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Fast forward rewind: Thailand part six

25 January 2010 Leave a comment

Habiba and I arrived at the airport in Bangkok, Suvarnabhumi International, in plenty of time for our flight at 6:30. We were due to fly to Guangzhou, the city we’d passed through on the way out, stay there for eleven hours and fly on to Incheon in the morning.

As we waited to check in we observed a family at the head of the queue who were taking a long time. A white man and his Asian wife seemed to be having some problems; the man seemed uninterested while his wife was much more agitated. After a good while they moved off with their suitcases. As we approached the head of the line, Habiba noticed someone apparently in tears after being similarly turned away.

And then it was our turn … to be rejected. A couple of other westerners told us to come to the China Southern Airline desk nearby because they were having the same issues.

The issue was that we didn’t have a visa for China. We didn’t think that was a problem – we’d passed through on our way out with minimal difficulties, Chinese Immigration just took us to one and checked us through. The problem now, though, was that Guangzhou airport closes overnight so that anyone with a transfer spanning two calendar days needs a visa. And, China being the paranoid, oppressive dictatorship (emphasis on dic) that it is, doesn’t just let any old innocent traveller in.

We were screwed.

By the time the plane left at 6:30, there were thirty other foreigners, all on their way to Korea, camped out in front of the China Southern desk. The guy who was manning the desk was clearly uncomfortable, but tried to keep up a good-natured front. Everyone was demanding that he do something for us, that he talk to his boss, that he make his boss do something for us, that he call his boss back to reiterate our demands.

The airline first told us that they couldn’t do anything for us – we should have got visas and now we had to make our own arrangements; the Chinese embassy opened on Monday morning (when the vast majority of us had to be back at work). Then they told us they could put some of us on another flight. No one wanted to make a decision as to who should go on this other flight and, some time later, the airline decided for us: the Canadians could travel on the flight (everyone loves Canucks). The rest of us were still screwed.

Long story short, the last in a long series of grudging concessions made by China Southern was that they would put the rest of us up in a hotel on Saturday night, get the Chinese embassy to open specially for us to issue us with visas, then put us up in China for a night and ferry us back and forth in Bangkok and Guangzhou – all free of charge. By this time there were only seven of the non-Canadians left – the rest had all gone off to buy stand-by flights.


This was at about two in the morning – ten hours after we arrived at the airport. The poor guy on the desk had been there throughout and had been due to clock off at 10 pm. We foreigners had spent all that time sitting in front of the desk, arguing with the guy or wandering round. We chatted with some of our compatriots – half were Canadians, most of the rest were Americans, with two Britons (the one who was not me was married to a Canadian and had two Canadian children) and one Irishwoman.

A number of us took a fairly wait-and-see approach to the whole thing. Two or three others (Americans, as it happens) were much more proactive. A woman called Ta-Leah was an early leader, calling the US embassy and so on; another woman made repeated threats of legal action. I pitched in to the general argument with airline – some time in the early hours when they were making the final offer, I tried to point out that paying for all those free-of-charge compensations must surely add up to about the cost of a plane ticket with another airline. But apparently not.

Everyone was astonished that a) Guangzhou Airport – a large, international airport – closes overnight and that b) neither the airline nor any of the ticket agents had taken any pains to point out that the airport closes at night. Some people had, so they said, contact travel agents and even China Southern to ask about just this issue and been told there wouldn’t be a problem.

I left Habiba in the middle of the night – she had to check in first thing, so there wasn’t much point in her coming to the hotel – and was ferried along with the six Americans to a plush hotel, the Miracle Hometel, a few minutes’ drive from the airport. It was one of those places where everything comes in little, specially made packets – disposable toothbrushes, sewing kit, shower caps etc. The Americans all doubled up to share rooms; as the odd man out (isn’t it ever the way?) I got a room to myself.

We all gathered in the morning after a rather lacklustre breakfast to wait for our transportation to the Chinese embassy. Ten minute after our pick-up time of eight o’clock, we discovered a pair of taxis had been waiting outside for us.

We arrived at the embassy a little while before we were supposed to be there – nine. It all appeared to be closed. Eventually, one of the Thai staff members came out – a young woman who seemed friendly, although she didn’t have much English. She was part of the security staff. She told us to go in and make use of the facilities if we needed it. I needed it.

A while later, a Chinese woman arrived and took us up to a waiting room where we filled in visa applications. For some reason, all American visas cost the same, so they all got themselves 12 month, multiple entry visas. I supposed I could have applied for the same, but I didn’t want to push my luck – I got a three month, single entry visa. They processed the visas pretty quickly.

We had the rest of the day free – at least until three, when we were going to be taken back to the airport. I wanted to use the internet. The internet facilities at the hotel cost, I was told by a member of staff, 236 baht an hour – that’s more than £4. I decided I would venture out while the others slept or swam in the hotel’s pool and find a cheap internet place. So began an adventure within an adventure.

The hotel was in a quiet area, populated by deserted office buildings and light industrial units. I walked out to the main road and turned left. A while later I stopped for a break from the heat at a 7-Eleven. Mmm. Air-conditioning. There was a hospital next to the convenience store, and a hospital across the road … as well as another 7-Eleven. Also on the other side of the road was a temple with a market in the grounds. This looked like a busier and more promising area for my search, so I crossed over the footbridge handily built there.

A short walk down the side street next to the temple-cum-market brought me to a game café. There were about eight or so PCs inside, mostly being used by young kids to play kiddish games – Japanese-style, pop star RPGs. Or something. The woman of about fifty who was in charge didn’t speak any English, but ‘internet’ is pretty much the same in any language. At my urging, she wrote an address or directions for an internet cafe on a piece of paper.

Armed with this I figured out that I needed to cross the main road again. (Obviously, I don’t speak any Thai, much less read any, but I asked people outside for help.) The next place I asked for directions was the hotel by the 7-Eleven I dropped into – medical staff are highly trained and so would be more likely to speak some English I reasoned, not unreasonably.

The nurses at reception told me to wait once the understood what I was after. After a short wait, a man of about thirty or forty, who I took to be a porter, came out to meet me. I was to follow him. He got on a moped and I got on behind him. (This part is the adventure within the adventure within the adventure.)

The guy rode along the main road in the direction I’d walked to get there (ie, away from the hotel). Thais drive on the left, so there wasn’t any problem crossing the road. He stopped at a couple of place down a side street to ask for directions. The buildings were all three or four storey terraces, making the side street into a kind of shady gorge. The ground floors of these building were reached by a few steps going up and were occupied by modest shops of various kinds – chemist’s, covenience stores, hairdressers, at least one other game café. Some ground floor shops seemed to be open but empty, or occupied by furniture that could have been someone’s living room.

After a while, we arrived at an internet café a short further distance along the main road. But – this somehow wasn’t the place I was looking for. It said ‘Internet’ on the window, there were guys inside using the internet, but once my porter spoke to the owner or whoever it was who was on duty there (he was actually stationed in the chemist’s a couple of shops down), we got on the moped again and moped off.

We headed back the way we came, back down the canyon of a side street. After more shouted conversations between the porter and random people, we went back to the internet café and that’s where I used the internet. I thanked the guy and gave him 20 baht – not much but I felt it was the least I could do. He refused it at first, but then accepted it and seemed a little disappointed. Maybe.

I e-mailed Habiba to let her know what was going on, then I e-mailed people at work for the same purpose. Then I walked back to the hotel. It wasn’t that far – 10 minutes’ walk at most. I stopped off at yet another 7 Eleven (there were three within a few minutes walk of each other) and bought some snacks for lunch and the flights.

I ate noodles watching BBC news. Then I went out and bought some more snacks – these ones some small packs of crisps costing 5 baht each (about 10p). I later handed them out to my students back in Korea.

Back to the airport. Of the seven of us I was second last to check in. The check-in attendant told me to wait while she checked Ta-Leah in. Then she checked me in. When I asked what the problem had been she told me I hadn’t been booked on to the flight. Wonderful.

I exchanged some money for Chinese yuan and queued up to go through security. I was the first of the seven of us to arrive at the gate, and the others didn’t turn up for quite a while. I started to worry about them. However, they got there and the flight took off – late – and we got to Guangzhou at about eleven as the airport was closing down for the night.

We wandered around looking for someone who was supposed to help us. We had been given a name, but that didn’t do much for us. A guy called Gregg and I split off as the others talked to some women who wanted to take us to a hotel (not in a dodgy way … I think). We found some Air China staff and they phoned someone and we finally got some transport to our next hotel.

Somewhere on the China leg of our journey, I got talking to Rhondda (don’t know if she has Welsh ancestors). She told me Habiba and I were very much in love. I agreed, and thought back to when Habiba and I had held each other’s hands and spun around by the China Southern desk at Suvarnabhumi Airport. She told me about an audition she has for an acting course next month. She’s taking a day off work and flying to California over a weekend for a ten minute audition. I hope she does well.

This place was in what seemed an older building – or at least an old-fashioned building. It had columns and what I’m sure were supposed to be opulent furnishings. The overall effect was of somewhere cheap and tired. It was dimly lit, cold and damp.

We were taken to our rooms. A few moments later, one of the hotel guys knocked on my door – he had a bottle of water for me – and an armful of bottles for the others. He leant into the doorway and murmured, ‘You want massagey?’ I told him I didn’t.

At half past five the following morning, someone brought a ‘breakfast’ of cheap banana flavour muffins and cartons of some milky drink to our doors. Ten minutes later we got wake-up calls.

At the airport, we were told that none of us, apart from Ta-Leah, had been booked on to the flight. Which, after everything, was kind of hilarious. After some more complaining they checked us on to the flight. And – finally – we flew home. A day late.

From the sunny climes of Thailand we arrived in a Korea that was cloaked in snow. I had more fun waiting for me later that Monday, but that’s another story. (And all this has been more of a slow motion rewind than a fast forward rewind, but never mind.)

Categories: Travel

I would much rather read (or write) a story in which a small person becomes bigger, and dies as a result, than one in which a small person becomes smaller, and lives as a result.

20 January 2010 Leave a comment

Stephen R Donaldson, the Gradual Interview, Official Website.

The nearly full quote is as follows:

There are many different kinds of suspense. Is-he-going-to-live-through-it is one of the most obvious, but it isn’t necessarily one of the most useful. Especially for a writer with my intentions. Will-he-or-won’t-he-face-the-real-issues is often more interesting to me; therefore more suspenseful. And that kind of suspense isn’t weakened at all by knowing that subsequent books exist.

On an entirely different level, Lester del Rey would never have published a trilogy in which the “hero” gets killed in the end. He would have considered that a violation of the writer’s (and the publisher’s) contract with the reader. And he was really only interested in publishing books he considered ripe for sequels. So: NO KILLING THE MAIN CHARACTER. (Therefore it probably goes without saying that he was *not* my editor for “White Gold Wielder”.)

And on an entirely personal level, live-or-die doesn’t engage me anywhere near as much as grow-or-shrink. As I like to say, I’m not attracted to stories (my own or anyone else’s) in which small people become smaller. I see too much of that all around me: I don’t need more. I would much rather read (or write) a story in which a small person becomes bigger, and dies as a result, than one in which a small person becomes smaller, and lives as a result.

Fast forward rewind: Thailand, part five

14 January 2010 Leave a comment

On our last day on Ko Phi Phi, we got up early and lugged our ‘shit’ (as Habiba would say) down to the ferry port to catch the nine o’clock boat to Phuket. Once at the port in Phuket we were taken in a minibus to a shopping centre in the city of Phuket (‘Phuket’ also refers to the island and the province consisting of same, much like Jeju in South Korea). There wasn’t much for us to do there – we bought some snacks and got a taxi to the airport. The taxi driver was chatty and told us he’d been to Busan in Korea a few times.

Once we arrived back in Bangkok, we went back to the hostel and checked into a mixed dorm. Habiba had a shaky moment when her bag failed to appear once everyone else had got theirs, but it turned up soon after she asked about it.

Our last scheduled day in Thailand was a Saturday, so we headed off to Chatuchak Weekend Market. (We didn’t have our big backpacks to lug around because we’d left them at the airport when we’d flown in the previous day. Clever, eh?)

Chatuchak (or Jatujak; Thai: จตุจักร) weekend market in Bangkok is the largest market in Thailand. Frequently called J.J., it covers over 35 acres (1.13 km²) and contains upwards of 5,000 stalls. It is estimated that the market receives between 200,000 and 300,000 visitors each day. Most stalls only open on Saturdays and Sundays.

The market offers a wide variety of products including household items, clothing, Thai handicrafts, religious artifacts, collectibles, foods, and live animals.

Source: Wikipedia.
We spent a few hours there wandering round looking for souvenirs and gifts. Habiba got some key rings for her students, the fobs of which were little woollen dolls, and some clothes for herself. I got myself some little cats – ornamental ones – and a top. As the description above suggests, almost anything could be bought there; we saw artworks and animals, clothes and jewellery, and a plethora of tat.
Once we’d had our fill of that we took a taxi to the airport to catch our flight to China and from thence home – and that was where the adventure really started …
Categories: Travel

nychthemeron

14 January 2010 Leave a comment

Nychthemeron or nycthemeron or nuchthemeron (Greek νυχθήμερον from the words nykt– “night”, and (h)emera “day, daytime”) is a period of 24 consecutive hours. It is sometimes used, especially in technical literature, to avoid the ambiguity inherent in the term day.

It is the period of time that a calendar normally labels with a date.

In other languages

The word etmaal in Dutch and the word døgn in Danish and Norwegian, or dygn in Swedish, can mean 24 hours, or more loosely a day plus a night in no particular order. Unlike a calendar date, only the length is defined, with no particular start or end. These words are basic and essential in these languages, and unlike “nychthemeron”, are not associated with jargon. Esperanto can use the synonyms diurno and tagnokto (“day-night”).

Source: Wikipedia.
Categories: Lexicon

Fast forward rewind: Thailand, part four

13 January 2010 Leave a comment

After an hour or two on the boat from the town of Krabi we approached a bay on the island of Ko Phi Phi. The sky was a blazing blue, the sea was dark and rich, the land was modestly mountainous and jungle-clothed. It was the definition of paradisiacal.

When we pulled up to the pier, we grabbed our bags and prepared to disembark. A number of men from hotels were waiting along the pier with signs indicated where they were from. We didn’t see a sign for our place, Harmony House. At the land end of the pier, amongst the bustle of porters and tourists we finally located someone who was going to take us and our bags to where we were staying.

While we were waiting to leave, I asked around for a map of the island, but none of the tourist places seemed to have one. One quick-thinking lad offered to sell me a display map on a board for 200 baht. I declined.

The guy from our hotel loaded our bags on to a metal handcart and off we went. Although very touristy – there is pretty much nothing about the human activity on Ko Phi Phi that is not touristy – it seemed like an interesting place. There are no cars on the island, so the streets are all pedestrian avenues two or three metres across. In the busier places they are lined with restaurants and clothes shops, bars and convenience stores, travel agents and diving centres.

After a walk of about five or ten minutes we got to the hotel and checked in. We had been worried that it was going to be especially shitty, given what we’d read about it on-line, but it was nowhere near as bad as we’d feared. Not especially, nice, though, either. One of our first jobs before we left our room for the first time was to divide up our money – several thousand baht – and hide it in a number of locations around the room. It turned out that we had no problems regarding security.

Other posters on the review site had complained about the noise, but we found it to be pretty quiet at night. Our room was right behind reception – the place also doubled (or should that be ‘quadrupled’) as an internet cafe, convenience store and travel agent – so there was a little activity in the mornings. I would guess that that was what the complainers were complaining about. Fortunately, we weren’t so interested in the night life that we needed to lie in.

The main town of Ko Phi Phi is on an isthmus linking two small land masses. The port is on one side of this neck; our hotel was on the other side. In a straight line, you could walk between the two beaches in a couple of minutes. ‘Our’ beach – the one closest our hotel – was much quieter than the other, but still lined with a number of beach bars and populated with guys renting kayaks (we didn’t rent one, although we would have liked to).

Habiba was raring to head to the beach and go swimming as soon as we’d unpacked and cleaned up a bit. I don’t have a history of going on beach holidays – certainly not since I was a child. I’d much rather explore historic buildings and other places. But I didn’t want to refuse to go swimming.

The beach was a minute or two from the hotel and not that crowded – in fact, surprisingly uncrowded. We dumped our stuff – Habiba buried our key in the sand – and walked out into the water. Actually, the tide was low, so we had a lot of shin-deep water to wade through before we could attempt swimming. The sea bed in the bay there was also littered with rocks and broken-off bits of coral, so it was quite difficult to walk much.

But the water was warm and clear, the sun beamed down, green hills rose around us. In short, it was quite nice. We went to that beach to swim early in the morning the following two days. Habiba loves to swim, and she had a great time doing somersaults and handstands in the water. I had fun, too, although I’m not such a strong swimmer. We entertained each other by pulling each other through the water. Habiba came to the conclusion that I am strangely heavy and it’s impossible for me to float. I just know that I find swimming very tiring.

We ate at a different restaurant every meal – and every meal we had to add plenty of extra chili powder to get the food up to acceptable levels of spiciness. We bought clothes and souvenirs. We went on a snorkelling tour around the island – which I’ve already described. We had our hands and feet nibbled at by ‘Dr Fish’ (Habiba cackled maniacally – the fish tickled intensely). We walked up to the ‘viewpoint’ at dusk. I took lots of photos. We had fun. Best holiday ever?

Maybe.

Probably, in fact.

Maybe even definitely.

Categories: Travel

Fast forward rewind: Thailand, part three

11 January 2010 Leave a comment

From there we walked around the corner looking for a bathroom and a means of transport. Habiba had been approached by someone who told her about a travel agency – supposedly the official one, TAT. We asked one tuk-tuk driver to take us there, but his price seemed a little steep. Then another guy came along and told us about a government tuk-tuk service so we got into this other tuk-tuk and were taken to ‘TAT’.

Except it wasn’t, of course. From this travel agency, we got train and bus tickets down Krabi (via Surat Thani), from where we could get a ferry to Ko Phi Phi. It was probably more expensive than if we’d made plans and booked much earlier, but by western standards it wasn’t too pricy.

When we came out of the agency, the tuk-tuk driver was waiting there to take us somewhere else with the ultimate aim of further separating us from our money. We quickly made our way to a nearby restaurant for lunch.

After that we headed off to take in the sights of the nearby Golden Mount. We paused in front of another temple to get our bearings and were approached by a Thai man who claimed to be a high school teacher and who started telling us about this and that being closed or open and about government tuk-tuks. We played along for a bit, but, when he realised we weren’t going to bite, he stormed off shouting, ‘You are stupid! Fuck you!’

Charming.

We went to the Golden Mount (which was open, although that guy had told us it was closed). It was a nice walk up these spiraling staircase around a steep little hill, on top of which was the temple. In side, there was a cramped inner sanctum, open to the public, which people would walk around and stick gold leaf on the statue in the very centre. On this level there was also a gift shop and people selling refreshments.

At the very top was a gold spire, around which people would walk, praying or meditating. There was also a gong, which worshippers and tourists (and we) struck. There was a great view of the city – very flat. We had a drink and an ice lolly in the cafe just below. We rang the rows of bells along the path on the way down. Then we explored another temple and walked back to the river where we realised we’d missed the last boat from that pier (even though it was only 4 or 5 pm).

The following day, we spent a fair amount of time exploring some of the markets, including the Chinatown market and the flower market. We bought a modest pile of spices from the former. Then it was time to head to the main railway station to catch our train.

This was very similar to my experiences travelling through India – quite pleasant. Our tickets were on opposite sides of the gangway, but we sat on the same side, facing each other, and hoped we could switch. The trains are a little narrower than Indian trains, with facing pairs of individual seats that fold down to make one berth; another berth folds down from the ceiling. The lower berths have more headroom and a window, so they’re more expensive – and they were the ones we didn’t have. After some confusion, the Thai women on the other side of the aisle were happy for us to sit in the seats, but they wanted both the lower berths. This meant they couldn’t go to bed until after we’d eaten – which was comparatively late. I think they were a little annoyed about this, but it wasn’t a problem.

We arrived in Surat Thani at about 4:30 am and were ferried almost immediately to a bus station – actually more of a holding centre for foreigners waiting to travel to the various resorts in southern Thailand. Numbers of travellers were in the low hundreds, I think. About seven o’clock we got on a bus that drove over gently hilly, jungly land on a straight, modern road. Once at Krabi port, we got embarked on a ferry and were soon cruising across Thailand’s bit of the Andaman Sea towards Ko Phi Phi.

Categories: Travel

Snow-blind

11 January 2010 Leave a comment

When I arrived back in Korea on Monday last week, the country was covered in snow – it was one of the worst snowfalls for a long time. A week later, there are still piles of snow everywhere. It seems from the news that the situation in Britain is much the same, if not worse. Habiba tells me Canada (or Montreal, at any rate) hasn’t had its usual dose of icy precipitation (she didn’t say ‘icy precipitation’. She would never use such prolix nomenclature). Here’s a NASA picture of Great Britain (click on it to get a super-high resolution image).

Categories: Miscellaneous