station." (miming a Muay Thai boxer).

"Ahhhh!  Okay, let's go."

Taxi's will ask you, "Highway or no highway?"  It's a crap shoot too, unless you're a local and know the exact distance, since the highway will cost you 45 baht to get on and god only knows if you save money or not by not taking the highway.  Anyway, if you're not a local and know the area well, you're at the mercy of the taxi driver who can damn well drive in circles for awhile running up your tab, before finally arriving at your destination.

"Highway or no?"

"Highway I guess..."

"You speak Thai?"

"Pom poot Thai neet noi."

"Oh!  You speak little Thai huh?  You teacher?"

"Yes." (Christ...almost every goddamn foreigner who lives in Thailand is a freaking teacher)

"Ban unai?"

"I live near Hat Yai."

"Oh!  Hat Yai!  I have brother-in-law in Hat Yai" (this is either fact or fiction...but, Thai's are a prolific bunch, so it is entirely possible)

"Where you live in Hat Yai.  I know Hat Yai good."

"I said.  I live near Hat Yai, not in Hat Yai."

"Oh.  Songkhla?"

"No.  A small village called Ban Klong Tong Nûea, near Thung Lung."

"Ah!  Thung Song!"

"No, no!  Not Thung Song!  Thung Song is near Phattalung!  Thung Lung is near Sadao and Pedang Bezar."

"Oh!"  (I realize I've totally confused him now.  Hat Yai is the major city in the south, as is the second major city of Songkhla...but nobody knows of the smaller villages and towns south of Hat Yai."

So, we rode in silence as the meter ticked off money....

Finally we arrived in the area and I began getting my bearings...memories rushing back to me from back in 2003, the last time I stayed at the Malaysia Hotel.  I paid my fare of 101 baht, grabbed my bags and said thank you in Thai.  No tip.  You don't know Thung don't get a tip.  Ha!

I had to pay a late fee at the freaking hotel since I was supposed to check in by 9:00 p.m.  They told me they had already given my room to someone else so I'd have to stay in a bigger room with two beds and no T.V.  I didn't care about the T.V. since it was pushing 11:35 p.m. and I was exhausted from sitting in a goddamn maniac van for better than twelve hair-raising hours.  But, I started thinking to myself..."I'll bet this is all just a scam to get more money from me, as I'll bet since this is off-season, they didn't give my room out...they have plenty of rooms."  While looking at the key-board, which was full of room keys.

Next morning was better.  I awoke refreshed and ready to tackle the Embassy.  Played hell getting a damn taxi most had passengers, but finally I caught one and we sped off.  The U.S. Embassy is only about a kilometer from the hotel, so it wasn't much money.  About 58 baht or thereabouts.  There was already a line outside.  I got in line and began surveying the property.

Security naturally was pretty tight.  There's an observation room on the right that's glassed-in, with security personnel looking out at everybody who well as obvious and not-so-obvious CCTV cameras.  A mean-and-nasty looking Thai guy was behind the entrance door giving everybody the scrutinizing eye, with a definite large bulge under his suit jacket, which probably wasn't a copy of the Bangkok Post Newspaper.

When I finally approached the front of the line, I showed the woman my appointment slip and my U.S. passport and was immediately allowed to go forward.  I went through the door, passing Mr. jacket bulge, and went to a security counter where I had to give up the contents of my pockets, all electronic equipment (mobile phone and camera) etc.  Then I was given a key to my personal effects and allowed to exit through yet another door.  I followed the signs and eventually arrived at the area where you renew passports.  Everybody was nice, and I really felt comfortable.  Very helpful and overall a very nice experience. 

Once I finished and had paid my fee, I was given back my old passport and told my new passport would be sent to me within two weeks.  Then I was out of there...a grand total of about thirty minutes or so...not long at all. 

I hopped a taxi and went to Morchit Station (another 140 baht) where I booked a VIP bus home to Hat Yai.  The bus didn't leave until 5:30 p.m., so that kind of sucked, having to stay in that station for that long.  But, once I boarded the bus, I immediately knew it was going to be a nice experience and it was.  I gave my ticket to a man who in turn gave me a bottled water, boxed snack, and a blanket.  Then, as we were heading out of the city, they started a movie...albeit in Thai with no English subtitles, but nice all the same. 

The trip was very, very smooth and the bus wasn't full, so practically everyone had two seats to themselves.  The only annoying part was some asshole behind me who couldn't seem to eat with his damn mouth closed...smacking away and making these annoying little satisfied smacking, licking noises.  I wanted to turn around and belt him right in his kisser, but eventually I just fell asleep. 

We stopped only twice that I can remember.  I got out at one stop and walked around like a zombie, still punchy from hard sleep and picked up a couple barbecued pork sticks from a beautiful Thai was all like it was a dream.  Then inside the bus I ate my pork and once we were off, I realized I had to go to the restroom but had forgotten.  So, I attempted the bus bathroom. 

They should enter "Going to the Bathroom in a Bus while it's moving..." as an Olympic event. 

Finally and surprisingly quick, we arrived in Hat Yai and were turning into the bus station.  Of course I slept the better part of the twelve-plus hours I was on the road, so it didn't seem like long.  I went to the bathroom at the station, hounded by annoying taxi touts, then exited the south gate of the station and headed across the street for a Muslim restaurant I noticed, with a scarf laden woman tossing roti dough in the air.  Had a couple coffee's and two dishes of roti with curry sauce, and I was good to go.  Then I returned home to Ban Klong Tong Nûea via motorcycle taxi once I reached Thung Lung.  

I don't plan on heading back to Bangkok any time soon, but I have got it in my mind to head to Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai up north during vacation and I definitely plan to go by VIP bus!



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