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Entering Southeast Asia

**Arrived in Bangkok on 10/29 and took overnight train to Laos, arriving on 10/30

**Unfortunately, we have no photos to share because our little camera with photos of Bangkok and Laos was lost/stolen 😦

Sneaking in a visit to London was just the right medicine to cure our Big Apple withdrawals and charge up our batteries for our foray into Southeast Asia. Sans flights, our average daily spend was targeted to plummet from roughly $225 a day to a mere $50 a day. Needless to say, we were a little worried about what comforts we were giving up to afford such a low sticker price.

The plan called for us to land in Bangkok early in the morning and then be on an overnight train to Laos in the evening. Bangkok served as the cheapest entry point into SEA from London and is also known for being a cheap and efficient place to pick up vaccinations in the region. Accordingly, the primary item on the agenda was to get to a Red Cross center to get vaccinated. So after a not so quick transfer from the airport to the train station, we checked our bags into left luggage and hit the streets to find the closest Red Cross station.

Remember back to our posts on Italy – we described stepping out of the train station in Venice as an overwhelming experience. Our breath was taken away by the vibrant blue/green of the canal waters, the classic gondola boats, the picturesque landscape of a hundred year old bridge covered with tourists and a horizon of centuries old Italian architecture. Well we had a similar yet different reaction for our first few steps outside of the train station in Bangkok.

Our breath was taken away, but this time it was because the diesel-fume saturated air was making our lungs aspirate well below accustomed levels. Snap shot of what we saw:

To your left there is a line of shops providing your typical tourist products; Internet cafe, news stand, periodicals, sunglasses, etc. The twist being that all the shops are in varied states of disrepair. If the structures that house them were built 30 years ago, that was the last time anything more than a bubblegum solution was used to maintain them. Clean them? Nope, not part of the culture.

Straight ahead and to the right, was a busy intersection with a plethora of mopeds,tuk-tuks, taxis, trucks and cars all puffing out little clouds of death with each turn of the light.

Occupying the sidewalk, a series of street carts vending local foods cooked in a wok or heated over a domed plate of metal. The products (produce and meats/seafood) they cook sitting out on tables – note I did not say housed in refrigerators next to them. If you are thinking of the nouveau coffee or cupcake truck that just popped up in your hood – think again. If you were more realistic and pictured a grimy Halal cart off the streets of New York – think again. Clear your mind – think table, produce & meats, wok, source of flame and short little vendor – done. In retrospect, the “cart” part is overstepping, but I can think of no other word to better capture it.

After consulting a map it appeared that there was a Red Cross about ten blocks away. Seeking to be adventurous, we ignored all the offers for a tuk-tuk and set out to wander the streets. Step one is to cross the aforementioned major intersection. We hit the button and waited for the little red man to turn to a little green man. NOT, there is no little man to guide you through this rite of passage. So we first watched a couple of the locals make the journey across to figure it out. It is a two step process, since you have so many lanes coming and going in both directions. Long story short, our first attempt was a success in that we made it across alive, but a failure in that we were honked at multiple times and were left stranded standing in the middle of the road between the oncoming traffic, praying we didn’t get pinched between them.

The streets of Bangkok can best be described as grimy. Similar to say Naples or Athens, it’s as if all the land and building owners made a pact to ignore maintenance to jointly save costs. The traffic was more heavily weighted towards taxis, cars, trucks andtuk-tuk’s vs being dominated by mopeds as in other parts of the region. The streets were wide and lined with storefronts. Street vendors or carts are a big part of the food scene. When we return later in the year, we vow to dive in and sample some of the food in spite of the cleanliness, refrigeration and identification issues. It was not the time to experiment when we were slated to be on an overnight train a few hours later.

After about 20 blocks of wandering, we gave up trying to find the Red Cross on our own and hopped a tuk-tuk to the location. We highly recommend getting your vaccines in Bangkok as it cost roughly $30 bucks per person vs. over $500 bucks back home and it only took an hour or so from start to finish. It was 100% safe, all of the needles and medications were individually sealed, we had a consult with a doctor, and everything was very professionally done.

After some lunch at the most Western-friendly spot we could find, we found an Internetconnection and killed the rest of the afternoon surfing the web.

Now it came time to board our overnight train. It goes without saying we were a bit nervous about this experience. To make the mood even more ominous, it started to pour buckets of rain about a half hour before we are to board. Finally our track is posted and we wander down to our car. The train itself is old, but its minimalist interior is reasonably maintained. The car that we have on our tickets though is not a private car as we wished. Instead, our two sleepers were in the midst of a long car with nine or so other berths and to be truly honest we had no clue how the bench in front of us converted into two beds. One thing we did know was the bench was not Chris-sized and we wanted to at least be in a private car. So, Chris ran back to the ticket window and explained to the ticket agent that we wanted to upgrade to the best cabin on the train. Twenty bucks later, we moved into a tiny little private cabin. All-in, not a bad way to travel. Two recommendations if you plan to follow in our footsteps: (1) bring a sleep sack as the sheets are clean, but questionable and (2) clear your bowels in the station where you have a “western” style crapper – on the train they only have the “squat” style (hole in the ground) and that ain’t easy when you attempt it on solid ground, let alone while the train is barrelling down the tracks.

Waking up nice and early the next morning, it was an experience to witness the lush green lands of northern Thailand and southern Laos. There is a much greater dichotomy between city life and rural life in this part of the world, but we’ll get into that more in our next post.

At the tail end of our overnight journey, we had to transfer trains to cross the Friendship Bridge into Laos and then you get a visa on arrival. Something we learned after the fact, is that the visa price varies based on your country of residence and the price differs depending if you pay in USD or Thai Baht – it’s much more advantageous to pay in USD because of the currency exchange.

Next post – our impressions of Laos as we travel from Vientiane to Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang!

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