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Bangkok to Chiang Mai and how I got ripped off nicely at the train station

I started the day by making the usual list of things to do. By now – the forth day since the journey began – it was an established fact that travelling on one’s own was mostly about writing “to do” lists and chasing them to the end. That traveller’s freedom thing was a myth. Or, rather, freedom would only manifest itself through some discipline. When you travel in a group you can share most of the chores – like hunting for information, shopping for necessities or – last, but definitely not least – having someone   watch over your luggage while you’re using the little boy’s room. But when you are on your own… well, you are on your own.
And the list of things to do was a reflection of that fact.
Largely thanks to the conversation with Brent last night, I had made up my mind where to go next – Chiang Mai, the largest and most culturally significant city in northern Thailand.” Despite being the “largest,” it actually has only around 200,000 inhabitants – and lots of offerings for tourists. Kara had suggested that instead of going there by bus, I should take the much more comfortable overnight train and sleep on a couch.
It was reasonable advice, and I agreed. I looked up the Thai train schedule online (in English) and found out that there were two trains bound for Chiang Mai in the evening. The expensive A/C couch first class was B730 ($25), and the cheaper options were under B500 ($17). I also looked up where the train station was relative to Khao San – luckily, it was not far and a taxi would be the best option to get there. Then I packed my stuff, checked out but left my bag in the hotel storage room (they offered a free one-day luggage storage service, much appreciated) and started pursuing the items from the daily “to-do list”.

Plastic(?) statue at train station main entrance

Plastic(?) statue at train station main entrance

Courtesy: author

     I could not read Thai (I leave it up for you to decipher), but I can tell you – that did not look like a statue of a policeman. The garment was army-style and this looked like a Thai soldier. Why would there be, one might wonder, a true-size friendly smiling army guy at the entrance of the trainstation in the capital of the Land of Smiles? My guess would it be that it was installed by the Thai government as part of its propaganda campaign against the so-called Red Shirts Movement.

Event staged by Red Shirt members at the landmark Democracy Monument

Event staged by Red Shirt members at the landmark Democracy Monument

 Courtesy: author (shot this through my taxi window)

    You can learn more about the protests and the disposition of forces in Thai society and politics here and here (by a person you already read about – Isaac Olson). I’ll just add that while the violence at the time of my visit was already over, the city was under curfew and some popular tourist destinations (King’s palaces) were “closed for renovation” and surrounded by fences and police. On the surface it all looked like “business as usual” – and perhaps a good deal of foreign visitors never noticed any different.

Next inside the train station entrance was the information desk, serviced by two middle-aged ladies, who spoke decent English. One asked me where I was going. “Chiang Mai”. This made her very happy, because – she told me – she was from Chiang Mai herself. I immediately became a person to be helped more than the usual and she decided to personally accompany me to the ticket counters to help me out. We went to a counter, she told the guy something in Thai, he told her something back… and she told me that there were no train tickets to Chiang Mai left. Nada. Zero. Zip. All taken.
The friendly lady was quick to provide an explanation – the Queen’s birthday was just a couple of days from now, and it was to be a public holiday with people going back home.

But when there is a problem, there is a solution (Thailand is no different than most places on Earth – many problems are invented so that you pay for the solution). And who knew it better than that lady! She quickly took me upstairs to the tourist bureau to get “help,” where a very beautiful and sincere Thai girl with perfect English offered me a bus ticket for only B 950.
Let’s summarize the situation. What were my options? I had already checked out of the hotel, and I had booked the hostel at Chiang Mai for the next day. Whatever I chose to do, staying another day at Bangkok would cost money. I was also looking forward to moving on – four days at Khao San is perhaps close to the all-time world record. In addition, I was assured that the bus was very comfortable and I would be able to sleep fine. So I gave in – B950 be it. Now, this story has more to it, but for the time being (and for some extra suspense in this suspense-less post), let’s get back to what the train station looked like.

First of all, inside was really clean. In the big central area, people were sitting or lying around with their shoes off. Kids were playing around. There was a statue of Buddha near one of the walls and people were able to offer their gratitude. It had a very relaxed atmosphere, and I think it is the best train station I have seen. Train stations are usually all but relaxed.

Bangkok trainstation

Bangkok trainstation

Courtesy: author

            At last the four of us – all foreigners traveling to Chiang Mai, were told to follow some Thai guy who appeared out of nowhere. He took us out on the street – where there was no bus in sight – and we were told to get on two tuk-tuks (two passengers each). Together with our luggage, we were transported to another area of Bangkok and delivered to what looked like a ticket booth on the street, and not a bus station. At least there was our bus there – a double-decker with about 70 people (all of them foreigners). The leg space between the seats was very little, and there was no chance in hell to assume a sleep-friendly position. Hence, I got no sleep (yet again). The bus stopped at some place at about 1 am for a “snack”, but the food was really not good.
Since I did not know what to expect, it all seemed fine to me at that time (any inconsitencies could easily be attributed to misinterpreting and cultural differences – regarding, for example, leg space).
But fact is, I – and I guess everyone else on the bus – was being ripped off nicely.
I will fast forward a bit and tell you how I found this out. Some days later I took another bus on the same route – from Chiang Mai back to Bangkok – and this time my ticket was arranged in advance (by the hostel manager). It was the so-called super-VIP bus, and it cost B550. Let’s do a quick comparison to the B950 bus that I was currently in.

 Offering  B 950 bus  B 550 Super VIP bus
 Passenger seats  80  20
 Food  Once at a rest stop, bad  Several times in bus, OK
 Leg space  Totally insufficient  Plenty – almost like a bed
 Extra  A/C, blanket, pillow  A/C, blanket, pillow

The back trip felt much like airplane business class and nothing like the crowded double-decker bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Then I also checked about the Queen’s birthday – and it was August 12, not August 1st.

Since I do not speak Thai, I still wonder whether I could have avoided this particular rip-off given the circumstances. But the good thing was that – once bitten twice shy – this was the biggest rip off I let myself get involved in for the whole journey. It was also a lesson to not rely on getting the tickets in the last possible moment, but rather do my best to get them in advance. It also made me re-consider the more expensive, but more predictable (not to mention faster) flying option. I say “re-consider”, because my original intention to use exclusively land transport once in Asia – no planes! Yet after a couple of such encounters with Thai and later Cambodian ingenuity, I changed my mind. On a side note, there exists another solution: on my next journey (whenever that is) I am looking forward to travelling around Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam on a scooter.  While it is not an option for everyone, a lot of people do it and it is a very viable alternative.

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