Tuesday, May 14, 2013

New Zealand: Getting home

Getting home from NZ was made infinitely easier when Nick asked if we could just pack my wedding dress instead of hauling it all over. I said yes, he fit it in his suitcase, and we were on our merry way on Saturday afternoon (after going to the Antarctic Center- very cool! Little blue penguins! aww!)
(source) - PS I 

The first surprise was that we had a mini-layover in Sydney, when we thought we flew straight to Bangkok. Luckily, the agent at the ticket counter mentioned that. Otherwise, I think I would have been very alarmed to land in Australia and think we had gotten on the wrong flight. We continued on to Bangkok, arriving in the wee hours of the morning. We had a 20 hour layover there and figured we'd check into a hotel, sleep for a while, and then sightsee until we had to be back on the plane at 9pm.

From the very beginning, it was an adventure. We waited in line at the currency exchange booth for a long while before being told we weren't trying to exchange enough money (50,000 baht minimum. We'd have been hard pressed to spend ~$160 in 20 hours..although we probably did end up spending about that much) and needed to try the places past Immigration. We waited in line for Immigration for another long while and worried when we saw another European-descent looking person (we may have stereotyped way too much, but we had to make some assumptions to determine whether someone might speak English when we were there) get turned away for not having a visa. I had checked online and thought I remembered Americans not needing a visa for short stays in Thailand, but as we neared the Immigration desk I was not so sure. Turns out, we were ok, but the guy checking our immigration cards was not pleased when we put "N/A" as our address in Thailand. Not only are "N" and "A" not letters in the Thai language, they mean even less when put together. After a bit of explaining about not having hotel reservations, we figured out that he wanted us to put "Bangkok" because that was where we were going to be. Simple.

Next, the the currency exchange folks didn't take credit/debit cards.My frustration and sleepiness were building up rapidly and I was also getting concerned by the lack of English speakers. I'd been really spoiled by Brussels, where nearly everyone knew English or we could at least work our way through a conversation. This was my first time in a country where that was not the case and I was having a little bit of culture shock (fact: I am sheltered and sometimes kind of ignorant.) We walked out to the taxi area and were immediately approached by someone (you know how your mom told you never to get in a stranger's car? Yeah, this would have been a time to remember that advice). He told us he could take us to a hotel near the airport, and started leading us away from the taxis that were all parked right there and past some tour buses. It was as shady as it sounds. Especially shady since he didn't actually have a taxi- he was a taxi procurer, that's it. He summoned a taxi from who knows where and as it arrived, so did a transit police officer. Our taxi hookup (taxi pimp?) did not have the proper ID/license to be doing what he was doing, and neither did the taxi driver. At this point, I was on the edge of tears and wanted to smack this guy for being so underhanded. We asked the police officer if we could go and he said yes, so I did my best impression of storming away as possible amongst tour buses. The guy followed behind us but I told him repeatedly I didn't need the police in my life. We found ourselves a legitimate taxi (after another struggle to explain we didn't know which hotel we wanted to go to, just one near the airport... just a hotel.. with beds... sleep...) and he took us to a place called the Valentyn Hotel. As we were driving to this creepy place, I saw a shuttle for the Best Western. Western... I wanted something Western... and it was the Best too. Why weren't we going there instead of the Valentyn? I bet they had breakfast and real air conditioning and toilet paper in the bathroom. The Valentyn Hotel did not have those things. It was a steal, but it was also shady (notice a theme?), noisy, and the bathroom was the same temperature as the outdoors (I am super aware these are the exact definition of First World Problems. It's my blog, I'll sound like a privileged brat if I want to). Regardless, we watched some highly entertaining TV (why was the only American channel Fox News? I swear we're not all like that, Bangkok) and got a few hours of sleep.

After the sweatiest shower of my life, we set out to get to the city. Once again, slightly shady taxi driver. At the airport, the drivers made a big stink about their taxis being metered. This guy had a meter, but didn't use it. We were also having trouble explaining we wanted to go to see monuments, which is a word that does not translate easily. We settled for "downtown." He dropped us off at the Chatuchak Market which was immediately overwhelming. Even at 9am, there were tons of vendors with food and clothing. We walked around for a while, hungry for breakfast. Eventually, we found a spot that had a vegetarian option (the vendor even understood the word "vegetarian"!) and had some food. It was alright. I think this is what I had. Nick had some chicken curry that he said was good. We wandered more and tried to get our bearings. It was still morning, but it was hot, and even though 20 oz. sodas or waters were only about $1.50 each, I couldn't see myself walking around, getting sunburnt and chugging soda for 11 more hours. I had major jet lag and wanted to be wearing pajamas and reclining somewhere while eating something from a package (I am spoiled). It was just a more difficult experience than I had anticipated, between the language barriers, not really knowing where we were, the heat, and how difficult it was for me to find something to eat. We also walked by the feeder animal street, which consisted of all the small animals you'd feed to other animals. Baby turtle and bigger turtles, tons of fish, mealworms, crickets. Petco is basically feeder fish nirvana compared to this place. Seeing the little animals in those really crappy conditions was upsetting.

After getting our fill of the Market, we rode air conditioned public transportation and then hoofed it around the city. We were headed the right direction for the temples and tourist attractions, but things were farther apart than they looked on a map.  We ended up getting a little open air cab (Nick took a video of  what that was like... it was interesting). The guy drove us around for a while (air flow... lovely) after Nick explained to him where we'd like to go, and eventually he had to stop for directions. Sigh. He found another cab driver who explained that we couldn't go in the main temple we'd wanted to see since I didn't have long pants on (it was 100 degrees out!), but he suggested some other attractions. Our driver took us to one of those attractions (the temples are ridiculously ornate... beautiful), then seemed at a loss for where else to go. After more explaining by Nick, we went to another temple. Then he took us to his tailor, who tried to sell us custom made shirts. Really. It was around noon by now, hot as can be, and I was so done with the whole adventure. More explaining. Now we get taken to a boat ramp. The boat operator told us how much it was (1600 baht, which is only about $20/person for a couple hour tour), but we didn't have that much left. When we told them we'd need to get more money, they gave up on us, and we decided it was high time to get some food and maybe rethink our strategy. So we asked to go to a food place.... the driver said "seafood?" and although neither of us eat seafood, we said figured seafood would be served alongside non-seafood and said ok. But no. This was truly a seafood market. We were done. When we told our driver, he asked for far more money than we had originally agreed upon, money we didn't have, but accepted what we did have. Then Nick and I set off to find not-seafood. More walking. So much more. Our food salvation was a restaurant clearly geared towards Westerners. It had American and Australian license plates and some sports paraphernalia and lots of flags. It also had french fries, cold water, and some food options that I could request be made without meat (it still was not air conditioned. Will I never be pleased? no.). We hung out for a while, then got some sweets (Mr. BUN! fluffy balls of gluten and joy). We had a "butter bun" which is 100 times more amazing than it sounds. It was like cinnamon toast without the cinnamon. It was sugar, dough, and butter. I'm still thinking about it... Finally, we headed toward the airport.

It was only once we were back at the airport that we realized there is a hotel ATTACHED TO THE AIRPORT. It's magical. If we had known that, it might have seriously changed our experience, at least the shady cabby transaction part of it. But who has a hotel attached to the airport? I never would have thought of it until we started seeing signs.

Bangkok was a huge adventure and although the heat/confusion/lack of vegetarian options was frustrating, it was a really eye-opening experience. It was really neat to see another culture, especially at the market (although I could have done without seeing all the baby turtles packed into bins) and the temples we saw were truly beautiful.

After a lot of quality time at the Bangkok airport, we had 2 more long flights- to Dubai and then Dubai to Dulles. Those were uneventful (aside from 2 crazy cute babies sitting near us on our last flight), and finally, early on Monday morning, we were home sweet home. We were married, and had had the trip of a lifetime. Mission accomplished. 

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