Saturday, April 27, 2013

Travelogue: In a Thai bus

The expert agreed to our plan; he didn’t have a choice since the 3 of us voted for it – we’d roam the city till noon and then check-in. There was a bathroom and toilet which was not connected to any room on the ground floor; we took turns to use that to get ready. For some reason the receptionist reduced our breakfast rate to 80 Bahts instead of the regular 100 Bahts; maybe it was sympathy created by the non-stop pestering by our veggie!

Our expert opted out of breakfast; he only wanted to have tea and asked a lady in the serving area. 
“Meow,” she smiled a big smile.
Our expert thought that she understood and asked, “Hot milk?”
“Meow,” came the same reply.

What she pointed to was milk; but cold milk. Only later did I learn that in Thai, milk is ‘nm’ (like ‘num); and I think the ‘num’ she said sounded to us like meow!

The breakfast was simple; continental style to suit the foreigners staying in our hotel – fruits, egg, cornflakes, bread, some beef dish, fresh veggies and white rice; in Thailand people seem to have either rice or noodles as part of breakfast. Interestingly we never saw even one Indian in our hotel.

No English, again!

Off we went to our first destination, Grand Palace. We had 2 choices – call our friendly fatherly cab driver or take the bus. We knew the three bus numbers that went to Grand Palace, courtesy of a little map our receptionist provided. 

Bus stops in Thailand are similar to India; and even the buses are kind of similar – the no frills seat and standing in the center. Fortunately bus numbers are written in English and we didn’t have to wait too long on the main road. We hopped in and observed the passengers; there didn’t seem to be any convention of men on one side and women on the other. On the right you have a row of single seaters and on the left it is two-seaters. Conductors don’t carry a bag – instead they have a long rectangular wooden box with coins and tickets. He keeps clapping the two halves of the box with one hand as he walked around. We got 4 tickets for Grand Palace from the conductor.

But we didn’t know where to get off. I was seated on a single seater and saw the conductor pass nearby.

I asked him, “Can you tell when Grand Palace come?”

And he curtly replied, “I no tell.”

It sounded quite rude but perhaps he didn’t know much English. We had no clue about the place and everyone around were local people. 

In the next bus stop an elderly Western couple boarded. I gave up my seat to the old lady and examined the man – he seemed like an Englishman and I took my chance. 

“Do you know the Grand Palace stop?” 

Ah, and he spoke in fluent English. We chit chatted for a while and I learnt that he had been in Thailand for a few months. He told us where to get off. 

Yipeee – local bus travel mission accomplished!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Travelogue: In the year 2556 in Bangkok

In the shop I flipped through a few items; by default the first thing we do is convert the price and compare with India; toothbrush, toothpaste, juice, water, sandwich, sausage etc. Prices seemed almost the same for basic items. The manufacture and expiry dates were weird - the year read 2556! I thought there was something wrong but later found out that it means 2556 BE (Buddhist Era); they call it the Thai solar calendar and it is the official calendar. Year 0 starts from the year believed to be the death of Gautam Buddha. So add 543 years to our normal calendar to get the Thai year. More about Buddha and the Indian connection in Thailand later.

(Pic: Side streets in Bangkok; the bike you see in the distance is a motorbike taxi – the driver wears a bright orange jersey; you hop on behind him with a helmet for short distance rides)

No room!

We treaded back to our hotel as the sun came up and the city was slowly waking up. And there we had a shock. The old lady we saw was gone. The real receptionist, a younger lady with a very fair complexion and round spectacles, was at the table. When we asked for the room she went through her large register, squeezed her forehead with her facial muscles, put a big smile without showing any teeth and nodded her head from side to side while her bob hair kept swaying in the back. Giving negative news with a smile! The expert was sitting on the two seater chair near the reception, trying to catch some sleep while we fought with the receptionist.

“I give your room 2pm. Checkin time.”

We knew that at the time of booking but thought that in case someone were to leave early we’d check-in early else roam the city and check-in later. But our expert was really exhausted and to top it he wasn’t feeling well. Our friend with the slight cold and the pure veggie tried again after a few minutes.

“If someone leaves early we can get at least one room?”

“No, no, no, no, no. Someone leave but I don’t give you room,” she said with a big smile on her face as if she were doing us a favor!

“If they leave your room then I give. No other room.”

So that was that. Our veggie tried thrice when he saw a few westerners leaving but the receptionist would repeat the same thing - squeeze her forehead, smile as much as she could without showing her teeth and nod her head sideways. It was final – a firm ‘no’ with a smile. I felt like laughing on seeing it; what a polite way to decline! This guesthouse was highly rated and relatively cheap but it had only about 20 rooms or so.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Poem: A life of 'likes'!

Daily we spend long on Facebook,
trying to keep up a good outlook.
Out here it's hard to spot a crook
and no one knows where all you look!

From here we get to know abt marriage
and to where someone goes on a voyage.
People update every single hour their image,
even something as trivial as putting garbage!

We look at what others put as status,
from one to another we browse aimless.
It is a great place to express opinion,
because someone or other shows appreciation!

With every post we hope to become famous
& the number of likes makes some even jealous.
Be it work or home people are truly addicted,
bcoz they keep counting the likes that are listed!

Pretty snaps attract many a user's eye,
but people don't realize who all spy.
You'd be surprised who all can see you,
Google your name will give you a clue!

If a beloved doesn't approve you get worried,
and in case they do then you feel gloried.
So now let me go and post this poem online,
and see who all comment with a positive sign!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Travelogue: Day 1 At the hotel (Bangkok)

Seeing our hapless state in trying to get a cab, the security guard standing near the exit tried telling us something. “Theeeere.” He pointed towards the other gate. “Here no… Theeeere." He repeated it three times. We walked (my friend limped!) past a row of gates to the other end. On the way a couple of uniformed taxi guys saw us. Being from Chennai we are always skeptical about these taxi guys who roam around near the airport or train station; but here it was a little different. They were affiliated to the main guy running taxis out of the airport and recognized our address. The supervisor was standing behind a desk outside the gate. It was still dark and since there were very few people around it felt a little scary  - in a foreign land, pitch dark outside, hardly anyone who spoke English and surrounded by some locals!
“You have taxi?”
“Should we come here for taking the taxi?” He looked at us puzzled. We broke it down to a simpler form, “Come... here... taxi?”
“We bring bag. Come.”

But in the meantime, the clock went past 5am and our hotel cabbie had arrived with the name plate. He had a bigger smile than the other cab driver and he put his hand on me in a fatherly fashion while talking. I know that in some cultures touching strangers is prohibited but that didn’t seem the case here. We were a little skeptical about talking too much though he seemed the type of person who would easily keep on talking. His English was the best that we had seen so far in Thailand barring the immigration officers. We stepped into a Pink Toyota car. For most of the ride we stayed quiet and observant. The roads had sparse traffic, were smooth and clean; it was around 5:45am when we reached our place - and I'm certain that if we had taken our own taxi we would never have found this place; it was located in some side alley within a side alley.
The day begins
A couple of roadside mobile food stalls were getting ready for the day; they were almost exactly the same like the roadside eateries you see in Chennai on 4 wheels. One difference was that they had a small piece of cardboard with the menu – and lo behold it had English! But much to the dismay of our sprained ankle friend, there was no vegetarian item – minimum was the presence of an egg! The hotel was more like a guest house; not a star hotel. As soon as we stepped off the taxi, an elderly lady welcomed us. She was the one who talked on phone! I could hardly understand what she was saying when she smiled and talked; she spoke as if we were her grandchildren.
"Room. I ask,… tell…. You go good walk…. This way." She gave us a small map of the place.
"Go come. Breakfast."

The cabbie came to get his money and he as usual patted our back while talking. "You can call anytime. Within city I put meter. Outside city fixed rate." And he gave us his visiting card.
We left our bag behind the reception desk and took a walk around to familiarize ourselves with the place. The width of these side streets was as bad as Chennai. Only one vehicle could travel in them at a time. We were pretty much in an entirely local area of Bangkok. Given our nature of talking and walking, we never noticed a car that was coming behind us. But the driver didn’t honk; he waited patiently for us to move.
(Pic: In the guesthouse – I took this pic after the word on top was rubbed; we remember seeing that word as: ‘Breakfast’!)
We entered a small Seven-Eleven (7-11) shop; this is a chain of stores that are open 24 hours (like a little grocery shop with basic items). I had read reviews that we could buy a SIM card here. And again we hit a problem – communication!
“Yes.” And the lady started saying some names. “..True… Happy…” We had read about the telecom providers online and so when I heard those two names I realized what she was getting at. “Charge? Rate?”
“50 Baht.”
“India call?”
“How much?”
“1 Baht. India.”
“1 Baht per minute?”

She didn’t understand; she pulled a True SIM card pack and opened it. There was a leaflet inside; thankfully the table was in English – calling rates for different countries. Our sprained ankle friend bought the SIM and the lady at the counter set it up; no big deal – you just dial a few numbers, go into some automated caller options and you’re ready. Buying a SIM card is pretty simple; no worries about ID cards or any form to be filled out.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Travelogue (Thailand) - Any English?

On the ground floor, there was only one cab driver holding a name plate but it was for someone else. On the rightmost end of the floor there were a few people catching up on sleep by lying down on the comfortable chairs. One of us was also doing the same! Since it wouldn’t be possible to kill time in a deserted airport we thought of calling the hotel to ask them to send the cab earlier. And just nearby we saw a row of five public coin-box phones. Those of you who’ve read my US travelogue will know how much I detest these phones. I hoped Thailand was better.

But first problem was that we needed Thai Baht coins while we had only notes. There was one coffee shop open in the sleeping area (it’s actually the waiting area that was converted to sleeping area). We asked the guy for change but he refused. If we had bought something I’m sure he would have given change but the rates displayed on the board were extravagant - it’s natural tendency to convert everything to your local currency. A coffee cost 60 Baht - wow; that’s Rs.120; no way we are buying that!

When we went upstairs hoping to find some exchange counter, we were in for a surprise. The entire floor was buzzing with activity and filled with passengers - this was the departure area. We got coins for 10 Baht in the third counter; was funny – we’d show the note and keep repeating ‘change?’. Reviews had warned us that English is not something that local Thai people will understand. So while I tried to figure out how to make a call, I left the talking to our friend with the sprain.

Swallowing coins!

We faithfully followed the instructions on the coinbox but it didn’t work; the picture said drop the coin, dial a code and then the number. Fortunately the 5 Baht coin was returned by the machine. One passenger who was loitering nearby offered help - he dropped our coin in the slot and immediately shook his head from left to right; the machine wasn’t working. Then he tried it on the next one and as soon as he dropped the coin, the LCD displayed “Credit: 5.00”. Here we go. I read the number and my friend dialed. No luck - there was no ring tone. He pushed the lever down for disconnecting but nothing happened - our coin was stuck; he pushed it down a few times and finally we heard a clinking sound. The coin reappeared!

We tried again and were lucky third time in getting connected. My friend spoke in proper English explaining our situation. He would say a few lines and then repeat them. Just when it seemed like he was able to convey the message, he would go back to repeating the first line! The only thing he figured from the lady at the other end was that the phone number connected to the hotel and not the cab company. The LCD display showed “Credit: 3.00” when he got fed up with repeating his words and cut the call. We thought it would refund 3 Baht back and kept pushing the lever but no luck; the machine wouldn’t return change - it had swallowed our money!

Our expert was the most agitated in the group – he was short of sleep and the beer wasn’t a permanent cure for his throat problem; or perhaps the beer added to his agitation! Our next attempt was to flag down a yellow cab that stopped to drop a passenger. We ran to the driver’s side and he rolled down the window. We started with a full sentence but he didn’t get it. We ended up by just repeating the street name “Petchburi Soi.” I tried telling him by putting some Thai accent. He smiled, gave a blank look and nodded sideways. We showed him the address and it was then that I realized that if he couldn’t understand English how could he read English? He smiled and moved on.