Between despair and ecstasy in Bangkok

Wat Arun from a commuter boat - Bangkok, Thailand
Wat Arun from a commuter boat | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Though Todd and I actually had two nights in Bangkok before we were kicked out of Thailand, I still felt justified in singing Murray Heads’ song, One Night In Bangkok to comfort myself. When you’re booted from a country, sometimes a sing-along is all you have.

Too lazy and tired from the bus ride from Ayutthaya, we spend our first night in Bangkok not looking at the city, but in backpacker bliss. No ordinary venue, Bangkok’s famous tourist ghetto, Khao San Road, has the most sublime people watching this side of the International Date Line. Before coming to Thailand we’d barely seen any other Americans during our trip, but in Bangkok they’re everywhere, drunkenly getting kicks above the waistline and below.

It’s hedonistic scenes like this that inspires such insightful personal epiphanies as this one, overheard at a bar: “I know my limit. It’s two buckets. No more.” With remarks this vapid, forgive us if we don’t strike up more conversations in Bangkok. You can’t be too careful with your company.

Drinking by the bucket - Bangkok, Thailand
Sipping drinks by the bucket | Photo by Lauren Girardin

It’s a bore, but we’ll be up early tomorrow morning to deal with exhausting bureaucracy to renew our visa. A little history: when we crossed the border into Thailand from Cambodia, we entered overland, having heard no downside to this approach. However, just two days before we crossed, the Thai government changed their visa rules, issuing only a measly two-week visa at land crossings.

Other tourists assured us they’d had no problem renewing their visa for another two weeks at Bangkok’s immigration office, which would give us plenty of time to see some of Southern Thailand’s much-hyped beaches. Yet somehow, in a town where the tourist dollar rules, we couldn’t find a single tour agent with anything to offer besides a “Visa Run” package, in which a costly day-long bus ride would take us to the Cambodian border and back. At this point, we’d rather eat our own hair than eat up a day on a twelve-hour-plus round-trip bus ride.

Time flies our first night as we engage in the shallow-yet-fun kind of touristy activities – buying non-export quality clothing, gulping heavily iced booze in quantities measured by the bucket (our limit is much more than two, thank you very much), and stuffing ourselves silly on street food. Finally, we escape from Bangkok’s oppressive heat to our air-con hostel for a solid night’s sleep.

You're in trouble when you measure your drinks by the bucket - Bangkok, Thailand
Sipping drinks by the bucket | Photo by Todd Berman

Thailand’s visa renewal is an easy enough process in concept: wait patiently in a long line, fill out a form, fidget in another long line, give an official our 1,900 baht each (about $60 US), wait impatiently in another long line, and if you’re lucky, get a stamp for a two week visa extension. By this afternoon we should be on our way south, and by tonight we’ll be drinking cocktails toes buried in the sand, living large like Yul Brenner.

In reality, we meet the impossible – or at least the inconceivable – at step two. When I’m handed forms for a seven day extension, I hand them back to the official and say, “I’m sorry, can I have the two week extension form?” The official frowns, shakes her head, and says “No more two weeks. Only one week. 1,900 baht.”

Not only is the fee insane – applied across the week the fee would be a fourth of our daily budget – one week is not the beach retreat we had in mind. We didn’t expect this. Todd and I loiter outside the immigration office, rendered inert by confusion over our next move. We haven’t just run out of options, we’ve run out of time – our Thai visas expire today.

I start out saying, “I guess we could . . . um . . .well . . .”

Todd continues, “. . . well, we’ll just go . . . somewhere like . . . like somewhere else. Definitely not the border run. That sounds awful.”

“This is crazy! Thailand pretty much just said to us, ‘You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here!’”

“So, where do we go?”

“I don’t know.”

“I don’t know either. Let’s find an internet cafe. We’ll look for some flights.”

Unique way of displaying dresses - Bangkok, Thailand
A unique way of displaying dresses | Photo by Lauren Girardin

We hunch in front of a terminal at an internet shop that’s a lot different than the ones in the tourist areas. The keyboard is grimy and sticky. The monitor is ancient, the colors tinted green. But the connection is fast and it costs a tenth of what the tourist internet cafes charge.

Several dozen searches later, after cross referencing weather and flights, we’ve eliminated a lot and found little. Most of flights later today are not available online and we wimp out at the idea of heading blind to the airport. Flights tomorrow to The Philippines and Malaysia are too expensive. It’s still too cold in Mongolia and South Korea – but wait! Southern China is warming up, the snow’s melted in the Yunnan province, and tomorrow’s afternoon flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong, where we’d need to apply for our China visa, is cheaper than the cost of a run to the border to extend our stay in Thailand.

Before I click the “Purchase” button, I slide my hand off the mouse, gripped by the kind of spastic panic common for someone who prefers to plan ahead. “Wait, this is weird. Are we really going to buy a ticket for a flight that will take us to an entirely different country less than 24 hours from now? Our Thai visa expires today, will they fine us when we leave tomorrow? We don’t even have a guidebook for China yet. We don’t have a hostel reserved, and I’ve heard how expensive it is in Hong Kong. What if China won’t even give us a visa? Remember Edward Hasbrouck? China wouldn’t let him in! What will we do if that happens to us?”

Todd says, “Babe, there’s no controlling it. We won’t know until we go. So, let’s go.” He grabs the mouse and clicks.

Photos from Bangkok, Thailand


If you can’t see the photo slide show above, view the photo set on Flickr.