Friday, July 1, 2011

How NOT to Get a Chinese Visa in Bangkok

"Yogurt muesli and coffee?" The Thai ladyboy who takes my breakfast order every day was MIA, but the cook was filling in. She was mighty chipper for a Friday morning. The Khao San Road area where I'm staying is slow to wake up in the mornings, though it sure is hopping around midnight.

I'm slow to wake up too. My work world is 5-11 hours behind me, so I never tried to adjust my inner clock from Africa to Bangkok. Why bother?

Because I need to get a Chinese visa is why. I'd been reading this blog, so I knew I had to be at the consulate between 9 and 11:30 a.m. But given the amount of time it takes to get around in Bangkok, I couldn't just leave my hotel at 10:30 and expect to make it.

On Thursday morning, I'd tried to go, but by the time I finally finished filling out the PDF forms and looking up the hotels I needed for my fake route (the plan is to get the China visa first without mentioning Tibet, since I have a separate agent dealing with my Tibet plans), it was pushing ten. I hurried over to the internet cafe across the street from my hotel. The owner was just rolling up the metal gate. He sleepily took my USB stick and printed out two blank forms.

Horrified, I looked at the PDF on-screen. What had happened to all those blanks I'd filled out? All those hotel stays I'd carefully fabricated? That itinerary I'd made up using an eastbound loop? The words were gone. I must need to re-save the PDF or export it. I hurried back up to my hotel, turned my laptop on, saved the form in several different formats, and even exported the pages as high-res JPEGs.

And then went back to the internet cafe, printed out one page that didn't work and one (the JPEG) that did, and hurried past the dozens of food and crap vendors (think 14th Street all packed into kiosks of folding tables and tarps) that line the sidewalks to the bus stop.

I peered down the block. No bus #53 in sight. How was it 10:30 already? No, wait. 10:40. I needed at least a half-hour to get to the metro on the bus. This was pointless. I'd try again tomorrow, I thought.

"I'll just get up earlier."

I did manage to get up at 6:30 on Friday morning. But I was still working on the next installment of MariesWorldTour/Wander Woman for Wanderlust magazine. And it wasn't working. I couldn't wrangle my week in Mauritania into a tidy thousand-or-so-word package. At 8:30, I gave up and went downstairs for my yogurt and muesli, which also comes with fruit. Unfortunately, I'm always starving two hours later.

By 9, I knew I had to get going. I'd take my laptop, go to the consulate and do the paperwork, then go to the nearest coffee shop to finish the article, then go to the hair salon for roots color (as I mentioned before) before heading to the swanky mall that visiting-friend Toby had introduced me to last week. I needed to replace my worn-out T-shirts, trousers, skirt, and underwear. Well, I needed to replace everything. But I could start by looking at GAP for some simple, durable, not-too-ugly T-shirts.

This time I went to the bus stop that didn't involve navigating around Hello Kitty backpack vendors, and the big, orange bus came right away. I was feeling pretty smug when the conductor took only 7 baht off me and the bus zipped through traffic without stopping. All I had to do was find the huge, obvious railway station. That's where the metro ended, and the metro would zip me eight stops underground to the Embassy of China.

I remembered taking this bus years ago. It had been easy.

We passed the Amulet Market first. Oops, I could have just taken the bus here the other day when I'd gone by to take some photos for a friend. And then we passed Wat Po, which I've been meaning to get back to for the massage and fortune-telling. And then the bus wove around into Chinatown and got bogged down in traffic. My mind wandered and I reminded myself to keep an eye on the road. The bus map showed bus #53 doing some dizzying round-the-block maneuvers around the railway station.

Still, it's a giant railway station. How hard can it be? And if I couldn't see the station, I could see a lot of people suddenly getting off the bus. Couldn't I?

Within ten or fifteen minutes, I was worried. I knew I'd missed the stop. Or had I? We'd been sitting in traffic for so long, it was possible we'd barely moved. I pulled out my map and tried to identify landmarks as we passed them. Where the hell were we?

No idea.

The bus went through a tunnel of cheap clothes, past an outdoor market of tables selling stuff you wouldn't buy on sale at the dollar store. That certainly wasn't on my map. And I could see we were running parallel to a khlong, a canal. But a spiderweb of canals criss-cross Bangkok. I couldn't tell one from another.

I'm not sure how long I sat on bus #53 but when it pulled over and stopped, everyone got off, including the conductor. That was my cue to leave. Not only had I passed the metro, but I was at the end of the line on a bus that had circled around so many blocks and traffic circles that I couldn't even tell where in Bangkok I could possibly be.


I saw a sign for Wat Sammonat. How the hell did I get all the way turned around and to Wat Sammonat? And where and what was Wat Sammonat? It wasn't on my map at all. Or wait...ABOVE where I'd started? How had that happened?

All the other passengers walked about 40 feet up the road and got onto another bus, also called #53.

Uh, what?

I was beyond baffled, so I skulked up to a man reading a newspaper in a booth with a big "I" on it. He ignored me.

"Um...excuse me."

He looked up.

"How do I get to Hualamphong Station?"

He motioned across the road to the bus stop.

I crossed the road to wait for the return voyage of bus #53. Traffic, I noted, was terrible going back in that direction.

No bus arrived.

Ah, screw it, I thought. I hailed a bright pink air-conditioned metered taxi.

"Hwa-lahm-pong." I said. "Meter."

He flicked the meter on and drove about six feet before settling into a rhythm of waiting and then driving, waiting and driving.

Still, we couldn't be that far away from the train. And I still had plenty of time. More than an hour.

I told myself that for another 15 minutes before I started to bounce off the walls.

Metaphorically. I didn't really bounce. I just clenched my fists and teeth and rocked from side-to-side. Okay, not really that either. But inside I was not a zen Buddhist, certainly.

We're probably right by a Skytrain station and I don't even know it, I thought. I showed my map to the driver during one of our many long waits. I pointed at the Skytrain line and motioned around.

He nodded. Indeed we were going to the train. After all, hadn't I asked him to go to Hualamphong Station?

Argh. This was hopeless!

The meter clicked. The clock did too. I looked at my phone ever three seconds. I thought about how people here still buy watches. I wondered what would happen to the luxury watch market around the world as watches were discarded in favor of the clock we already carry in our pockets.

Then, WHAM. A yellow taxi fender met its maker as a mid-sized sedan, its driver chatting away on a mobile phone-clock, pulled out into traffic.

Not that it mattered. We weren't moving anyway. An accident hardly changed that situation.

Rush hour here ends at 9, when people go to work. Why was traffic at a standstill today?

And then we reached a roadblock. The taxi driver turned and explained something to me. I'm pretty sure he said "I can't get to the train station, do you want me to go around this block where traffic never moves and it will take 40 minutes to just go right over there when you could walk?"

But I don't know that. I looked at him blankly. He sighed and turned onto yet another parking area disguised as a road.

At 11:10, he pulled into the railway station, sailing past the metro in his zeal to get me to the the train I'd been asking about.

"Any time now..."

He proudly deposited me at the door to the train station. My 7 baht bus journey had cost me 107 baht.

I rushed over to the metro and underground, knowing it was pointless but unable to turn the rushing off. And then I got to the token vending machine and looked at my phone.



Guess I'll try again on Monday.

Instead, I bought a token to Silom, where I'd decided to give the hair colorist a try.

I emerged up out of the swish modern subway into the middle of a massive political demonstration. Elections were on Sunday.

Oh. That explains the roadblock and traffic.

A woman in a yellow sash tried to hand me a flyer. Instinctively, I waved her off, and then laughed at myself. The flyer was probably interesting. You can take the girl out of New York...

My first instinct was to flee the demonstration, head straight back down underground. No way was I getting through this crowd to the hair salon. But then I saw a familiar green logo across the street. I needed to get that article in for Wanderlust. I climbed the stairs above me to the pedestrian overpass and took refuge in Starbucks.

I settled in and got to work. Starbucks in Thailand charges for wi-fi, but I have unlimited free wi-fi with one of the local networks as part of my phone's SIM card deal. I worked steadily, keeping an eye on the time in the UK. I wanted to have this in before my friend Peter, the web editor at Wanderlust, got to work.

Outside, rain started pouring down. The yellow-party election campaigners melted away in minutes, dissolved by the rain, and by the time I'd sent in my article and finished my coffee, the way to the hair salon was clear.

I stepped into a mall to find a ladies room--these aren't even in most McDonald's here, so you have to visit the malls when you can. Fortunately, there is approximately one mall per block in Bangkok in the new parts of the city so this isn't usually a problem.

And then I overdrew my bank account. I'd have to pay for this hair color and payday is on the first of the month. Today was the first of the month and I'd run out of money. Again. But I have overdraft protection, so I don't worry as much as I probably should about what I take out of ATMs.

After a brief squabble with the hair salon staff, I got my way. No, they were not pulling the color all the way through to the ends. Plenty more times to slightly change the color by the end of December, so there's no need to do it over and over again as each new colorist couldn't match the tone. No, I didn't want to use this new, more expensive, ammonia-free color from Japan. Just use the damn Wella already.

Around me, hairdressers all wore face masks, like surgeons, as they fried their clients long tresses with electric straightening appliances and chemicals. Whenever I get my hair done in Asia, I'm struck by three things.

1) They always wash your hair before doing color. Which is probably related to...

2) Hair isn't considered finished until they've put in 73 chemical compounds (at minimum), used several electrical appliances on your head, and created a walking fire hazard.

3) A crew works on blowdrying your hair at the end.

Three people tugged and dried my hair, and the salon owner did her signature flourish so that I could have perfectly flat, straight hair for five minutes until the humidity reminded it that nature doesn't care how many chemicals you use.

I left the salon and got on the Skytrain to Siam Paragon, the swanky mall where Toby and I had seen Green Lantern on Sunday night. I was already tired of dragging my laptop around, though I was glad to have the work turned in.

Siam Paragon is a new mall, just built in 2005, and featuring things like GAP, Zara and...a Lamborghini showroom, a bowling alley, and an aquarium. My laptop made the metal detector go off when I walked in, but as usual no one bothered to look in my bag.

I scoured GAP for something road-worthy but not too hideous, waiting in lines and learning that I'm smaller than an XS in GAP T-shirts here. Which doesn't make sense given the size of women in Thailand but then these items were heavily discounted. Maybe because they didn't fit anyone.

The crowds were growing around me—it was about six o'clock—and by the time I walked to the other end of the mall, I was desperate to leave.

"If I leave now, I can still get to the river boat before it stops for the night."

I headed to the exit.

And stopped.

Huh. A monsoon. I wasn't going anywhere.

I went downstairs into the gourmet food court. But the crowds were worse there. I got turned around and lost. Which was was the exit that went to the train? Could I get to a different mall from here? And if I did, would it be just as chaotic?

Jostled and crowded. I have GOT to get out of here, I thought.

Then I reminded myself to calm down. That monsoon was still out there and I was wearing leather sandals. Monsoons can cause you to slide around in your sandals. Monsoons don't like laptops.

"Sit tight and wait for the rain to let up. You don't need to take the riverboat. You can take the metro back to the railway station and catch that damn #53 bus."

I wandered the gourmet market, searching for something tasty to eat for dinner.

No, not Krispy Kreme. Not chain fast food or Tony Roma's. Ah, what's that? A steak bar in the middle of the gourmet food store?

This place supposedly served gourmet burgers along with its steak. They were disappointing.

The next time I looked outside, the monsoon has lessened to being mere cats-and-dogs. I went to the Skytrain via the covered walkway.

Note to self: Don't go to the shopping area on a weekend night again. Ever.

There were massive lines at all the fare machines.

I scurried around to check. Yep, all of them. I got in line, waited a while, got my ticket, waited briefly to get my chance to go through the turnstiles, followed a crowd up an escalator to a platform, threw myself into the crowded train when the time came, and fought my way off at the interchange with the subway.

The subway line was short and in a few minutes, I came up out of the ground into the railway station.

I went straight to Tourist Information.

"How much do you think a taxi would cost tonight, in the rain?"

The agent shook his head.

"The rain makes everyone crazy. At least a hundred baht. There's no telling how long you'll be sitting in traffic."


"Where can I catch the #53 bus?"

"Out in front of KFC."

I crossed the station waiting room, past dozens of sprawled-out waiting passengers. Monks all sat together in a swarm of orange robes. They got the chairs.

I hesitated behind a slow-walking Thai woman. I felt like pushing ahead, but I was tired and anyway, that can be rude.

But I regretted this a moment later when I saw the #53 bus barreling by, splashing water everywhere moments before I arrived at the bus stop.

Bye-bye, bus.

I hailed a yellow taxi.

"Khao San, please. Meter."

We crawled slowly through the traffic, ending the day much as I'd begun it. Sitting in a taxi.


And waiting some more.

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