I recently read a story talking about the mistakes people make when they travel.
It was a fascinating read and it mentioned the weird phenomenon that is taking over the travel blog world. This phenomenon is ‘the perfect traveller’. Everything looks shiny, new and perfect on a lot of blogs. Each story is filled with wonder and beauty that far surpasses daily life. There are of course many that don’t do this (I would recommend the beautifully written blog by a teacher who recently left Korea www.couldIlivethere.wordpress.com) . If like me you actually enjoy hearing the bad along with the good then this can sometimes be annoying.
So I thought I would share with you one of our travel disasters and as far as disasters go it was quite monumental.
This story takes place on the mysterious and lively streets of Bangkok, Thailand. As so many disaster stories seem to do. ‘=
Bangkok was somewhere I had always wanted to go ,mainly for the food. Lee had visited Thailand as a child and only had vague memories of the city so he was willing to give it another go. He was also in it for the food.
We set off from Korea and left behind us an oppressive summer heat. Daegu , the city we live in in Korea is known for being the hottest city in Korea and boy does it live up to its reputation. The mixture of five months teaching and the unforgiving humidity meant we were craving travel, airports and the possibility of exploring other lands.
Our first impressions of Bangkok was created by the scenery. It was so different to Korea. I had expected quite similar backdrops but instead I was faced with palm trees and tiny stilted houses in marsh land. It was the escape from Korea we’d hoped for. This was the outskirts of Bangkok and as the train took us closer and closer to Bangkok’s bustling center the world rose around us. Sky scraper after sky scraper passed us. Housing blocks and worn billboards were everywhere.
I have always been a fan of the dirt and grit of cities. I remember sitting down with my mum trying to explain to her why we wanted to travel instead of staying in our tiny Welsh town.
She kept reiterating that “It’s not going to be like you imagine. It’s not going to be perfect and clean, it’s going to be dirty hostels and busy streets.”
Every part of me hoped she was right.
Lee and I always talk about travel in these terms. We want realness; we want to see the packed streets, the down right dangerous driving and the rip off markets where you have to haggle for a price. I realise that sometimes this isn’t fun when it’s happening but it’s an experience and a real one at that. This doesn’t mean that we don’t love going to a beautiful resort or a 5 star hotel, but as long as it’s a real glimpse of that country, even a glimpse of the tourist part of that country, then I’m happy.
So Bangkok was not disappointing.
The trainline directly at the bottom of the stairs leading to our hotel
After throwing our bags down in our extremely minimal hotel we headed into the center of the city. Everywhere you looked there was colour and people. The streets are so busy that walk ways have been built above every road in the city to allow the pedestrians to keep moving. It’s a three tier system with cars (and crazy tuk tuks) on the bottom, people in the middle and trains above them.
The noise, smells and sheer amount of lights blew our senses. The streets were paved with food stalls where we could grab a delicious snack and sit among the throng whilst being a few inches from traffic. It was chaotic. It was incredible.
Sometimes it’s hard to describe a place and sometimes there is a perfect explanation that sums an area up to a tee. Bangkok is easy to explain. Visiting Bangkok is exactly like walking into the movie ‘Blade Runner’.
We were downtown, we explored, we devoured every single thing we could in the biggest and best food court we’ve ever seen (as Yankaphiles we lose our minds when we can eat new American foods), then we decided to treat ourselves to some cocktails at the top of Bangkok’s famous sky bar ‘Red Sky’.
The popular sky bar ‘Red Sky’ can be found at the top of the Siam building in downtown Bangkok on the 55th floor. It provides breath taking 360 degree views of the city. If you want to go you must try to go earlier rather than later or on a week day. We happened to arrive on a Tuesday so we were in luck. There is also a rule that no backpacks, flip flops or sports tops are allowed in. We had a backpack and Lee had sandals but we thought, why not try our luck. Even if you are turned away its worth travelling to the bar because you can still take in the amazing views in the restaurant lobby.
We drank expensive cocktails as a holiday treat, listened to the live jazz band, looked at the city laid out in front of us (and I wrestled with my camera settings for an hour to get a good photo. Lee is a patient man). The bill was more than we would normally pay since the drinks are London prices here. But you only live once and we weren’t too worried.
Unfortunately we were unaware of the impending doom that was about to befall us. We soon realised that we had no way of paying for these lovely drinks. When Lee had been at the ATM it hadn’t given him back his card. This sounds like something you would find hard to miss but Thailand’s ATM’s are built differently and the card slot is a different place. Also the card comes out after the money and after the receipt. In the hectic pushing and shoving of the Bangkok streets he hadn’t realised he didn’t get it back.
Panic set in, what the hell do we do? !
Lee’s card with all of our travel money on it was now gone, but not to panic. We both spent money at our banks in Korea to have cards that work internationally. Oh no wait, they don’t work either. Unfortunately (and I’ll cover this in a different more terrifying story) Korean banks are a bit of a nightmare. Even though we had two cards with our Korean money on them neither of them were working . The last option was our credit cards which luckily we had prepared to use abroad too, we had told them we would be in Thailand on these dates but , and I’m sure you can guess what’s coming, the banks blocked them…both of them.
We had 3 cards, two back up cards and none of them were working.
In the end I had to drag out a card from my wallet that I hadn’t used for about 10 years and pray I remembered the pin. Luckily due to the height of the building and the storm that was rolling in, both metaphorically and literally, the internet system would only let me sign.
Luckily we could pay for the drinks . We escaped sheepishly and as quickly as possible.
We had just enough money to get back to our hotel and put our thinking caps on.
Once we were back in our hotel room that hadn’t yet been paid for with a flight to a deserted Thai island looming in one days time the fear really set in. We rang everyone. The phone bill came close to 200 pound by the time we were done. We rang the Korean banks who told us they didn’t know why it wasn’t working and hung up, repeatedly. We rang the British credit card companies who said it was too late to reactivate them since they’d canceled them thinking it was fraud who then apologised when they noticed the note on the account saying we were in Thailand. And of course we didn’t have our card with the money on it.
We were up all of the night trying to ring everyone possible. Jumping from time zone to time zone in an attempt to grab anyone we could. No joy. No one could do anything. We got a few hours’ sleep and hoped that in the morning the banks could help us or we could retrieve our card from the machine.
The next day was sunny but we weren’t. The only option, as is the way for many travellers was our families.
Lee’s brother does night shifts so his time difference luckily linked up with ours. He tried to send us money. Unfortunately since he has never done this before his bank blocked the transfer and refused to send it until he came to the bank. Since it was 4am this wasn’t an option. Time was running out and our two days in Bangkok was quickly coming to an end. The next day we would be on a plane to Surat Thani with no way to pay the hotel we were currently in and no way to live.
The next option was Lee’s parents. Lee’s mum and dad are British but his dad works for a company in Saudi Arabia where they both live. As soon as the time difference caught up with us we rang them and begged for help. We could access our money online from the card that was now sitting in a Bangkok ATM and give it straight back to them but there was no way to take it out in Bangkok. They sent a Western Union transfer and like Charlie with his golden ticket we ran to the nearest western union …it closed two minutes before we got there.
If we didn’t get this money now (which by this time was 5pm) we’d miss our early morning flight and have to do a midnight dash from our hotel. It wasn’t looking good. We couldn’t wait for it to open the next day. Dejected and upset we counted our pennies and found a tiny market that was selling pho for 50p. We hadn’t eaten for about 27 hours and were in need of an energy boost.
So we sat , with our pho and tried to think of what to do. The only viable option that kept rearing its head was to head to the embassy. This sounds extreme but Lee’s dad was still having trouble sending us money even if the Western Union had been open and my family wouldn’t be able to help. All our fellow teachers with funds were also on holiday and not contactable. Then by pure luck I happened to look at the photo I’d taken of the ATM that had our card. I am not in the habit of taking photos of ATM’s but I took one just in case we could get the card back out of it. In the background of the photo, like a shining beckon of hope I noticed a Western Union symbol , with some CSI style zooming and enhancing of the photo we could make out the words …..open until 7pm
We could do this! If Lee’s dad could keep battling with the bank to send the transfer, we could use our last pennies to grab a train to the center of town and get to the Western Union. WE COULD DO THIS. It was 5:30 already and 6pm by the time we arrived, we ran like bats out of hell through the crowds to get to this ATM. Just as we arrived at 6:30 we had a confirmation message from Lee’s dad saying that the money would be there waiting. I’m not lying when I say we danced in the street.
The man at Western Union was a little taken aback when two westerners ran at his shop smiling and crying with happiness. We started the paper work and crossed our fingers. The only glitch in the road was when the confused man quoted back the transfer path…
“So this money is from someone in Saudi Arabia, to their British bank which has then been sent to Bangkok for two people who live in South Korea?”
“Yes”. We nodded enthusiastically.
With a raised eyebrow and the doubt that we were two international drug smugglers with a very shady bank transfer, he gave us our money, along with a very stylish Western Union towel. We could eat, we could travel and we could fly. The holiday was saved.
The rest of the evening was spent eating and making the most of our one night in Bangkok. All the shrines were of course closed but we did manage to see the flower market, night markets and sit by the river. It was a fantastic evening. I swear every drink tasted a little bit sweeter after that.
Two Happy Foreigners
The downside of course to this story is that we had to carry all of our holiday money with us for three weeks . This involved it being hid in shoes, sketch books and hotel rooms but it was worth it.
Our two days in Bangkok weren’t quite what we expected but they were definitely eventful. We ate delicious 50p pho we never would have tried, really got to appreciate the night markets and had a fantastic time the rest of the holiday because it all felt like a gift. Murray Head was definitely right. One night in Bangkok makes the hard man humble.
It’s not the perfect travel story but it definitely something we will remember forever.
We will be heading back to Bangkok to experience it fully next year, but maybe this time we will take a lot of cash with us.
What we learnt:
- Take a back up for your back up for your back up.
- A city is more than just its tourist attractions
- Tuk Tuks are at exactly bus exhaust level.
- Don’t blame each other no matter how much you want to. They know what they did and don’t need you to angry at them. They are already angry at themselves and you will do something as equally stupid soon.