From Bangkok to Nongkai
£1 = 48 baht.
1 baht divided into 100 stang.
(US$1 = 20 baht).
Although Calcutta is within the Tropic of Cancer, being December we had felt colder. I don't think this was because it was colder, more likely it was because after having been in the warmer climate of Southern India, we had become acclimatised to much warmer weather. Also in Calcutta the period of dusk after the sun had set was a lot longer, giving the impression of a colder Northern City. Rangoon had certainly felt warmer, but we had arrived after the midday heat and had left again in the early morning before the heat had time to build up. So it was quite a shock when they opened the aircraft door at Bangkok's Don Muang Airport and the heat from what seemed like a blast furnace blew through the cabin like a wave.
Our plane was on a stand on the far side of the apron to the terminal and we had to walk across the tarmac to the arrivals door. Formalities were very efficient and we passed through the airport in no time at all. We needed to change some money, but expecting the exchange rate to be poor at the airport bank, we only changed a £2 traveller's cheque. We later found the exchange rate was same all over Thailand and there was no currency black market.
The next problem was how we were going to get into Bangkok. At 20 baht, a taxi was out of the question. There was the 29 bus for just 2 baht, but nobody could tell us what the timetable was, so we decided to hitch hike. Much to our surprise we found that in Thailand they drove on the left. We had thought (wrongly) that there was a large American influence in Thailand and fully expected them to drive on the right. What we did find though was a tremendous volume of traffic and nothing was prepared to stop for us. A German boy called Helmut who was also trying to hitch was having no more success than we were. We had hedged our bets by standing near to the bust stop so when the 29 bus eventually arrived, we caught it.
The journey into Hualumpong (the railway station) took just over an hour. From there we were easily able to find the Thai Song Greet from the map that Fred had given us in Calcutta. The Thai Song Greet was the place where all the backpackers stayed, but at 30 baht for a room we though it to be too expensive and left to try to find somewhere else cheaper. We soon realised that there wasn't much else around, and what there was, was either more expensive or really bad, so we headed back to the Thai Song Greet (TSG) and tried to get a room for the three of us. Unfortunately they only allowed two per room, so Helmut offered to find somewhere else and Louis and I shared a room.
When we got into the room we found that there was only one double bed. When we complained we were told that all the rooms were the same and only had double beds. If we wanted a bed for ourselves we would have to have two rooms. At 30 baht per room we reluctantly decided to share the double bed. As I went to shut the door I was met in the doorway by a very scantily clad Thai girl who grabbed me, and much to Louis' amusement she then pushed me down onto the bed and (that part is censored). She was trying to tell me what her services were and how much they cost and was giving me a limited free sample at the same time. She told me I was 'number one', but when I told her 'no', she then said I was 'number ten' and stormed out of the room. This number one and number ten we later found out was slang in Thailand for the best and the worst.
Following on from this we both went for a shower. There was a bathroom at each end of the corridor that consisted of a toilet and a shower. There was also a large tub of water that was full of mosquito larvae, which was meant for general washing. Thinking I would be doing everybody a service to pour the mozzies down the drain, I immediately tipped out the tub of water to get rid of the larvae, then refilled it again with clean water. The next morning it was full of larvae again.
The next thing was to visit the American Express office to check our mail. The Amex office was situated in the Dusit Thani Hotel, about a twenty-minute walk away. Enclosed in one of the letters I received was some more loose-leaf diary pages. I had run out of diary pages in Calcutta and had been keeping notes on various scraps of paper while I waited for some more to come from home. On the way back to the hotel we bought some bread rolls and cheese slices to eat for lunch. Back in the hotel we had a feast of bread and cheese while I spent the next few hours copying up my diary from the bits of paper before having an afternoon nap to recover from the previous night spent sleeping on a table in Rangoon.
The TSG wasn't just a hotel; downstairs there was a restaurant, which had become the meeting point for all backpackers in Bangkok. Regardless of where they were staying, they all came to the TSG at some time or other. Alongside one wall of the restaurant was a refrigerator full of bottles of drink where we could just help ourselves. When it came time to pay, the owner counted up the empty bottles in front of you. The lady who ran the place knew whom every empty bottle belonged to and if you moved to another part of the room, she immediately brought all your empties over to the new spot. . The empties were not removed until they had been paid for and a number of people tried to get one over on her, but she was a shrewd cookie and didn't miss a thing - or a bottle. The cook sat in the front, just to one side of the doorway. He was an ugly fat guy who wore a pair of gym shorts and a white tee shirt, which as the day progressed became more and more stained from the things he cooked. Periodically he would lift the tee shirt and scratch himself, revealing a large scar that ran almost the whole length of his stomach and chest. Despite his appearance, he was a wizard with the wok and managed to turn out some really good meals. He didn't speak any English, which was just as well because Louis gave him the nickname of 'gruesome', a name to which he always responded with a smile.
That evening we chatted to a group of British Royal Navy lads who seeing the European faces had decided to come into the TSG for a drink. While we were chatting to them a group of people came in with luggage, having just flown in on the Thai International flight from Calcutta. They all carried the same Thai International shoulder bags that were given free to each passenger. We all chatted until about 10 pm when everybody started to drift away to bed. Louis and I went up to the room and managed to put up our mosquito nets. This wasn't too difficult because there were nails roughly hammered into the wall at various convenient places. Up until now we had hardly come across mosquitoes at all, but from here on it was going to be a totally different story. Once the sun had set the mozzies came out in force and the nets became vital to an undisturbed night's sleep.
Tuesday 31st December 1968 - New Year's Eve.
Despite having to share a bed with Louis, I still managed a reasonable night's sleep, and it was almost 10.30 before we got up the next morning. I went out to a shop just down the road to buy a loaf of bread to have with the remains of the cheese for breakfast. The bread was that lightweight stuff that was more air bubbles than bread and it tasted awful.
The day before I had discovered that the lens assembly on my camera had worked itself loose and I was concerned that it would effect the photographs, so I set out to find a camera repairer. The first camera shop that I went into said he would have to send it off and it would take about a week. I explained that I needed it done quickly, so he reluctantly directed me to a shop that was Minolta dealer. Luckily the dealer he sent me to also carried out repairs and he was able to get on with the repair straight away. I was told it would be about 3 hours work and would cost about 120 baht so I left the camera with him and decided to go off and do some sightseeing on my own.
The first place I went to was Wat Pra Keo. This is the temple that is in all the travel brochures of Bangkok. The photographs in the brochures must have been either touched up or had been taken a long time ago when the paint job was fresh. Just as in Kathmandu, when I got there it was a disappointment, all the paint was faded and peeling and not at all like the pictures.
I decided to have some lunch and managed to eat it with chopsticks, a knife and fork was not an option. I sat with two guys from Laos and we managed to chat for a while. They suggested that I visit Laos because it was such a beautiful place. Up until that moment I hadn't realised that it was possible to visit Laos, but they assured me that tourists were allowed to visit and that there were many backpackers in Laos. After lunch I walked through the market and eventually found a tourist office, where I was able to get some leaflets. I discussed the possibility of going to Chang Mai and how to get there. While I was there David, who was on the plane with us, came in also to enquire about Chang Mai.
By the time I got back to the camera shop it was just 4 o-clock and the owner was just putting the finishing touches to the camera. The bill came to 122 baht, and considering the work he had done on the camera, it was a bargain.
From the camera shop I headed back to the TSG, where I met some English guys who had been travelling all over the Far East and were now heading back to England. They gave me travel tips and hotel addresses for many different places, even the name of a hotel in Saigon should I ever want to go there while the war was in full swing. An American guy came in and offered to sell me a student card for US$1. He had a whole box of blank cards, a rubber stamp, scissors to cut the photographs and a stapler to put them into the cards. If I hadn't already managed to acquire a student card from my brother, he would have been useful. It also gave me the idea of what to do with the letterheads we still had left over from Calcutta. Later on when Louis turned up he joined in with the conversation for an hour. We then went up to the room to shower and change and get ourselves ready to go out to see the New Year in.
Before going out for the evening we had some supper downstairs. I managed to sell one of the letterheads that I had made in Calcutta for 20 baht to a backpacker who was heading in the opposite direction. He wanted to use it to get a discount on a plane fare to Calcutta. We sat around the TSG and chatted until after 11pm, then we went out to try to find some New Year midnight life.
We started walking along the main road and after about 15 minutes we met an American who was living in Thailand. He had a jeep and we all piled in for a drive around. It seems to be the custom at midnight to drive around yelling and cheering. Everywhere we went there were carloads of people leaning out of their windows and waving to each other. Just after midnight we stopped off at an open-air restaurant for a drink. Our driver had somewhere else to go and bade us farewell. We sat at table that had just been vacated by a group of people who had left behind a half-full bottle of whisky and almost a full bottle of wine. We ordered a few more drinks and sat there for about half an hour. We had been driven away from the centre of Bangkok and we were not too sure as to where we were, so we started walking back in the direction we had come from until we picked up a street name we could find on the map.
After walking for about ten minutes or so we came across a large open-air party where everybody was wearing suits. We were only wearing jeans and tee shirts, but we decided to gatecrash anyway. By this time everybody at the party seemed to be a bit worse for wear, having been drinking steadily all evening and nobody seemed to notice us. We found a table and sat there while we finished off the wine and whiskey we had brought with us from the other restaurant. We stayed there until well after 4am before starting to walk back to the TSG. It was a long way to walk and after about half-an-hour we stopped at a coffee shop for early breakfast. By the time we had finished the busses had started running and we caught the bus the rest of the way.
It was still dark and we had head that watching the sunrise from behind the Temple of the Dawn from the opposite river bank was something good to see, so we head down to the River. We arrived at the market while it was still dark, but after waiting ages for it to get light we realised that we weren't going to see anything because the sky was fully clouded over. We were not even sure if we were in the right place, but it was very busy at that time of the morning. There was a ferry crossing from the Temple and there was a constant bustle of monks in their saffron robes crossing in both directions. We eventually gave up and went back to TSG to catch up on some sleep. It was mid afternoon before we woke up and I was covered in mosquito bites from the previous night and was itching all over. While we had been at the party, the mosquitoes had made a meal out of me, mostly on my ankles and arms, which were both exposed.
Both of us were running out of clean shirts and underwear so we decided to do some washing. When I washed the cheap shirt I had bought in Calcutta, the dye ran all over my other shirts. I tried to wash the other shirts again, but the dye had done damage. I also tried rinsing out the dye from the Indian shirt, but no matter how much I rinsed it, more colour washed out. Whatever I did, the dye kept coming out of the Indian shirt, while it seemed to be fast on my other shirts. Eventually I gave up and hung everything up to dry. It didn't take too long to dry in the heat and fortunately the dye damage on the other shirts was not too bad.
The rest of the day was spent sitting downstairs chatting and eating and trying to recover from the night before. We met a Liverpuddlian called Mike and discussed the possibility of going to Laos and Cambodia. Having that chat with the Laotians the previous day had whetted my appetite to see the place. Even though we had slept most of the day we still felt tired and we were in bed early that night and slept like a log.
The next morning Mike came by early to wake us up to go to the Laos Embassy. We had breakfast together first, then caught a bus. Mike informed us that the conductors didn't expect foreigners to pay on the Bangkok busses and just to prove it, we followed his example and didn't pay. When the conductor came around to collect the fare we just ignored him and he went away without asking a second time. We found that this method worked on all busses in Bangkok and from that point on we became bus fare dodgers.
At the Laos Embassy we filled in the application form and paid for the visa. We almost had second thoughts when we found that the visa fee was 100 baht, the most expensive visa so far. We were then told that the Consul would have to interview us before the application could be processed. We had to wait for about twenty minutes before going in to see the Consul who then told us that because we had beards we couldn't have a visa to visit Laos. He said that all men in Laos were clean shaven and us having beards would be offensive to them. We would only be granted a visa if we shaved them off, otherwise it was goodbye. At first Louis refused to shave his beard and asked to withdraw the application, but when we were told that the fee wouldn't be refunded he soon changed his mind.
Louis went to a local barber shop to get his beard shaved and then went back to the Consul to show him the result. The Consul agreed to process the visas even though I hadn't yet shaved mine off, on the understanding that when we came back the next day, I would be clean shaven.
We then went all around Bangkok trying to find a road map of Thailand without much success. We had been reliably told that Shell distributed free road maps of Thailand at all their garages, but we just couldn't find a Shell petrol station anywhere. We eventually managed to find a very tatty map that somebody went to their car to get for us. This would do to plan our route until we could find a somewhere to get a new map from.
While we were sitting in the TSG discussing the route an English guy came in on crutches. He had fallen into a klong (river / drainage ditch), had broken his leg and was staying here until it was healed. To make money to live, he had been teaching English and had done quite well from it. It seems that a lot of Thai people pay well for somebody just to practice their English with. Although it wasn't usually possible to get an extension to a tourist visa, because he had broken his leg, the British Embassy had requested the Thai authorities to give him an extension and as a result he had been allowed to stay until he was well enough to travel again.
Because it wasn't possible to get an extension to a tourist visa, anybody wanting to stay in Bangkok to teach English used to have to leave the country every thirty days, then come back again on another visa. The Thai immigration department would issue a re-entry visa in Bangkok for 50 baht, the same price as an embassy would charge for a visa outside Thailand, but they still had to leave the country. Usually they would travel up to Laos and just stay overnight in Vientiane before returning. Because there were quite a few people living in Bangkok and teaching English we managed to find plenty of information on the proposed route to Laos.
The English guy's broken leg was almost better now and he was going to have to leave soon. He was heading back to England and was looking to get a student discount flight to Calcutta. I persuaded him to buy one of my letterheads, but before he would buy it he insisted that I find a typewriter to type a letter for him. Although the TSG had a typewriter, it was in the Thai alphabet and was of no use to us. We walked along to Hualumpong railway station and after making some enquiries we found that the station manager had an English typewriter in his office. I managed to talk him into allowing me to use it to type up the letter. Because I had typed the letter I managed to get 25 baht, an extra five baht, for it. We were now well and truly in profit on the letterheads and we still had some left.
That evening the beard came off. It didn't hurt too much. I just cut as much as I could with scissors, then used the battery razor to clean up. I now looked like the photograph in my passport. Today also marked the start of the growth of a new beard, because neither of us intended to remain clean shaven for any longer than it took to get our visa.
When we went down to eat, we met two Australian girls who wanted to go to Laos and Cambodia. They were looking for somebody to travel with and we both offered our services. We ate together and discussed the route we had planned. The girls wanted to go to a night-club called the Mosquito Bar which is at the end of the number 4 bus route, so we set off to go with them. We got on the bus and travelled for almost an hour, but when we got to the end of the route we found that we had travelled in the wrong direction. By the time we got near to the TSG it was almost 11.30 and we decided to give up, rather than travel for an hour more to the other end of the route. When we went back to the TSG the place was almost empty, most people having gone to bed. We had a drink with the girls then they headed back to their hotel and we went to bed.
The next morning we went back to the Laos Embassy to collect our visas. The Consul inspected our freshly shaved faces and gave his approval before stamping and handing over our passports. We then had to rush over to the Indonesian Embassy to get our Cambodian visas. Thailand did not have diplomatic relations with its neighbour Cambodia, but the land frontier was still open for travel from Cambodia into Thailand, but not the other way. As we were going to cross into Cambodia from Laos, this was no problem. The Indonesians were looking after the Cambodian interests in Thailand, and they were issuing visas on their behalf.
On the way to the Embassy the bus broke down. As we were only about half-a-mile away, we decided to run the last bit, rather than wait for the next bus to come along. We made it just in time and arrived at the Embassy just before it was due to close. Although we could apply for the visas, because it was Friday, we would have to wait until Monday before we could collect them again. While we were at the Embassy we went to the toilet and replenished our everlasting toilet rolls*. (*See original reference in Ankara - Turkey)
From there we went to the offices of Malaysian Singapore Airlines (MSA) which was nearby, where we studied the ABC for flights that would be of help for us later in the trip. We had heard that Indonesia was opening for tourists and we were trying to find out the cost of flights from Singapore to Indonesia, and on into Australia from some point not yet know to us.
Back at TSG we met some girls who had been working in Japan and were heading back to USA the long way around, flying with about 30 stopovers. They wanted to buy student cards and I offered them one of my letterheads, but it wasn't what they wanted. There was a French guy in the TSG who was selling student cards. I managed to get some cards from him and sold them on to the American girls. The French guy gave me 10 baht commission for the sale.
Over the weekend we decided to do some sightseeing in Bangkok. Things got off to a bad start when we overslept on Saturday morning, leaving it too late to go to the floating market. So we started our sightseeing with a visit to Wat Po, the reclining Buddha. In the travel brochures the reclining Buddha is shown as a beautiful gold covered Buddha. But true to form, in reality the Buddha had great swathes of the gold leaf peeling off to reveal the white plaster underneath. The Buddha was massive, I believe one of the largest reclining Buddhas in the world, but it was still a big disappointment. The disappointment was compounded when we got to Wat Pra Kao to find that it was closed. We then went on to Wat Sutat (the big swing) to find it under restoration and surrounded in scaffolding.
We also spent quite a bit of time chatting in the TSG to other travellers, including some we had met in Goa and the Jewish boy I had met in Calcutta came through. There was one Australian guy who was a reporter in Vietnam. He was having a few days of R & R in Bangkok. We spoke to some girls who had just completed the Laos and Cambodia trip and they were able to give us some valuable information on the route. I tried to sell my letterheads to some more travellers, but I had no success. We had got friendly with two guys called Martin and Mat. They had decided to split up and Martin asked us if we would mind if we could meet up with him in Singapore so we could travel through Indonesia together, to which we agreed. Mat was going to remain behind in Bangkok to try to get a job teaching English.
On Monday morning we got up before the sunrise so we could get down to the river early so we could go to the Floating Market. The trips go from the Oriental Hotel but first of all we had to change some money. We haggled with one of the boatmen and agreed a price of 25 baht for a three-hour trip. We didn't buy anything at the floating market because the prices were sky high, probably because of all the American tourists who seemed happy to pay whatever was asked. It was still cheap to them, but by local standards the prices were double or more. We saw the Royal Barge and the boatman stopped at Wat Arun so we could look around. He eventually dropped us off at a bridge near to the Indonesian Embassy so we could go to collect our passports.
The official at the Indonesian Embassy wouldn't give me my passport at first because I didn't have my receipt with me. There wasn't enough time left to go back to the TSG to get it before they closed, but we eventually managed to persuade him to get his superior, who checked the photograph and reluctantly handed the passport over.
Next stop was the Thai immigration department. We walked there because it wasn't too far and there was no convenient bus route that ran between the two places and while we were walking the heavens opened up. When it rains in the tropics, it really rains and we both got soaked to the skin. We stood in the immigration office and dripped all over the floor while they issued our re-entry visas. One good thing about getting a re-entry visa in Bangkok is we didn't need to supply any photographs and we didn't have to waste time in Vientiane looking for the Thai Embassy. It was still raining when we came out again, but when you are wet, it doesn't matter if you get wetter.
The rain had set in for the day and we spent the rest of the afternoon in the TSG. Lou and I were concerned about the Australian girls we had arranged to travel with. They were not really travellers, but were on holiday. They had flown from Australia straight into Bangkok and were staying at a much nicer, and for that matter, more expensive hotel. Although they were pretty girls and we quite fancied the idea of them as travelling companions, we were concerned that they wouldn't want to travel at the same level as us. We were also concerned because they were Australians and we had heard that it was not safe for Americans or Australians to travel overland through Laos (more of that later). We were starting to have second thoughts about travelling with them and were both quite relieved when they came to the TSG to say they had decided not to go to Laos after all. We said goodbye to them then went up to the room early to pack ready for an early getaway the next day.
Tuesday 7th January 1969
The next morning we managed to be out packed and breakfasted before 8 am. We caught the 29 bus and went right to the end of the route, which is about two kilometres past the airport. We had been told that hitching in Thailand was pretty good and within 20 minutes we had our first lift in an old bus that trundled along at a breakneck speed of 20 kph. I don't know where the driver was headed, but wherever it was it was going to take him a long time to get there. After half-an-hour and less than ten kilometres later we decided to get off. We thanked the driver and watched the bus slowly disappear in a cloud of its own exhaust fumes, then started hitching again.
The next ride was a complete contrast. The driver drove as if he was being chased. He passed things on the right and the left, overtook on bends and generally did all sorts of things to try to scare the living daylights out of us - and he was succeeding. He eventually turned off just after a police check post and we got out, thankful to still be in one piece. The police took the opportunity to check our passports. One of them spoke a bit of English and took the opportunity to get some free conversation practice with us. He eventually fixed us up with a ride in a Shell petrol tanker to a town called Khok Chik. We tried to get a free map from the tanker driver, but he didn't have any with him, his own map was in a worse state than ours.
At Khok Chik we walked through the town and on the way we had a bite to eat in a local café. While walking we continued to hitch and managed to get a lift in a Pepsi Cola lorry that was headed for Savanaket in Laos. We could have gone with them, but Savanaket is a long way south of Vientiane and we figured it would be a lot easier hitching in Thailand, than trying to hitch back up north in Laos to Vientiane. The Pepsi truck had a blow out on the way and one of the back tyres all but disintegrated. We were passing through a small village at the time and while we waited for someone from a nearby garage to come and fix the wheel, the driver bought us a cup of coffee from one of the roadside stalls. Help wasn't too long coming and we were soon on the way again. The driver dropped us off in Ban Phai in the late afternoon. We decided that because it was going to be dark soon, we would find somewhere to stay for the night. We travelled 250 miles that day in just 4 lifts and we felt we had made good progress, even if we still hadn't managed to get a free map, despite asking at almost every garage we could.
We found a hotel to stay and ate our evening meal in the restaurant next door. The food was fantastic and large portions too. What made it even better were the prices. Everything was almost half of the Bangkok price, and I mean everything.
Up to now we had been easily able to keep within our projected budget of ten shillings a day. In fact, most days we had been well under and even on the occasional days when we went over, it was only by a small amount. Bangkok was only the second place where we had regularly gone 50% or more over our budget. (The other place was Bombay).
The next morning we were on the road early and our first lift was in a Coca Cola truck that took us to the bottling plant about 30 km away. At the plant we were given a free drink and in fact we could have drunk as much as we wanted while we stayed there, but they wouldn't let us take any away. The next lift was in a taxi to Konkaen. The passenger had seen us hitching and asked the driver to stop for us. We got a lift in the back of an open truck. I don't remember much of that part of the journey because I lay down on some sacks and fell fast asleep until Louis woke me up when we got to Udon. We had to walk through Udon for about 2 km before another truck stopped and took us for about 45 km. No sooner had the last lift driven away when a van stopped and took us the last part of the journey into Nongkai, which is a small town on the Mekong River, just opposite to Vientiane. We walked the last few hundred yards to the ferry and reported to the Thai immigration office to have our passports stamped them made our way to the jetty where we hired a small rowing boat to take us over to the Laos side for 5 baht each. Before we could go the boatman had to check our passport to make sure we had been stamped out of Thailand. He only spoke a few words of English, but he managed to get the message over to us that if we didn't have our Thai exit stamp, the Lao authorities would make him take us back again. We then crossed over the deep muddy brown Meekong River to the Laos embankment in a small rowing boat. The boatman stood in the back working a long pole from side to side, somehow this seemed to both steer and drive the boat at the same time.
Since leaving Liverpool 98 days ago we have travelled 13,634 miles
and hitched 119 lifts. I have spent 38 pounds, twelve shillings and three
pence (£38:12:3 = £38.61) on living expenses and £41:5:10
(£41.29) on other items such as one off expenses, visas, and fares.
The most expensive thing so far was the plane fare from Calcutta to Bangkok
at £23:4:2 (£23.21). The most expensive day for living expenses
was our second day in Istanbul when I spent £1:0:8 (£1.03).
Since putting this page up on
the Internet, I have received an email from Bob Potter in Australia. He writes:
"The guy in the TSG whom you called 'Gruesme' was known as 'Charlie' by most of the travellers when I was there. He had a heart attack in 1970 and no longer cooked. He lumbered about, hugely overweight, and died around 1980 - the TSG was closed forever. I remember some very strange cigarettes - they were made of cigar tobacco - with filters and mentolated! Godawful!" (Back)