The stupidest thing about living in Vietnam is the visa. Good for only three months, Vietnamese immigration law dictates that I must leave the country, order a new visa, and return. This cumbersome, expensive exercise must be undertaken approximately every 12 weeks. The upside: I spent the weekend in Thailand.
The cheapest flight internationally out of Hanoi is to Bangkok. Additionally, US residents visiting Thailand don’t require a visa so long as they stay for less than 30 days. Thus, Bangkok is the most efficient and convenient destination for a visa run.
I landed at Don Meung International Airport at 10:45 Thursday morning. By the time I had gotten through the immigration checkpoint, noon had passed. By the time I got hostel, lunch was long overdue. I mistakenly believed that, due to the lack of a “spicy” warning, some street chicken curry would be a good first meal in Thailand. Though my palette has expanded considerably over my first 3 months abroad, spicy foods remain a realm I cannot go. Upon the first bite, my mouth hissed, my neck snapped and my pores began pouring sweat (more than they already were in the 86 degree heat). A life lesson: as a westerner, be ever weary of Thai Vendors and Thai food.
The Coolest thing at the Thai National Museum was the dioramas of War formations
After recovering from the onslaught against my tastebuds which affected not just my sense of taste, but attacked my smell and even vision, I began wandering the streets of Bangkok. It is a massive metropolis, annually the most visited city in the world, and I got to see but a bit of a sliver of it, and was overwhelmed. The chaos of Hanoi seems almost casual to me now, but the chaos of Bangkok was something else entirely. The largest intersections in the main part of the city, as far as I could find, did not have crosswalks, so I darted in and out of traffic, a real life game of Frogger with much higher stakes.
Bangkok is famed for its nightlife, and I was fortunate enough to indulge in the clash of cultures that is “Backpacker Heaven”, Khoasan Road. Though drinks are cheap compared to the West, they cost an arm and a leg compared to Hanoi. A skill I am working hard to develop is developing a budget and sticking to it. I did the best I could. I failed this time.
Khaosan Road around 8:30pm. By 11, the whole street was as packed as the inside of a New York pub.
Friday morning I awoke with the birds, having signed up for a tour which was departing at 7am. I stumbled onto the street which mere hours before had been a mass of drunks to find it completely deserted. A tumbleweed bouncing down the street would’ve been both appropriate and cliche. I thought I had signed up for a tour that would generally stay around Bangkok, but it dawned on me that I was mistaken as the bus whisked us away, hurtling along the highway towards the Burmese border for two hours before coming to a stop.
Not in Bangkok
Quick side-note: In the USA on long drives, I like to preoccupy my mind by looking at trucks and thinking whether or not they’d be cool Transformers. Almost no truck I’ve seen in Southeast Asia would make a cool Transformer. Only the double decker tourist busses would make worthy Autobots.
We arrived at a floating market in Damnern Saduak. Though I’d heard great things about the ones in Bangkok, I was disappointed to find this one to be nothing but a tourist attraction. Thai vendors all sold the exact same souvenirs, offering to lower their price whether you showed interest in the product or not. Next visa run, I hope to make it to an authentic floating market.
Next, we visited the Bridge on the River Kwai, a railway bridge which had been constructed by the Japanese (or more accurately, by their prisoners of war) during World War II as part of the Thai-Burmese railroad system. About half of the 200,000 prisoners put to work constructing the railway perished due to exhaustion, hunger, thirst, or malaria. It was a humanitarian catastrophe, even in wartime. The nearby museum was extremely interesting, albeit disorganized, as I learned bits and pieces of history about the Kanchanaburi region of Thailand. The bridge itself was very cool too, despite being overrun with tourists. When I visited the Killing Fields in Phnom Phen about 2 months ago, I was struck by how well the memorial was done. The Bridge on the River Kwai was not a memorial, it was a tourist destination. Still, it was extremely interesting to learn the history of this famous bridge and have the occasion to traverse it twice. I look forward to rewatching the movie set at the bridge which I have not seen in quite a few years, no doubt my enjoyment of the film will be deepened by my time spent at the namesake.
Little Rock, Pasternak, Mickey Mantle, Kerouac
Sputnik, Chou En-Lai, “Bridge on the River Kwai” – Billy Joel
Finally I boarded the bus and it whisked me to the destination which had been my primary concern when choosing this trip: the Safari Park in Kanchanaburi. Upon arrival, I had to patiently wait my turn. Finally, after about 40 minutes I entered the Tigers den. There, I met Emma and Emmy, two 11 month old Bengal cubs who eagerly greeted me, or more accurately eagerly greeted the bottles of milk I was holding. After they had scarfed down the milk at an awe inspiring rate, I was handed two bones which had on one side been covered with chicken scraps. The tigers used me as a jungle gym to get to the meat as I moved it around. They were HEAVY, probably weighing upwards of 50 pounds each. But they were adorable and regal and enchanting. For a moment, I forgot how much I miss my dogs.
Peaking. Note: I took extra precaution to make sure this was a humane Animal Sanctuary and that the tigers were not on Tiger xanax. They were feisty, but well fed, well taken care of, and happy with their living situation.
At one point, a piece of chicken fell off a bone and plopped onto my knee. I quickly scooped it up and held it in an open palm. I was terrified that one of the tigers was going to bite my hand off, but at the same time kinda willing to exchange maybe a pinky for a story of being bit by a Bengal Tiger in Thailand. Fortunately for the less masochistic (in the platonic sense of the word) side of me, he simply licked it off my palm.
I was in the tiger den for about 10 minutes, though it felt like the blink of an eye. The insuing two and a half hour drive back to Bangkok, however, dragged on for what felt like an eternity.
Upon returning to my hotel I took stock of my pockets. I had just about enough money for dinner, a new t-shirt (I had sweated through every one I bought and took pity on the poor soul who would have to sit next to me on the plane the following day), breakfast and a museum the following day, and a bus to the airport. I would not be able to participate in the debauchery of Bangkok for a second night. Just as well, after eating some delicious street Pad Thai for dinner, I fell into a deep restful sleep.
Saturday morning passed without much of note. I slept in until I was forced out of bed by a looming late checkout fee which would throw off my razor thin margin of a budget. The Thai coin museum was cool but far less exciting than what I had experienced the day before. I had to barter at several shops before finding a shirt which could be purchased with my remaining baht while leaving enough to get to the airport. Traffic in Bangkok is crazy and the bus to the airport took forever. But I made it, got on my flight, and returned to Hanoi.
As I begin my second three month stint in Hanoi, I reflected on the first three months. They were extremely challenging, as I have noted in many a blog, but extremely enlightening and rewarding. My time in Bangkok was fun, but I must admit my excitement to be there was dampened considerably by my considerable excitement to get back to Hanoi. For tomorrow morning, my parents arrive for a week. Two loving familiar familial faces could not be more what the doctor ordered if I had a prescription. Even now, I find myself hurrying to finish this post so I can drift off to sleep and awake and go meet them at their hotel. We are going to spend a day in Hanoi, and then venture out to the northernmost province of Vietnam, Ha Giang which lies right on the Chinese border and is supposed to offer beautiful views and beautiful culture unmatched anywhere else in the world. After, we are going to Halong Bay for a two day one night cruise, and the weather, at least at the time of this post, calls for clearer skies than during my first visit to the sublime place. I am excited to travel the country, but for all I care my parents and I could just sit in a room and be together and it would still be a fantastic week, albeit a little droll. I am far more excited about who is joining me for the week than the weeks journey itself. And thus I drift off to sleep, still exhausted from Bangkok but ecstatic beyond words for the week ahead.