Bangkok? Smiles and laughter now, but how did we survive? Illegal immigrants with no money. Worse than that, we had no means of getting money for four whole days.
Worse still, handing ourselves over to the infamous Bangkok police force became our only option. The even more infamous Bangkok Hilton jail was suddenly a real possibility in our paranoid, unsure minds.
Three beautiful islands, a mountainside- and plenty of far more pleasant experiences- after jet-lagged Kuala Lumpur, we had arrived to the city of strong smells and daily down-pours. It started off badly and got worse. Far worse.
Two hours outside Bangkok we had stopped at a crowded night market. The kind intended for just such an occasion: sleepy, hungry, cramped tourists would wander around a minefield after 14 hours on one of those buses!
I left with some water and a packet of crisps. Strangely, I left with no change from 1,000 baht (my daily budget of 20 quid) and no debit card. Pick-pocketed. Half-asleep I didn’t realise until we arrived in our hostel on Khao San Road a few hours later. Bastards.
Reassured by Dan (my travelling buddy) that he’d spot me while I got my finances sorted out, we proceeded to check out the city. Tomorrow would be the beginning of Thai new year. A four day water and clay celebration festival. Think Paddy’s Day, but add in massive water guns and bowls of clay; the contents of which everyone hurls at one another.
That is, until Dan, in the heat of (water) battle left his own debit card in an ATM. It was gone by the time he went back to retrieve it. Uh-oh.
All our cash laid out on my bed, we had 23 quid between us. 23 quid, that was enough to get us both through to tomorrow!
Western Union? Closed for the next few days due to the celebrations. Banks? Same. Post? Same. So we had to wait until our parents could send us new cards before we could leave this (fun) shit-hole of a city? Yep!
Four days of scraping by on a (highly recommended) diet of bread and noodles, our Western Union lifeline came through. Hallelujah for Mammy and Daddy!
We retrieved our passports off our hostel, part of the agreed deal for delayed payment. Killing time by checking out the sights and night-life as we waited for our cards to arrive by courier.
Six days later Dan’s card arrived. Mine was still ‘in transit’. Three days, and an angry phone call to DHL, later we gave up waiting.
It was time to leave… Or so we thought!
To tell the next part of the story I should rewind a little bit. Dan and I crossed our first ever border by foot in north-western Malaysia- after leaving the idyllic Perhentian Islands- to enter Thailand.
Our attempts to keep off the beaten track bit us even more harshly than the 63 mosquito bites I had acquired on my sunburned shins the week before.
Carrying a 25kg backpack on sunburned shoulders- that had kept me laid up in bed for three days previous- meant my mind was not completely on the job at hand. No signs in English..? Grand, sure all we have to do is get our stamp and get to Phuket… No worries.
So yes, sunburn, the 16 hour journey ahead and the apparent violence in the area we were entering were.. Well, all excuses for the reason we just got on taxi-scooters and drove to the nearest bus-stop as soon as possible.
We arrived in Phuket the next day and stayed in the hostel ‘The Beach’ was filmed in; an original idea I’d imagine. A warning shot went off. “Where is your stamp?” Little lights popped in front of my eyes, as they so often do, when braincells are dying from brief moments of extreme stress.
“Em… There…” pointing at the circular blue stamp on my tattered passport. “Yes, sir, that is your stamp for leaving Malaysia…” Concerned pause, confused looks exchanged… “Okay, okay… Sign here…”.
Showed to our room; a firm mattress, a fan AND air-con for five quid a night, we quickly put the awkwardness to the back of our minds. That, and the discovery of the deliciously potent Chang beer. “Ah jesus, these lads sponsor Everton… Can I get two please?”
750ml of 8% percent beer (legend has it that it can be up to 12%) meant two bottles were more than enough for my first encounter with the stuff.
Problem was, we had the exact same awkward moment in both Ko Phi Phi and Ko Phag Nan. Paradise islands with few rules and fewer questions asked.
Soon no amount of toxins and good times helped us forget.. “What is going on, Dan?” afraid to ask anybody but ourselves. “We’ll just ask somebody in Bangkok.”
We did, it did not go well.
“This is very, very serious young sirs.. If you try cross the border to Laos you will be arrested and put in jail…” came the answer from the middle-aged, smiley man in the tourist office. “What…?”
“You have stamp for leaving Malaysia, no stamp for entering Thailand… You crossed in to Muslim area… Looks strange… You are illegal here”, frantic phone calls made in our name, while Dan and myself exchange terrified stares. “Holy shit, holy fucking shit James…”
“Yes, yes sirs, you must hand yourselves in to the immigration police…” calmly patting sweat off his forehead with a white handkerchief “If your passports are checked before you do it will look worse…”. Speechless, “Will they punish us?” eventually came from my quicksand mouth.. “Not sure, they could make you leave the country.. or.. jail.. I don’t know..”.
My usual ‘it’ll be alright’ refrain evaporated for the next 48 nerve-jangling hours. Every cop we saw made us hold our breath. Every conversation ended with us discussing the pros and cons of our next step.
The morning had arrived. Would this be my last morning in Thailand? There’s no way they can put us in jail for a silly mistake, is there??
Dan and myself exchanged few words for the two hours while we waited to be seen. The stone halls echoing each one we did; some worried and frantic, very few assuring.
Finally, we were beckoned in to an office. A small, round lady with a holstered gun told us to sit down.
We did as were told. I sweated profusely while I stated our case. The office would not have looked out of place in Ireland, little worker bees buzzing around modern computers and chatting; that is except for the guns.
The little, grumpy pig-woman took notes and filled in a sheet in Thai. Asking us questions now and again, giving no indication of what she thought other than the fact that she thought we were idiots.
“Why were you in India?” inspecting my passport with contempt. “Why have you been to Abu Dhabi?” to Dan. I tried to tell her we were not terrorists. Everyone in the office looked around at that word. I sank back in my chair.
We were probably only in there for an hour but it felt way longer. A life time plus VAT. I imagined what jail would feel like for most of it.
Sporadically, grumpier looking men with bigger guns would come in and sit beside her. Staring at us. Grumpy, but with a look of sadistic glee in their eye. Bastards.
Still with no indication of how it was going, she handed us a form to sign. “This is in Thai, what does it mean” I gulped. “Just sign” the abrupt reply. Reluctantly, we signed.
She motioned towards the door, like a t.v. show host would towards the night’s main prize. Except with far less aplomb. “Where? Can we leave?” Pig-woman simply repeated the motion. We scampered back to our hostel, pig-woman scuttled back to her paperwork.
A firm believer in learning from your mistakes, I still gladly would have chosen to avoid the ones I made in this Asian city of sin.
New years celebrations, and meeting friends from earlier in the trip aside, Bangkok holds memories of anxiety, frustration and some hunger for me. If I ever go back it will only be to see that awesome ping-pong show again… 😉
To make up for the city of sin we headed to Chang Mai in northern Thailand, to live in the mountains with Buddhist monks for three days. Inner turmoil to inner peace in a few days, that pretty much sums up Thailand for me. Thankfully, it was mostly inner peace.