Monday, May 10, 2010

Thai Transportation Diary: Way Out East In Isan

Last week I taught a class in Chiang Rai, the northernmost province in Thailand, which was no challenge at all. So many foreigners go there that the Air Asia tickets cost me a fortune, twice as much as a ticket to somewhere just as far, with just as many people on the plane, but where foreigners don’t go so much, like way out east, in Isan.

This week I went, indeed, to Isan. I taught a class in the province of Surin, where they have an airport, but no planes go there, so I had to improvise. My class was on Saturday, the eighth.

So I got a ticket on Air Asia to Ubon Ratchatani, not the nearest airport, but the one I found. I flew in on Friday, we landed about eight-thirty in the morning. One plane at a time at this airport, they fly in and out within a half hour, otherwise it’s a ghost-town. They have a booth for taxis in the “international terminal,” so called because they get about a flight a day that goes to Lao (as in, that’s “Lao” to you cowboy, don’t give us that colonialist “Laos” shit). One hundred Baht flat rate to town, fifty Baht extra for the airport fee. It’s reasonable.

My driver was a guy with a pretty new Honda City, made in Thailand, like a junior Civic, unmarked except for some fancy pillows and stuffed animals. Just a guy who bought a license to become an “airport limousine,” he makes a living with his car. Nice fellow, he could understand my Thai, after a little practice, and I could understand him after I had convinced him to speak slowly and use simple words, “like I was a kindergarten student,” which of course I am in Thai.

He took me to the bus station, and I milked him for information. I needed the name of a decent hotel to stay at when I returned on Sunday. We talked about prices and features and finally he decided that the hotel for me was the “Latanee.” I wrote it down. He figured that he had a live one on his hands, so he sprung the expense of giving me a home-made business card. His name was Wanchai, and the card was very nice, I must admit.

I asked him, should I call you when I get back on Sunday? He turned completely around, while driving, and gave me a look, like, does a bear shit in the woods?

At the bus station, he made sure that I knew the name of the good bus company, and got out of the car to take me to the ticket window, explaining to the ticket seller just what I needed. I thought that he was very gaeng, conscientious, and gave him an extra forty Baht. He was thrilled.

The next decent bus was about three hours away, but the lesser, un-air-conditioned buses are really a trial, especially in the hot season, which is now, so I figured I would wait. The good bus to Surin would be a three hour ride, four or more on a very hot, lesser bus.

The bus station was a trip. Nine o’clock, nice and cool, a little breeze, no problem; ten, getting there; eleven; beyond nice and hot; noon and one o’clock were so hot that I was getting dizzy just sitting there in the shade, the sweat was pouring off of me, I completely lost the ability to do mathematics or any higher reasoning. About one hundred and three degrees, as it turned out, and humid.

I got a glass of Thai iced tea, very nice; later on I got some lunch, cheap and delicious, as always. At some point I used the rest room, three Baht. Some Thai man about forty-five or so followed me in and stood at the urinal to my right, this has never happened before, he started leaning over the divider and ogling my penis with a leering grin on his face. He said something, I couldn’t quite catch it, and then he reached his left hand over to touch me “there.” I gave him a stern “hey!” and gave him my best Thai version of “cut that shit out right now!” First time for everything, I suppose.

The bus was late, and I began to wonder if I’d missed it somehow, I was almost delirious from the heat. It was all good though, the bus showed up, bearing all of the correct legends, and they honored my ticket. Another little success.

We got to Surin ok, in just about three hours as per the schedule. Surin is a really, really poor place in the middle of nowhere, very close to Cambodia, close enough that lots of Cambodians make it across and settle there, it seems like a rich place to them. There was a nice looking hotel right next to the bus station, the “Majestic,” so I went over to check it out. A bell hop outside smilingly grabbed my bag and took me in. I asked him how much the rooms cost, and he said about 900 Baht, including breakfast. About twenty-eight bucks, a little steep but those are really nice rooms. I could do that. At the desk, though, they told me that they only had “Super Deluxe” rooms available, for 1,200 Baht per night. I never believe this line, they just want to sell the higher priced room, that’s my understanding and I’m sticking to it. I smiled and said, no thanks!

Back at the bus station, I consulted a sam law operator, these are the Thai version of the rickshaw (China), or cyclo (Vietnam), three-wheeled bicycle taxis. He suggested something called “The New Hotel,” and I asked him how much it was. He thought laboriously for a minute or so, rolling his eyes, using his fingers and moving his lips, before he answered, about six hundred Baht he said, so I figured that was ok, those places are usually fine. I asked him how much his services would cost me, and after another laborious battle with numbers he said, “five-ty Baht!” Ok, I said, climbing up into the contraption.

We got there in about ninety seconds, and he grabbed my bag and took it, and me, into the lobby, where he said that his fee was one hundred Baht. Now this was not my first time in the big city, I know that for a Thai person this was a twenty Baht ride, and he’d only taken me into the lobby to make sure that he got his finder’s fee. I gave him a good-natured scolding and seventy Baht, good riddance.

The two girls behind the desk were amazed to see a Farang in their dingy, little, rather old, down-in-heel “New Hotel.” They asked me if I wanted to see the room, this has happened to me before, they’re afraid that after they do all the work to sign you up you’ll take one look at the room and say, hell no! I asked them if the room had air-conditioning (“air-con”), they said, yeah; TV? yeah; a bathroom? yeah; warm water (shower), yeah; I said that was all ok, I didn’t need to look at it. You can always count on the room, however Spartan, being clean and bug-free. They had me fill in the forth line of a form; the first three lines were filled in by foreigners during 2008 and 2009. They quoted me 550 Baht per night, which I thought was a bit high, but I said ok, two nights. They didn’t make me pay in advance.

The room, by the way, was clean but lousy, big time. Video to follow. TV was ok, lots of channels, almost all Thai, but with BBC and Al Jazeera.

My students, including a former provincial governor by the way, told me that 550 Baht was much too high for the New Hotel, more like 400, which was what I thought too. I considered giving the desk girls some shit about it when I checked out, but they were so nice. Including the incredibly surly “bell boy,” who didn’t look at me directly, or smile even slightly, until the second day of my stay, after I had tipped him twice for simple tasks, which Thai people would never do, and spoken to him kindly a couple of times. The counter girls were delightful, actually, one was quite beautiful, and they had fun talking to me, I had fun too, I was a real treat for them, evidentially. When I checked out, the girl charged me 660 Baht for two nights, so I believe that my sparkling personality won them over and they decided to charge me the regular price. When I left, the bell boy gave me a big smile and a gracious send-off. Maybe a first for him! I had the impression that he would really miss me, probably the only two tips he had received for a while, a total of about a buck and a half, but enough to pay for his lunch both days of my stay.

I returned to Ubon Ratchatani by train, which was right across the street from the good old “New Hotel.” Only 150 Baht for a nice, air-con train, only two hours as opposed to three for the bus. When I got to the station in Ubon, I called my buddy Wanchai. “Hey! Ajan Fred, from Friday!” He was surprised to hear from me, and said he’d be there in about fifteen minutes, which he made in exactly that time. I was a taxi driver myself, if you do it for a while you can predict how long any ride will take very closely.

I said, let’s go to the Latanee hotel, which was his idea in the first place, before long we were there. It was actually “The Ratchatani Hotel,” that’s how I found out that the locals call the place “Ubon Latanee,” in the manner of “Nu ‘Awlens,” or “Nu Yawk,” locals rule! We arranged for him to pick me up the following morning and take me to the airport. I reached for my wallet, but he smiled and motioned me away, “tomorrow!” he said.

He was early, and we got to the airport in plenty of time. He had correctly identified me as a guy who’d overpay him, left to my own devices, so he never quoted me prices except to say that almost any ride in the city was 100 Baht. At the airport, I gave him 250 Baht for the two rides, he was delighted.

Coming back to BKK I had an over-six-foot Dutchman behind me, and that was a trial. I understand that it’s tough to keep one’s knees completely off the chair in front if one is over two meters tall, but did he have to keep moving around like a fidgeting teenager? It was like a massage chair, with no “off” switch. Did he have to get up about seven times? Grabbing and twisting my seat back every time to pull himself up and let himself gently back into his chair? No, I don’t think so. If the flight had been more than an hour, we’d have had words.

Adventures in transportation.


Anonymous said...

Nice report on your travels to Ubon and Surin. Thought I would correct you (very nicely) about Ubon airport. Although we have 6 direct flights per day to bangkok there is no international flight to Laos or to anywhere international actually! Glad you found a good taxi driver as well - can make or break a trip sometimes.

fred c said...

Oh! A new reader, perhaps? Thanks for the comment, and the info. So if I ever go to Paxte, I know that I must go back to the Ubon Ratchatani International Bus Terminal!

Anonymous said...

Enjoyable tale old man!


fred c said...

Thanks, but I think I broke the "200 word" rule.